Tuesday, January 31, 2012

University Avenue ramp closure solves another problem

I wrote in my last post that, if we care about having a safe, walkable UC Riverside campus, we should close the University Avenue freeway ramps and allow drivers to divert to the 3rd/Blaine and 14th ramps, both of which are on high-speed arterial roadways and both of which are within half a mile of University. Minimal inconvenience for drivers would mean massive safety and quality-of-life benefits for the thousands of students on foot, skateboard, kick scooter, and bicycle who use that corridor.

But something it might also be able to solve is the lack of a centralized transit center at UC Riverside. It was more of a problem back in the days of the Highlander Hauler shuttles, but it's still an issue now: when you take the bus to "UCR," you could be stopping at any of a number of different places, and none of them are conducive to transfer. Most of them are single-route stops. Currently, the 1 stops at Bannockburn Village (on Canyon Crest just north of University); the 16 actually travels through campus on Campus Drive, stopping near Arts and Sproul Hall; the 204 stops near Bannockburn, but on the other side of the street; the 208, 210 and 212 all stop in the backwaters of Lot 30; and only the 51 and 53 link them all (but 51 only runs every 40 minutes, and 53 every 30 and only at night). Furthermore, the 10 and 14 both skirt the campus, but don't actually serve it, with 10 running along Blaine and 14 turning off University on to Iowa.

This fragmentation of routes makes transit use significantly more difficult and confusing than it should be at UCR. Students, many of whom have never ridden a city bus in their lives, see all of these various white buses moving in inscrutable patterns around campus, seeming to veer off in mysterious directions, and they get the perception that if you step aboard an RTA bus, you will have no idea where you're going. I have related many stories before on this blog of students who were traveling to the Canyon Crest Town Center area waiting longer for the "trolley" #51, rather than take the #16.

Fragmentation also reduces effective frequency, which is a serious issue for the short trips that many students make throughout the day. If I want to head down University to one of the various Chinese take-out places around Cranford or Chicago, it doesn't matter to me which route I take- the #1, #14 or #16 are all fine by me. However, there's no place on campus that I can actually wait for all of the above. If I want #1, I have to head to Bannockburn. If I want #16, I need to be in front of Sproul Hall. These places are around a ten minute walk apart. Personally, I use the Bus Tracker and Google Transit to figure out which route is leaving first, but students who have never ridden a bus won't figure this trick out easily-- and so they'll drive three blocks down the street.

Okay, so I've laid out the problem. What does this have to do with the University Avenue ramps?

Real estate.

One of the University ramps is a huge loop leading to and from the westbound freeway. Demolish this, and you'll have a nice parcel of land for a bus station, complete with space for bus layovers (which are a current problem at Bannockburn, where the #1 and #51 compete with the many, many beer delivery trucks that serve the Getaway Cafe). Such a station would be a destination strong enough to warrant the diversion of the #10 and #14 to campus (and give them space to turn around), and would provide a place for every route in the area to come together and provide extremely frequent service to nearby destinations. It's also equidistant between the University Village and the rest of campus, and there are already stoplights at the site (for the present freeway ramps). As long as the current stops on the #1 and #16 were maintained, it wouldn't downgrade anyone's present travel plans, and it would provide better access to both the university (for the community) and the wider community (for university students). It would also give public transit on campus a much more visible and permanent presence, and significantly improve the legibility of the various routes that currently almost-meet in and around the area. Done properly, you could also add automated ticketing facilities, SmartStop arrival boards, etc. that could really improve the transit experience for a whole population of users who, for the first time in their lives, find themselves without ready access to an automobile.

So, close the University Avenue ramps, tear them down, and build a UCR bus station in its place. Introduce a generation of students to urbanism the way it should be.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Radically simple solution: Close the University Ave. ramps

I spend a lot of time at UC Riverside. Those who are familiar with the campus know that it's bisected by the I-215/CA-60 freeway, with the campus on one side and most of the various retail establishments in the area on the other. Those who follow my blog know that one of the things that really irritates me, day in and day out, is the way that Caltrans "improved" University Avenue heading eastbound, by removing a bicycle lane from the most heavily bicycle-trafficked stretch of asphalt in the city. They did this to accommodate two right-hand turn lanes to a freeway offramp.

That's a tragedy in and of itself, and yet another example of the tiny crumbs given to bicycles taken away in order to move cars just a little bit faster, but the real tragedy is this: there are three ramps to this freeway within a one-mile stretch.

View Larger Map

Count them: three. One at Blaine/3rd, one at University, and one at 14th.

Let's take a look at these roads, shall we? 3rd through that section is pretty unpleasant for anyone not in a car, with low-density retail, a high school, crumbling sidewalks and disappearing bike lanes. (It gets better below Kansas or so, though...) The freeway overpass itself is pretty awful to walk or ride across. It's pretty much a car sewer. This is also the exit for one of UCR's larger remote parking lots, Lot 26. Above Iowa there are several student apartments, including many I've resided in, but I usually went down Linden if I had to cross the freeway without the aid of a motor vehicle.

14th is even worse. This road is wide, flat, and there is literally nothing of interest between Chicago and the freeway. There are research orange groves and UCR's massive Lot 30, primary parking lot for the entire campus. This road has a 55mph speed limit, and speeds often exceed that. Nothing redeeming here.

So finally we come to University. This is a thriving commercial corridor. There's plenty of parking, as you might expect in suburbia, but none of the huge student lots here. Most buildings front the street, at least between campus and Cranford. There are plentiful restaurants catering to the student population, along with a good chunk of retail establishments, and Riverside's only modern mixed-use development, Sterling University Palms. This is also a major transit corridor (#1, #14, #16, #51/53), unlike either 3rd (just the #10) or 14th (commuter express routes only). Cyclists and pedestrians clog the sidewalks and bike lanes between campus and the University Village, especially with the untimely demise of the Highlander Hauler shuttle service.

In any case, drivers on University at Iowa are never more than 1/2 a mile from either 3rd or 14th. So why should we strangle a real opportunity for burgeoning urbanism, among a population of disproportionately car-free and car-lite residents-- not to mention the safety of said residents when bicycling-- in order to save drivers 1/2 a mile and a touch of congestion?

Close the University Avenue ramps. Make University between Iowa and Canyon Crest similar to Canyon Crest itself, with only one lane per direction, along with wide bicycle lanes and perhaps even a bus lane. Maybe even add some pedestrian plazas with the extra right-of-way, pleasant places people can go and enjoy their lunch between classes. Commuter students and other drivers will divert to the other ramps, or (hopefully) divert to car-pooling or transit, and the rest of us can be left to enjoy our campus-- all of it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Suburban thinking

It's everywhere. I'm reading through the 2008 American National Election Study codebook for a project I'm working on. For those who don't know, the ANES is a fantastic survey that looks in to Americans' political views and vote behavior. It's conducted every election year by interviewers who physically go to people's homes, and one of the things the interviewers are supposed to note is the condition of both home and neighborhood.

So, as part of the survey, interviewers are asked to code any of the following "within sight of the housing unit," presumably as an indication of neighborhood decay:*
  • Boarded houses or abandoned building 
  • Graffiti 
  • Abandoned cars 
  • Demolished houses 
  • Trash/Litter/junk in street/road 
  • Trash/litter/junk around buildings in neighborhood 
  • Factories or warehouses 
  • Stores or other retail outlets
The variable is a simple count of the number of things observed by the interviewer, so each item on the list is equivalent in the data set. If you read my blog, you're probably already aware where I'm going with this.
That's right- living in a mixed-use neighborhood, one that contains a factory and a store, is a sign of neighborhood decay in this dataset. It's treated equivalently to living somewhere with graffiti and abandoned buildings. Now, I'm not going to say that there aren't gritty, impoverished places with mixed uses, but there are also some very nice places-- most of the Upper East Side of Manhattan would get a point against it for having stores within sight of a subject's home. Similarly, there are some very depressed single-use neighborhoods in this country, which might have all 7 of the other factors present-- but the most-decayed neighborhood in the study must, by definition, be mixed-use.

This is yet another example of how ingrained suburban thinking is in our conversations about poverty and affluence. In our culture, we link green lawns and row upon row of detached single-family homes with suburbia, and hence prosperity, and small apartments above the corner store with the city, and hence with poverty. See similarly what the phrase "inner city" means in our political dialogue- it's generally a code word used by conservatives to mean low-income and African-American (and, in doing so, generally incite the racial fears and prejudices of their voting base). Set aside the finding of the most recent Census-- that poverty is more prevalent in the suburbs than either rural or urban areas, and poverty is rising faster there as well. There's something wrong here.

I also urge scholars investigating the link between neighborhood conditions and politics to build their own metric based on only the first 7 items in this list (which are coded individually in the dataset), rather than utilizing this variable.
*V084029, 2008 ANES Panel Data Study, for those who are curious.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bus Watch!

No, not that Bus Watch. An anonymous commenter on this post claims that RTA #2110, the bus involved in that nasty crash downtown a few months back, has been restored and put into service with a Trilogy three-position bicycle rack. If anyone sees this particular bus, a photo would be appreciated.

I want to also note, though, that the new cutaways that run the 51 and commuter routes have only two-position racks, and their purchase dates from around the same time. So maybe RTA thinks that only the full-size buses need three-position racks, but I've personally found the commuter express routes among the most useful for bike/bus combinations. I can't count the times I've taken 216 to Orange and biked to Fry's Electronics. I don't know what the economics are on two- vs. three-position racks, but I strongly encourage RTA to accommodate as many cyclists as possible.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Have we learned nothing?

If you spend a lot of time in the livable-streets blogosphere, as I admittedly do, you end up reading a lot of success stories: highways stopped, or torn down, or planned to gracefully transition into urban boulevards; rail projects moving forward; bike lanes painted or (better yet) buffered. Living in the suburbs, and having roots in the hinterlands, makes staying in this happy bubble of burgeoning urbanism ever more difficult. It is thus, with a heavy heart, that I report on the continued progress of the High Desert Connector.

As you might guess, this Connector is rather unlike the Regional one in downtown Los Angeles. It's a brand-new, 63-mile freeway being run from the desert outpost of Adelanto to the desert outpost of Palmdale, through greenfield desert. The justification is truck traffic, but you can bet that there will be some sprawl-enabling going on here.

If you want to try and stop this monstrosity, there are public meetings noted in the article. However, at this point, I think that lying in front of the bulldozer will be your best bet.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We're waiting, Sunline!

San Bernardino County, despite being a bit larger than Riverside, long ago became the first Inland Empire county to be completely covered by Google Transit. At the time, Sunline Transit Agency, the major transit provider in the Coachella Valley, was the only agency in Riverside County not to be covered by the transit trip planner. At the time, the agency's web site listed Google Transit as "coming soon," and had for several months. It's now been several years that that tantalizing graphic has sat upon Sunline's web site, and we still don't have Google Transit data for the agency. This is despite the fact that they have a Google Maps-based bus tracker, and have thus geo-coded every stop in the system.

Sunline, release your schedule data and join Google Transit already!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA, PIPA and Internet Censorship

Several major web sites, including Reddit and Wikipedia, will be down from 8:00a to 8:00p today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, two similar bills (one House, one Senate) which would implement an extrajudicial Internet censorship regime in the United States. I can't take this site down, but I can encourage you all to visit AmericanCensorship.org, learn about the threat to the openness of the Internet, and call your representatives to speak out against these bills.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hey RTA!

I know you're currently going through the process of purchasing a new 40-foot fleet. Here's the thing. I don't really much care what sort of buses you buy (as long as they're partial-low-floor, CNG, and have those nice amber headsigns, but you've already got that much down, so...), but I really, intensely care about what you put on the front of them.

Specifically, the new buses need three-bike racks. More specifically, I'd prefer it if you installed the Sportworks DL-3 "trilogy" bike rack on every bus in the fleet. These seem to be the only three-bike racks out there that also support the bike's rear wheel, making it less likely that a bicycle will fall off the bus. (This is a serious consideration for those of us who ride with panniers and rear racks, especially when said racks are loaded.) They also don't seem to have the complicated problems of other three-position rack designs, which Seattle's King County Metro seems to be dealing with at the moment. (See the bottom of that post.)

So, RTA, do the right thing for those of us who choose the independence of the transit/bike combo. Buy three-position bike racks for the new fleet.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why You Should Support California High-Speed Rail, Part Two



Let me say it again: JOBS.

Construction of the initial high-speed rail segment would create literally tens of thousands of jobs. Moreover, those jobs would be targeted at a particularly depressed area of the state (the Central Valley) and a particularly depressed sector of the economy (construction).

Here is the choice we are presented with: In this economic crisis, we are faced with millions of people who find themselves out of work, and who are spending their time chasing after such menial employment as fast-food and retail jobs-- and, even then, largely not finding them. As things sit today, we as a society are supporting them through unemployment insurance, food stamps, and (if they have children) a host of other social safety net programs. It is altogether proper for us to do so, and to try to reduce human misery among us.

However, at the same time, these programs do cost money, and while they do get that money flowing through the local economy, they produce little long-term social benefit. During the Depression, we understood this, and we chose to employ millions of people constructing things that would produce just such a lasting benefit. The Works Progress Administration built thousands of publicly useful projects around the nation, including roads, bridges, water systems, and the bulk of the South Carolina library system. You can still find WPA stamps on sidewalks and curbs in older parts of Riverside. Instead of paying people to look for scarce, menial work in the private sector, public works projects pay people to build something that will yield dividends for years to come.

So we find ourselves again in a massive economic crisis, even though the recession "officially ended" some years ago. We have mass unemployment, and our social programs cost more even as our tax base shrinks-- made worse in California, because we are so reliant on sales taxes, which hew very closely to economic conditions. How do we recover?

Well, the way we got out of the Depression was by building stuff: roads, bridges, sewer systems, parks, and eventually tanks and bombs. People get jobs, they can pay the people who provide them services, pay taxes, those people then hire more people, and so on and so forth. It's called a "multiplier effect" in economics, and public works projects have a huge multiplier effect.

Really, we could build damned near anything and have this effect on the economy. The Obama stimulus bill spent quite a lot of money on highway projects, and all indications say that it kept us from further economic decline. However, I'd much rather use this fantastic opportunity to gear up for the post-petroleum economy. Right now, people need jobs, companies need work, suppliers need customers, and prices are low. The time to invest in the infrastructure that will drive our economy for the next century is now. High-speed rail is one big, worthy project, and building it will help put our state on the road to employment and economic recovery.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Rider Alerts!

As you should all know, this Monday marked a new set of bus schedules for RTA. What you may not know, if you don't obsessively check RTA's web site (or get their text message alerts), is that there are quite a few Rider Alerts that have been issued in addition to the new Ride Guide. Routes 51 and 208 have entirely different schedules than are printed in the Guide, and one trip (the 5:41a eastbound) on route 13 has an entirely different schedule as well. If you're like me, you're firing up your printer and pasting these things into your Ride Guide.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why You Should Support The California High-Speed Rail

It's been three years and change since Californians approved Proposition 1A, permitting the sale of $9bn in state bonds to finance the initial stages of a high-speed rail system that would eventually link the four major metro areas of the state together. When Prop 1A passed, albeit narrowly, the enthusiasm among the alt-transport community was almost universal. Now, after several years and several iterations of the HSRA's business plan, enthusiasm is dimming, even among those who are nominally pro-transit. The headline, of course, is the significant increase in the project's "price tag," from $43bn to $99bn. Many people think that the money that would be spend on HSR could be much more beneficially used to build better, more comprehensive local transit systems within the state.

There are two responses to this criticism. One is that, while local transit is critical to our state's future, so is improved intercity travel. HSR and local transit are not an either-or proposition; rather, we need to build and fund both of them if we are to stave off the challenges of the 21st century and emerge as a stronger, more vibrant civilization on the other end. HSR is a complement to local transit in a way that airports and highways are not, allowing for the concentration of transit modes and development around HSR stations, and providing for a center of gravity that will facilitate the densification of sprawling suburban cities. I don't think that the HSR authority's claim of increased commuting between, say, the Central Valley and coastal employment centers is necessarily a good thing for the environment, but I also doubt that it'll be the "killer app" of HSR.

The second criticism, and I think the more damning one, is that we are constrained in our choices by our governing institutions. Simply moving the ~$11bn from HSR to local transit is not presently a choice available to transit activists. Moving the federal portion of the monies to local transit would literally take an act of Congress, and there's a reason that that phrase is synonymous with impossibility. (Considering the current political predilections of the Republican House, it's unlikely that money would move anywhere. It'd either be used for deficit reduction or funneled in to defense or corporate subsidies.) The only place that the federal HSR money can go is into HSR, and if it isn't spent in California, it'll likely be spent on the Chicagoland system currently in development. As I told a friend on Facebook, the choice is between a train in Bakersfield and one in Peoria-- and the one in Peoria won't have state matching funds.

Moving the California portion of the money is even trickier. Technically speaking, there is no California HSR money at present. The bonds have not yet been sold. Their sale is authorized by a ballot initiative, which means that, to stop their sale, we would have to have another ballot initiative to overturn it. That, in and of itself, might work- public opinion towards HSR has not exactly been all that great lately. However, good luck trying to convince Californians to give up their bullet train in exchange for local bus and rail improvements, or to authorize the sale of bonds without matching funds. Prop 1A worked because it provided a very specific framework within which the HSR system had to be built, down to mandating trip times. I strongly doubt that they'd approve an initiative that moved that money into unspecified local public transit, especially when only a tiny minority of them use said transit.

The choice between HSR and local transit is wrong on two levels. First, it's wrong on a conceptual level: we shouldn't be choosing between them, as we need both, and they work together beautifully. Second, it's wrong on a political level, as there is no way that killing HSR will result in beneficial effects for local public transit.

If you balk at the $99bn cost figure-- which has been inflated by the actions of NIMBYs, both in the accounting process of the HSRA and the physical design of the railway-- please see my earlier post on a plausible Minimum Operating Segment of the California HSR system, which could be built for much less cost and attract the support and investment needed to build the full system. But please, if you care about alternative transportation in this state, don't give up on the entire HSR project. This is a critical piece of infrastructure for our state's future, and it will go a long way towards alleviating our dependence on oil-fueled intercity travel

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Riverside to get Food Truck!

Well, UCR at least. Turns out that UCR has their own environmental health agency, and can therefore skirt the anti-food-truck regulations of the City and County. In partial recompense for the loss of the only restaurant on the east side of campus, UCR Dining has triumphantly announced the purchase of The Culinary Chameleon, a food truck intended to serve the campus population.

It's not exactly a win for the city as a whole... but I'm looking forward to seeing just what Dining Services does with this truck.