Tuesday, August 28, 2012

3-Foot Law A Step Forward, But...

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know that the State Assembly just passed a three-foot-passing law. (The law has already gained the approval of the Senate.) These laws are the overwhelming standard around the country, and adding one to our vehicle code is a definite improvement. We shouldn't celebrate yet, of course, as Governor Brown vetoed a similar law recently (under heavy pressure from AAA), but this one seems to have been re-written specifically to appease Mr. Brown, so with any luck all will proceed smoothly.

My question is, does anyone actually think this is going to help?

There are many laws on the books today that are intended to protect cyclists. For example, CVC 21200 empowers us to take an entire lane of traffic when safety requires it. That doesn't keep every cyclist I talk to from having a dozen stories about times that they've taken the lane, only to be honked at, shouted at, or passed far too close for comfort. Laws are also on the books making it a crime to block the bicycle lane, but take a cycle through most neighborhoods with bike lanes on trash day and tell me that they make a difference.

Of course, there are plenty of traffic laws on the books that get routinely ignored-- speed limits, laws requiring full stops at stop signs, even (by some) seatbelt and drunk-driving laws. But at least most people on the roads are aware of these laws, as evidenced by the way the freeways slow to a crawl within view of a Highway Patrol car. I am convinced that most drivers have no idea what the law is as it pertains to bicycles-- and, indeed, that they believe that the law is the opposite of what is actually written down, as shown by constant entreaties to "get on the sidewalk" (in contravention of RMC 10.64.330).

I would normally suggest that enforcement is the answer here, but, alas, I have seen several incidents that suggest that our local police are as ignorant of bicycle law as the general driving public.

So, while I applaud the passage of the three-foot-passing law, I don't hold out much hope for it actually *doing* anything to help us out on the roads.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Good News from RTA this September!

It's rare that I get to write a post like this, so when I do, it's exciting. The September service changes are out (due to go into effect on the 9th), and they are almost entirely good news. RTA service is expanding, albeit by mostly tiny changes around the margins, in response to record levels of ridership on the system. Two mild service discontinuations are offset by pretty substantial expansions elsewhere. Let's take a look.

Minor changes: Routes 7, 11, 23, 40, 41, 61, 79

All of these routes have minor schedule tweaks to make better connections or better serve local demand. If you ride them, you should probably check the new times.

Mixed trip changes: Routes 12, 206

Each of these routes gained a new trip, but at a price: the 12 gained a 2:30p trip but lost a 4:30p, the 206 gained a new 4:36p southbound but will now short-turn the 5:22p trip.

Trip extensions: Routes 1, 12, 22, 51

Each of these routes will see morning, evening or weekend extensions of trips that used to short-turn. On the 1 in particular, all of the late-night short turns at Downtown Terminal have been extended all the way to UCR.

Frequency enhancements: Routes 1, 16, 19, 27

Each of these routes will see frequency improvements. On the 1 in particular, frequencies will improve to 18 minutes, approaching those of a moderately-useful urban bus system. On the 1 and 27, though, I worry that RTA is sacrificing clock-face scheduling for minor capacity improvement.

The 16 will see a return to clock-face scheduling, at a new 20-minute frequency. That said, it does come at a price: The route will now terminate at Downtown, lopping off the run it used to make up into the north side. The stretch is a hair under 2km, and alternate service is available on the 12 and (to some extent) 29, although I expect a lot of these trips will switch to walking or cycling.

Discontinued route: Route 53

And it's official-- we can lament the loss of our beloved Beer Bear Runner. The late-night UCR shuttle was funded by the campus primarily as a safety measure, although I primarily used it as a bragging tool-- 20 hours a day of transit service to my apartment!-- and a way to get home from the campus pub. The campus decided not to fund it, presumably after seeing the abysmal ridership numbers, and RTA had no reason to continue the service on its own dime.

New destination: Route 210 to Palm Springs!

A gap that has existed in SoCal transit since 2004, with the demise of the SuperBus-equipped SunLink, will be filled. SunLine Transit (the primary operator in the Palm Springs area) will operate several trips that are currently run as the Route 210 CommuterLink. These trips will extend from Palm Springs all the way in to Riverside, continuing to make normal scheduled stops at Banning and Moreno Valley. There will be two westbound trips in the morning and two eastbound trips in the afternoon, and (as far as I can tell) no reverse commute or weekend service. RTA also says that their passes will be accepted between Banning and Riverside on Sunline-operated runs.

I think there are still some unanswered questions. First, will riders with universal transit passes, like CityPass and UPass, be able to ride the Sunline buses as well? Second, will RTA passes be good as credit towards the full Riverside-Palm Springs fare, or will such riders have to pay cash? Lastly, will Sunline passes be good for transfer to RTA at transfer points? But aside from all this, I'm glad to see this service start up, and hope that it sticks around a bit longer than the short-lived SunLink. (I must admit that I did always want to ride one of those SuperBuses, though, and never did get the chance.)

So there you have it, a service change update almost entirely filled with good news. Transit in Riverside is expanding, core routes are getting frequencies that are almost-useful, and ridership seems to be heading in only one direction: up.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Killing the Gas Tax: Why, Exactly?

Streetsblog DC has a post on Oregon's experimentation with a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax. Oregonian Representative Earl Blumenauer speaks with pride about the fact that Oregon intends to be the first state to rid itself of the gas tax. But is the reasoning behind moving to a VMT tax sound? I'm skeptical.

The stated reason for exploring a VMT tax is the fact that Oregon's state gas tax is insufficient to maintain the state's transportation infrastructure, especially with recent trends in fuel-efficient hybrids and electric vehicles. But the article goes on to say that the VMT tax would "probably never include all vehicles" because "[v]ehicles below the mid-point, about 20 miles per gallon, are already paying a load of gas tax." Wait, what? So what you're saying is that you want to pay to maintain your state's transportation infrastructure by implementing a special tax which would only be applied to fuel-efficient cars? So you want to soak the folks who are conscientious enough to drive more efficient vehicles?

Add to that the fact that there are serious technological, bureaucratic and civil-liberties concerns related to the implementation of a VMT tax. Most implementations will rely on some sort of GPS-based box in the car that would tally up mileage. The Oregon pilot will apparently be handing the tracking function over to a private contractor-- because that's just what we need, a profit-driven company with access to data on our every move. I can't imagine any way that could go wrong.

Finally, it seems to me that this is a solution in search of a problem. We already have a transportation funding mechanism that charges people in proportion to the amount of driving they do, and has the side benefit of making heavier and more inefficient vehicles pay more while rewarding efficiency. It also has no tracking component, and the cost is paid in small amounts bundled into a larger transaction, lessening citizen resentment. It's called the gas tax. It's actually a fantastic funding and incentive mechanism for a society facing climate change-- it's literally a direct carbon tax. You buy carbon to burn, you pay taxes on it. The only problem with the gas tax is that it's presently far too low.*

VMT taxes are a complex and worrying workaround for a problem that has already been solved. The only reason anyone's talking about them is because it's politically unpopular to raise the gas tax. But here's the thing-- fundamentally, what's politically unpopular is making driving expensive, not any particular means of doing so. Tolls, registration fee hikes, congestion charges, parking meter rate raises, and likely VMT will all be unpopular, because our society has become accustomed to super-cheap automobility. Raising the gas tax will likely be less unpopular than charging people more to drive by tracking their daily movements with GPS, and it will do more to push people towards fuel efficiency. VMT is unnecessary, it's complex, and it has worrying implications. Let's stop wasting time on it and get to building the political will to raise the gas tax.

*Gas taxes also won't work for electric vehicles, but truthfully, I don't see too many electric vehicles on the roads right now. Perhaps a simple, odometer-based VMT charge would be the best solution down the road, but right now, let's let the Leaf-driving greenies enjoy the savings. We might also want to consider a small tax on electricity, a portion of which could be dedicated to transportation.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Urban" is not a marketing buzzword

At Blaine & Iowa, near UCR, a new set of apartments is going up. Sterling Highlander isn't anything that would normally catch my attention. They're pretty standard apartments targeted at undergraduates, with dormitory-like bed-rent policies and shared amenities-- and like most of their ilk, they're pretty expensive. However, the advertising for the community caught my eye while riding down Blaine yesterday.

They advertise the complex as "trendy" and "urban."

Now, I'm not going to try to argue with the "trendy" bit-- they might be right, and I'm certainly no trend-setter myself-- but the word "urban" actually means something, and it means something not satisfied by this apartment complex.

These apartments sit on one corner of two high-speed arterial roads.* The other three corners are occupied by fairly standard suburban strip-mall retail, including several fast-food restaurants, an EZ Lube, and a K-Mart. The apartments around it are pretty standard garden-type apartments. The complex itself is not mixed-use (although another Sterling property on University is), and it will have free parking for all residents.

So what, exactly, makes this apartment complex "urban"?

According to the web site, it's the floorplans.

Now, I'm not saying there's nothing to like about this property from an environmental standpoint. It will be a rather dense project in an already dense area, they will be providing bicycle storage and a bicycle lending program, and the property is adjacent to several transit lines (1, 10, 14, and 51). And, despite the massive parking lots, each of those suburban strip malls is relatively walkable from the property. Furthermore, the mere fact that the company is trying to market their apartments as "urban" shows the level to which young people are seeking dense, walkable urban places.

Still, though, I think it's misleading to call a car-centric project-- especially one that they widened Iowa Ave. for-- in a firmly suburban area, "urban."

* In the Google Maps image, the project area is the dirt lot on the northeast corner of Iowa & Blaine.