Saturday, November 30, 2013

Driving as status

Our society, like many others in the capitalist West, tends to view consumption as an indicator of social standing. That new flat-screen, the latest iPhone, the granite countertops in your kitchen, they all indicate that you're winning the rat race-- and it's expected that, if you're winning the rat race, you're also engaging in this status-oriented consumption. For a society that is largely without formal class consciousness-- we're all the middle class, don'tcha know?-- we are all astoundingly sensitive to informal class distinctions. Grocery stores, shopping centers, neighborhoods, cities, these are all divided along the income strata. (Don't believe me? Walk into a Food4Less, then into a Ralph's. Then remember they're the same company.)

And, of course, one of the biggest categories of status consumption and differentiation is the car. Cars are heavily differentiated on status-- even those of us who don't drive are constantly indoctrinated into the relative worth and value of a BMW over a Honda, or even the petty distinctions between, say, the Mercedes C class and E class. Our society constructs cars as an outgrowth of their drivers' identities, and if you're willing to be seen driving around that 5-year-old Civic, you must be a loser. So, of course, if you're not driving anything at all, you must be at the very bottom of that capitalist totem pole.

This status differentiation means that, outside of the very densest cities-- and, often, even within them-- we design public transit to be sensitive to the needs of the poor. Worse, we design public transit to be sensitive to what middle-class, well-educated, mostly-driving public transit planners imagine the needs of the poor to be. This is part of why transit is only active during the day, because the poor need to get to their (wrongly assumed to be 9-5) jobs, but not to the nightlife they can't afford to partake in. It's the reason that buses don't serve all of the schools-- especially in wealthy neighborhoods-- but do serve all of the welfare offices, and make the Woodcrest office of the Social Security Administration into a transfer point.

The status and deference that people expect to accrue to them as drivers is also part of the reason that it's so hard to get what ought to be simple improvements in our cities-- such as market-priced parking, reduced parking minima in the zoning code, meager improvements in transit service, and road diets on overbuilt infrastructure (I'm looking at you, Brockton). Cap'n Transit, a phenomenally snarky New York transit blogger, talks about the fundamental unfairness that stems from recognizing drivers' choice to drive-- even in eminently transit-saturated New York City-- as a reflection of their social standing. The details of the plan he's critiquing-- congestion pricing in Manhattan-- are unique to New York City, but the dynamics of having to throw a bone to the driving classes when trying to improve transit are pretty universal.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

New Bus Review

So the new Gillig buses have been rolling around Riverside County for a little bit, and I figure I'd best put out a review for the curious. Overall, they're still buses, but there are a few little improvements that will undoubtedly make life better for straphangers.

First off, the new seats are cloth, rather than the stubbornly cold plastic of the NABI fleet, and they have higher seat-backs. A small change, to be sure, but tall folks like myself will probably feel more comfortable on those long rides. Second, the new interior lights are all in white LED, rather than flourescent, making night rides just that much nicer. Third, the new, multicolor, high-visibility headsigns are even easier to spot than their orange predecessors, making riding in these dark winter months just that much nicer. Fourth, and probably most importantly, is the passenger power outlets. Two standard 110VAC (house power) electrical outlets are available at every row forward of the mid-bus stairs, so now you can keep that cell phone or tablet charged all the way to Tyler Mall. (Note that RTA press releases referred to these outlets as "USB charging outlets"-- they aren't, so bring your wall charger.) The new buses also seem to have a lot less engine noise than their predecessors, but that may be a function of age.

Possibly the best thing about the new buses, however, is that they're made here in California. Gillig makes their buses up in Hayward, while the last manufacturer RTA contracted with, North American Bus Industries, is located in Alabama. I still say it makes more sense to contribute to our local economy by purchasing products produced in the IE-- like, say, El Dorado National's full-size buses-- but I'd rather see my transit sales tax being used to create jobs in the Bay Area rather than on the other side of the continent.

So go forth, readers, and ride the new buses! Just don't forget your charger.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Local Reaction on the Streetcar

Yeah, it's about what you'd expect. Boondoggle, who'll ride this choo-choo train, this will probably require operating subsidies, etc. etc. Here's columnist Dan Bernstein, who calls the plan "disturbingly delusional," and the PE's Editorial Board, who sticks with "boondoggle."

The thing is, they're not entirely wrong. The City's choice of streetcars as a transit mode does appear to be driven by a me-too attitude and unjustified technophilia. The Riverside Reconnects study is not intended to study how to improve public transit in Riverside, or even how to build a rail transit line in Riverside, but to study a streetcar line in Riverside. And among the anti-transit bias are justified critiques-- for example, would this money be better spent augmenting Riverside's existing bus service?

I'm still tentatively pro-streetcar here, and I'm disappointed with the reflexive anti-transit attitudes of the local press, but streetcar advocates do need to make a better case for their project.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Brockton Road Diet

Belated news, but the Brockton Ave. Road Diet & Bike Lane project finally got approved. This project, an obvious choice for all travel modes based on city traffic models, faced opposition from drivers out of (unfounded) fears that it would increase traffic. Hopefully, once the restriping is complete, people will realize that the sky did not fall when a car lane was lost, and further projects won't be subject to such outsized opposition. (Which ought to occur around when pigs start flying.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Riverside Reconnects demo today

The Riverside Reconnects project parked a Siemens S70 light rail vehicle on University today. They marketed it as a chance to get to know the sort of vehicle that the project proposes to run on Riverside's streets*, but I took it as a chance to talk to some of the staff and planners about what they see as the possibilities for Riverside's streetcar project.
San Diego MTS' newest S70 LRV, parked on University Ave. today.

The bad news is that nobody is even thinking about a serious light-rail system for Riverside. The staff I spoke to said that the main decisions to be made are choosing between single-track and double-track, side- and median-running, and what sorts of signal prioritization might be available, along with the usual questions about length, scope, and phasing. While I'm admittedly disappointed that the stomach to piss off drivers and do something really daring seems lacking, I'm still hopeful that a judicious combination of median-running, aggressive signal prioritization, relatively large stop spacing (especially outside of downtown and the University area), and off-board fare collection will provide a significant upgrade to transit along the University/Magnolia corridor.

The project study area map.
The good news is that everyone behind the project seems to have the right idea. The word on everyone's lips was "Portland." Both staff and the electeds I saw there (Councilmen Gardner and Melendrez) seemed to be aware that the future of our city is increasingly transit- and active-transport-oriented, and less and less car-dependent. They know that, somehow, rail transit is key to the transformation of Portland's downtown-- and that such a transformation is vital for Riverside's future. Staff was also very conscious about the colossal failures of Los Angeles' streetcar planning, and wanted to avoid doing the same thing an hour's drive inland.

It seems like there's momentum behind this streetcar thing. It's up to us advocates to make sure that it is developed into a real transportation alternative, rather than an expensive toy that's more symbolic than transformative.

*No, this sort of vehicle would not run on Riverside's streets. The Siemens S70, which was on its way from the plant in Sacramento to San Diego's MTS, is a large bi-articulated light rail train, designed for high-speed running in grade-separated right-of-way. Siemens suggested their new S70-derived streetcar variant, or their new S100, for Riverside's project.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The (Belated) IE Transit Challenge, Part 3: Work

Okay, so if you've been following along, you now have some idea of where your local bus stops are, what routes serve them, and what role those routes play in the larger transit network. Let's try and put some of that knowledge to use, shall we?

According to Chris Balish' "How to Live Well without Owning a Car," a lifestyle guide that I heartily recommend, most people can give up their car if they can tackle their daily commute. So that's what we're going to do now! Let's take the time to plan a trip from your home to your job, at the times and days when you normally have to get to work.

The easiest way to do this is to use an automated trip planner, like Google Transit (which is integrated into Google Maps). Simply enter the address of your home, the address of your work, and click the train icon above the entry fields. This will generate a route, but don't use it just yet. Change the drop-down below the entry fields from "Leave Now" to "Arrive At" and enter the time you normally have to be at work. You might also want to plan the return trip home, by selecting the opposing arrows next to the addresses, and entering your usual shift end time-- it wouldn't do to be able to get to work and then get stranded there.

Always remember to check transit schedules at the time you intend to travel. Unlike the road network, transit changes based on the time of day and day of the week. If you plan your trip at mid-day, you might miss commuter express service that could save you tons of time (or make an impossible trip possible). If you plan it on a weekday, you might be very disappointed to find that the line you intend to use doesn't run on Saturday. Google Transit, to its credit, allows you to select both dates and times for a trip.

I want to encourage folks to branch a bit beyond the automated trip planner, though, because it has some important shortcomings. First, it will tend to minimize walking. There are times when one can make a trip much quicker by walking a half a mile on one end of it, and Google will show you the longer trip with the shorter walk. Second, it treats all transfers as equal, even though they aren't. Google often tells me to change buses at University and Kansas (at an unshaded bus stop in an area that isn't terribly pleasant at night), when any rider could tell you to transfer at the (covered, lighted, secured, busy) Downtown Terminal instead. Last, Google has no idea how to deal with the awesome power that is gained when combining public transit with a bicycle. If you're going to bike to the bus or train, rely on that knowledge about the network you gained last time.

So given that, grab your trusty copy of the RTA Ride Guide, a Metrolink schedule, and/or Omnitrans' Bus Book and start looking. First, look at the system maps to see what routes serve your workplace. Next, for the morning commute, work backwards, starting on the timetable closest to your work and ending at the route that takes you home. If you can, try and develop a few alternate routes and see what best fits your schedule. Especially keep an eye out for routes that use those high-frequency trunk lines that you learned about last time, or ones that use freeway express routes or Metrolink trains. The former will be the most reliable and resistant to bus breakdowns, traffic, or weather, while the latter will generally be the quickest way to travel (but often the most finicky). If you don't know how to read a timetable, by the way, don't be embarrassed. Both RTA's Ride Guide and the Omni Bus Book provide guidance in the front, as does this presentation from the BBC. Note that, on bus timetables, only major stops are shown.

Now you know if you can get to work via transit, and how to do it. For some people, this will invariably end up being an impossible or impractical task, but for many of you, I hope you'll try taking transit to work once in a while. Remember that, while it will probably take a bit longer, time on transit is time to read, get a bit of work done, or catch some extra sleep on the way-- and you'll arrive without having experienced the frustration of dealing with other drivers.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Goings-on in Government

Several things are happening in the City that urbanists should be happy about.

  1. The City Council formally appropriated money for the streetcar study on Tuesday. While I still have my reservations about the streetcar project, and how it will be handled by City Hall, I still want to see a good project, and hopefully this study will produce it. (That said, if you check the support documents for the agenda item on the Council agenda, it's clear that they're thinking of this thing as a development project, rather than a transit project-- and down that road lies transit ruin.)
  2. The Transportation Board (along with a long list of other people, including the Planning Commission and the City Council's Land Use Committee) yesterday approved a permitting process to allow parklets. It's a bit arduous, but in line with what other cities have done, so I was happy to approve it. The process is linked in the relevant agenda.
  3. The Brockton Avenue Road Diet project is finally going to City Council for final approval. This project, which has been the subject of ridiculous amounts of controversy, is one of those no-brainers that should be simple to pass. The project would improve road safety and traffic flow for all road users, including drivers (through the addition of a center left-turn lane). The project has been slightly revised, and will now keep two traffic lanes in each direction from 14th to Tequesquite near Riverside Community Hospital, but the bicycle lanes will remain throughout. (The lanes will, sadly, be striped in the door zone.) The project goes to Council on the 22nd, and it goes without saying that y'all should show up.
Riverside isn't exactly an urban paradise yet, but green shoots like these are encouraging.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Late Night Service! Well, later...

Routes 1 and 16 now have service until 11:19pm and 11:15pm respectively.* I'm still holding out for drinking until midnight, then catching a bus home, but this is movement in the right direction. If you have reason to be out late downtown, take public transit, and show RTA that night service is important to you!

*These are the times the run ends. The last run from downtown to the MoVal Mall, for example, starts at 10:30.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The IE Transit Challenge, Part 2: The Network

Okay, so if you're following along from Part 1, you now know where your nearest bus stop is, what lines serve it, and where those lines go. Now I'd like to direct your attention to the remainder of the transit system. You need not memorize the whole map, but it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with major lines and transfer points, just as you'd familiarize yourself with major roads and freeways in your town. So take a moment now to look at those system maps I posted last time (RTA, Omnitrans). What you're looking for are major transfer centers (marked as "T" on RTA's map and "TC" on Omni's), which should list the routes that serve those points. Find the transfer points that are served by your local bus routes.

Another thing to look for are frequent bus services, lines that you can use without looking at the schedule to see when they're coming, and therefore can count on for spontaneous trips around the city. (In a decent transit system, these routes come every 15 minutes or better, but since few such routes exist out here, I loosen the definition to 20 minutes myself.) Frustratingly, none of our local transit agencies does any sort of frequent network mapping, and actually finding out what routes in your area qualify would require going through a lot of individual timetables. So I'll do that for you.

On RTA's system, routes 1 (University Ave-Downtown-Magnolia Ave) and 16 (Downtown-University Ave.-Canyon Crest-Moreno Valley Mall) run every 20 minutes or better. 15 runs every 40 minutes, and most everything else is hourly or worse.

On Omni's system, in the West Valley, routes 61 and 66 are frequent. In the East Valley, 1, 2, 3/4, and 14 are frequent. Many other routes are half-hourly.

All of these calculations are based on weekday mid-day frequencies, and service can get a lot worse on the weekends.

Finally, you'll want to look for express service. Express service is usually extremely limited in terms of frequency, but can be useful due to its speed. Metrolink is an express service, as is RTA's CommuterLink system (routes with 200-series route numbers), and Omnitrans' route 90. Most of these services stop at major transit centers (or, in the case of Metrolink, train stations).

Knowing these details will give you a good idea of what the transit system around you looks like, so you can see ways in which you could use it for upcoming trips.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The New Factor, or, The Choo-Choo Problem

The recent discussion of the Hyperloop brought up a common criticism that one hears often enough about rail transit of all types: it's based on "19th century technology." The critic will argue that streetcars are relics of the past, best left in the dustbin of history where we tossed them during the rise of motordom, or they will say that high-speed rail is based on technology from a bygone era and that obviously mag-levs or monorails or hyperloops are the future. They may even derisively refer to HSR as a "choo-choo train."

First off, the time that a particular piece of technology has been around does not imply obsolescence. When we human beings find a good idea, that idea doesn't come with a shelf life-- we keep tinkering with it and improving it as long as it makes sense to do so. Door hinges, for example, were invented so long ago in antiquity that we can't even accurately date it. Examples of them appear at least as early as 5,500 years ago, and the basic concepts behind the metal barrel hinge haven't change much since timeless antiquity. The flush toilet has been observed in archaeological excavations of the 26th-century BCE Indus Valley civilization, and recognizable modern examples can be found as early as the 16th century. This sets aside the fact that the electricity that allows these critics to put their words out onto our gloriously modern Internet was most likely generated via steam power, as most modern power plants, even nuclear and solar-thermal ones, are ultimately driven by steam turbine.

Even in the area of transportation, some of the best ideas are rather old. The diamond-frame bicycle, which is the most efficient form of passenger transportation known to man (in the physics sense of efficiency-- energy expended per kilo of payload moved), is unchanged since 1885. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that automobiles are also 19th-century technology, their birth dated to the Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1886. Aircraft are only slightly younger-- a modern pilot would find the controls of the 1909 Curtiss June Bug familiar.

These critics would no doubt argue that automobile technology has advanced significantly since the 19th century-- but then again, so has rail. Nobody who has ever ridden a modern high-speed train would confuse it for a second with a 19th-century model. The advances in technology and engineering to allow a rail vehicle to reach 300km/h are just as impressive as the leaps from early automobiles to the Prius, and a modern streetcar is rather different from its 1920 ancestors. There is a perception of trains as dated, and cars as modern, that likely stems from the advertising efforts of the motor industry in the mid-20th century-- and that has somehow invaded our national consciousness.

But in another sense, the fact that railways are old technology is really relevant. The question is, how can we best organize our cities and our lives, how can we best move people from place to place in a world that is warming and running out of oil? The answer is renewable, electrified public transport, supplemented by active transportation, regardless of when the technology for that transport came about. While research is always nice, we don't need a shiny new tech breakthrough in order to implement these things. The technology is already there-- our problems are political.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Riverside Gets Streetcar Money

InlandEmpire.US, which appears to be an IE PR newswire, is reporting (along with the PE and CBS, but IE.US is running the full press release and everyone else seems to be a little confused) that the City has received $237,500 in state money towards the planning of a streetcar line from UCR to downtown, with the project dubbed "Riverside Reconnects." (Points for alliteration, but hardly inspiring.)

Prior reporting from the PE suggests that the plan will be little more than a novelty, rather than a serious investment in transport infrastructure. The plan is currently split between a single track and two tracks, the latter in mixed traffic. Either way, the plan as it currently exists (which, granted, is a back-of-the-envelope sketch straight from Mayor Rusty's office) would spend a lot of money to make a transport service that is worse than existing high-frequency bus transit along University. I'm hoping that $237,500 is enough to convince the City that this thing either needs dedicated lanes, or it needs to be smothered in its infancy, before we spend $100 million on a useless toy train for City Hall to brag about.

Hyperloop? Seriously?

Okay, so I leave y'all alone for two weeks, and I have to watch as everyone sings the praises of the Hyperloop? I feel obligated to respond.

For those who don't know, the Hyperloop is an idea that Elon Musk, founder of Paypal and Tesla Motors and current CEO of SpaceX, decided to do a bar-napkin sketch of. Similar proposals have existed in science fiction and futurist ramblings for quite some time. (RAND published a report on them in 1972, and Heinlein was writing about "vactubes" as early as 1956. I seem to remember that Niven's Ringworld was ringed with trains that took advantage of the exterior vacuum, although to be fair, these didn't need to run in tubes.) The reason Musk brings this up is that he claims such a system would be a significantly cheaper alternative to the current California High-Speed Rail Project.

This claim is wrong on so many levels that it's hard to address them all, and yet Musk is getting showered with media plaudits and the CA HSR project is getting attacked from all corners.

Okay, so what's wrong with the hyperloop project? First off, anyone serious should understand that Musk's "proposal" is, as I said, basically a sketch on a bar napkin. The cost estimates included sound authoritative, but they are extraordinarily high-level and rest on so many assumptions that the uncertainty involved in them is very high. The reason that the headline cost of the HSR project has basically doubled is that estimates and reality don't often coalesce. FTA wants year-of-expenditure accounting rather than 2010 dollars, NIMBYs fight you in court and you have to hire tons of lawyers, you get more precise estimates of materials and land costs that always seem to end up a little higher than your estimates, etc. etc. etc. Musk's project has the added uncertainty of being something that has never been built before, so the costs involved here are really just wild-ass guesses. (I mean, yeah, steel is a known quantity, but people are saying that he's wildly underestimating the cost of capsule environmental systems, for example.) Not to mention that he doesn't actually include the costs of prototyping and testing in his budget. Oops?

Second, he is woefully naive about the cost of right-of-way acquisition. He assumes that right-of-way is almost a non-issue because such a project could just use the median of I-5, and anyway it would be built on elevated structure so you wouldn't have to acquire so much land. Except that HSR is already planned to be built on elevated structure, and right-of-way acquisition is still a bitch. Oh, and I-5 isn't free, Caltrans will want to take their pound of flesh just like the farmers will. Oh, and that if you run it on I-5, you won't serve any of the towns that I-5 doesn't go to, like Fresno and Bakersfield, which have a million and damned near a million people in their metro areas each. And, of course, this ignores the central problem of ROW acquisition-- the cities.

The California HSR project is not expensive because it's being built over farmland in the middle of nowhere. Land acquisition and construction in the Central Valley, while somewhat contentious, is pretty cheap overall. On the ends of the project, on the San Francisco Peninsula and in urban Los Angeles, where there is no extra room down the middle of the freeway or relatively cheap farmland, and where every few feet of progress must be bought by demolishing a building or digging an expensive tunnel, is where right-of-way costs come in. And they are huge costs. More than the entire cost of Musk's proposal. So how does he avoid them?

Oh, that's the next problem. His proposal doesn't go to LA or San Francisco. It goes from Sylmar to Pleasanton. Funny how they left that out. Add in local transit times to actually get to LA proper, and that 30-minute ride actually becomes closer to a 3 hour ride. Toss in the security "similar to airports" that Musk proposes, and we all know how much that sucks, and you're looking closer to 4 hours. Also known as worse than CA-HSR. He also doesn't budget anything for station buildings, maintenance shops, or the storage areas that would be necessary for the kinds of capsule headways he proposes. Or the parking lots, because a lot of people are going to drive (their Teslas?) to these suburban stations, making Hyperloop a contributor to the problem of urban auto congestion.

And a brief moment again to discuss one of the major limitations of the technology. It's a point-to-point service. If the hyperloop had to accelerate and decelerate into stations en route, it would slow way down and the costs would go way up. You could get from LA to SF, or from SF to LA, but people from San Jose or Fresno or Bakersfield or Palmdale would be good and screwed. That leaves out millions of potential riders and, more importantly, millions of potential political supporters.

There are a lot more problems with Musk's proposal, but I think this is enough to show that the Hyperloop is a futurist fantasy, not a serious alternative to HSR. And therein lies the danger of these kinds of proposals. Now, HSR opponents have a smokescreen they can hide behind. They can say "Oh, I support the idea of having an LA-SF train, but this specific project isn't a good one. Why don't we do this Hyperloop thing that Elon Musk is talking about?" This is, in effect, the same as opposing an LA-SF train. The Hyperloop will never be built, and knowing that, HSR opponents can use it to look reasonable while still getting their desired outcome, which is killing the project.

For the record, I don't think that the Hyperloop as a technology is entirely without merit. I think we're going to see a post-petroleum future, one in which long-distance passenger aviation becomes either economically or ecologically unsustainable. I'm not nearly as sanguine as Musk is about the future of hypersonic transport. Some sort of evacuated tube train may well be the way we cross trans-continental or intercontinental distances in 2075 or 2100, where it'd be impractical to stop frequently anyway. (Either that, or maybe we'll use conventional HSR sleeper trains, much like China presently does on some of their longer HSR lines.)

Nor do I have any sort of personal vendetta against Elon Musk. SpaceX is doing way cool things, especially since NASA kind of gave up on doing a lot of cool things, and despite my feelings about electric cars, I wouldn't mind taking a Tesla for a spin up to Big Bear or Idyllwild (when it's no longer on fire). I just think this is a half-baked idea that will do more to harm the cause of intrastate transportation than help it.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The IE Transit Challenge, Part 1

One of the problems with improving the fortunes of public transit in traditionally auto-dependent places is that people are creatures of habit. They looked in to taking the bus once a decade or two ago, and it was hard, so they didn't do it, or they simply don't think about alternative transportation so long as their car keeps running. And this is at least partially understandable-- moving through the city on transit takes a little more knowledge and planning than moving through it in a car. So I'm issuing a challenge to you-- yes, you, dear reader-- if you're one of those people who is sympathetic to cutting car use, but who doesn't regularly use our local transit system for whatever reason.

For the first four Saturdays in August, I'm going to post up an assignment for those of you who want to make a change in your own personal travel habits, but are unsure how to get started. Feel free to follow along, and comment with your experiences below.

First assignment! Find out about the transit routes that serve your home. Where are the nearest bus stops to you? What routes serve those stops? Where do those routes go? (Both endpoints and interesting destination along the way.) How often can you catch a bus, and what are the hours of service? On weekdays? On weekends?

You may be asking how one finds out this sort of information. In order to find your nearest bus stop, if you don't already know where it is, you might cast your gaze over to Google Maps. Zoom in pretty close, and little blue bus stop icons will start appearing. Look for them on major streets nearby. You might also try taking a look at the System Map for an idea of what streets near you host bus service-- here's RTA's and here's Omni's. (Not sure which one you are? RTA serves Riverside County and Omnitrans serves San Bernardino County.)

Once you've found your stop, either look at the system map or the stop itself for the routes it serves. (The bus stop sign will generally have route numbers on it.) And once you've found the route that serves your stop, the rest of the information you'll need can be found on the timetable for that route. (Omni, RTA)

By the way, you may have noticed that I didn't say anything about fares above. Both Omni and RTA have the same fare structure for casual riders-- $1.50 per boarding or $4 for a day pass.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Budgets (Danger: Long and wonky!)

When I am thinking about how to re-order our society for the coming twin crises of energy and climate, I often find it useful to think in terms of several "budgets" that represent the resources we have to work with when performing said re-organization. This thought process, for example, is why I think that there is no alternative-fuel wondercar coming to save us. Let's take a look at a few of these "budgets" and how they point us towards a world that is increasingly walkable, bikeable, and transit-dependent.

1. Carbon Budget
So this is probably the big one. We will not be able to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide to 0-- for one, to survive we are going to have to keep breathing. What we need to do is to reduce our carbon footprint, not only to the point where our emissions match the planet's carrying capacity, but to a point that is actually below that carrying capacity, in order to reduce the concentration of atmospheric carbon. has more, but basically, right now the concentration of CO2 is at ~400ppm and rising at 2ppm per year, meaning that we are adding carbon to the atmosphere. We need to reduce our emissions enough so that we return to a level below 350ppm no later than end of the century, so we need to get to the point where CO2 concentrations are falling by at least .57ppm per year, if we were able to re-shape our society overnight. More likely, we'll need to get to a point where, by mid-century, concentrations are falling by 1-1.5ppm per year or so.

So we have some absolute ceiling on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted into the atmosphere between now and 2100. Every ton of CO2 is "spending" that budget. I think it goes without saying that we aren't currently spending it wisely. But what would actually prioritizing our needs according to that budget look like? That is, we have limited CO2 that we can emit-- what things are worth spending that budget on?

First off, there are likely industrial processes that emit CO2, and that can't be feasibly switched off of the stuff. We should try to find replacements where we can, but I suspect that there are plenty of cases where it is chemically infeasible not to give off some CO2 during the process of producing modern conveniences that we'd like to keep around.

Second, and this is something a lot of people don't think about, but aviation is currently pretty much impossible without some form of liquid hydrocarbon fuel. (The Solar Impulse is certainly an impressive engineering feat, but the single-seat 40-knot gossamer craft is not a practical transportation machine, and likely won't be for some time.) The sheer power-to-weight ratios enabled by fuel-burning piston and jet engines make powered flight possible, and electric propulsion isn't likely to catch up for some time (although ion wind thrusters may be the next big thing). If we want to continue to live in a world where everything from traffic helicopters to intercontinental jet travel are still with us, we're not likely to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the aviation sector.

There are also a myriad of other applications where CO2 emisisons are going to be necessary, from military operations to diesel-fueled generators at remote outposts and during power outages to oceanic shipping. While we should work at making these sectors more efficient, the energy density of hydrocarbon fuels are likely going to make carbon-generating combustion the only practical option for a great number of applications, all of which we'd like to keep around in our civilization.

Beyond that, there's also the CO2 emitted by our more biological operations-- livestock farming, and our own and our pets' respiration. Gotta keep that in mind.

And then there's our day-to-day transportation needs. We can certainly spend our carbon budget on in-city transportation, sure... but why should we? We know that putting people on electrified, zero-emission buses and trains, and on bicycles and their own two feet, can move them about without emitting any appreciable carbon dioxide. We know that, with proper land-use planning, huge majorities of our population could move around their daily lives in this manner. Why should we spend our carbon budget when we don't have to?

2. Energy budget
Sure, you say, but electric cars surely must be the answer! They spend very little of our carbon budget! Right, but they spend a lot of our energy budget, so they're not exactly a panacea. And they allow sprawl to continue, which further taxes our energy budget.

We know that we're going to have to start generating the overwhelming majority of our energy needs from renewable energy sources-- solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal power. (There is mixed opinion on whether next-generation nuclear power plants could meet some of these needs, but that's not important to this argument.) Given that, we are going to have to deploy a lot of solar panels and wind and tide turbines and geothermal boreholes in the next few decades. We are going to have to meet our current energy needs plus some appreciable fraction of powering our transportation system. So every inefficiency in the system results in having to deploy more renewable power generating capacity-- or, more likely, results in a lower probability that we'll be able to generate our power entirely off of renewables.

Single-occupancy motor vehicles, no matter their powerplant, are hugely energy inefficient-- you're spending a lot of energy moving the car itself, and very little moving the passenger. So if we go to electric cars, rather than electric transit, we are going to have to put up a lot more solar panels to power the cars.

Beyond that, electric cars would still enable sprawl. Beyond being land-inefficient and soul-crushing, sprawl is also really energy-inefficient. Urban apartments and rowhouses, dwellings that share walls, require significantly less energy to heat and cool. Small-lot urban single-family homes tend to be smaller and therefore more energy-efficient in terms of climate control. Toss in the energy required to extend and maintain utility infrastructure to a comparatively small number of people on a comparatively large amount of land, and you see that sprawl is a poor choice to spend our energy budget on.

3. Social Budget
The last budget is probably the closest to an actual, financial, budget in this list. Our society has a finite amount of resources in it-- physical, financial, and political. Each dollar spent, each political speech, each gram of silicon is an opportunity to devote resources towards the transformation of our civilization to meet the climate crisis. We can only afford so much revolutionary change. We could choose, for example, to heavily subsidize research into new battery technologies, to develop quick-charge electric car filling stations around the country, to give people massive tax credits for buying an electric car, to spend our resources effecting a transformation to a whole new way of getting around. But doing so has an opportunity cost-- after developing that new system, it is unlikely that we will be able to turn around once more and gain the political and financial support to once again transform how we get around.

I am of the opinion (completely unsubstantiated, but reasonable) that our society has the political will and physical resources for maybe one big transformation this century, before the oil starts running out and the oceans start rising. When we decide to finally embark on the path of that transformation, we had better be sure it's the right one, because if it isn't, we will find ourselves facing these crises unprepared.

For the many reasons that I've mentioned on this blog, I think that a move towards more urban living, enabled by active transportation and electric public transit, linked by electric freight and high-speed passenger rail, is the form that will make our civilization most resilient in the face of the coming future. I can only hope that we are not so distracted by promises that we can keep on doing what we are doing-- packaged in the form of electric or hydrogen or other wondercars-- to preclude this transition.

Monday, June 24, 2013

RTA GTFS Data Now Available!

They've apparently been quietly doing it since January of 2012, but I want to applaud RTA for officially making their GTFS (Google Transit Feed Specification) data available to the public, via the GTFS Data Exchange. Open data is really awesome. For those of you who know why open data is awesome, you can stop reading. For the rest of you, a basic primer.

So in this context, a GTFS feed contains the stop, route, and schedule data needed for a transit agency to get on Google Transit. Because Google is the all-powerful data-sucking beast that it is, and because they're really the first people to try to integrate multiple transit agencies' data on a massive scale, it's become a de facto standard for electronically publishing transit information. RTA has obviously had a GTFS feed for a while, since they've been on Google Transit since 2009. To my knowledge, however, while the feed URL was easily discovered with a little creative Googling, the data was not officially publicly available. That meant that the only people who could incorporate it were Google-- and that the vast ecosystem of transit app developers using public GTFS data couldn't incorporate RTA's information as well. This includes not only transit apps like HopStop, but also things like WalkScore, which incorporates transit information and travel times, and AutNo, which allows you to search for apartments within transit commute distance of your work.

Now, with publicly-available data, those tools can integrate RTA's transit schedules in order to give people a better idea as to what their transportation options are-- especially when looking for new housing choices.

What I'd love to see next is the integration of real-time arrival data (which, unbeknownst to many, RTA does have) into the GTFS feed, so instead of a trip plan based on schedules, Google Maps could give you a routing based on which buses were on time, which were late, etc. You might find that a connection that you should, on paper, just miss is actually running a few minutes behind, saving you a long wait, or that, because your bus is late, taking another route might get you there faster. Transit aficionados like myself already know that sort of information, but it'd be cool to make it available to anyone via their smartphones.

Still, though, kudos on the open data, RTA.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fool Me Once...

RTA just released their proposed FY 2014-2016 Short Range Transit Plan. On the bright side, there are no cuts proposed, and (like the last few schedule changes) several minor schedule improvements are suggested. In particular, they plan on restoring service on "major holidays"-- specifically Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day-- beginning July 2013 (which conveniently misses Memorial Day 2013).

Another suggestion is the long-awaited expansion of night-time service, proposed on routes 1, 15, 16, 18, 20, 31 and 32. I would personally prefer that we confine our late-night transit efforts to routes with higher population density and ridership, as otherwise we'll get less service span where we need it in Riverside, and more out in the exurbs where we need it less. That said, I would love to see late-night service (until last call?) on 1, 15 and 16, and if that means that we run some empty buses in Hemet, oh well.

That said, this has been proposed before. In the FY2010-2012 SRTP, funds were actually secured from the federal Job Access and Reverse Commute program to provide late-night service, across a skeletal network serving the whole service area. The funds were moved to prop up frequencies on routes in Lake Elsinore and Mead Valley. So I'm not jumping for joy until this is actually approved by the board in June-- and even then, not really until I see the timetable.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Roadside Assistance for the Urban Advocate

So, for many people, it seems like my last post on AAA's lobbying efforts is news. Better World Club, admittedly a competitor to AAA, keeps a long list of AAA's egregious pro-car lobbying stunts, most of which have extensive third-party citations. But let's say you're convinced-- AAA is a major force for the highway lobby, and you want to give up your membership. But you also don't want to find yourself on the side of a road somewhere, with a broken-down car and no money for a massive tow-truck bill. What's an eco-conscious person to do?

The best alternative would be, of course, to give up your car altogether. Here's how to do that.

For those not ready to take the leap, one alternative is the aforementioned Better World Club. They provide similar services to AAA, including towing, maps, travel planning, and the like. Unlike AAA, they'll also cover either your motorcycle or your bicycle without a corresponding automobile membership. (For whatever reason, they won't cover your motorcycle and your bicycle without an auto membership though, which is why I'm not a member.)

Another likely possibility is your auto insurance provider. I have roadside assistance coverage on my scooter through Progressive, for something like $3 a month. Note that coverage through your auto insurer will likely only cover the insured vehicle, so if your friends give you rides in their clunker a lot, maybe stick with something else.

Finally, there are some unlikely places that might offer you roadside assistance. There are credit card providers that offer the service, as well as cell phone providers. My wife and I had-- and frequently used-- service through our cell phones through the first year of our marriage.

Ask around-- it's more likely than not that you can get roadside assistance without handing your money over to the highway lobby.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

An Open Letter to AAA

I got a letter in my mailbox today from the Automobile Club of Southern California. You can guess that I didn't enclose the requested registration certificate and $49 membership fee. Here's what I sent back instead:

Dear Ms. Sabins:

I received your offer of pre-selected membership in the Automobile Club of Southern California today. I note that you began your letter with "Dear Fellow Driver." I am writing now to inform you that your membership selection process has gone horribly awry. While I am an enthusiastic participant of the United Airlines MileagePlus program, from whom you seem to have gotten my address, I am not, in fact, your fellow driver. Indeed, I do not own an automobile, and I am unlikely to do so in the future. The only vehicle I'm certain to use on any given day is my bicycle, and I like it that way.

Moreover, I was a former member of your organization, and I informed your employees at the time of my reasons for leaving your organization. Collectively, the Automobile Association of America is one of the largest anti-environmental and anti-active-transportation lobbying organizations in the nation, as you are no doubt well aware. AAA has a long history of advocating against progressive transportation policy and for sprawl-inducing freeway construction, road and parking lot expansion, and subsidies for the auto and oil industries. Your organization is one of the principal foes in the fight against the catastrophic specter of global climate change, a bastion of oil-economy cronyism in a world that desperately needs more forward-looking solutions.

I also find your organization's recruiting tactics reprehensible. The average AAA member does not know about the lobbying arm of your organization. Indeed, the letter that you sent me does not speak at all about the disproportionate influence that you wield in Washington. Instead it speaks of all the benefits I will receive from membership in the Club, including gold-plated roadside assistance, maps, travel guides, DMV services, and discounts. Your organization has built itself into a lobbying powerhouse, commanding the "53 MILLION" members you so enthusiastically tout, by lying to them in order to use their membership to inflate your power in Washington. Members join for the towing, and are unknowingly used for the political ends of your organization and the industries who support you.

In conclusion, I will not be returning the enclosed registration card, along with my "bargain" of a $49 payment. Please remove me from any and all mailing lists, customer databases, and lists of "selected" new members immediately and in perpetuity.
Justin Nelson, MA

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

No Streetcar is Better than a Bad Streetcar

Riverside's new Mayor, Rusty Bailey, has made the development of a streetcar network part of his platform. He mentioned it both during his campaign and in his State of the City address, and I have heard word of grants being written to study the issue. Obviously, the plan is very new, and so anything I say here is speculative at best, but I want to get out ahead of this thing. Streetcars are in vogue right now, and while they are undoubtedly cool, the details of the implementation of a streetcar plan are important to determine whether it will promote mobility and development, or whether it will simply be a shiny toy for City Hall to trumpet.

Here's the thing: streetcars in mixed traffic are usually worse for mobility than the buses they replace. This is because of the simple fact that buses can turn and get around obstructions (such as parking or turning cars, broken-down cars, traffic accidents, debris, etc.), while streetcars can't. There's some benefit to running streetcars in interior lanes with island platforms, or using off-board fare collection, but neither is intrinsic to streetcars per se-- buses stopping at the same island platforms and using the same off-board fare collection would also run faster. To really radically re-shape mobility in Riverside, streetcars would either need to run on a lower-traffic street, or need their own lane to run in. The former raises concerns, as lower-traffic streets are usually that way because few people want to be there, and I strongly doubt that there's enthusiasm for the latter at City Hall and among the automobile-attached residents of Riverside.

Second, the logical place for a streetcar is along the L-shaped corridor formed by UCR, downtown, and the Plaza (and in the future, perhaps as far as the Tyler Galleria). This is a route that is already served by RTA, and mobility along that route would likely be better-served by improving existing RTA service than building a local-stop streetcar along it. The streetcar will need to somehow do something that the current routes 1 and 16 don't do, and will also need to be well-integrated into the current transit system, both of which are a daunting proposition.

Furthermore, a streetcar is an expensive proposition. If the plan is a good one, by all means, we should turn our transit dollars towards that expensive proposition. I am, however, extremely wary of spending scarce transit dollars building and, more importantly, operating a streetcar that will not improve mobility in Riverside and that will cannibalize limited funds from desperately-needed transit expansion. I'd love to see good local rail service in Riverside, but I'd rather see all-night bus lines or additional frequency than a bad streetcar project.

Los Angeles' streetcar project is a great example of what happens when you don't take into account mobility outcomes when building a streetcar: you get giant one-way loops and low frequencies that will make the new streetcar less useful than the old DASH bus it's replacing, especially for the short downtown trips it's supposed to serve. And they're spending a bunch of money for little improvement. I don't want to see that kind of thinking move east.

As I said before, the plans for a Riverside streetcar are in their infancy-- but that just makes it all the more important to make our voices heard now, before a finalized plan becomes something that we can't live with. Better no streetcar at all than a bad streetcar.

Friday, March 1, 2013

They do not like the red light cam...

Dan Bernstein of the PE channels Dr. Seuss to talk about the ever-controversial red-light camera. Read it all the way to the end.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

"Could I see your driver's license?"

So said my bank teller about a month ago, while I was picking up a money order to pay ye olde rent. In yet another example of the cultural expectation that every adult citizen drives regularly, we have allowed driver's licenses to become our society's primary form of identification. In reality, though, it's nobody's business whether or not you have earned driving privileges unless you happen to be behind the wheel of a motor vehicle on public roads; asking for a driver's license when we mean to ask for identification is another slight against non-drivers, and another reminder of the automobile's hegemony in our lives. To say "I don't have a license, here's my ID" feels like admitting some failure, or at the very least some aberration that sets you apart from polite society.

Furthermore, it can have rather inconvenient practical consequences. My last driver's license was issued right around the time that the state was switching over to the new, super-secure design-- and they were having severe production backlogs. I applied for my renewal in late September, a month before the expiration date in late October. I figured that should be plenty of time, as prior plastic bits from the DMV had arrived to me within a week or so. Wrong-- I finally got the thing in early December. During the entire time I was walking around with an expired driver's license, I kept calling the DMV about the status of my renewal, and they kept giving me the same answer: "Oh, don't worry, if you get pulled over you'll come up as valid in the computer." Never mind that I couldn't bank or buy beer. (I actually started carrying my passport, but I feel bad for those in the same situation who didn't have a passport.)

So on that particular day last month, when that teller asked that same lame question, I decided that my answer henceforth would be "no." I left the bank, went to Rite Aid, got my photo taken, and sent off my application for this:

This is my passport card. It's only valid for land and sea travel to the US' nearest neighbors, trips that I can't say I take very often, but it's also a valid government-issued photo ID that fits in my wallet. If anyone other than a traffic police officer asks to see my ID, this is what they're going to get, because whether or not I can drive is none of their damned business. I hope to help normalize the use of non-driving identity cards, because we're hopefully going to see more non-drivers, and they're going to need them.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

BAC Meeting

Hey all, just a reminder that the City of Riverside's Bicycle Advisory Committee will be meeting on Thursday night, the 28th, at 5pm in the 6th Floor Large Conference Room at City Hall. Hope to see you all there!

The Problems with Cars

Transit activists are constantly besieged by a long list of wondrous new technologies that are going to change transportation forever, meaning that all this time we're spending on buses and trains and bicycles is just going to be a waste when the electric car / podcars / Google cars save the world and make all of that obsolete. Implicit in this criticism is, of course, the idea that somehow existing transit technologies aren't up to the task of swaying people from their undying love for the automobile, but we'll save that for another post. The trouble is that none of these new technological advancements is going to address the fundamental issues underlying why cars are bad for our society. But, since all of my generally progressive and environmentally-conscious friends are talking about driverless cars lately, maybe it would help if I laid out what those fundamental issues are, and in doing so demonstrated why transit and urbanism is a much better bet than hoping for some new technology to transform our transportation system.

Climate Change
Of course, the biggest danger of our auto-centric transportation system is climate change. Climate change is caused by the release of carbon dioxide (and other, more problematic but less prevalent greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, usually as a byproduct of combustion energy generation. Cars are a huge source of carbon dioxide emissions, with their gasoline-burning engines, but other types of combustion-based energy generation, such as coal- and gas-fired power plants, are also an issue.

To stop climate change, then, it is not enough to simply switch cars from gasoline to another energy source (like electricity, hydrogen, compressed air, etc.-- which are all electrically-derived, as I cover here). We need to also ensure that the electricity is initially generated from a renewable source as well-- and, since we also need to power everything else in our society from renewables, and they are currently a very minor contribution to our electrical grid, the more energy-efficient our transportation system gets, the more likely it can be carbon-neutral.

This, of course, is where transit excels, and where most of these new technologies fail. Any technology, be it an alternative-fueled car, a personal rapid transit pod, or a driverless taxi, that involves hauling around a metric ton or two of metal per passenger or small group of passengers is inherently energy-inefficient. A small, 1,000kg car with the usual load of 2 passengers in it has to transport 500kg of car for every passenger. For a fully-loaded city bus, that ratio is closer to 150kg of bus per passenger. Rail vehicles, with lighter electric motors, no fuel tanks, minimal suspension, and significantly greater capacity, can obviously be even more efficient. It is therefore a fact of physics that a well-used public transit vehicle (which they all will be, in the glorious car-free utopia) will always be more energy-efficient than a private car. Electric cars, hydrogen cars, and even platooned driverless cars will be more energy-efficient than the present auto fleet, but they won't be efficient enough, and they certainly don't represent the best way to go about transforming our society.

Sprawl is a form of living in which densities are low and places that you'd like to go are far apart from each other. Sprawl is bad for people because it breeds obesity and social isolation; is bad for our society because it requires a lot of infrastructure due to the distances between things, while at the same time not generating enough value through taxation to pay for that infrastructure; and is bad for the environment because we keep paving over wilderness and farmland, among a whole host of other reasons. Sprawl is the ultimate enemy of the urbanist. Sprawl was essentially enabled by the automobile (although streetcar suburbs were a kind of walkable proto-sprawl), and sprawl makes modes other than the automobile impractical. Sprawl is environmentally awful, energy-inefficient, and generally unpleasant for many who live there. It's also dramatically oversupplied-- surveys show that many people, and most young people, would like to live in denser, more walkable, more transit-friendly neighborhoods, but those neighborhoods are incredibly expensive because they are incredibly rare. Sprawl has also woven itself into the fabric of city planning-- zoning codes across this country are written in such a way that they basically preclude the construction of anything but sprawl, even in dense cities.

Cars create and enable sprawl for many reasons. One of them is parking-- the giant parking lots, attached garages, and parking structures that we build in which to store our cars are like spacers inserted in the machinery of the city, spreading things out from one another. They also make walking, cycling and transit-riding harder-- you're a lot less likely to shop by foot or transit if you have to cross a massive and desolate stretch of asphalt, randomly populated by distracted drivers searching for a parking space, in order to get to the store. (I'm looking at you, Victoria Gardens.) Wide roads and freeways have a similar effect-- built to accommodate traffic, they end up encouraging the same. (PRT and some sort of driverless car-taxi system, admittedly, wouldn't depend on huge parking lots at every destination, although the driverless car-taxis would need to be parked somewhere.)

That said, probably the most significant reason that cars promote sprawl is that they are so damned good at their job. The car is a tool that allows its owner to make a trip of essentially indeterminate length, at any time, at astonishingly high speeds. (The two-three days it takes to cross North America in a car may seem agonizing today, compared to the 6 hours it takes in an airplane, but there was a time when that journey took 5 months and included a significant likelihood of death.) The modern automobile transportation system allows those of us who live in the developed world to think of a 100+km daily commute as a normal fact of daily life, and to think little of coming home from that commute only to visit a restaurant three towns over. That sort of mobility allows for sprawl-- if you can travel a dozen kilometers on a whim, everything can be dozens of kilometers apart.

Paradoxically, when we have less mobility, we have more access. In Manhattan, where even the subways run at an average of 28km/h (the expresses manage roughly 40), and the old joke is that driving across the island at rush hour is impossible, the incentive is to pack everything closely together so that you don't need speed to get around. Once everything isn't so spaced out (ie, is denser), a life based on transit and active transport becomes a matter of course. Any form of vehicle that allows nearly infinite mobility at the press of a button, driven or driverless, gasoline or otherwise, will continue to enable and exacerbate sprawl.

Congestion/Urban Space
Closely related to the problem of sprawl is the problem of urban space. In Sprawlsville, land is cheap, so space isn't really an issue, but in dense cities, space is at a premium. We have to decide how to allocate that space, and at present, we allocate a lot of it to cars, making it harder for people there to walk, cycle, or ride transit. The problem of space efficiency is caused by the same thing as that of energy efficiency-- the idea that each person or small party should have their own, dedicated metal box surrounding them. For the same amount of people who all want to go somewhere, transit is the most space-efficient mode to get them there, followed by walking, then cycling, then some sort of platooned individual transit method (like PRT or communicative driverless cars), then automobiles. See, for example, this photo. You can, of course, add the concern of parking space for cars (and, to a lesser extent, bikes). In places where there are a lot of people, all of whom want to travel, and not much space, transit is simply the best way to move them-- and cars are a guaranteed recipe for congestion.

Toss on top of all of that the fact that our infrastructure is already overcrowded, even with providing nearly all of our urban public space to cars. Building new infrastructure in many areas is going to involve tunneling or elevated structure, in many others will involve buying and destroying other properties, and all around will be exceedingly expensive. Driverless cars may alleviate this problem somewhat, if we could get relatively universal adoption and sufficient communication to allow for platoons or very short following distances. PRT is likely to involve its own massive infrastructure project, for minimal benefit.

Problems of Roads
Roads and road vehicles have a bunch of ancillary environmental problems that come with them. They bisect habitat where they are built through rural and wilderness areas. They tend to slough off rainwater, rather than allowing it to percolate into the ground. Road runoff is generally contaminated with tiny rubber particles and various sorts of lubricants and other fluids that leak out of cars-- and that will still be necessary in any new-tech vehicle. If vehicles on them are moving at any appreciable speed, they can be expected to injure or kill pedestrians and cyclists, or at the very least make it hard for folks using active transport to get across. Any car that drives on the roads will have these problems, and driverless cars may even exacerbate some of them (eg. roads may get faster, and therefore even harder to cross as a pedestrian).

Problems of Non-drivers
Any driven car will need to be driven by somebody. That still isolates children, the elderly, the disabled, and likely the poor from mobility. PRT doesn't have this problem. We will need a nearly universal shared driverless car network before they solve this problem for the poor.

Problems of Social Isolation
I believe, based on admittedly scant evidence, that much of our society's lack of compassion is at least contributed to by social isolation, borne of our suburban mode of living. In a walkable, urban environment, or on public transit, one will bump in to people from all social strata, ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender presentations, and yes, states of mental health. When you live in suburbia, and can easily drive from your attached garage to the parking lot at your job, you are effectively insulated from anyone you don't actively choose to associate with. This has to have profound implications on how you perceive the world around you. All of the wondrous transit-obsoleting technologies that I've mentioned still revolve around the idea that we will continue to be able to shut out the outside world while moving through it.

Besides, public transit appears to be the place for spotting that special someone, at least going by Cragislist's "missed connections" section, and at least if you're in the Northeast, Northwest or Chicagoland.

There is no technology that will allow us to continue on as we are now-- in our own private little boxes, sealed up from the world around us, as we make our way between point A and point B in our lives-- that will also allow us to mitigate the profound damage we are inflicting upon our world. There cannot be-- such a technology is a physical and geometric impossibility.  The longer we wait for such a thing, the harder the transition to a new way of moving about our world will become, and the less able we will be to hold on to the high quality of life to which we are accustomed.

As I have said since I started this blog, we have the technology to transform our transportation system. We have had it for a hundred years. It begins with the bicycle, and moves upward through the electric trolleybus and light rail train, through the subway and commuter train, to the long-distance and high-speed rail systems that we are only now thinking about rebuilding. If we can simultaneously build out our nation's renewable energy grid, we can begin to move into a society where we will lose our cars, yes, but we will gain happier, healthier lives.

And if we can't... well, I'm going to miss Miami.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Is RTA's Size Hindering Riverside Transit?

Human Transit has a great post today about large transit agencies and the conflict between core cities, where transit needs are great, and suburbs, where local politicians demand "equity" in public transit spending. RTA is a fantastic example of this conflict-- it serves the second-largest transit service area in the country, geographically speaking, but has only one city in it that could reasonably be called "urban"-- Riverside. This results in a lot of fairly unproductive service in the outlying areas of Riverside County, while Riverside itself has overcrowding on several key trunk routes (eg. 1, 16), and a general lack of frequency that makes the rest of the network less useful than it could be.

Tacoma, WA is experiencing a different, although related, problem with their transit authority, Pierce Transit. It seems that voters in the Pierce Transit service area were offered the chance to vote on a tax increase that would have staved off draconian service cuts, and while Tacoma itself voted overwhelmingly in favor of the tax increases, outlying areas voted against in enough numbers that this mid-sized city will soon see no mid-day service and no service after 7pm. The city has proposed forming an "enhanced transit zone," wherein a small sales tax will be levied to subsidize service above and beyond that which would ordinarily be offered by the transit agency. Perhaps Riverside should consider something similar?

Friday, February 15, 2013

New License and Disclosure Statement

I realized that my blog licensing is no longer congruent with my views on the free culture movement. Specifically, restricting the use of my content to non-commercial uses takes it out of the realm of free culture, and imposes an unacceptable burden on the freedom of my readership. Effective immediately, I am re-licensing all content contained herein under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States license. Users may use any content published prior to today, 15 February 2013, under either this license or the previous one at their option, although I can't imagine why you'd want to further restrict your use of my content. Accordingly, I am posting a new license and disclosure statement.

Disclosure Statement

In accordance with new FTC regulations covering bloggers who make statements about products or services, I am hereby publishing a policy regarding advertisements and endorsements on this blog. This policy is effective immediately, 2-15-2013, and will remain effective until a new one is published.

This blog is a personal blog. Though I strive to be informative, I make no pretense of objectivity. In former Air America host Thom Hartmann's exceptional phrasing, Riding in Riverside is "fair and slightly unbalanced." Independent of ideology, however, what I report here will be held to the highest standards of factual accuracy.

The opinions posted here are my own. All content on this blog belongs solely to me, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of my employer or any organization of which I am a member unless otherwise stated. All content on this blog is copyright Justin M. Nelson, licensed under the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA v. 3.0 license. This means you are free to quote my work and even modify it, so long as you cite the source and extend these permissions to any work incorporating mine.

I run ads on this blog. They are automatically generated by Google AdSense, and I have no control over the content of these ads. I am paid for these ads by Google, who is paid for these ads. I don't even see these ads on most occasions, because I am an AdBlock user, and these ads do not, in any way, affect my writing.

I occasionally mention products or services, usually ones that aid me in my travels. I have not received any compensation from the producers of these products or services to date. If I do receive any compensation, I will disclose it in the relevant post. Regardless of compensation received, readers should understand that my endorsement of a product is not for sale. My review of a product or service should be understood as my opinion of that product, free of the influence of the entity that provided it.

I am not an employee of RTA, Omnitrans, OCTA, Foothill Transit, Metro, SCRRA, Sunline or any other transportation provider, nor am I an employee of a subsidiary or a contractor that provides services to any transportation provider. I am an employee of the University of California at Riverside, which purchases transportation from RTA as part of the U-PASS program, supporting route 51. This contract does not change my opinion of these services, and I would enjoy them regardless. I receive free transportation from RTA as a UCR student, through the U-PASS program. My readers know that this does not soften my criticisms of the Agency in any way. Prior to the implementation of this program, I held a monthly RTA pass, and if the program were discontinued I would expect to continue riding.

Sorry for the dense legalese. This post will be linked at the side of the blog, next to the license notice, for ease of reference. If a change in policy occurs, I will notify readers with another blog post.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bike Progress is Coming for UCR

Two projects are currently making their way through the morass of transportation bureaucracy that will hopefully make life better for UCR-area cyclists. One is a two-way cycletrack on the north side of Canyon Crest from Linden to University. For cyclists coming from the huge swathes of apartments on the north side of campus, there really isn't much of a way to get from along Canyon Crest on to the UCR campus. (Personally, I stay on the southbound Canyon Crest bike lane until University, move over to the median, and cross University at the corner, but that's me...) That will change when this cycletrack goes in- just cross at Linden or Bannockburn and ride down the two-way cycletrack.

Another project is on deck to reconfigure University Ave. between campus and the University Village. Currently, the idea is to remove a lane from the westbound side of University and build a sidewalk on that side. I think this is a much less useful design-- a sidewalk on the west of University would put pedestrians in more conflict with cars (crossing two freeway ramps, one with both exiting and entering traffic, instead of one) and be further away from campus and the natural flow of traffic.

And, at the same time, every day I ride back from getting lunch in the surrounding neighborhood, I find myself dodging skateboards, kick scooters, joggers, and more than anything wrong-way cyclists. Cyclists rode down the eastbound bike lane on University when it was complete; they continue now, even after Caltrans put them in further danger.

What we really need is the extension of the future Canyon Crest cycletrack all the way down to at least the University Village intersection, where cyclists could cross at the signal and continue west on University. And, since this section isn't designed yet, we could still get it! The city is in talks with Caltrans about how to configure the street and associated on-ramp, which means that you can make your voice heard on the project. Call your councilman today and tell them that you want a two-way cycletrack to the UV.

By the way, the city will be bidding both of these projects simultaneously, according to the city's bike coordinator. So, as soon as Caltrans and Public Works settle on a design, the project will be put in the pipeline. They expect to start working on it over the summer, while school traffic will be reduced.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Pet Peeve Resolved!

So, up until the last few days, Megabus had been one of the perpetrators of my huge transit geek pet peeve-- since the restoration of California service, they had identified their Riverside stop location as the "Riverside Downtown Metro Station."

Trying to be kind, as they are new to the area, I sent their customer service folks a letter:
To Whom it May Concern:

At the moment, your web site lists the Megabus stop in Riverside, CA as the "Downtown Riverside Metro Station." We southern Californians insist on being complicated, and name two local transit agencies very similar things-- Metro is the advertising name for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Agency, which serves LA County with local bus and rail service. Metrolink is a commuter rail system that provides service throughout the greater LA area. The station in Riverside is, in fact, a Metrolink station, not a Metro station. Please correct your information.

Thanks for your time.
 As of tonight, the Megabus web site shows this:

Every once in a while, we can get something fixed.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Metrolink to switch to RFID tickets

KPCC is reporting that Metrolink and Metro have worked out a solution to the faregate debacle-- All Metrolink tickets will be embedded with an RFID chip to allow passage through Metro faregates.

Didn't we just get rid of expensive, hard-to-manufacture fare media?

A much more sensible solution would be to allow Metrolink riders to pay for their fare with their TAP cards, and set up participating transfer agencies to detect and accept those Metrolink fares. This would also give suburban bus agencies outside of LA county an incentive to start accepting TAP, which I could see unifying the transit system of all of Greater Los Angeles, much like the Clipper card has knit together much of the Bay Area. But, for whatever reason, Metrolink seems as dead-set against using TAP for fare collection as Metro is set on the inane quest to lock their faregates.

That said, it is Metro's dumb decision to spend all this money on turnstiles. I hope they're paying for the new tickets.

Bicycle Advisory Committee

The next Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting will be held on Thursday at 5pm in the 5th floor conference room at City Hall. We've also apparently decided on a regular schedule: last Thursday of the month, 5pm, 5th floor conference room.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Just a quick thought...

but am I the only transit geek that gets annoyed when people call Metrolink "the metro"? Because it happens ALL THE TIME. You get on the train and someone talking loudly on their cell phone says to their conversational partner "Yeah, I'm on the train... you know, the metro... to LA..."

Metrolink is a thing. Metro is also a thing. They are two totally different things. This is a huge pet peeve of mine, and probably only mine.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Mega Review

So I posted last month about Megabus' recent triumphant return to Southern California. Last week, I had a chance to ride said bus to Las Vegas and back, and I figured I'd post a review on it.

Megabus' California/Nevada fleet is composed of VanHool double-decker TD925's, although I'm not sure yet how many. These coaches seat 81, with Megabus selling 77 revenue seats per trip. They're equipped with relatively comfortable reclining seats, a restroom (of the typical intercity bus variety), two doors and stairwells, and a rear luggage compartment. Because the bus is a double-decker, there are no overhead luggage bins-- carry-on items have to fit under your seat. Each passenger is allowed one carry-on and one checked item, although I saw the staff bend this rule a few times.

I boarded the 01:30 bus out of Riverside-- at least a little hesitant about waiting for a bus at the downtown Metrolink at 01:30 in the morning. The bus was around 10m late, but the boarding process was smooth and well-organized, with three Megabus crew members emerging from the bus and assisting passengers. One checked reservations, while the other two handled bags. I always travel with only a carry-on, and although Megabus' web site says that bags near the airline's maximum allowed carry-on size may be carried as checked luggage, I was able to fit mine under my seat without difficulty. Sitting on the upper deck, I was treated to the pleasant surprise of a full-bus sun roof. The windows in the front of the upper deck are also large, affording an excellent view of... well... I-15. And, at the time, I-15 at night. The only minor annoyance of the boarding process was a ~10m video, played after we departed, explaining safety features and how to connect to the on-board Wi-Fi. At nearly 2am, the last thing I wanted was a perky Megabus lady telling me to buckle up, but it didn't last long. I promptly reclined my seat and slept the entire ride-- I woke up to an early arrival in Las Vegas.

On the ride back, I had a little more time to actually check out the features of the bus and terminal. The South Strip Transfer Terminal, where Megabus arrives in Vegas, is the southern of RTC's two local bus terminals. It is also the platonic ideal of what a bus terminal should look like. There are snack and drink machines, transit information (including real-time arrivals) and ticket vending, clean restrooms, chairs and tables, and power outlets. Most of this was inside a large, indoor waiting room, which was really helpful when the desert chill struck. I was surprised to see this terminal in a city like Las Vegas, which isn't really known for its transit system. It may be the nicest local bus station I've ever been in.

When the time came for the Megabus, the boarding process was again well-managed. The bus arrived nearly half an hour late, which made waiting in the cold a bit unpleasant, and which was really strange, considering that Las Vegas is the terminal station on the route. When we did board the bus, it was maybe 3/4 full, and I had a row to myself. I tried out the free wi-fi, and tried to find the advertised power outlets. That's easier said than done-- they're poorly marked and in an odd location. You'll find them between the seats in the row, slightly below the seat itself. There is one for each passenger on the bus. Some rows, such as the rear ones, have the outlets overhead. Once the outlets were found, power was reliable and not enough to upset my tablet's delicate sensibilities. I also tried the free Wi-fi, which is a cellular-based system. This means exactly what you might think-- you'll get reasonably good service in populated areas, and very little out on the Interstate. It was okayish in Vegas (although sluggish with everyone connecting at once), dead from Primm to Barstow, and basically correlated with population density from there on in. I spent most of the ride reading.

We arrived in Riverside at around 7:15, around 15m behind schedule. This brings me to the next thing I love about Megabus-- at least in California, their stops integrate closely with the local transit system. In Los Angeles, the buses stop at Union station. In Riverside, they stop at the Metrolink. In Oakland, it's the West Oakland BART. In San Jose, Diridon station. In San Francisco, it's the 4th/King Caltrain station. Megabus serves car-free customers as well as they serve their automobile bretheren.

The only real downside of Megabus service in Riverside, aside from minor schedule adherence issues (which I'm sure will be fixed in their next timetable), is the limitation on destinations. From Riverside, you can only travel to Las Vegas. I understand why they limit Riverside-LA traffic, so as to avoid clogging seats with commuters, but I would love to see the possibility of through-ticketing Riverside-San Francisco via Los Angeles. (This could be because I find Vegas kind of meh and really love San Francisco.) You can, of course, take several transit options to LA (RTA/Foothill, Metrolink, Amtrak) and Megabus to SF, but through ticketing would open up more options and schedule flexibility. Oakland and San Jose are in the same place as Riverside vis-a-vis Sacramento and Reno service.

That said, if you're heading to Vegas or the Bay Area, I strongly recommend Megabus-- and, if you watch closely and book well in advance, you too might get a trip to Vegas for $2.50.