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.