Sunday, July 19, 2009

My transportation wishlist

I've been very curious lately about what exactly is on California's "wishlist" for federal stimulus money. I haven't located the exact requests of this list, but I have read some mixed reviews about the requests. Much of the money requested seems to be for road repair, which seems like a fair concern. After all, one of the specific items on the wishlist is the repair of the notoriously unsafe Vasco Road, which is located near me. I lost a friend to that road about two years ago, an event that has always seemed so hideously unjust to me. It certainly can't be denied that there are very poor roads in this state. On the other hand, roads seem like a very short-term use for these funds. For a state that's trying so hard to aim for more advanced transportation infrastructure projects, I find it odd that we didn't focus more on rail-related projects in our request.

Speaking of rail, I also read that the high-speed rail line has hit another speed bump. Apparently the wording was done rather carelessly and may now require more environmental studies before the line can begin implementation and construction. The problem, as I read, is that those studies have already been completed and most opposition has subsided. Re-opening these opportunities for studies and surveying may mean millions of wasted dollars - not to mention possible roadblocks as people are able to revisit old issues or groups that have since been placated.

This rail line continues to irk me. First of all, I do not believe that California is invested enough in the line to pay the attention to it that it so obviously deserves. California's focus on road repair seems to me merely another method of remaining an autocentric state. Secondly, I worry that without the state's full attention and with the continuation of careless mistakes, funding will only go to waste. If the line's construction is put off for too long, the cost of building will certainly go up, most likely forcing up the costs of tickets. And if ridership is subsequently low, all kinds of disasters might ensue.

This post is partly me worrying - I had my first ulcer at age 18, which should tell you I worry a lot - and partly my own wonderings about what I would put on my "wishlist" to Congress. Imagine I am the state of California. I am rich in natural resources, economic growth, and frustratingly uncompromising legislators.

Speaking for the state of California, I present the following wishlist:

- Funding for the high-speed rail, with strings attached. Strict deadlines, oversight, and an agreed upon maximum ticket price. Yeah that would upset the state, but I think California needs a babysitter right now.

- Some money for road repair, but none for freeway expansion. I have two words for that: triple convergence. Expanding the freeway won't relieve congestion, so don't bother.

- L.A. just got voted worst congested in the state for what, the 20th year in a row? Something like that? The Bay Area was number 5 or 6 on the list too, I believe. I WISH we could get more money for regional transportation methods in both of those areas. Perhaps some money for better bus lines, improvement of existing rail lines (um hello Blue Line, most dangerous rail line in the country) and something to hurry along the ones that are currently delayed (yes Expo line, I'm looking at you). Something that could help BART with ridership would be helpful as well. Anything we could do to help out Metrolink with ticket costs?

- Less money for things like fancy bike and pedestrian bridges, and more money devoted to the connectivity of bike and pedestrian paths and trails. (Speaking of bikes, could we just throw out the concept of bike lockers? They're just a really inefficient use of space and I am not a fan.)

- I'd really like some requirements for affordable housing in transit oriented developments. Those things are expensive, and they generally stick out in areas that clearly haven't received any government funding for years. Investment in transit means that there will be subsequent investment by developers in regions that become transit hubs or stops, which means we should be prepared for major displacement if we don't try to prevent it before it happens.

- Can we get some money for those environmental projects that seem outrageous at first? Like I mentioned before, I think this state is lacking a great deal of creativity and imagination. I say we get some development in rail cars or buses that use solar power for temperature control, like the new Prius uses. Surely we could invest in solar technology in transportation. And aside from transportation, I'd like to see some investment in Energy From Waste (EFW) plants, and perhaps some geothermal projects. Give the scientists some money to play with; hopefully at least one of them will come down with a stroke of genius.

Anything other thoughts? What else should California have asked for from the big daddy U.S.A?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The impending BART strike and the growth of light rail

For those of you not blessed enough to currently reside in the Bay Area, you may not be aware that there are some major labor negotiations going on between BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the union workers who operate the trains. It has managed to cool down a bit over the last few weeks, but the threat still looms in the air, particularly for transportation organizations that have to create solutions NOW to make up for the havoc that will be created if the strike ever takes place. It's not only a matter of thousands of commuters suddenly being either placed on the freeways or having no method of reaching their place of employment - oh no, that's too easy. Transportation agencies are having to deal with all kinds of strike-related issues that may or may not drop at any moment, including things like where to move bus stops now that BART premises could be blocked. It's a headache and frankly, it's almost disgusting. I find it clear evidence of lunacy that anyone could expect a raise in this economic climate, and especially given the outrageous benefits that a BART worker already receives. Yeah dude, fight for the cause, but maybe next year - you should probably just be glad you have a job.

Sorry for the sidenote. My point here is that I wonder what will happen if the U.S. ever decides to rely on methods of transportation like light rail. If we had the kind of national line network that President Obama has expressed interest in, a strike like this one could shut down the entire country. It could shut down the whole state, in California's case. This isn't a freeway system; the trains can't operate themselves. And it's also not a purely private endeavor, which means there is really no choice regarding the trains like there could be in the event of an airline strike. Would investing in light rail be a danger to our economy? And what's more, could it be a danger to our national security? What would happen if the country's main method of transportation (potentially) were to be stopped somehow?

Something to think about: could we make our light rail not only the greenest form of transportation in the country as well as the most advanced transportation technology, but also make it strike-proof? Think there's any way to prepare for that?

** In the meantime, if you're trying to find a way around the BART strike, check out (for Alameda county) or (Contra Costa county).

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Is that the best you've got?

So, this one's not necessarily about rail. In my mind, though, anything that involves getting people out of their cars includes rail almost by default, if only subconsciously. The urban planning mantra these days seems to be "modal choice, modal choice, modal choice," so a discussion limited only to rail would be less relevant to our transportation reality. Speaking of repetitive mantras, our plan for creating less auto-centric streets seems to be pretty formulaic as well - I imagine it goes something like "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets." It's catchy, don't you think? If not original, at least it's rhythmic.
With that in mind, let's talk about the former Bogota mayor's visit to the glorious city of San Francisco. The Columbian politician, Enrique Penalosa, is well known for his improvement of Bogota's streets, particularly in his efforts to improve those streets for pedestrians and cyclists. He banned sidewalk parking, widened streets, restricted automobiles from the streets on certain days, created a network of bike lanes and a rapid bus line. Sound familiar? "Widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets." Simple rules, but easy to follow. Unsurprisingly, Penalosa took a look at the SF streets and pronounced that the same could be done in the Bay.

I'm not really here to talk about San Francisco, because I think Penalosa's right in some ways. I don't think it would take too much effort on the city's part to mimic the success of Bogota, and it's not like any of Penalosa's suggestions are so wild that they could force the city's development backwards in any way. I'm also not here to talk about Penalosa, because hey, the man got the job done, didn't he? What I am here to talk about is how methodologies of incorporating green methods of transportation feel like they have lost their vigor. I feel like I've been waiting a long time for something truly extraordinary to come along, and "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets" just isn't it.
I'm going to be honest - none of that would get ME out of MY car. And it's not that I don't care about the environment or our dependence on foreign oil or anything like that - hey, I work for Go Green. I care. But I also care about having a mode of transportation that is there when I need it and not a moment later. I care about maintaining the freedom of mobility that prompted me to fight for my driver's license the instant I turned 16. If the mayor builds a bike lane, I will salute him for it, and I will dutifully perform the necessary over-the-shoulder check while I converge into it before a right-hand turn - from my car. Although it may be effective to an extent, the thought of bike lanes or wider sidewalks falls short of thrilling me.

I think planners and transportation experts lack imagination. Remember what "Tomorrowland" was based on? Newfangled gadgets and flying cars and the one thing we did get - a highway system built for speed. What happened to our futuristic plans? Where are the planners that are thinking up new things - like that idea for a system of little pods that would take you straight from point A to point B? I always found that concept amusing. After all, it mimics the privacy of the automobile. I also like the concept of shared vehicles, cars that you can borrow for short periods of time. It reduces your need for a personal vehicle. And on a policy level, what if incentives could be given to employers who allow their employees to telecommute during set days during the week? Not practical for all careers, of course, but imagine how many people that would take off the road. Or employers that reduce hours for employees who do work while commuting via bus or rail. I would take BART if it meant that I could get a couple hours taken off from sitting in front of my desk (granted, I would take BART if the workers weren't going on strike, say, or if the cost of a ticket didn't make me wince.)

Yeah, there are flaws in the idealistic plans we may dream up. But where is genius if not in idealism? Have we given up trying?

Is creativity too much to ask? Am I undervaluing the work that has been done by planners today? Or am I right - has creativity and innovation gone out the window in favor of "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets"?

Enlighten me.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Progress or Voter Folly?

Let’s talk about the California high speed rail line - the object of much excitement and anticipation for some, the true essence of headache for others. More specifically, let’s start by addressing connectivity in the great Golden State. California has two particularly important port locations – in the north and in the south – that have divided the state in two main centers of economic activity. As a student at USC that was born and raised in the Bay, I travel between these major Californian centers several times a year. There are three major ways to travel: automobile, air, and rail. It’s a simple thing to get in the car and drive the 5 or 6 hours, minus the ever-skyrocketing price of gas and the ever-present socially inflicted guilt that comes from depending on your automobile. Air is always an easy option, and certainly the quickest way to travel – as soon as you get through the security lines and finish packing your various liquids into a tiny Ziploc bag. Finally, there’s rail. This is – without a doubt – the biggest headache and most terrible mode of transporting yourself up and down the state. I can’t lie, I haven’t gone through it myself, but from the stories I’ve heard, I wouldn’t want to. For a horrific travel example, consider the article from the New York Times entitled “Getting Up To Speed” by Jon Gertner. This poor man paid $55 – less than a plane ticket but slightly more than a tank of gas - for a trip that took him 13 hours and several transfers. Let’s face it – the rail alternatives that currently exist are entirely sub-par.

High speed trains and light rail are without a doubt the trendiest forms of transportation modes, especially in a time of new infrastructure developments that will literally bring life to this country. President Obama, in what I consider to be one of the most exciting prospects this country could possibly have, has indicated not only his appreciation for the high speed bullet trains of Spain - for example - but has also expressed interest in creating a similar network across the United States. I liken this concept to the federal legislation that brought us our highway system, which was as mind-blowing at the time as these prospects are. The mere thought of the scale and magnitude of such a project is incredible – it would no doubt revolutionize the way we travel across the country. Imagine the speed and ease at which we could travel to all the vast corners on the continental United States.

However, the United States is in an extremely unfavorable position to take on a project like this, and the state of California even more so. There’s the issue of funds, of course – we have none. At least, not to the support the magnitude of a project like this. There’s also an issue of technology; while most European and Asian trains are concerned almost solely with reaching the most ambitious levels of speed, American trains are largely concerned with not crashing. Unfortunately for us, our trains are more likely to crash, exhibited by our system and planning failures that are so often a disappointment. There is a reason that, prior to the 2008 election, the high speed line’s funding was cut by about $26 million to an embarrassingly shrunken $1 million. The plan just isn’t fully baked.

Were the voters of California stupid to support this line during a period of crisis like this? Or is this the only time? Are we out of our element here, or do we need to start developing now? Heaven knows we need new alternatives. However, so-called “ballot-box planning” is not always successful; the common citizen doesn’t have the kind of knowledge that a planning specialist would have, and they tend to ignore the weaknesses that such a specialist may point out. My own hometown is having major problems with some ballot-box planning of their own, and the presence of that lawsuit is my constant reminder to be wary of the madding crowd of local voters. I’m torn – I love to see progress, but I’d hate to see hasty decisions made. Are we equipped for the future of transportation in this state, and beyond that, in this nation?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Posts coming soon . . .

Welcome to the future location of my copious thoughts on light rail, the upcoming distribution of federal grant money, and infrastructure design for a new American era. The motto around here will be to keep it green and keep it moving. Stay tuned . . .