Pages

Friday, August 19, 2016

Amtrak California gets new funding, trainsets (thanks Wisconsin!)

Early this week, the California State Transportation Agency sprinkled $390 million in grants around the state, courtesy of the successful Cap and Trade program. Streetsblog California highlighted the projects, but I would like to give special attention to the Amtrak funding. 

California has shown the strongest support for intercity rail in the country. Aside from developing High Speed Rail, three of Amtrak's busiest routes exist entirely within California, and are funded by the state. Earlier this year, the San Joaquin saw a new 7th daily train, and now the other lines will get some love.

Particularly poetic is the lease of Talgo train-sets to run between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. What makes these trains special is that they were purchased by Wisconsin for their High Speed Rail Project. That project was cancelled by Scott Walker, but not before the trains were built, and the state was put on the hook for not following through.
Wisconsin taxpayers will end up paying $9.7 million more for two state of the art train sets — for a total of roughly $50 million — but leave the trains with their Spanish manufacturer, under the settlement of a nearly 3-year-old lawsuit.

The bizarre and expensive outcome for Wisconsin — paying for a product but not keeping it or ever using it — reflects the depth of the political disagreement in which Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed, and then GOP presidential candidate and Gov. Scott Walker nixed, a no-bid contract with Talgo Inc. for trains from Madison to Milwaukee and then on to Chicago
Journal Sentinel

Of course back in 2010, Scott Walker placed a return to sender stamp on $810 million which the feds were gifting the state to build rail. California ended collecting a lot of that cash, with the rest going to the Northeast Corridor.

Where's what the Pacific Surfliner corridor will be getting:
 Provides $15 million to the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency over 5 years, coupled with existing resources available through the LOSSAN annual operating budget, to deploy 31 Talgo rail cars on the Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo services. This equipment enables faster acceleration, lower fuel consumption, faster journey times (about 25 minutes faster) and easier customer loading and unloading than the current Amfleet and Horizon fleet that it will replace (single-level, high boarding height equipment). The equipment will lead to at least one additional train consist in addition to the nine consists used today in daily operation, and ensure that all equipment in the corridor has low-level boarding. It also will improve the customer experience with fully automated doors, improved passenger communications, and easier to maneuver configurations, particularly for passengers with disabilities. The additional equipment will also provide equipment deployment flexibility that will allow for increased capacity on crowded Los Angeles-San Diego trains, and more schedule flexibility to enable better peak hour service to LOSSAN North stations, including Santa Barbara.

This new capacity is especially important because there have been severe delays in acquiring brand new trains. A few years ago, the state purchased old New Jersey Transit trains to supplement the fleet. They've been working well. These trains will be even better - they're brand new and designed to be fast. Thanks Scott.

Additional funding will improve service reliability:

Provides $66 million to partner with SANDAG and NCTD to construct double track, new bridges and numerous related infrastructure improvements between Elvira and Morena and over the San Diego River, creating a 15-mile, higher speed double track section between Miramar and Santa Fe Depot. Also invests in removing the one-train-at-a-time bottleneck at Carlsbad Poinsettia station through installing inter-track fencing, a new grade-separated pedestrian undercrossing, new station platforms and other related improvements that significantly improve railroad capacity and customer safety.

Northern California and the Capitol Corridor also gets some love.

Partners with Union Pacific Rail Road (UPRR) to extend two morning and two evening trains to Roseville, allowing travelers three morning trains from Placer County to Sacramento and the Bay Area and three evening trains back to Placer County. Project builds nearly 8 miles of third track and a new Dry Creek bridge near Roseville, improves track and signals in the corridor, and constructs a second platform and station improvements at the Roseville station. Also constructs a layover facility with capacity for three trains to be stored overnight near the Roseville station. Project is implemented in a manner consistent with achieving higher levels of service in the future.

Partners with Caltrans, Amtrak, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission and UPRR in conducting a service optimization plan designed to achieve increased ridership through improved reliability, better schedules and service integration, and more efficient service delivery. Benefits of this effort will be corridor-wide in nature and will aim to improve reliability at all stations. This effort will also improve reliability of the Altamont Corridor Express and Amtrak San Joaquin passenger rail services, and reduce delays to freight trains operated by UPRR and BNSF Railway, upon implementation.

Unfortunately, the San Joaquin line gets no dedicated grant, although both projects have some benefits. The Talgos allow more statewide flexibility with rail-cars (which are shared among the three lines), and the schedule integration should provide improved trips for all users. 

You can get the full information here:  
http://calsta.ca.gov/Newsroom/CalSTA-News/CalSTA-News-Items/2016-08-16-Agency-Awards-390Mil-in-Cap-and-Trade-Grants.aspx 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Google Maps Launches Areas of Interest - How Accurate is it in Fresno?

A week or so ago, Google refreshed their maps service. Most of the changes were minor - new road outlines, a different typography, and a few other minor tweaks designed to make the maps easier to understand. However, as part of that update, they introduced what could be a major new feature: areas of interest.
These areas of interest are determined algorithmically, using an automated process to pick out areas with the most stores, restaurants, or bars, but Google says it's also using a "human touch" in high-density areas — like New York City — to point people to the coolest locations.
The Verge
How great are these results? Well, it depends.

Let's start with a small town: Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. With only 7,855 people, it is the smallest capital in the country. At a glance, the areas of interest seem to work quite well. The new shading does draw you in quickly.




Zooming in, we see that the highlighted area is indeed full of activity.



If it's your first time in town, the new feature certainly did its job.

How does it work in a dense urban area, like San Francisco?

Again, pretty damn well. The orange areas pop out, and are also accompanied with their neighborhood names. Union Square, the Castro, the Pier 39 Area. Yup, it seems to be working. Those are the areas full of shops, cafes, and things to do.



But Fresno is a little different. It isn't a small town with a well defined commercial main street. And unlike San Francisco, it is lacking in distinct neighborhood clusters (aside from the Tower District).

So how does the feature work in a suburban context

Let's start with the southern half of Fresno. Here a couple of distinct neighborhoods do pop out quickly: the downtown Fulton Mall area, Chinatown (not labeled) and the Tower District. Small, but visible.



However, the other points of interest are more well known for their strip mall anchor. Over by Brawley and Shaw (top left) our attention is drawn to a couple of retail centers anchored by Target, Walmart, Dick's Sporting Goods, Ross, and a movie theater. Certainly a retail destination, but not quite an area worth a stroll. A little to the east, upscale Fig Garden is correct highlighted, as are Manchester Center, Fashion Fair, and Sierra Vista Mall.

However, even though Blackstone is pretty much commercial from end to end, most if it is dark - including the new Walmart at Ashlan.

East Shaw is similar. In this image, Shaw is lined with commercial on both sides. And yet only Sierra Vista and the Walmart Center made the cut. Movie theater, pet store, bowling alley, Olive Garden and Applebees - sorry guys.  You have to zoom in to even see most of the activity here.



And while the algorithm does seem to favor anchors like Target in suburban areas, some businesses are apparently more noteworthy than others. The River Park Costco is always packed from open to close, but apparently it doesn't make the cut, nor does the Home Depot. But Best Buy and office Depot do.


And for some reason, "buybuy BABY" is more interesting than Babies'R'Us. Check out how the area of interest cuts off!



That's not to say that Google is fully biased to mega retailers. Neither the Walmart on Herndon west of River Park nor the Kings Canyon one made the cut, and two Targets are also left out (Barstow and Shields)

Of course these arbitrary decisions make the product less useful. Without a clear explanation for what the criteria is, there is too much room for error and abuse. Google could easily use this as a revenue opportunity - pay us, and every Babies'R'Us will automatically be marked as an area of interest for example, and their competitors de-listed. While Google is well in their rights to do so, not disclosing that kind of arrangement could seriously hurt the value of the software for the user.

Additionally, when Citylab explored the new feature, they found that it might be unfortunately tilted towards wealthier areas.

“non-interest” neighborhoods and corridors seem to have in common is that they are poorer than the cities that surround them. In two of them, English isn’t always the language you’re most likely to hear on the street (Westlake is heavily Spanish-speaking, while in Dorchester you’ll hear Spanish, Vietnamese, and Jamaican and Haitian creoles, among other languages). Large swathes of Northeast D.C. have some of the lowest broadband adoption rates in the District. Businesses without an online presence appear to have a distinct disadvantage

I didn't notice this problem too much in Fresno. While lower Blackstone is notably dark, so are many upscale businesses in northern Fresno, such as Sprouts, Trader Joes, and the fancy shopping center at Friant and Fort Washington. Meanwhile, Chinatown popped up, which surprised me.

Overall, I think the feature is a good idea, but for most of Fresno, it is useless. If it's your first day in town, the feature might point you to a genuinely interesting neighborhood - the Tower - or Manchester Center, which might not quite meet your standards for "interesting."

I wouldn't be surprised if other cities with similar development patterns have the same problem.

On the other hand, the new distinction can make more sense when looked at on the more local context. That is, biking distance versus driving distance. In that case, the Walmart/Panda Express/Applebees complex may indeed may be the most interesting destination in your side of town. Of course, that's a Fresno problem, not a Google one. 


"Downtown" West Shaw Avenue


Thursday, July 21, 2016

A quick primer on "smart dock" vs "smart lock" bike share systems

Bike share finally came to Portland, Oregon this week, and the system has already proven to be popular. At this point, bike share in the US is no longer a novelty, as successful systems are integrated into the day-to-day life of dozens of major cities.

However, not all bike share is created the same, and Portland's new system has the distinction of being the largest "smart-bike" system in the country. This is in contrast to most large systems which rely on "smart docks" instead.

The primary difference is the location of the electronics. In a smart dock system, everything is handled by the dock and an attached kiosk. On a smart bike system, the bicycle itself carries all the technology. That means you can lock your bicycle to anything. You use a pin code to remove the built in lock and when you're done, you reattach the lock to the bicycle (and another fixed object of course). Built in GPS ensures the company knows where the bike is.

So why pick one system over another? If most cities have used smart docks, why did Portland go with smart bikes?

The biggest factor involves cost and ease of deployment. A smart bike system actually requires zero infrastructure. You can release the bicycles and let users dock wherever they want - existing racks, fences etc. Docking areas can be created virtually, and displayed with signs or stickers.

Bikeportland.com shows us a standard bicycle rack that allows bike share users to park for free

A smart dock system can't launch until the docking stations are all in place. You trips are limited to starting and ending at a sanctioned dock. And these docks are expensive, heavy, and proprietary. When Boston launched their system, they installed 5 stations a day, the best that could be done with the need to use trucks and a specialized crew. While the stations are solar powered, and thus don't require utility connections, they still require proper installation. That's a lot of time and money.

Streetsblog.org showing the installation of CitiBike, a smart dock system



Monday, July 11, 2016

If you like Pokemon, you have a new reason to hate the suburbs

By now, you have most likely heard of Pokemon Go, a simple free-to-play phone game that has seemingly taken the country by storm. If you're not playing it, you've certainly seen it mentioned on your social media feeds. If not there, then you've undoubtedly dodged people playing it while walking down the sidewalk. If that still doesn't ring any bells, then perhaps the following articles do:

Recode: What is Pokémon Go and why is everybody talking about it?
Phily.com: Squirtle? Pikachu? Where are youse? Find 'em with new Pokemon GO app
NPR: Gotta Catch 'Em All, Or At Least A Few: A Pokemon Neophyte Tries 'Pokemon GO'
KTVQ: Wyoming teen playing new Pokemon game on phone discovers body
Gamespot: Washington's Department of Transportation: don't play while driving.
NBC LA: Players in Hunt for 'Pokemon Go' Monsters Feel Real-World Pain

Based off the popular game series (that turns 20 this year!) the game is all about interacting with the real world. The company which coded the game was spun off from Google, and so the game world is based off Google Maps. That means roads, buildings, parks etc. are all where you would expect them to be.

There are two core aspects of the game that rely on real world locations. Pokestops, where you can collect free items, and Pokemon Gyms, where you battle. These locations tend to be at local points of interest. Libraries, churches, fountains, random murals, historical placards etc. And of course, you encounter Pokemon on your walks to these locations.

You don't get to these locations virtually - the game requires you to physically arrive close to that location, preferably by walking. As such, the game experience is entirely different between those who live in dense, urban areas with tight street networks and scores of points of interest, and those who don't.

New York City
A suburb in Tennessee
An exurb
A rural area

You don't need a Manhattan-style grid to enjoy Pokemon, but you do need density if you want to have any fun.

Sydney, Australia
Laguna Beach, California

Sure, you can drive to a Pokestop, but the game encourages physically walking via the eggs, which require distance logged to hatch. Oh, and apparently that distance counter stops if you go above 10mph, so don't even bother cheating.

Additionally, in a dense area, a 15 minute walk can have you pass by 10 different stops, 3 gyms, and 7 Pokemon encounters. In a suburb, your drive might yield one. Not so fun. 

Pokemon Go is motivating millions of people to lace up their shoes and hit the streets in pursuit of Pokemon, Stops, and Gyms. I wonder how many people will be motivated into thinking about living somewhere a little more dense?

I'm not being entirely facetious here. We know media and exposure has a huge effect on people's preferences, and that includes games. Most urban planners I know played Sim City growing up. I would wager that every current NFL player spent years playing Madden and imagining themselves in the game. 

Knowing that you're missing out on a phenomenon because of enormous spatial distance between your residential area and points of interest might have an effect. No, no one is going to pack their bags and relocate because of a cellphone game fad, but I do wonder about the long-term effects.

Maybe there's a 16 year old out there who will be more inclined to pick an urban college to enroll in next year, thanks to their disappointment in their suburban location. Maybe there's a 22 year old who will take a job in an urban core in in five months because she feels she's been missing out. Will either cite Pokemon in their decision? No, but like all media influences, it might be there in the back of the mind, a seed which has been slowly growing: If you're missing out on Pokemon, what else have you been missing?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Help Bring National Attention to Central California Transportation Issues

If you're reading this blog, you know that Central California is not all sunshine when it comes to planning, development, and transportation. You also probably have a strong desire to see improvement.

For example, Fresno's half-cent transportation tax has been devoted almost entirely to highway expansions and roadway widening. Road diet projects have been halted due to right-wing elected officials. Fresno's pedestrian mall is being ripped up, and the BRT project is no longer BRT. Sprawl, of course, continued unabated. This pattern is true across the valley. Sure, there are bright spots and individual wins, but since I started this blog over five years ago I've seen much more bad than good.

One way to combat these problems is being active politically. Calling council members, attending meetings, and getting involved.

Unfortunately, sometimes these efforts are fruitless. When a developer holding bags of campaign donations is on one side of the issue, and hundreds of concerned locals are on the other, the bags of money tend to win out. That's how you get statements like this, which fly in the face of reality:

“This doesn’t perpetuate the legacy of sprawl,” he said. “Gunner Ranch is contiguous; it’s a logical expansion for urban development.”

So what's the solution, if you care about smart planning, good transportation, and sustainable development?

Media attention.

A group of 100 advocates can easily be ignored when the electorate is made up of 100,000 people who are unfamiliar with the issues of transportation and development. But when headlines are generated, the elected official no longer has to worry about the 100 advocates, but how the headline reads to the general public.

That's why I am encouraging you to visit Streetsblog California and consider supporting their work.

My blog has a nice core of engaged readers who are interested in planning, development and transportation in the Fresno area. However, I'll be the first to admit that the subject matter of my blog is incredibly niche. And that's before even accounting for Fresno's dwindling blog scene, which includes mainstream subjects such as music events and food.

That's where Streetsblog California comes in. They take important issues brought up by dozens of blogs such as this one and shine a national light on them. The fact is, politicians - especially those with larger aspirations - care about how the media portrays them. Taking a local story that is noticed by 100 Fresno activists and elevating it to a national level does have an impact.Thanks to Streetsblog, posts about Fresno have made the rounds from a small planning circle all the way to the BBC.

Check out their post which summarizes some of the great stories they've done in the past two years, and consider providing them some support.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A quick look at the reconstruction of the Tuolumne bridge for HSR

One of the most obvious signs of High Speed's Rail's (HSR) coming arrival to downtown Fresno has been the demolition - and now reconstruction - of the Tuolumne street bridge. The bridge was two lanes wide and carried traffic eastbound over the Union Pacific right of way. It was paired with the Stanislaus Street bridge which carries two lanes westbound.  

Both bridges will be demolished and replaced by a single bridge carrying traffic in both directions. The bridge will feature wider sidewalks as well. The reason is that aside from being 50 years old (or more?), the current structure of the bridge does not allow enough room for the new High Speed Rail tracks to fit. Once the new bridge is in place, and the Stanislaus Street bridge has been demolished, more serious work can be done downtown to create the new tracks and station.

Meanwhile, other construction is underway just north of downtown, as they have begun to build a trench. However, I was unable to get any good pictures. The construction area is surrounded by private property or the highway. 

Let's take a look at the work on the bridge. I will begin with pictures I took back in January to see what it looked like a few days before closing forever. Below them are the pictures I took two weeks ago showing the current progress.

Here is the bridge back in January, taken from the sister bridge.


Frankly I don't understand  why so much space has been wasted for 100 years.


 The bridge itself


 Not the best of sidewalk conditions.


I'm sure the structure itself was on its way out.


 Coming back you see the official sidewalk path - not ADA


The old pedestrian path also didn't inspire much confidence in safety.  


 Frankly, I wouldn't have felt comfortable parking here.




Thursday, June 9, 2016

7th daily San Joaquin train launches on June 20 - a look at the new schedule!

Amtrak's new 7th daily San Joaquin train will launch on June 20!

A few months ago, I reported that final touches were being put on a new 7th daily train between Bakersfield and the Bay Area. Although they missed the predicted launch date of June 6, you can now purchase tickets reflecting the new schedule that kicks off on the 20th.

That's how I was able to see what the new times look like, because the full version has not been posted on Amtrak's page, Let's take a look!

We start by looking at northbound trips from Bakersfield to Oakland. The blue trains in the image go to Sacramento. That means that in Stockton you transfer to an Amtrak bus if you want to reach Oakland or San Francisco. The red "train" in this image is actually a bus. It is intended for folks coming from Southern California, and terminates in Fresno. It requires purchase of a connecting rail ticket, due to lobbying by Greyhound.



The big changes were in the morning. The first train of the day starts 20 minutes earlier. Rather than a single  7:15am train, there are now trains at 6am (to Sacramento) and 8am (to Oakland). The 10:05am train was pushed back 20 minutes. The afternoon trains saw no change, with the last train leaving 5 minutes later. The new 8am train is attractive if you want to avoid the bus connection to Oakland (although the bus connection is faster!)

This is a little unexpected. While the morning schedule makes a lot of sense, it is baffling that they want to keep the last train from Bakersfield before 6:30pm.

It seems that the priority was to lessen the gaps between trains, rather than to expand the scope of service.

Previously, there was an average wait of 2 hours and 46 minutes between trains - now it will be 2:35. The largest gap used to be 3:20, and now it is 3:00. The smallest gap used to be 2:20, and now it is 1:35.



Why such early departures? While 4:25am may seem a tad too early, it takes 2 hours to get to Fresno, so a first departure at 6:18am from Fresno makes sense for those heading north. Additionally, total trip times are over 6 hours, so the new schedule gets you into Oakland at 10:26am - a perfectly adequate time. One of the challenges for planning this kind of schedule is that you're also taking into account folks coming from LA or even San Diego as well. Previously, the "late" bus left LA at 1:35am, now it will leave at 1:15am. That's actually a littler better for those using public transit to attend an entertainment event in LA, one which most likely ends around midnight.

Personally, I would have seen a greater benefit to a uniform 3 hour gap between trains, extending the service day. For example, I would see a lot of value in a schedule like this:

4am - 7am - 10am - 1pm - 4pm - 7pm - 10pm

However, I have to trust that the folks planning this have some decent ridership data, including ticket sales and surveys, to back up their choices.

Additionally, it is important to note that Amtrak California does not control the tracks. They used tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific. That means they get to decide when they want to let Amtrak run through. When the new train was announced, it was to depart at 4am. It is possible that the freight companies pushed it to 4:25. It is also possible that other concerns, such as labor or noise ordinances affect times trains are allowed.

One of the advantages of the new High Speed Rail system is that the tracks will be 100% owned by the state.

The southbound changes are odder still.




(Recall that the red train in the northbound schedule terminates in Fresno. There is an early morning southbound bus from Fresno to LA (6:00am) which will not change.)

The first and last trains of the day did not change, keeping the span of service exactly the same as it is now. This means the last southbound train leaves at 5:55pm, which frankly is pretty damn early. (Note that again blue signifies a Sacramento train, meaning from Oakland you are put on a bus to Stockton).

The second and 3rd trains saw only minor adjustments, which could have easily been due to other factors.

It is the middle of the day that sees more service. Rather than a single train at 1:15pm, there are now departures at 12:35pm and 2:30pm.

Here are how the gaps between trains changed from Oakland


The 2:30pm train is really weird, because an Amtrak bus departs just 25 minutes later. Even stranger is that the bus requires a 35 minute transfer at Stockton. Padding is expected because while the buses will wait for the train, the train will not wait for the bus which might get stuck in traffic. However, unless you just missed the train, I can't see a scenario where taking that bus would make any sense.

However, when looking at train arrival times in Bakersfield, the gaps make more sense. This is due to differences in trip times and the bus transfers.



Again, I can only hope they have ticket data that backs this up, because in my mind, an even 3 hour wait seems like it would be best for the average traveler.

5am - 8am - 11am - 2pm - 5pm - 8pm -11pm

It is important to note that planning has already begun on an 8th train, one that would operate from Bakersfield to Sacramento, and presumably with bus connections from Stockton to the Bay Area. It is unclear if that new service can run in the near term, or if Amtrak has to wait for their new trains to start arriving in 2018. 

Additionally, there has been talk for over a decade in adding a second track in Fresno, so trains could spend the night. That would allow the Amtrak bus that terminates in Fresno to be replaced by a train, providing a later northbound option from Bakersfield and an earlier southbound option from Fresno.

Let's hope that happens soon.

Finally, here's the same data presented in a different form, with trip times included. 

Northbound 






Southbound






I will follow up in a few months to see if ridership ticks up with the new service.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

This is what the destruction of Fresno's Fulton Mall looks like

Fresno's pedestrian mall, one of the first in the country, is no more. A multi-year campaign by the city to remove the pedestrian and bicycle mall it and replace it with a street for cars has been successful, as (de)construction is well underway.

I took a walk down the entire length last week and took too many pictures. This post, from August, has some reference pictures as to what it looked like a year ago. Be warned, this post is long.

The north part has totally been removed. The center part looks disconcerting, with plenty of mall left but lots of destruction. The southern end has already progressed to the point that concrete is being laid for the parking areas.

The speed of this project has surprised me. Kicking off was a year delayed (original completion date was next month) but they've since moved quickly after a March groundbreaking. That's certainly good for the businesses which are in a bad shape right now. However, I was surprised to see how superficial the construction was. It appears that they scraped off the mall and are laying the new road straight on the dirt. That is, I didn't see any digging. I assume the area has very old sewer and electrical systems, and now would have been the very best time to replace those. Maybe lay some fiber cable as well? Seems short-sighted to ignore that. If the area "booms" as the project component claims, will the existing underground infrastructure support them?

Section 1: Tuolumne to Fresno


We start at Fulton and Tuolumne, which is the north end of the mall. For reference, all pictures taken lastThursday starting at around 4pm.

No work at the intersection yet, which is slated to get major pedestrian improvements.


The orphan street, which hasn't led anywhere in 40 years, is being used for staging. 


 And so we begin. A pedestrian promenade reduced to around 8 feet of walking space.


The walkway to CVS.


The former mall


Narrow walkway between construction and a parking lot.

 This would make a good Halloween maze.


Maybe a maze with a maximum security prison theme.


 Looking backwards


One of the side streets, which were also all pedestrianized. 






Ah! Suddenly the claustrophobia ebbs and fences make way for trees, a playground, and open pedestrian space. For now.


I guess it was nice of them to leave the playground a little longer. Remember, the city claimed that this project would not impact park space at all.  (Fresno is 97th in park space, out of 100).


But not all is well.


Another oasis remains, for now.

 Looking back.



Warning: Massive amount of pictures after the jump.