Monday, May 27, 2013

One councilman destroys a road diet three years in the making

The events of this post took place last Thursday, at the city council meeting. I didn't write about it that night because I was furious. Four days later, I'm still upset about what went down, and how easily it was to ignore years of public and community work, and a panel of technical experts.

What happened is that Fresno County proposed a road diet on Fruit Ave, between Shaw and Herndon. Like all road diets, this was to take a 4 lane road, and make it three lanes, with two bike lanes. It was pretty much a sure thing, so much so that a month ago, I wrote about it saying we could expect to see the new diet, and new bike lanes, by this fall.

Why did I not think there would be a problem?

For one, as I just stated, this was a county project, not a city one. Fresno has holes within its borders from areas that resisted annexation and are governed by the county. The county paid for the environmental impact and engineering reports, and was to pay the majority of the cost. Road diets are dirt cheap, but this project included a complete repaving, which took the budget over one million. All the city had to chip in was a few bucks, because the border abuts two intersection - but that money wasn't even city money. A few years ago, the residents of Fresno approved a sales tax which is to go towards transportation projects. Along with air mitigation funds, the city of Fresno would not pay a dime, just approve the use of the dedicated money.

Another reason this wouldn't be an issue is due to the massive benefits that a road diet brings. While these projects get labeled as bike projects, that's purely so that the government can raid the tiny bike fund and implement a project that mostly benefits motorists. Yes, cyclists get a new lane, but the real benefits are for motorists that no longer have to worry about being plowed into at 50mph while trying to make a left turn.

I detailed road diets in this post.

So a zero cost project, with massive benefits.

But wait, there's more. In 2010, after months and months of community work, the Bike Master Plan was approved, which included bike lanes on Fruit. And in advance of this specific project, the county did outreach work with the neighborhood, sending out flyers and holding a meeting. 

What happened?

Public support for the bike lanes on Fruit was overwhelming, but one voice prevailed. City Council Member Steve Brandau argued there was not enough bicycle traffic to justify a bike lane on Fruit Avenue between Shaw and Herndon.

Brandau cited his own informal traffic study as evidence.

"I went out and parked under a shade tree, it was on a Saturday, a beautiful day and I counted in one hour 374 cars and zero bikes."
ABC 30

That's right, one council member chose to ignore expert traffic engineers, expert planners, and years of community outreach and work because he sat outside in his car and counted cars. And so he torpedoed a project outside his jurisdiction, one which he apparently did not understand.

Did I mention he failed to attend the outreach meeting the county held? The guy has no clue what a road diet actually is, and probably failed to grasp that because of him, the road will not be repaved.

Let's also forget for a second that sitting in your car for an unspecified amount of time is not a traffic study. Let's imagine for a second, that not one cyclists actually did go by. 374 cars on a 4 lane road? Clearly, the REAL traffic engineers were right when they said a road diet would cause no congestion - that's nothing!

There's also the fact that cyclists don't use the road BECAUSE it lacks bike lanes. Nobody drives on the proposed Veteran's Avenue either, and yet the city will spend tens of millions to build it.

Not all politicians in the area are as clueless. The man who last held the seat had the following to say:

But Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas is challenging Brandau's methods and conclusions.
"I'm not certain exactly what the council member did but normally on these matters I defer to the experts, the traffic experts and based on what I was told traffic congestion would not occur, the narrowing of Fruit would not cause an undue burden on traffic in the area."

"I think of lot of people want to see Fresno more bike friendly, including myself. And I think it's important we do our best to incorporate bike traffic into our normal traffic grid as much as possible. It encourages folks to take up biking. It's good for the health, it's good for the environment, it allows for diversity in transportation."

 When asked for justification on why he killed the project, the council member spun some excuse about fiscal responsibility. However, that excuse is as flimsy as his understanding of traffic engineering.

Fresno County spent more than one hundred thousand dollars on planning and designing the bike lanes, as part of the bicycle master plan the city had already approved.

All the councilman did was throw that money away.

He also set a bad precedent. What kind of government can be run properly if the experts are ignored? How can you govern if the safety and needs of your constituents are thrown out the window? How can a city be run where anecdotal information trumps facts?

If there's anything positive that came from this, is that Steve Brandau made it very, very clear he's not fit to sit on the council, and his incompetency has been revealed to all. A thread on his Facebook page on the matter included many talking about running against the candidate in the next election. That thread has since been deleted.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

LA's newest light rail line ignores the pedestrian

This past week, I was in Los Angeles and rode the Expo Light Rail Line for the first time, from end to end. I've written about the line before, and taken pictures of its construction, but had never been on board since it opened last April. The line runs from downtown LA to Culver City, with an under-construction extension to Santa Monica scheduled to open in 2016.

One thing I'd observed during the construction phase was the seeming lack of attention to how riders actually get to the line. A transit line cannot only focus on the immediate tracks and stations - people need to arrive safely and comfortably. And because we're talking about rail transit within a city, many passengers will arrive on foot or by bike. Ignoring them doesn't just depress ridership, but it can be dangerous too.

Sadly, the final version of the Expo line did not correct the mistakes apparent during construction.

One of the biggest failings of the line is that fact that even at-grade stations were built with only one entrance and exit.

The 23rd street station is particularly bad.

Here I've marked the station in aqua blue (the line color). Note that while it's located between two streets, the only way out is north. If you're heading south, you need to walk two minutes north so you can cross the street and turn-around. Again, because the station is at grade, the costs to build a second exit were minimal.

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Even worse, a southern exit exists - but is emergency only. No legal way out.

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The above map images don't show it, but the line has already spurred development - a major apartment building was under construction next door.

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The next station is the exact opposite - the only real exit is south. If you live or work between the two, you'll always have to backtrack, for no real reason.

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Once again, an exit actually exists - but it's emergency only. Instead of painting a crosswalk, Metro decided it would be no problem to send people on a 5 minute walk, just because. 

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Other stations are in the middle of a major avenue. Passengers are dumped into the middle of an intersection when they leave the train - not even a tiny pedestrian island with a life-saving bollard apparently could fit into the budget. Would you feel comfortable waiting in that crosswalk, which turning vehicles use to cut across?

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When I rode, I did notice some bright orange flex posts had been added - but they provide no actual protection from an out-of-control SUV.

Essentially, the system seems to have been designed for trains, and not the actual riders. That is, the system itself was built to operate trains smoothly, but the actual customers were an after-thought.

The poor headways don't help that impression. 12 minutes during peak hours and an astonishingly poor frequency of twenty minutes as early as 7pm probably scares away many riders.

I did take a walk around the current last station while I was waiting for a friend. Unlike the previously discussed station, Culver City has an elevated station, and there are indeed two exit points, one at each end of the platform.

View from the top. Progress on phase 2 is obvious
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The area under the station was very nice as well - ample seating, good lighting, and nice landscaping. Signage was plentiful, but not always useful. One very nice sign advises you of the last departure, but there were no train schedules to be found.

However, like the ground-level stations, there were plenty of signs that no actual transit rider was ever consulted.

For one, the station is quite high up, and no escalators were built. Elevators exist, but nobody likes riding transit elevators as they tend to smell.

Pardon the poor quality, but you can tell this is quite the climb. Now imagine your train is about to leave, and the next one isn't for twenty minutes...

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At first I was impressed by the way-finding and bike facilities.

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But as mentioned previously, all amenities transit riders need end as soon as you walk away. I followed the bike trail signs to this intersection, which offers absolutely no clue as to where the bike path actually is.

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Walking back towards the station, you can see some of those way-finding signs. Where they exist, they're great.....but aren't they sort of important at the actual intersection?

Also note the narrow sidewalks and complete lack of trees

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The designers of the Expo Line apparently decided that ample free parking was more important than a sidewalk. You can see the sidewalk narrow to provide for an extra parking space.

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The sidewalk narrows yet again as you near the station. And remember, apparently this sidewalk is part of a bike trail, yet it appears to be the federal minimum of 4 feet wide.

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Up ahead you see a large crowd waiting for a bus, with no comfortable place to wait.

Another disturbing aspect was the timing of the traffic signals. With my friend, we crossed Venice Ave. A button was required to get the walk signal, and the the timer began almost immediately. We are both quick walkers, and the timer reached zero as we finished crossing - in clear violation of federal standards which require the timing be set to accommodate seniors and those with disabilities.That's not just bad policy, it's an easy lawsuit the city can find itself on the losing end of.

I enjoyed my ride on Expo, it was quick, and was within a block of both my origin and destination. I just wish the people designing the line, and those approving the designs actually bothered to ride their system for once. Maybe then they'd see the need to look at the larger picture. One can only hope that Phase 2 will be better, but considering light rail has existed in LA for over 20 years, and this is considered acceptable, I don't have much hope.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Who do the city councilors represent?

Last week, the Fresno City Council voted to support a proposal for a new medical college. The problem is, the proposed campus isn't actually in Fresno, or even really near it - it's 20 miles away from downtown, in an area currently used for farming and recreation.

Granville, the housing development company behind the medical college, owns large tracts of land by the lake, and wants to use it to build thousands and thousands of new suburban homes. They plan on using the medical university as an anchor, and what I see as bait to get public opinion to support the plan.

Many in the community have naturally been outraged. The area is home to beautiful natural scenery, and thousands of new cookie-cutter homes will destroy that. Worse, the area will be 100% auto-dependent. There are no services, stores, or jobs there. Meaning every time a home is built, multiple car trips will be added as people drive 10-25 miles to get to jobs in Fresno. Of course, the area already has some of the worst air pollution in the country, and this will just make things much worse.

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Putting the medical campus there is even worse than just adding homes. The idea of mixed use is that one can live near where they work. The problem is, this kind of development won't encourage it. The students who will be attending class aren't about to buy some $400,000 McMansion so they can walk to class. No, they will be living in a $600 a month apartment in Fresno, and be forced to drive 20 miles roundtrip every day just to attend class. Perhaps some of the faculty may move up there, but most will already be established in Fresno. And the minimum wage staff? They'll be coming from furthest away, and they're the ones who will less be able to afford spending $10 a day just in gas to commute.

The Lake
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Transit? Please. Of course there's no transit there, nor is there any plans for it. Bike accessibility? Technically, yes, but the distance is much too far for the casual user - and it's all uphill.

That, by the way, makes the project very exclusionary. Can't drive?  No medical education or potential job for you. Too broke to drive? Sorry, try applying for a job at Mcdonalds. Oh wait, bus service ends at 9:30pm, good luck getting off your late shift....

Instead of saying "this is madness" that Fresno City Council went out of their way to endorse the campus.

That's right, the representatives of the people of Fresno went out of their way to endorse building homes and jobs 10-20 miles outside of Fresno and their districts. 

The Lake
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How does that make sense? They were elected to represent the people of Fresno, but instead, they trip over themselves in a rush to represent a developer that is actively working to move taxpayers and job-generators out of town.
"We don't get to tell them where to locate," Brandau said prior to the council's 6-0 vote in favor of the resolution.
Fresno Bee

Read more here:
So instead of working to have them build in town, you vote to have them build elsewhere? Note that this is the same company that Fresno lavishes with financial incentives, including evicting businesses and knocking over buildings to give the developer a park. How do they thank the city? By building their next big thing elsewhere.

I'm a huge proponent of regional government, and not running things based on arbitrary lines, but the system we have now is one where the city council deal with matters of the city, and the county supervisors deal with matters of the county. This project is a raw deal for the people of Fresno, the ones who these council members are supposed to represent. Some have argued that they should support the college because it will be a regional benefit - but that's not their job.

The Lake
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Take Lee Brand, he represents the district closest to the proposed college (a mere 10 miles away). His district will bare the brunt of negative consequences.

For one, there's one, and only one real road between Fresno and the college (and the proposed homes). It just so happens that this one road is also the main arterial his constituents take when they drive to the shops or their jobs. Anyone who lives in that district knows that Friant and the entrance to 41 backs up every morning, even though they keep widening it. When you filter everyone to one, and only one on-ramp, that's what happens.

And now imagine the project is built. Thousands of new car trips every day down this same Friant Ave, and then onto that same on-ramp. And in the other direction, thousands of new car trips and students, faculty and staff make their way to the school.


All in the backyard of Lee Brand's constituents. But he voted yes.

So why is this thing being built in the middle of nowhere?

According to the company:

The Assemis, whose several downtown projects have made them the city's biggest partner in restoring the area, said they tried for more than a year to find a Fresno location for the school.

Nothing was big enough and assembling adjacent properties would take four to five years, Darius Assemi said Thursday.

Read more here:

But that's a lie.

Here you can see the blue line leaving from downtown towards the proposed campus. It keeps going north.

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The two red x marks are enormous properties this very same company owns, much closer to downtown. Nothing was big enough?

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This enormous site (from California to Whitesbridge, between Hughes and Marks)  is right by a brand new highway, a commuter airport, and minutes from downtown.

It's also just north of the veternas home. Two years ago, I wrote about how these veterans were being sent out to nowhere. The home was finished and opened, and it's still nowhere....but wouldn't a medical campus benefit them? Sort of makes sense to have medical students be near potential patients, don't you think? And the addition of the school would make bus transit feasible - something that won't ever happen at the proposed site by the lake.

It's not downtown, but it sure is better.

The Veteran's home

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Believe it or not, but the same company owns another enormous parcel within the Fresno city limits. Isolated, but a huge improvement over the lake. 

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So what was that about no land being available? They plan on turning this thing into homes around artificial lakes. Yup, in an area where lack of water is always on peoples mind, they want to build fake lakes.

I marked another location on the map, which is Fancher Creek, a planned development that has been in the works for well over a decade, and is still dirt. 

Of course, these sites work to fulfill their dreams of single-story campus sprawl.

What about being efficient and actually building up?

Too expensive?

In the above map, I noted two purple crosses.....existing multi-story hospitals that are essentially abandoned. Sort of makes sense to re-use a hospital as a medical school don't you think?

Old County Hospital
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Problem is, the goal isn't really to build a medical school that is convenient. The goal is to justify thousands of new home in the beautiful open land. People tend to be against that, even here. But once you throw in "medical school" who can say no?

Apparently, not even the city council. They voted yes on a project that will bring in zero taxes, but cost money in the form of road "improvements", congestion and noise. In other words, the council voted to represent the developer, and only the developer. The people who actually get to vote? Who cares, it's not like we have money.

The Lake
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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Amtrak Comet trains now testing in California

Back in September, I posted about Amtrak California buying trains built in 1968 from New Jersey transit to be used in California. The purpose of the move is to bring needed rolling stock to lines that have seen large gains in ridership. Amtrak has an order in for brand new trains, but deliveries take years.

The "new" single -level train-sets will be used exclusively on the San Joaquin line, and two of the existing trains will be broken up and used to add capacity on the Capital Corridor and and Pacific Surfliner. The "new" trains are expected to run on the San Joaquin line early morning and late nights - mid-day trains will continue to see higher-capacity two floor trains.

According to reports, the trains have arrived in California and are being tested. If you ride the San Joaquin or pass by the BNSF tracks, keep an eye out, you might see them. No date has yet been given for when they will enter service.

The trains were fully renovated and are supposed to feature standard Amtrak interiors, but I haven't seen any photos posted yet. However, they are high level trains on a low-level line, so it will be interesting to see if these vehicles cause delays since boarding will take longer. Also, it's unknown how bicycles and wheelchair accessibility will be handled on them.

So far, Amtrak hasn't revealed the long-term plan for the trains, as it's assumed they won't be needed once the new orders begin arriving in two years. Theoretically, they could them be shipped to the proposed "Coast Daylight", a day running version of the "Coast Starlight". That line may be better suited for trains that aren't as quick and easy to board as the San Joaquin, which is a quasi-commuter line.

If you see the train, make sure to take a picture and I'd appreciate it if you shared it.