Thoughts of a progressive urbanist

The author on a Citibike.

The author enjoying a docked Citibike.

When Citibike debuted in NYC in May of this year I happened to be visiting while on tour with a choir I sing in. As a pro-bicycle, three-year car-free San Franciscan I was giddy about the Citibike launch, I even posed for a photo on one out of sheer exuberance on the day before they were made available.

The Citibike launch is now history and the prediction of the streets of NYC running with the blood of neophyte bikers turned out to be overblown but one impression from that weekend has stayed with me: two of my friends there, both life-long New Yorkers, one progressive, one conservative, agreed: they hated Citibike.

The conservative friend parroted the Murdoch papers’ complaints: it will be a bloodbath, old ladies will be knocked over willy-nilly, cyclists are lawless, non-taxpaying “hipsters” and clueless liberals heedless to the safety of themselves and others. The progressive friend, equally scornful, rattled off the progressive objections; Citibank is the Great Satan; why are we plastering our city with ads to these robber barons? Why is this program confined to wealthy white neighborhoods?

These positions illustrate the extreme political poles of the urbanism debate Jason Henderson so brilliantly frames in his great book, Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. The middle position or “third way “ not depicted in my representation of the Citibike debate is the neo-liberal position (pro-Citibike), with which I think most self-described urbanists would identify. David Edmondson [ed. – founder of this blog] is an example.

It’s doubtful conservatives in the US can be won over to some of the core tenants of urbanism. Automobility is a defining characteristic of American conservatism. Fears of Agenda 21 and “one world government,” hostility towards the nanny state, and climate change skepticism make urbanism anathema to even mainstream conservatives.

Progressives however, can and should be persuaded to support urbanism’s goals. While progressives and urbanists often clash, recently and most visibly in the Bay Area over the question of gentrification (the Google Bus phenomenon) and labor issues (the BART strike), I believe these two groups have much more in common than they have in conflict.

Progressives and urbanists are united over the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. In general, progressives and urbanists can agree on the need for revitalized cities as a solution, but they often part company with how to get there.

Neo-liberal urbanists offer market solutions to these problems, and view “livability” as an urban quality best viewed as a commodity. Progressives stress state solutions and social justice as integral to the project of urbanism.

Many progressives perceive “livability” as synonymous with gentrification. These progressives see parklets, bike lanes, bike share and events like Sunday Streets in San Francisco as part of an insidious march towards a city of privilege, for the rich only. I have even encountered progressives who defend access to cheap parking and automobility for the poor and working classes as a social justice issue.

My experience with these issues comes from my perspective as a resident of San Francisco. As a progressive sympathetic to urbanist goals, my desire is to appeal to both sides in this debate and harness the energy of both groups to drive a move towards dense, low-carbon, livable cities. If I could talk to both sides in this debate in this moment I would say this:

To urbanists

Stop focusing your support on high-end development and be more sensitive to the problems caused by gentrification. Gentrification reduces economic and class diversity and decreases a city’s cultural capital by displacing the creative class that makes the city attractive to begin with.

As well, it displaces the poor and working class folks who are the perfect constituency for public transit. These people end up moving to the outer urban core and contribute to increased automobility as a result. Likewise, high-income folks are generally wedded to automobility, their injection into the urban fabric in parking intensive developments increases automobility in the city.

The optics of luxury developments, like San Francisco’s 8 Washington, further drive a wedge between progressives and urbanists.

Urbanists are part of a professional class (architects, planners) who are by their nature and training data-driven thinkers. This fact blinds urbanists to the importance and validity of emotional responses to the use of urban space. Nothing could be more emotional in some ways than an individual’s identification with the place they live.

Urbanists should be wary of their own predilection to dismiss and belittle emotional reactions to development and gentrification particularly when they enter the political realm (as through Proposition B, which would approve 8 Washington) to further their goals.

To progressives

Livability is not gentrification, and anti-growth is not anti-gentrification.

Improvements to livability in the public space benefit all classes. Stop singling out parklets and bike lanes as evil, and learn to support increased density near transit. Dense development will increase housing stock and drive down displacement, reducing dependence on automobility among the poor and working class by providing a more robust (and yes, partially higher-end) constituency for public transit.

Acknowledge that dense development is inevitable, and that some of it will be luxury. As Edmondson has written before, luxury developments can and do take pressure off the housing market by shifting demand from existing “low-end” housing stock, thereby easing the market and slowing displacement.

Opposition to automobility should be a progressive social justice issue. The primacy of cars in the city places undue strain on poor and working class folks. It clogs our streets and slows public transit. A bifurcated, inequitable system, where the poor depend on transit slowed and made unreliable by the rich driving around them, is the result. The costs of car ownership – insurance, maintenance, and parking fines – are all borne disproportionately by working folks. Freeing them from automobility will engender increased social mobility.

Poor and working class neighborhoods near freeways and high-traffic city streets disproportionately suffer the worst health effects of automobility’s pollution. High rates of cancer and respiratory problems are the result. Globally, the effects of climate change brought about largely by car- and carbon-intensive cities will hit the world’s poor hardest.

Mostly, let’s all break free of the zero-sum tenor of internet discourse. Stop yelling past one another and listen. If we agree to do that, progressives and urbanists working together can achieve the common goal of sustainable cities. The time to make history is now. Let’s be the change we want to see.

Cross-posted with Vibrant Bay Area.

More frequency or bigger buses for long-haul commuters?

Route 72X and other commuter buses are packed, and their ridership is rising. With tolls set to rise on the Golden Gate Bridge, the problem could get even worse. While a good thing, Golden Gate Transit (GGT) needs to figure out how to deal with the rising tide.

GGT has two ways to accommodate excess ridership: increase the bus frequency or increase the bus size.

Increase frequency

A new Golden Gate Transit MCI D4500CT commuter...

A new GGT MCI D4500CT commuter bus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Frequency is freedom. Rather than spacing buses to come every 30 minutes, GGT might space them every 15, or 7, or 3. This reduces the penalty for missing your bus, as there will be another one coming soon.

The upside is that this can induce demand, especially if development and transportation policies at either end of the line encourage transit use. More trips are viable by this bus, as riders have more flexibility to schedule their trips. Casual riders, if the bus comes frequently enough, won’t need to check a schedule at all. For a commuter line, the rider just needs to know that buses leave between, say, 5am and 9:30am. Any more detail is unnecessary.

The downside is that frequency, especially on commuter lines, is expensive. GGT pays its drivers full-time, and a number of the buses deadhead (run Not In Service) up to Santa Rosa or San Rafael after their commute runs. Improved frequency will mean more drivers and likely more deadheading.

This added burden may be beyond GGT’s capability to deliver. Increasing frequency on round-trip Basic services, such as the 101, or turning deadhead runs into northbound commuter service would allow fares to recoup the costs.

Bigger buses

Interior of the Astromega. Image from Van Hool.

Interior of the Astromega. Image from Van Hool.

While it doesn’t induce demand in the same way a more-frequent route may, a larger bus will accommodate the extra ridership without adding significantly to operating costs. Other bus systems use extra-long buses to meet demand, but these would be difficult to navigate around downtown San Francisco and tend to be too utilitarian for commuters’ taste.

A better method would be to use double-decker buses similar to those used by Megabus and Google (like the Van Hool TDX27 Astromega). They have rear storage capacity for 8 bicycles (Google runs with rack space for another 4 on the rear), enough seating for 91 passengers, and aren’t significantly taller or longer than the MCI buses currently in use by GGT. And, unlike the MCI buses, these have rear doors.

Currently, all GGT buses offload and load at the front door, reducing the rear doors to vestigial afterthoughts. The delay of boarding passengers waiting others getting off adds to operating expenses and trip time. With larger buses, this effect is exaggerated. If GGT got its act together and allowed passengers to get off the bus at the rear doors, a rear door on large-capacity GGT commuter buses would save the agency quite a bit on already expensive routes. Allowing commuters to board at the rear would save even more time and money.

Double-deckers wouldn’t be unprecedented in the Bay Area. The Google Shuttle is a great success. They navigate San Francisco’s streets with relative ease and provide a comfortable way for their workers to get to Silicon Valley.

Whether with bigger buses, or with greater frequency, GGT will need to address its crowding. At least internally, it start to consider the costs and trade-offs to each approach.

Two-way tolling on the Golden Gate could ease traffic in Marin

Rising from the pages of Marin’s Greenbrae Corridor studies is an accusatory finger, pointing east. It is not Marin traffic causing the massive backups on Highway 101 in the evening, nor is it really our antiquated freeway design. No, it’s East Bay-San Francisco commuters cutting through our fair county. Fix that, perhaps, and we fix our corridor.

There are two reasons for these commuters to cut through Marin: it’s faster than 880, and it’s free. We can’t really help 880’s congestion, but perhaps we can address the whole “free” part. If people want to cut through our county, maybe we can at least make them pay for the privilege.

We can do this by charging the Bridge toll in both directions. To keep things even, charge half the current toll both ways, so $2.50 heading south and $2.50 heading north. Now that the Bridge District has gone all-electronic, the impact on traffic would be nominal, and the cost of implementation would certainly be less than a new 101-580 interchange.

This, at least, is the base package. Perhaps bridge tolls could go up (slightly) thanks to the heavier northbound traffic, perhaps $2 south and $3 north, to reduce cut-through traffic a little more. Just a few percentage points off could do wonders.

But there are a few extras that could make the system work a little better.

The first: do the same thing for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. While it would cost a bit to switch its toll collection to all-electronic tolling, that would save MTC money in the long run, just as it has for the Golden Gate Bridge District.

The second: charge variable toll rates based on traffic congestion, a structure typically called congestion pricing. Perhaps free-flow pricing would be a better term, because what it really does is ease traffic congestion. It gives people a disincentive to drive during the peak time, when the tolls are high and road space is at a premium, and (in Marin’s case) a disincentive to cut through the county. A quick primer is embedded below. Streetfilms has a quick primer here.

Whatever you call it, with two-way tolling the tolls would rise and fall based on morning and evening traffic conditions, rather than just for morning conditions as the current system would allow today. If tolls rise to, say, $6 round trip, they could also be adjusted asymmetrically: $2 in the morning and $4 in the evening. To sweeten the deal, any new funding might go to congestion mitigation, like that 101-580 interchange, better bus service, etc.

While a 101-580 interchange is necessary if Larkspur Landing is ever to become a walkable neighorhood, for the time being we should regulate our traffic congestion using prices, either fixed or variable based on traffic. In doing so, we would give everyone on the road a smoother trip.

Market-rate housing is just as important as subsidized housing

Controversy swirls around the Wincup apartment development in Corte Madera, and the IJ has published a piece detailing every complaint, from the size to the traffic to the fact that it won’t be “affordable” housing.

While there are problems with the piece (they couldn’t find one person who liked it? Or someone who was interested in renting there?), the myth that market rate housing does not help the cause of affordable housing, brought up by a neighbor, is one that we’ve addressed here and bears repeating.

The housing market in the Bay Area is fundamentally constrained, especially at the top. There simply is not enough supply to go around, and so prices are artificially high. A house that might go for $250,000 elsewhere goes for $850,000, and an apartment that might go for $700 a month elsewhere goes for $1,500 here.

Since there’s not enough super-luxury housing for the wealthy, they look for regular luxury housing, displacing the modestly wealthy. Modestly wealthy folk, whose luxury housing is now out of their price range, look for middle-quality housing, displacing the upper-middle class, who look for lower range housing, and so on down the line until the poorest get knocked off entirely.

Traditional affordable housing tries to build housing that’s been set aside for those poorest folk, but that’s only a stop-gap. Without a functional housing market, they’ll never get enough government largesse and charity. The construction of market-rate housing, shifts some wealthier folk back up the ladder, giving space for the poor and lowering prices across the board.

Now, a single project in Corte Madera won’t do this for the whole Bay Area, but it’s counterproductive to denigrate a project for not being “affordable.” We need a stratified, healthy housing market to solve our region’s affordability problem. Market-rate housing, from ultra-luxury on the Embarcadero to just somewhat lux in Marin, is the only way to do that.

The form of Wincup may be off. It may be monstrous, even. But don’t knock it for its prices.

SMART will be a net negative on greenhouse gas emissions

The SMART train, now under construction, was marketed to voters as a climate change solution, and a rough analysis of the initial operating segment seems to substantiate that claim. Unfortunately, the advantage evaporates with the inefficient second operating segment to Cloverdale.

Critics have decried everything about SMART, but one of the most pernicious ones that has remained unexamined was the critique of SMART’s fuel efficiency. At only 1.1 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, the cars seem like the height of inefficiency. How could SMART claim its operations would reduce transportation greenhouse gases when it’s so clear it won’t?

SMART’s initial operating segment, from San Rafael to Santa Rosa, will serve 28.5 million weekday passenger miles every year and travel about 332,000 miles doing it.* At 1.1 gallons of diesel per mile, that means it will get about 42.8 passenger miles per gallon (pmpg). Since diesel emits more CO2 per gallon than gasoline, we’ll need to revise it down to the equivalent of 37.4 passenger miles per gallon (pmpg-e), roughly the same as a hybrid. Not bad.

According to MTC, cars’ fuel efficiency will get up to 32.2 mpg over the next 20 years. But this is the sticker value. Realistically, cars get about 13 percent less mileage than that (according to Consumer Reports), and in stop-and-go traffic it can be cut down another 40%. With 1.2 passengers per mile, that adds out to 26.9 pmpg during commute hours.

In other words, SMART will very likely emit fewer greenhouse gases than the cars its trips will replace, at least for the initial operating segment (IOS). The full line, however, won’t be quite so great.

The IOS is actually the most efficient part of the SMART line, at least according to official ridership figures. Adding extensions to Cloverdale and Larkspur will lower the train’s efficiency by quite a bit, to 26.3 pmpg-e. This is only as good as a car. We can cross off the full system for greenhouse gas emission reductions, at least if CAFE standards have anything to say about it.

Had SMART not been so financially constrained, it might have pursued electrification from the beginning, a $70 million investment that would have provided cleaner (and faster) service to the corridor.

This is not an indictment of the SMART system. It does not measure how the system will encourage people to swap car trips for walking trips, which happens when people use transit. It also does not take into account the annual mobility benefits for users, which will likely be worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Indeed, individual transit lines are not meant to be climate change solutions on their own. They are like fax machines, enhanced by and enhancing other lines nearby. The accrued benefit of the network, as a whole, is enough to change how people live and travel. And that is what the SMART effort is about: not a final solution to our carbon footprint, but another link in the chain.

*People have complained that the Dowling ridership estimate was overoptimistic, and was not “accepted” by the SMART Board. Given that the latest numbers are used in financial planning and therefore underpin much of the financial structure of the system, I’m more confident in them than speculation from critics. However, if you wish to reduce ridership by some percentage, the precise weekday passenger miles estimate is 28,457,926 per year, assuming 265 working days.

Recent CEQA streamlining means stronger environmental protections

Reforms of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) recently enacted will make it easier to build bike infrastructure and design our roads for people instead of cars. While touted as a “streamlining” of the law, it actually refocuses CEQA back to its original purpose: to protect California’s environment.

Level of Service

Before: CEQA requires cities to measure how a development will alter roadways’ Level of Service, an official measure of how many vehicles can be accommodated.

Why this was a problem: Level of Service doesn’t care how many people a vehicle carries, nor does it measure pedestrian or bicycle traffic also using the road. A car carrying 1 person is equal to a bus carrying 45 in the measure’s eyes. A wider sidewalk or the presence of a bike lane, which take road space away from cars, reduces Level of Service and so gets dinged in CEQA even if it might move more people along the road. In other words, by using this measure CEQA prioritizes driving over walking, biking, and transit, to the detriment of the environment.

Now: If a city wants, it can designate an area as a “transit priority area,” provided it meets certain criteria of transit service, thanks to SB 743. Instead of Level of Service, the city can use alternative measurements of road efficiency when evaluating a project. Or, it can ignore the reform entirely. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard blog has more details.

Bike lanes

Before: Like all projects, bike lanes and bike projects were required to undergo CEQA analysis.

Why this was a problem: It subjects bike projects to a costly analysis to prove biking doesn’t harm the environment. In San Francisco, plaintiffs sued the city to stop its bicycle master plan under CEQA, a counterintuitive proposal. And, with Level of Service measurements putting cars above bikes in CEQA, it forced the city to rework its bike plan to allow maximum vehicle throughput, rather than maximum usefulness for bicyclists. In the end, San Francisco’s plan was stalled for years.

Now: Under AB 417, on-road bicycle lanes that are within “urbanized areas,” though what qualifies isn’t explained in the law [see update below], as well as retiming traffic signals and adding signage, are exempt from CEQA and environmental impact reports under state law. Off-street paths aren’t included. Marin or a town could require an environmental impact report, but the state will no longer ask for it. Cyclelicious has more details on the law and what it means.

A stronger environmental law

The purpose of environmental law is to protect our environment, not to conserve the status quo. Driving is, at best, not very environmentally friendly. By removing the provisions that promote driving from environmental protection law, the reforms allow cities and counties to choose for themselves how to approach their transportation-related environmental problems. One hopes Marin’s environmentalists will jump at the opportunity.

UPDATE: Reader Eric Fischer clarified that California goes off the federal Census definition, which is any census block with 1,000 or more people per square mile as well as adjacent blocks of at least 500 people per square mile. Essentially all of developed East Marin qualifies.

A reality check for Randy Warren’s climate change plan

A candidate for San Rafael City Council has a bold plan to cut transportation CO2 emissions: subsidize electric cars. While at surface it sounds reasonable enough, the plan would be expensive for little gain.

Take a look at candidate Randy Warren’s platform and you’ll find, under the climate change header, a description for Operation New Leaf.

For all the theories about what we can do to reduce greenhouse gasses from cars and light trucks, the reality is that the plans are speculation and hope.  Let’s aim instead for guaranteed results.  I propose Operation New Leaf, a plan to provide incentives for our out-of-county workforce to purchase zero emission cars for their commute to San Rafael. This plan targets workers who have held a San Rafael job for at least one year and live at least 20 miles away. The city would negotiate special rates with San Rafael car dealers, from whom the cars would have to be purchased or leased.  Participating workers would have to make a good faith pledge to do their workday shopping in San Rafael, so we improve our local economy and recover some operating costs via related sales tax.  We would target up to a 50% subsidy to the workers, with proper safeguards.  We then need to line up sponsors, whether from MTC or the private sector (including the car manufacturers themselves as a pilot program).  This is a complex proposal that requires a city study group, and I will encourage such study take place.  But until our legislature has the guts to set a date for banning the registration of new gas-powered cars, Operation New Leaf would produce instant and certain results in reducing greenhouse gasses.

The Census doesn’t estimate the source of in-commuting jobs by city, but we can estimate. There are roughly 43,000 jobs in the city. Of Marin jobs, a quarter are held by workers in counties at least 20 miles away from San Rafael (i.e., all but San Francisco and Contra Costa). Proportionally, that means about 7,760 San Rafael workers live about 20 miles away or more. With that in mind, I estimate the cost of Operation New Leaf at around $97 million, not including the cost to move an additional 1,000 cars to the city’s job centers and store them once they get there.

Would MTC help? Likely not, given their pursuit of multi-modal solutions to transportation problems. Would Nissan help so they could promote their electric Leaf? Probably not enough to make the project affordable. Would a change in drivers’ shopping habits offset the cost? Again, probably not enough to make it affordable to the city. Leasing the vehicles instead of buying them outright might put the cost into a more-affordable area around $10 million per year, but that’s still far more than San Rafael could carry.

Equally as unaffordable are the consequences.

The cost to congestion would be enormous, given that this would be like closing a traffic lane on Highway 101. And the cost to our built environment would be high, too. San Rafael would suddenly need to find parking for at least another 1,000 cars per day [see update below], not to mention charging stations for not just these 1,000 vehicles but the 10,000 others bought by people who already drive to the city.

This might be net-negative in greenhouse gas emissions, provided increased congestion doesn’t make the situation worse, but it wouldn’t be a panacea. Electric cars in California emit the equivalent CO2 of a 70mpg gasoline car. BART, in contrast, emits the equivalent of around 940mpg. It would also put those currently taking transit to work into harm’s way (driving kills 35,000 people per year), and fight downtown San Rafael’s efforts to expand its walkable downtown east of Highway 101.

To reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions, San Rafael ought to try to segment the travel market for trips under 2 miles, where most car trips are made. Some of those really are best done by car, but others are best done on foot or bike. How we build our roads and grow San Rafael should allow each mode to function best in balance with the others.

For walking, that means maintaining sidewalks and slowing down the perceived speed of cars, which can drive away foot traffic. For biking, it means building quality bike infrastructure that is safe for anyone age 8 to 80. For driving, it means encouraging people who don’t need to drive to leave the car at home and out of the way of other drivers. Even if a few percent of trips shift from car to another mode, that’s often enough to unlock traffic flow.

Or, if San Rafael really wants to spend millions of its own dollars on transportation, it could build a comprehensive Class I bicycle lane network for the whole city and Ross Valley with money to spare. It could provide free transit passes to in-commuters, cleaning up traffic while also cleaning the air. It could buy 48 hydrogen fuel-cell buses for Golden Gate Transit, or (for less money) retrofit Marin’s entire bus fleet to run on compressed natural gas.

Operation New Leaf doesn’t solve any problems faced by San Rafael; quite the opposite, it spends millions to exacerbate its existing problems. And, far from providing “guaranteed results,” it could add to congestion-related CO2 emissions, possibly even enough to offset the gains.

Electric cars are touted as the solution to our transportation emissions, but it ignores the other costs of pushing car-only infrastructure: parking, traffic, public safety, and car maintenance. The way to reduce Marin’s greenhouse gas emissions is to diversify away from an automobile monoculture, not to deepen it. And, in the meantime, we’d solve our transportation problems, too.

UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: Some questions have arisen as to why more cars would be on the road under this scheme. Roughly 11 percent of Marin’s in-commuters take transit to work, and it’s reasonable to suspect slightly more take transit to San Rafael given the presence of the transit center. By subsidizing car ownership, it’s reasonable to assume a good chunk of them would choose to drive instead and add more vehicles to the city and Highway 101.