Mapping the derelict lines of the Bay Area

The old railroads that once defined the Bay Area and the country at large are typically just hinted at. Some lines only operate freight; others, overgrown rails, but many are just sinewy lines on a parcel map. While we do have old maps showing where the rails were, these are rail maps, not service maps.

Some years ago, I used old timetables to create a service map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban, which brought to life a system that has been gone for over 70 years. This year, I decided to do the same thing for the whole of the Bay Area, and I’m launching a Kickstarter to fund prints and maps of other regions of the country.

The first map, for the Bay Area, shows every train published in the 1937 Official Guide to the Railways that began within the 9-county Bay Area. After lines leave the Bay Area, the map shows their last convergence points before major hubs like Los Angeles. If you want a print, head on over to the Kickstarter page.

Historic Railways of the Bay Area

Historic Railways of the Bay Area. Click to enlarge.

The maps makes clear how much of a legacy these old rail companies left to the region. BART’s southern East Bay lines largely follow the Western Pacific right-of-way, while Amtrak still follows the Southern Pacific, including the A5/A6 route to San Jose. The map also shows some of the oddities leftover from competition, like the parallel Amtrak and BART lines, sometimes just a few blocks from one another.

To the north, BART’s Bay Point line follows the Sacramento North, while its route to Richmond blends ATSF and Southern Pacific rights-of-way. Caltrain still runs on Southern Pacific track, as does ACE.

I don’t think anything runs on the dinky little Bay Point & Clayton right-of-way, which itself is a fun story.

If you like railroads, and you like cool maps, then you really will want to sponsor. Seriously, $40 is pretty good for a 24×24 poster.

I also have prints of my map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban. Next up is the Washington-Baltimore region. I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m really excited to see what comes out of the mist.

Manipulate the housing market with this one neat trick

Regulations often result in unintended consequences. Money flows to find any crack in the system, after all, and often those cracks are in very odd places. Zoning and building codes are no different, and they can manipulate not just how people do business but how we built our cities.

In Marin, towns regulate density through a few different rules. Most prominent is units per acre, sometimes around 20 to 30 units per acre, but Marin’s various codes use other measures: floor-area ratio, parking minimums, minimum lot sizes, height limits, and minimum amount of open space.

Last month, the blog Urban Kchoze looked at this panoply of regulatory systems to illustrate how they alter the built environment, and found that they often don’t do a very good job of limiting traffic or population density. About Marin’s favorite regulation, units per acre, the author writes:

An interesting point to consider is what happens to the single individuals in North America that seek cheap housing options, since they are largely deprived of the small 1-Bedroom apartments due to regulations restricting the number of units that can be built per area? Well, they share apartments with roommates. Indeed, becoming roommates is the way consumers have devised to go around the excessive parking and density limitations imposed by North American planners. It is not a desirable situation, but when in a pinch, people will do it.

So North American regulations that limit the density of units but are less restrictive on FAR will result in bigger housing units as developers will build big units to maximize profits.

Policies that do the opposite, meaning limit FAR but are favorable to subdividing buildings in many units thanks to a lack of minimum lot size and low or no minimum parking regulation will have the opposite effect: tend to increase housing density but reduce the size of units.

Our current system doesn’t work very well. Rents are spiking, people are aging, traffic is growing, and the poor are crowding into tiny spaces, especially in The Canal.

As Marin continues to wrestle with the future of its town centers, especially in downtown San Rafael, leaders should figure out what exactly they want to limit. If it’s traffic, they should limit parking. If it’s kids for the school system, they should limit height but lift density caps. (Small homes don’t accommodate families well, after all.)

Marin needs to chart a way forward, but the only way to do that is to understand where we want to go, and what tools we need to get there.

What do driverless cars mean for suburban planning?

Self-driving cars are coming, and boosters of drivable suburbia are hoping they will be a potent weapon against mass transit and cities. But what they mean for towns and suburbs isn’t quite so clear.

For the past 80 years, the US has transformed nearly every place in the country into one that is acceptable and welcoming to the personal automobile. It needs places to park (some estimates have that there are 6 parking spaces for every car), needs enough road space to be able to drive unimpeded, needs sole control over the roads, and so on.

In places built in the past 30 years, this has meant sidewalk-free eight-lane boulevards and massive malls at freeway interchanges. In places built before the car, this has often meant their wholesale destruction. (Santa Clara and Fremont, for example, are now undertaking efforts to “rebuild” their town centers.)

This has not been in service to the car as a vehicle, however, but to the car as a personal mobility tool. Very often, the only seat used in a car is the driver’s, massively enhancing the person’s footprint and leading to all kinds of horrific traffic.

With the advent of the driverless car, the belief is that we will no longer need personal vehicles, and this excess footprint will become unnecessary. Open up an app on a phone, order a car, and a vehicle (possibly with others in it going to roughly where you’re going) will drive by, pick you up, and drop you off near your destination. Along the way it’ll pick up other people going in roughly the same direction as you, bolstering capacity of the personal car to a grand total of five.

Five trips, one car. As one Twitter follower called it, it becomes mini-mass transit, but at the beck and call of an app and as flexible as it needs to be. If this method of travel becomes ubiquitous – and that’s a big if – then the personal automobile might become a thing of the past.

What, then, of the places we’ve outfitted at great expense to fit the personal automobile? These would need to be retrofitted to fit this new dominant mode, and we can do away with some of design choices that favored the personal automobile.

Probably the biggest change is the demise of the large parking lot. These huge slabs of asphalt dominate suburban commercial landscapes, often taking up 80 percent of commercial parcels. They dominate the streetscape, and arterial suburban roads are lined with them. Without personal vehicles to park, there’s no need for a parking lot. That land could be put to productive use.

All this will be wasted space.

All this will be wasted space.

With a transportation system that’s five times as efficient, too, there’s little need for wide arterial roads packed with single-occupant vehicles. As well, without human drivers, there’s no need for “forgiving engineering” focused on driver psychology and driver needs. We can narrow lanes from 12 feet (freeway width) down to 10 feet or even 9.5 feet and have the same vehicle capacity and speed. There would rarely be a need for roads wider than 2 lanes in the suburbs.

So, we can wave goodbye to parking lots and wide arterial roads. What could we do to optimize the suburbs to fit this new reality?

First, trip origins and destinations would be best served if they are along the same axis of travel, and they should be relatively evenly spaced and close together. Street grids lined with origins and destinations make sense, so as to maximize the directness of the travel. That means either a commercial street with homes behind or above.

With the loss of parking lots, it makes no sense to place storefronts far back from the street. They should be placed against the street to ease access for passengers.

Finally, there will likely be a need for a short walk to or from a vehicle, especially when returning home. It makes sense to make that walk a pleasant one, and to put amenities there, too.

corridor-capacity1

Relative capacities of modes

It’s important our density not get too high. Although boosting car capacity fivefold is a huge step forward, trains have eight to forty times the capacity. For the highest-density areas, where trains are already at capacity, driverless mini-mass transit won’t be enough to solve congestion or to adequately meet residents’ travel needs.

So in the retrofitted suburbs, there should be a balance between the need for a dense line of origins and destinations and the need to not overload the system. Perhaps just six stories, at most, in the most dense places of the suburbs.

For this kind of system to work and not devolve into that kind of nightmare, it needs to have simple and easy lines of operations, just like the streetcars did, with origins and destinations located near stops. Unlike streetcars, the whole street is a possible stop. Rather than a series of one-dimensional stops surrounded by a station area, there is a two-dimensional transportation corridor surrounded by a transportation area. The station neighborhoods currently in existence could easily be integrated into suburban corridor fabric.

At this point, this does not sound much like the suburbia we often consider “suburbia”. With no parking lots, no wide roads, a street grid, and shops and homes clustered up against the sidewalk, it sounds more like a town center. That’s because this transportation cloud functions much more like the streetcars of the old days than personal cars of today. The urban landscape described is precisely the kind of bus-transit-oriented development that suburbs could be investing in today. This article could have painted just the picture: “Imagine standing at almost any street corner, where every five minutes an electric train bus vehicle comes by…”

Indeed, if this system ever does overcome myriad regulatory hurdles, it will work best in places where buses and light rail work best. If this is our dream future, then we can start planning for it today. There’s no need to wait for driverless cars.*

Of course, this system will likely be decades away, if it ever happens. There are huge regulatory hurdles to any driverless car, and any area where this system operates could be seriously disrupted by even one person driving their own car. As well, there are still questions of who owns and maintains the vehicles. In the interim, personally owned automated vehicles will likely start to ply the roads. (While they will reform how we use parking, they won’t do much about traffic.)

But if this system does come, it’s not something for champions of small towns, walkable living, and transit to fear.

*As people start to buy personal driverless cars, the need for vast parking lots will diminish. If we really want to start planning for that reality, too, then we should reform or abolish parking standards today. 

AN ASIDE: This system has been speculated upon for decades as Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, though generally it was theorized on rails. In fact, it already exists, in a sense, in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Much of the time, Morgantown’s system works like an elevator (push a button to summon a vehicle, push a destination button and you’re on your way). During rush hour, it operates like standard-issue fixed-route transit during peak hours, and in off-hours each car runs the whole track as a circulator.

Tautological housing study reminds us that demand is more than skin deep

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on a new study by the National Association of Home Builders which found just 10 percent of people born after 1977 want to live in the urban core; the rest want the suburbs or rural areas. The catch was that the study group was only those who had bought a house in the past three years or who plan to do so. In other words, people who want to buy a house want to live in a place where they can buy a house.

But the study, an exercise in tautology if there ever was one, does add some value to the overall discussion about what today’s young homebuyers want out of a home, and the reaction to the study shines light on the foolishness of urban-vs-suburban partisanship.

What the study says

Just 10 percent of young homebuyers want to stay in the central city, while 68 percent want to move to the suburbs. These suburban homebuyers tend to buy smaller, older houses relatively close to the central city, and they put a premium on being within walking distance of amenities like restaurants, stores, schools, and transit.

This is not the typical car-oriented suburb. Rather, it’s a suburban town, the sort of place that grew up along the old streetcar lines before they vanished. It’s a place that can accommodate trips made by car, transit, biking, and walking.

It seems the same things that draw young people to cities remain valuable even when those same young people leave.

What the study leaves out

The NAHB study is a stated-preference study. In other words, it looked at what people said they wanted rather than what they actually did when presented with options, which is called a revealed preference study.

This is most clear in the disconnect between the cost of housing in a dense, walkable urban place and the cost of housing in a sprawling, drivable place. Outer-suburban and exurban homes were the first to lose their value during the Great Recession and have been the slowest to recover. Meanwhile, dense, central cities have seen the cost of housing soar, as have walkable towns near those cities.

These price signals are quite clear: the supply for outer-suburban and exurban homes exceeds demand, and the demand for central-city homes exceeds supply. Similar price stability and price spikes along transit corridors and in the old walkable streetcar suburbs shows this demand isn’t simply for central city homes but for walkable living.

More than that, the study doesn’t scratch the surface of where young people would want to live if central cities had similar prices and similar school quality to the suburbs. After all, the draw of the suburb might not even be a function of the suburban or urban form per se but a simple function of how inhospitable American cities are to raising a family.

Or perhaps it’s simply housing availability: most new housing development has been in the exurbs, and central cities have been housing laggards.

This last theory is held out by analysis by Jed Kolko of real estate analyst Trulia. Last week, he tweeted the following three charts:

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Growth in population closely matches the growth in housing units across the urban spectrum: the more homes, the more people. In fact, a read of the last two charts shows that neighborhoods are adding households faster than homes in all but the most suburban neighborhoods (deciles 9 and 10), with the most pronounced difference in urban neighborhoods (deciles 2-4). As a result, the growth in home sale price is highest outside of the most suburban neighborhoods. While the most urban neighborhoods saw their prices go up fastest, it was the least urban neighborhoods that saw their housing supply and population rise fastest.

This is due to a number of factors, but the largest is the $400 billion worth of federal subsidies (PDF) poured into the most suburban of places. Given the price rises in more urban areas, it seems as though this and state-level policies are working against the underlying demand rather than chasing demand.

It’s a stupid debate

Anti-urban partisans are always quick to crow about the end of the cities and seem eager to pounce all over any shred of evidence that might support this thesis, context be damned. Anti-suburban partisans, alas, do the same about evidence for suburban demise.

Yet being a partisan for a particular kind of urban form is nonsense. The great structural debate about housing and transit in the United States is fundamentally about whether the provision of housing in all its forms has adequately satisfied consumer demand.

The NAHB study doesn’t presage the slaughter of the city and triumph of the suburb any more than the fact that Americans aren’t driving as much presages the opposite. It presents a look at where young homebuyers say they want to live (namely, in places where they can buy homes).

What does this mean for Marin?

Young people want places that look like Marin: walkable, suburban, not too far from the city, with a decent transit network. Consumer demand surveys of all young people, not just homebuyers, found that the strong bias towards walkable living is found among renters and homebuyers alike.

The problem, of course, is that there isn’t enough San Francisco, or Marin, to go around. As I have insisted since the beginning of this blog, the demand for new homes in Marin should be channeled into enhancing and spatially expanding our downtowns.

San Anselmo, for example, has space for 79 of new apartments above stores within its downtown core. That’s 79 new families that could be living and shopping in a totally walkable environment. If downtown zoning were expanded to highway commercial zones, that’s room for dozens more new families and businesses.

Marin could push against its own struggling town centers and try to hem them in, or it could take this as an opportunity to build upon the formula that works: walkable towns adjacent to nature. There is room enough for the entire spectrum of suburban home types in Marin. We can take advantage of that demand, and build a greater Marin out of it.

What did the Bay Area look like in the Age of Rail?

A few years ago, I published a map – really a cartogram – showing the service patterns of Marin’s old Interurban system, the light rail that covered all of Central and Southern Marin. Now, I’m starting on something a bit bigger: what did the Bay Area’s rail network look like in 1937?

The Interurban map was motivated out of a sense of confusion about the system. Maps of the time just showed where rails went and what stations were along them, similar to road maps, but contemporary transit maps are different. Rather than showing the rail network, they show the service network – how trains move along the rails.

The resulting map lifted the fog from the system. Rather than just a musty map, I could see how someone could actually get around Marin on the Interurban.

This new project comes from a similar motivation. I’ve seen old maps of the Bay Area, like the one below, but they don’t give a good picture of what goes where and when. Sometimes they leave out or demote rival rail companies. Sometimes they are too low-resolution to show how different lines split off. And they never show how frequently service runs.

So far, thanks to a kind Twitter follower, I’ve obtained a 1,500-page scan of the 1937 rail guide, learned how to read the thing, and started to wrap my head around the Oakland lynchpin of the system. I’ve also determined that I won’t map local-service railroads, like Muni, the Key System or the Interurban. A regional street map doesn’t show local streets, after all, and focuses instead on the freeways. This map will focus on the “freeways” of the regional rail system – the fast, intercity service.

Still undetermined is how much to show. Do I show frequency? It varied wildly: while Western Pacific’s Scenic Limited only left once per day, Southern Pacific ran hourly commuter service between San Jose and San Francisco. Do I show the hierarchy of stations? Palo Alto is a major stop on the Peninsula, while Lawrence was frequently skipped on the same line.

My progress so far is fairly limited, but I’m using Oakland – the most complex part of the system – to try out variations on stop design, font, colors, and how to differentiate service styles. Stay tuned for updates.

The latest Oakland draft

The latest Oakland draft

The poetry of The Greater Marin

You may not know it, but The Greater Marin is on Twitter. It’s fun, really, to get in touch with people who agree and disagree with me from all over the world. Follow me, if you don’t already.

A new tool turned all these tweets into semi-coherent poetry. The result made me smile, so I thought I might as well share.

S!@# Together

North San Jose neighborhood
And design for your speed limit!
That does not sounds good.
Of Cut Wood. CUT WOOD, DAMMIT.)

Police, and idiot pedestrians.
Buses, like the GOOG shuttles:
Heh. Vegans.
Urbanist world: cars uber alles.

Inane of nuances of Marin politics.
With the new barrier, not less.
Hearts drown performance metrics.

The county and bring up some gold.
Napa, Capitol Corridor, and Marin.
Not smaller. Just slower and cold.

We’ll be back Monday, but if you can’t wait, find me on Twitter.

More people are speeding on the Golden Gate Bridge – here’s why

16073676100_24d1279e0a_z

The new barrier and the bridge during closure. Image by David Yu, on Flickr

When the new Golden Gate Bridge barrier opened, it was heralded as a new age of safety, but there were rumblings of problems immediately. Bridge Manager Kary Witt was quoted as saying, “I do think everyone is driving too fast. Everyone needs to slow down.” A few days later, he was rather more forceful: “We’re seeing too many drivers driving 20 to 30 miles over the speed limit. It’s completely unacceptable.” While the district seems to have been caught off-guard, this was an entirely predictable result.

Keeping roads safe is one of the most important tasks traffic engineers have. To do this, they will often try to improve a road’s safety by making it more forgiving of driver error: make the lanes wider, smooth out the curves, remove trees, and add median barriers. But this sort of improvement assumes that people drive a set way without regard to their environment.

This is not true. People drive as fast as feels safe, and they subconsciously react to visual cues to tell them what that speed is. Have you ever driven along a road at what felt like a comfortable speed, only to find that you were going 55 in a 35 zone? You were a victim of this subconscious pressure, called risk compensation.

By removing dangerous obstacles, engineers will often paradoxically make a road less safe by encouraging higher speeds. In a limited-access highway this might be okay, but on roadways that aren’t limited access – like the Golden Gate Bridge – it can create a dangerous false sense of security.

This is precisely what is happening on the bridge. Before, drivers on the bridge had a very visible cue that danger was omnipresent as traffic whizzed by in the opposite direction just a foot away. People would drive slower to ensure they had control of their vehicle and wouldn’t accidentally drift into traffic. They also had to navigate the very tight space between toll booths, slowing traffic further.

By removing the toll booths and adding the center barrier, the bridge district has lowered the perceived danger of crossing the bridge. This has encouraged drivers to drive faster, which has resulted in more crashes.

This is not a limited access roadway, either. There are driveway entrances and exits at the Toll Plaza and at Vista Point. Pedestrians and bicyclists cross the bridge on its sidewalks. This is a recipe for disaster.

It is perhaps understandable that the district would choose to spend millions on a median barrier. It was a harrowing crossing, and I know I never drove in the left lane if I could avoid it. But it is baffling that the bridge district was apparently unprepared for higher speeds as a result of this change.

There is a lesson here: traffic speed follows design. If towns and cities in Marin want to reduce speeds and increase safety, it must design roads that encourage people to follow the desired speed. The Golden Gate Bridge District has done the opposite, telling people to go one speed while silently encouraging them to go faster. If it’s serious about keeping speeds down, it won’t rely simply on enforcement to keep speeds down but will also seek design solutions.

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