Category Archives: Policy and Politics

Exposition Phase 1 Bike Facility: A Review

In honor of the Exposition Line opening it is time for a comprehensive review of the Phase 1 Bike Facility. I use it every day to get to work, to ride recreationally in the Santa Monica Mountains and to get to the Ballona Creek Bike Path.

The Exposition Phase 1 Bike Facility begins at the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Vermont Avenue adjacent to the USC campus. From this point until Exposition and Harcourt Avenue, the facility is a 4-6 foot wide bicycle lane. At Harcourt Avenue, the route turns north and resumes as a 5-6 foot wide bicycle lane from Jefferson Boulevard and Harcourt Avenue to Jefferson and La Cienega. Here the alignment transitons into a 12 foot wide bicycle and pedestrian path immediately south of the Exposition Line right of way from La Cienega to National. The final portion of the facility is another 12 foot wide bike/ped path from Jefferson/National to approximately Washington/National, here north of the Expo ROW.

The Good

The very existence of this bicycle facility is a great thing for the City of Los Angeles. Never before has such a comprehensive and convenient east-west bicycle route existed in the city. For the most part the bicycle lanes and pathways are adequately designed  and the connection to the existing bike path at Ballona Creek that leads to Marina Del Rey is well thought out. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has been helpful in responding to cyclists’ concerns over design issues so far – hopefully they will note the issues below.

The Bad – Safety and Design

Like any new traffic pattern, the Facility needs adjustment after a break-in period. Significant engineering design and safety issues exist with the current configuration of the Facility. I will discuss them from east (7th Street/Metro Center) to west (Culver City).

No Bike Route from Downtown to Expo Park

This issue is somewhat of a no-brainer. While the EIR for the Expo Line stated that a bicycle facility would be constructed for the entirety of the line, no bikeway or even bicycle route exists from Downtown LA to Exposition Park. The abundance of north-south streets with significant excess capacity, especially Flower Street, could have made for a great bicycle lane (even a green lane like Spring Street). Unfortunately no such route was built as part of this project. The isolated, and dangerous nature of accessing Downtown LA from the south via bicycle is a huge problem that this Facility did not solve.

Bike Lane in the Gutter – Entire Route, Especially Vermont-Gramercy and Harcourt-La Cienega

Excuse the civil engineering lingo – but when designing the cross section of a street, you never consider the gutter as part of the traveled way. The ETW is usually the limit of the gutter – and for good reason. Asphalt concrete pavement and reinforced concrete gutters settle at different rates due to their differing material properties so a large gap forms at the junction of these two materials forms after several years or months of roadway usage. With tires often less than 1″ wide, this gap is dangerous for cyclists. When riding these bike lanes a rider is forced to stay to one side of the crack – on the gutter side it is in the door zone, so there is little choice but to exclusively use the innermost two feet of the bicycle lane. Numerous catch basins also exist in the bicycle lanes which present an even greater hazard to bicycle riders and must be avoided at all costs. Placing dangerous conditions within a lane designed for the exclusive use of cyclists is poor design – new striping that does not include the gutter as part of the bicycle lane is needed as soon as possible.

Right Turns at Exposition/Normandie and Exposition/Western

In both the easterly and westerly directions of travel on Exposition between Vermont and Gramercy traffic is at its highest along the entire route. This traffic includes right turning vehicles which must cut across the bicycle lane. Other cities make good use of “Begin Right Turn – Yield to Bikes” signs at all right turn pockets and despite the lack of pockets, these locations would be an ideal candidate for similar signage reading “Right Turn – Yield to Bicycles.” I have nearly been hit several times by motorists turning right without looking to see if a cyclist was present and some motorists take the bicycle lane while waiting at a red light far in advance of the intersection, impeding cyclist travel to the stop bar. A further step to improving safety would be banning right turn on red at these intersections and striping bike boxes so cyclists have improved visibility to right turning motorists.

The Exposition/Rodeo/Gramercy Intersection

This intersection is the most complex and potentially dangerous along the entire phase 1 route. Rodeo diverges from Exposition across the LRT tracks. In the westerly direction of travel, the bicycle lane is acceptable for continuing on Exposition. Cyclists who wish to switch to Rodeo at the intersection face the harrowing task of crossing non-perpendicular railroad tracks. This task is nearly impossible on a road bicycle and the potential for crashing and remaining on the tracks and in a traffic lane is dangerously high. Because of this risk a “No Bicycles” sign should be installed at this intersection in the lanes that turn ont o Rodeo. Cyclists wishing to access Rodeo may easily do so at Arlington Avenue right up the road where the tracks cross a cyclist’s path at a 90 degree angle.

In the easterly direction of travel all hell has broken loose. Here a hybrid solution of sorts exists to guide cyclists across the tracks. From the stop bar, the bicycle lane turns sharply right over the tracks, through a gap in the fence, then left on to the main traveled way of Rodeo/Exposition. I applaud this rather creative solution to an impossible intersection, but most cyclists do not know this is the proper way to ride this intersection. Better signage indicating the correct route would be helpful. The unconventional cycling route through this intersection means that motorists are not looking for cyclists in the correct places. Motorists traveling due north on Gramercy are not looking for bicycles turning left on to Exposition during a red light. More than five times I have nearly been hit by motorists turning right on red from due north on Gramercy. “No Turn on Red” and “Watch for Cyclists” signs are immediately needed at this intersection on Gramercy to prevent catastrophic collisions.

Right Turns at Exposition/Crenshaw

Similar issue to Expo/Western and Expo/Normandie, although only in the easterly direction of travel and right turn on red is already forbidden. A simple “Begin Right Turn – Yield to Bikes” at the beginning of the right turn pocket lane would do wonders. Here motorists are not used to waiting for a right turn signal and many do not obey it properly – better signage is needed for motorists.

Jefferson/Harcourt Intersection

In the westerly (northerly on Harcourt) direction of travel the signal timing for this intersection is horrendous. Either the detector loop is failing to pick up on my bicycle (all the others along the Facility pick it up fine) or the allocation of Harcourt compared to Jefferson that it takes more than 3 minutes to change cycles. I have stood on the loop for over 5 minutes waiting in vain to get a green to turn left on Jefferson – it simply does not work. The only solution is to ride on to the sidewalk and press the pedestrian crossing button which is time consuming and very inconvenient. Generally, this left turn on Jefferson from Harcourt changes the a trip Exposition Bike Facility from competitive with driving to much slower than driving due to this issue. LADOT – please check the loop and also adjust the timing here. It is unacceptable.

Jefferson Blvd

Generally awful and dangerous pavement conditions exist along the portion of Jefferson the Facility traverses. Bad pavement just before the Jefferson/La Brea intersection in the westerly direction of travel has nearly caused several crashes (because of the gap between gutter and pavement, see above) and numerous potholes exist between La Brea and La Cienega in the westerly direction of travel.

Jefferson and La Cienega

This intersection presents one of gravest dangers for cyclists, especially in the westerly direction. The Facility transitions from a bicycle lane on Jefferson to a dedicated path south of the Exposition Line tracks. One single sign directs cyclists to this path, but there is no good way to access it from the westbound side of Jefferson. Crossing in the crosswalk south across Jefferson then west across La Cienega is time consuming and bicycles should be treated as vehicles, not pedestrians, and forced to use crosswalks and the sidewalk. Most cyclists (myself included) continue straight on Jefferson through this intersection, where, due to the presence of a double left turn pocket in the opposite direction, Jefferson westbound constricts into two 11′ lanes. The risk of being sideswiped by a motorist both in the intersection and just past it on Jefferson is extremely high. Immediate action is needed to prevent collisions, injuries and even death at this point in the Facility. Here are tw0 solutions:

1. Re-stripe the intersection to include a bicycle lane in the westbound direction on Jefferson between La Cienega and National. A temporary measure until this bike lane can be implemented would be sharrows on Jefferson with large “Share the Road” and “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs so motorists expect bicycles in the right lane.

2. If cyclists are to use the existing bike path south of the tracks, a proper way to actuate the signal to access the bike path from the west must be implemented. Ideally, a new cycle in the light, activated by detector loops in the westbound bike lane would prove a red in all directions, with a green bicycle signal to allow cyclists to turn left from the right side of the roadway. Because of the large delay this extra cycle would cause motorist, a less ideal addition would be a push button in the bicycle lane to activate a walk signal south across Jefferson. From there, cyclists could cross west across La Cienega on to the bike path.

Coming back in the easterly direction things are a bit better. Access to the bike path is straightforward at Jefferson and National and the transition back into the bike lane at Jefferson and La Cienega is relatively safe. One huge issue, however, is the massive column that blocks the view of right turning motorists. Sight distance around this column is essentially zero and it makes for a harrowing experience crossing La Cienega on the south side of Jefferson as a cyclist or pedestrian. This would be another great location for a right turn on red ban or perhaps ban of all right turns.

LADOT needs to do something about this intersection before someone is seriously injured or killed.

The Bad – Operations and Enforcement

Generally two major problems exist in the enforcement and operations area.

1. The neighborhoods through which the Exposition Line runs are not yet accustomed to a bicycle facility. Illegal stopping in the bicycle lane, and placement of trash cans, transient’s carts and other objects in the bicycle lanes are hazardous and desperately need to be reduced or eliminated. A combination of community outreach and education, and stronger enforcement by LADOT traffic officers could significantly improve the safety and sanctity of the bicycle lanes.

2. Street sweeping in the bicycle lanes is woefully inadequate. Piles of broken glass and rocks force cyclists out of the bike lane into traffic and cause numerous flat tires. Nothing discourages casual cycling like needed to stop for 10+ minutes to change a flat tire. LADOT needs to step up their street sweeping program along the route in order to ensure safe passage for cyclists.

The Verdict

Thank you Metro and LADOT for building this bike facility. Its a big step towards making Los Angeles a more bicycle friendly city. With a few tweaks and changes, the Exposition Phase 1 Bicycle Facility will be a great place to ride and soon will take cyclists all the way to Santa Monica with Phase 2 (under construction). Bring it on!

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Infrastructure Solutions for the Eastshore Freeway Corridor

This is the first post in a two post series about maximizing mobility along the Eastshore Freeway Corridor in the Eastern San Francisco Bay Area. In this first post, I will concentrate on the infrastructure improvements that could alleviate congestion and lack of mobility in the area. In the second post I will focus on service improvements that will help achieve these goals. 

The Eastshore Freeway Corridor in the Eastern San Francisco Bay Area is plagued by chronic congestion. Unlike most freeways, the I-80/580 Eastshore Freeway is congested for elongated periods – generally 11am to 8pm on weekdays and 9am to 8pm on weekends. Southbound is generally more congested than northbound, although northbound during the PM peak is the most severe congestion on the roadway. At 10 lanes wide, the Eastshore Freeway cannot feasibly be widened and the current approach to managing transportation in the corridor is not effective as evidenced by 9+ hours of congestion every day. The current drive to improve freeway congestion in the corridor is well-intentioned and will substantially reduce congestion for a very low cost using ITS (intelligent transportation systems). While this approach to improving mobility has its merits, the sheer density and demand in this corridor requires a big-picture, large investment focus in addition to intermediate steps such as the the current Integrated Corridor Mobility Project.

Based on the environmental documents for the I-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility Project, almost 30% of traffic along I-80 West in the AM peak is traveling to and from Emeryville and Berkeley.  Most transit service currently serves the Downtown San Francisco and Downtown Oakland destinations along this corridor. Here I would like to present a radical re-imagining of mobility in the corridor to address this 30% (almost 80,000 AADT) of travelers whose origins and destinations lie within West Berkeley and Emeryville. This new look will address both local travelers and those entering the area from outside North Alameda County. First, local solutions.

Bounded by San Pablo Avenue and the Eastshore Freeway, this study area has existing, frequent, AC Transit bus transit service on San Pablo Avenue from north to south, and University Avenue fron east to west. In Emeryville, a municipally-operated shuttle, Emery-Go-Round, connects major employment destinations with MacArthur BART approximately 2 miles away. In addition, AC Transit operates routes 26 and 49, both of which pass through the area but run infrequently and do not directly serve high travel demand destinations. Amtrak operates the Capitol Corridor intercity train service that stops in West Berkeley and Emeryville, but peak frequency is one train per hour. Railroad right of way in the area is plentiful – existing condition is generally 3-4 tracks with between 10 and 30 lateral feet of additional right of way available.

To best provide local mobility along this corridor three solutions seem the most cost effective and realistic. First is constructing a true bus rapid transit line along San Pablo Avenue so AC Transit can provide more effective north-south service in the corridor. Current plans for a BRT corridor along International Boulevard in Oakland provide a great model for San Pablo – dedicated inner lanes over the corridor, signal prioritization and distinct, rail-like stations. Another shorter BRT corridor east-west along University Avenue would complement the San Pablo and Telegraph BRT services well, tying them together and connecting Downtown Berkeley and the dense University corridor to West Berkeley and Emeryville. Again, dedicated median lanes with rail-like stations would maximize ridership and transit effectiveness. The third and most significant proposed infrastructure investment in this study area is the implementation of a Bus Rapid Transit “Super-Loop” in the style of San Diego MTD’s SuperLoop service in La Jolla. Fully dedicated lanes and stations would begin at MacArthur BART and continue on a loop Emeryville, including a stop at the Watergate office tower complex. The short length of this corridor could allow for very frequent service, and prioritization would ensure speedy travel times. This type of transit service is exactly what sustains a transit oriented community, and it could help re-orient Emeryville towards transit instead of the current automobile-dependent model of its development.

Longer trips that begin outside the study area could also be greatly aided with the strategic addition of cost-effective infrastructure. Current express bus service generally caters to “traditional” commuters traveling to San Francisco in the AM peak and returning to the East Bay in the PM peak. AC Transit has, however, attempted to address the reverse commute to Emeryville and West Berkeley with the Z Transbay Line. This line is slow, runs infrequently and does not effectively serve many of the high travel demand destinations in the area. The BRT Super-Loop mentioned earlier would be key in a re-orientation of express bus service in the area. With HOV lane connections to the super loop from I-80 near Ashby Avenue and I-580 near MacArthur Boulevard, express bus service could rapidly and effectively serve travelers from as far away as Vallejo and Castro Valley. Current express bus services simply bypasses the area on the freeway – missing out on nearly 30% of the travel market that originates or is destined to West Berkeley and Emeryville. Some bus service that currently serves Downtown San Francisco from various East Bay destinations could be rerouted around the Super-Loop with a surprisingly small amount of delay (likely around 10 minutes), massively increasing viability of Transbay services that have seen a decline in ridership in recent years due to job fragmentation across the area.

A longer-term solution to mobility along the corridor lies in the vastly underused railway right-of-way currently used by Amtrak. The under construction eBART line in Eastern Contra Costa County and SPRINTER line in Northern San Diego County have set precedents for diesel multiple unit light rail service in California. As a first stage towards eventual electrification, DMU service could easily and cheaply be provided along the Amtrak right of way. Stations spaced between 0.75 and 1 mile apart along the corridor could support transit oriented development yet still allow for quick regional service. In fact, this DMU would be best utilized if it were extended outside the project area along the Amtrak right-of-way to Jack London Square or the Colosseum in Oakland, and to Richmond or further north in the other direction. Such a project would fulfill the requirements of the currently proposed wBART extension north of Richmond and also improve utilization of the existing corridor without requiring any new right-of-way. Even better, this line could connect to a future Transbay Tube, as suggested by Yonah Freemark over the the Transport Politic.

Many exciting options exist for serving this largely neglected portion of the Bay Area with transit. Improving mobility in the Eastshore Freeway Corridor is already underway with the ICM project, and it can only get better from here.

Getting Ready for Expo

Expo/Western. From the Expo Construction Authority.

Seeing as the Exposition Line has been delayed yet further by technical problems at the Washington/Flower intersection, I thought I’d take a minute this week to talk about how Metro should focus their service in the South Mid City/Culver City area to take advantage of the new light rail service. 

In the next two months, Los Angeles will gain perhaps the most significant piece of transportation infrastructure built in the city since the Red Line. The Exposition Line, even in its truncated Phase 1 form, could truly revolutionize the way hundreds of thousands of Angelinos get from downtown to the West Side.

Initial ridership estimates for Phase 1 are in the 40,000-range. Based on the size of the market, and the demographics of the area, I believe Expo will blow this projection out of the water. With the right measures, Expo could improve upon the already very impressive performance of the Blue Line – projected to carry 15,000 riders when it was built, the Blue Line is now by most measures the busiest light rail line in the country, carrying 80,000 riders per day.  These additional steps to ensure the success of the line, and the fullest possible use of this investment, are simple and would not take much effort to implement. See what you think.

Connecting the Culver City Station with major job centers

1. Target Specific Destinations with Bus Service Changes & Add Phase 2 Shuttle

While the Expo Line will get riders from downtown to Culver City in Phase 1, many key destinations are just beyond this terminus. Effective integration of the 733 bus line on Venice and the north-south bus lines on La Brea and La Cienega will ensure that riders have access to both the Venice area and areas of Wilshire and the Miracle Mile. The Expo Line also presents a great opportunity to modify service on the admittedly lightly used express routes from mid-city to other areas of LA County. Metro already plans to reroute the 534 bus line to the Culver City terminus of Expo, and have the 439 bus stop at the La Cienega Station. Service could also be modified on the 439 to serve the Westfield Mall and other popular destinations in southern Culver City. A huge amount of office space exists in suburban-type 4-5 story buildings along Slauson Avenue and the surrounding area, perhaps a more targeted approach by Metro buses could attract riders who commute to these buildings from downtown or other areas the Expo Line serves. The 534 line could be rerouted to directly serve downtown Santa Monica, although this change may run afoul of service agreements between Metro and Big Blue Bus.

In addition, I believe a very effective strategy for increasing the utility of the phase 1 line is running a shuttle along the approximate route of phase two with limited stops to simulate future rail service. It could follow Venice south to Overland Avenue, cut up to Pico then turn on Bundy to meet Olympic, then finally turn on Cloverfield to meet Colorado. This shuttle could increase ridership and eliminate the numerous transfers and indirect routing of other current bus options from Downtown Culver City to Santa Monica. A big part of the appeal of the Exposition Line is the “air line” (meaning most direct path) it takes between Downtown LA and Santa Monica. Forgoing this more direct routing to get passangers of phase 1 to Santa Monica would significantly increase the utility of the line.

One other instance where direct, convenient bus service is unavailable is from Downtown Culver City and the Venice/Robertson Station to Century City. Thousands upon thousands of people work in Century City, and the addition of an express AM/PM peak express line from the Culver City station would be beneficial. Even with traffic congestion, this route would only take about 10-15 minutes with no stops, thus would provide by far the fastest travel time from Downtown LA to Century City. This stopgap measure would be great until the Westside Subway Extension opens to Century City (and on Avenue of the Stars/Constellation, mind you).

2. Change Metro’s Fare System to Avoid Penalizing Rail Users

I have already extensively discussed Metro’s pressing Fare System Problems. The opening of the Exposition Line will greatly exacerbate these problems. Passangers who need to get to Union Station from Culver City will not only be inconvenienced by needing to transfer to the Red/Purple Lines, but also will have to pay a second $1.50 fare at 7th and Metro Center. Even more preposterously, passengers going from Culver City to Long Beach or anywhere south of Pico on the Blue Line will be required to step off the platform at Pico, pay and additional fare and return to the spot at which they alighted their Expo Line train just to avoid falling afoul of Metro’s fare inspectors. The one-vehicle one-fare policy really will not work in a rail system with multiple transfers expected (let alone the gridded bus system, which is even worse).

A quick and dirty solution would be raising the fare on rail lines to $2.00 and eliminating rail transfers. One $2.00 purchase would entitle a rider to two hours of unlimited access to the Metro Rail and Metro Liner System. Incidentally, this would also solve the issue of the Metro Silver Line’s poor ridership – a terrible fare structure (that’s Foothill Transit’s fault, anyway). Single use TAP cards would constitute fare media, eliminating opportunities for theft and abuse, which were the reasons Metro cancelled bus transfers back in the 1990’s.

With a bit of planning and a lot of political will, Exposition Phase 1 will be an invaluable addition to mobility in Los Angeles. The clock is ticking – every day that Metro Operations tests trains is one day closer to opening. With a solid new fare structure for Metro Rail and Metro Liner along with targeting employment zones with special bus service for Phase 1, Expo will be a roaring success.

Neighborhood Entitlement and Transit Projects

Transportation is inherently political. Every part of modern life – from globalization, to the way we shape our cities, to the people with whom we interact – is directly related to the means by which get around. Once the realm of engineers in an office with a scale and a slide rule, large transportation projects have transformed into political behemoths whose main purpose is to satisfy every single possible stakeholder. Whether this means a large constituency of economically disadvantaged people being cut off from a city by a massive freeway (think the 10 in Los Angeles) or even a few San Francisco Garter Snakes near your construction site (BART to SFO), environmental regulations and the public input process for transportation projects are here to stay. This attitude, however, goes up against the main principle of most intraregional transportation projects – that regional investment in a rail line or roadway benefits local residents the most – but critically provides a great benefit to the region as a whole, and thus is worth the collective expenditure. Balancing these two interests – smaller constituencies like environmentalists and immediately local residents, and the larger groups who often foot the bill (regions, states, federal governments) is a critical matter of debate in American transportation policy and the topic of another discussion entirely.

Two upcoming transit projects highlight the dramatic difference between agencies and cities that have taken a constructive approach to neighborhood entitlement, NIMBYism and balancing local and regional interests, and those that have simply failed. These projects are East Link Light Rail in Seattle, Washington managed by Sound Transit, and the Crenshaw/LAX Corridor in Los Angeles, California managed by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).

First on the Crenshaw Line –

The Crenshaw/LAX corridor in Los Angeles runs from the corner of Exposition Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard in Leimert Park to Avaiation Boulevard and Imperial Highway near LAX. It has been a cornerstone of the Measure R transit projects and hailed as a badly needed second north-south transit line through South Los Angeles. As expected, Metro chose the Locally Preferred Alternative as a LRT line that traverses Crenshaw Boulevard until it reaches the Harbor Subdivision, after which it continues along that subdivision (now owned by Metro) until it reaches the Green Line Aviation Station. Most local residents and business owners are satisfied with this plan – the only matter of contention is how much of the line will be tunneled under Crenshaw and the addition of a Leimert Park station near proposed stations at Crenshaw/King and Crenshaw/Slauson. Budgetary obligations have forced Metro to only tunnel the line until about 48th Street, after which the line will run in the median of Crenshaw Boulevard and also consider eliminating the Leimert Park station. After long periods of public comment on the project’s environmental documents (EIR/EIS), Metro agreed to build the Leimert Park station. The $160 million? Metro will find it somewhere (to be decided). Even after this not-so-trivial tradeoff with the local community, Metro has still found itself embroiled in a lawsuit over the EIR. Lawsuits, massive change orders, gross negligence in construction contract writing, and public opposition nearly doomed the Exposition Line to failure and have made Expo nearly three years late and $300 million over budget. Is Crenshaw destined to follow in its footsteps?

East Link:

Yonah Freemark has the situation with East Link summed up well on his post on a Sound Transit’s compromise with the City of Bellevue. Essentially, Bellevue demanded a tunnel for its somewhat dense downtown, despite ample room on streets for the addition of Light Rail. Due to innovative engineering, a higher cost estimate for the surface option than first anticipated and crucially – a mutually beneficial agreement between Bellevue and Sound Transit, the tunneling option is now the Locally Preferred Alternative. This agreement was based upon a potentially precedent-setting decision Sound Transit made – Bellevue offered to pay for about half of the additional cost for the tunnel and Sound Transit, in the spirit of fostering community support and shrewdly avoiding possible future litigation, agreed to pay the second half. This arrangement is the ideal way to address local concerns to a regionally beneficial project. Locals win because they get their tunnel, and they did not even have to pay for all of it. The region wins due to the much lower likelihood of costly, time consuming litigation, and the general goodwill towards the project created by a selective distribution of funding to satiate local constituencies.

Like many transportation related matters, striking an appropriate balance is key in assuaging local concerns while building a transportation system that serves an entire region well. In compromising with Bellevue, Sound Transit has shown an aptitude for the political realities of transit projects while still managing to get the City to pay for a major portion of the tunnel it demanded. I would like to challenge Metro to come up with a similar arrangement for Crenshaw – offer a longer tunnel and the Leimert Park station, hust make a local contribution in the form of a parcel tax on the businesses who gain from the tunnel, or some other means, contingent to the agreement. Meeting the community halfway is the best way to proceed on alignment issues – just look at Expo. Metro refused to budge on the grade crossings at Farmdale and Trousdale/USC. What if the University had chipped in for a grade separated line until Vermont, or custom architecture at the three stations adjacent to campus? Because Metro refused to propose mutually beneficial options in good faith, as Sound Transit has now successfully done, South Los Angeles has ended up with an operationally inferior LRT line that is years late and hundreds of millions overbudget. Metro – it is time to start compromising with communities. Otherwise, see you in court.

Why California Needs High Speed Rail

There comes a time when negative criticism, NIMBYism, the Tea Party and American Politics have just gone too far. Here’s my two cents in favor of California High Speed Rail.

California High Speed Rail has been in the news recently. Despite the $10 billion approved by Measure 1A in 2008, commentators from all over the country have been deriding the project – most often for reasons under the blanket phrase of “boondoggle”. I would like to momentarily take my hat off as a sustainable transportation advocate and put back on the hat of a traditional transportation engineer. Even if you disagree with my means, it is for a worthy end.

California High Speed Rail is the single iconic project currently under design in the United States. Not since Lindon B. Johnson’s Urban Mass Transit Administration (now FTA) funded the newer wave of American Metro systems has there been such a great opportunity to change the way people get around in this country. Obama’s timid approach to infrastructure has frustrated centrists in both political parties, and what at one point looked like a serious commitment to fund new passenger rail development (in the form of $8 billion a year from the FRA), has become a political squabble over what constitutes an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.

Let me make this clear:

1. The ridership projections for California High Speed Rail are highly inflated.

2. This does not matter.

Call it what you want, but transportation infrastructure is not designed to meet present need and never was designed with this in mind. Did Interstate 40 between Barstow and Arizona get build to fulfill the massive demand for travel between these two markets? Assuredly not. Rather, transportation infrastructure is designed to provide the maximum benefit over its lifetime. Think back – wouldn’t today’s Tea Party pundits lambast plans to build a grid of streets, arterials and freeways in Los Angeles? Absolutely. But was Figuroa Street really traveled by hundreds of thousands of motorists, transit riders, cyclist and pedestrians in 1920? No. It was a boondoggle. It was a bet that the future of Los Angeles and California will be better than the past – that money you invest today will bear fruit for decades to come. Instead of taking the easy way out, California has opted to take what past generations invested in the future, and build upon it. Reneging on this promise and laying California High Speed Rail to rest with ideas like BART to Marin County, SCRTD’s Rapid Transit System and even the original route of the Metro Red Line to Westwood.

A word about cost – CAHSR will be expensive. Probably 40-50 billion dollars. CAHSR will likely not turn a profit. The California High Speed Rail Authority will likely be folded into Caltrans to overcome its odd position in the State government. Still, nothing comes cheap. California’s other major, ground-breaking investment in the last fifty years was the three-tier higher education system. Although politics has muddled its effectiveness, California (debatably) has the two best public universities in the country, an economy bigger than Italy, Russia and Canada, and a dynamic electorate willing to invest in the future of our great state. Think of California High Speed Rail as not an endeavor for profit or loss. Last I checked, government exists in order to promote access to public goods that would be neither beneficial nor profitable for the private sector to provide. Transportation is a public good – High Speed Rail will improve mobility for everyone in the state, and may start breaking the intense reliance on automobiles that has overshadowed California since the 1950’s. Plus, even on measures of profitability, CAHSR will outstrip the pitiful performance of the Highway Trust Fund. Tea Partiers and even mainstream Republicans denounce any funding on transit, rail or non-motorized transportation as wasteful, yet continue to pour money into State Departments of Transportation – most of which are focused on moving cars, not people. With no raise in the gas tax in sight, highway spending will have to come down eventually, or risk finally exposing many of these politicians for the hypocrites they are. All forms of transportation are subsidized in this country. Our economy is based upon the promise of affordable transportation, and a culture focused on consumption rather than investment.  Although the politics are still shaky, California High Speed Rail is a brilliant project that will cement California as a forward looking state, willing to invest in our own future.

The future is now – what do you think?

 

Redeeming Los Angeles’ Urban Form

View from Griffith Observatory on a Clear Night, from Wikipedia

Until very recently, the only jobs I held that required a commute were located in Downtown San Francisco. Say what you want about the Bay Area’s development patterns, but Downtown San Francisco is the best place on the West Coast to work if you prefer to make your commute via transit. I had a choice between a speedy AC Transit Transbay bus and BART’s rapid, convenient service. I could even casual carpool. These downtown jobs allowed me to fulfill a promise I made when I was in high school – to never drive alone to work. Living in Los Angeles has made this promise much more difficult to keep.

The Western part of Los Angeles County, from Brentwood to Torrance, is the most job-rich area in the Western United States. Unfortunately, most of these jobs are dispersed among suburban-style 4-5 story buildings, making transit service to job centers mostly infeasible. To make matters worse, Los Angeles has a very unique urban form – surprisingly uniform density between city and suburbs, with the city being less dense than average, and suburbs more dense. Uniform density means that the trip patterns for Los Angeles are truly unidirectional. Whereas New York City has a strongly defined suburb to city morning commute, and the reverse in the evening, in Los Angeles commute patterns are generally in all directions in both peak periods.  Now, the City of Paris largely shares this pattern and is able to effectively use transit to move people between home and work, but Los Angeles’ lower density and the lack of political support for major infrastructure investment in the United States means that Los Angeles will likely never be served by a rail transit system as effective as Paris’ Metro, RER and Trams.

So with uniform, but fairly low, density, Los Angeles presents a conundrum – how can the region continue to grow when crippling traffic congestion severely limits the mobility of its residents and development patterns are not conclusive to transit or pedestrian modes? The answer for Los Angeles, and suburban office space anywhere is to fully embrace cycle commuting. When I say fully embrace, I do not mean the severely watered-down City Bicycle Plan or the even worse County Bicycle Plan. I mean a  multi-agency and multi-disciplinary approach to challenging American conceptions of cycling.

The cultural impacts of cycle commuting have never been addressed in the United States (or the UK for that matter). A significant barrier to cycle commuting for many in Los Angeles is the perceived danger of riding a bicycle on the street. Yes, you are more likely to be injured cycling than driving, but even in the existing condition of LA’s streets, I have ridden over 3000 miles in the last year without a collision. Unlike most proposals to increase the viability of cycling, I am not going to argue that new infrastructure should be the solution. New cycling infrastructure is great, but the Los Angeles Region has already made a massive investment in a gridded system of wide arterial roads, with ample room for cyclists in the right lane. Instead, this perceived danger of riding should not be addressed by building exclusive bicycle facilities, but rather should be eliminated through driver and cyclist education.

The California Vehicle Code and the VC for most other states treat bicycles and automobiles as equals, hence the term “share the road”. This principle is not effectuated in real life conditions. First, to be licensed, all drivers should be required to answer a supplement about the laws of cycling. Nearly all drivers with whom I have spoken, and even a majority of the law enforcement officers with whom I have spoken have been ignorant of the cycling-specific portions of the California Vehicle Code. How many of you knew that if a lane is of substandard width (less than 14ft), cyclists are permitted to take the lane, and that there is no law on the books forbidding two or more cyclists from riding side by side?

The Ad Council has spent millions on anti-drug and anti-tobacco commercials, but on average 93 people in the US die from traffic collisions every day. An extensive public relations campaign by the Ad Council or another government agency to promote cycling as a means of transportation would go a long way to breaking down the cultural barriers preventing many from biking. Cycling reduces carbon emissions, could reduce the obesity rate and takes cars off the road. What’s not to love?

Although it may be controversial, I think that cyclists should be held to the same standard as motorists. Violations such as running red lights, turning without signaling and riding on the wrong side of the street should be regularly enforced. In this vein, cyclists should also recieve some sort of training on the rules of the road, although requiring cycling licenses for all riders has proven ineffective in the past. More thought is merited on this topic.

The critical infrastructure improvement for improving cycle commuting is a responsibility of employers – providing appropriate shower and locker facilities so workers can feasibly commute via bicycle is critical. It is also relatively cheap and easy.

Bottom line is, I have kept my promise. I cycle commute the 12 miles from Downtown LA to a suburban office park in Playa Del Rey, and don’t drive like most of my coworkers. Why don’t you?

It is Time for Beverly Hills to Give Up

Beverly Hills High right in front of Century City from photobucket user rvega1971

Rationalism – a view that reason and experience rather than the nonrational are the fundamental criteria in the solution of problems.

Rationalism – an ideology that led to the free market, democracy, and essentially western thought.

Rationalism – something that the Beverly Hills School District and the small minority of Beverly Hills residents who oppose the Constellation Purple Line Station Option completely lack.

The Westside Subway Extension Project is one of the most important rail transit projects in the United States. When (and if) the stars align and this line opens to VA/405 around 2030, a mass of humanity bigger than almost any other subway line in the United States will flock to Metro’s boxy stainless steel trains. Beverly hills has already agreed to a station at Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in the center of downtown, and a station at Wilshire Boulevard and La Cienega Boulevard in the far eastern part of the city. Riders will flock to these two stations due to the high density of jobs and attractions in close proximity. The issue that Beverly Hills still contests is the placement of the first station west of the city in Century City. Two options exist, a station in the center of the commercial district at Constellation and Avenue of the Stars, and a station at Santa Monica Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars. Both options would include the construction of a cut and cover station under streets owned by the City of Los Angeles and leading tunnels built by deep-earth tunnel boring machines (TBM). The key issue of contention is the route of the leading tracks from the east – under the Constellation/Ave of the Stars alternative, the deep bore tunnel will pass over 100 feet below Beverly Hills High School. The Santa Monica station option avoids the High School.

Key in this debate is the solid fact that the Constellation station option will attract a much larger number of riders, due to the location of the station in the middle of the Century City district. Jobs on the southern end of the area would be far more accessible to Metro riders and more workers and shoppers would be likely to take transit if the walk was under half a mile, as opposed to over a mile in the Santa Monica option.

From an engineering standpoint, the Santa Monica option is more of a challenge. A large fault runs down Santa Monica Boulevard, greatly increasing seismic engineering costs. Also, the uninviting nature of Santa Monica Boulevard in the area would require a large amount of street redesign for pedestrian use. Finally, the northern side of the street is occupied by a country club, hardly a big draw for transit riders, and would immediately limit the utility of the station. Transportation planners normally draw a half-mile circle around a station to estimate pedestrian access. If half of that circle is a golf course, it makes sense that many, many less riders will use the Santa Monica Station than a Constellation Station.

Irrational fear and ignorance are the primary responses Beverly Hills High School has provided to having a subway tunnel hundreds of feet below its campus. Numerous schools elsewhere in the world have subway tunnels under them – Berkeley High School in Northern California has a cut and cover subway tunnel just below the surface that has no influence on the regular operation of the school. Other far more vulnerable targets, like the US Capitol, have rail tunnels under them.

Point is, all of the negative factors Beverly Hills High School has perceived to be solid fact are indeed untrue. Metro and LA County need to stop listening to their proverbial whining child and build the Westside Subway in the most effective possible manner – we really only have one chance to do it right. Here’s one vote for the Constellation Station option with hopefully many more to come.

Required Reading for the Average American

I read the Economist every week. This week, the newspaper has an exceptional straight talk article on infrastructure in the United States.

I highly recommend you check it out.

ExpressLanes: Metro Needs a Comprehensive Approach

Metro's ExpressLanes Graphic

Today I used the Harbor Transitway in South Los Angeles. Suffice to say, I am not a happy customer. My trip from the Harbor Freeway/105 Station back to USC campus was quick and relatively comfortable but for two glaring problems: I waited 30 minutes for a bus during the AM peak, and the freeway-level platform is possibly the least inviting, most unpleasant transit facility I have ever used. Metro plans to seriously change service on the Silver Line and change the HOV lanes on the Harbor and San Bernardino Freeways to HOT lanes. The Harbor Transitway, already considered an abject failure in transit circles, could be the make-or-break facility for the ExpressLanes project.

ExpressLanes is a pilot project for HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes in Los Angeles County. Metro will begin charging demand-based tolls to single occupancy motorists who wish to use the Harbor Transitway and El Monte Busway HOV facilities. High occupancy vehicles will still be allowed to use the lanes free on the Harbor Transitway, but on the El Monte Busway, carpools will have to pay during peak periods. All vehicles on the facility will need a FasTrak transponder. Much of the extra revenue raised by ExpressLanes will go to increasing the frequency of the Metro Silver Line to 5 minute headways during peak periods. The purpose of ExpressLanes is to reduce congestion and improve mobility along these two corridors by improving the throughput of the current HOV lanes and providing monetary and time saving incentives for freeway users to take transit.

These principles are all good in my book. Making the best use of current transportation infrastructure is far more effective per dollar than increasing capacity when you have an urban area like Los Angeles which has nearly infinite latent demand. Unfortunately, the current proposal for ExpressLanes will likely not achieve its goals. People who take transit by choice weigh the costs and benefits of transit and driving. Positives for transit on the Harbor and El Monte corridors include travel time, cost, and lack of parking costs. Granted, all three of these depend on having a destination in Downtown Los Angeles. Nonetheless these positives are strong on these two corridors. Negatives are wait time and general attractiveness of the service. These two issues were the defining factors for my trip today – Metro needs to make sure that they do not provide these disincentives for future riders on the Silver Lane with the implementation of ExpressLanes.

Really, it’s easy to increase the general attractiveness of transit, especially on confined corridors like I-110 and I-10, and on a specific set of vehicles, the small-ish bus fleet used to operate the Silver Line. First, Metro must build sound walls around the Harbor Transitway platforms, like WMATA in Washington DC. Next, Metro really needs to up it’s cleaning budget, install public art, and redesign wayfinding at these busway platforms. Metro has done a great job at wayfinding in their newer stations on the Gold Line and the (future) Expo Line.

A little bit of love and elbow grease could massively improve the attractiveness of the Harbor Transitway and fulfill Metro’s goal of improving transit mode share along the Metro Silver Line corridor. It is critical that the ExpressLanes project does not end up like many other transit-highway programs that are essentially greenwashed – like the Harbor Transitway in its original iteration. A little bit of money can go a long way in improving the ghastly Harbor Transitway and making ExpressLanes a success for both motorists and transit riders. Make it happen Metro!

Also, the Metro podium signs are up on some of the Expo Line. I’m getting excited for Expo, are you?

Caltrans Freeway Plans for the Bay Area

In the 1950’s and 1960’s traffic engineers ran wild with plans for urban freeways in the United States. The general consensus was that freeways had no downsides and were not visual blights, pollution emitters, and neighborhood dividers. Even as the public mood changed against freeways in the 1970’s and 1980’s, State Departments of Transportation continued to try to follow through with their grandiose plans for urban freeways.

This map shows plans for urban freeways in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was inspired to create this map when I saw several proposed freeway maps created by Caltrans from 1945 to 1986. These maps made me think of the vast changes in the geography of the area that these freeways would have created. CA 93 along San Pablo Dam Road would have ramped up suburban development around Tilden Regional Park, a Bay Area wilderness treasure, and CA 77, CA 13 and CA 61 would tear through the urban fabric of Oakland. Note that most of the freeways proposed in San Francisco were defeated early, in 1959, by the Freeway Revolts. I hope this map makes you think about the massive changes new freeways can make in undeveloped areas and inspire you to oppose the continuation of the 20th century pattern of wilderness-freeway-sprawl.