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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.

HOV Lanes: A Politically Popular Disaster

Carpool lanes, like many other forms of transportation investment, appear to make highways and driving more green, making expansion of automobile facilities politically acceptable. This “diet Coke” concept, that slightly improving the environmental impact of driving is “green” transport policy, has been taken to new extremes in California, where gigantic, elaborate systems of Carpool (or HOV) lanes now dot the landscape. In Los Angeles, the El Monte Busway, a parallel 2-lane freeway to the I-10 Freeway between Union Station and El Monte, was the first fixed-guideway transit investment in Los Angeles history, installed by the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1974. This facility was originally for buses only, a scheme that allowed the two lanes to carry more passengers more quickly than the parallel 10-lane freeway. Disastrously, a few years after its opening, the El Monte Busway was opened to HOV traffic, here meaning any motor vehicle with 3 or more passengers in it during peak hours and 2 or more passengers otherwise. This change cut the busway’s capacity and reduced speeds, making transit less desirable.

So what is the deal with Carpool lanes anyway? Do they work? What is even their intended purpose?

All of these are legitimate questions. Carpool lanes are intended, generally, to alleviate congestion on the “normal” lanes of a freeway and provide an incentive for solo drivers to ride with more people in the car, theoretically increasing person throughput on a corridor. This purpose is often lost in practice, and carpool lane construction is simply a way of “greenwashing” highway capacity increases. Just as with any other expansion of capacity, carpool lane installation eventually increases traffic congestion due to induced demand, the research-proven principle that if you build it, they will come.

Now do they work? Can a carpool lane facility, especially one as elaborate as the Harbor Transitway in the photograph above, increase the average occupancy of automobiles in a corridor? In one word, no. The installation of carpool lanes along a freeway has been shown to increase carpooling by four percent. Such a tiny number of carpoolers would suggest that any money spent on highway expansion should be spent on general capacity improvements, rather than dedicated carpool infrastructure (offramps, grade separations, interchange ramps) that exist, especially in Los Angeles and Orange Counties in California. Like many issues in transportation the continued construction of HOV/Carpool lanes is purely political.

Many special interest groups love highway expansion. These include truck drivers, construction workers’ unions, construction firms and engineering firms. Politicians have a precedent of spending most transportation money on highways, and the lobbying from these groups encourages them to continue. The decision to install carpool infrastructure instead of general highway expansion is often made because it makes projects look more environmentally conscious. It also helps Environmental Impact Statements receive public approval. In everyone’s mind a carpool lane must help the environment, right? The four percent number conclusively proves that this is not the case. Carpool lanes are a waste.

So what to do with current carpool lane infrastructure? Use it in a more efficient manner: convert most or all of California’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes into Bus-Only Lanes, all day, every day. In this post, I vocally complained about moving at five miles per hour in the HOV lane on Interstate 80 coming back from work one day last summer. This HOV lane, from Hercules to the San Francisco Bay Bridge is actually HOV-3, meaning your vehicle must have 3 occupants to use it. Because of lax enforcement and the sheer volume of cars, this lane moves just as slowly as the “regular” freeway lanes.

Converting this, and all other, HOV lanes to bus-only operation could dramatically increase bus capacity across California. AC Transit’s Transbay Bus Lines would operate more quickly, allowing for an increase in service, and travel times would dramatically decrease, especially during the evening peak. All across California, express bus service could flourish, taking advantage of the near-rediculous carpool infrastructure already in place along many freeways.

Sadly, for this idea to become reality, I would have to wake up on another planet, one where there is NOT a God-ordained right to drive an automobile, as it often seems is the case here in the United States of America. The crisis in operating funds for transit agencies would also prevent this fantasy from becoming reality. Like most of my reflections at the end of these articles, the solution to transportation investment is a large change in priorities, with the government moving as many people as it can, not cars.

The Bay Bridge’s New “Congestion” Tolls

A New Era in Bay Area Tolling, from the MTC.

Airlines charge more for tickets when demand is highest, baseball tickets are more expensive when the Yankees come to town and even rail fares (Washington Metro) are higher during peak hours. By charging more, these entities are giving consumers an economic incentive to consume their goods and services when demand is lower, spreading out usage and improving overall efficiency of their operations. Why then does is terrify Bay Area drivers that the Bay Bridge is instituting a form of this very same system? My response would be: it must be because of the MTC’s half baked implementation of congestion tolls.

Starting at 5am on July 1st, tolls increased to six dollars during peak hours, 5am-10am and 3pm-7pm. At other times on weekdays the toll is four dollars and on weekends toll is four dollars. Fine. Great. Unfortunantely, by giving drivers specific times that the toll will increase and decrease, the new system creates new, perverse incentives to change the time you drive to 10am or 2:45pm. Plus, isn’t the idea of congestion pricing to reduce congestion? The Bay Bridge is not most congested on weekday rush hours. During that time over 100,000 people take transit either on the bridge itself on in the Transbay Tube, vastly reducing car volumes. No, the most terrible time to be on the Bay Bridge is the weekend, which this toll increase and “congestion” pricing doesn’t really address. Systems like the I-15 HOT Lane in Southern California are prime examples of how congestion pricing should really be done.

In the I-15 HOT Lane in Northern San Diego County, congestion is constantly monitored by a central computer. Roadbed loops detect vehicle speed and volume. With this data, the computer automatically sets tolls ranging from 1.50 to 9 dollars. This toll is linked to an algorithm that ensures that traffic in the facility is moving at at least 45 miles per hour. To keep traffic moving that fast, it raises tolls during peak demand, and therefore reduces congestion. Why not implement something similar for the Bay Bridge? Vehicles just end up waiting at the metering lights past the toll plaza anyway. If the Bay Area Toll Authority introduced true congestion tolls, traffic volumes would massively decrease, transit usage would go up, and toll revenue would skyrocket. No one loses in this situation. Transit riders continue with their status quo, but drivers suddenly no longer have to deal with traffic congestion. Yes, they may have to pay much more to cross the bridge, but hey, in Staten Island they pay 12 dollars to cross the Verranzo Narrows Bridge. So quit complaining. Time in this case is money.

The system would work like this. MTC/BATA would have a website with minute to minute updates on the current toll. Your family is going to see a movie in San Francisco and you are debating driving or taking BART. You look on the website and see that the toll for the Bay Bridge is 15 dollars and decide to take BART. Those who MUST drive to the city get a freely-moving freeway and those who have alternatives, like this family, choose the most effecient alternative. Hell, some of this extra toll revenue could be funneled into lower prices for AC Transit Transbay Buses or BART Transbay Service, making transit truly competitive with driving.

Realigning the economic incentives of transportation to reflect land use and climate change concerns is good for all of society in the long run. Unfortunately, current trends in transportation have led to an archaic, perverse incentive system which inherently encourages inefficient, sprawling development, and transportation by the least efficient mode possible: the single occupancy automobile. Congestion pricing on a single bridge will not immedietely change these sad realities, but over time the equalization of prices in transportation could revolutionize American urban form and life for the better.

As a final note, I neglected posting to Wilshire/Vermont for about two weeks in order to become oriented with my new job as an Intern for the Transbay Transit Center Project. I hope you will forgive me. For the foreseeable future, posts will be up on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week. I can only manage two posts a week for now; when I get back to school it will again increase to three on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks for reading.

San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center: A New Approach

Cross Section of the Transbay Transit Center, courtesy of transbaycenter.org

San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center is an ambitious project consisting of a train and bus terminal, several gigantic high rise buildings and an elevated park above the terminal. The Center will replace the current Transbay Terminal bus facility, a relic of streetcar service across the Bay Bridge. The current facility has low ceilings, low capacity and is seismically unsound. It is also unable to accept underground train platforms.

With the understanding that a new transit center is needed, several options were explored regarding the train box under the station. In the original plan for the center, the bus platforms were to be built first, opening in 2015, with the train platforms and subterranean mezzanine being built later, under the functioning transit center. Such a plan contains the obvious fallacy that building a massive train station under an operating building is massively expensive, especially when the building was not conceived in the first place to accept such underground facilities. This argument was one of the main reasons why a new transit center is being built in the first place.

A stroke of fate has enabled the designers of the Transbay Transit Center to change their approach from top-down to bottom-up. High speed rail money from the Federal Railroad Administration and the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) is paying the 400 million dollar cost of installing the train box at the same time as the rest of the transit center. 400 million may be difficult to stomach for a train station, but given the status of infrastructure spending in the United States, leaving the train box for later would likely have been its death knell. Estimates for the future cost of a train box under the completed transit center were nearly double the cost. I applaud the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) and its consultants for bringing together this funding and ensuring that the transit center will fulfill its potential.

The inclusion of the train box at the beginning of the project brings many issues with its design to the forefront of discussions on the transit center. The CAHSRA has required platform space to run trains at five minute frequencies. This requirement is ridiculous. Not even Japan’s Shinkansen High Speed Rail Service, the busiest in the world, runs at such frequencies. As you can see in the image above, this mandate by CAHSRA robs platform space and tracks from Caltrain. The current train box arrangement would only allocate Caltrain two tracks and one island platform, limiting capacity into the Transbay Transit Center to less than current peak hour headways on the line. Any future service increases to cope with the inevitable increase in ridership due to electrification and direct service to Downtown San Francisco could only run as far as the current 4th & King terminal due to capacity constraints at the Transbay Transit Center platforms. This artificial constraint would defeat much of the purpose of the Caltrain Downtown Extension Project to connect Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center. The train box will fit six tracks and three island platforms. Instead of a 4/2 split in favor of CAHSRA, the spilt should be the oposite with Caltrain being allowed use of 4 tracks. The demand and frequency for Caltrain’s local service along the peninsula will be much higher at all times of day, hence it should have more track space.

Another concern I have with the current design of the Transbay Transit Center is the lack of coordinated planning between the TJPA and BART about a possible future BART station in or adjacent to the complex. The need for a second Transbay Tube is widely recognized and a station at the Transbay Transit Center would be ideal, permitting a direct connection between high speed rail, Caltrain and BART. Provisions for a BART station could include simple, low-cost fixtures like entrance bellmouths, locations for fare gates and a larger mezzanine to accommodate future BART riders to the transit center. Like the train box, these (relatively) inexpensive inclusions to the project would eliminate future costs and integrate a future rapid transit station into the transit center.

My final concern about the current iteration of the Transbay Transit Center project is the slow speed at which construction on adjacent development is proceeding. Over six high rise buildings are planned as part of the project and much of the revenue TJPA is counting on is from the sale of currently vacant land owned by the authority to developers. Many of these towers were supposed to have begun construction in 2009 or earlier this year. Obviously current economic conditions have depressed property values and made large real estate developments less attractive. Fortunately, the towers near the Transbay Transit Center are transit oriented development in its purest form, with no limits on density or height. Hopefully developers will acknowledge this fact and gamble that the market for housing in urban areas will rebound, otherwise a large chunk of TJPA’s revenue will be lost.

With a nod to the future the Transbay Transit Center has refocused its priorities and now will be built in a more cost effective and timely manner. Hopefully this forward looking strategy will be further adopted, designing the terminal to be BART-ready for the time when the second transbay tube will be built. Regardless of this outcome, the Transbay Transit Center will be one of the most exciting transit stations in the world, connecting all parts of the Bay Area to the rest of California and providing the massive, Grand Central Terminal-style transit station that the Bay Area has always lacked.

AC Transit, an Agency In Crisis

AC Transit is a major bus operator in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties in California. It is now the largest bus-only transit agency in the United States, serving over 200,000 riders per day, many of whom are transit dependent. Despite these credentials, AC Transit is not often discussed in national transit circles like Seattle’s King Metro or WMATA’s Metro Bus because it is separate from BART, the rail transit agency serving the region. Nonetheless, AC Transit is an interesting and surprisingly large agency with a major Bus Rapid Transit project in planning. On March 30th, AC Transit cut service hours by around 10 percent to compensate for a loss of state funds and lower sales tax revenue. These service cuts were targeted, consolidating routes into loops and eliminating the least productive routes. Even after these cuts and a recent fare increase a further cut in service is scheduled for August.

Unlike the recent March service cut, which managed to increase efficiency without cutting major services, this new cut coming in August will be painful, affecting even the most used routes. Three different plans are on the table. One is cutting nearly all weekend service, another is eliminating service after 10PM and the third option is cutting all service by 10 percent. Some combination of these three options may also be adopted. On the map, I have highlighted routes likely to be deleted or reduced significantly based on ridership.

As seen on my map, these potential service cuts are massive. They will vastly reduce mobility for those in the East Bay who lack an automobile and aren’t near a BART station. AC Transit’s main corridors, which account for the highest ridership numbers, will mostly maintain their current level of service but most other service will but cut or dramatically scaled back. These feeder routes may not sustain much ridership, but they serve the people who need bus service the most, low income people in the Richmond-Berkeley-Oakland area who can’t afford to drive.

You’ll notice that Berkeley is one of the main cities in AC Transit’s service area. Being born in Berkeley and growing up there has helped me see the irony and hypocrisy of many of its residents. In Berkeley, a Toyota Prius is a must because it’s saving the environment, right? Not so. A Toyota Prius is like diet soda. Slightly better, but still bad. If residents of Berkeley want to tout their environmentalism and progressive ideals, they must advocate on behalf of AC Transit and save the agency with new revenue sources. Also, Berkeley’s City Council must approve of AC Transit’s plan to build a Bus Rapid Transit system on the route of the 1R route. This BRT line would improve service and cut costs because BRT lines offer more reliable service, therefore less service hours per rider.

Sadly many transit agencies in the United States are in dire financial situations like AC Transit. Priorities for transportation in America have been skewed for an entire generation and continue to be wildly biased toward the use of the automobile, a device whose use wastes energy and promotes growth patterns that are neither sustainable nor pleasant. Something needs to change, and soon.

The Bay Area’s Fragmented Transit Operators

In the United States, public transit as a mode of travel is generally slower and less convenient than driving. Sixty years of automobile-oriented development and massive subsidies for freeways, parking and fossil fuels have made driving the predominant mode of transportation. Programs like the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts  have made transit more viable for many, but the operational and funding structures of transit agencies often further complicate trips on transit.

The San Francisco Bay Area is the most fragmented transit market in the country. With a population of nine million and very dense development concentrated in linear patterns due to geography, the Bay Area should be a great place for transit. Rail ridership on all systems is around 600,000 per day and bus ridership on all systems is around 1.5 million riders per day. Those numbers are impressive, but the fragmentation of transit operators greatly inhibits longer trips, causes cutthroat competition for funding and is grossly inefficient for capital expenditures.

Take for example Contra Costa County in the East Bay. Four bus agencies, AC Transit, County Connection, WestCAT and Tri-Delta Transit cover the largely suburban county, all of which but AC Transit provide very infrequent service and serve a small amount of riders. Their limited service areas and low budgets limit the potential for more regional routes. For example, a rider in Hercules traveling to UC Berkeley would need to take a WestCAT bus that runs once an hour to El Cerrito Del Norte BART, take BART to Downtown Berkeley then take AC Transit 51A to campus. This trip would take over one hour by transit, cost nearly six dollars each way and only be possible once an hour. Merging transit agencies could coordinate schedules, cross subsidize suburban bus service with urban bus or rail revenue and consolidate administrative and purchasing departments to cut costs.

A “super” transit agency for the Bay Area would look something like New York’s MTA or Chicago’s RTA. In this hypothetical situation, let’s call the agency bamta (Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Agency). bamta would absorb the core portions of AC Transit (Oakland-Berkeley-Richmond) and all of SF Muni’s bus operations into bamta Urban Bus Division. Suburban portions of AC Transit (in the Fremont area), WestCAT, Tri-Delta Transit, Vallejo Transit, County Connection, WHEELS, Marin Transit Local Service, SamTrans and VTA would all become bamta Suburban Bus Division. Finally AC Transit Transbay Service, Golden Gate Transit, Baylink, Dumbarton Express and all express routes of WestCAT, SamTrans and VTA would become bamta Express Bus Division. This substantial consolidation would centralize planning, coordinate route schedules, provide service across current service boundary lines and allow collective bus purchases to cut costs.

Rail operations in the Bay Area are also managed by far too many agencies with diverging goals and incompatible scheduling. An electrified Caltrain and BART could be combined into bamta Rapid Transit Division. SF Muni’s Metro System and VTA light rail could be merged into bamta Light Rail Division. Finally, ACE, SMART, Capitol Corridor and Caltrain diesel operations could become bamta Commuter Rail Division.

bamta could also gain control of the Bay Area’s numerous toll bridges and directly use revenues for transit operations. The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District and Bay Area Toll Authority would combine into bamta Highways and Bridges.

Under such a drastic plan, the Bay Area’s current (and ineffective) metropolitan planning organization, MTC, would no longer be needed and could be disbanded. bamta would assume MTC’s duties as MPO. bamta would also assume BART’s previous role as a special district, giving it the ability to tax the nine counties in which it would operate.

With a dedicated source of funding, in the form of a sales or payroll tax, current disasters like the 61 million dollar budget deficit at Caltrain would be avoided. Transit through bamta would be more convenient and coordinated, funding would be directed at a single body instead of over 15 agencies and administration could be consolidated. Think of it: instead of 15 Human Relations Departments or 15 Legal Departments, there would only be one and so on.

Less competing government agencies, a more streamlined approach to transit planning and operations and a unified brand for transit in the Bay Area would vastly improve transit’s ability to compete with the automobile. Politically, this agency would hold clout equal to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in statewide matters of transportation funding, giving Bay Area residents a heavier hand in State politics.

You will hear more of my bamta idea in posts to come, especially about a unified rail system and its benefits. I’ll also finally get to my third post about the Los Angeles Westside Subway Extension tomorrow.

Politics and the follies of the California State Government will likely prevent any consolidation of transit agencies, let alone one as drastic as my proposal. Alas, one can dream.