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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.

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Rail Transit in Los Angeles – A Map

I did a map like this for San Francisco a while back. Take a look and see what you think. I only included Central/West Los Angeles.

Main features include a Downtown LA Bus Tunnel, new Busways along Venice, Slauson, Sunset, and the Mission Subdivision, a subway/elevated extension down Vermont Avenue, extension of the Crenshaw Line to Santa Monica/La Brea, and the inclusion of a Heavy Rail West Hollywood Line. Finally, on this map I suggest that the Westside Subway Extension should go all the way to Downtown Santa Monica and the ocean.

Enjoy.

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.

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.