Blog: July, 2010
The Castro parklet [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Fleeing Phoenix out of fear of Arizona's immigration law: Thousands of immigrants are fleeing Phoenix, AZ before the state's harsh new immigration law goes into place, leaving neighborhoods vacant, and forcing local stores out of business.
Seedbombing for the modern guerilla gardening movement: Guerilla gardeners are arming themselves with "seedbombs," their new weapon of choice in the quest to make the world a greener place.
Bikes and cars: A lesson in Los Angeles: The mayor of Los Angeles broke his elbow last Saturday, when a swerving car knocked him off his bike, serving as a painful reminder that his city still has a ways to go in improving bike safety.
Exploring algae as fuel: Certain strains of genetically engineered algae are showing promise for being used as a green source of fuel.
Atlanta's Buford Highway is a death trap: A highway in an Atlanta suburb exemplifies the serious problems with suburban transit infrastructure that caters to cars and not to pedestrians.
The G-list: Architect Magazine has compiled a list of the "top-five most important green buildings since 1980", in response to Vanity Fair's recent top architecture list which gives surprisingly little representation to green architecture.
Old San Francisco mint to become a gorgeous green museum: The San Francisco Mint, which has been vacant since 1995, will find a new purpose as a cultural hub and historical museum thanks to an adaptive reuse project aimed at greening and redeveloping this famous SF Landmark.
SFpark: Re-imagining How We Park in SF
Taking the guess work out of parking. That's what SFMTA's innovative new parking program, SFpark, aims to accomplish. When implemented, the program will dramatically change how drivers locate and pay for parking.
A new SFpark "smart meter" [Photo Credit: flickr user SFMTA_sfpark]
Here's a quick breakdown of how SFpark works:
- Sensors located in parking spaces and City-owned garages will track real-time parking availability
- This information will be uploaded to the SFpark data feed which will be publicly available so people can easily find an open space
- Drivers will access this information through smart phone applications, SFpark.org, and street signs
After drivers find an available parking space, they will find new parking meters that accept coins, credit and debit cards, or SFMTA parking cards.
SFpark is putting those sensors and parking meters to work for another good use: variable pricing. The more parking spaces available, the lower parking costs will be. The fewer parking spaces available, the higher parking costs will be. Basically, SFpark will use technology to direct drivers to park where there is a lot of availability and encourage shorter parking durations where available parking is more limited.
Aside from making it easier for drivers to find and pay for parking, SFpark promises a variety of other benefits. Circling for parking represents about 30% of driving in San Francisco. By reducing the need to drive around for parking, there will be fewer cars on the road. This will make our streets quieter and safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, reduce air pollution, and speed up buses.
Despite these expected benefits, one area that may be cause for concern is decreased revenue from parking tickets. The city currently brings in about $17 million a year from tickets for expired meters. However, the new parking payment options will make it easier for drivers to avoid tickets, which will likely decrease ticket revenues. It remains to be seen if the new revenues from higher parking rates during peak times will be enough to offset the expected loss of expired meter revenue. Although not an explicit goal of SFpark, any decrease in revenues will be cited by SFpark's opponents given the city's current fiscal problems. This points to a larger problem with implementing any innovative program in today's economic environment: any policy will be judged through a short-term fiscal lens, even if the policy accomplishes long-term city goals.
Installation of 190 new parking meters in Hayes Valley will begin on July 27, 2010 -- the first step in implementing the SFpark program. All told, about 5,000 new meters will replace old meters in SPpark pilot areas, including Downtown, the Marina, the Fillmore, SoMa, the Mission, Civic Center, and Fisherman's Wharf.
Map of SFpark area:
[Map courtesy of sfpark.org]
SFpark will be testing its new parking management system at 6,000 of San Francisco's 25,000 metered spaces and 12,250 spaces in 15 of 20 City-owned parking garages. The pilot phase of SFpark will start this summer and run for two years.
New Study Highlights Untapped Energy Potential of Existing Commercial Buildings
[Photo Credit: flickr user Snapsi42]
Next 10, an independent, nonpartisan organization that studies the intersection between the economy, the environment, and quality of life in California, has just released a new report on the untapped energy efficiency potential associated with existing commercial buildings. The paper outlines the energy efficiency benefits associated with making improvements to commercial buildings and analyzes the market barriers which make these improvements difficult.
- Commercial buildings account for almost 40 percent of primary energy usage in the U.S.
- Existing commercial buildings can be made 80 percent more efficient with new and existing technology
- New buildings can be designed to use one-third to one-half less energy with as little as two percent increase in construction costs
- The three primary ways to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings include climate controls and equipment, lighting, and changes to the building's thermal envelope
- Split incentives, upfront capital costs and an information gap are some obstacles to widespread energy retrofits
The study concludes that several opportunities currently exist for improvement in California. While California has historically led the nation in energy efficiency standards, there are currently no standards for existing buildings, and the U.S. Green Building Council has an opportunity to create more stringent LEED requirements for newly constructed buildings, which are currently far below what is possible. Additionally, California has the largest-scale Property Assessed Clean Energy programs in the nation, which allow public entities in the state to partner with property owners to finance energy efficiency projects with low-interest loans. Next 10 notes that more widespread adoption of these programs will help spur investments in energy efficiency. The study also suggests that California create its own version of the U.S. Department of Energy Commercial Building Initiative in order to remain a leader in energy efficiency policy.
San Francisco's very own Transamerica Pyramid is featured in the Next 10 paper as a "monumental retrofit." Find out more about the Transamerica Pyramid's transformation here.
HSR Report: France
As California lays the high-speed rail groundwork, SPUR continues its series on international precedents. While France built high-speed rail two decades after Japan and within a different state apparatus, the system had remarkably similar results: growth and concentration. France teaches us that a state investment in high-speed rail (HSR) can have major impacts on places that are isolated and suffering from lagging economic performance. The examples of Lille, an old industrial and mining center in northern France, and Nantes, south of Paris, are often cited as success stories.
Euralille [Photo Credit: flickr user savourama]
Lille is an important crossroads in the European HSR network with service to London, Paris and Brussels. Once a quickly depopulating and gritty industrial city, Lille has diversified into knowledge-intensive, service-producing activities. Euralille, the new retail, business and conference center designed by Dutch powerhouse architect, Rem Koolhaas and OMA, is illustrative of the makeover. Euralille straddles Lille's two main railway stations. A standalone city, it houses productive facilities as well as affordable housing. In 1994, Architectural Review dubbed Euralille the "Instant City."
Equally unrecognizable change has befallen Nantes. An industrial port city in the 19th century, in the past 30 years Nantes has developed into a major service sector hug. In 2004, Time magazine named Nantes "the most livable city in all of Europe." The TGV, France's high speed rail network, came to Nantes concurrently in 1981.
The success of the TGV cannot be separated from France's institutional and planning framework. The determination and capacity of a strong French state was instrumental. The nation owns and provides operational subsidies to SNCF, the HSR operator.
[Photo Credit: flickr user Julka2009]
However, this is not to say that localities have no role in high speed rail. In recent years, local government has played a more important role in France. Vis-Ã -vis joint development agreements and direct development subsidies, French localities have exerted pressure to densify around TGV stations. Cities also set the purchase price of land and assemble properties to facilitate development. Lille approached station area development with public private partnerships in mind. Part of the key to Nantes' and Lille's success is the not insignificant recent investment in transit feeder networks that connect high speed rail with outlying areas. Not including Paris, there are 20 light rail systems in France, most built after HSR. Of these 20 systems, 18 are in cities with HSR service. At least in France, the concentration of travel demand thanks to high speed rail and the urban location of most stations have generated a consequent demand for feeder transit, with the usual array of environmental and land use benefits.
All told, the public sector bet that HSR investment would be sufficient to catalyze urban growth and induce private investments. They were right.
- HSR in France is largely a product of the government's building, operating, maintaining the network.
- Local planning and development incentives can play a huge role in sparking station area development.
- HSR can transform decaying cities into the most livable in Europe.
- HSR ridership increases with robust feeder transit.
In the coming weeks, we'll look at "HSR" in the United States and United Kingdom drawing conclusions about what it all means in the California context.
SPUR's policy paper on high-speed rail is due out this fall.
Bringing Geary Back
Geary Boulevard runs almost the entire width of San Francisco, from Market to the ocean. The name of the street hides a lot of history — John White Geary was the first mayor of San Francisco post-statehood, and he would go on to govern Kansas during its "Bloody Kansas" period in the buildup to the Civil War. But that's a matter for another post though — this post is about forgotten transportation.
Today, the traffic on Geary reflects San Francisco's dual nature. On the one hand, this is a town that depends heavily on transit, and the 38-Geary is one of the busiest bus lines in the country (the busiest in the western half of the country by some estimates). On the other, the street's design, especially through the Western Addition, clearly prioritizes heavy private auto traffic, as evidenced by the two underpasses (below Fillmore and Masonica). Below is an east-facing picture from the Webster Street pedestrian bridge in Japantown:
[Photo Credit: flickr user flowertai]
Before the 1950s, though, Geary was home to a number of Muni streetcar lines, also with heavy ridership. Like a number of other lines throughout San Francisco, these fell victim to Muni's move to buses through the middle of the last century. So today there's no sign that Geary was home to some of the city's earliest Muni streetcar lines: the A-Geary ran from downtown to Golden Gate Park (at 10th Avenue), and the B-Geary ran to the ocean, terminating at Playland at the Beach, the former amusement park on Ocean Beach. The density found in even the western reaches of the Richmond today is thanks in part to these streetcars and the mobility they offered. Coming just six years after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, they helped to hurry along the westward reconstruction of the city in the 1910s and 20s.
[Photo Credit: flickr user telstar]
Unfortunately for railfans, the city decided to switch over to cheaper bus transportation during the 1950s. Some streetcars like the H-Potrero serving Potrero Hill were canceled due to low ridership, but ultimately the city replaced almost all its rail, even on heavily trafficked Geary. The only lines that survived this switch were those with special rights-of-way, leaving us with the five Muni Metro lines we have today. Meanwhile, Geary was "upgraded" to accommodate the automobile, with additional lanes, underpasses on Fillmore and Masonic, and freeway-style exit ramps. As with elevated rail teardowns in New York, San Franciscans were promised a restored and improved form of rail transportation. During the 1960s, the plan was to construct a Geary branch of the BART regional system:
[Photo Credit: flickr user Eric Fischer]
These plans fell through when Marin County elected not to join BART. But plans to bring rail to Geary persisted, with proposals for a Muni Metro subway down Geary and streetcars down California and Balboa Streets appearing in planning documents as late as 1974.
[Photo Credit: flickr user Eric Fischer]
Unfortunately, failure to find funding and pass ballot measures doomed these proposals, and Geary (despite being a relatively dense corridor) was left with local and express bus service that -- though robust -- is limited in its capacity.
On the bright side, the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards transit in the Bay Area, among the plans getting a lot of attention is a proposal to build bus rapid transit along the Geary corridor. While this would not have the speed or capacity of a subway, it would still represent an improvement for getting to the northwestern reaches of the city. The plans currently call for a 2015-16 completion, but they're meeting some local resistance. In an additional ironic twist, the overpasses that made the street more like a freeway are also conspiring to make the BRT plans more complicated. According to Kamala Kelkar for the The Examiner:
Three options exist for dealing with [intersections with overpasses], which include Fillmore Street and Masonic Avenue: have the pedestrians cross three lanes of speedy traffic at a crosswalk underneath the bridges, have them exit on either end of tunnels and walk to their transfers and shopping, or have the buses stay aboveground, which could sacrifice up to 300 parking spots between Van Ness and 33rd avenues, according to documents from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the local agency in charge of the BRT.
Hopefully the city can see its way past these roadblocks and bring more transit to Geary — and maybe even a rail line in the medium-term. (Even the idea for a BART line underneath Geary resurfaced in a 2006 Regional Rail Plan alternatives analysis.) But in the meantime, the focus should be on bringing speedier transit, namely bus rapid transit. SPUR's take on the Geary BRT project is available here.
Datablog: Finding the World's Dimensions
The power of data to destroy preconceived notions seems to drive Hans Rosling, co-founder of Gapminder. My first experience with the website was in the spring of 2009 when H1N1 hysteria reached its apex. When a friend sent over the link, I thought I was looking at a simple scatter plot. I had neglected to notice the play button at the bottom of the screen -- an animated feature which shows change over time. In this case, the graph compared the number of news articles about tuberculosis and H1N1 to the number of reported cases of each disease. Obviously, in the spring of 2009, H1N1 had become a disproportionately large news story.
Purchased by Google in 2007, Gapminder pushes data forward in three ways: it liberates long-buried information by publishing the available data; the animation feature makes the data digestible for a significantly larger audience; and most importantly, it encourages participation through its search function, a seemingly common theme in the Datablog.
The recently introduced Gapminder Desktop allows users to both access the information without an internet connection and save their favorite graphs (the current version comes with more than 600 preloaded graphs). A personal favorite is one that monitors per capita CO2 emissions. Before we assail China for their recent upsurge, it should be noted that until recently the US had held that dubious distinction since since 1903.
Trinidad and Tobago was the 1944 world leader in per capita CO2 emissions. Free SPUR membership to the first person who tells me how this could possibly be true.
[Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
London opens bike superhighways: London sets a positive urban example by installing bicycle superhighways on the previously bike-unfriendly streets, in hopes of inciting a "cycling revolution."
Longtime denizens resist call to leave terminal: As most San Francisco residents welcome the arrival of a new Transbay Terminal, others are having more difficulty adjusting to the change-- specifically the homeless individuals who used to call the old terminal home.
German autobahn closed for gigantic party—one million cyclists celebrate: There was no driving on the Autobahn last Sunday when a section of the famous German expressway was closed to host a giant car-less party. An astonishing three million pedestrians and bikers showed up to reclaim the road.
Getting off oil: Forget hybrids and solar panels, we need active, exciting and vibrant cities: Does the key to greening our cities rest not on solar panels and electric vehicles, but instead on our ability to increase walkability in pre-existing urban areas?
BART's fare reduction off track: BART enters the 2010-11 fiscal year with a $4.5 million surplus -- a sum passengers hope will be spent on extended service hours, tighter security, and cleaner trains instead of temporary fare reductions.
Grandiose Nazi airport becomes a wild and free park in Berlin: A former German airport, once a testament to the country's rocky past, has blossomed into a no-frills, but nonetheless wildly successful park, with little more done to the vast space than a few X's painted onto the runway.
Innovation powers growth of small wind on urban rooftops: New innovations in the small wind industry are helping to bring wind power to urban settings, such as in New York City, where a small wind turbine resting atop an eight-story apartment building can supply the residents with all their power needs for their shared spaces.
TechnoCRAFT: A DIY Approach to Technology, Art and Everything in Between
5.5 Designers' wallpaper maze [Photo Credit: Switched on Set]
Like the word itself, the exhibit offers projects that blur any distinction there may still be between technology and art, designer and user or subject and object. Drawing from household goods, video games and prison-inmate implements, TechnoCRAFT displays frameworks, which the user then mods, tweaks and hacks to fit his or her needs. It is the perfect symbiosis.
It's great to see the role of the designer chopped and screwed back together. Among the many striking objects in this exhibit are the bike seat fastened to the legs of a toddler's high chair; build-your-own shoes, soda label and videogame hero; the malleable titanium cube waiting to be crushed into a form-fitting chair; and modular product development open platforms, called bugs.
As delightful as the exhibit is, it's difficult to step midstride into a participatory art project without being able to participate. The 40' by 15' wallpaper maze upon which the artist traced a dozen dead-end paths in magic marker practically begged me to pick up a marker and give it a go. But do-not-touch decorum and omnipresent gallery attendant foiled all hope of that.
Even if a museum isn't the best place to experience art as an interactive process, TechnoCRAFT is inspiring and loads of fun.
In the same do-it-yourself spirit, SPUR's DIY Urbanism exhibition opening Tuesday, September 7, will showcase innovative urban projects defined by their bottom-up approach to urban intervention.
Made in the Dogpatch
The Dogpatch may already be on everyone's radar as a neighborhood on the rise (see last year's New York Times "Surfacing" feature), but touring the area's artisan manufacturers lends a much more tangible element to all the hype. This former shipbuilding center has attracted a new wave of craftsmen, producing everything from messenger bags to chocolates to modern backyard cabanas. SFMade's Kate Sofis led us through the Dogpatch's flourishing manufacturing community, providing expertise on all things locally made.
Rickshaw Bags' Dogpatch headquarters [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Designed and made onsite in the Dogpatch, Rickshaw Bags' customizable products have a fast production turnover, moving from design phase to market in a matter of weeks — just one of the benefits of manufacturing locally.
Nick Damner showcases his Modern Cabana [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Modern Cabana's backyard cabins represent the fruitful partnership of an architect and general contractor: sleek, efficient structures designed to help San Franciscans maximize their limited space. Starting at 100 square feet (the largest accessory structure permitted by the building code without a permit in San Francisco), these structures can be built and installed within one week.
The Recchiuti chocolate factory [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Opening one of many dull grey doors in a vast hallway of the American Industrial Center, Michael Recchiuti led us into his chocolate factory, Recchiuti Confections. I don't know if it was the chocolate waterfall, cookie cooling tunnel or all the talk of "copulating" flavors, but I found myself wanting to pull an Augustus Gloop and jump right in there. Fortunately for everyone else, chocolate cravings were satiated before any serious contamination occurred.
Michael Recchiuti knows how to treat his customers [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
SF Walks: Outer Richmond and Sutro Baths
Colleen McHugh, native San Franciscan and resident SPUR photographer, will blog about a different walk through San Francisco each week of the summer, reflecting on what it means to live as a pedestrian in this city and some of the ways we can improve upon that experience. There are so many things a walk in San Francisco can be — from a protest to an errand to an active use of public space. This walk will serve as a kind of memory in motion. Find a map of Colleen's walk here.
Above: Stairs descending to the Sutro Baths
I've arrived at my old favorite spot in San Francisco — a graffiti-covered concrete relic of the coast's military past, at the very edge of the city and the continent, with a view of the Pacific to the left and the Golden Gate to the right. Land's End. When I was in high school, this particular spot was hidden behind a foreboding "Warning: Dangerous Cliffs!" sign and a maze of bushes. Now the bushes have been cleared, replaced by a newly-paved lookout, and my old favorite view in this city is fully exposed — to the coin operated binoculars in the parking lot above and to the eroding cliffs below.
Above: Views to the left and to the right of my former favorite spot in San Francisco
Top: Paved lookout. Bottom: Coin-operated Binoculars from the parking lot.
At this point on a Monday evening after work, I've walking about ten blocks down the forgotten sidewalks at the end of Geary Blvd. And as I arrive to the pristinely-paved trail around Land's End, I am reminded of one of the many great things a walk in this city can be — a measure of change and a memory of the past. The last time I walked along this path — a favorite of runners and dog walkers — it was a mix of dirt and rocks. And the surrounding foliage was not carefully protected native species as it is now, but invasive ice plant. The linking maze of paths have since been closed off for eroding cliff stabilization. So much has changed. Originally, this trail was carved for train tracks — a reminder of the leisure destination this area was a century ago.
Top: Pristine Land's End trail. Bottom: Untamed wide sidewalk at the end of Geary.
I continue down the hill to Sutro Baths, a marshland/concrete ruin below the Cliff House. As I walk through the grass, watching ducks congregate at sunset in the old baths, my shoes are muddied and my socks become wet. It's difficult to imagine the glory days of the former world's largest indoor swimming facility, and the tales of which my grandfather and father have told me over the years sound like fiction. Now part of the GGNRA, the Sutro Baths and Lands End trail are a destination for much more serene leisure activities, like this solitary walk I find myself on this particular evening.
Up over the hill to the south, Ocean Beach and the Great Highway come into view, as do the unsightly condos on the site of the former Playland at the Beach (one of the few remaining memories of which is the carousel that now operates at Yerba Buena). I turn up Balboa as dusk sets in. A passing 31 bus marks the city's decision in the 1950s to forego the old B-line streetcar (Yes, there used to be streetcar lines A-I.) in favor of buses. In the distance, the familiar Balboa Theatre sign shines, even as many of the city's other old movie houses are shutting down. I pass a lively fencing class in a studio down the street, and finally return to Simple Pleasures — my favorite coffee shop, virtually unchanged over the six years I've been going there.
Top: An unexpected fencing class. Bottom: An unchanged Simple Pleasures CafÃ©.
[Photo Credit: All photos by Colleen McHugh]