Blog: October, 2010
California Forward Features Interview with Gabriel Metcalf
"The only way we're going to do something about sprawl, which is the environmental problem of our generation, is to increase density near transit and already urbanized areas."
Canadian Suburbanites More Likely to Ride Transit than Americans
Jarrett Walker of Human Transit has an intriguing post comparing transit ridership in American cities to those in Canada. As you can see in the chart below (based on these data), Canadian cities seem to have higher transit usage than American metro regions of similar size (the points on the chart are all based on metropolitan areas, not central cities).
[Chart via: urbanist.typepad.com/]
There's been a lot of speculation over at Human Transit as to why this might be, as the reasons aren't immediately obvious. Canada and the US are similarly wealthy places, and built their cities at similar times, unlike much older European metros. The type of transit offered also doesn't stick out as a key driver — San Francisco, DC, and Boston all have robust rail options, and still have a much lower transit share than Canadian counterparts.
Digging a little, it seems that the disparity is largely driven by the suburbs. If we look only at central cities, the gap seems to shrink. In fact, the percentage of people riding transit to work is higher in some American cities, as shown in the table below:
|City||% Commuters riding transit||City||% Commuters riding transit|
So why are Canadian suburbanites more likely to ride transit than Americans? The original data aren't granular enough to really dig in, but a few possibilities come to mind. For one, Canadians pay more to fill up their gas tanks: the current average price in Canada is about $4 per gallon, compared to $2.81 in the US. This premium has persisted for a while, and may have helped to counteract sprawl, especially the employment sprawl that generates auto trips in the US. The numbers might also point to successes in Canadian land-use policy like Ontario's Places To Grow program, which channels development into suburban downtowns and away from the exurban fringes. Either way, American advocates might want to spend more time looking north of the border, and thinking about how we can import some of that ridership.
SPUR members toured Recycle Central last week [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Can We Farm in Skyscrapers? Author Dickson Despommier thinks we can. His newest book on "vertical farming" advocates for growing food in multi-story urban agriculture centers as a way to cut down on the resources traditionally involved in producing and transporting crops.
How SoHo Can Save the Suburbs: As more young families opt to live in cities rather than suburbs, suburban renewal has taken on a new level of importance for many of these areas. Richard Florida looks at how "edge cities" nation-wide are turning their unused spaces into "hip hotspots," in an attempt to remake themselves into vibrant, livable places.
Tales of Bike Lane Abuse: A report sponsored by the Manhattan borough president found that many of NYC's signature bike lanes are frequently intruded on by cars, pedestrians, and even buses that use the lane as a short cut for getting around traffic.
How Hollywood Learned to Ride the City: A video by The New York Times follows professional bike coach Dave Jordan as he spends a summer teaching Hollywood stars urban bike riding in preparation for their upcoming roles. This marks a new trend in filmmaking, in which the industry is beginning to stray from its typical car-driving characters and portray more bikers in movies.
Public Access to S.F. Bay Tied to Private Projects: According to John King, the migration of San Francisco's Exploratorium from the Palace of Fine Arts to Piers 15 and 17 may offer a model for how private development can bring out about quality public space.
Loma Prieta Turns 21, a Sobering Reminder for a More Resilient San Francisco
Long-time and fair-weather Giants fans alike are enjoying a thrilling — yet quintessentially torturous — postseason this October, hoping for a fourth World Series trip since the team moved to San Francisco in 1958. Listening to postseason baseball commentary is often a lesson in history — or at least a lesson in obscure team records for most strikeouts in a playoff game or what players have hit the first three homeruns for their team in a postseason series. Sunday marked the 21st anniversary of another moment in Giants history — what would have been Game Three at Candlestick Park in the Battle of the Bay World Series against the Oakland A's. But as we well know, fans at Candlestick and across the Bay Area on that Tuesday evening in October were treated to a 6.9M earthquake instead of a baseball game.
Loma Prieta may be drinking-aged, but this anniversary acts as a sobering reminder of all we still need to do as a city to prepare for the next major quake — one that scientists suggest may be even bigger. In particular, San Francisco has done little to retrofit and protect its most vulnerable housing structures. Many soft-story buildings — those with openings such as garage doors or large windows, and lacking interior partition walls on the ground floor — sustained damage after Loma Prieta, and several collapsed completely. There are about 2,800 similarly vulnerable soft-story structures throughout the city that need to be strengthened. Proposition A on November's ballot is a first step in doing just that. This $46.15 million general obligation bond would fund specific seismic improvements to permanently retrofit affordable housing and single room occupancy buildings that have seismically vulnerable soft-story conditions. For further analysis on Prop A and the City's other ballot measures, see SPUR's Voter Guide.
The following are a collection images from 1989 of soft-story damage after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. If you're interested in helping with the Proposition A campaign, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Go Giants!
Election 2010 Resources
Election Day is fast approaching - make sure you're not stranded at the voting booth without all the right information. We've compiled a list of resources on San Francisco and statewide Props to help you navigate the ballot this November.
SPUR Voter Guide: SPUR's official analysis of San Francisco's ballot measures, including detailed pros and cons, and an official position on each measure.
California Choices: Non-partisan analysis of statewide ballot measures. There's also a complete list of ballot endorsements by non-profits, unions, newspapers, political parties and gubernatorial candidates.
Legislative Analyst's Office: Government analysis from the state's non-partisan fiscal and policy advisor.
California Budget Project: Analyses of state fiscal and tax Propositions, emphasizing their implications for middle- and low-income California residents.
Ballotpedia: A ballot wiki and "interactive almanac of state politics."
[Photo Credit: flickr user nshepard]
Brian O'Neill's Legacy Ensures a Bright Future for the GGNRA
[Photos: left: flickr user armstrks, right: via SF Chronicle]
"Nothing big happens in less than a decade," the late Brian O'Neill was quoted as saying. Those words from the ambitious superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (and longtime SPUR board member) who worked to transform one of the largest urban park districts in the country, still serve as a reminder when tackling giant projects, putting into perspective all that was accomplished during his tenure.
During an evening symposium at SPUR on the future of the park, GGNRA Executive Director Greg Moore emphasized the importance of community partnerships and local stewardships to carry on O'Neill's legacy.
When placed at the head of the 75,500- acre GGNRA — which encompasses San Francisco's Presidio, the Marin Headlands and portions of San Mateo County — in 1986, O'Neill's vision was "audaciously vast," said Moore. This was exemplified with the transformation of military posts to national parks over a span of several decades.
As San Francisco finally sees headway on massive projects such as the seismic and structurally unsafe Doyle Drive replacement, the giant swaths of green along the Northwestern portion of the city are also seeing progress once unthinkable.The 1,492-acre Presidio has been a monumental demonstration of what collaboration between multiple agencies such as the California Coastal Conservancy and a dedicated community can achieve, albeit one fraught with difficulties including legislative holdups and funding shortfalls.
Building on the legacy already established by early park advocates such as Philip Burton and John F. Kennedy, O'Neill went on to spearhead many projects whose success is visible today. The replanting of over 150,000 native plant species, construction of several impressive overlook sites, rehabilitation of more than 100 historic structures and major improvements to the GGNRA's 196 miles of trails have all been made possible through multi-agency collaboration and local involvement.
The Trails Forever Initiative, launched in 2003, aims to link the massive greenbelt north and south of the Golden Gate through an extensive network of trails. Signature trail projects include Land's End, Marin Parklands and Mori Point in San Mateo, which focus on making the trails more accessible and sustainable while encouraging citizens' responsibility to the parks.
Crissy Field [Photo: flickr user Mel1st]
Among the most noticeable projects — and a popular favorite — was the overhaul of Crissy Field. Once used as a backyard dumpsite for the military, it had all the hallmarks of a toxic, forgotten port with piles of buckled concrete, discarded tires and mechanical parts. The $34 million campaign spearheaded by O'Neill resulted in a beautiful space now regarded as the front yard of San Francisco with a velvety lawn, walking and biking paths, public art installations and education centers for urban youth. More than 500,000 school kids participate in the Parks as Classrooms programs, fostering future generations of park enthusiasts and preservationists.
And the projects keep growing and evolving, thanks to the strong sense of stewardship fostered by trailblazers like O'Neill. On any given day of the year, volunteers including anyone from school children to corporate employees can be seen continuously working on the park. While the accomplishments have already been great, it is the ongoing stewardship from the people of the Bay Area that will keep the parks forever thriving.
Obama Talks Infrastructure
When Obama was elected, supporters of progressive transit talked excitedly about a "new New Deal." Comprehensive national infrastructure plans have guided each era of American growth and development. America 2050, a national coalition that SPUR is a part of, created a prospectus for a modern national plan modeled on three prior ones: the Gallatin Plan of 1808, the Inland Waterways Commission Plan of 1908 and the National Toll Road and Free Road Plan of the 1930s.
The President has rhetorically endorsed progressive national infrastructure investment for this era. In his Columbus Day speech he called for "a smart system of infrastructure equal to the needs of the 21st century; a system that encourages sustainable communities with easier access to our jobs, to our schools, to our homes"¦a system that reduces harmful emissions over time and creates jobs right now."
Yet over the past week the administration showed signs of backing away from pushing such legislation forward this year, leaving observers scratching their heads.
Are these high-profile announcements solely political? An attempt to energize the base during election season? Or are they serious agenda-setting statements? Most importantly, will progress actually be made this year in Washington on modernizing our country's infrastructure?
While this proposal may seem like a political trial balloon this fall, infrastructure spending will likely anchor the legislative agenda for 2011. Why? Because it has bipartisan support and strong backing from financial interests, state and municipalities. Infrastructure spending has typically been an enterprise that Republicans and Democrats agree upon and could provide an area of consensus in a divided legislature. It's exactly the type of modest legislation that President Clinton used in 1995 and '96 to move forward after losing party control of Congress.
Obama's infrastructure investment proposal is, in effect, a $50 billion down-payment on the $450 billion six-year transportation bill that failed to pass Congress last year. Note also that the $50 billion does not come close to the $2.2 trillion the American Society of Civil Engineers says is needed to repair existing infrastructure. But a $50 billion investment "jumpstart" is a pragmatic way of moving forward on urgent repairs.
The President has proposed to change the way transportation funding works, in particular by using some sort of performance-based criteria rather than "return to source" or earmarks; but "” who knows? "” this is the always-announced, never-implemented agenda of the reformers.
Rails or roads? [Photo Credit: flickr user jrâ¹â¸â¶â¶â´]
Here is my own prediction about the timeline of how this legislation will play out in Washington:
- Look for an 11th hour attempt by Democrats to bring up Obama's infrastructure plan in November's lame-duck Congress; Republicans will rebuff it.
- In January, when the new, 112th Congress convenes there will be a good month of gavel-shifting and maneuvering.
- Infrastructure spending will be seriously discussed again in February when Republicans must begin to share responsibility for hastening and improving the economy's "jobless recovery."
- Most important will be the President's Fiscal Year 2012 proposal budget, which will be announced at the end of January after the State of the Union address. In all likelihood, when the President releases his budget, there will be a specific line item for the infrastructure bank.
- How Congress responds to the 2012 budget proposals in March and April will be crucial. But the groundwork for this debate should be developed now, and in the weeks immediately ahead.
With transportation bills of any type, there is always a fight over which portion goes to more highway construction and what portion goes to energy-efficient transit. SPUR has of course advocated that the country shift as much funding as possible to transit. But even if that goal is politically ahead of the legislature, we should at least be able to provide an equal federal funding match to transit and highway projects, rather than paying a higher share of highways as is the practice today.
There are a lot of politics to get through. We have joined the Transportation for America coalition as our show of support for a forward-looking investment in a better transportation system. We hope the President's $50 billion proposal, which covers transit and much else, will help get the ball rolling on what surely must be a national priority.
The Visitacion Valley Greenway [Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
Vancouver Council Approves Six-Month Trial for Hornby Bike Lanes: Vancouver approved a six-month trial to test out a new network of protected bike lanes in one of the city's busy arterials. The trial, which would replace 158 parking spots with bike lanes separated by concrete barriers, will continue despite worries that the lane could contribute to parking troubles and decreased patronage for the businesses along the street.
Portugal Plans the First 'City with a Brain': Portugal makes plans to build the world's first sustainable "city with a brain," complete with sensors in every building that would monitor occupancy, energy use and temperature, and adjust the city's power and water generation based on those factors.
How Los Angeles Might Look in the Future: CNN's Richard Quest reports on what a more sustainable future for Los Angeles might look like now that "sprawl has hit the wall." Can techniques like infill help create a more sustainable, walkable and livable LA?
Great Places in America: Public Spaces: The American Planning Institute releases its 2010 list of best public spaces in America. The parks, streets and neighborhoods were judged according to how well they are able to accommodate bikes, pedestrians and transit, provide a sense of comfort and safety, and utilize their existing topography.
Footbridge an Elegant New Icon in the East Bay: According to John King, a new pedestrian bridge in Pleasant Hill has brought "visual spark" to an area with no real sense of space, exemplifying how sometimes great design is worth the high price tag it can often come with.
Personal Car Sharing Comes to California
Your neighbor's car could soon be available for hourly rental. Any takers? [Photo Credit: Fabiana Meacham]
Would you rent out your car to offset the costs of owning it? Would you get rid of your car if you could rent one from your neighbor?
Until recently, those weren't legal options in California. But new legislation could dramatically increase the practice in the state. Starting in 2011, car owners will be able to maintain their personal insurance policies (albeit at a higher price) while renting their cars by the hour, helping them offset the costs and environmental impact of car ownership.
Successful non-profit ventures like the Bay Area's City CarShare, which SPUR helped incubate, have led the way in promoting car sharing, encouraging many to give up their personal vehicles. A UC Berkeley study found that 30% of San Francisco households that used City CarShare sold at least one of their private cars. By allowing individuals to share their private vehicles, the new legislation takes the concept pioneered by organizations like City CarShare one step further — and could have a large impact on the rate of car ownership in California.
City CarShare will also play a role in facilitating the new personal car sharing policy. Car owners will be able to register their cars for use among the organization's pre-screened member base, make use of its timed lock and key system, and specify availability hours through its website.
Similar initiatives have proven successful outside the United States as well. The UK's WhipCar, a car sharing service comprised of privately owned vehicles, has seen a sharp surge in popularity, with its fleet expanding to 600 cars from 30 in a matter of months. WhipCar has cleverly marketed itself to car owners who are strapped for cash and car-less citizens who appreciate the hassle-free concept of "renting the car next door." In light of the current economic situation, this message surely resonates with Californians looking to supplement their incomes, as well as those who can't afford to buy or keep their cars.
But beyond allowing Californians to earn an extra buck from their cars, the new legislation is indicative of the rise of "collaborative consumption," a concept that empowers individuals to share, trade and barter their goods and resources through online platforms. Websites that connect people seeking to swap goods, rent out rooms in their homes, and lend small amounts of money are all examples of the growing collaborative consumption movement. The state's legitimization of personal car sharing may just be one element in a much broader network of peer-to-peer consumerism taking root in our country.
City CarShare will soon incorporate personal car sharing into its services. [Photo Credit: flickr user felixkramer]
Three Things You Should Know about the Central Subway
The Central Subway project is the second phase of Muni's T-line, the biggest transit project in San Francisco today. Once completed in 2018, the line will connect Visitacion Valley and Bayview with downtown, SOMA, and Chinatown. As with any project this large, the project has its fair share of detractors, and we thought it would be useful to remind everyone of some of the benefits.
1. It will add capacity to a corridor that sorely needs it
The Stockton corridor is one of Muni's busiest. According to data collected as part of Muni's Transit Effectiveness Project in 2006, the 30-Stockton and 45-Union/Stockton buses carry over 34,000 riders per day. These lines are often over capacity during peak hours, to the point where buses have to skip stops and leave riders waiting. The Central Subway will be able to take on some of that ridership, with 76,000 daily boardings expected in 2030 along the T. This will help to ease congestion on the Stockton corridor lines, hopefully translating into operating savings for Muni. The line will also connect Chinatown and Union Square with the Caltrain station on 4th and King, improving links between Muni and the regional transit system.
2. It is getting the Federal government to support riders in San Francisco
Thanks to the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program, the Central Subway is getting a lot of federal money for its construction (about 60% of the total price tag). This is no small advantage of the project, given the condition of the Californian treasury, and it means that the subway is a great opportunity to get outside investment in the future of sustainable transport in our city.
3. Its cost-effectiveness will improve over time
The Central Subway project has been criticized by some transit advocates, largely because its benefits are seen as small compared to its costs. A full accounting of the project, however, needs to consider the upsides of having new subway infrastructure in San Francisco's core, namely that the tunnel can be used for a number of future Muni rail lines. SPUR has suggested the option of extending the line through North Beach to Fisherman's Wharf. The Central Subway tunnel will in fact extend past the Chinatown station at Clay and Stockton, ending just under Washington Square in North Beach. This means that the difficult and expensive work of tunneling will be complete, and the stage will be set for future extensions to fully utilize the new infrastructure.
Extensions aren't the only changes that might make the project more worthwhile — there's also the changing office market in downtown SF. As we work to reduce VMT and emissions, combating job sprawl by bringing more jobs into San Francisco's core will be an important goal. This line will serve the 4th street corridor, a part of downtown with room for significant office growth. The line also already serves another growing district in Mission Bay. As these areas continue to add employment, an investment in linking them to Caltrain, BART, and the rest of the Muni Metro system will pay even more dividends.
Click here to read more about SPUR's take on the Central Subway project.