Friday, December 08, 2006

ADA improvements, but who can use it?

I got a note today saying the due to a tenant improvement project, the City of Sunnyvale was required ADA city ode related modifications for access to the front of the building. Due to this work some parking lot spaces at the front of the building will be shut down.

So now access to the front of the building will be improved. However, getting to the building is still a problem. There are no sidewalks in front of the building. There are sidewalks across the street - but no crosswalks or even pedestrian ramps to cross the street.

However, the city has been unwilling to require sidewalks. The rather week sidewalk ordinance has plenty of exceptions (see
A berm or a tree in the way, or is a justifiable excuse. And sidewalk requirements don't even come in to the picture for remodels.

How hard would it be to put a sidewalk in place? Most buildings that have a 'berm' or trees by the street have a parking lot right behind the trees or berm. A few parkings spaces can be removed, and some travel patterns changed to create a sidewalk. But, alas, the minimum parking requirement always trumps the sidewalk requirement.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Bad street design of the week

And the winner is... Lawrence and Arques in Sunnyvale.,+Sunnyvale,+CA+94085&ie=UTF8&z=16&ll=37.38136,-121.995599&spn=0.007246,0.021629&t=h&om=1

On the south side of the is a small shopping plaza. On the north side is another mall shopping area. In theory you could just cross the street to get from one to another. However, there is a nice big median blocking the way. So a pedestrian has to walk down to Lawrence or Lakeside. The distance is not too far. Unfortunately, the sidewalks are incomplete, and there is no cross walk on the near side of Lakeside.

For a car, the situation is much worse. They can go through the parking lots to get to Titan and then over to Lakeside, and then up to Oakmead, then down to Central, and over to the plaza. About 2 miles, with 3 stoplights - all to go across the street. If you are on Arques and need to go down Lawrence instead, you can add an additional stoplight, while still traveling around 2 miles.
However, don't expect to do a simple U-turn at Lawrence - its not allowed, so if you do want one, you will have to wait through the 3-minute light cycle twice to go through. Oh, and don't expect to make a U-turn immediately on Arques, either. There is a median, and then a no u-turn sign. But there are a few parking lots that you can use to make a turn.

So, why do they have a median and not let you cross? Well, you can go south through the light on lakeside to get to the plaza on the south. However, you have to go a few hundred feet through the Toshiba parking lot, signed as not allowing through traffic.

What about just removing the median? That would be too easy. But the left turn traffic on Lawrence backs up for a ways. They do have two left turn bays, but one they are extremely short, so once its backed up, it is essentially one. Why not just shorten the light-cycle on Lawrence, so that Arques traffic can go twice as often, and then eliminate the semi-redundant left turn? That would be too easy of a solution...

And don't forget pedestrians. Today a group of peds approached the intersection right as the light turned green. Sorry, they didn't hit the button in time, no time for them.

Monday, October 30, 2006

California Initiatives

California sent out a 190 page booklet of initiatives for the upcoming election. Why do we even bother electing representatives?

Many of the propositions and measures are filled with good intentions, but fall apart in the details. Here are my endorsements:

Santa Clara County Measure A - no. It claims to protect hillsides and agricultural land. This seems good on the surface. However, it is carried out by setting large minimum lot-sizes, and grandfathering in everybody currently there. Not good. If we were truthful about protecting hillsides and agriculture, we would simply enact a ban on development in those areas. Minimum lot-size requirements were what created suburban sprawl in the first place. This can have the potential for creating similar rural sprawl, instead of encouraging the dense, smart growth that is needed.

On to the California measures -
1A) NO. This restricts from borrowing from the gas tax. The gas tax is already restricted to transportation. Property taxes aren't restricted to property development, business taxes aren't restricted to business development. But gas taxes get their special treatment. And now they want to make it more difficult to borrow against them. Thus if oil prices skyrocketed and the economy tanked, we would be forced to immediately build lots of roads. Not exactly smart.

1B) NO. This bond issues consists of a number of transportation earmarks, with a focus on reducing congestion by increasing road capacity. Much of the congestion occurred due to the increased capacity. If less space were devoted to roads, people could live closer to jobs, and drive shorter distances. Less driving = less congestion. Furthermore, there is already a dedicated funding source for transportation projects - why not use that and save the $19 billion in interest. If we build all the roads now, they will likely need to be rebuilt or replaced before the bond is paid off. If we don't build them all right now, why are we issuing a bond? $20 billion devoted mostly to roads will only decrease air quality and commute times, while increasing indebtedness.

1C) NO. Why are bonds needed to encourage homeownership? There are a hodgepodge of housing related programs in this bond issue. However, to be best used these need to be long term programs. A long term program would be much better run with a regular appropriation source rather than an expensive bond issue that doubles its cost. Furthermore, high housing costs are a function of supply and demand. Adding subsidies for certain people raises the cost for others. The best solution with the current demand is to increase supply by increasing density. California has endless suburban sprawl. Converting some of these single-family developments to moderately sized, walkable multi-family developments would increase affordability and reduce traffic. Simply build for people instead of cars.

1D) NO. Local bonds for schools make a lot of sense. State bonds don't. There are many previously built-out areas that have unused schools. High property prices and prop. 13 encourage people to stay put, thus making it difficult for young families to live in old neighborhoods. Thus new neighborhoods are built further away, and new schools are needed. Again, the state portion could be more economically done as a pay-as-you-go. Schools will need to be updated over time, not all at once. Also, there is a provision to encourage replacing portable buildings with fixed buildings. With mild weather, many schools are constructed in with a number of small stand-alone buildings. Portable buildings are an efficient way of adding capacity that can be more easily removed when needed. With a multiple building design, there is minimal difference between these and other buildings. Why encourage them to be removed?

1E) NO. The delta levees appear to be in poor condition. Immediate repair may be needed to avoid high costs, especially if catastrophic weather conditions occur. This would be a very appropriate use of bond money. However, the measure itself lists an estimated cost of repairing the levees of $7-$12 billion, while only allocating $3 billion. Furthermore, there does not appear to be accountability restrictions. Why is construction still being allowed in the flood-prone areas of the delta? This needs to be addressed in a proper delta bond measure.

83) NO. Expensive draconian punishments for sex offenders. They can't live within a half mile of a school or park. Where will they live? If sex offenses are so bad, effort should be spent minimizing the initial cause of sex offenses, rather than putting the extreme punishments.

84) NO. It's difficult to see why there is an immediate need for this water bond. The funds are also very narrowly earmarked, limiting its flexibility.

85) YES. Parental notification for abortion. There are sufficient options to satisfy the concerns of abusive parents. This can help prevent somebody from getting unduly pressured in to a procedure with possible consequences.

86) YES. Cigarette tax. This is an extremely high tax that will probably cause a drop in smoking (and an increase in smuggling) The use of the excess funding is somewhat worrisome. (There are excessive earmarks and restrictions.) However, this can serve as a better model of regulating other drugs (like marijuana)

87) YES. Oil production tax. Raising the cost of production is a politically easy way to raise money. With gasoline as a global commodity, there is little chance that this will have a significant change in gasoline prices. In one extreme, oil companies may find it so expensive to extract oil from California, that they leave the state. This will preserve oil for a later time when it is much more expensive and scarce. On the other extreme, production will continue and increase, raising huge amounts of money for alternative energy research. There are some problems with the spending - too much is spent for gasoline substitution plans - without including alternatives to cars themselves. However, its a good start.

88) NO. This is a bad attempt to through a few pennies at schools while adding a huge layer of government regulation. This is another poor attempt to 'improve' open the problems of Proposition 13 that will only make matters worse. A better option would be to make it easier for people to vote themselves a local property tax increase for education, or reduce the 2% increase in assessed value.

89) NO. Campaign finance reform. A key problem is limits on the amount of money that minor party candidates can receive. This gives increased favoritism to major political parties at the expense of new ideas. Also raising the tax on businesses seems like an unfair way of doing it. (Why not close a few loopholes instead? Or add a tax specifically on media companies - who tend to benefit from political advertising.)

90) NO. This attempt to protect property rights could prove to be even worse than proposition 13. For one, it gives heirs to require property if it is no longer used for its original purpose. Thus if a school closes down, it could not be transformed in to a park without the risk of an heir claiming the right to the property (and being taxed as if it were their previous cherry farm.) Furthermore, it allows for compensation for damaged property, regardless of the cause, as well as jury trials for determining fair market value. Not only could this be expensive, it could be unfair with vastly different results. (However, some may be good - perhaps I could claim property was damaged by an extra freeway lane, or increased air pollution.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How traffic should be...

I was riding down Cascade, when I reached the stoplight at Hollenbeck. I waited there, and the sensor picked up my bike and gave me a green signal. I looked at the other street and the only vehicle that was stopped on Hollenbeck was another cyclist...

Last night, I was riding north down Sunnyvale Avenue. About half of the vehicles I saw were other bicyclists - all equiped with lights in front and back. (One behind me was exceptionally bright.)

(Alas, later on the trip back, most of the other cyclists were the 'hidden in the dark' types without lights.)

Bike traffic is peaceful, and pleasant. If only the focus were made on these wonderful vehicles.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Free in the eye of the beholder

A recent article in Yahoo News about California suing car companies:

Adoption of diesel engine emissions technology or gasoline- electric hybrids comes at great cost and improving gas mileage also likely means smaller lighter vehicles, trade-offs that are not attractive to consumers, he added.

"These are not free technologies, they are very expensive," Cole said. "Most people are price sensitive."

If most people are price sensitive, why aren't the manufacturers making cheap cars? Car manufacturers could eliminate some 'luxury features', and substitute in a more efficient engine, and sell the car at the same cost. Why not let consumers decide whether greater fuel efficiency or a CD changer is more valuable. Why are there no hybrid wagons or mini-vans? And why do they think people don't like smaller or lighter? (Are there any recent high-quality light-weight cars?)

Automakers have done very little to improve the actual driving technology, and have instead focused on adding all sorts of extra features within a pretty much standard car design. It is about time for a revolution in transportation.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The sad state of unenforced traffic laws

Eastbound Arques at Wolfe has two "no turn on red" signs posted. Yesterday, again I saw another car come to the intersection and make a nice turn on red. There does not seem to be anything inherently unsafe about the intersection. However, this seems to be a common problem in the traffic scheme in Sunnyvale. Many rules and regulations are put in place, but not enforced.
Stop signs also are interesting. Approaching a busy street, the side street has a stop sign. However, cars will often either stop because the traffic forces them to, or they will do a rolling stop and move because things are clear. Why is it signed for the worse case?
And look at speed limits. The older driver seems to endure endless honking as they obey the law and drive slightly under the speed limit.
Why not set traffic regulations at the level that they are expected and then enforce them. (Would a city mandate that a building could not exceed 70 feet high, and then be happy when the average new building adhering to this regulation was only 75 feet?) The culture of excessive unenforced regulation also makes enforcement more difficult. If everybody is doing it, why is only the problem causer punished?

Landis - victim of firing squad?

Stumbled across this article on Landis from an Alaskan columnist.

One of the rare ones that actually looks in to the details of the Floyd Landis Tour de France episode:
"Landis' epitestosterone-to-testosterone ratio was above the arbitrary standard set by the cycling federation and the ratio of Carbon-12 (6 protons/6 neutrons) to Carbon-13 (6 protons/7 neutrons) atoms in his urine sample indicated he might have used plant-derived testosterone, versus the animal derivative produced by the human body."
Out of the many articles I've read, that is one of the rare one that actually looks at a few details of the test.
One other factor that seems to be missing from the press reports is "What Advantage did he obtain from it?" From the limited information available, it appears that a slightly elevated level would only be beneficial over a long time - and his test did not show anything in the tests before or after. So, in theory any elevation did not provide him a benefit, thus providing no harm to the sport. And since it was so short lived, it would not have provided any harm to him. Thus, since it provided no advantage and no harm, why is it problematic?
Also, the test for 'synthetics' is only administered if the ratio is above the "4:1" limit. Thus there is limited control. Would it have shown synthetic even when the ratio is low? And this test was just for ratios. How did the actual amounts compare to a previous test? Was one suddenly much lower? Or was there a difference in how substances were metabolized?
It seems amazing how the media is quick to send somebody to the executioner based on miniscule evidence or proof of wrong doing. (But should we expected any different after the initial disqualifications at the start of the race.)
Seems like a good reason to keep using my bike for transport rather than sport.

Friday, July 28, 2006

London, bike registration, and jaywalking

The July 28, 2006 Times of London had an interesting article title "Cycle numberplate plan to catch lawless riders". The proposal was to affix plates to bicycles so they can be caught by cameras for violations (like riding on sidewalks.) That may actually be a sound policy to help encourage better cycling behavior. The number of people cycling has shot up 50% in the last 5 years, after remaining relatively flat for 10 years. (though the dates mentioned in the article appear somewhat suspect). However, the remainder of the article had some very interesting quotes from London mayor Ken Livingston.

"In America jaywalking is illegal, but in America you have this situation that at virtually every busy junction there is a zebra crossing and as the lights change the pedestrian has priority and only when they've crossed can then the cars turn....
But if you are going to ban jaywalking you're going to have to have a lot more actual formal pedestrian crossings."

I've seen pedestrian priority lights in San Francisco where the peds get a couple second head start before cars go. However, in most of the United States, pedestrians have to fight it out with the cars to cross. Crosswalks are fairly common at busy intersections. However, it is also common to see iomitteded from one side of the road so as not to 'interfere' with turning traffic. And in many cases they are not put in place, and pedestrians only get the 'green man' if they push a button. 'Jaywalking' is a concious choice by pedestrians to directly cross where they feel most safe. Thus it is really not a pedestrian problem, but a problem for other vehicles.

Perhaps the congestion charge has been working too well in London. Now that traffic can actual move, the cars want to keep pedestrians and anything else that slows them down out of the way.

Athletes and Doping

Floyd Landis was accused of having elevated testosterone levels after is 'come-from-behind' stage win in the Tour de France. It makes you wonder why anybody would be stupid enough to take performance enhancing drugs at that point. (Did he figure he had no chance of winning, so might-as-well take something to climb up in the standings. Only the stage winner, overall leader, and a couple random cyclists are tested, so odds are good he wouldn't be tested.) However, testosterone only helps out if it is taken over a period of time. Would one shot really help? Could there have been some shenanigans going on where he was framed? Or could it actually have occurred legitimately. Hopefully this will be sorted out soon.

However, a big question is, why do we care? There are a whole slew of 'performance enhancing' drugs that are legal. There are others that cannot be detected. Why are we so concerned about some but not others?

A simple answer could be that we care about the long-term harm to the athletes. But, an athletic career only lasts 10-20 years, while there are much more time to live after that. A logical athlete wouldn't sacrifice his life for it. Or would he? With the short span of the career, there is no option to 'do it later'. All of the rewards come in the short time. Perhaps if all prize and endorsement money were paid out over a 50 year period, there would be an economic incentive to not harm the body. However, there is still the pride incentive. As long as professional sports are a big thing, and athletes are idolized, there will always be the desire to enhance the body in the short term, with possible long term consequences? Should we care? After all, there are plenty of other things athletes do that could be harmful long term. (Look at the knee injuries in many sports.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

New Urbanism

Article responding to new urbanism critiques

This article focused on refuting some of the critiques of new urbanism.
one of the first thing it brings up is what new urbanism isn't:
"New urbanism projects, particularly those involving intensive office and retail uses, regularly meet either conventional (single-use) or shared parking ratios (parking spaces per one thousand square feet of leasable space) defined by the real estate industry."
This brings up one critique of New Urbanism that wasn't;t addressed: driving. The structure of new urbanism with abundant parking makes it easy to drive. While a new-urbanism development would enable somebody to both walk and drive, there is little disincentive to driving. So, when the weather turns sour, those many short walking trips could easily turn in to many short driving trips. And if in the car, why not go a little further to the big box to keep cheaper things? Building an environment that brings pedestrian to the same level as cars is a good start. However, the goal should be to give pedestrians a higher priority.
The car parking data is of great concern. If people are to have the ability to walk, why is so much space devoted to cars? IF less space is devoted to cars, density could be increased, while still providing more individual space.

Another unaddressed NU shortcoming is described in a defense: "NU's greatest contribution comes not at a macro-policy level but at the level of site planning, neighborhood design, and development."
The problem is that an isolated 'enclave' does not fully provide for its residents. If it were isolated and built on a micro scale with 1000 miles of ocean separating it, then it would be self-sufficient. However, most areas in the US are built on suburban sites. One dense walkable area 15 miles away from a job center, may produce more car miles traveled than a sprawling burb 2 miles from the job center. The location does need to be considered as part of the development question. However, the author is correct in the grand importance of the micro view

The economic critiques of urban developments (and new urbanism) is also one of the main reasons we need more of it. New urbanist housing is generally more expensive than sprawl housing. Basic economics teaches that when demand exceeds supply, price will be higher. Urban developments are expense because many people desire them, yet there is not sufficient development. Furthermore, restrictions are built up to discourage walkable communities. Parking requirements, traffic manuals, setbacks, and many other legal requirements are codified in favor of sprawl growth. The fight to overcome these impediments causes more sprawl growth that is not wanted. New Urbanism, though it has many flaws could be a good step to overcome the barriers and begin to level the playing field. New urbanism actually gives more options and more freedom. A far cry from the suburban sprawl model that has included more homeowners associations and additional layers of restrictions.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

And how the VTA increases traffic

An interesting VTA Workshop document can help shed light on what goes on in the minds of transit planners in Santa Clara county.

It's amazing how much money the VTA would like to throw away on expressways. Where to start... $13 million to widen an uncongested portion of central expressway. (Perhaps an attempt to make congestion on other portions even worse) A few hundred thousand here and there to convert HOV lanes to mixed flow (so much for encouraging car pooling). Half a million to reduce access on Lawrence. And that's just the expressways.

The criteria for selecting these is stated as "increasing LOS F intersections and keep them from downgrading back to LOS F by 2025". Many of these involve reducing access, thus they can be expected to accelerate degradation of other intersections. Focussing on intersection LOS can also degrade facilities for non-car travelers, and thus cause additional increases in travel. And even if it is a long-term success, the increased travel speeds can result in longer travel distances, and thus greater miles traveled and worse environmental conditions.

This document projects $32 million for bikes with $1.9 billion for freeways. We can hope things have come along a little in the past few years. With the money spent on expressways, all VTA transit service could easily be fare-free for the entire span of the program.

Why not foot-traffic engineering?

An example of the past thinking of traffic management can be found in the report on Hollenbeck Avenue/Harvard Avenue Traffic Control:

"On the segment of Hollenbeck between Danforth and Remington, the average speed is 32 mph and the 85th percentile speed is 36mph. These are much closer to the posted speed limit than is normally found." The speed limit is 30. There are a number of driveways lining the street, as well as two side streets (Knickerbocker and Harvard) within this area that may bring down the speed. It thus seems clear that the majority of the drivers are speeding - and this is one of the better streets. If fines, are at least sufficient to cover enforcement cost, the road could be made safer with no net cost to taxpayers.

Regarding removing parking at the Harvard/Hollenbeck intersection, staff objected that "Individual residences front onto Hollenbeck. The removal of parking would probably cause a hardship or inconvenience to these residents. The greater concern is whether the City should take action that might encourage pedestrian crossings at this location." Thus its more important to preserve unused free parking than to provide facilities for pedestrians. Alas, they had no study to determine the demand for free parking on the street. Based on the use (or lack thereof), the hardship would be that somebody would be required to park their car in the driveway instead of the street. And in the worst case, they may have to walk at most an extra hundred feet to their parked vehicle. Meanwhile, staff's preferred alternative is to require pedestrians to walk an extra 1250 feet to Remmington or Danforth. (Walking a few feet is a great hardship for drivers, but a 1000 feet is ideal for pedestrians.

Another interesting bit was the use of traffic "warrants" to justify the placement of a signal. They use the current pedestrian counts to say that a signal is not justified. However, elsewhere, they object to enhancements that might increase pedestrian crossings. IF the enhancement would increase the number of crossings, shouldn't this estimated increase be used as the basis of the pedestrian count? And if it is really a goal to encourage the environmental, economic and health benefits of pedestrians as opposed to automobiles, shouldn't they take priority over cars through movement.

In the end, the city council barely rejected adding a traffic light by a 4-3 vote.
It is interesting to compare the statement from a city council member to that of the staff report. The council member investigated the conditions: "I was out there measuring today and the sidewalk is not wide enough in many places. There is not even a buffer between the sidewalk and Hollenbeck. And in some places utility poles are set smack in the middle of the sidewalk."
Meanwhile, staff, without investigating the conditions "was a bit surprised by input received at the Neighborhood Meeting. Apparently some parents feel that it is unacceptable for their children to walk on the sidewalk on Hollenbeck. Using only internal neighborhood streets does add some walking distance to reach the signals at either Danforth or Remington. While staff agrees that it might be preferable to use less traveled streets, it does not think there is anything wrong with students walking on the Hollenbeck sidewalks. Admittedly, a very unusual accident can occur anywhere, but walking on a sidewalk adjacent to a vertical curb on a street with Hollenbeck's relatively slow speeds does not seem inherently unsafe."
Thus staff was more than willing to adhere by rules and manuals but not to take a little effort to see current conditions. (And if utility poles blocked Hollenbeck itself reducing it to a total of one 7 foot wide lane, would they have noticed that?
In this case a full time light may not be justified. (It may actually be preferable to have a non-signaled interchange to limit 'waiting' for a light. However, that was never mentioned in the report.

Similarly, the city council had voted not to expand Wolfe/El Camino. In the staff report, a key concern was not letting the intersection fall to "LOS F" which could reduce funding due to Congestion management programs. Nowhere in the report are bicycle or pedestrian concerns covered. (In fact, the only mention of the words is in reference to meetings held by the bicycle and pedestrian committee. They obviously had knowledge of the committee meetings, but did not take them in to account.)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Housing report card?

The Bay Area Council of Governments "Housing Report Card" got a lot of press recently. However, it was remarkably devoid of any useful data. In the report card, they assigned a letter grade to the Bay Area, the counties, and cities based on each meeting its needed housing target. Never were they clear how the housing target was calculated. (I searched through the entire report and never saw a clear formula or definition.) There data was also suspect, with Sunnyvale even disputing the housing target. And even if the data and methodology were accurate, the validity of the goal is suspect.
A city may get an "A" for meeting 150% of its target for housing. But what good does that do if the jobs are all in another city 50 miles away? Housing should be available close to jobs. A new housing development in northeastern Santa Clara does a better job of providing for jobs in Northern Sunnyvale than does a location in southwestern Sunnyvale. Are the housing report cards just making traffic worse?
Better targets would include density and proximity to jobs.

Bureaucratic = Car by default

I saw a copy of the "Borregas bridge plan". It contained 100s of pages describing a plan to build two simple pedestrian bridges to reconnect what had once been a continuous road. In it were a number of pages of the 'researcher' trying to find information on any nearby Indian burial site. Sure it may be worthwhile to identify those sites to prevent disturbing them. However, it may be a little late. The freeway is already in existence, and the road had been there many years prior. However, perhaps there are some important sites 15 feet in the air that may be disturbed by the new bridge. Yes that could be a legitimate concern.

However, what would happen if they found some sites on the ground there? Would they actually shut down the freeways? Or would they demolish a few homes to reroute the freeway around those sites?

The great freeway project has been built. It cut off the access for the street. Now to restore access it takes years, millions of dollars, and mounds of senseless paperwork. If only they would get it right the first time...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Jaywalking - A safety necessity

In order to cross Fremont Ave. near Fremont High school in Sunnyvale, there are two main ways to cross.

Crossing Fremont:

1) 'jaywalking'. Cross two lanes of traffic. Then wait on extra-wide landscape median. Then cross two more lanes of traffic. A pedestrian only has to cross two lanes of uncontrolled traffic at a time.

1.5) There is also a crosswalk available - the condition ends up somewhat similar to the jaywalking position, though without the comfortable median, and closer to the intersection, thus reducing the ability to see as much traffic.

2) 'Crossing at an intersection'. At the intersection of Sunnyvale-Saratoga and Fremont there is no median, so the entire street must be crossed at once. There is a right turn lane, three through lanes, 2 left turn lanes, a through lane, and an extra-large through lane. A total of 8 lanes. If a pedestrian must push the button and then wait until the start of the next light cycle. The green pedestrian 'walk' light will light up for a few seconds followed by the flashing don't walk. (If the pedestrian pushes the button after the light starts, they will have to wait for the next cycle.) The walk signal means that the through traffic and left turn traffic will not be in conflict. However, right turn traffic will still present a conflict. The Sunnyvale-Saratoga right turn traffic has a green light, while the Fremont right-turn traffic can make a right turn on red. This leaves 2 lanes in conflict.

Crossing at the 'official' location requires crossing 8 lanes at once, with two 'conflict' lanes. 'Jaywalking' requires crossing 2 lanes of traffic at a time, still with only 2 'conflict' lanes. Crossing at the 'official' locations gives the pedestrian a narrow interval of a few seconds every few minutes when they can cross. A 'jaywalking' pedestrian can cross at any time they feel safe. Crossing at midblock, pedestrians can see traffic for a distance and cross when safe. Crossing at the intersection, turning traffic can appear without being seen.

Intersections are engineered to maximize auto traffic. The number of traffic lanes may double at an intersection to maximize automobile throughput. However, this also makes it a greater burden for pedestrian crossing. The signals are also optimized for automobile traffic. Pedestrian walk signals only appear if a pedestrian presses a button before a signal cycle. Even if there will be a minute remaining on the cycle, a late press of the button will not bring a walk signal. (The signal needs to keep its options open for auto traffic.) A two minute through light, may only produce a pedestrian walk signal for a couple seconds, followed by 20 seconds of flashing don't walk, and then sold don't walk. If the cycle is going to be 2 minutes, why is the pedestrian light only for a few seconds? Why doesn't the walk signal last for 1 minute 40 seconds? And if the signal will easily last long enough for pedestrians to walk, why doesn't it just automatically put the walk signal on without pressing a button? The flashing "don't walk" is also the primary time to cross. Imagine if traffic lights for cars behaved similarly, with a 2 second green followed by a 20 second yellow.

And poor engineering at intersections is only another part of the reason why jaywalking is a pedestrian necessity. A location may have a curb cut for cars to enter a parking lot. Why not pedestrians? That implies a crossing location, and pedestrians have a desire to cross just as cars do. Furthermore, a pedestrian may move at 3 miles per hour, while a car at 30. A pedestrian taking a detour of 1/4 mile to get to the intersection to cross would be the equivalent of a car going 2.5 miles out of its way (just to pull a u-turn to go back the same distance)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Spare the air? Or make it worse?

Thursday and Friday were "Spare the air" days in the bay area. The air pollution was bad, and people were 'encouraged' not to drive. To help "spare the air", rides on almost every transit system (minus Vallejo) was free.
Unfortunately, this may have done more to harm the air than spare it.
From the air quality forecasts, the East Bay and Santa Clara valley had critical high pollution. The coastal areas (including San Francisco) were barely outside of 'good' range, while the peninsula and north bay were in moderate range.
San Francisco has the most trips that would be easily accessible by transit. The peninsula also has a large number of jobs that are somewhat transit accessible (many with a 'shuttle bus').
Cars produce most of their pollution in the first few minutes after starting up. There are also evaporative emissions produced for the first few hours after being parked, which are especially problematic for ozone. So, if people stayed home and didn't drive at all, this would have helped greatly.
However, many of the Bay Area transit systems offer free parking. BART has vast parking lots, primarily in the easy bay valleys. The parking is free at nearly all East Bay stations. VTA also has a large amount of free parking - primarily in the southern Santa Clara valley. Caltrain also has free parking at the stations in far southern Santa Clara county. These areas with free parking neatly coincide with the areas that have the highest pollution alerts.
And the destinations for most of these riders? San Francisco would be the primary destination for most BART riders. SFO or Oakland may also appear. For VTA, downtown San Jose, or the peninsula, while for Caltrain, primarily San Francisco. If these people were switching from driving to park and ride + transit, they successfully reduced pollution in the best areas while adding it to the worst. And this assumes that people were planning on driving any way. Were many of these people merely using free transit as a means to joy ride? If they were doing this, while at the same time driving to the station, they added additional pollution that wouldn't have occurred otherwise.
If they were serious about pollution, why not close down gasoline sales during the hot time of day? Or close down freeways? Or prevent use of gas powered lawn equipment?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

How much do we pay for parking?

If we compare land value to parking mandates, we can get an estimate of the cost that we spend for parking. has some nice data about home values, including assessment information. We can see how much land is valued by the assesors in Brooklyn and Sunnyvale.

942 Chehalis, Sunnyvale. bldg: 356,949 (1965 sqft) lot: 535,926 (7840 sqft)

Property cost per square foot: $68.36 (Though this assessment is a few years old, so it would be even higher today.)

210 Bergen St, Brooklyn NY 11217 261183: bldg 2052 sqft 49850: land 1800 sqft In Brooklyn, an assessed value is $27.69. Factoring in a recent sale price of 885,000, an adjusted land value comes out as $78.79 per square foot (if we assume difference factor is equally applied to land and building). So the land value in Sunnyvale is in the same range as that in Brooklyn.

Now on to what Sunnyvale requires.

From the Sunnyvale Parking Standards:

The parking requirement in a residential area is: “2 covered spaces per unit, plus 2 uncovered spaces on driveway (minimum dimensions 17 ft. x 20 ft.). “

“A two-car garage shall have a minimum area of at least four hundred square feet. “

Based on the above value, this parking costs at least $50,586 in land costs alone. Even if somebody does not own a single car they are required to provide space for the cars. I wonder what the reaction would be if somebody offered the city $50k to waive the parking requirement.

The problem with Prop 13

It limits property tax, allowing only very minimal increases while the property is owned. This poses a few problems:

  1. Schools get most of their funding from property taxes. This limits their available funding and encourages them to look for other sources of revenue. It is beneficial for the school districts to close neighborhood schools and rent them out to private schools. It is even more helpful if this encourages more people to attend the private school instead of the neighborhood school. Not only do they get rent from the private school, they have fewer children to educate in the public schools.

  2. Schools and communities get more revenue if prices rise and there is high turn over in the housing market. However, the constituency is made up of people that have lived there a long time and pay low taxes. These people are also more reluctant to encourage change. They are happy to see a limited supply. After all, excess demand drives up the value of their 'nest egg', while not incurring any costs.

  3. Because homeowners tend to stay in one place a long time, and demand a steady stream of services, cities have an incentive to discourage homes. Businesses are preferred because they demand fewer services. (Retail even provides sales tax revenue)

  4. Cities with large amounts of new construction can provide excellent services because the property tax rate is high. Thus, there end up being large clusters of homes in one location – usually where clusters of business are lacking.

  5. The people who have the most influence in municipal decision making are typically those that have lived there the longest. However, those that have lived there the longest typically pay the lowest property taxes. Thus, they are often using other people's money.

  6. Any shortfall in taxes must come from somewhere. Thus often ends up being from sales tax (which encourages big box regional retail as opposed to local stores), or from other state sources (which encourages the state to interfere and make mandates. These mandates often drive down quality and drive up costs of education, thus driving more to private school, and shuttering local neighborhood schools.)

  7. The 1% cap on assessed value limits variations in cities for tax purposes. However, special taxes have been added on top of the 1% to pay for other things. The 2% annual increase limit means that a homeowner's real tax rate will either go down or stay the same – if they stay in the same case. (An exemption allows those over age 55 to transfer their assessment to another house – but only in the same county. Thus there is some mobility, though it is limited by age and county.) Thus there is a strong incentive for homeowners to remain in the same house – even if the location, neighborhood, or house size is less than ideal. In theory this could provide for stability in neighborhoods. However, many residents are relative newcomers with little community affinity. Furthermore, the car-based culture encourages isolation and limited community contacts. The residents may also be attached to jobs outside of the community, further increasing congestion.

  8. New residents have a more limited selection of real estate. This can be especially vexing as industries change in communities. City A may be filled with people who worked for a company which has now moved to City B. Meanwhile, people that are working in City A may have to live in City B because of the limited real estate options.

Proposition 13 grew out of a tax revolt. Property values were increasing rapidly, and with taxes based on value, the property taxes were also increasing rapidly. Cities and schools had services to provide and they were attempting to provide them. Property values grew in part due to supply and demand. People wanted to live in certain areas (often those with good schools and close to work). However, there was limited availability. And the main reason for limited availability was the excessive space devoted to the car. The car devotion also drove up need for taxes. (The cities needed some source to pay for all those wide roads.) What if, instead of fighting taxes, the revolters simply fought for a reduction in the car subsidy?

An ironic twist is that the tax revolt was lead by the 'small' government crowd. However, since it attacked the symptoms (increasing taxes) instead of the source (poor planning that causes increasing property values), it has resulted in more government. Now there is a huge school bureaucracy enabled by the huge increase in state control over school funding. With housing more expensive, subsidized housing becomes more prominent. People must go through the government to be eligible for subsidized housing. Developers are encouraged to provide some below-market-rate housing. (which means that the 'market rate' housing is more expensive.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Solving the traffic congestion problem

I should probably stop being amazed at what comes as an excuse for 'reducing traffic congestion'. The problem is simple: Too many cars on the same roads at the same time cause trips to take longer and cause pollution. The 'solutions', however, are where the problems usually arise.

If the goal is to reduce pollution, having the highest emitting vehicles on the road for the least amount of time would seem like a good solution. So we should have express lanes for high polluters, while letting the low polluters sit in traffic for a while. However, the opposite is done. The low polluting hybrids can use carpool lanes, thus allowing them to move quickly. However, they would emit the least pollution if they were stuck in traffic. Meanwhile the high-polluting SUVs and trucks are sitting in the slow lane, spewing out a huge amount of pollution.

Ok - the desire of allowing hybrids to use the 'fast lanes' may not be to reduce the local pollution, but instead to encourage more people to drive 'less polluting' vehicles. However, if that is the case, why do the roads that have the carpool lanes often prohibit the least-polluting vehicles. Pedestrians and Bicycles pollute much less than even the most efficient cars, yet they are barred from the freeways. Meanwhile, high polluting cars are permitted. If the policy was to encourage the most efficient vehicles, why not flip it around and ban any car that is in the top 25% of emitters? Or perhaps even factor in passengers, and restrict it based on emissions per passenger.

Another factor is travel speed. This is the factor that tends to be most visible to people. If their commute takes longer, people get upset. Methods for reducing commute time include expanding and 'upgrading' roads and attempting to reduce the number of vehicles traveling at peak times. Expansion and upgrading of roads can be problematic for psychological reasons. As congestion increases gradually, people can gradually grow to expect the commute to take longer. They become acclimated to a longer commute, while at the same time, they lobby for improvements to reduce the congestion. The improvements get made, and the commute time is briefly shorter. However, they have already become acclimated to the longer commute, and are thus willing to travel an even greater distance because it can now be made in the same amount of time as previously. Soon congestion worsens and the cycle repeats.

Improvements also have their collateral damage. New lanes take up space. That space can no longer be used for other purposes, thus spreading out other development and increasing trip lengths. Furthermore, limited access freeways have limited access and limited crossing. As roads are upgraded, some trips to access them may be longer. Some users may be shut out of roads, and some shuttered cross streets may cut off access, or increase trip length. Car will generally add distance to their trip to access the freeways, while some non-car trips will be eliminated. Even small 'improvements' like adding sensors to intersections or giving long light-cycles to main streets will reduce access at cross streets. In addition to slowing these trips it can discourage what would be short non-car trips, and transform them to car trips.

This leaves the option of moving people out of their cars. It seems a carrot or stick approach could be used. The bridge tolls are a carrot approach. However, they have significant flaws. If you drive in a carpool during rush hour their is no toll. However, there is no incentive to carpool outside of rush hour. Thus, car pools our encouraged to travel during peak travel time. Furthermore, carpool lanes are only in effect during rush hour, thus a carpool that could easily travel outside of rush hour is encouraged to travel during rush hour for possibly faster travel time, and lower tolls. Similarly, drivers in carpools have an incentive to travel at 8:30 to use the carpool lane, rather than 9:00 when all lanes open up.

There are also attempts to encourage people to use public transportation. In New Jersey, they wanted to encourage transit as opposed to bicycles. The rationale being that the roads were too dangerous. Of course, most job areas in Jersey are suburban office parks, while the commute to New York and Philly are often made by people driving to park and ride lots. Thus, transit use is part of what is making the bike commute 'dangerous' in their eyes. Furthermore, the most viable transit use is to support out-of-state businesses. (Last year, I stayed at a hotel in Seacaucus, New Jersey. Though it was quite close to the Newark airport, the transit service to EWR was quite limited. On the other hand, there was frequent transit service to Manhattan, and it was easier to make the long transit haul from LGA than the short trip from EWR. The bus traveled from the New York bus station to a giant park and ride, and then on to the hotel area. Both the park and ride and hotel area were fairly isolated and surrounded by freeways, thus allowing very little easy non-vehicular access.)

Transit in Santa Clara county is also problematic. VTA has relatively high fares, especially for the level of service provided. (A base fare of $1.75 with no transfers available.) It also has an extremely low farebox recovery ratio (in the teens). The system is primarily low-frequency, slow suburban bus service, with some express bus and light rail service. A switch to transit will in most cases entail a slower commute, and put more restrictions on travel time. The trips may also be more expensive. (Even more so if the huge VTA subsidy is factored in.) In most cases, an individual commuter could save time and money by driving alone.

A core problem with transit is the sprawled out nature of development, and the low cost of driving. Furthermore, in spite of the huge cost of land, parking reigns supreme. Sunnyvale requires all houses to have four parking spaces (two indoor and two outdoor), yet it still is reluctant to do anything that would reduce on-street parking. (Bike lanes on Homestead are only part time in order to preserve parking.) A homeowner on The Dalles was prevented from expanding their home because of the increased inside parking requirement :
The rationale was that they could not grant a reduced setback of 14 feet for the property, even though the neighbors had no problems. Ironically, a few blocks away, a house freely exists with zero setback from the sidewalk. However, this must be ok because the actual 'front' of the house is not on that sidewalk. And Sunnyvale even requires remodeled homes to add to the car space ( However, in these ordinances there is no mention of the number of cars owned or used. They just want to reduce on-street parking. Why not just charge for on-street parking? That would probably do much more to reduce the cars parked curb-side. Or better yet, just make them no-parking zones. That would be a much cheaper way to reduce the on-street 'clutter', as well as allow for expansion of sidewalks and bike lanes.

Silicon Valley is 50% residential, 20% commercial/industrial, and 30% public (roads, parks, schools)
It would interesting the calculate the huge subsidy that is given to cars in the form of the parking requirements.

It's interesting to see the parking requirements that Sunnyvale has:
The few carrots - parking at businesses can be cut by 5% if bicycle parking and showers are available.

What if the city set all current minimums as maximum parking? And required 50% of it be devoted to bicycles? And required homeowners to buy 4 bikes instead of building 4 parking spaces? You would have a lot of people really angry at a change in the status quo. But, you would also do a lot to reduce the demand for car trips. However, other changes would need to be made. Zoning must be improved to put more people close to their work. (Office and retail space should be near residences.) Schools must be improved. (It's ironic that many of the Sunnyvale schools are leased out to private schools. The schools are bad, put children still need to be educated. So people pay taxes to the school district, and then pay tuition which also goes to the district in the form of rent. And they get nothing out of it. Meanwhile their neighbors have poor public schools that they must attend, where they spend most of the time testing instead of learning. What if the school district was required to reimburse tuition of any in-district in-former-zone student attending the private school? This could reduce the congestion around the school, and provide for better learning experiences.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Free valet parking at BART

BART is offering free valet parking at the Pleasant Hill station.
So at this station, the cost of BART to provide parking likely exceeds the cost that to provide a trip.
So, instead of paying $3.00 to park in Walnut creek, you can drive to Pleasant Hill, get free valet parking, and spend $2.80 to take part to Walnut creek.

Walnut Creek is considering raising their parking costs so the value may be even greater.

The problem with parking at transit stations is that it likely results in worse traffic conditions:
1) Instead of driving a short distance on local roads to get to the freeway to continue a trip, transit users, drive a longer distance on local roads to get to the transit station.
2) Parking space at the transit station consumers space that could be used by other uses (close-to-transit housing, retail, offices, etc.)
3) Congestion at the transit station also make it more inconvenient for non-drivers, increasing the likelihood that they will drive.
4) Increased drivers on local roads make conditions worse for pedestrians and bicyclists, thus increasing the likelihood that they will drive instead biking or walking, thus making traffic even worse.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Doing everything possible to discourage transit

It is amazing that anybody rides transit in California. It seems transit agencies are doing everything possible to encourage people to even be able to access transit. In Sunnyvale, a functional dirt path provided direct access to the station platform. With the entrance closed, prospective passengers must now walk about 4-5 additional blocks and cross 4 active train tracks. And even more ridiculous was their reason for closing it - an ADA complaint.

The ADA was used as an excuse for limiting access. I wonder if the same could be done for freeways. We could file an ADA complaint that a freeway ramp is not accessible to those in wheelchairs, and have it shut down for a few months. Or maybe even a road - many lights do not have adequate cross time for handicapped people. The roads should be closed for community meetings until those could be resolved.

But ADA was not all - parking was used as another complaint. I've been to the neighborhood north of the station, and seen tons of abundant street parking. Yet, people are complaining that others are actually using this street parking. Welcome to Sunnyvale, a place where parking spaces could easily outnumber residences, and where everyone wants their spot to be all to themselves.

Message from Caltrain regarding Sunnyvale, CA station:

Thank you for your comments concerning the closing of the fence on the east side of the Sunnyvale station. ADA proponents recently made an official complaint stating that the hole in the fence was a de facto entrance - which it never was - and therefore had to be made ADA compliant. On the other hand, neighbors have complained about Caltrain passengers parking their cars along Hendy and in adjoining streets. The Sunnyvale Department of Transportation and Traffic will be holding community meetings concerning this issue - probably in April - to try to come up with a final solution. Meanwhile Caltrain will be keeping the fence closed.
Caltrain Customer Relations Specialist

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

San Jose and office vacancy

A recent article discussed the high vacancy rate of downtown San Jose office space (roughly a quarter vacant). One concern mentioned was the cost of parking - San Jose is one of the few places other than San Francisco and Palo Alto that charge for parking.

San Francisco is served by extensive public transit. Palo Alto has decent transit, and a large number of cyclists and pedestrians. San Jose has... well extensive car-centric infrastructure, and not much that is appealing. Public transportation is limited. Sure there is a light rail, but 15 minute service? And where does it go? A few park and rides and other business parks.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


GPS Action Replay is a cool tool that has some simulated replay like the dot racing (though it looks like only one at a time.) However, it takes a little while to get used to. It is written in java so it can be run locally on most any platform. or has some cool functionality for analyzing GPS track logs. The dot racing is a really good way to see the slow points in a commute.

However, it does have some issues. Since it is a web app, you have to upload everything to view it. The entry can get downright tedious. (Need to manually mark everything as cycling, road, transportation, and give it a name - it doesn't import the track names.) And they only let you run your 10 most recent tracks unless you pay. Furthermore, the dot racing seems to croak if you give it too many dots. It would be really nice to see that functionality in a standalone app. Maybe I'll have to work on writing one.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Pedestrian afterthought

On San Tomas, south of El Camino, a big sign says "Pedestrians Prohibited". A few feet past that sign is a bus stop.

At Fair Oaks and Arques, a sign on the sidewalk says "sidewalk closed, use other side". One problem - there is no sidewalk on the other side of the street.

On Fremont between Hollenbeck and Sunnyvale Saratoga. There is a median, however, there are plenty of turning cutouts. Even though there are turn lanes for eastbound traffic, none of these lanes lead to the school or churches on the north side of the street. The one that does actually go somewhere is blocked off. The only crosswalk is at Sunnyvale Saratoga. However, there are plenty of signs at the other good places to cross, saying "pedestrians, use crosswalk". So, its ok for pedestrians to go on a half mile detour, but not for cars to go more than a 1/4 of that distance before turning around.

U-Turns and 'landscaped medians'. There are plenty of 'parks' that are only accessible by motorists that have the misfortune of breaking down in the left name. Central Expressway has a large median. Sunnyvale-Saratoga, Fremont, and many others. In many cases, a narrow sidewalk is sandwiched between a wall and the street. The median could provide a refuge for crossing. However, there is often a raised surface to intentional make it difficult. And the intersections also get plenty of u-turn traffic, also posing a hazard. If they got rid of the median and instead had a landscaped parkway between the sidewalk and street, and a small pavement median in the middle, the pedestrian environment would be greatly improved. But that might encourage people to use walking as a means of transportation.

Oakmead improvements

At Oakmead and Arques I noticed a little white outline in the bike lane. Doesn't look like a loop detector, but it seems to trigger the lights properly. Yeah! The days of waiting endlessly for a car to show up are now over.

Something about Mary

Mary north of central is in office park land, so, of course, there is a large lawn median, thus requiring uturns to get to and from office parks, but hey, the median provides a nice refuge as you walk across from an office to lunch (and is one of the few green spots in the sea of asphalt.)

Mary is the only street in Sunnyvale that has a grade level intersection with both central and the railroad tracks. You would almost think it is a major street. And then you get to the El Camino intersection. As I was traveling on Mary I saw from a distance that the light was red. D'oh. It would probably turn green and complete its cycle before I got there. So I slowed down... But the light remained red. I got there. I waited and waited. Wow, even worse than one of the Lawrence lights... Ok, so maybe it isn't a major street.

Mary is primarily a residential street south of the Caltrain, and more so south of El Camino. However, that doesn't stop others from wanting to keep traffic on somebody else's street. Just south of El Camino, a street is marked as "not a through street". And some funky raised surface was there, to make it difficult to make a right turn on the street. (Oh... And it happens to get in the way of cyclists. But hey, its not much worse than a dark black miata.) So it looks like too many cars were going down one residential street to get to another residential street, so some residents got mad, and now force more cars to go down another section of a residential street.

...probably not in the original location

The Sunnyvale Historical Society is raising $1.6 million to reconstruct the "Murphy House". It was occupied by the founder of Sunnyvale, though it was demolished in 1961 for the building of central expressway. (this week only)