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Post-pandemic public transit may not end up looking all that different—but its goals may have to change

Kristin Toussaint, FAST COMPANY

Concept designs with plexiglass shields probably aren’t coming to transit. Instead, cities have to figure out how to make the systems safe and useful for the people who don’t have a choice but to use them.

As cities start to reopen, packed rush-hour subway rides seem like they’ll have to become a thing of the past: It’s hard to social distance on a packed train. But transit will still be crucial for helping people—especially lower-income residents—get around, and experts say straphangers will be back even before COVID-19 has been controlled. So what does that mean for the trains of our future?

Post-pandemic public transit might not actually look all that different. There probably won’t be partitions or more space to keep people apart, because that’s antithetical to its service. “Public transit is really good at moving a lot of people in the same direction at the same time. That’s when the music happens,” says Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies and a professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA.

What could change, though, is the number of touch points a rider has to interact with on a trip; the appearance of sanitation tools on board, such as hand sanitizer or mask dispensers; the behaviors of the passengers as more people don masks and gloves in public; and how often and where trains and buses run.

“Once agencies are able to stabilize their workforces, then they can really approach this question of how to allocate service, and a lot of what agencies have to do now is just a quicker, more nimble version of what they should be doing all the time, which is responding to rider needs,” says Ben Fried of TransitCenter, a foundation that advocates for better transit in American cities. “This is obviously an extreme situation where people are worried about being able to keep their distance on vehicles, but it sort of raises the same issues that always come up for transit: Are you providing enough service for people to get where they need to go?”
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Strategic design can help car-free streets gain popularity post-coronavirus

Jason Plautz, SMARTCITIESDIVE

Looking forward, some planners think any block could go car-free with just the flip of a switch. Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s urban innovation offshoot, has pitched a set of design principles that would reimagine streets for a multimodal future, tailoring different streets for different modes.

As cities and states enact stay-at-home orders to stem the COVID-19 outbreak, once-packed urban streets are now empty of cars.

Some mayors have seized that opportunity to open the pavement up to people for exercise. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week he would open a limited number of streets to pedestrians as an alternative to crowded parks, and in Philadelphia, a stretch of MLK Drive has been shut off to traffic in favor of bicyclists.

To some advocates, the street closures are a silver lining to the public health crisis: a chance to see what urban streets can do without cars on them. It could even lend more momentum to the car-free streets movement that has grown since San Francisco officially remade Market Street into a pedestrian promenade in January, inspiring cities like New York and Denver to experiment with the concept.

Pedestrian-focused street design has long been a staple in European cities, but experts say implementing such a change in the U.S. requires factors that don’t always exist in its car-centric cities. Jason Thompson, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, recently analyzed the design of 1,700 cities and found the U.S. tended to have sparser road networks with less transit — conditions that do not lend themselves to car-free streets.
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Land swap

Will Carruthers, THE BOHEMIAN

Petaluma approves complex land deal despite widespread opposition

Late on the night of Monday, Feb. 24, the Petaluma City Council narrowly approved a controversial, multi-part land deal in order to fund a second train station for the city.

Critics of the deal between Petaluma and Lomas Partners, LLC—a Southern California company businessman Todd Kurtin owns—say none of the parties involved have been responsive to criticism of the proposed designs, the process of approving the project and costs to the city.

Ultimately, the deal, which in part requires the city to contribute $2 million to cover some of the costs of the new train station, could leave the city with little leverage over the design of a downtown housing development and a related off-site affordable housing component, critics say.

After hours of discussion and public comment, almost unanimously against the current project proposal, the City Council voted 4 to 3 to support a development agreement with Lomas Partners and several related documents to greenlight Lomas’ interlocked housing development proposals.

There is at least one more significant hurdle for the project. The agreements approved by the City Council will be void if the city cannot secure a formal commitment from SMART to construct the Corona Road Station, which, if completed, will be the city’s second train station.

To that end, the Council directed staff to set up a meeting with SMART to reach an agreement.

Here are some of the details of the deal:

In August 2017, Lomas Partners, LLC, signed a deal with SMART to purchase 315 D St., a 4.48-acre piece of land next to Petaluma’s downtown station, for $5 million. In exchange, Lomas would donate 1.27 acres of land at 890 McDowell Blvd. and build a 150-space parking garage on it. Under plans filed with the city, Lomas would construct 110 homes on the remainder of the 890 McDowell Blvd. parcel.

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The spine of San Francisco is now car-free

Laura Bliss, CITYLAB

The plan to ban private cars from Market Street—one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous downtown thoroughfares—enjoys a remarkable level of local support.

In a city known for stunning vistas, San Francisco’s Market Street offers a notoriously ugly tangle of traffic. Cars and delivery trucks vie with bikes and pedestrians along this downtown corridor, as buses and a historic streetcar clatter through the mix. Dedicated lanes for transit and bikes end abruptly several blocks from the street’s terminus at the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

But the vehicular frenzy is ending, in part: Starting Wednesday, private vehicles—meaning both passenger automobiles and for-hire ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft—may no longer drive down Market, east of 10th Street. Only buses, streetcars, traditional taxis, ambulances, and freight drop-offs are still allowed. The closure to private vehicle traffic heralds the start of a new era for the city’s central spine, and perhaps for San Francisco at large, as it joins cities around the world that are restricting cars from downtown centers.

“We need to do better than use Market as a queuing place for the Bay Bridge,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, the newly arrived executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “Today represents the way the world is finally changing how it thinks about the role of transportation in cities.”

After decades of debate, the vision for a car-free Market Street has arrived at a remarkable level of support among activists, politicians, planners, and businesses. (Especially compared to the rancor and legal challenges that greeted New York City’s long-delayed effort to create a car-free busway along 14th Street in Manhattan.) In October, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors voted unanimously in support of a $600 million “Better Market Street” capital construction plan. Ground is set to break on construction for a protected bikeway, repaved sidewalk, fresh streetscaping, and updated streetcar infrastructure by the start of 2021.

Read more at https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2020/01/market-street-car-free-san-francisco-bike-lanes-transit/605674/

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Why Bay Area transit is broken, and who is trying to fix it

Erin Baldassari, MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL

Behind the push for a more regional, seamless integrated transit network.

It happens two to three times a week, Alex Rivkin says.

His Muni train runs a few minutes late, pulling up to the 4th and King Street station in San Francisco just in time for Rivkin to run frantically toward his departing Caltrain, only to see it pull away before he gets there.

Or vice versa: He’s standing on a Muni platform and, along with two dozen other people, pounding on a Muni train stopped at a red light that won’t open its doors to the travelers who just sprinted from the Caltrain station.

“It’s sadistic and cold-blooded,” said the frustrated San Francisco resident, who uses the two services, along with a city-provided shuttle in Mountain View, to get to his job at a South Bay pharmaceutical company and back home. “There is a lack of accountability for customer service, and it feels like these agencies just don’t care.”

He added, “I wish they would just talk to each other.”

Rivkin is not the only one who wants to see more cooperation and coordination among train, bus and ferry operators. At a time when regional leaders are considering asking taxpayers to back a proposed “mega-measure,” a $100 billion or more regional transportation sales tax, transit advocates say it’s more imperative than ever for the Bay Area’s more than two dozen transit agencies to work together and put customers first.

Read more at https://www.marinij.com/2019/09/22/why-bay-area-transit-is-broken-and-who-is-working-to-fix-it/

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SMART mulls early renewal of sales tax, reduction in fares for low-income riders

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay’s commuter rail service will consider a plan to reduce fares for low-income riders as part of a larger proposal from SMART staff to next year seek voter renewal of the 20-year sales tax measure that’s funded the system since 2009.

The moves come as Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which launched service in August 2017, assesses its long-term financial picture with an eye on restructuring debt and accelerating its delayed full build-out.

It expects to complete the southern-most station in Larkspur by year’s end, expanding its operating line to 45 miles of the planned 70-mile corridor. But guaranteed future funding in the form of an earlier tax renewal could help the agency speed up its extension of service north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, according to SMART staff.

“The reality is we’re a transit operation, and we need to plan ongoing operations, we need to plan expansions,” Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer told SMART’s 12-member board at its Wednesday meeting. “We can’t have ballot box uncertainty in our future. We can’t have our revenues stopping in 10 years.”

Voters in Marin and Sonoma counties together in 2008 passed the quarter-cent sales that represents SMART’s primary funding stream. Measure Q will sunset in 2029, and the agency’s staff is recommending pursuing its renewal as early as the 2020 general election, ensuring, if passed by a two-thirds majority, funding for another 20 years through 2049.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9464429-181/smart-mulls-early-renewal-of

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Santa Rosa to replace free downtown shuttle with parking pass

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Plagued by low ridership, a free Santa Rosa bus service will shuttle passengers to and from the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station in Railroad Square for the last time Friday as the city moves to replace it with a discounted parking permit.

The City Council in late November decided to end the ParkSMART shuttle on March 1, a little more than a year after it began in December 2017.

Low ridership and relatively high trip cost were consistent problems for the shuttle. City staff previously determined that at its peak in September about 20 people rode the shuttle on a given day.

To partially offset the loss of the shuttle, the City Council in January approved a new permit allowing commuters who regularly use public transportation to park in the First Street garage for $31 a month. That’s half the cost of the regular monthly permit for the garage.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9327651-181/santa-rosa-to-replace-free

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Sebastopol to roll out county’s first electric bus

Alexandria Bordas, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sebastopol leaders are celebrating an environmental victory after becoming the first city in Sonoma County to receive an electric bus.

The county bus officially will be rolled out at the Sebastopol Transit Hub at 10:30 a.m. Monday. The launch comes at the heels of an announcement by Santa Rosa city officials that they plan to buy four zero-emission buses after securing nearly $3 million in federal funding.

Part of the county transit system, the Sebastopol electric shuttle will serve riders along the downtown corridor for free. Built in Lancaster in Southern California, the 30-foot coach has a range of 137 miles per battery charge and a 22-passenger capacity. It’ll offer riders wireless internet and USB charging ports.

“Sebastopol is the environmental leader of Sonoma County,” said Sarah Gurney, Sebastopol city councilwoman. “That’s why and how we got the first electric bus.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9029368-181/sebastopol-to-roll-out-countys?sba=AAS

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New ARB report finds California regions are falling short on climate goals, as pollution from driving increases

CLIMATE PLAN

Top findings

Today’s report on those plans finds that regions have made progress in some areas, but not nearly enough to meet their goals:

1. Regions are not on track to meet their climate goals, not for 2020 or even for 2035.
2. Statewide, driving is increasing. The trend is going in the wrong direction — each of us is driving more, not less.
3. Not enough investment is going toward climate-friendly transportation — including walking, bicycling, and public transit — or affordable housing near jobs and transit.
4. Action is needed at every level of government — cities, counties, regions, and the state — to get on track.

“To reduce emissions, the most sustainable options need to be the most convenient,” said Ella Wise, State Policy Associate at ClimatePlan.

Today the California Air Resources Board (ARB) released a new report finding that California regions are not on track to meet either their 2020 or 2035 climate targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Additional action from every level of government is required, including more investment in sustainable transportation and affordable homes near jobs and transit. The report can be downloaded here.

Each metropolitan region in the state has a plan, required by law, to reduce emissions by reducing the need to drive. However, the report finds that regions are failing to deliver on their plans. Part of regions’ failure is due to challenges beyond their control, such as limited state funding and local land use decisions. But regions continue to invest in highways, which results in more driving, not less.

Read more at https://www.climateplan.org/new_report_california_regions_falling_short_on_climate_driving_increases

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SMART to begin work on extension of commuter rail to Windsor

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board of directors Wednesday authorized spending $24 million to launch the next, highly anticipated phase of railwork needed to extend commuter train service north to Windsor.

The unanimous board decision represents a major expansion geared toward fulfilling the promise made in 2008, when voters approved a two-county, 70-mile line stretching from Cloverdale to Larkspur.

The SMART board approved the spending with two 12-0 votes, setting in motion rail safety upgrades and design work needed to expand the rail line north by 3 miles from the current northbound terminal near the Sonoma County Airport.

The work is set to begin this fall, with heavy construction in 2020 and system testing in 2021. Agency officials said SMART could start serving Windsor, with a population of 27,000, by late 2021 or early 2022.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8754419-181/smart-to-begin-work-on