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Op-Ed: California needs to put its money where its mouth is on public transportation

Jeff Morales, CALMATTERS

Decades of federal and state transportation policy and funding have focused primarily on the automobile — and the roads and highways needed for us to get around in them. While this focus produced many benefits, it also ignored or created significant problems, such as greenhouse gas emissions, a key driver of climate change. Today, half of all greenhouse gas emissions in California come from transportation.

Agencies and processes have been built to support this focus. Caltrans and regional transportation agencies receive federal and state funds not only to build and maintain, but also to develop highway and road improvements — doing the planning, public engagement, preliminary design, environmental and other work needed to get projects ready. It can take years for major projects to make it through the approvals required before construction can start. Significant resources are dedicated to this annually, and there are statewide structures in place to carry it out. It is necessary work in order to have a pipeline of projects ready to be implemented when funding becomes available.

No parallel system is in place for public transit and rail projects, however.

Much of this structural disconnect flows down from decades of federal policy and funding constraints. For the most part, public transit and rail improvements are a series of one-off projects, with local agencies on the hook to develop and advance them. Unless the governor and Legislature address this, California’s ambitious climate-related goals for increased public transit and rail will not be realized. If the state wants to change the outcomes, then it is vital that it change the processes and funding that produce the outcomes.

Read more at https://calmatters.org/commentary/2022/05/california-needs-to-put-its-money-where-its-mouth-is-on-public-transportation/

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Santa Rosa made city buses free to students in July. The program appears to be a success

Andrew Graham, PRESS DEMOCRAT

As Santa Rosa CityBus seeks to maintain public transit during the ongoing pandemic, student passengers are giving ridership a boost after the city made travel free for students through their senior year of high school.

The program, a one-year pilot, so far seems to be a success, according to transit officials, marking a rare bright spot in a dark time for public transportation.

Overall, the bus system was at 61% of it ridership before the pandemic by the end of November, Yuri Koslen, Santa Rosa City Transit Planner, said in a Dec. 15 interview. The bright spot is that youth ridership exceeded pre-pandemic levels by roughly 20% in October and 27% in November, Koslen said.

Paid for by grants from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Transportation Fund for Clean Air, Santa Rosa began one year of free bus trips for students up to the 12th grade on July 1.

Since then, the hulking blue and silver city buses carried young residents at least 80,000 times from then until Nov. 30. Youth ridership has leveled out at around 20,000 trips a month.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/santa-rosa-made-city-buses-free-to-students-in-july-the-program-appears-to/

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Op-Ed: For Uber and Lyft, the rideshare bubble bursts

Greg Bensiger, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Piece by piece, the mythology around ridesharing is falling apart. Uber and Lyft promised ubiquitous self-driving cars as soon as this year. They promised an end to private car ownership. They promised to reduce congestion in the largest cities. They promised consistently affordable rides. They promised to boost public transit use. They promised profitable business models. They promised a surfeit of well-paying jobs. Heck, they even promised flying cars.

Well, none of that has gone as promised (but more about that later). Now a new study is punching a hole in another of Uber and Lyft’s promised benefits: curtailing pollution. The companies have long insisted their services are a boon to the environment in part because they reduce the need for short trips, can pool riders heading in roughly the same direction and cut unnecessary miles by, for instance, eliminating the need to look for street parking.

It turns out that Uber rides do spare the air from the high amount of pollutants emitted from starting up a cold vehicle, when it is operating less efficiently, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found. But that gain is wiped out by the need for drivers to circle around waiting for or fetching their next passenger, known as deadheading. Deadheading, Lyft and Uber estimated in 2019, is equal to about 40 percent of rideshare miles driven in six American cities. The researchers at Carnegie Mellon estimated that driving without a passenger leads to a roughly 20 percent overall increase in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions compared to trips made by personal vehicles.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/17/opinion/uber-lyft.html

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For Buttigieg, ‘generational’ transportation change may not be easy, experts say

Pranshu Verma, THE NEW YORK TIMES

The new secretary has stirred excitement among transportation experts, but they warn that deep institutional change is likely to remain difficult.

Now that Pete Buttigieg is secretary of transportation, he faces a challenge: delivering on his promises of infrastructure overhaul.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, he said there was a “generational opportunity” to change infrastructure. In a string of news appearances over the past month — including ABC’s “The View” and an interview with the actor Chris Evans — Mr. Buttigieg said that climate change, racial justice and job creation could all be addressed through infrastructure overhaul.

We “have a historic opportunity to take transportation in our country to the next level,” he said on Mr. Evans’s website, “A Starting Point,” which interviews elected officials and policymakers. “We should actually be using transportation policy to make people better off, make it easier to get to where you’re going, easier to get a job, easier to thrive.”

His statements have generated excitement among transportation experts, who are unaccustomed to seeing the secretary of transportation adopt a news strategy to communicate about the nation’s infrastructure. But deep institutional change remains difficult, and reform will not come easy, they said.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Paul Lewis, the vice president for policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan transit research center in Washington. “But I do think a lot of the big things — the reform efforts — are going to take more time and effort than a lot of people are expecting.”
Continue reading “For Buttigieg, ‘generational’ transportation change may not be easy, experts say”

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Bay Area transit can be a complex, costly ‘nightmare.’ The pandemic might help fix that

Mallory Moench, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

At 3:15 every weekday morning, Richard Burnett leaves his house in Vallejo for the 45-minute walk to the downtown bus station. Two buses and a train later — all run by different agencies, with different schedules and different fares racking up — he’s at his job in San Francisco an hour before clocking in.

Eight working hours later, he turns around and does the whole thing over again. He gets home by 7:30 p.m., eats and goes straight to bed.

“If you live that far, you have to do that sacrifice to make it work,” said Burnett, a customer service representative for a tech company who endures the six-hour commute because he can’t afford both a car and rent. “There’s no time to do anything else.”

Burnett, who advises the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transit coordinating agency, on policies affecting low-income and disabled riders, dreams of express buses to main job centers and fares based on zones that would make traveling cheaper. But that would require what Burnett calls the “fiefdoms” of Bay Area’s 27 transit agencies — encompassing buses, cable cars, trains and ferries that stretch across nine counties — to agree on changes.

The pandemic, which created an existential crisis for Bay Area public transportation, has reignited a long-running debate over how to make the system better and who should control it. Each of the agencies now sets its own fares and schedules. Few other U.S. metropolitan areas have such vast and disjointed transit: Los Angeles County, smaller in size but larger in population, has nearly the same number of agencies, but only one county transportation authority.
Continue reading “Bay Area transit can be a complex, costly ‘nightmare.’ The pandemic might help fix that”

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Focus on roads, bikes and pedestrian projects as Measure DD passes

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Voters this month agreed to lock in tens of millions of local dollars each year for road improvements and upgrades to Sonoma County’s bus network and bicycle and pedestrian paths, ensuring transportation officials have dedicated funds for infrastructure projects into 2045.

In an countywide election that saw near-record turnout, Measure DD comfortably passed with 71% support, 4 points clear of the two-thirds majority it needed for approval. The extension of an existing quarter-cent sales tax won’t kick in until spring of 2025, but allows the county and its nine cities to start initial planning and grant work on the next generation of road and transportation projects.

While Measure DD, also known as the Go Sonoma Act, carries forward similar objectives as Measure M, the 20-year tax that voters narrowly passed in 2004, it has a reconfigured spending plan for the projected $26 million in yearly revenue. No major projects were included in the renewal measure after the initial tax allocated 40% of its annual funds to widening Highway 101 from the Marin County line north to Windsor.

The new measure puts more emphasis on smaller upgrades, including a greater share of funding for local roads, transit, bike and pedestrian projects.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/county-eyes-road-upgrades-as-measure-dd-passes/

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

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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.
Continue reading “Strategic design can help car-free streets gain popularity post-coronavirus”

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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/