Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “Transit Oriented Development”

Sierra Madre Villa Bike Lanes

When local governments do little to make their cities bike and pedestrian friendly, I have often been quick to criticize. Sometimes I do a lot of criticizing, because so much still needs to change to enable the transition to a healthier, safer, more sustainable, more equitable transportation system.  But when cities do the right thing, as Pasadena did last week, I want to give credit where it’s due and offer fulsome praise in the hopes that it encourages additional positive steps. Sometimes both happen at the same time, and thus my praise will be tempered with some constructive criticism.

The good:

Pasadena recently painted new buffered bike lanes on Sierra Madre Villa in east Pasadena between Foothill and Orange Grove north of the Gold Line Station. This road diet improves safety along a notorious stretch of road, and provides buffered space for cyclists to ride to and from the retail and residential zones to the north of the station.  Some may recall that this blog has called for a road diet on this street, so it is nice to see the city make this street safer for all.

This safety improvement is especially important with the Metro Bike bikeshare program set to expand into Pasadena.  The retail area is still way too car-centric and these lanes abruptly end at Foothill and Orange Grove, limiting their usefulness for those who might not feel confident riding on those busy surrounding streets, but it is most definitely a step in the right direction, and Pasadena DOT and Councilmember Gene Masuda are to be complimented for their support for this project.

Southbound Sierra Madre Villa south of Orange Grove.

Northbound Sierra Madre Villa, north of Foothill Bl.

 

If bike lanes are extended north to Sierra Madre Blvd and South to Colorado Bl. extended east and west on Orange Grove and Rosemead Bl., a network of bike-friendly streets would exist for the first time in east Pasadena. Once this happens, the area would become bikeable not only for self-identified “cyclists,” but for everyone.  There is much latent demand for bike friendly streets in east Pasadena. There are parks, schools, offices, and a major shopping/dining area nearby. With the eventual addition of more transit-oriented development (TOD) around the Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line Station, the demand for walkable, bikeable streets in this part of Pasadena will likely grow.

The Bad:

Despite improvements such as Sierra Madre Villa, Pasadena still lacks a connected network of bike-friendly streets. Riding on N. Hill in central Pasadena recently (see photo), within the space of two blocks I was aggressively passed by two motorists, one of whom impatiently honked at me for good measure. I was legally riding on the right half of the right-hand lane, but there is no bike infrastructure on north-south streets in this part of town, and the low-level aggression from motorists makes the experience unpleasant for anyone on a bike.

N. Hill, Pasadena. Parked cars on the shoulder forced me to ride the right-hand lane.

 

I brushed the incidents off as a “normal” part of riding in the city (I even gave the honking motorist a friendly wave), but the city cannot expect most people to feel comfortable on streets where they may be subject at any moment to vehicular harassment—or worse. The only way to accomplish this is to create a contiguous network of complete streets, well marked and intuitive to follow. This network must allow people to get to desirable destinations safely on foot or by bike.

Yes, education, encouragement, and enforcement are elements of a bike-friendly city, and I don’t suggest ignoring those, but the contrast between the streets with and without bike lanes shows there is no substitute for bike and pedestrian friendly infrastructure. In short, good things are happening in Pasadena, but we still have a way to go before city officials can claim city streets are “bike friendly.”

 

Turn the Page

The new year provides an opportunity to look back on 2015 and ahead to 2016.  As always, it’s a blend of  disappointment that much-needed changes have been so slow in coming, gratification for the accomplishments, and hope for a continued shift in our transportation priorities in the future.  What is offered here is a highly personal, mostly local, list of the best of 2015 and some of my aspirations for bikes and alternative transportation in 2016.

The best of 2015:

  1. A shift in the conversation about climate change.  2015 may well be seen as the year the global community got serious about recognizing the necessity of radical action on climate change.  The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, “Laudato Si,” provided a powerful moral argument for reducing carbon emissions while addressing the combined social and environmental injustices of the current economic model.  Then, in December, leaders of over 190 nation-states met at the Paris Climate Summit and agreed to commit their nations to voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Pressure from citizen activists from around the world and from vulnerable nations elicited an “aspirational” goal of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial averages.  While the agreement lacks any binding enforcement mechanism, it is an important starting point from which continued climate justice activism can and must proceed.  In order for these goals to have any chance of success, transportation sustainability (and equity) are going to play a role.  That means transit and bikes.
  2. Construction of Phase 1 Extension of the Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa was completed.  The extension opens up possibilities for more transit choices in the San Gabriel Valley, and eliminates one more excuse for people who live nearby to go car free or car light.

    Bike parking at Arcadia station.

    Bike parking at Arcadia station.

  3. CicLAvia came to Pasadena!  The fun of cruising down a car-free Colorado Blvd. with thousands of other people still brings a smile to my face and reminds us why we must continue to push for more car-free space (temporarily or permanently) in our cities.  The car-free movement continued to spread in 2015, as iconic Paris opened its streets to people for a day in September. CicLAviaPas3
  4. New Bike Co-Op opened in El Monte.  BikeSGV’s new bike co-op, the Bike Education Center, provides a space for people from the local community to build or fix their own bikes.
  5. Metro’s Bike Hub at El Monte Bus Station. An important amenity for transit users who want a secure storage space for their bikes and a place for quick bike repairs right on the premises of the transit station.
  6. Pro-Bike Mayor elected in Pasadena.  The election of Terry Tornek as Mayor of Pasadena means that City Hall will continue to provide strong leadership for transit, walking, and bicycling in the city.
  7. Mobility 2035.  LA City Council passed an ambitious mobility plan that, if implemented, will provide more sustainable mobility choices for people in LA.
  8. Local bike infrastructure.  This is the weakest of 2015’s accomplishments.  But it is important to applaud any improvement.  For me, the bike lanes on First St. in Arcadia, near the new Gold Line station, even though they only stretch for about half a mile, are a sign that the city is trying to accommodate bicycle commuters.  Here’s hoping they are extended in 2016.

What I’m anticipating/hoping/wishing/working for in 2016:

  1. Gold Line extension opening, March 5, 2016.  This is a red-letter day for sure.  Looking forward to that first ride out to Azusa.
  2. Monrovia’s new bike plan.  Monrovia, at the behest of it’s local active transportation advocacy group Move Monrovia, has contracted with Alta Planning to produce a bike plan for the city.  I’m anxious to see the new plan and work with local advocates to make sure it gets approved and funded.
  3. Golden Streets 626: The San Gabriel Valley’s big open streets event, June 26, 2016 (i.e., 6.26)
  4. More bike lanes … everywhere.  Bike lanes are good.  Buffered bike lanes are better, and protected bike lanes (a.k.a. “Cycle Tracks”) are best.  I’m especially hoping to see some progress in Pasadena, Temple City, Arcadia, Monrovia. Et tu, El Monte?

    First Av. bike lane to Gold Line in Arcadia.

    First Av. bike lane to Gold Line in Arcadia.

  5. More bike racks (not the crappy, wheel-bender kind) … everywhere.
  6. Commitment from university administrators for a transit center on Cal Poly Pomona’s campus.  Cal Poly Pomona, where I teach, currently has no transit stop on campus.  Bus riders are forced to walk a long distance to sit on a splintered bench on Temple Ave.  Yet the University is building a multimillion-dollar parking garage and raising student parking fees.  Time for this otherwise “green” campus to make its transportation system green, too.

    What passes for a "transit center" at Cal Poly Pomona.

    What passes for a “transit center” at Cal Poly Pomona.

  7. Buffered bike lanes on Sierra Madre Blvd.  This has long been on my wish list.  There’s no reason it can’t be done.  The street is wide enough, the traffic speeds warrant it.  Hasn’t happened yet.  Still, I’ll keep asking ….

Happy car-light 2016 to all, and remember, there’s no such thing as a “green” car.  Whenever possible, leave your tin polluter box at home.  Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  Walk, bike, take the bus or train.  It makes a difference!

Self-Driving Cars

Google-self-driving-cars

Often when I discuss my alternative transportation with people, I get a similar response: “what about self-driving cars?”  At one level, I know people are often just making conversation, but it strikes me as funny that the first thing they think of as an “answer” for problems caused by the automobile is simply substituting a different kind of automobile, as if that makes a difference.  Part of this is an overriding faith in technology to solve problems created by, well, technology.  Part, however, is an inability (or unwillingness) to think in terms beyond the status quo.

At a dinner a couple of years ago, one husband of a colleague of mine, an architect in a prominent L.A. firm, proceeded to instruct me how driverless cars would mean “you people” (meaning bicyclists) “won’t need bike lanes anymore.”  He predicted self-driving cars would be universal within five years and the safety of people on bikes and people on foot wouldn’t be threatened by dangerous or distracted drivers.  The techno-utopia was right around the corner.  Leaving aside for a moment the absurdity of the claim that fully autonomous vehicles will become universal any time in the near future (hybrids, which are a much smaller technological leap, have been widely available for over 15 years, but currently make up less than 5% market share in the U.S.), the subtext of his comment struck me as a way of saying that “you people” (bicyclists) should stop complaining about bike lanes, already.  You’re not going to need them and, besides, roads are made for cars.

More recently, a colleague who professes to be an environmentalist asked me what I thought of self-driving cars.  I told him about the possibilities as well as the drawbacks and when I gently suggested that he might occasionally consider taking transit, he balked.  “I don’t like transit,” he flatly told me.

Even some bicycling advocates have been bitten by the driverless car bug.  A recent exchange on Twitter is instructive:

My bike advocate friends need not worry that they’ll have to “push for self-driving cars.”  What historian Peter Norton calls Motordom (the complex of automobile interests), now combined with the tech industry, is already strongly pushing for it.  Bike advocacy organizations, already stretched thin, should not waste precious resources doing the work of the car companies for them.  Many of my fellow citizens are slavishly ready to follow the pied piper that will allow them to continue their car-dependent lifestyle.  Finally, the promised land where we can all sit in our individual metal boxes and text to our hearts’ content.  Lord knows, they don’t need a “push” from bike advocates.

Such comments, and they’re part of the media discourse on alternative transportation, too, are a dead giveaway that the design of cities around the automobile has made us not only geographically but psychologically dependent on them.  The mere thought of living without a car sends many people into a panic.  I’m reminded of the character in one of James Howard Kunstler’s post-apocalyptic, post-oil, post-car novels who is so despondent about not being able to drive that he sits in his car in the driveway every day and pretends to drive.  One day, unable to cope with the thought of life without his beloved car, he blows his brains out in the driver’s seat.  As a commentary on many Americans’ abject psychological dependence on the car culture, Kunstler is spot on.

Last weekend, transportation planner Gabe Klein spoke at UCLA and was later interviewed about self-driving cars by the L.A. Times.  Like many people, Klein thinks that self-driving cars are coming—maybe not in 5 years, but eventually.  However, unlike most people, Klein does not view them as a panacea for our transportation woes.  So while the Times headline writer breathlessly touted driverless vehicles as “the future of LA transportation,” Klein was far more circumspect in his interview.

When asked to assess LA’s transportation system, Klein first and foremost bemoaned the way we’ve replaced LA’s transit system with the car culture, calling it a “complete planning failure”:

Look at the original rail network in Los Angeles. It was robust. But during the past 70 years, there has been a complete disinvestment in public transit until recently. When automobiles came in, streetcars became less desirable. On the back end, we are paying the price today. There’s been a complete planning failure. Sprawl does not work. There is also induced demand. That means you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion. New highway lanes just fill up.

Asked if there was nothing we can do to “defeat this gridlock,” Klein responded that any future transportation system—including one that involved driverless cars—must invest in transit and reduce car usage:

The single-occupancy car is not good. Do we want to keep buying the cow, when what we really want is the milk? We need to develop a car-light lifestyle. Uber, Lyft, driverless vehicles, robo taxis are steps in that direction. Even Bill Ford Jr. will tell you that the single-occupancy car is not the future.

When asked what the role of driverless cars should be, Klein emphasized “widespread car-sharing” driverless car rentals, taxis, and such.  What he did not say is that everyone should own one and assume we’ll continue our same commuting habits.  “There could be a dystopian future,” he pointedly noted, “if we sell everyone an autonomous vehicle and not reduce the number of cars on the road.”

How to reduce the number of cars on the road?  “Increase the cost and inconvenience of owning and operating a car,” mainly by making drivers pay for all the externalized costs their cars create.  Instead make cities more compact, more walkable and bikeable.  Invest in “expanded transit systems and more compact development that brings homes, workplaces, shopping areas and recreational opportunities closer together.”

Here’s the key thing about self-driving cars: they must be seen as a bridge to a car light or car free life, not a continuation of business as usual.  Some of the most prominent advocates of driverless cars, such as Sebastian Thrun, one of the developers of the Google Car, has said that he envisions self-driving cars “doubling or tripling” the number of cars on the road, because, presumably, they’ll be able to drive closer to one another.  Others have envisioned a looming “congestion disaster,” as one might predict using driverless (and passenger less) cars to, say, run errands while their owners are at work.  How walkable or bikeable would such streets be?  How livable would such cities be? Where would we find space to park all of them?  Would they exacerbate the tendency of cities to sprawl outward, since owners would be free to spend their longer commute time reading, texting, or surfing the web?

The problems of cars involve a whole range of land use and space issues, not only what comes out of the tailpipe, or the danger they pose on the roads, or the enormous waste of resources they represent, it is that they are space hogs whose inevitable result is unsustainable sprawl and the evisceration of social life in the city.  Having everyone move about sitting inside his/her own climate-controlled metal box is a fundamentally antisocial means of mobility.  It’s one of the key reasons drivers become selfish, dangerous, and often rude “owners” of erstwhile public road space.  The whole discussion of driverless cars ignores the question of transportation equity.  That is to say, is mobility a right, or is it a privilege reserved for those who can pay for the private box in which to move about?

One cannot design streets and cities for cars and for people at the same time.  Prioritize one or the other and design accordingly.  Switching to self-driving cars will not resolve this fundamental conflict.  Indeed, it may exacerbate it.  The answer to sprawl and eviscerated cities is not driverless cars, it is transit and walkable, bikeable communities.  Unfortunately, for many, the message is slow to catch on.

Grading Pasadena’s Transit Stations

Researchers at UC Berkeley have released a study of rail transit stations in California’s metropolitan areas and the results, while unsurprising, are nonetheless revealing.  Researchers graded transit stations based on criteria such as the walkability of the surrounding area and the percentage of people who live or work nearby who use transit.  Additional criteria such as the density of jobs and housing nearby, the land use policies in the surrounding area, and public safety were also included.  The study highlights the importance of encouraging more mixed use development close to transit (called transit-oriented development, or TOD), as well as prioritizing safe pedestrian and bike access to stations in order to encourage transit use and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Stations were given a numeric score and then assigned a letter grade based on the score and its comparison to similar stations (that is, residential-area stations were compared with other residential-area stations, and so on).  I looked up the scores of Pasadena-area Gold Line stations (6 stations in Pasadena and 1 in South Pasadena).  I’ve written extensively on previous posts about the relative lack of good bike access to the Gold Line stations in Pasadena in general and in East Pasadena in particular.  The study gave me a chance to compare my own perceptions with the study’s more comprehensive approach.

The new Gold Line stations on the extension are not included in the study, insofar as they are not yet in operation.  The highest ranking station in the LA Metro area is the Westlake/MacArthur Park Red Line station, with a raw score of 88.20 and a letter grade of ‘A.’  The worst score was the Wardlow Blue Line Station in Long Beach, with a raw score of 31.63 and a grade of F.  I’ll list the Pasadena-area stations and their grades below, from highest to lowest, then offer some thoughts on the grades.

  1. Fillmore                         B-    (56.83)
  2. Lake                              B-    (56.03) 
  3. Memorial Park             C     (54.13) 
  4. Del Mar                         C      (50.53) 
  5. Mission (S. Pas)           C-    (51.30) 
  6. Sierra Madre Villa        C-    (45.73) 
  7. Allen                              D     (41.73)  
Not much room for bikes on this "bike route" at the Del Mar Gold Line station.

Not much of a “bike route” at Del Mar Gold Line station.

My initial reaction was one of slight surprise that Fillmore and Lake scored higher than Del Mar and Memorial Park stations.  I would need to look more closely at the scoring criteria and the individual data, but I can only assume Fillmore and Lake scored higher because of their proximity to large employers, whereas Memorial Park, Del Mar, and Mission are closer to small businesses and residences.  The study notes that the grades are curved, which is probably why Mission scored higher than Del Mar but has a lower grade, though I don’t fully understand the study’s curving criteria.  Another factor may be that Pasadena is likely to encourage more TOD near Del Mar station, whereas South Pas is unlikely to encourage newer development in Mission’s charming historic district.  Despite this, in my opinion, Mission has far superior pedestrian and especially bike access from surrounding streets than Del Mar.

Looking north on Sierra Madre Villa at entrance to Pasadena Gold Line station.

Sierra Madre Villa entrance to Pasadena Gold Line station.

I’m in complete agreement with the ranking of Sierra Madre Villa (SMV) and Allen stations at the bottom of the pack.  Pedestrians and bicyclists from the surrounding community may be forced to cross busy freeway on/off ramps to access either of these stations and, as I’ve complained about before, there are no bike lanes on any of the approaching streets to SMV, and virtually none at Allen (near Allen station there are two completely unprotected gutter bike lanes on noisy, busy, high-speed, stressful access roads that run along the 210 freeway—not bike-friendly).  For that matter, the same is true of Lake.  Like much of Pasadena’s existing bike infrastructure, it looks passable on paper, until you actually try to ride it in weekday rush-hour traffic.  Some of this should be improved as Pasadena’s new bike plan gets implemented, but that may take years and will not do much to help the intolerable bike situation in East Pasadena, the forgotten stepchild of Pasadena’s bike plan.

The report recommends that local governments encourage TOD and mixed-use development and remove “excessive parking requirements” in areas adjacent to rail stations.  Pointedly, the report also calls on local governments to “improve walkability and bicycle access in rail station areas by shortening blocks and building safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.”  Hear, hear!

To be fair, Pasadena is in the process of developing a new plan for more TOD near the Allen and SMV stations, which is most welcome.  Unfortunately the city has met fierce resistance from a small number of car-dependent suburban residents of Hastings Ranch’s cul-de-sac neighborhoods who can’t imagine that anyone would occasionally walk, take transit, or bike, and who can’t be bothered to take their foot off the gas long enough to avoid hitting a pedestrian or cyclist on their way to the freeway.  They see nothing wrong with driving everywhere all the time and think it’s their god-given right to do so.  And they want plenty of “free” parking when they get there.  They’re convinced the only solution to too many cars is wider roads and more parking lots ad infinitum.

The recommendations of the Berkeley report should be heeded by cities and provide yet another piece in a growing body of literature that documents the essential need to shift our transportation and development strategies from the sprawling car-centric model of the past to a healthier transit-oriented model of the future.  Let us hope city officials have the courage to stand up to narrow-minded NIMBYs who can’t see past the end of their steering wheels.

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