Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “transit oriented development”

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.

Parking or Transit?

A new study by researchers at USC showed that people who live within half a mile of LA Metro’s new Expo Line were driving significantly less—as much as 40% less than they did prior to the opening of the light rail line.  They also drove less, and had a lower carbon footprint than those who don’t live near transit.  This is excellent news, and most welcome to those of us who understand that driving is not hard-wired into Angelinos, but is a result of an infrastructure that has been built almost entirely around the automobile for the past 80-odd years.  The study showed that infrastructure matters.  If we build it right, we maximize the chances that many more people will leave their cars at home and take transit more often.

The study also contained some important insights about infrastructure around transit stations.  For example, the study found that those who walked to the Expo Line stations showed improvement in health as a result of the approximately 20 minutes of daily moderate physical exercise they got walking to and from the station and their destination.  The study also found that connectivity to bus networks increased use of the Expo Line.  One of the factors that decreased a person’s likelihood of walking to the station was the existence of a large arterial roadway with heavy automobile traffic that had to be crossed in order to reach the station.  Crossing streets with heavy automobile traffic is intimidating for many people, and in such cases, they wind up taking their cars instead.

So, if we want to increase the use of a light rail transit (LRT) facility, the study strongly suggests we should design it to be comfortably and safely accessed by bus, walking, or bicycling.  This means providing easy connections to bus transit, prioritizing safe pedestrian and bicycle access, and reducing heavy automobile traffic on streets around stations.  Improved bus service and a network of bike lanes leading to a station can significantly increase the radius of people who use those means to get to an LRT station.  On the other hand, if we want to decrease the likelihood that people will walk or bike to an LRT station (thus decreasing the health benefits that accrue), design it primarily around automobile access.

What about those people who live beyond the half-mile radius around a light rail station.  Unfortunately, for many Southern Californians the default answer is to promote automobile access.  Take Ms. Leda Shapiro, whose letter to the L.A. Times in response to the study complained that the study didn’t emphasize “the common practice … of parking your car at the station and taking the train.”  Ms. Shapiro apparently misses the point that the study, for good reason, was trying to measure how many people didn’t drive to the station, Ms. Shapiro then reverts to a car-centered default position in her understanding of the role of transit:  

It is time to demand that parking structures be built so we can park and ride and get our cars off the freeways.  Buses … do not run often enough outside normal working hours or are too unreliable.  Many more people could ride the train outside that walkable half a mile if there was parking available (even with a small fee).

While she’s not wrong to bemoan the paucity of good bus service in many areas of our city, I would argue that after a point, more automobile parking is actually counterproductive.  A major problem is that at a certain point plentiful automobile parking and (as the USC study demonstrated) the resulting heavy auto traffic may discourage people from walking or biking to the stations.  

But the problem of prioritizing automobile parking is broader than that.  Large parking lots and parking structures tend to make the approach to the stations more distant and time-consuming for people arriving on foot or bicycle, who have to travel further to reach the platform, and contend with entrances to the station designed for cars.  Moreover, the large physical footprint of a parking lot makes it more difficult to build transit-oriented shops and apartments within convenient walking distance of the station, because the function of the station changes from being one that is comfortably accessible on foot to one that is primarily accessible by car.  Light rail patrons who arrive by car are less likely to patronize small shops nearby, because they’ll get right in their cars and leave.  If they want to shop, they’ll be much more likely to patronize shopping centers with plenty of parking, perpetuating the auto-centered sprawl model of retail development.  Thus, stations with large parking lots don’t lend themselves to the kind of mixed-use development that entices people who live nearby to walk or bike to those local shops.  Let’s not forget that local shopping keeps more dollars in the local economy and creates local jobs, unlike the Wal-Mart style of retail centered around shopping by car.  Build transit for cars and we lose the virtuous cycle of car-light living and replicate some of the worst aspects of the automobile-centered lifestyle, such as sprawl, traffic, parking lot purgatories, and unhealthy sedentary travel habits.

Light rail transit should be designed to gradually shift people away from car dependency, not continue it.  If we want to get more people to use transit and further reduce traffic, our carbon footprint, improve our health, and our local economy, we should not “demand” more car parking, as Ms. Shapiro wants, instead we should demand more frequent and longer running local bus service to transit stations, more bike lanes and low-stress bike routes to those stations, good bike parking, and pedestrian-friendly streets in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The good news is, those pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure improvements are much less expensive than the infrastructure that must be built to accommodate significantly more car traffic.  And if we subsidized local bus transit to the same degree that we currently subsidize automobile parking, we could afford more frequent bus service.  And make no mistake, more frequent bus service is essential to make our cities less car-dependent.

So here’s a dilemma: do we build multi-billion dollar parking structures at all LRT stations that significantly raise the cost of building those stations?  As UCLA economist Donald Shoup has demonstrated, there’s no such thing as “free” parking.  What if the additional costs of building a large capacity park-and-ride facility (and they are considerable) make extending our LRT system so much more expensive that it becomes politically difficult to build more light rail?  I guarantee you, Ms. Shapiro and other car-dependent citizens will raise a ruckus if they have to pay parking fees sufficient to recoup the full cost of new parking facilities, so parking costs will likely have to be subsidized to entice them to bring their cars to the station.

I’m not saying new transit stations should lack any automobile parking, but motorists should be required to pay the full cost of providing parking.  Perhaps parking structures could be located away from the station, reducing traffic and the physical footprint of the station itself so that it is more convenient and welcoming for people arriving by bus, bike, or on foot.  Perhaps a few stations (at the end of a line, for example) might provide extensive park-and-ride accommodations while others should be designed primarily around transit, walkable, and bikeable access with a minimal amount of car parking.

We should pay close attention to the USC study’s encouraging results.  It proves that we can design transit and the surrounding infrastructure in a way that has the potential to alter people’s transportation choices.  Designing stations primarily for automobile parking may bring a few more drivers to the station in the short run, but it unfortunately tends to negate the other, more virtuous choices.  It is a trade-off we should carefully consider when building new LRT stations.

Book Review: Straphanger

Taras Grescoe,  Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile (New York: Holt, 2012), 323 pp.

Taras Grescoe proudly declares himself a straphanger, someone “who, by choice or necessity, relies on public transport, rather than a privately owned automobile.”  His book of the same name is a fascinating tour of public transit systems throughout the world that demonstrates how efficient, safe, and beneficial such systems can be.  As something of an occasional “straphanger” myself, I was interested in his insights and curious to see if his observations about public transportation were similar to my own.

One of Grescoe’s main points is that cities with good public transit systems are better at moving people efficiently.  He also discovers that the quality of life is improved because public space has not been sacrificed the automobile.  In Paris, he marvels at how easy it is to get around on the Metro, in Portland he discovers how the city’s modern streetcar system enriches downtown, and in Copenhagen, where 55 percent of people make daily trips on a bicycle, he discovers how economical, practical, and healthy it is to get around the city on two wheels.  In a society in which automobile advertising bombards us with the (false) message that cars = freedom, it is refreshing to see the way good public transportation can be liberating.

He also concludes that the best transit networks worldwide are municipally owned, rather than privatized.  Successful transit systems are run as integrated systems, coordinated so that, for example, bus feeder lines and rail connections are timed so that commuters can move from bus to rail and back again with as little delay as possible.  This is most likely to happen when “public agencies with regional scope and unified planning oversight” run public transport. (294)

The journey to transit-oriented cities demonstrates how a well-designed public transportation system not only frees people from environmentally destructive dependence on the automobile (and its evil twin, sprawl), it can revitalize cities, making neighborhoods people-centered, not car-centered.  In cities around the world, in places as diverse as Montreal, New York, and Bogota, Grescoe writes:

There is a revolution going on in the way people travel.  It is rewriting the DNA of formerly car-centered cities, making the streets better places to be, and restoring something cities sorely need: real public space. (9)

According to Grescoe, this revolution is pushing back 70 years of auto-centered urban planning and development.  The 20th century city, with its no-man’s land of freeways, arterial highways, and parking lots was exemplified by the work of men like New York transportation commissioner Robert Moses, whose post-World War II vision for an automobile city displaced 320,000 people from their New York neighborhoods to make room for expressways that flooded the city with cars and deprived the city’s subway system of operating funds.  Grescoe then highlights the emerging triumph of his nemesis, Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of American Cities (1961) became a bible for a new generation of urban visionaries.  Jacobs and other activists, Grescoe argues, “had the courage to oppose what people like Robert Moses spent their careers trying to impose: cities built for cars, not people.” (44)

Suburbs can be designed around people and transit, too.  For example, in the suburb of Vauban, outside of Freiburg, Germany, residents live virtually car-free, using streetcars, trains, busses, and bikes to get where they need to go.  Most striking, in contrast to American suburbs, is the amount of space children have to play outdoors in Vauban.  Grescoe observes the beneficial way suburban space opens up when it isn’t monopolized by the car:

Vauban, I realized, is what a suburb looks like when you remove all the land-gobbling driveways, garages, lanes, and cu-de-sacs.  It is also the answer to all those who claim owning a car is essential when you start raising a family. . . .  Vauban may be the closest thing to what suburbia was meant to be before it was overrun by cars: a paradise of unsupervised free play by children. (p. 136)

In the United States it is doubtful that our suburbs will go car-free any time soon, but Grescoe finds that those US cities that have retained some of their pre-World War II urban form, such as Portland, OR and Philadelphia, have blossomed in this dawn of the post-automobile era, creating public space and making it easier to get around without a car.

All this may seem overly optimistic, and, to be sure, Grescoe acknowledges the powerful lure of the car culture and the stranglehold our car-centered infrastructure has on our transportation choices, but he convincingly argues there are realistic, achievable alternatives to car-centered development.  We could expand light rail service and set aside dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit (BRT), making it convenient for more Americans to use transit.  Relatively small but significant changes in our streetscape would make our cities and suburbs more walkable and bikeable, providing people with more space and practical alternatives to the car.

At the same time, he notes that a successful transition to public transit can only happen if we subsidize transit (which, in many US cities must be self-supporting) rather than the automobile, as we currently do (by reducing the subsidization of roadways and parking, for example).

Nowhere is this shift to transit going to be more crucial or necessary than L.A., in some ways the poster child for the car culture.  The average driver in Los Angeles now spends an average of 72 hours a year sitting in traffic jams (up from 44 hours a year in 1982), and if the region continues to depend on the car, its air quality and traffic are only going to get worse as greater L.A.’s population increases by an expected 6.3 million residents in the next 30 years.  “Short of triple-decking the freeways . . . [L.A.’s] best hope lies in transit.” (61)  Fortunately, Grescoe sees exciting things happening with L.A.’s light rail expansion, and, I’d add, the emergence of its nascent urban bike culture.  Work still needs to be done to further expand rail, bus, and BRT lines in LA, but Grescoe reminds us that Southern California once had the best streetcar system in the world, and it has tremendous potential revive mass transit.

My own (admittedly limited) observations about transit in the US cities I’ve visited over the past 7-8 years, and my (more extensive) experience with transit in LA lead me to believe that Grescoe is correct in his contention that transit-oriented cities are preferable to those dominated by the automobile.  To an American who grew up using a car to go places, making the switch to public transit requires a shift in the way you travel.  It requires more preparation at first and requires you to adjust to the bus or train schedule, especially if it does not run as frequently as it should.  But, by and large, riding the bus or train is not an unpleasant experience and riding transit liberates you from the hassles and expense of driving and parking.  In fact, in many ways I feel freer on the bus than I do in a car, where I’m saddled with 2,500 lbs of steel to schlep around.  On the days I commute to work on the bus, I always arrive more refreshed than I do when I drive, and, while the commute takes longer on the bus, I’m able to check email, read, and work on the bus, so it’s not wasted time.  My main complaint with transit in LA is that the buses don’t run frequently enough, and that there aren’t more rapid buses with dedicated bus lanes on the freeways for commuters, and that there isn’t a more extensive light rail system.  That, however, is a political problem, not a problem with transit per se.

Grescoe makes a powerful case that urban transportation in the 21st century will be measured by its ability to develop transit systems, not by the proliferation of automobiles and concrete wastelands designed for cars.  In the last analysis, Grescoe argues, we in the 21st century must embrace rail transit as an efficient, green, and humane alternative to the 20th century automobile system.  “Tracks,” he concludes, “stitch places together; freeways tear them apart.” (296)

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