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Thursday, August 25, 2016

A quick update on downtown Fresno cconstruction projects

It's been a few months since I've been able to post photos of what has been changing in downtown Fresno. Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to explore the area and take photos, so I present to you a different type of update. Here are some photos I took in May, along with a look at what those projects look like this week, with photos sourced from friendly people around the web. It's amazing how much (and how little!) can change in 3 months.


Tuolumne Bridge - High Speed Rail Project 

When I last visited this project, it looked like this:
















And now it looks like this:

01 CAHSR
Source: High Speed Rail Authority

The bridge is slated to be completed this year.

Fulton Mall

It is very difficult to provide a summary of the Fulton Mall, because it is such a massive project. That is, every block is in a different stage of development, as you can see in my full post here. However, the most obvious changes are at the southern end, where construction began.

My photos from May:

















Steve Skibbie provides a look at progress this week from overhead.

02 Steve Skibbie

And the Fresno Bee from the ground. 

03 Fresno Bee



Bus Rapid Transit

Bus Rapid Transit is sort of under construction. I say sort of because Fresno is no longer getting anything that resembles BRT. But those sweet, sweet transit funds are being put to use. The project involves realigning some bus stops - which happens to be a perfect opportunity to rebuilt the Van Ness underpass. Indeed, it's why BRT is so expensive, most of the funding is being used to upgrade old car infrastructure, like traffic lights, and do so while spending transit funds. Sad.

I don't have a before photo, so here is a rendering of the new intersection (above the underpass)

05 BRT

And another great photo by Steve Skibbie.

04 Steve Skibbie

And one from the Downtown Fresno Partnership

06 downtown fresno part

It's not all transportation related!

 The Lede

The Lede is a full block residential development by GV Urban. It looked mostly done when I photographed it in May, but apparently got held up by utility issues and will open next month. Here are my photos from May:
















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And an interior shot by GV Urban.

07 lede

Nearby preservation of a beautiful brick building is underway.

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Cultural Arts Park

Progress has been very slow on the Cultural Arts park, which is now about a year behind schedule.

From May:

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Christopher Rocha shared updated photos on the Downtown Fresno Facebook page.

09 christopher rocha park 2

08 christopher rocha park 1


South Tower

And finally, moving a little north, to 541 at South Tower, a brand new building constructed in a beautiful art deco style.

Here it is back in May:

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And more recently on the Facebook page:

10 south tower


11 south tower


Bonus: The style fits in with the area:

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There's a lot going on, regarding infrastructure, although this investment has yielded little private (unsubsidized) investment. Let's hope that changes soon.

Other development in the area includes:

-Yet another expansion to Community Medical Center
-BitWise technology center
-The renovation of Warehouse Row.

The First5 building was also finished, which I profiled before, and the Greyhound station is about to be demolished. 

I'll probably do another photo update before the end of the year, when the Fulton project is completed.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Amtrak California gets new funding, trainsets (thanks Wisconsin!)

Early this week, the California State Transportation Agency sprinkled $390 million in grants around the state, courtesy of the successful Cap and Trade program. Streetsblog California highlighted the projects, but I would like to give special attention to the Amtrak funding. 

California has shown the strongest support for intercity rail in the country. Aside from developing High Speed Rail, three of Amtrak's busiest routes exist entirely within California, and are funded by the state. Earlier this year, the San Joaquin saw a new 7th daily train, and now the other lines will get some love.

Particularly poetic is the lease of Talgo train-sets to run between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. What makes these trains special is that they were purchased by Wisconsin for their High Speed Rail Project. That project was cancelled by Scott Walker, but not before the trains were built, and the state was put on the hook for not following through.
Wisconsin taxpayers will end up paying $9.7 million more for two state of the art train sets — for a total of roughly $50 million — but leave the trains with their Spanish manufacturer, under the settlement of a nearly 3-year-old lawsuit.

The bizarre and expensive outcome for Wisconsin — paying for a product but not keeping it or ever using it — reflects the depth of the political disagreement in which Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed, and then GOP presidential candidate and Gov. Scott Walker nixed, a no-bid contract with Talgo Inc. for trains from Madison to Milwaukee and then on to Chicago
Journal Sentinel

Of course back in 2010, Scott Walker placed a return to sender stamp on $810 million which the feds were gifting the state to build rail. California ended collecting a lot of that cash, with the rest going to the Northeast Corridor.

Where's what the Pacific Surfliner corridor will be getting:
 Provides $15 million to the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency over 5 years, coupled with existing resources available through the LOSSAN annual operating budget, to deploy 31 Talgo rail cars on the Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo services. This equipment enables faster acceleration, lower fuel consumption, faster journey times (about 25 minutes faster) and easier customer loading and unloading than the current Amfleet and Horizon fleet that it will replace (single-level, high boarding height equipment). The equipment will lead to at least one additional train consist in addition to the nine consists used today in daily operation, and ensure that all equipment in the corridor has low-level boarding. It also will improve the customer experience with fully automated doors, improved passenger communications, and easier to maneuver configurations, particularly for passengers with disabilities. The additional equipment will also provide equipment deployment flexibility that will allow for increased capacity on crowded Los Angeles-San Diego trains, and more schedule flexibility to enable better peak hour service to LOSSAN North stations, including Santa Barbara.

This new capacity is especially important because there have been severe delays in acquiring brand new trains. A few years ago, the state purchased old New Jersey Transit trains to supplement the fleet. They've been working well. These trains will be even better - they're brand new and designed to be fast. Thanks Scott.

Additional funding will improve service reliability:

Provides $66 million to partner with SANDAG and NCTD to construct double track, new bridges and numerous related infrastructure improvements between Elvira and Morena and over the San Diego River, creating a 15-mile, higher speed double track section between Miramar and Santa Fe Depot. Also invests in removing the one-train-at-a-time bottleneck at Carlsbad Poinsettia station through installing inter-track fencing, a new grade-separated pedestrian undercrossing, new station platforms and other related improvements that significantly improve railroad capacity and customer safety.

Northern California and the Capitol Corridor also gets some love.

Partners with Union Pacific Rail Road (UPRR) to extend two morning and two evening trains to Roseville, allowing travelers three morning trains from Placer County to Sacramento and the Bay Area and three evening trains back to Placer County. Project builds nearly 8 miles of third track and a new Dry Creek bridge near Roseville, improves track and signals in the corridor, and constructs a second platform and station improvements at the Roseville station. Also constructs a layover facility with capacity for three trains to be stored overnight near the Roseville station. Project is implemented in a manner consistent with achieving higher levels of service in the future.

Partners with Caltrans, Amtrak, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission and UPRR in conducting a service optimization plan designed to achieve increased ridership through improved reliability, better schedules and service integration, and more efficient service delivery. Benefits of this effort will be corridor-wide in nature and will aim to improve reliability at all stations. This effort will also improve reliability of the Altamont Corridor Express and Amtrak San Joaquin passenger rail services, and reduce delays to freight trains operated by UPRR and BNSF Railway, upon implementation.

Unfortunately, the San Joaquin line gets no dedicated grant, although both projects have some benefits. The Talgos allow more statewide flexibility with rail-cars (which are shared among the three lines), and the schedule integration should provide improved trips for all users. 

You can get the full information here:  
http://calsta.ca.gov/Newsroom/CalSTA-News/CalSTA-News-Items/2016-08-16-Agency-Awards-390Mil-in-Cap-and-Trade-Grants.aspx 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Google Maps Launches Areas of Interest - How Accurate is it in Fresno?

A week or so ago, Google refreshed their maps service. Most of the changes were minor - new road outlines, a different typography, and a few other minor tweaks designed to make the maps easier to understand. However, as part of that update, they introduced what could be a major new feature: areas of interest.
These areas of interest are determined algorithmically, using an automated process to pick out areas with the most stores, restaurants, or bars, but Google says it's also using a "human touch" in high-density areas — like New York City — to point people to the coolest locations.
The Verge
How great are these results? Well, it depends.

Let's start with a small town: Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. With only 7,855 people, it is the smallest capital in the country. At a glance, the areas of interest seem to work quite well. The new shading does draw you in quickly.




Zooming in, we see that the highlighted area is indeed full of activity.



If it's your first time in town, the new feature certainly did its job.

How does it work in a dense urban area, like San Francisco?

Again, pretty damn well. The orange areas pop out, and are also accompanied with their neighborhood names. Union Square, the Castro, the Pier 39 Area. Yup, it seems to be working. Those are the areas full of shops, cafes, and things to do.



But Fresno is a little different. It isn't a small town with a well defined commercial main street. And unlike San Francisco, it is lacking in distinct neighborhood clusters (aside from the Tower District).

So how does the feature work in a suburban context

Let's start with the southern half of Fresno. Here a couple of distinct neighborhoods do pop out quickly: the downtown Fulton Mall area, Chinatown (not labeled) and the Tower District. Small, but visible.



However, the other points of interest are more well known for their strip mall anchor. Over by Brawley and Shaw (top left) our attention is drawn to a couple of retail centers anchored by Target, Walmart, Dick's Sporting Goods, Ross, and a movie theater. Certainly a retail destination, but not quite an area worth a stroll. A little to the east, upscale Fig Garden is correct highlighted, as are Manchester Center, Fashion Fair, and Sierra Vista Mall.

However, even though Blackstone is pretty much commercial from end to end, most if it is dark - including the new Walmart at Ashlan.

East Shaw is similar. In this image, Shaw is lined with commercial on both sides. And yet only Sierra Vista and the Walmart Center made the cut. Movie theater, pet store, bowling alley, Olive Garden and Applebees - sorry guys.  You have to zoom in to even see most of the activity here.



And while the algorithm does seem to favor anchors like Target in suburban areas, some businesses are apparently more noteworthy than others. The River Park Costco is always packed from open to close, but apparently it doesn't make the cut, nor does the Home Depot. But Best Buy and office Depot do.


And for some reason, "buybuy BABY" is more interesting than Babies'R'Us. Check out how the area of interest cuts off!



That's not to say that Google is fully biased to mega retailers. Neither the Walmart on Herndon west of River Park nor the Kings Canyon one made the cut, and two Targets are also left out (Barstow and Shields)

Of course these arbitrary decisions make the product less useful. Without a clear explanation for what the criteria is, there is too much room for error and abuse. Google could easily use this as a revenue opportunity - pay us, and every Babies'R'Us will automatically be marked as an area of interest for example, and their competitors de-listed. While Google is well in their rights to do so, not disclosing that kind of arrangement could seriously hurt the value of the software for the user.

Additionally, when Citylab explored the new feature, they found that it might be unfortunately tilted towards wealthier areas.

“non-interest” neighborhoods and corridors seem to have in common is that they are poorer than the cities that surround them. In two of them, English isn’t always the language you’re most likely to hear on the street (Westlake is heavily Spanish-speaking, while in Dorchester you’ll hear Spanish, Vietnamese, and Jamaican and Haitian creoles, among other languages). Large swathes of Northeast D.C. have some of the lowest broadband adoption rates in the District. Businesses without an online presence appear to have a distinct disadvantage

I didn't notice this problem too much in Fresno. While lower Blackstone is notably dark, so are many upscale businesses in northern Fresno, such as Sprouts, Trader Joes, and the fancy shopping center at Friant and Fort Washington. Meanwhile, Chinatown popped up, which surprised me.

Overall, I think the feature is a good idea, but for most of Fresno, it is useless. If it's your first day in town, the feature might point you to a genuinely interesting neighborhood - the Tower - or Manchester Center, which might not quite meet your standards for "interesting."

I wouldn't be surprised if other cities with similar development patterns have the same problem.

On the other hand, the new distinction can make more sense when looked at on the more local context. That is, biking distance versus driving distance. In that case, the Walmart/Panda Express/Applebees complex may indeed may be the most interesting destination in your side of town. Of course, that's a Fresno problem, not a Google one. 


"Downtown" West Shaw Avenue


Thursday, July 21, 2016

A quick primer on "smart dock" vs "smart lock" bike share systems

Bike share finally came to Portland, Oregon this week, and the system has already proven to be popular. At this point, bike share in the US is no longer a novelty, as successful systems are integrated into the day-to-day life of dozens of major cities.

However, not all bike share is created the same, and Portland's new system has the distinction of being the largest "smart-bike" system in the country. This is in contrast to most large systems which rely on "smart docks" instead.

The primary difference is the location of the electronics. In a smart dock system, everything is handled by the dock and an attached kiosk. On a smart bike system, the bicycle itself carries all the technology. That means you can lock your bicycle to anything. You use a pin code to remove the built in lock and when you're done, you reattach the lock to the bicycle (and another fixed object of course). Built in GPS ensures the company knows where the bike is.

So why pick one system over another? If most cities have used smart docks, why did Portland go with smart bikes?

The biggest factor involves cost and ease of deployment. A smart bike system actually requires zero infrastructure. You can release the bicycles and let users dock wherever they want - existing racks, fences etc. Docking areas can be created virtually, and displayed with signs or stickers.

Bikeportland.com shows us a standard bicycle rack that allows bike share users to park for free

A smart dock system can't launch until the docking stations are all in place. You trips are limited to starting and ending at a sanctioned dock. And these docks are expensive, heavy, and proprietary. When Boston launched their system, they installed 5 stations a day, the best that could be done with the need to use trucks and a specialized crew. While the stations are solar powered, and thus don't require utility connections, they still require proper installation. That's a lot of time and money.

Streetsblog.org showing the installation of CitiBike, a smart dock system



Monday, July 11, 2016

If you like Pokemon, you have a new reason to hate the suburbs

By now, you have most likely heard of Pokemon Go, a simple free-to-play phone game that has seemingly taken the country by storm. If you're not playing it, you've certainly seen it mentioned on your social media feeds. If not there, then you've undoubtedly dodged people playing it while walking down the sidewalk. If that still doesn't ring any bells, then perhaps the following articles do:

Recode: What is Pokémon Go and why is everybody talking about it?
Phily.com: Squirtle? Pikachu? Where are youse? Find 'em with new Pokemon GO app
NPR: Gotta Catch 'Em All, Or At Least A Few: A Pokemon Neophyte Tries 'Pokemon GO'
KTVQ: Wyoming teen playing new Pokemon game on phone discovers body
Gamespot: Washington's Department of Transportation: don't play while driving.
NBC LA: Players in Hunt for 'Pokemon Go' Monsters Feel Real-World Pain

Based off the popular game series (that turns 20 this year!) the game is all about interacting with the real world. The company which coded the game was spun off from Google, and so the game world is based off Google Maps. That means roads, buildings, parks etc. are all where you would expect them to be.

There are two core aspects of the game that rely on real world locations. Pokestops, where you can collect free items, and Pokemon Gyms, where you battle. These locations tend to be at local points of interest. Libraries, churches, fountains, random murals, historical placards etc. And of course, you encounter Pokemon on your walks to these locations.

You don't get to these locations virtually - the game requires you to physically arrive close to that location, preferably by walking. As such, the game experience is entirely different between those who live in dense, urban areas with tight street networks and scores of points of interest, and those who don't.

New York City
A suburb in Tennessee
An exurb
A rural area

You don't need a Manhattan-style grid to enjoy Pokemon, but you do need density if you want to have any fun.

Sydney, Australia
Laguna Beach, California

Sure, you can drive to a Pokestop, but the game encourages physically walking via the eggs, which require distance logged to hatch. Oh, and apparently that distance counter stops if you go above 10mph, so don't even bother cheating.

Additionally, in a dense area, a 15 minute walk can have you pass by 10 different stops, 3 gyms, and 7 Pokemon encounters. In a suburb, your drive might yield one. Not so fun. 

Pokemon Go is motivating millions of people to lace up their shoes and hit the streets in pursuit of Pokemon, Stops, and Gyms. I wonder how many people will be motivated into thinking about living somewhere a little more dense?

I'm not being entirely facetious here. We know media and exposure has a huge effect on people's preferences, and that includes games. Most urban planners I know played Sim City growing up. I would wager that every current NFL player spent years playing Madden and imagining themselves in the game. 

Knowing that you're missing out on a phenomenon because of enormous spatial distance between your residential area and points of interest might have an effect. No, no one is going to pack their bags and relocate because of a cellphone game fad, but I do wonder about the long-term effects.

Maybe there's a 16 year old out there who will be more inclined to pick an urban college to enroll in next year, thanks to their disappointment in their suburban location. Maybe there's a 22 year old who will take a job in an urban core in in five months because she feels she's been missing out. Will either cite Pokemon in their decision? No, but like all media influences, it might be there in the back of the mind, a seed which has been slowly growing: If you're missing out on Pokemon, what else have you been missing?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Help Bring National Attention to Central California Transportation Issues

If you're reading this blog, you know that Central California is not all sunshine when it comes to planning, development, and transportation. You also probably have a strong desire to see improvement.

For example, Fresno's half-cent transportation tax has been devoted almost entirely to highway expansions and roadway widening. Road diet projects have been halted due to right-wing elected officials. Fresno's pedestrian mall is being ripped up, and the BRT project is no longer BRT. Sprawl, of course, continued unabated. This pattern is true across the valley. Sure, there are bright spots and individual wins, but since I started this blog over five years ago I've seen much more bad than good.

One way to combat these problems is being active politically. Calling council members, attending meetings, and getting involved.

Unfortunately, sometimes these efforts are fruitless. When a developer holding bags of campaign donations is on one side of the issue, and hundreds of concerned locals are on the other, the bags of money tend to win out. That's how you get statements like this, which fly in the face of reality:

“This doesn’t perpetuate the legacy of sprawl,” he said. “Gunner Ranch is contiguous; it’s a logical expansion for urban development.”

So what's the solution, if you care about smart planning, good transportation, and sustainable development?

Media attention.

A group of 100 advocates can easily be ignored when the electorate is made up of 100,000 people who are unfamiliar with the issues of transportation and development. But when headlines are generated, the elected official no longer has to worry about the 100 advocates, but how the headline reads to the general public.

That's why I am encouraging you to visit Streetsblog California and consider supporting their work.

My blog has a nice core of engaged readers who are interested in planning, development and transportation in the Fresno area. However, I'll be the first to admit that the subject matter of my blog is incredibly niche. And that's before even accounting for Fresno's dwindling blog scene, which includes mainstream subjects such as music events and food.

That's where Streetsblog California comes in. They take important issues brought up by dozens of blogs such as this one and shine a national light on them. The fact is, politicians - especially those with larger aspirations - care about how the media portrays them. Taking a local story that is noticed by 100 Fresno activists and elevating it to a national level does have an impact.Thanks to Streetsblog, posts about Fresno have made the rounds from a small planning circle all the way to the BBC.

Check out their post which summarizes some of the great stories they've done in the past two years, and consider providing them some support.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A quick look at the reconstruction of the Tuolumne bridge for HSR

One of the most obvious signs of High Speed's Rail's (HSR) coming arrival to downtown Fresno has been the demolition - and now reconstruction - of the Tuolumne street bridge. The bridge was two lanes wide and carried traffic eastbound over the Union Pacific right of way. It was paired with the Stanislaus Street bridge which carries two lanes westbound.  

Both bridges will be demolished and replaced by a single bridge carrying traffic in both directions. The bridge will feature wider sidewalks as well. The reason is that aside from being 50 years old (or more?), the current structure of the bridge does not allow enough room for the new High Speed Rail tracks to fit. Once the new bridge is in place, and the Stanislaus Street bridge has been demolished, more serious work can be done downtown to create the new tracks and station.

Meanwhile, other construction is underway just north of downtown, as they have begun to build a trench. However, I was unable to get any good pictures. The construction area is surrounded by private property or the highway. 

Let's take a look at the work on the bridge. I will begin with pictures I took back in January to see what it looked like a few days before closing forever. Below them are the pictures I took two weeks ago showing the current progress.

Here is the bridge back in January, taken from the sister bridge.


Frankly I don't understand  why so much space has been wasted for 100 years.


 The bridge itself


 Not the best of sidewalk conditions.


I'm sure the structure itself was on its way out.


 Coming back you see the official sidewalk path - not ADA


The old pedestrian path also didn't inspire much confidence in safety.  


 Frankly, I wouldn't have felt comfortable parking here.