Monday, November 7, 2016

Fresno Mayoral Election - What will it mean for sprawl?

If you support investment in a strong downtown, curtailing sprawl, focusing on infill, fighting slumlords, and supporting high speed rail, which candidate should you support in the upcoming Fresno mayoral election?

Downtown Fresno, before the removal of the Fulton Mall
The good news is that fortunately for Fresno, neither candidate is a disaster. Neither candidate has declared that downtown should be abandoned, or that bike lanes are part of a secret international agenda, for example. Unfortunately, that means that voting tomorrow becomes a little harder, because one has to conduct a little research.

The candidates are Democrat Henry Perea and Republican Lee Brand. If you only follow national politics, the choice seems simple. For whatever reason, over the last decades, the Republican Party has taken stances against sustainable transportation, High Speed Rail, and investment in infill. But we're talking about Fresno, and it's not so clear cut.

For the past eight years, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has shown a strong interest in everything I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Although she is a Republican - born in Texas and raised in Arkansas - Mayor Swearengin strayed from the typical Republican platform in her efforts to fix Fresno's core. She was one of the strongest supporters of High Speed Rail, she oversaw the first residential development in downtown Fresno in decades, brought in $40 million in federal funding for BRT, pushed a master plan that focused on infill, and even stood her ground against the first developer attempt to ignore the master plan in building a new suburban supermarket.

This of course, has been in strong contrast to California Republicans on the national stage, such as Nunes, Denham, Valadao, and Issa. Indeed, the prime reason Mayor Swearengin hasn't had a stronger list of successes has been to the right wing reps on the Fresno City Council. Those council members have shared the following gems:

On Planning

"I always side with the free market. Who knows more about retail, Smart & Final or the city of Fresno?” says Council Member Clint Olivier, whose district includes the project site. “In a case like this, I always side with the business owner. I always side with the free market.”
Smart and Final

On Bicycle Lanes
Public support for the bike lanes on Fruit was overwhelming, but one voice prevailed. City Council Member Steve Brandau argued there was not enough bicycle traffic to justify a bike lane on Fruit Avenue between Shaw and Herndon. Brandau cited his own informal traffic study as evidence.

"I went out and parked under a shade tree, it was on a Saturday, a beautiful day and I counted in one hour 374 cars and zero bikes." 
Council Kills Road Diet 
On Public Transit
The feds and the state will pay for this bus with your tax dollars, but is that a good use of your money if we don't need the bus?
Fresno Kills BRT 
 On Infill Development 
Our citizens have always preferred bigger homes on lots with a backyard for barbecuing. They like driving cars while listening to music.

This general plan would be more at home in Sacramento or San Francisco. It is now popular in California for public policy to be made on the whimsical notions of the “intellectual elite.” They live off high six-figure salaries and have less common sense than the average Walmart clerk.
That said, this general plan is still focused on high-density infill development that is diametrically opposed to the free market. Until that fact changes, I cannot support this 2035 General Plan Update.
Infill Plan 

These kinds of statements extend beyond Fresno's borders into Madera:

On a plan to provide public transit between Fresno and Yosemite:
“Busing will herd visitors between set locations like cattle, and will take away from leisurely travel time that helps the local economy, giving tourists more flexibility to shop and dine,” Bigelow said

Fresno's "spine," Blackstone Avenue
But even against this kind of obstruction, the Mayor got her way more often than not. Of course, that included projects I personally did not support, such as removing the Fulton Mall. However, even in that case, the project was done as an attempt to bring investment to downtown. Rather than, you know, letting the free market sprawl to the sierras and back. Incidentally, the people in Fresno like what she has done. She was originally elected with 54% of the vote. She was reelected with 75%.

The point here, is that one can still be the Republican mayor of Fresno and not subscribe to the national party line.

Which brings us to the two candidates, and why strong consideration should be given to both.

Both Brand and Perea have a lot in common. They've each lived in Fresno for over 60 years, and both have experience in local government. Brand has had 6 years on the Fresno City Planning Commission and 7 1/2 years on the Fresno City Council. Perea also spent time on the City Council and currently sits on the County Board.

At first glance, I thought this would be a classic case of North Fresno versus South Fresno. Brand is a Republican from North Fresno who also works in apartment management. Perea has built a coalition in South Fresno, home to downtown. For those unfamiliar with Fresno, the northern side is generally wealthier and whiter. The southern side has lower averages incomes and higher proportions of minorities. The southern side developed first, and the city has constantly expanded north.

A housing development, "The Grove," replaces an actual
orange grove in Clovis 
And yet curiously, all the Fresno-area sprawl developers have thrown their hat in with the Democrat, Perea.

That includes the folks at Granville, which have made a series of unfortunate power plays in an effort to shape the election in a "pro-sprawl" message. These plays included an op-ed in the Bee slamming Mayor Swearengin's tenure, a nasty online video hailing the virtues of supporting sprawl development, and an "October Surprise" announcement that they would sell all their downtown Fresno properties.

Their message and goals have been clear and transparent. The question is, why have they thrown money at Perea?

I can think of two reasons:
  1. They believe he will win, and are trying to gain favor
  2. They believe he best aligns with their goals, and are trying to ensure he is elected.
The Fresno Bee has written plenty about the candidates, and one sentence was particularly alarming to me:
How the city grows has been another issue where Brand and Perea have differing visions. Brand is strongly behind a revamped city General Plan that focuses on infill – the practice of first developing open lots in town before growing beyond city limits. The plan was a cornerstone of Swearengin’s second term, and as a City Council ally, Brand helped push the plan.

Perea, on the other hand, is refusing the shut the door on growth at the city’s fringes.
These stances would seem to place Brand in the more liberal position of limiting growth at the city’s edges, while Perea’s stance to let the free market decide is more in line with a Republican point of view.

Perea has questioned the wisdom of pushing infill to the exclusion of fringe growth, thinking builders may simply go to Madera County, Sanger or Clovis if they are limited in efforts to build new subdivisions at Fresno’s outer reaches.

Brand, however, says that “sprawl creates deterioration of older neighborhoods. They over-consume services. It’s a losing business model.”
Fresno Bee
Why did I highlight that line?

Because that talking point is identical to the one raised by Granville to justify their sprawl.

Remember that online video I mentioned?

A few months ago, Granville took the extraordinary step of launching "GV Wire," which produces and distributes political propaganda.

GV Wire talks with Loretta Sanchez for U.S. Senate about water, ISIS and those Hillary Clinton e-mails.

Why on earth is a suburban tract home developer from Fresno suddenly creating videos about ISIS?

And it just so happened that one of their very first videos made the argument that Granville should be allowed to sprawl in Fresno or else they would pick up their heavy machinery and continue sprawling in Sanger and Madera.

So again, is Granville funding Perea because he happens to agree with them, or are they exchanging cash for policy?

The Fresno Bee recently endorsed Perea, but with one caveat:
We would prefer that he engaged in less old-fashioned power politics and more in consensus building.
Fresno Bee
This type of "power politics" is concerning. It leads to agreements such as "Sure you can sprawl out 4,000 new homes, but only if you build 400 apartments downtown."

These are the types of games Granville and friends love to play, especially with tax money subsidies. Indeed, that's probably what they expected with Swearengin. They hoped that the goodwill they built up would means the general plan would pave the way for more suburban sprawl. Unfortunately, after not getting their way, they threw a fit.

Mayor Swearengin's husband gave the following statement on the issue:
There was a day, not so long ago, in Central California when developers were able to push City officials to do their bidding to the detriment of local citizens. Some used govt money to build downtown projects to try and manipulate rulings from City officials in other areas of our town. Some developers have been quite angry the last 8 years that City hall represented the citizens first and demanded developers do their work within city planning and parameters. Some developers have not taken it well that their influence over the City of Fresno was lost and now they are doing all they can to try and get back in charge.

Fresno, don't elect officials who will open the door once again to sprawl. Look at who some of these developers are supporting and ask yourself "why". Ask yourself why will some of them try and smear what has happened in the City over the last 8 years. Outward growth of the City or "sprawl" is a massive Ponzi scheme that benefits developers and robs the City, if not done in controlled growth. The developers claim these developments on the City fringe cause economic growth but actually, once the sales tax the City gets for the home sale of a fringe development is gone, the taxpayers are on the hook for the supply of water, roads, fire and police to these developments for the REST OF HISTORY - long after the developer has pocketed the profits and moved on to the next sprawl project.
When developers and cities work as partners, both can greatly profit together - but don't be fooled by the ones who are willing to hurt their city for their own personal gain. These are the people, along with the govt officials who caved to their influence, that have put the knife in the heart of Fresno's economy for 50 years. Fresno, you are too valuable to sell your soul to profiteers who will say or do or give any amount of money to candidates or smear anybody necessary to put themselves back in control of the City of Fresno.
Mr. Swearengin is correct. Development on the fringe hurts the city. It sucks out public money and leaves the economically disadvantaged behind.

Incidentally, the following people and entitled have made contributions to Henry Perea:
  • GV Holdings, Inc.
  • Granville Chief Executive Officer
  • Vice President of McCaffrey Homes
  • Lance-Kashian and Company
  • McCaffrey Homes Chief Executive Officer
None of them appear to have donated to Brand.

Needless to say, Mayor Swearengin endorsed Brand.

On the other hand, the Fresno Bee, which also supports downtown development, sustainable transportation, and all those other fun things did endorse Perea. They said the following about Brand:
Brand’s political instincts are largely timid and reactive. For example, he did not lead the charge to address water discoloration and health-safety issues in the northeast Fresno neighborhoods that he represents. Instead he waited until citizen whistleblowers brought the longtime problem to light.

In fact, my personal experience with him matches this. Way back in 2011, there was a proposal to invest in Hotel Fresno:
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and City Council President Lee Brand are headed for a fight over the fate of the nearly century-old Hotel Fresno building. She wants to spend taxpayer money on what she calls a risk-free project that will spark downtown. He thinks she is pushing taxpayers into a disaster. Swearengin's administration on Thursday will ask the City Council to approve a loan of nearly $860,000 in City Hall-controlled federal housing money to help jump-start the rehabilitation of the Hotel Fresno.

Brand said the Hotel Fresno loan documents are based on faulty revenue and cost estimates, which almost inevitably will lead to a failed project. He said it makes no difference that the city's shrinking general fund, which goes largely to public safety, is not on the hook.
Hotel Fresno

Brand won that fight, and five years later, Hotel Fresno sits as sad and abandoned as ever. However, I did email him, and he replied in extensive detail with his reasoning behind the vote. Essentially, he had seen the series of Fresno investments which failed, and was worried this was next.

And to be fair, Fresno has had a long history of "sure-fire" investments which failed spectacularly.

This same type of thoughtfulness is reflected in the Fresno Bee's voter guide, where the candidates could provide answers to questions.

Compare the level of detail between the two:

This is true of all their replies. However, more detail doesn't always mean better. The BRT question is an example of where neither candidate comes out well:

What is your opinion of the proposed bus rapid transit system? Right now, routes are proposed for Blackstone, Kings Canyon and Shaw avenues. Is it a good idea? Is it viable? If not, how should it be changed?
Henry Perea: The decision on BRT has been made, my job as mayor will be to build it on time and within budget. BRT is an important link in implementation of the new general plan and provides a viable means of transportation for our residents.
Mr. Perea doesn't come out as someone who loves transit here. "The decision has been made" makes it sound like he will "deal with it" rather than support it.

On the other hand, Mr. Brand's "cautious" approach is partially why Fresno will no longer get a BRT system:
Lee Brand: I did not support the original BRT proposal at over $50 million. It was over priced and didn't deliver an efficient plan. I did support a revised version that came back a few months later with a significant reduction in price and a revised transportation model. The new model was modeled after Stockton which uses smaller more cost effective buses. The routes were modified to include Shaw Avenue. Shaw Avenue has many prime destinations including the Save Mart arena, the Maya Theatre complex, Fresno State University, Fashion Fair Mall, and Fig Garden Village Shopping Center.

The Development Code re-zones most of the transit corridors to residential and mixed use categories. Transformation from predominantly commercial zoning to residential zoning will be difficult.

The transformation in zoning and use along Blackstone will require a substantial investment in infrastructure. The City does not have the financial resources to pay for the needed infrastructure. There are a few potential solutions. The best alternative is for the City to obtain state and federal funds to pay for the infrastructure. Another alternative is for property owners to form Infrastructure Assessment Districts.

BRT will not work without a business plan to incentivize new development along the transit corridors. The Economic Expansion Act does offer policies to incentivize development along Blackstone.
There's a lot of good detail here, and he is certainly correct that Blackstone needs more than a new bus for revitalization. However, it speaks to what the Bee called "timid and reactive." Brand chose to ignore years of public workshops, designs by experts, and a decade of planning and instead apply his own sense of "efficiency." The result is a bus painted a different color, one that will not provide the confidence needed to spur investment in a transit corridor.


My conclusion here is that as Mayor, Lee Brand would be a cautious conservative. Someone who would frequently say no, in an interest to minimize risk to Fresno. However, while risk avoidance is certainly attractive, it doesn't make sense in an economy that needs a strong kick-starting, and an investment environment that has low interest rates and high unemployment. Business as usual has created a city with way too many problems, many of which are closely linked. Concentrated poverty is linked to gang activity. Concentrated poverty is also linked to poor land use which strains the public budget and leaves entire sections of the city behind. Sure, saying "no" might be the right decision sometimes, but it can just as easily be the wrong decision which leaves the city spinning its wheels.

On the other hand, I am concerned that Perea would most likely be a "yes" kind of guy, and this also swings both ways. He seems like someone who would say yes not just to important projects, but also to the big-name developers who come to his door with cash. And again, this would be counter productive. Allowing sprawling subdivisions because the developer is throwing in some "mitigation" sure looks good at the press conference - but it creates decades of negative consequences, and sucks money from initiatives he claims to be focused on. We've also seen attacks on the general plan, attacks which required a lot of spine by the Swearengin administration to reject. Most recently, that was the Smart and Final saga, but I am also reminded me of when a North Fresno developer attempted to build on the regional bicycle trail right of way to expand his restaurant.

When confronted with this (hilariously awful) poster, I am worried that Perea would say "yes." After all, it sure looks great for Fresno!

As I said when I started this column, neither of the two candidates would be a disaster for Fresno. But neither fill me with confidence. I just hope this blog will be able to report on 4 years of good news, rather than the bad.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Discussion begins in Fresno about prioritizing frequency over coverage on the bus network

Last month, the Fresno City Council heard a workshop on a proposed restructuring of the Fresno bus system (FAX), one that would allow for improved service on trunk routes, creating 15-minute headways in the corridors with the most transit demand. 

This type of restructuring is the bread and butter of Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit. You can read about a project he worked on in Houston here. Mr. Walker has been involved with FAX on and off for a few years now. He first gave a presentation at Fresno State in October of 2010, and was then brought in by the city to create the "Metropolitan Area Public Transportation Strategic Service Evaluation (PDF)" in early 2014. You can find more on that process here. The evaluation is in fact the foundation for this new restructuring project. Mr. Walker's team was also involved in the current proposals, which offer specific and concrete recommendations, rather than an overview of possibilities.

The problem:

Bus service in Fresno is infrequent (20, 30, or 60-minute headways), ends early (10pm), and does not reflect current service needs.

The goal:
  • Providing 15-minute bus service in areas that demand it, which in turn creates ridership by providing an attractive and dependable service. 
  • Increase service on weekends 
  • Expand into evenings

The cost:
  • Coverage to the outer reaches of the system, direct service patterns 

Why the trade-off? Because the City Council has not shown any inclination to increase funding for the bus system. That means any additional dollar spent on Route A has to be taken from Route B.

The presentation points out that one issue FAX has faced is servicing sprawl.

The example given is that FAX could service Downtown to Blackstone and Shaw with 6 buses for service every 15 minutes.

BUT, with service running to Nees, it takes 10 buses to run the same frequency.

So the idea is that by reducing coverage in the sprawl area, you can spruce up service in the core.

However, there's a major problem: The FAX system of today was designed in the early 1970's, which was the last major restructuring. Since then, the system expanded only slightly to the north, to River Park.  That is, the "outer reaches of the system" may have been the edge of town in 1980. But today, the edges are much further north, west, and east. That means the cuts will come from areas that should probably get more service today, not less.

It's hard to trim the fat when there's very little fat! Especially because compared to peer cities, FAX actually has a higher productivity - more riders on every bus.

The 2014 report, which hypothetically eliminates many of the ends of service, directly mentions this:
For example, Route 45 was deleted, serving portions of West Herndon, Fruit, and East Ashlan. This route carries over 30 boardings per hour, which would be above average in San Jose or Sacramento, for instance. In the context of FAX’s system average of 47 boardings/hour, however, it is relatively low and it contains long segments with very little ridership. For that reason, a scenario attempting to push Fresno’s productivity higher must delete Route 45.

This map shows the 1977 FAX bus network (blue) along with the 2016 bus network (red). The two yellow lines in the north are the only lines creates since 1977. Everything else has only involved slight modifications.

(Well there were a few lines created - but they were all eliminated - Routes 4, 12, 18, 56) 

Note: If you are unfamiliar with Fresno, the unreserved area to the East is Clovis, a separate municipality. Only Route 9 serves Clovis. Clovis has shown no interest in receiving more FAX service.

You can see the areas that have seen the most growth in the past 20 years have no bus service at all.

In the 2014 presentation, the creators highlighted that a "ridership scenario" could involve sever cuts to lines in order to provide much improved service on the core routes:

Fortunately, the 2016 presentation is not as drastic. Rather than taking a hatchet to the outer lines, it instead proposes some more modest route changes and optimizations. The changes do eliminate some service, but also straighten routes to improve reliability.

I believe that one reason for the smaller changes is that the upcoming "BRT" system includes federal subsidies for 3 years worth of service improvements. That helps ease the financial cost. However, I have no idea what happens when the federal money runs out. Around 2006, Fresno got a similar 3 year grant to run buses every 15 minutes. As soon as the grant ended, the city shrugged its shoulders and returned to 30 minute service, even though ridership had grown. 

This image summarizes the changes in the 2016 proposal. Note that the lines are color-coded by frequency, with yellow meaning the service is eliminated, while red means service comes every 15 minutes. 

It's hard to tell from the image, but currently one of the Fresno service patterns is that a bus starts in some far-flung place, goes downtown, and then continues to some random far-flung place. This "through-running" service doesn't really make sense in Fresno, because the ends of the route are so different. That is, no one will ride from end to end. In regards to service, this can also make the line unreliable, when a car crash up at Herndon creates extensive delays down by Jensen.

Southwest Fresno gets some big changes, which directly addresses this issue:

Southwest changes:
  • Route 30 is replaced by BRT (already planned)
  • 34 terminates downtown  instead of through-running
  • A new 31 is created to replace where 30 used to cover. This is a route that ONLY serves downtown to southwest
  • A new 29 is created. This is a route that ONLY serves downtown to southwest

Downside: The plan creates split routes, which can create confusion. Especially on a system with atrocious maps and zero technology integration. 2016, and still no "nextbus"!

Northwest changes:
  • Route 22 eliminated
  • Route 20 split into 2 branches

Really Northwest (Highway City, Herndon and 99)
  •  Nothing at all, still zero service

River Park changes:
  • Ending BRT at Fresno rather than Audubon (already planned)
  • Simplifies service of all lines to interact with "BRT" at River Park - maximizes connections
    •  Does this by eliminating all the loops

I think eliminating service on First is a poor idea. It is a very dense area. The logic is that there are routes nearby - but the lack of an interior grid makes that walk a problem. The elimination of service on Nees and Ingram also removes transit from a low-income area, a neighborhood that was established well before sprawl (Pinedale).

Doesn't this look like an area with lots of potential bus customers?

Additionally, loops serve two purposes: to expand service (but in an inefficient way) and for operations purposes - it's easier to have a bus make 3 lefts or rights than one U-turn. In this case however, Blackstone is wide enough for the U-turns. However, there is a chance buses might be delayed in doing so.


Some big changes here.

  • Eliminates entire Route 28 (Downtown - Manchester - Fresno State) and forces transfers
  • New 36 serves Downtown-Fulton-Manchester 
  • 32 no longer serves Manchester
  • 39 no longer serves Manchester 

This is a mixed bag for me. For River Park, they're all about maximizing transfer opportunities. Here, they're reducing them.  Yeah, Manchester is no River Park, and it is close to the downtown transfer center, but still, seems odd.

Additionally, one of the founding principals of this type of plan is that adding transfers is ok because the buses will come frequently enough - every 15 minutes. That's the justification for eliminating Route 28.

On paper, I agree.

But in the real world? 15 minutes in Fresno means sitting in the intense summer heat (for half the year), and doing so in areas that may not feel safe.

Today, the 28 serves as a sort of "greatest hits" line. Fresno Pacific! IRS! Downtown! Tower District! Fresno City College! Manchester! Fashion Fair! Fresno State!

And it shows! It has the highest productivity of any line in the system - over 50 riders per hour.

So I'm baffled at eliminating it.

Meandering routes don't make sense when they attempt to cover everybody and end up serving nobody. But Route 28 appears to meander in a way that gets riders to where they want to go.

Finally, Southeast Fresno

Minor changes here:

Really nothing to say there.

To view the entire presentation, download it through this link.

What's next? 

Last time FAX proposed changes, exactly none of them happened, although some of the ideas were incorporated here.

Here, there is a little more momentum, again because of the upcoming "BRT" system. Although I find it odd that they're only doing this NOW, when BRT was supposed to launch in 2014. However, as mentioned earlier, the process did start way back in 2013.

Anyway, the timeline calls for a consultant to be hired to gather community input through a series of workshops. And then return back in 8 months to talk to the council about what the people said, and how the other consultant team incorporated their feedback.

At that point, the council can approve the changes, which would probably kick off in Fall or Winter of 2017....

Or tell FAX to go to hell and scrap everything, as they did with BRT.

Remember, the council president at the time (who is still a councilman), stated the following:

The feds and the state will pay for this bus with your tax dollars, but is that a good use of your money if we don't need the bus?

Which reminds me, don't forget to vote this November.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

FAX to hold workshop on proposed restructuring

Tomorrow, Thursday September 1st, there will be a workshop on major changes proposed for the FAX bus system, which serves Fresno into adjacent communities. Thanks to James Sponsler who left a comment on my last post with this important tip.

This appears to be a major change by FAX standards, which runs a system that has effectively remained stagnant for 40 (yes forty) years.

The core components are:
  • Frequency
  • Grids
  • More weekend and evening service 
Effectively, the new plan reduces coverage in order to increase service. Fresno has not spent a dime in actually improving service in decades. In the past 15 years, 4 lines have been eliminated, and one was added - paid for by the Childrens Hospital. The last increase in service (to 15 minutes on core lines) was funded by a federal grant, and those improves were reveresed when the federal money dried up. While higher frequencies are fantastic, it is a shame it comes at the expense of certain neighborhoods.

I'll look into the details in a later post, but you can check out the presentation from this page.

Note: Fresno was recently awarded $8 million in cap and trade funds to improve transit.

"In combination with the opening of the initial BRT service, which has received significant federal and state funding, these investments are expected to support additional improvements to the BRT corridor, as well as supporting near-BRT improvements to the Shaw and Cedar corridors. Overall ridership improvements are expected to exceed 50% 12 months after implementation, and 90% by the final year of the project." 

It is not clear if this workshop uses any of that funding, or was an independent effort which the funding will complement.

There's some more exciting news at this meeting. The council is being asked to approve an agreement that will allow the city to receive $4,600,000 in Measure C money to build the new Midtown Bicycle and Pedestrian Trail. The good news is that this will allow construction to start quickly. The bad news is that it eats up all trail funding until 2021.

That's right, we can spend hundreds of millions on highway expansions but less than $1m a year on trails. Sigh.

Anyway, here is the project. I am unsure if this funding covers all the sections shown.

More details here.

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:

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!

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: 

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. 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. 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? 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?