Sunday, November 15, 2015

Fresno is finally getting a Tesla Supercharger

Over the past few years, I've posted about how Fresno is severely lacking in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. It's especially disturbing because the state has put so many incentives in place, and yet, instead of deploying the chargers where the worst air quality is, they're all installed in the Bay Area or LA. Three years ago, there were a grand total of zero public chargers in the area. Fortunately, that has improved. Now, Fresno State offers public chargers, and there are a few others scattered across town.

However. one of the biggest backers of electric vehicle chargers has been Tesla, and they've been MIA. They have been deploying a network of proprietary "superchargers" nationwide to help sell their cars:
Superchargers are free connectors that charge Model S in minutes instead of hours. Stations are strategically placed to minimize stops during long distance travel and are conveniently located near restaurants, shopping centers, and WiFi hot spots. Each station contains multiple Superchargers to help you get back on the road quickly. 
Although the original intention was to act as fueling stations along long-distance route, Tesla quickly began saturating markets with them.

This March, I noticed that as their network kept expanding, there was one giant hole - you guessed it, the Central Valley. Only a single station on I-5 between San Francisco in LA.

Forget serving the Fresno market - Tesla didn't even appear interested in servicing 99 or even the massive market of people driving to the national parks.

It looks like that will change within the next month.

Look closely and you'll see that the Tesla map now features a grey "coming soon" icon in the Fresno area.

 photo charger1_zps96cuoem3.png

Additional snooping has revealed the exact location - At Herndon and 99, in the new strip mall.
 photo charger2_zpsonyw1sqn.png

Electric cars may be green, but massive parking lots are anything but

  photo charger4_zpsylc3gw34.png

It's a surprising location. While it serves the 99 market well, it's not ideal for folks going to Yosemite, Sequoia, or China Peak. The ideal location, of course, would be in the downtown triangle, where all the freeways meet. A secondary location would be Fashion Fair, right off 41, or River Park.

 photo charger3_zpsshjzifsf.png

This new center is a bit isolated, but it is better than nothing. It is certainly good to see that the folks at Tesla finally discovered the center of the state. Maybe one of them tried to drive to Sequoia and realized they wouldn't be able to make the trip.

Construction has yet to begin, so it is unknown if it will be up and running before the holiday travel season.

It would be nice to see additional stations in the future. Aside from downtown, River Park, and Fashion Fair, the 180 and Temperance area would be a good choice, along with 168 and Temperance near the Clovis Hospital.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

If high viz is so important, why don't US police lead by example?

It's that time of the year again, when you leave work at your usual time and suddenly get hit with a blast of 10pm darkness. Although the thermometer says "perfect biking and walking weather," our corporate overlords demand we work our regular hours, which happen to extend past sunset. As such, the evening commute becomes a nighttime affair.

Cue the "be visible" safety campaigns kicking into high gear. The Boston Globe has an article on being visible at night:

In self-defense, “push yourself into the driver’s awareness as much as you can” by exploiting biological motion, said Jonathan Dobres, a research scientist at MIT’s AgeLab. “Make yourself as big and bright and reflective as you can. You’re really helping the brain of a driver figure out, ‘Oh, that’s not a road sign, that’s a person moving around.’ ”
Boston Globe
 Streetsblog reports on a Halloween campaign: 

So what should be a holiday for care-free fun is marked by admonishments, directed at parents and kids, to avoid getting killed by motorists, like this tweet from the Federal Highway Administration. There’s also the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been tweeting all week about how children should “be seen.”

And others tweet:
 photo highviz1_zpsigpvw4jv.jpg

 photo highviz2_zpsjsup4mjz.png

Periodically, lawmakers call for measures to require people walking and bicycling at night to wear reflective clothing, such as in Oregon earlier this year.

On one hand, these messages make a decent point. It's dark. Being visible is good.

On the other hand, many see it as victim blaming. After all, isn't it the responsibility of those operating machinery to do so safely? Why put the onus on those doing something as simple as walking home?

Regardless of that debate, the push for "high viz" got me thinking: If it's so important, so critical for safety, why aren't the police departments the first the suit up in the highest visibility gear possible?

Shouldn't they be leading by example? Aren't they the most sensitive to the value of visibility?

Indeed, the fact that they are not is even more questionable when one looks across the pond, at departments that do practice what they preach.

Take, for example, your typical US beat patrolman. Walking the street. Doing their thing.

  photo highviz3_zpsqjq31wmc.jpg

Los Angeles:
 photo highviz4_zps08xqwrll.jpg

 photo highviz5_zpspnroa82i.jpg

Notice anything?

Yup, dark, dark, DARK clothing.
  photo highviz912_zpsbwehd2f6.jpg

Must be a nightmare to spot these officers crossing the street at night. In fact, if a pedestrian wearing this color was hit at night by an inattentive driver, they would absolutely be blamed for not making themselves visible.

Doesn't have to be that way though.

From what I've seen, it appears that some police departments take visibility a tad more serious, especially in Europe. One can't walk around London without seeing this uniform:

 photo highviz6_zpse4va6nff.jpg

 photo highviz7_zpshnztfmjf.jpg

This curious oversight by American police departments appears to extend to all forms of policing.

Take bicycle patrols. Nothing is more important for bicyclists than being visible right?

And yet, once again, the standard appears to be dark clothing.

NYC bicycle police officers appear to have a small reflective strip on their arm.

 photo highviz8_zpshigxhiye.jpg

Los Angeles has nothing:
 photo highviz9_zpsfpqwhotj.jpg

And Boston does appear to do a good job:
 photo highviz901_zpsg6jqtpxc.jpg

But London still does better:
 photo highviz902_zps8nxsmaxf.jpg photo highviz903_zpsspacg6nq.jpg

In New York City, especially, the blatant disregard for the lifesaving benefits of high visibility clothing extend to the mounted unit:

 photo highviz904_zps3lvdfyxa.jpg

Compare to these Australian units:
 photo highviz905_zpsnxfyk52j.jpg

Check out those lovely leg reflectors!

What's especially curious is that American police departments are well aware of the dangers police officers can face due to poor visibility. Indeed, they've successfully lobbied for laws around the country that protect police officers making traffic stops, by requiring motorists to change lanes when approaching.

These are called the "move over laws"

More than 150 U.S. law enforcement officers have been killed since 1999 after being struck by vehicles along America's highways, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. To lower that deadly toll, a new coalition of traffic safety and law enforcement groups is launching a nationwide public awareness campaign to protect emergency personnel along our nation's roadsides.

Forty three states have passed “Move Over” laws, which require motorists to “Move Over” and change lanes to give safe clearance to law enforcement officers on roadsides.
Move Over America

Interesting. They've chosen to address the safety concern by making the drivers liable for the collision, rather than blaming the victim (the police officer) for not being visible.

And yet when it comes to the general public, the solution to fatalities seems to be to put the onus on the victim to be more visible.

I don't get it. Rather than lobbying for, and getting laws passed, and then educating the motoring public on a new law, wouldn't it make more sense to stop painting their cars dark black, like this:

 photo highviz906_zps9fldfmtg.jpg
 photo highviz907_zpsleswcdew.jpg

And adopt international standards like this?

 photo highviz908_zpszaszsmww.jpg
 photo highviz909_zpskfenkdip.jpg

Less of this:
 photo highviz910_zpsr2momigk.jpg

And more of this:
 photo highviz911_zpsfycjnecv.jpg

What's the problem? Is it not cool? Is it not intimidating enough?

Sure, high visibility is kind of dorky, but doesn't safety come first?

Maybe people would take these safety messages more seriously if the police departments that issued them practiced what they preached.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Tesla's new Autopilot - not self-driving, and not so safe

Did you hear? Self-driving cars are here! Or at least that's what the headlines suggested last week, as Tesla released an update for their pricey cars to enable a new "autopilot" system. As it turns out, the new system isn't new - but the deployment is. And, unfortunately, that's what makes it so dangerous. Tesla is setting expectations for their "autopilot" system much higher than what the car can actually do - and someone is probably going to get killed.

Let's start by reviewing some of the Friday headlines:

  • Welcome to the self-driving car revolution: Tesla releases Autopilot patch (Computer World) 
  • Tesla rolls out self driving car software (  
  • Tesla cars gain self-driving sentience overnight (WaPo)
  • With New Software Rollout, Tesla Accelerates Toward Fully Self-Driving Cars (Recode)
  • Tesla amps up Model S self-driving capabilities with firmware update (Extreme Tech)

The Washington Post had an especially starry eyed (and factually incorrect) write up, which reads like a PR dream:

With one over-the-air update Wednesday night, Tesla Motors has brought a new breed of self-driving car to American roads.

Tens of thousands of Tesla's all-electric sedan, the Model S, bought in the U.S. over the last year have already started downloading or installing "Autopilot" mode, one of the first great breakthroughs for making the kind of driverless magic seen mostly in Google-car demos.

With "Autopilot," the Tesla S can steer, change lanes and drive at highway speeds with little to no help from the human behind the wheel. It can parallel park, using its banks of cameras and sensors, and slow to a stop if the driver happens to drift asleep. In the next update, it may even be able to rouse itself from its parking space and pick the driver up.
Washington Post

But hold on a second. Is this stuff actually new? And is it as great as Tesla is making it out to be?

As it turns out, the software package isn't quite the revolution that Tesla's PR buzz would have you believe. Essentially, the technology has been around for a good five years, sold under different marketing names, and available almost exclusively in high-end German luxury cars.

While features like adaptive cruise control and active lane assist have been around for a few years, it was in 2013 when Mercedes bundled them all together in one "self-driving" package.

 photo mercedes_zps9psggkla.jpg

Competing carmakers offer some of the same assistance and safety features. But only Mercedes has integrated the sensors, controls and 36 separate technologies -- of which 11 are new or updated -- to work together in a bundle, which it calls Intelligent Drive. One Daimler executive said the system has been in the works for 15 years.

Probably the most advanced feature is traffic-jam assist, which rivals are scrambling to get into their vehicles. In congested traffic, a driver can let the car steer, brake and accelerate itself at speeds lower than 37 mph.

Combining the features to work together is the tricky part, says Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Sophistication is needed to integrate these features. ... They do seem to be ahead of the pack," Wallace said. "It is easier said than done."

Intelligent Drive includes systems to help prevent collisions, a pedestrian and animal recognition feature, lane keeping, parking assistance, rear-crash monitoring, crosswind stabilization, distance control, night vision and a suspension that automatically adjusts before the car hits an imperfection on the road.
Automotive News 

In fact, the Mercedes system still offers a lot more than what Tesla rolled out, specifically the pedestrian detection, night vision, and crosswind stuff.

If Mercedes isn't your cup of tea, here's an Infiniti doing some self-driving over a year ago.

So what makes the Tesla launch special?

1) It's coming out of Silicon Valley, so it MUST be revolutionary.
2) Tesla is less concerned about safety than the established automakers

To the first point, it's an unfortunate trend we see in tech reporting - which is where Tesla is generally covered, rather than the established automobile reporting. It's always report-first, ask questions later. The website that can get the PR out first wins. If the PR says it's revolutionary, then damn it, it must be.

It reminds me of how Uber introduced the revolutionary idea of "collection points" to save everybody time and money by making the trip more efficient. Because it was "introduced" by a hip tech company, it is apparently the next big thing. Of course, one might point out that the concept was actually pioneered by the public buses and their "bus stops."

One might also be reminded if the hysteria around the Hyperloop announcement.

But that's not really important here. What is important is that Tesla's hype, + a tech audience might lead to some very dangerous results. Especially because unlike the German companies, Tesla seems to not give a crap about safety.

Tesla released their new software update with three important legal caveats:
1) It is a beta test
2) It should only be used on limited access highways
3) Drivers should keep their hands on the steering wheel

Or so they claim. But that's not what's happening.

1) A beta test implies a limited release - not software pushed to EVERY car in the fleet, as Tesla did.

2) If Tesla cared about this "highway only" limitation, they would use their great software + embedded navigation system to only allow autopilot activation on limited access highways. Especially because the definition of highway varies greatly. Instead, they've put zero limits in place. Combine with the PR tour (journalists were taken on a test of the software on urban streets), and they're encouraging widespread use of the software packages in all scenarios. 

3) If Tesla cared about drivers keeping their hands on the wheel, they would require it with a sensor. Many of the existing German systems will disengage autopilot if they do not sense hands on the wheel, because, you know, they're serious about this point.And again, Tesla did PR where "hands free" was a feature.

Also alarming is the way this update was sent out. It was released on a Friday, with huge PR buzz, pushed to every vehicle. The natural result is that Tesla owners jumped into their cars to test it out.

This is especially problematic because as a "cool tech gadget" Tesla vehicles may be seen and treated like a toy - rather than heavy machinery. 

Browsing through the Tesla subreddit reveals the glee in which the owners are experimenting with the tech. Not just on limited access highways of course, but EVERYWHERE.

Autosteer, by contrast, is designed for freeway use at this point, but I engage it everywhere I possibly can — to learn the limits (and because it’s fun).
Formidable Ventures

Here's a video of someone taking it onto a bi-directional suburban road

While the video looks great, it was day 1, when the driver was in full attention. What happens in two weeks, when the drivers gets used to the product and dozes off?

Remember, the car does not respond to traffic signs or signals. If there is no car in front (5:38), stopping, it would blow through a stop sign or light. At 6:36, you see the car does not know what to do at the roundabout - the driver has to immediately take control. Later in the video, he tried to slow the car down to see if it would manage another roundabout. Nope, it immediately starts accelerating so he has to take over.

Here's some more "fun"

A driver on a bidirectional roadway, at night, in the rain who spends about 20 seconds looking at the monitor trying to turn the feature one. Yes, while moving, and this is without the software!

So much fun!

The reports of alarming situations are not limited to user error, as in the case of that video.

One YouTube video shows a potentially fatal collision narrowly avoided - by the driver

After several seconds of successful hands-free driving, I admit I started to ignore the warning to keep my hands on the wheel so that I could record the moment to share with friends. That's when all hell broke loose. My car was tracking the car in front of me to successfully steer, but I was going slower and that car eventually drifted far ahead of me. Shortly after that, another car was coming in my car's direction from the opposite side of the road. I can only guess at what happened next. My car apparently thought the oncoming car was supposed to be followed, and suddenly veered to the left, crossing the double-yellow road divider line right into its path. Had I not reacted quickly to jerk the steering wheel in the opposite direction, a devastating head-on collision would have occurred.

Yup, he wasn't on a limited access highway. But again, isn't this something that Tesla can control? Shouldn't the navigation system make it clear they're not on an interstate? Is that not terrifying?

Another owner talks about some of the hazardous situations the car can put itself into:

If for some reason it loses the lane markings, it falls back to following the car in front of you. It can lose the lane markings because they don't exist (in intersections) or because it can't see them (deep shadows, cresting a hill, or faded markings.)

When it makes this transition, if the car in front of you does something dumb, you're going too. I've had this happen in intersections where people make illegal lane changes in the intersection - the Model S tries to follow them. Also, if you have close oncoming traffic it could mistake an oncoming car as the car to follow. That's where it gets bad and you have to intervene.

Another common problem seems to be in its natural habitat - the limited access highway. Driving along briskly at 65mph on a highway, the car decides to follow the fog line straight into a low speed exit - without slowing down.

"I hope the next update will teach AP about how offramps work. Most offramps required me to place my hands on the wheel and force it to stay on the highway." 1

"The only surprise was when I was in the right lane on the freeway, the car took the next exit by itself, following the righthand line!" 2

"Stay out of far right line, or it does like to exit the freeway :) With a car in front of me it stayed on, but once tracking by itself it would leave if the chance came up." 3

 "But it might be a bit of a surprise to the driver, since it maintains highway speeds on the offramp. When driving on a freeway which terminated into a hard turn and conversion to a surface street, the autopilot seemingly kept continuing on at freeway speeds. I turned off autopilot before risking a crash." 4

Watch this driver almost crash on his off-ramp, as the Tesla appears to think the landscaped berm is part of the highway. 

One sharp-eyed reader noticed that the Tesla website advertising the feature was stripped of the following sentence right before release: 

Standard equipment safety features are constantly monitoring stop signs, traffic signals and pedestrians, as well as for unintentional lane changes.

That's right.  The self-driving Tesla does NOT respond to stop signs, traffic signals, and apparently, pedestrians. Except this was presented by omission. Someone who has been following Tesla news might think this update includes all the advertised features.

I haven't seen anything about bicycles yet, but one of the off-ramp anecdotes hints at potential problems with the car and bike lanes.

Potential bike lane failure opportunity:
"Most offramps were preceded by dashed white lines, and it happily drifted over those lines." 5

Auto-pilot is not quite ready for prime-time. That's understandable. What's not understandable is pretending it is, and releasing the update in such an irresponsible way with no fail-safes. Sure, if anything happens, Tesla will point to the fine print. Legally, that might help them out. But sadly, the marketing team isn't quite on the same page.

After all, just last week, the Tesla marketing team visited automobile magazine around the country and took them on test-drives - on urban (non-highway) roads, where the journalist was allowed to remain with no hands on the wheel.

Here's another test drive, done by Tesla, with CNET, showing them encouraging the same dangerous behavior - urban road, hands and feet off.

That looks like an endorsement of the behavior to me.

And that's extremely dangerous.

Incidentally, owners of the luxury German cars with similar software were not immune to abusing their systems:

Romanian police have issued a warning over reckless motorists using autopilot systems to let cars drive on their own following a new, worrying trend. The warning came after a shocking video showing a 'driver' sitting in the backseat of his car while driving at 40mph as his terrified girlfriend screams from the passenger seat. The Mercedes S Class in the footage is fitted with dozens of sensors which read the road ahead to adjust the steering, speed and brakes.

The system only works while the driver's hand is on the wheel, but it appears the sensor is easily fooled when any other object, such as a bottle, is hung there instead.  Speaking in Romanian, the man is heard telling his girlfriend not to worry, and boasting that the car can drive itself.
Daily Mail (sorry) with video - from January 2015

But again, these companies actually built in various fail-safes, like sensors requiring hands on the wheel, and advertise their product as driver assistance - not autopilot. Look again at the image of the Mercedes, every feature "helps" the driver, is an "assist" or "protection", not a "pilot" or "self driving".

Language is important in setting expectations. Mercedes nailed the language, from a safety perspective but it looks like Tesla values press over safety. And so far it has worked - outlets like the Washington Post truly believe Tesla invented this stuff. I just hope the next stage of this "beta" doesn't involve a fatality.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

New Amtrak Award Valuation: Major downgrade for California passengers

When it comes to rewards points, a new press release is a frequent traveler's worst nightmare. Enter Amtrak:

A simpler process and more flexible earning and redemption options will be hallmarks of Amtrak's completely overhauled Guest Rewards program, set to be implemented January 2016.
Travel Pulse
Translation: If you ride Amtrak California frequently, you need to use your points before a massive devaluation hits in January.

We are confident this program combines what passengers want most — the ability to grow points earnings rapidly with the freedom to use those points in the way that best fits their individual travel needs.”
Actually, Amtrak, what customers want most is to transform their paid rides into free rides. The new structure is a massive downgrade to California riders. Well, it's a downgrade for everyone, but because the California routes have always offered special redemption rate, the new system is especially poor.

That is, if you ride on the Northeast Corridor, where redemption was 4,000 points, these changes are minor. And that's probably what the accountants at HQ put into their spreadsheets. Problem is, it's a nationwide program, and Amtrak doesn't operate the same nationwide. So what was a minor change for them has resulted in a HUGE downgrade for those of us on special routes.

The crimes:
  • 100 point minimum eliminated 
  • Bus transfers no longer provide extra points
  • Redemption no longer a fixed amount 
Note that points 1 and 2 were never even relevant in the northeast corridor. AKA, HQ probably didn't even think about them when making these changes.

Let's compare the current and future rewards system:


$1 spent = 2 points
100 point minimum

1,500 points for any special route coach ticket

(Special Routes include the following: Blue Water®, Wolverine®, Cascades®, Pacific Surfliner®, Capitol Corridor®, San Joaquin®, Hiawatha®, Downeaster®, The Lincoln Service®, Illini Service®, The Carl Sandburg®, Missouri River Runner, The Illinois Zephyr®, The Saluki®, The Hoosier State®, The Pere Marquette®, The Piedmont®, and The Heartland Flyer®.)

Aka: 15 train rides = 1 free ride. It was even better just a couple of years ago when you could get a free ride with just 1,000 points.

Oh, and the secret bonus: A free bus transfer meant you got another 100 points, i.e. when going to LA or San Francisco. In those cases, it took half the time to get a free ride, and the redemption was valid for both segments (although you could only book these trips over the phone).

 photo amtrakrewards_zpsbryi54ec.png
In the above image, you can see that I earned 200 points for a trip from Fresno to LA (counted as two segments, with a transfer in Bakersfield) but it only cost 1,000 points (in 2012) to redeem the same trip on my return from LA to Fresno.

Even more important is what you're spending. Under the current system, you could travel from Fresno to Madera for $8.50 and get 100 points.

Then come Thanksgiving, you could redeem your free ride on a $80 ticket to Los Angeles. (or even a more expensive trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles).

So in that hypothetical scenario, it meant you could spend $127.50 (15 cheap rides), get a free $80 ride (67% rebate)

In my case, it meant spending $525 (8 regular rides) on trips to LA or SF and getting a free $60 ride at some point (12% rebate)

Now, this system did allow for some abuse when booking large amounts of low-fare trips and redeeming for a super-expensive sleeper trip across the country. However, very few people actually travel across the country in a bedroom, so the abuse was very limited.

The biggest crime of the new system is that it eliminates the 100 point minimum. So now those Amtrak California trips that would bring in at least 100 or 200 points (with bus transfer) now bring in only two times the dollar amount.

So that $8.50 trip? Now 17 points. A loss of 83 points from the old system.

But it gets worse.

Previously redemption was always 1500 points, regardless of distance or time (again, within California).

But now it's based on ticket cost!

So that $80 Thanksgiving ticket would cost 2,760 points!

Instead of 1 free ride every 15, it would take you 162 rides to get the same ticket as a reward.

Looking at my more "normal" scenario, where I travel between Fresno and LA on an average fare, and then use my reward ticket during a high demand time:

 photo amtrakrewards3_zpsg5azz6u9.png

What used to be a reward ticket every 8 trips is being turned into a reward ticket every 40 trips.

That's a hell of a downgrade.

And it makes this feel like a heavy, heavy slap on the face:

 photo amtrakrewards2_zpsompofs9g.png

Incidentally, Greyhound offers a free ticket for every 16 rides.  They're about to move into the Fresno Amtrak station, and as an aside, have confirmed that buses will load from the little turnaround thing in the front. I have a feeling Amtrak is going to be bleeding some frequent riders to the Greyhound Express service.

Oh, and if you're wondering why Amtrak should even offer a rewards program, it's because they are competing with other modes (including buses), and have excess capacity. It doesn't actually cost Amtrak a cent to let you sit in a seat that would have gone empty. 

You have until January 24, 2016 to earn and redeem under the current system.

You can read more about it on their website here

Monday, August 24, 2015

What developer Darius Assemi forgot in his editorial on how to fund road construction

Darius Assemi is the president of Granville Homes, one of the most prolific residential developers in the Fresno area (one which oddly doesn't have a Wikipedia entry). According to his LinkedIn profile, he has been president for 6 years, and served as vice president for 25 years before that. The guy knows the Fresno market well, especially when it comes to selling single-family homes.

But how much does he know about funding our infrastructure? Let's take a look at his Fresno Bee editorial on the subject. Here are his main points:

  • Deteriorating roads cost Californians $44 billion a year in repairs, accidents, time and fuel
  • Deferred repair costs exceeding $57 billion
  • Caused by diminishing purchasing power of gas tax
    • Not tied to inflation
    • More fuel efficient cars mean less gas taxes
  • Funding solutions include:
    • Raising gas tax
    • Indexing gas tax to inflation
    • Increasing fees 
    • New usage based fee
  • Cost solutions include:
    • Caltrans performance should be equal to or exceed private performance  
      • More efficient staffing 
      • Increased transparency 
    • Only use gas tax for construction and maintenance of highways 
    • CEQA exemption for roads using existing right-of-way
    • Design-build projects 
    • Multi-modal future

Generally, it's a pretty standard set of recommendations. The only big controversy is the "highway only" line for funding, although it appears he's more concerned with the previous raid of the transportation fund to plug other budgets rather than eliminating all subsidies of mass transit. It is unclear if he also wants to eliminate that. As a suburban developer, I wouldn't be surprised if transit didn't even cross his mind when he penned his piece.

However it is not these points that I think are worth discussing: it is what he does NOT talk about.

This guy is a big housing developer. Isn't it rather curious that the link between highway projects and his business is not touched on?

He says we can't maintain our existing highways due to a lack of funding. Hm, maybe some of it is because we keep building new highways so developers like him can subdivide more land and sell tract homes?

Take Highway 180. In about a 20 year span, we will have spent $473,900,000 on its expansion/widening. You can see the costs on this page (scroll to the bottom for additional phases to add it all up). 

 photo 180wide2_zpsqptc83nd.png
Look at the heavy traffic rolling through all the new pavement.

That's one highway, which connects farmland on one side, passes through Fresno, and then connects a whole lot of farmland on the other side. It dead-ends in a national park. That sum does not include a proposal to make it 5 lanes all the way to I-5 ($82.6 million), or the previous work done through downtown Fresno in the 90's. In all, you would probably exceed a cool billion on this highway. A highway not built to relieve congestion today, but to allow for development 20 years from now.

 photo 180wide_zpsrxenorna.pngThis aerial shows the current end of the divided highway. Work is kicking off to plow through that small town on the right, and keep the highway party rolling east.

Now the thing about farms is that they don't need a 6-lane divided highway to bring produce to market. Nor do the national parks, which are 2 lanes anyway.

As seen from a flight I was on a few years ago
So who does?

Developers like Granville which want to sell single-family housing, and to do so by advertising "easy freeway access" and "less than 30 minutes to every shop and job!".

The relationship between freeway construction and sprawl is well understood. The effects have been seen over and over again. It's not even something brushed under the table. From when I posted on the last 180 expansion announcement:

“This will connect us all in a more meaningful way,” said Henry Perea, chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and one of many speakers at a ground-breaking ceremony Friday. “When I see this freeway, I see a gateway to economic prosperity.”
Since the first phase of the expressway was built, Sanger’s Mayor Joshua Mitchell said that “more families bought homes in Sanger month after month than any other city in the Fresno area.”
Highway = new home construction = economic prosperity. Fresno summarized.

In Clovis, here we see the brand new 168 in 2002, shortly after it was finished.

 photo 180wide3_zpsu7hurtj1.png

And here it is just over a decade later.

 photo 180wide4_zpsa9zfrjz3.png

Wouldn't a more prudent path to ensure we have money available to repair highways be to stop building brand new ones as a device to subsidize wealthy developers?

Sure, developers will argue they pay fees, and some of those fees go to "improve" nearby roads, mainly by adding signals and turn lanes.

That's all well and good, but here's the thing.

Say for example you're developing these parcels here:

 photo 180wide5_zpsjsqrbnsv.png

And as mitigation, you pay to widen this road here, along with the two intersections:

 photo 180wide6_zpsbw0bv1s0.png

We know there are no jobs to the east. Zero. Nada. We also know the nearest bus is about 2 miles away, and unless you work at a school, the nearest job is no closer than 3.5 miles away. AKA, if you buy a house there, you're driving.

That means all of these roads and intersections, are going to get a lot more traffic - a lot more wear and tear that the developer contributes nothing to.

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But wait, surely that new homeowners pay taxes that help support those existing streets right?

Well, no. That's why this whole editorial came about wasn't it? Because the existing tax structure cannot support maintenance of what we have, since we keep adding more and more miles.

Or try this, drive in an older part of town and compare the quality of the pavement, the sidewalks, the lighting, the landscaping. Garbage, compared to the new stuff. And in 30 years, the new stuff will look just as bad if we keep allowing developers like Granville to spread us out, and to suck up all that potential maintenance money in new construction that we can't afford.

Back in 2013, Granville announced they'd build a huge new medical college up by Millerton lake. That project has been quiet, but as soon as they start moving bulldozers around, get ready for talk on widening Friant road again. I guarantee funding for that won't come from a toll on those users or from the developer, but from the same tax base that can't support what we have to today. I wonder what Mr. Assemi will have to say about highway funding then.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Google Sunroof launching in Fresno thanks to an engineer's mom

Google has gone ahead and launched a really cool new program that shows you how much solar energy potential your rooftop has, how much money you could save, what size you should use, and what it will cost you.

They have a video explaining the project

Problem is, it's only launching in three cities for now. 

Wouldn't that be absolutely perfect for Fresno?  After all, the potential for solar energy is ENORMOUS and yet adoption has been so limited.

And wouldn't you know it, Fresno is included (and most, but not all of Clovis, it ends at Temperance Avenue).

At the end, they explain that it is a limited launch at first. Boston, because that's where the project team is based, the San Francisco Bay Area, because that's where Google is, and Fresno "where one of our engineer's mom is from"

You cant zoom out too much.

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They want you to find your house, so they can give you personalized numbers.

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 If you scroll down, there's some more, for example:

Total 20-year cost with solar
Includes above costs and incentives.
Total 20-year cost without solar
Assumes 2.2% annual increase in electricity prices.

Total 20-year savings
Net present value at 4% discount rate: $10,372.

Check it out for yourself, and see what your house potential is.

Hopefully this project helps people get serious about adding solar to their roof.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A look at the Fulton Mall (de)construction diagrams

If you haven't been paying attention, Fresno last year approved the removal of the 50-year old pedestrian mall in favor of a street for cars.

Well in under two weeks the construction bids are due. What that means is that the design has been completed (or is at least at 90%) and we can take a look at what will actually be built. I say actually being built because what we have seen previously were simply pretty renders. While renders capture the concept and some detail, they are subject to much change; what you see is rarely what you get.

These diagrams are dated July 1st, 2015, and were prepared by:
Landscape Architecture: RHAA Landscape Architects, of San Francisco
Civil: Provost & Pritchard, of Fresno
Structural and Electrical: Teter Engineers, of Fresno
Traffic: Peters Engineering Group, of Clovis
Fountains: Pacific Water Art, of Sunnyvale
Geotechnical: BSK Associates, of Fresno
Transportation: Nelson\Nygard, of San Francisco
Art: Architectural Resources Group, of San Francisco
Arborist: Hortscience, of Pleasanton
PR: Shared Spaces, of Los Angeles
Programming: MJM Management Group, of San Francisco

The satellite images in this post are from 3/18/2015. The image is rotated whereas north is to the top left corner of your screen.

We'll be starting at the north end, and making our way south.

Fulton and Tuolumne. Probably the worst part of the Fulton Mall, by far. Surface parking lots line each side, and the end is interrupted by a street to nowhere, part of some kind of loop road that never really happened. If you wanted to argue that the mall wasn't working, this is what you would photograph, because there would never be any reason to linger (well, unless you like this fountain)

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Which these folks apparently do...

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Naturally, the reason why this area is so poor is that it is a pedestrian mall surrounded by cars....Awkwardly this is where the proposed destruction of the mall works best. Existing Fulton Street to the left actually gets a diet, going from 3 lanes + 2 parking lanes at the corner to only two, with massive curb extensions. Meanwhile on the right side of the intersection, the sidewalks actually make it to the corner, as that weird loop street is removed (for this tiny portion anyway).

The fountain (shown above) is moved, and presumably fixed. It has been my experience that this fountain works the least often of the larger ones along the mall. 

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And to demonstrate the size of the curb extensions...

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Fortunately, it also looks like the curb ramps will all face the crosswalk, rather than be a single diagonal ramp aimed at the middle. That's great.  Oddly enough, the corner at the bottom right gets a continuous arc ramp, but there's nothing wrong with those. Possibly designed this way so emergency vehicles can make the turn faster at speed.

Moving right, we see some good news. Mid-block crosswalks! Yay! My only issue here is that there is just a single overhead light. That means no redundancy, so if it goes out, the crosswalk is pitch dark. There should be an overhead light coming from each side.


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So they've taken this 80 foot wide pedestrian promenade and introduce 4-foot pinch points! And these pinch points look to be quite long!

That's barely ADA minimum! That doesn't allow people the ability to comfortably walk side by side, never mind opposing groups passing one another!

It looks like the introduction of 8 parking spaces has been favored over one's ability to walk comfortably.

Moving on, we reach Merced Street. The Fulton Mall isn't just a linear pedestrian mall, as it includes various cross streets where traffic was blocked. Blocking these streets make sense because they don't actually get you anywhere.

Bottom of Merced, looking up:

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Top of Merced, looking down:

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This project proposes opening up these cross streets as well, presumably, to connect downtown.

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One of the complaints people have about downtown is that it is confusing. Part of that is due to the one-way streets. The other problem is all the random dead-ends and mysterious streets that don't go where you want them to. 

They're right. When driving, the area around the Fulton Mall is a cluster. Check out this map I created showing circulation flow. Notice all the forced turns, the random dead-ends and the blocked opportunities. Pretend you're at A and you're trying to park at point B. If you don't know where to go, well, good luck!

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Reconnecting the grid (for cars) will solve that right?

Except for one little issue...Fresno let developers create superblocks and dead-end streets, including the IRS which planted a roadblock right on Broadway. Rather than making it much easier for people to get where they want, I'd argue that creating these small side streets will result in more confusion.

It might also result in fear. Let's face it. The last thing someone from north Fresno who has never been downtown wants is to be dumped into an alley.

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Trust me, they're especially lovely at night.

In this specific new street, let us focus on the south side which terminates in an alley. The north side links to Van Ness, so that's fine.

Say you turn from Fulton and see this parking spot vacant, marked by a star.

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This is how the new and improved flow lets you get to it (legally) from your position at the red star:

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Hooray! Downtown is so convenient now!

Basically, 5 spots are created on the left, but if they're full, congrats, you get dumped in an alley! And the only way to get to the two spots on the right is...the alley!

Are these 7 spots really worth the removal of this public plaza space? Cost-benefit analysis here...I'm not seeing it, at all.

Before reaching Fresno Street, lets quickly stop by Peeve's Public House, owned by Fulton Street proponent Craig Scharton. Today, his pub has a lovely atmosphere, with a wonderful outdoor seating area, shielded by mature trees and enlivened by the bubbly sounds of a fountain. Note the combination of moveable furniture, fixed benches, and comfortable ledges.

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Under this plan (which is his preferred plan), that seating area gets sliced in half, the lovely sounds of the fountain get replaced by the polluting hum of an idling car, and the mature trees get turned into toothpicks.

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Baffling he thinks this will help his business, but alas...

Moving on, we reach the intersection of Fresno and Fulton. This is interesting, it looks like they plan on building a pedestrian scramble, where a phase of the signal cycle will allow pedestrians to cross in all directions, when the cars are all stopped. Also note rather than single ramps, all corners have a continuous arced ramp area.  I am concerned about the lighting though.

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The success of this scramble depends on how the signals are set. If pedestrians can cross concurrently with cars (parallel) AND get an exclusive phase - great! But if pedestrians get the angry red hand 90% of the time and are ONLY allowed to cross during the exclusive phase, that is very, very bad news.

We continue on and we reach Mariposa, another of those streets that will be brand new. Remember the alley problem from before?

This one is actually worse.

On the north end, there is a pedestrian ramp that leads to an underpass, under Van Ness. It also has access to the underground parking garage, below the courthouse, and public restrooms....according to the sign - I've never dared to visit them.

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There is no plan to remove this underpass. People will still need to use it to reach the courthouse (that big ugly thing in the back). In fact, this is probably the busiest area of the mall, because the courthouse is full of hungry people. There is also a hotel, on the right, and the tallest building in the city with its popular ballroom (guess where people park to access that). Further, the courthouse is surrounded by bus bays, the central transfer point for the entire FAX bus system. Pedestrians, pedestrians everywhere!

And yet once again it was decided to build a street for cars here, a street which will lead people to their doom, ahem, alley. Why? A dozen measly parking spots! There is no reason why ANYBODY would knowingly choose to turn here and drive half a block to a forced alley adventure.


Worse, in the previous alley example, one terminated at a parking lot which could be redeveloped. Here, the odds of the underpass being decommissioned are very, very low.

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And here is the forced alley adventure

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There is literally no reason to destroy this section of the mall. There is zero transportation value. Also, it's home to a Renoir piece. Maybe the only Renoir in the world you can touch. What would Renoir say?

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This would be the perfect opportunity  to create a revitalized pedestrian space (it's far from perfect now), and maybe even move one of the play structures that are being taken to the dumpster. Instead, the project designers are so focused on adding cars everywhere they can, they haven't bothered to ask if there will be any benefit at all. The pedestrians sure as hell won't benefit here, and frankly, neither will the drivers.

Proposal: Seriously ax this block. Use the money saved as a contingency for when the project inevitably goes over budget.

The south side of Mariposa isn't so bad. The new proposed street will link to existing streets, and the intersection will probably be an improvement of what exists now (a crosswalk at the wide curve of Broadway).

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But wait, notice something missing?


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It's the most minor of all intersections, and they just have to give the pedestrian the finger by banning crossing on one of the corners. Why? What possibly purpose is accomplished here by not building all the crosswalks?

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On to Tulare, another scramble intersection (and more pinch points).

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We get to Kern, another one of those streets that currently aren't. This one is an interesting case. Towards the south, Kern Mall terminates at the Grizzlies Baseball stadium, and there is a secondary entrance. It is a very convenient entrance because it gets less people than the main one, and also provides easy access to the mall and spiral garage. So during game days, there is a lot of hustle and bustle here.

Even though the stadium is there, the alley does exist, so theoretically, a street could have been built sending people to another alley of doom. Apparently someone wised up and realized this was pointless. Are you listening Mariposa???

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Sadly, this part of the mall is the least interesting in terms of art and trees. Nothing at all of interest, except this dude on Fulton proper.

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That's not true of the north side, home to my favorite cluster of trees. Unfortunately, the plan is to turn that into a street. An especially wide one, with angled parking. Once again, in another Fresno folly, the angled parking will be the dangerous pull-in design, rather than back-in, which is proven to save lives.

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Mind you, I'll get to the trees in just a bit.

We reach the end of the mall, which becomes just a standard intersection.

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Like where we started, this are of the mall is quite poor because the bottom side is a surface parking lot. Not that adding more pavement will help...

On to a few details.

Fulton Mall is classified as an important bicycle corridor and has been so in the various master plans.

Here? Forget a bicycle lane, Fresno is destroying a safe bicycle route and not even adding sharrows.

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I also can't find any bicycle parking racks. I see various references to parking meters and even trash cans, but no racks. However, it is possible that they are marked but not visible due to the quality of the image.

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Oh, one last thing.

The most damaging part of this project.

What makes the Fulton Mall a pleasant place to walk today? The shade. The birds and squirrels. The nature. It is a park, and the beautiful 50-year old trees provide a wonderful canopy, a perfect shield from the brutal Fresno summers.

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(Note this picture - like the others - was taken in January)

Remember the renders? And how I said they can be incredibly misleading?

Here is what the city presented when calling for the project:

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Note the trees? Note how they're all magically mature and the same and all?

Here's the reality.

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Here is the area by Peeve's Pub. Note the light markings showing the extension of the existing canopy line. All gone, except for a single lucky tree.

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Let us look block by block.

Between Tuolumne and Fresno:

15 trees remain, of which 8 are "outside ROW and project boundary"
45 trees chopped down

Between Fresno and Tulare
14 trees remain, of which 3 are "outside ROW and project boundary"
38 trees chopped down

Between Tulare and Inyo

2 trees saved
58 trees chopped down

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82% of trees removed.

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It took these trees 50 years to create the canopy we have today.

Compare Fulton Mall in the foreground, with Fulton Street in the background

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Get ready to enjoy this amount of shade for a very long time

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These make me especially sad.

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Worst air in the country, but please, let's remove mature trees so we can add cars!


So what's next?

Here is the original timeline

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The star is where we are now. Whoopsie.

In reality, the bids are due August 24. The staff then needs to go through them and pick a winning bid. I would guess that around October it goes before the council for approval to grant the bid (assuming there is a suitable bid).

That is the last opportunity for those who wish to save the mall to demand changes or cancellation. What is especially important here is what the bid amount is. If the federal grant doesn't cover it, then there is a good chance the Tea Party segment of the City Council will demand it go back and have costs reduced.

At that point, the danger is that all the art and fountains get cut. You can't cut out a traffic signal or asphalt or sewer pipes. But a fountain? Easy to toss.

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If approved without issue, construction could start as soon as January. If there are cost concerns, then the whole process could be pushed back at least 6 months.

Of course cost isn't the only reason the project could be stopped. Remember the fully fed funded BRT project?

Incidentally, the bids for the "BRT" project are due on September 8th. More on that soon. But not too soon. This post took forever.