Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Amtrak California hits new ridership highs

Amtrak has released their ridership numbers for April, and the graphs speak for themselves.

San Joaquin missed hitting 100,000 for the first time by 609 riders.
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Capitol Corridor exceeds 150,000 for the month
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Pacific Surfliner has more than 250,000 riders a month
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And how they stack up against each other.
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And finally, how does Amtrak California compare to the rest of the system?

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Very favorably. I thought nobody rode trains in California?

All numbers directly from Amtrak can be found at
http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=Page&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1241245669222

Monday, May 30, 2011

Riding the bus in Fresno (FAX). Step 2: Can I get there from here?

What a lovely memorial day weekend. Perfect weather on Monday for being outside.

Anyway, continuing my post about FAX.

My key search was to find how to answer the following question:
"what buses go near me, where do they go, and what times do they run"

We've already established that the system map isn't very good. It's not terrible, but it fails at the street level. You can see what bus goes from x part of town to y part of town, but finding out where on earth the bus actually stops? Not so easy. And finding out what streets the buses run on downtown or at major transfer centers, is impossible. But I guess once you know what route covers your part of town, you can move onto another tool to find out where exactly the bus runs.

The website recommends using google maps, so let's try that.

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Well, even though directions are on google maps, the actual route maps are NOT.

This is what a city with the transit overlay looks like. It isn't perfect, because all the bus lines are the same color (light blue), but you can quickly see where BART, MUNI and the buses run.

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Because google isn't perfect, some transit agencies have taken it on their own to create interactive route maps. Take the MBTA. You select your route, you select the direction, and the route is show on google maps. Also marked are where the exact stops are, and what the name of the stop is.

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What Fresno does have, is the individual bus stop locations placed in google maps. If you zoom in enough, you can click the stop, and you're told what bus stops there. Unfortunately, it doesn't show where the bus goes next, so at intersections, you need to click on each stop, one by one, to find which bus goes where. Downtown, it's an enormous hassle, especially when each bus stops at a different shelter, and there are 6 shelters sitting next to each other.

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So that leaves one other way to look at routes: The individual route maps.
This map isn't bad. It marks almost every street the bus runs on (some small "jugs" are not well marked) and also gives reference points, like Fresno State, hospitals, malls, and money marts (are money marts really the best place to sell bus passes?)

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What the map doesn't do is mark the individual bus stops, and spacing is not consistent, so that's an issue. Especially when the bus turns and changes streets. Is the stop before the intersection, or after?

What I would so to improve the map is mark the stops, I would extend the street lines, to make the grid clear (and also make the non-grid streets clear), and also put in the connecting bus routes in a faint color, to indicate direction of travel.

Another major concern are the time points. The schedules only list 4-6 time points, even though the bus route can run for 20+ miles. Look at the locations of the time stamps on this route. A B and C, on top, are all clustered together. Then there's a giant gap to D, and E is all the way downtown.

What FAX needs to do is realize that while paper schedule space is constrained, that's not the case online. They don't need to replicate what goes on paper with what goes on the website, but that's exactly what they do. They post PDF's instead of creating tables.

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Notice how the spacing between time stamps is inconsistent.

In minutes
6
4
5
20
10
5
10

That does not make any sense.

FAX should use the internet and mark 10-12 time stamp locations. There's more than enough room, especially thanks to the wonders of scrolling.


Now, back to google. There's one thing I haven't mentioned. Using google maps, you can mark your start point, and ending point, and google will spit out directions.

This solves a few problems: stop locations, bus times, and a how-to.

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I chose two random locations, and google told me what to ride, where to wait, when to wait, where to transfer, AND gave me 2 alternate routes, taking different times and arriving at different times.

So, as I said, this solves many of the problems, but does have some major drawbacks:

-The transfer system doesn't allow for walking between bus routes
-You can't combine biking and transit trips (all buses have bike racks)
-The system isn't perfect, Route 4 isn't even included
-It gives you no idea of what the system looks like. So if you're willing to walk an extra 1/4 of a mile, you might save 30 minutes....but google won't give you that option.

So while this is a surefire way to get from a to b, it's no guarantee that it's the BEST way. And since FAX doesn't give riders the tools to make an informed decision, you may have many riders wasting time, and some people turned off from riding because the option presented doesn't make sense.

Take this odyssey.
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3 hours!

For someone who MUST make this trip, there is a faster (but not fast) way to do it by bus, but you'll have to look at the system map to figure it out. Google won't suggest riding a bus, walking, and then taking another.

You could have gotten off the first bus, walked .5 miles, and then taken another bus straight south.
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Oh, and by the way, look at this image again
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That's a 6 mile journey. 56 minutes to go 6 miles, during the morning rush?

It's faster to bike.

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And only 10 minutes by car.

So that leaves us for our next discussion on another day. Do the routes make sense? How about the schedules? Based on the above two image, it looks like we may be leaning towards "hell no", but FAX is pretty well patronized, so it's got to make sense for someone.

And also, I'll have a separate post just for downtown issues.

And a post showing best practices elsewhere. So much to do. :(

Friday, May 27, 2011

Quick look at downtown Fresno apartment construction

My original goal when starting this blog was to post every other day. Well, I'm obviously failing at that. I'll try to get part 2 of the FAX post this weekend.

Meanwhile, take a look at some picture's taken today of construction going on in downtown Fresno. These are new apartments being built, which is significant because downtown Fresno didn't see a single new residential building between something like 1980 and 2005 (anyone know the exact dates?). In the future, I'll try and make a post detailing what has been built and what is going to be built next in that region.

May 26, 2011
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(People parking for free to attend a Flogging Molly concert at the Rainbow, including us. Some people claim they don't visit downtown because parking "is a hassle". It's actually easier than finding a spot at Costco.)

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Taken by the developer, recently, but unsure of exact day

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One small bit of fail is visible in the above photo. Sidewalk completely closed off with no accommodation for pedestrians.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Riding the bus in Fresno (FAX). Step 1: Where do the buses go?

FAX = Fresno Area Express

So a few days ago I said I would be talking about the not-so-great bus system in Fresno. Apparently, whenever I say "tomorrow" I get delayed, so I will no longer be saying that.

Anyway, let's begin by looking at the way a new rider might approach riding the system: Online.

What are the routes? How do I get to work? What is the fare? How does one pay? Can I get home?

The rider expects to find all these answers quickly online.

So the first interesting note (and, well, fail), is that FAX does not have its own website. It's a department in the city website, alongside trash collection, parks and council meetings.

That means that all the information needed is found at the not-so-convenient


http://www.fresno.gov/DiscoverFresno/PublicTransportation/default.htm


No where near as easy to remember as San Francisco, www.sfmuni.com or LA, www.metro.net or Boston www.mbta.com .

So right off the bat, the agency (well, department) doesn't give a good impression. They really couldn't take the time to tell the intern to come up with a unique website? I mean, no need to hire an agency or anything, just get fax.gov or something. You know what, it doesn't even have to be that fancy, why not fresno.gov/FAX ? What's the point of having a brand if you won't even use it on your URL?


Anyway. So the website itself isn't pretty, but I admit at first, it's not so hard to navigate.

All that important information is immediately listed, including the fact that you can plan your trip with google maps.

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The only thing really missing might be a link for riding with a bike (under FAQ) and service hours (must look at each schedule).


So naturally, a first time rider is interested in knowing "what buses go near me, where do they go, and what times do they run"

Unfortunately, it seems that the only way to answer that question on this website is to click the PDF of the entire system. Ew, PDF.

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So why don't I like PDFs? Well, they're large files (8mb for this one), they have trouble on some computers, and the whole zoom-in-zoom-out deal isn't as smooth as it should be.

Well, lets open up the system map then,
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An immediate problem presents itself: Where do I live? Naturally, not all streets are shown, only the main ones, but beyond that, it seems only select streets are labeled, and the position of the labels is inconsistent. This is especially true in locations where the bus deviates from the grid. If a street curves, it doesn't make much sense to only show a section of the arc, but that's exactly how the map handles those roads.

Take this little oddity. Looking at the map, it's hard to tell the scale of the blocks.

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This one is odd too. Look between Front Street and Olney. Is it an unlabeled street, or some continuation of the previously mentioned? Impossible to tell.

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And over here, this is is a giant mall-thing. Where do the buses stop? Impossible to tell from this map. I believe the buses all stop TWICE at riverpark, but the map doesn't explain that.

The following images show the same place. And I still don't know where the buses stop.

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Note: Only a few months ago did google maps add FAX, so you can now see the individual bus stops in google maps. Last year? Out of luck. And the "transit" overlay which shows what the actual routes are doesn't exist yet in Fresno. So if you do load google, you have to click each bus stop icon to see what buses actually serve that stop. More on that later.



But the biggest failure of the map is....downtown.

Almost every bus goes downtown. Downtown Fresno is truly a transit mecca, with buses running along every street. Or do they? Can you tell from the system map?


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I don't know about you, but when I first saw this map, my reaction was: "Seriously?"

So looking at the map of downtown Fresno, covering the same area, can you tell where the buses go?

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Do they run on parallel streets? Do they all run on one street? Who knows. When it comes to downtown, the map is an epic fail.

Surely there's a second map showing downtown in detail right?

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Perhaps a middle ground? Nope. You're out of luck.


Oh, and the delicious frosting of this fail-cake is the fact that the city (via FAX) runs a free shuttle that circles downtown all day. Can you spot the route on the map? Don't bother, it's not shown in the system map. Really, a system map without every bus in the system...? And the downtown free shuttle has the highest frequency of all the buses!


So the question we started with was:

"what buses go near me, where do they go, and what times do they run"

And we haven't really been able to answer it. That's not very rider friendly, and if it's so hard to find out where the buses go, what does that say about the rest of the system?


Tomorrow (and by that I mean soon)
The goods and bads of FAX on google maps
A comparison of how other systems present their maps and answer those key questions
And continuing onto the next portion of the ride: Individual map routes and schedules.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Was my gas price prediction right?

On April 11th, I made an easy 1-month prediction for where gas prices would be. I said:

Today, April 11, 2011
National: 3.78
Fresno: 4.09

May 4:
National: 4.04
Fresno: 4.45

May 15:
National: 3.99
Fresno: 4.39

How correct was I?


According to Gasbuddy.com
May 4 was
National: 3.955
Fresno: 4.22

So my national guess was pretty damn close (5 cents off), but my "california premium" was too high.

For May 15, I forecast that gas prices would go DOWN. Controversial, considering memorial day approaches. I predicted a massive 17 cent drop in Fresno and only a 5 cent drop nationally.

How close was I?

May 15:
National: 3.93
Fresno: 4.12

So I nailed the drop in prices (10 cents in Fresno in only 11 days) and wasn't too far off nationally (3 cent drop).

In fact, my randomly chosen date of May 4th just happened to be the peak in prices.

And by "just happened to be" I mean "I totally nailed it"

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Goldamn Sachs, feel free to leave a comment if you're interested in hiring me for my amazing prediction abilities.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fresno has the 5th best transit system in the country? Um, no.

Institutes love to pull out lists. They spend some time putting some data into a spreadsheet, look at what is spit out, and then declare winners and losers.

But they forget to use an ounce of common sense to see if the data they're choosing to use is relevant, and if the output is reasonable.

The Brookings Institution recently released a report ranking the transit systems in the country, and their prime metric seems to be what percentage of jobs are transit accessible.

While at first, that metric seems to make sense.....it's really dumb.

A city of 5,000, contained within 10 blocks with a single bus running a loop every 60 minutes may well have 100% transit accessibility. But if your town is only 10 blocks big...then walking or biking will get you to your destination faster than relying on a loop route on an hourly schedule.

A city like NY, where the urban borders are impossible to define might have a situation where 20% of the jobs are out on a suburban highway. But does anyone living in the bronx consider what is happening in Stamford relevant to them? Probably not.


So why was Fresno picked? Because the city is a grid, and the routes were drawn so that on a map, they look like they reach everywhere. But they don't, because the city has grown massively over the past 10 years, but bus routes have been cut. And the buses run north/south and east/west generally, meaning to reach any point you MUST transfer.

But with 30 minute headways, transfers are hell.

And did I mention Fresno reaches 113f in the summer? And shelters at stations are a luxury this town apparently can't afford?

Yeah, enjoy your 30 minute transfer.


I could go into more details into why the study is garbage, but let me just lay out some points....

-Service ends at 10pm. And by ends, I mean don't start your trip after 9pm.
-"Peak" service ends at 5:30pm
-The best frequency is found on two lines, which run every 20 minutes from 6am to 6pm. That's the absolute best. And after 60, they're down to 30 and then 60 minutes.
-Weekend service? Apparently, people don't work weekends, hourly headways and almost no service after 6pm.
-Monthly pass is $48....more expensive than the unlimited bus pass in Boston!

That right there is enough to tell you why the ranking system sucks.

The Brookings Institution should be ashamed of themselves. Yes, they got media exposure....but now everyone knows to never take them seriously ever again.


This week I'll take a closer look at the route system, why the route map also sucks, and why even the coverage metric doesn't make sense.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Housing developers skimping on sidewalk ramps and curb cuts?

Alternate title:
Cutting corners by not cutting corners.

Housing developers, like all other businesses are primarily concerned with profits. There are two ways to make more money; by cutting costs or by increasing revenue. Housing developers are the masters of both. Cheap lighting fixtures, paper thin walls, and budget carpets? Check. Granite counters with a 50% profit margin? Of course. Energy efficient appliances, sold to you at twice the price that Sears would? The newest rage.

However, what happens inside the home is really only the business of the home buyer. After all, if they don't like the carpet, they can change it. If they want to install their own counters, they can do that. As long as the home meets earthquake and fire codes, the developer should be free to sell homes without walls, if they believe that's what the market wants.


But outside the home? Well, that becomes a community issue.

Home builders focus on what they know home buyers look at. Things like landscaping and shiny counters catch eyes. Functional curb cuts and ramps? Well, those aren't relevant until you find yourself in a wheelchair and trying to cross the street. For most buyers, details like that are discovered too late. In other words, their prime cost-cutting items.

That's where regulation comes in. We all know that most suburbs in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s lacked sidewalks. They weren't required, and they're expensive, so the developers didn't build them.

This is especially true because those looking for homes in suburbs always arrive by car. If you need to hit 7 open-houses in 4 hours, speed is mandatory.


A couple of decades ago, cities started mandating sidewalks, and now they're back in most new public streets (gated communities are still being built without sidewalks). Of course, the developers build the bare minimum. 4 feet is allowed? Then 4 feet it is. Curb cuts only at intersections? Then that's where they will be. Driveways with curbs, instead of smooth slopes? So be it.

10 years ago, the city of Clovis, California, started mandating "paseos" or multi-use trails through new developments. Developers were still allowed to build their maze of cul-de-sacs, as long as a path for pedestrians was built, as a shortcut between streets and as a place for recreation. With no other choice, developers have added these paths. Prices for new homes remain the same, that is, they reflect the demand, and not the actual cost of building.

The problem with the mandate for sidewalk and trails is that the minimum requirements are too loose. Sidewalk ramps are required....but the type is not specified. Lighting is required....but the maximum distance between two light sources is absurd.


Let's take a look at a brand new development, and how the developers are cutting costs by meeting the requirements, but ignoring the way people actually want to use these community benefits.


Notice anything odd about this corner?

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The developer of the north parcel was responsible for the trail and exactly half the road. So thats what they built, half the road. Look at the curb cuts, they built one aligned with the trail, but none to cross in a southbound direction. The crossing itself is asphalt, and not "textured" as the planning department requires.

So now the developer if the southern parcel needs to come in, tear things up, and do what the northern developer was too cheap to do.

Second sidewalk ramp
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Of course the developer of the southern parcel is only doing the absolute minimum. Anyone can see that placing the ramp on the diagonal point is dumb. It should be aligned with the crosswalk. But that would require thinking about how pedestrians and the disabled actually move, and not just meeting a checkmark.

Ramp not aligned, even though there was so much space
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Texture being added, 3 years later
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So as part of the project, the developer needs to continue the trail.

Except again, this developer only cares about meeting the requirements, and not how the trails will actually be used in the future.

Built just last week. Would you design a road for cars with a turn like this? So why do bikes have to deal with it?
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10 foot path....and 5 foot ramp? Are they joking?
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And look, they've even planned a nice bollard, making riding hazardous.
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Look at what the last developer built. Makes more sense no?
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But this doesn't. Why would you place the ramp there? Are the builders complete idiots?
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Better than this one anyway
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And this one
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But here's where the post title comes into play. All intersections are required to have ADA ramps. Previously, when roads made a hard right turn (and thus had a new name, and were considered a new street), developers would build a ramp.

But not this one. Ramps are too expensive it seems. NO wheelchair crossings here.

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They cut costs on the homes too. If the developer is skimping on three inches of concrete....how much confidence do you have on the structure of your brand new home?
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This home could have been wheelchair accessible, but not any more.


Just up the road, the paseo continues into a development built 3-4 years ago. That developer actually knew what they were doing.

This is how you build a ramp on a path.
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So smooth and wide
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Not 100% flat, but you barely feel it.
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Do note that it's missing the rumble domes, required for a decade now.

Of course, that developer isn't perfect either. What happens when you build short driveways in a city where owning 5 pickup trucks is almost mandatory?
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Maybe if the city hadn't fired half their staff, they could take a trip to the developments they keep approving, and put a halt to this sloppy building. Instead, we have infrastructure that will be around, hindering wheelchair users and annoying cyclists for 30 years.