Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fresno's bus ridership, 7 years of decline (and counting)

What happens when a city won't stop growing, but the transit system doesn't grow with it? The system becomes less useful. And the less useful the system is, the less riders will use it. Welcome to Fresno.

We know that bus ridership is down a tad nationwide, but in many cities, it is because riders have taken to trains. Unfortunately, that's not possible in Fresno, where the bus is your one and only transit option. That means a decline in bus ridership indicates more driving, or worse, less trips being taken (i.e, people not being able to get to jobs).

I last looked at Fresno bus ridership in March of 2012 when ridership appeared to be on a scary downwards trend. Three years later, has it changed? Sadly, the answer is no.

First lets take a step back and look at bus ridership over a decade. The following chart shows bus ridership from April 2002 until April 2015. The month of October is highlighted, which is typically the peak for every year (although in two years, March stole the crown).

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The most obvious thing is the trend. A good amount of constant increase...and then falling, and falling, with no end in sight.

Now let's take a look at what's happened in the past two decades. You'll note the system was quite active from 1999-2001, where multiple enhancements and changes were made. Further improvements arrived from 2005-2007... Green indicates a service improvement. Red, a decrease.

1999 - Multiple bus lines see route changes and adjustments
1999 - 28 Express introduced
1999 - 40 Express introduced
1999 - 58 Express introduced
1999 - 59 Express introduced
2000 - Sunday service added on all lines, service extended to 10pm on weekdays (from 7pm)
2000 - Route 49 eliminated
2000 - Bruce Rudd becomes general manager
2001 - Fresno eliminates freeway express service (59E)
2001 - Route 12 debuts
2001 - Route 29 eliminated
2005 - Bruce Rudd becomes city manager, FAX is left with no general manager
2005- 15-minute service implemented on Route 30 and Route 28 (Bee)
2006- Half-cent transportation tax promises improvements
2007- 15-minute service expands to Route 37 and Route 34

Let's summarize this period:

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Alright! Investment yields growth!

Then the recession hit.
??? - All express routes eliminated, except 58E (unsure of exact month)
2010- 15-minute service shortened to 6 hours a day (peak hours), then switched to 20-minutes all day after midday buses exceeded crush loads
2010- Service on 3 entire bus lines eliminated (12, 18, 56)
2011- Fare hike from $1.00 to $1.25 (up from 85 cents if you pre-purchased tokens)
2011- Free fares for seniors eliminated, now 60 cents
2011- Downtown circular eliminated (Route 4)   
2012 - First route changes in a decade proposed and even advertised ....and then quietly don't happen
2013 - Council discusses additional 25 cent fare hike (however, it didn't happen)
2014 - BRT scheduled to debut November 2014, instead, almost entirely eliminated by council 
2014 - FAX gets its first general manager in a decade, Brian Marshall
2014 - FAX conducts ridership survey on potential route cuts or service changes

If you look carefully, you'll see that almost every improvement in green from 1999-2007 was eliminated. Frequent service? Decreased. Express options? All gone. New routes? Goodbye.

In fact that last improvement or expansion to FAX, that still exists today was the introduction of Route 58E, a line which runs with a single mini-bus to Children's Hospital, and is subsidized by the hospital (as a concession for locating themselves in an area where one cannot walk to or bike to). It only makes 12 round trips on weekdays, and 7 on weekends.

So what did this period of cuts do to ridership?

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That looks very, very bad, doesn't it? (it would look worse if I included 2008)

Even more alarming is that population keeps increasing at a good pace. So on a per capita basis, the decrease is even more pronounced. Here we see ridership in April of every year (a very average month), and the city population. Fresno is not stagnant, it keeps growing and growing.

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Of course, there are many factors that can affect ridership. Gas prices. Unemployment. Weather. Now we could run regressions all day to see how much each affects ridership, but I'll take a nice shortcut and simply look at what peer cities are up to. Visalia is just an hour down from Fresno, and has the same unemployment trends, the same weather, and the same gas prices.

How have they done from April 2007 until April 2015? Once again, October highlighted as the peak month.

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Incidentally, that yellow bar shows when Visalia introduced bus tracking technology.

Bakersfield also show a downwards trend like Fresno, with a massive fall in July and August 2014. That's when the drivers went on strike, from July 15 until August 19. That's right, city leadership allowed their public transit system to shut down for five weeks over a 4% wage hike dispute.

The striking Teamsters originally asked for 4 percent raises in each year of a new three-year deal.

The deal that ended the strike: three-year contract that includes a 3 percent raise in its first year, followed by raises of 2½ percent and 2 percent in the second and third years.

GET said its starting pay for part-time drivers is $14.23 per hour. GET's top pay rate is $22.23 per hour.
Bakersfield Now
I know very little about the Bakersfield bus situation, but I'm going to guess that any government that lets their buses stop running for 5 weeks isn't one which is investing in the system.

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Unfortunately, Modesto stopped reporting ridership in 2009, and Clovis does not report, limiting the selection of peer cities.

Remember how I mentioned that Fresno has grown, but the bus system hasn't?

Here's a map showing what the bus system looked like in 1977, when FAX underwent a redesign, and what it looks like today.

1977 is in blue, 2015 is in red. The two northernmost routes, in orange, are the only real new lines (58 and 58E), and they use a small shuttle bus and run an extremely limited schedule (and 58E).

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So your only real changes in almost 40 (!) years has been the extension of a few routes one mile north into River Park, a bus which runs once an hour through only a portion of Herndon, and some minor changes on the periphery. Oh, and significantly less service in Clovis.

Pay special attention to the crosstown (east-west) routes.  Note how they all exist on Shields and points south, with the exception of the Shaw bus. How much business do you conduct south of Shields these days?

Fresno has changed a lot in those 40 years. Not just in population, which increased by over 135% (from 217,491 in 1980 to 515,986 today) but also in structure. The economic center shifted. The boundaries grew. The type of jobs are different, and what people eat, do and play has changed. Even the hospitals moved. In 1977, there were 5 hospitals south of shields. Now, 5 are on Herndon or points north, and only one is left at the southern end.

But not FAX. The bus system no longer links people to their destinations. That means jobs are out of reach, trips can't be taken, and economic activity cannot be generated. The ridership shows this, but unfortunately, no one at city hall is paying it any attention.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Exciting infill development coming to Old Town Clovis!

Two new exciting projects are in the work for Old Town Clovis. One is an office/commercial development near the heart of Old Town, at Pollasky and Bullard. The second is a new residential project up Pollasky at Sierra, what could be considered the original suburbs of Old Town.

The commercial project will be coming to the old DMV lot, next to a brand new plaza built as a beautification project. The Fresno Bee reports:

Two local development companies will build commercial buildings next to the recently completed Centennial Plaza in Old Town Clovis, bringing more restaurants, retail and office space to the city’s growing urban center.

Centennial Plaza Development Group, made up of the Shamshoian family, owner of Realty Concepts in Fresno, and Bill Cummings and James Reedy, owners of Legacy Construction in Fresno, will develop the northern end of the site at Pollasky and Bullard avenues.

Roger Peterson of the Peterson family and Roger Peterson Investments in Clovis will develop the southern lot, the city announced Tuesday.

Both developers are considering three-story buildings, for a total of 31,000 square feet, to blend in with the architecture of the southern part of Old Town Clovis such as the fire station next door and the lawyer’s office building across the street.

Realty Concepts plans to have an office and restaurants in its building, the city said. Its goal is to start construction in early summer 2016.

Peterson, a longtime Fresno and Clovis developer, is planning on having retail and office tenants. He said late Tuesday that retailers are already calling about spaces in the building.
Fresno Bee
The article included a couple of renders that appear to have been put together after an afternoon on SketchUp:

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Ahem. Regardless of the quality of the rendering, it does show a decently urban building that will fit right in.

This isn't the first time something has been proposed for that lost. Back in 2011, Granville, known for their GV Urban projects in Downtown Fresno, proposed apartments:
Downtown Clovis, known for its old-fashioned Western charm, could soon be getting a piece of the urban lifestyle: residential lofts with ground-floor shops and offices.  Granville Homes is proposing to build 35 loft-type condominiums above commercial and office space at the site of the old Clovis City Hall and the former state Department of Motor Vehicles office. A plaza at the front of the project would serve as an entryway into downtown Clovis where Bullard and Pollasky avenues meet.
 That was obviously never built. Clovis stated that they weren't ready for these big city changes.

So what's this new plaza they all keep talking about? Well, that's something I've been meaning to visit....

Here is the parcel we're talking about: The ugliest block in Old Town

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On the north side of the emptiness, you can clearly see where the DMV building used to be, demolished within the past decade, and since used for parking. 

Within the past year the lost has seem some great changes. They've built the new plaza, and narrowed the street by adding new curb extensions on all corners. They also made the walk from Clovis Avenue nicer, and realigned the parking on the Bullard stub.

Behold, from March 18, 2015:

 photo pollasky4_zpsbibhtkap.jpg

You can see where the two new buildings will go. Rather skinny! The parking will be hidden in the back, and accessible by alley. Once they're in, the area will be much, much nicer.

To my surprise, Google Streetview has been by recently (April, 2015)! I still have to go down and take a look, but here is what they show:

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Note the curb extensions and textured pavement.

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Note the new lights, the plaza, the extended sidewalk, and the unfortunate loss of mature trees.

The plaza:
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On the Clovis side, Bullard officially became a parking lot, rather than a useless road, and new sidewalks were installed with more trees and the antique-style lighting om Clovis Avenue.

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In a shocking development, it seems to appear that Clovis Avenue was narrowed by almost a foot!

 photo pollasky12_zpsfsu9a7fy.jpg  photo pollasky12_zpsfsu9a7fy.jpg

Of course the Avenue really needs a road diet, with a center turning lane and bicycle lanes.

Moving up Old Town, we find ourselves at Pollasky and Sierra where an interesting new residential project is proposed.

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In yellow, you see the existing Old Town Bicycle Trail.

The property marked off is the one in question. On the left, in red, the developer proposes to keep the homes, but add carports accessible from the alley. The exciting stuff takes place across the alley, in the green lot.

First let's look at the existing homes:

Apparently, they have an interesting history!

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According to the filing (PDF), they were moved to Clovis in the late 1940's from Fresno Airport, where they previously existed as housing for officers. At 730sq ft, they are small by modern standards. They are all occupied and will not be touched, for now.

The empty lot is where the fun lies. The developer proposes knocking down the existing home and building 5 new homes, each about 1,500sqft.

I don't know how old the existing home is, but I would say "very"

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City ordinance requires that all new homes have 60 feet of street frontage, which can't be done here. Instead, they are proposing three homes on Sierra, and two homes fronting the Old Town Trail. That is, the front of the house would look onto the trail, with the existing alley serving as car access.

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The developer uses a similar project in Davis, CA, as an example.

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The developer also claims that this will make the trail safer and more attractive. I agree - right now most of the trail looks at the back of industrial buildings, thanks to its history as a rail line. By having homes front the trail, it will add eyes to it.

By most measures, five new single family homes isn't the most exciting of projects, but in this context, it's pretty interesting. It is bringing new residential development to the "downtown" area of Clovis, where residents can access the trail, and walk to restaurants, bars, banks, and stores. It's not exactly a skyscraper, but for a city that is constantly bulging outwards, it is certainly something different.

When put in the context of a new hotel, the finally completed trail, and the upcoming new library, it is clear that Clovis is continuing to work towards creating a strong downtown. Of course, there's a whole lot left to do. The area still has plenty of empty lots, especially along the trail.Maybe one day we may see a 4 story apartment/retail structure approved?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Don't let the drought kill your trees!

Not a day goes by without the mention of the word drought in California. At this point, everyone understands how serious the problem is, and what steps need to be taken to help.

Yes, we need to save water, but more important, we need to use water wisely, and that means watering your trees to keep them alive.

Frequently you hear people talking about the evils of landscaping. In most cases, they're right. Bright green lawns serve no purpose aside from aesthetics. Places to play? Theoretically, but outside of the 4th of July, I can't ever remember seeing a neighbor play in their front lawn.

Because of how wasteful these lawns can be, most cities have limited watering days, and encourage people to simply let their grass turn brown.

That's perfectly good advice - as long you as you remember to keep your trees watered!

Unlike grass, which has little use outside of athletic facilities, trees come with a variety of very important benefits.

This article provides some great links into a lot of the research done on urban trees, but here is a summary of the benefits:
  • Higher property values
    • The presence of street trees in front of a house raised the property value by $8,870 and reduced time-on-market by 1.7 days
    • Average price premium of 4% for homes located in the greenest neighborhoods, and a 7% discount for homes in the least green neighborhoods
  • Decrease in crime
    • Large trees indicate a neighborhood with strong community investment – and thus, more effective policing
    • More desirable environment means more eyes on the street to deter crime
  • Health
    • Air quality improvement (very important in Fresno!)
    • Decreased stress
    • Noise abatement 
    • Reduction in heat island effect (again great for Fresno!)
    • Can result in lower traffic speeds = less collisions and fatalities
    • Healthier babies/births
  • Pedestrian activity
    • Shade leads to more outdoor activity (more health!)
  • Environment
    • Better air quality again of course
    • More shade means less use of A/C - less electricity in turn means less emissions
      • Also a great cost saver! 
    • Improved ground stability / erosion prevention 
    • Habitat for animals
Again, the article has links to research papers with citations for these benefits.

There is simply no denying the importance of large, healthy trees, especially in Fresno, with sweltering heat and abysmal air quality.

Letting a tree dry out and die could mean losing all these benefits. This is especially dangerous because a grassy lawn can go from dirt to luscious in a couple of months, (when water is available!) or even in a couple of hours, if you simply want to roll out sod. But a good tree can take years if not decades to reach maturity. Letting a tree die means losing out on the benefits for a very long time.

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These giant trees are lucky enough to draw water from an underground canal, but most Fresno-area trees need your help

The Fresno Bee recently had a good article letting people know what to look for in their trees:

If your citrus trees continue to drop immature fruit, if the leaves curl up (a moisture conservation reaction) or if leaf fall is heavy, consider increasing irrigation. Sprinkler water will not soak the soil to the necessary depth of at least one foot. When the top three to four inches of soil is dry, use soaker hoses or a bubbler attachment on a hose to slowly soak the soil for several hours. Plan on weekly irrigation; more often when temperatures are high in July. Supplement irrigation with shower bucket water as needed.

Redwood roots form a shallow mat that lies just under the canopy. The feeder roots that draw up rain water and fog condensation droplets lie at the outer edge of the canopy. Supplemental slow irrigation by soaker hoses, drip emitters or bubbler attachments should be placed at the drip edge and the soil should be soaked to a depth of one foot. Allow the fallen needles to remain under the tree as a water-conserving mulch and do not cut off lower branches that shade the tree roots.

Fresno Bee

From what I understand, the watering restrictions are about automated sprinklers. You can still go out with a hose to water your trees. This way, you can let the grass die off while ensuring your trees get what they need.

Don't forget to only do this in the early morning or late evening, and to always use a nozzle so no water is being wasted.

Another important tip is to use mulch. It is very inexpensive, and it blocks the sun from drying the ground, thus meaning more water is available for your tree, rather than being lost to evaporation. The mulch also blocks weeds and grasses which steal your water.

If you have a tree on the street, or one near your property that is being neglected, try and adopt it. If your neighbor lets their tree die, it hurts you as well.

The Sacramento Bee also has a video with some tips. An important one is to remember that trees absorb water slowly. Flooding your tree is just going to waste water. Instead, they suggest setting out a bucket with holes that will slowly release water, or even using ice. (That wouldn't work for us, our dog would eat all the ice!)

A fancier solution is a soaker hose (hose with holes) attached to a timer. That way you turn it on, and if you forget to turn it off, the timer will block the water for you.

Here are some additional details on using that:

The drip line, which marks the edge of the tree canopy, is a good place to start watering. To “deep water” the tree, lay a soaker hose in a ring around the tree just inside the drip line and continue in a spiral outward. Let the hose run until the water soaks in to a depth of about 8-12 inches, but watch for runoff, especially on clay or compacted soils. Depending on soil type and flow rate of the hose, this may take a few minutes to a few hours. Check the soil to make sure you’re not watering too deep or too little. To prevent runoff you may want to install a simple battery operated or wind-up timer to shut off the hose after a certain amount of time. If water runs off before water soaks in, turn the water off and turn it on again after a couple of hours of soak-in time. If the tree you are watering is small, start laying the soaker hose closer to the trunk or hand water.
Save Our Water

An even fancier solution is to use your existing sprinkler system, but adjusting the heads and locations so that they only water your trees and bushes. This works well if you're abandoning your grass.

Whatever method picked, it is important to remain committed and to water every week. Trees can do pretty well with limited water, but once a tree dies, there is no way to bring it back.