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New Urban Love and Loathing in Buffalo: Jeff Speck Responds

Larkin Square’s Food Truck Tuesdays are one example of Buffalo’s recent successes in revitalizing its urban core. Photo: Larkin Square

As a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, I’ve now attended twenty of the organization’s annual conferences. This month’s event may have been my favorite yet, mostly thanks to its location in downtown Buffalo, a place that reminds us so poignantly of both the successes and failures of city planning, as first lovingly practiced and later ruthlessly perpetrated across America.

Most of the local residents in attendance — and there were many — seemed to enthusiastically embrace New Urbanism’s ethos of redesigning our cities around people rather than cars, recognizing how the auto age had perhaps done as much damage to downtown Buffalo as its devastating loss of industry.

But there are always exceptions. In the Buffalo News’ only prominent review of the event, art critic Colin Dabkowski wrote an “open letter to the New Urbanist movement,” that centered upon a damning critique of my community lecture there and also of my book, Walkable City, which he seems to have read in part.

The thoughts that follow are my response to Dabkowski’s review. The Buffalo News worked with me to craft this article as an Op-Ed for Sunday’s paper. Then, three hours from press time, they demanded that I remove most of my references to  Mr. Dabkowski’s error-loaded text. Not excited by that prospect, I am sharing my comments here instead.

I suppose that my biggest surprise in reading the Buffalo News article came from the fact that I had been expecting to hear such a critique sooner. In the eighteen months since Walkable City came out — and over more than 100 reviews — all but the most sympathetic critics seem to have been largely silent. I was waiting for comments like these, but eventually gave up.

The reason I was waiting is because two of the book’s central arguments — “Downtowns First” and “Urban Triage” — imply winners and losers, and I have seen at least the first argument anger people in the past. Folks who don’t live in downtown are often resentful seeing money spent there, whether they find their homes in cash-strapped slums or wealthy suburbs.

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Sunday Meter Repeal Needs No CEQA Review, Say SFMTA and Planning Dept.

An appeal claiming that the repeal of Sunday parking meters is an action that requires environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act is baseless, according to responses issued by the SFMTA and Planning Department this week.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The appeal, filed by Livable City and the SF Transit Riders Union, is set for a hearing and vote at the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The board will not vote not on the merits of running parking meters on Sundays. Instead, the board will vote on whether CEQA would require an environmental impact report for the SFMTA’s new budget, which directs the agency to stop charging for meters on Sundays. The supervisors’ decision is expected to be largely informed by the recommendations of the SFMTA and the Planning Department.

The policy change is expected to remove $11 million per year in transit funding, as well as double the average time that drivers take to find commercial parking spaces on Sundays, according to an SFMTA study [PDF] of the benefits that Sunday meters garnered in their first year. The appellants argue that impacts like increased traffic congestion and pollution, reduced parking turnover for businesses, and lost transit funding warrant an EIR.

“Our appeal insists that CEQA doesn’t allow an exemption for lowering of parking fees, when such an action would clearly impact the environment,” said Mario Tanev of SFTRU.

But the SFMTA maintains that the act of removing fees (e.g., Sunday meter fees) fits within a CEQA exemption meant to allow for speedy municipal budget balancing. The agency argued in its memo [PDF] that the loss of $11 million is not of significant impact because Muni fares, parking ticket fines, and parking permit fees for construction contractors were increased to make up for it:

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SF Bicycle Coalition Welcomes Tyler Frisbee as New Policy Director

Tyler Frisbee is the SF Bicycle Coalition’s new policy director, filling the shoes of Deputy Director Kit Hodge. Hodge left SFBC last month to start a company that will lease family-friendly cargo bikes.

Tyler Frisbee. Photo: SFBC

“We’re honored to have her national expertise to our local issues,” the SFBC wrote in a blog post:

For the last five years, Tyler worked as an aide to Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, serving as one of Congress’ key bike and pedestrian advocates… In her new role at the SF Bicycle Coalition, Tyler will be overseeing our terrific Program, Outreach and Education teams, helping to craft our strategy for big and small campaigns alike, and working on Connecting the City with protected, crosstown bikeways.  She’ll be one of our key voices at City Hall, speaking up for you and your commute, and helping to win important funding and support for the bike projects you care about most. This month she’ll be focusing most on bike funding, working to ensure that biking gets more than the abysmal 1% of the SFMTA’s transportation budget.

Frisbee told Streetsblog she sees the bike movement, in SF and nationally, as being in a “fascinating transition, where [previously] we’ve been outside, riding in the streets Critical Mass-style, having to be very aggressive and vocal and visible about what we want and need. And because of the really strong advocacy work that has happened, and I think San Francisco is an incredible example, we are now at a point where we’re not necessarily out on the streets rallying. A lot of times, we’re helping to make these decisions, we’re part of the bigger transportation world.”

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SAP Arena Wants Parking Crater Around San Jose Diridon Caltrain Station

SAP Center Parking Lot

SAP Center called San Jose’s plans to reduce parking demand with transit improvements “highly speculative”, and wants over 20,000 new parking spaces built near the Diridon Caltrain Station. Photo: Richard Masoner

SAP Center, the corporation that owns the 19,000-seat arena across Santa Clara Street from San Jose’s downtown Caltrain station, doubts that the next 30 years of transit improvements will bring more visitors to events at the “Shark Tank.” Instead, they insist that 20,000 new car parking spaces be built within its redeveloping neighborhood.

“It is unlikely that public transportation will allow convenient transportation from throughout the area the Arena draws from,” wrote SAP Center Vice President Jim Goddard in the Arena’s EIR comment letter on the draft Diridon Station Area Plan, which aims to guide future development toward land uses that support transit ridership, and to “create a world-class cultural destination” within the walkable radius (1/2-mile) of the Diridon Caltrain Station. The plan will allow 2,600 housing units, 420,000 square feet of retail space, 5,000,000 square feet of office space, and 900 hotel rooms — and up to 11,950 new car parking spaces to support this infill development — over the next 30 years.

But SAP Center claims that its customers will always drive in, and that they will demand an extra 8,050 parking spaces, creating a parking crater in downtown San Jose. “Vehicular access will be the most significant method for our patrons and their families to attend Arena events for the foreseeable future,” wrote Goddard. ”Any limitation in the effectiveness of vehicular access to the Arena… would degrade the customer experience and discourage attendance at the Arena.”

Future Diridon Station Area - Facing Downtown San Jose

Electrified Caltrain, BART, High-Speed Rail, and BRT lines will all connect at Diridon Station in 15 years. Mid-rise office and housing development are planned for the area. Image: California High-Speed Rail Authority

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SFTRU: Mayor Lee Keeps Giving Muni Riders the Short End of the Stick

Reps from the SF Transit Riders Union today said Mayor Ed Lee’s recent repeal of Sunday parking meters and abandonment of the vehicle license fee add up to an attack on transit riders.

“Somehow riders keep coming up at the short end of this stick,” SFTRU spokesperson Daniel Sisson said in a statement. “It is extremely difficult to see our city’s actions as anything but entirely hostile to the 700,000 transit riders each day. It’s a complete failure of leadership.”

Forget “Transit First.” Mayor Lee’s backtracking on two of the most promising transit efforts to come out under his administration reflect a “transit last” stance, SFTRU said in a press release. “In a time when we should be rising to meet the demand for transit today, and the increasing demand for transit in the city’s future, Ed Lee refuses to prioritize Muni at every turn.”

Lee announced this week that he would abandon support for the proposed ballot measure to restore the vehicle license fee within SF, which would raise about $1 billion over the next 15 years to re-pave roads and improve Muni, walking, and bicycling. That measure, which would reverse Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2004 cut to the VLF statewide, is the only proposal from the Mayor’s Transportation 2030 Task Force that specifically asks drivers to contribute to the transportation network in a way that starts to reflect the disproportionate costs they impose on it. Lee said there isn’t enough voter support to restore the VLF, based on a poll that found 44 percent would vote for it.

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CalBike Pushes for Protected Bike Lanes, Vulnerable User Laws in Sac

The California Bicycle Coalition held its Advocacy Day this week in the state capitol to lobby legislators on several key policy reforms to promote bicycling.

Joined by local bicycle groups from around the state and participants who finished the California Climate Ride in Sacramento, CalBike met with state legislators and staffers and urged them to support two bills currently in play: one that would codify “separated bikeways,” or protected bike lanes, into state law and another that would increase penalties for drivers who injure vulnerable road users, primarily bicyclists and pedestrians. Advocates also urged lawmakers to support increased funding for projects that promote “active transportation,” a.k.a. walking and bicycling.

At CalBike’s Advocacy Day, Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) promotes his bill, A.B. 1193, which would institutionalize protected bike lanes in California. Photos: Melanie Curry

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) showed up to stump for his bill, A.B. 1193, which would require Caltrans to develop standards for protected bike lanes, also known as “cycle tracks” or “separated bikeways,” which are not currently defined by statute in California. The state’s Streets and Highways Code currently defines three types of bike facilities: “paths,” “lanes,” and “routes,” each of which provide bicyclists with a different level of physical separation from motor traffic, and thus a different level of comfort and safety. “Cycle tracks,” which are on-street bike lanes separated from traffic by landscaping, parking, or a wide painted divider, don’t fit easily into any of the categories currently defined.

Although Caltrans recently endorsed the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Urban Street Design Guide, which does include guidelines for creating cycle tracks, no standard for them currently exists in California law.

Protected bike lanes, common in many civilized nations, are already being built here and there in California. Long Beach and San Francisco have had them for several years, and new ones were recently opened in SF and Temple City. But these have been the result of long and arduous planning processes, and advocates hope that changing the statute will allow Caltrans and local agencies implement them more easily.

The bill would also remove the requirement that local agencies apply the Caltrans Highway Design Manual’s design criteria to all bike facilities, even ones located on city streets and not state highways. Removing this requirement would allow city planners to rely on other criteria like the NACTO Street Design Guide.

Streetsblog will continue to cover A.B. 1193 it as it moves through the legislature. The bill has already passed the State Assembly, and is currently scheduled for a hearing in the Senate next week.

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Why SF Should Strive to Replicate the Polk Contra-Flow Protected Bike Lane

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A family rides the new Polk Street contra-flow bike lane to City Hall on Bike to Work Day. Photo: SFBC

On the two southernmost blocks of Polk Street, between Market Street and City Hall, the new contra-flow protected bike lane creates a unique street layout for San Francisco. For the first time on a downtown street, people on bikes are accommodated in a way that people in cars are not. Bike traffic goes both ways, while cars only go one.

It’s one of several ways in which this short stretch is more powerful than the sum of its two blocks. The Polk contra-flow lane is the best segment of bicycle infrastructure in San Francisco, acting as a real-world showcase of what’s possible for a citywide network of high-quality bicycle routes.

The Polk contra-flow lane is “a game changer, without a doubt,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition. “People can now see with their own two eyes and ride on what is a model for a great bike facility. We don’t have to theorize about what could be, or show pictures of European cities. We can literally look at what is a well-designed, inviting and safe bikeway that lives up to the ’8-to-80′ promise that city leaders have committed to.”

The new bike lane is the first to be separated from motor traffic with a concrete planted median, with parking spaces acting as an extra buffer at some spots. It features bicycle traffic signals, green paint for high visibility, and clear pavement markings at the Market Street intersection to guide bike commuters to the entrance.

Where the protected bike lane ends at Grove Street, and two-way motor traffic returns, riders aren’t totally thrown back into the fray, either. A green bike lane segment was added across the front of City Hall, and it was made safer with car parking re-configured to back-in angled parking. This treatment goes to McAllister Street, where the rest of Polk is being re-designed as a separate project.

“They’re now seeing those bread crumb trails, where they can get from point A to point B,” said Tim Papandreou, the SFMTA’s director of strategic planning and policy. Papandreou is overseeing the development of the SFMTA’s Bicycle Strategy, a guide for the city’s next generation of bicycle improvements.

The SFMTA created a metric called “Level of Traffic Stress” to measure the quality of bike route segments. It is based on how easy and comfortable a bike route feels for the average person. The Polk contra-flow lane is a prime example of “LTS 1,” the lowest level of stress, meaning the street is considered to be accessible by San Franciscans of all riding abilities, says Papandreou.

“When we point now to Level of Traffic Stress 1, comfortable cycling for everybody, that’s exactly what we’re talking about,” he said. ”With the will of the leadership, and funding, we can do more of that.”

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Muni Tests Train With More Standing Room, Supes Breed and Wiener Approve

Photos courtesy of Supervisor London Breed’s office.

A Muni train car re-configured with fewer seats and more standing room was put into Metro service this week. According to the SFMTA, 14 “double-wide” seats were replaced with “single-wide” seats, adding a net capacity gain of “at least ten” riders to the car, which is a pilot project to squeeze more capacity onto Muni’s trains.

SFMTA officials, along with Supervisors London Breed and Scott Wiener, rode the car on the N-Judah yesterday morning. I was also supposed to be there, but in regular Muni fashion, the train wasn’t on time — in fact, it was inexplicably half an hour early. Fortunately, Breed’s office passed along some rare photos of public officials riding Muni.

While Muni riders wait for a fleet of 200 new train cars, “I am committed to doing everything possible to help Muni riders, and I look forward to hearing directly from them about this pilot design,” said Breed in a statement. “This design will create more space for Muni riders, who are too often forced to wedge onto full trains or wait at the station in hope for room on the next one.

From left to right: Supervisor London Breed, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, Supervisor Scott Wiener, and Muni Operations Director John Haley enjoy the additional standing room.

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SFTRU, Livable City Want CEQA Review of Sunday Parking Meter Repeal

Updated 4:16 p.m. with comment from Supervisor John Avalos.

Livable City and the SF Transit Riders Union have filed an appeal claiming that the SFMTA’s vote to repeal Sunday parking meters requires California Environmental Quality Act environmental review.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

Given that the policy change is expected to double the average time drivers take to find a commercial parking spot on Sundays, among other impacts, SFTRU’s Mario Tanev says the policy shouldn’t be changed without an environmental impact report. SFTRU also submitted a petition with more than 200 signatures in support of Sunday meters.

“Sunday meters were instituted after a wide outreach, yet are being discontinued based on the whim of one person in City Hall,” Tanev said in a statement referring to Mayor Ed Lee.

The appeal, first reported by the Bay Guardian, claims:

The enforcement of parking meters on Sunday in San Francisco has been doing exactly what it was designed to: reduce traffic congestion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase parking availability (including in commercial areas), and increase revenues for the City and County of San Francisco (City). Yet SFMTA is proposing without any meaningful analysis to stop enforcing this policy even though it provides benefits to the City and local neighborhood communities. By taking away these benefits, the Decision also increases automobile traffic in direct contradiction to the City’s Transit-First Policy, and, notably, on Sundays, a day when pedestrians and families spend significant time outdoors walking and traversing the streets to enjoy City events.

SFMTA specifically failed to analyze and consider the traffic and environmental impacts of its Decision as required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA is designed to inform decision-makers and the public about potential, significant environmental effects of the Decision. Here, the public and decision-makers were not fully informed as to the impacts of the Decision – in fact they were given almost no information at all – and the purpose of CEQA was thwarted.

The appeal argues that although CEQA doesn’t require environmental review for fee hikes, such as expanding parking meters to Sundays, the act of removing fees (or Sunday meters) doesn’t fit within an exemption meant to allow for speedy municipal budget balancing.

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Clipper Card Upgrade Could Bring Seamless Regional Travel, Or Not

Transit riders can transfer between BART, Caltrain, and SamTrans bus services at the Millbrae Transit Center, but riders must pay each transit agency’s full fare. Photo: BART

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission will soon renew its contract for Clipper, the Bay Area’s “all-in-one transit card.” Transit advocates are urging MTC to use the opportunity to create a more seamless fare system, and remove barriers that could allow Clipper payments on both the region’s transit agencies and “first-and-last-mile” trip services.

Transit riders can currently use the Clipper card to pay fares on the Bay Area’s seven largest transit agencies (Muni, BART, AC Transit, VTA, Caltrain, SamTrans, Golden Gate) and the San Francisco Bay Ferry, and it’s set to include several other smaller transit agencies by 2016. While using a single card is certainly more convenient for customers whose trips take them across seemingly arbitrary transit agency service boundaries, it hasn’t made those trips faster or more affordable.

“Take the trip from U.C. Berkeley to Stanford: important destinations that are both inherently walkable places with daytime populations in the tens of thousands,” SPUR Transportation Policy Director Ratna Amin wrote in a blog post last week. “It’s logical to think they’d be linked by high-quality transit connections. But even during the morning rush hour, this trip takes nearly two hours.” It also costs $10.10, or about $400/month for a weekday commuter.

Clipper transit card reader

Clipper transit card reader. Photo: Dan Honda/San Jose Mercury News

“In other regions where transit works better, you don’t have to think about what brand of transit you’re taking or who operates it,” said Adina Levin, co-founder of Friends of Caltrain. “And you don’t pay a lot extra to take different brands.”

Even many shorter trips are either cost-prohibitive or time-prohibitive on transit. A one-way trip during rush hour between Daly City and Menlo Park, located 25 miles apart in San Mateo County, takes under an hour via BART and Caltrain, but costs $8.80. SamTrans’ ECR route is available for just $2, but takes about 2.5 hours. By car it takes just 45 minutes during rush hour, and for less than half the BART + Caltrain fare in gas money. Residents who can’t afford $17.60/day in transit fare and also can’t afford five hours of travel time drive instead for such trips, adding significantly to traffic congestion on the Bay Area’s highways.

“The Bay Area needs a regional transit fare policy… that doesn’t penalize customers who transfer between systems,” wrote Egon Terplan, SPUR’s regional planning director, as part of the urban think tank’s “Six Ideas for Saving Bay Area Transit.”

One proposal by MTC that would at least reduce the transfer penalty is a standard 50-cent fare discount that transit riders would receive when transferring between transit agencies. Although such a small discount won’t boost transit ridership, it would at least remove one barrier to regional fare integration by making discounts the default type of fare agreement between transit agencies in the Bay Area. Another MTC proposal is to enable future Clipper cards to charge passengers daily and/or monthly fare maximums. This would be similar to existing daily and monthly passes, except that riders wouldn’t have to “commit” to any minimum number of trips, or even sign up to receive a discount for heavy transit use. This concept could be expanded to apply to trips between transit agencies, thus creating creating daily and monthly regional transit passes.

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