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Caltrans Endorses the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide

It wasn’t a total surprise, but exciting nevertheless for bicycle advocates gathered at the NACTO “Cities for Cycling” Road Show in Oakland last nightCaltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty announced that the agency will endorse the use of the National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide, giving California cities the state DOT’s blessing to install modern infrastructure like protected bike lanes.

Received with enthusiastic applause from the crowd of bike advocates, city officials, and planners, Dougherty said:

We’re trying to change the mentality of the department of transportation, of our engineers, and of those that are doing work in and around the state highway system. Many cities around California are trying to be forward thinking in terms of alternative modes, such as bike and pedestrian, as well as the safety of the entire system, and the very least we can do as the department of transportation for the state is to follow that lead, to get out of the way, and to figure out how to carry that into regional travel.

Imagine how this commute on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland would feel with a protected bike lane. Photo by Jonah Chiarenza, www.community-design.com

NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide, launched last September, is the product of collaboration between the transportation departments of its member cities around the U.S. The guide provides the latest American standards for designing safer city streets for all users, incorporating experience from cities that have developed innovative solutions into a blueprint for others to use. It supplements, but doesn’t replace, other manuals such as the Caltrans Highway Design Manual and California’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

As the state’s transportation department, Caltrans has control over the design of state-owned highways, but the design of local streets and roads is left to local jurisdictions — with one exception. Bicycle infrastructure throughout the state has been dictated by the car-focused agency because local engineers rely on Caltrans-approved designs to protect local municipalities from lawsuits. As a result, city planners were often hesitant, or flat out refused, to build an innovative treatments like a protected bike lanes that don’t appear in Caltrans Highway Design Manual.

“It’s a permission slip for cities, for engineers and planners, to do the good, well-vetted, proven work that we know we can do to make our street safer,” said Ed Reiskin, president of NACTO and director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “It’s only a first step — ultimately, we’d like to see the changes in the Highway Design Manual to see it actually integrated into Caltrans documents. But this is a huge step forward, and great leadership from Malcolm Secretary [Brian] Kelly and Governor [Jerry] Brown,” who commissioned a report that recommended Caltrans adopt the NACTO guide.

The guide includes design standards for infrastructure including bike boxes, physically protected bike lanes, contra-flow bus lanes, and even parklets. Although these improvements have been implemented in cities in California and the world, they have been considered “experimental” until now. The NACTO guide has only been endorsed by two other states, Washington and Massachusetts.

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California Legislation Watch: Weekly Update

For social media coverage of California’s statewide transportation issues, follow Melanie @currymel on Twitter or like the Streetsblog California Facebook page.

Here’s Streetsblog’s weekly highlight of legislation and events related to sustainable transportation at the California capitol.

  • News on the implementation of S.B. 743, which removes Automobile Level of Service from consideration as an environmental impact in areas with robust transit. The state’s Office of Planning and Research released the public comments it has received on its update of CEQA guidelines and its draft guidelines for S.B. 743, which Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) introduced and was passed last year. S.B. 743 requires the OPR to come up with a new urban planning metric to replace LOS that measures the effect of development and transportation projects on all traffic, not just car drivers. Proponents are enthusiastic about eliminating an outdated, car-centric measure that has led to wider, faster streets. Critics worry that longer have the means to require developers to improve streets. The next steps: drafting the actual guidelines, releasing them for public comment in late spring, and producing a final draft version of the guidelines by July 1.
  • Caltrans published a new mission statement: “Provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability.” This is a vast improvement over the old one, “Caltrans improves mobility across California,” and it contains all the right buzzwords. The mission statement was the first item on the Early Action Plan outlined in the State Smart Transportation Initiative report urging deep reforms in Caltrans. Check — now to work.
  • More extensive senate hearings saw debates about the governor’s cap-and-trade expenditure plan and high-speed rail, this time in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation. CA High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales defended the use of cap-and-trade funds for high speed rail, and Senator Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) attacked cap-and-trade as a slush fund and high-speed rail as an expensive project that will produce a “puny” reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Plenty of comments from the Legislative Analyst’s Office and various interest groups.
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Spectacular New Devil’s Slide Trail Difficult to Reach Without a Car

A 1.3-mile section of abandoned Highway 1 south of Pacifica was converted into the new Devil’s Slide Trail, seen here just before its grand opening to the public on March 27. Photo: Andrew Boone

The 1.3-mile “Devil’s Slide” segment of Highway 1 just south of Pacifica is the latest addition to San Mateo County’s 20 parks. The freshly-paved walking and biking trail offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and its coastal cliffs, and it’s by far the widest trail in the San Francisco Bay Area, with 12 feet striped for walking and 12 feet for bicycling.

“This is inarguably one of the most beautiful segments of the California Coastal Trail,” said Coastal Conservancy Executive Officer Samual Schuchat at the trail’s ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday. “It’s incredibly exciting to open it, after years of driving through here and wanting to take in these views but being afraid that you would crash.”

The geologically hazardous section of highway was closed to cars in March of last year with the opening of the twin Tom Lantos tunnels, which Caltrans constructed to bypass this stretch. As Deidra Kennedy of the Pacifica Historical Society told the SF Chronicle last week, Caltrans originally planned to build an inland bypass and bury the Devil’s Slide highway, but local activists persuaded them to instead build a tunnel and re-purpose the coastal road.

Construction included re-paving the road, building parking lots, bus stops, and public restrooms at both ends, and adding three overlooks, 12 benches, and a variety of educational panels alongside the trail to help visitors learn about the area’s geology and ecology. The San Mateo County Parks Department spent $2 million on the highway-to-trail project, and will invest another $492,000 per year to maintain it, or roughly 5 percent of the department’s annual budget.

Getting to the new trail without a car, however, is a challenge. Since the trail was carved from Highway 1, the highway remains the only way to get there.

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California Biking, Walking, Transit Use Up Despite Little Investment

Caltrans' latest Household Travel Survey report shows significant increases in walking and bicycling

The news from Caltrans’ 2012 California Household Travel Survey is not too surprising: Californians are making more trips by walking, bicycling, and transit than they were in 2000. The survey found the percentage of trips by these modes doubled in ten years and make up nearly 23 percent of all trips in the state.

That means car trips decreased dramatically, from 86 percent of trips to 75 percent. This includes trips where people are passengers in cars — for drivers only, the decrease is from 60 percent of trips to 49 percent. This confirms a recent US Public Interest Group (PIRG) report that got a lot of media attention about millenials choosing to drive less and being more interested in active forms of transportation.

“The California data is the first new travel survey since the last federal National Household Travel Survey in 2009, so it’s very significant that it shows such a steep decline in driving and a doubling in the share of transit, biking and walking,” said Phineas Baxandall of USPIRG. “It shows the last federal survey wasn’t a fluke.” The national survey showed a jump in walking trips, a slight increase in transit trips, and an increase in “other” modes, under which bicycle trips would fall.

“The fact that we’re seeing this in California, the heart of the former car culture, is also delicious,” he added.

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Caltrans on the Hot Seat: Assembly Looks at State, Local Planning Tensions

It was the California State Assembly’s turn to review the recent State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) report on Caltrans at a Transportation Committee hearing Monday.

Chair Bonnie Lowenthal addresses the Transportation Committee (find a video of the hearing here)

The discussion played out along the same lines as the Senate Transportation Committee hearing last month, where Professor Joel Rogers, who led the team that produced the report for the California Transportation Agency (CalSTA), presented his findings on the dysfunction at Caltrans.

Rogers drew questions from committee members when he cited the lack of coordination between local transportation planning agencies and Caltrans. 

Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo) was defensive of local planning. “Locals need a strong voice in the planning process,” she said. “I don’t see how the state has the resources or ability to do that kind of planning on the local level.”

Rogers was compelled to clarify himself several times. “I do not mean to imply that local control is a bad thing,” he said, but the report was “quite critical that the self-help counties build projects and then push all the maintenance onto Caltrans without doing anything like a lifecycle accounting on the actual costs.”

Professor Joel Rogers emphasizes a point to the Assembly Transportation Committee

Professor Joel Rogers emphasizes a point to the Assembly Transportation Committee

“We just don’t think local control has been well managed,” he said. “Caltrans needs to give locals the flexibility they need. What we heard over and over in our interviews was, ‘It’s such a drag dealing with Caltrans, we just try to go around them.’ As a state agency you don’t want a system that is deliberately at war with itself.”

Rogers skewered both Caltrans and the legislature in much the same words he used in the recent Senate hearing, where he criticized Caltrans for its “hypertrophic aversion to risk” that prevents it from being an effective partner. This time he evoked an appreciative, if sheepish, laugh from the committee members when he remarked that they had a hand in making Caltrans the dysfunctional organization it is today.

Two committee members, Assemblymembers Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) and Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo), seemed eager to move reforms along. ”What’s our plan of action? How can we be involved?” asked Daly.

“This needs to be taken care of on a much higher level than the local level,” Achadjian said. “Let’s not let this end up on a shelf. We need a follow up.”

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Senate Hearing Highlights Report on Caltrans’ Car-Centric Ways

Heckuva job, Caltrans. Image:##http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-124808/Traffic-on-the-Los-Angeles-freeways-is-frequently-bumper-to##Kids Britannica##

Heckuva job, Caltrans. Image:Kids Britannica

With a recent report calling out the need for Caltrans to focus less on building highways and more on letting cities build people-friendly streets, state legislators have an eye trained on the agency’s progress towards reform.

The California Senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee held a hearing yesterday to discuss the new report [PDF], conducted by the State Smart Transportation Initiative and commissioned by the California Transportation Agency (CalSTA), which was formed by Governor Jerry Brown and CalSTA Secretary Brian Kelly last year to oversee all of the state’s transportation agencies.

The report is sharply critical of Caltrans’ “archaic” practices when it comes to imposing automobile-centric design standards on city streets, and says the department should reform its risk-averse culture, which often prevents local city planners from implementing modern designs for bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets.

Two of the report’s authors, Joel Rogers and Eric Sundquist of SSTI, presented their findings to the committee, arguing that the way Caltrans is currently structured prevents it from helping meet state goals like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving transit networks, and building complete streets. A complete, systemic reorganization of the agency is their recommended solution.

The report asks a series of questions on whether the agency has the right tools “to help it achieve the mobility, safety, and environmental stewardship goals that are expected from California’s transportation system.” The answer, the authors conclude, is a resounding “no.”

“Caltrans’ operative mission and goals are out of step and work at cross purposes with the transportation needs and policy framework of the state,” Rogers told the Senate committee. “The skills and technical expertise of its staff are not congruent with modern demands.”

The report criticizes the “rule-bound” culture at the agency that causes employees to focus on avoiding risk rather than streamlining projects that provide cities better transit and safe streets for walking and biking. And, Rogers told the committee, “You, the Legislature, have a heavy hand in making Caltrans as dysfunctional as you now find it.”

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Gov’s Report to Caltrans: Get Out of the Way of Protected Bike Lanes

Caltrans needs to stop focusing so much on moving cars and let cities build safer street designs with protected bike lanes, says a new report commissioned by Governor Jerry Brown and CA Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly.

SF’s parking-protected bike lanes on John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park are technically illegal, according to Caltrans. Photo: Mark Dreger/Flickr

The report [PDF] calls out Caltrans’ “archaic” practices when it comes to imposing outdated, automobile-centric design standards on city streets in California, and says the department should reform its “culture of risk aversion and even fear,” which often prevents local city planners from implementing modern designs for bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets.

When agencies like the SF Municipal Transportation Agency want to implement protected bike lanes, they must take a legal risk since Caltrans hasn’t approved such designs, and design exceptions require “a painful and time-consuming process,” says the report, produced by the State Smart Transportation Initiative.

“Caltrans’ peculiar standards on bicycle facilities even pertain to locally owned streets, precluding some active transportation initiatives,” the report says. “The agency and department should support, or propose if no bill is forthcoming, legislation to end the archaic practice of imposing state rules on local streets for bicycle facilities.”

In a statement, TransForm said the report “offers a refreshingly candid and detailed critique, and more importantly points to a host of critical reforms.”

“The report recommends the direction come ‘from the top down and outside in,’ to avoid the long-standing status quo at Caltrans where bottom-up planning via staff just leads to ‘the culture endorsing itself,’” said TransForm.

Stuart Cohen, TransForm’s executive director and a member of Secretary Kelly’s CA Transportation Infrastructure Priorities workgroup, said that “this is not the first report slamming Caltrans” but that the critical difference comes from the ”tremendous leadership” of Governor Brown and Kelly, who commissioned the review.

“We asked for an honest assessment because we are committed to modernizing Caltrans and improving transportation for all Californians,” Kelly said in a statement.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty issued a statement saying that “we see this as a tremendous opportunity to reassess our priorities and improve our performance.”

“We have some internal reforms already underway so we can hit the ground running,” he said.

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Proving to Caltrans That El Camino Real Can Be a Safer Street

El Camino Real & 25th Avenue, San Mateo

Shama Ayyad was struck killed by an SUV driver on October 5, 2013 while crossing El Camino Real in this crosswalk in San Mateo. The crossing distance is over 100 feet here. Photo: Google Maps.

Despite pockets of new development, El Camino Real remains a dangerous, car-oriented urban highway along most of the San Francisco Peninsula. If it can ever transform into a great street, it will have to become safer for walking and biking. And while enhancing walkability is a key goal of the Grand Boulevard Initiative – the long-term planning effort to improve El Camino Real between San Francisco and San Jose — redesigning a state road to prioritize safety is always a tough lift, since Caltrans design standards create a thick barrier of red tape. In response, San Mateo County planners are working on four demonstration projects to show how a redesigned boulevard will function.

El Camino Real is the deadliest street in the San Francisco Bay Area for pedestrians, according to a review of traffic fatalities conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting in April. Of the 59 people killed in traffic collisions on the street between 2002 and 2011, 37 — about two-thirds — were pedestrians. In comparison, only 22 percent of the 2,791 people killed in car crashes statewide in 2011 were pedestrians, according to Caltrans data.

Car-oriented commercial retail centers currently dominate along El Camino Real, but residential and office development is gradually filling in the corridor. With more destinations clustered together, walking, bicycling, and transit become increasingly practical for residents and workers.

“Improved walkability and transit are critical to allow El Camino to become the kind of environment that can accept growth without generating additional traffic,” said Egon Terplan, regional planning director for SPUR.

But as a state highway, the street is built primarily to accommodate large volumes of automobile traffic, using the same design standards that apply to freeways. The street’s current design gives little thought to the safety of people walking, bicycling, or accessing transit.

“How a street is designed has a very tangible effect on the number of injuries and deaths that occur,” said ST Mayer, director of health policy and planning for the San Mateo County Health System. “And El Camino has a high rate of bicycle and pedestrian injury.”

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SFMTA Installs Bike Lanes With Road Diet on Section of Outer Sloat

The SFMTA installed bike lanes on outer Sloat Boulevard last week, re-purposing two of the street’s six traffic lanes between the Great Highway and Skyline Boulevard next to the San Francisco Zoo.

This one-mile redesign was one of the latter projects to be installed as part of the SF Bike Plan. There’s still a gap between these bike lanes and the buffered bike lanes that run on Sloat between Everglade Drive and 19th Avenue, which were installed in January 2012 by Caltrans. Between Skyline and 19th Avenue, Caltrans has jurisdiction over Sloat because it’s part of Highway 35. Word from SFMTA staffers, however, is that they’re working on a plan with Caltrans to close the gap.

With plenty of room for protected bike lanes, there seems to be a major missed opportunity on this stretch. But the Bike Plan was finished in 2005, when the SFMTA wasn’t generally as ambitious as it might be today (though the agency has upgraded a number of other Bike Plan projects since it was approved).

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Improving Daly City’s “Top of the Hill” for Walking and Transit

John Daly Boulevard and Mission Street are still car-centric roads, but that is starting to change for the better with the completion of the Centennial Transit Plaza, shown here under construction earlier this year. Photo: City of Daly City

Last Saturday, Daly City officials and residents convened to celebrate a newly built transit plaza, the centerpiece of the long-awaited $3.4 million Top of the Hill project, which includes a series of pedestrian and streetscape improvements along three blocks of Mission Street between John Daly Boulevard and Parkview Avenue. The project was constructed with $2.3 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and $700,000 from the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans).

Wider sidewalks, curb extensions, and new red-brick crosswalks on Mission Street at Vista Grande Avenue in Daly City. Photo: City of Daly City

Top of the Hill is the most significant street re-design project carried out to date as part of the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a collaboration between 19 different public entities that seeks to improve walking, biking, and transit, and to enable transit oriented development that can help reduce traffic congestion along El Camino Real from Daly City to San Jose.

Because San Mateo and San Francisco counties operate separate transit systems, bus riders traveling between Daly City and San Francisco are forced to transfer at the county line (except those riding SamTrans Bus 391, which serves downtown San Francisco). The new Centennial Transit Plaza, named in honor of the city’s 100th anniversary in 2011, is located on the northwest corner of John Daly Boulevard and Mission Street. It’s one of two important transfer locations in Daly City, serving 600 to 800 SamTrans bus riders every day. The other transfer location – between the SamTrans, Muni, and BART systems – is the Daly City BART Station, located a half-mile to the west.

People can now walk across Mission Street on the north side of the intersection, where a red-brick crosswalk replaced "No Ped Crossing" signs, to access the new transit plaza. Photos: Google Maps (left), City of Daly City (right).

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