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Posts from the Neighborhoods Category


New Freeway Revolt Grips Guadalajara

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

While the world has gathered in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss again a shared approach to Climate Chaos, action is already being taken in countless communities. On a visit last week to Guadalajara, Mexico, more than a thousand miles west of the Climate Meeting, I had the pleasure of discovering a vibrant grassroots movement to block the construction of a new 23-kilometer elevated freeway through the heart of the city. Interestingly, this movement leans primarily on people who live along the proposed route of the freeway, but found crucial support and activism from Ciudad Para Todos (City For All), a three-year-old group of bicycle and transit activists who are Guadalajara’s most vocal opponents to the reign of the car.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

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Bay Area Cities Rediscover the Creeks Under Their Streets

ramblasperspect.jpgOne of the proposed designs for Center Street in Berkeley, by Ecocity Builders

(Editor's note: This is Part 1 in a 3-part series on the Bay Area watershed)

The proposal to convert Center Street in Berkeley from an asphalt thoroughfare to a park-like promenade -- revealing a long-hidden underground creek -- is the latest twist in the interesting and often-controversial story of the Bay Area's heavily-modified waterways.

The Center Street project is a striking reversal of a century-old trend towards burying Berkeley's creeks below ground. It's also an example of the relatively new practice of "daylighting" forgotten waterways, a trend said to have been unintentionally sparked forty years ago in nearby Napa.

In the 1970s, as part of the redevelopment of its downtown, the City of Napa stumbled upon a new way of thinking about the urban watershed: Instead of leaving the Napa River buried, engineers removed its cover, exposing it to daylight.

"In the 70s, there was the redevelopment," Barry Martin, Napa's Public Information Officer explained to Streetsblog. "and a number of buildings were taken down. The creek ran underneath some structures, so as they were designing this urban renewal project, [daylighting] was part of that."

"I don't think there was any environmental thinking going on at that time," he added.

Some urban planners debate whether Napa's construction in the 70s constitutes the country's first daylighting project. In 2003, Steve Donnelly, then co-director of the Urban Creeks Council, dismissed the project as the nation's first, saying, "all they did was take the top off a concrete channel."

Uncovering the waterway didn't fix Napa's watershed problems, either.

Forty years after its restoration began, Napa still struggles with the health of the Napa River: Frequent flooding plagued the city during the past decades, and engineers are only now getting the water flow under control, in part thanks to tactics similar to those employed by the settlers of 200 years ago.

In the 1800s, residents recognized that the east side of the river's oxbow was too wet to use in winter, and set aside the land as a summer fairground. An amphitheater now sits on the land, but there's more to the park than meets the eye: It serves as a buffer during floods, redirecting overflow away from more vulnerable areas.


Hairball Study Coughs Up Ideas, Memories

The_hairball.jpgClick to enlarge. Bird’s-eye view of the hairball shows how much real estate it takes up and how it creates a daunting barrier between neighborhoods. Photo:
"You can't get there from here" is a joke phrase, but trying to travel through the Highway 101 freeway maze at Cesar Chavez/Potrero/Bayshore is no laughing matter. Four neighborhoods meet at the maze, known as the "hairball": Potrero Hill, Bayview, Bernal Heights, and the Mission. But moving from one to another without a car is scary indeed. Now, city officials are teaming up with residents to plan a redesign of the aging structure that could encourage neighbors to visit one another on foot and by bicycle. A Planning Department award, announced in September, will fund a study of the maze to tap into the ideas of locals who have to live with it. As the freeway approaches the end of its natural life, neighbors fear that without an alternative plan, Caltrans will simply replace the old freeway with basically the same design. Potrero was reconfigured in 2005, from six car lanes to four, with new left-turn pockets, bike lanes, and crosswalk enhancements. Bayshore and eastern Cesar Chavez are both slated to be restriped with bike lanes as part of the citywide bike plan. Western Cesar Chavez has inspired an ambitious Planning Department redesign that will create a landscaped median and changes similar to those on Potrero. All four roadways, however, feed into the notorious churning maze, leaving cyclists and pedestrians dashing across on and off-ramps and skulking along dark, threatening pathways. The hairball wasn't always so forbidding. Bonnie Ora Sherk, president and founding director of Crossroads Community (The Farm), recalls holding musical offerings, poetry readings, art installations, dance performances, and public gatherings there. She planted lush gardens with local school children in the 1970s in the belly of the maze, the site under which the Islais, Precita, and Serpentine Creeks converge. Crossroads Community was so named by Sherk to be a place for people from the four surrounding communities to come together where the freeway had severed them. Read more...

Layoffs Hit Street Cleaning, Gardening Crews at DPW

DPW_P2P_Crew_.jpgDPW landscaping crews who've been working on the Pavement to Parks plazas are among those being cut. Flickr photo: Jamison
San Franciscans are likely to see slower response times to street cleaning requests and a reduction in landscaping and tree maintenance in their neighborhoods following a number of layoffs announced this week at the Department of Public Works. Twenty four street cleaning positions are being cut along with 15 gardening and arborist positions.

"This was our share and it's unpleasant," said DPW Director Ed Reiskin. As a result of the city budget crisis, the department was forced to slash its street cleaning budget by $2.7 million and trim its landscaping budget by $800,000. A reduction in street sweeping services was announced last month.

The cuts come right as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's office embarks on a number of new projects to green space and improve the public realm. The landscaping positions being eliminated include crews who've been heavily involved in the Pavement to Parks projects. Reiskin predicted the cuts wouldn't have a direct impact on those efforts, but rather, would affect the agency's ability to maintain landscaped medians, trim trees and respond to service requests.

"Nobody was spared and this just challenges us more to figure out how to be more efficient and use more in the way of low-maintenance planting, which we're trying to move more towards, so we need less gardening."


Making 18th Street More Bike, Pedestrian and Commerce Friendly

2427291704_b669aa237a.jpgFlickr photo: tacopoet99
The crowded sidewalks on 18th Street between Dolores and Guerrero in the Mission are usually packed with foodies inching their way into renowned eateries like Tartine Bakery and Cafe or Delfina Pizzeria and Restaurant. Couple that with a high volume of bikes and a scarcity of bike racks and the block screams for improvements to benefit the public realm. 

"I think everyone looks at 18th Street as this great pedestrian-oriented street with these really amazing businesses on it where the sidewalks are too narrow and too crowded," said Tom Radulovich, a neighborhood denizen and Executive Director of Livable City, who is working with other advocates and merchants to make the block near Dolores Park more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

"You see so many more people walking or bicycling through the neighborhood than driving, and a lot of them are locals."

As a first step, the MTA is considering -- and is likely to approve -- eliminating the 7-9 a.m. tow-away zone on the south side of 18th Street eastbound between Dolores and Treat, which would help calm speeding automobile traffic during peak morning hours, and hopefully reduce the amount of collisions in the area.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, while gathering interviews for this story, I witnessed a car collision on Guerrero at 18th, followed by a chorus of "whoas" from Tartine patrons. No one was hurt, but a Tartine employee said she's witnessed or heard at least six collisions in the last year.


Food Bad, Lawns Good? Berkeley Bureaucrats Target Transition Activist

front_of_asa_house_9657.jpgAsa Dodsworth's Home on Acton at Allston Way in Berkeley.

I got an email forwarded to me over the weekend titled "BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA HATES URBAN GARDENS" which naturally sparked my interest. Turns out to be a lot more interesting than the title even suggested. Asa Dodsworth has lived in his place on Acton and Allston Way in Berkeley for about a decade, which he owns. He's a gentle, lanky fellow who decided some years ago to plant food in his front yard and on the six-foot wide median between the curb and the sidewalk running in front of his property. He's not officially associated with Transition Towns or any of the many new initiatives cropping up (pun intended!) that are trying to find local ways to address a world out of kilter. But clearly his dedicated effort to use his small area to grow food instead of keeping it strictly ornamental or recreational is part of a bigger agenda of urban redesign and transformation that benefits us all, and sets a standard that many more of us should be working towards.

I took my bike on BART to seek out this controversial streetscape and see for myself. As luck would have it, I arrived in late afternoon and found Asa pruning some of the foliage in his median, while a cluster of folks stood around discussing not just his situation, but the also the larger dynamic associated with the overblown "crisis" of the light brown apple moth. (For a full download on this topic, go to To get to Asa's place I got off at Ashby BART and rode north on Acton until I found it, not knowing precisely where it was, but having seen some photos on-line. As I rode along I couldn't help but notice that LOTS of homes along Acton are characterized by dense foliage in the front yards, sometimes fruit trees, sometimes just a variety of thick shrubs, flowers and on one occasion at least, artichokes!


Only 17 Percent Drive to Downtown SF to Shop, Study Finds

walking_shoppers.jpgThere's gold in them thar shoes. Flickr photo: Billy Quach
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) has released a survey of nearly 1400 shoppers in downtown San Francisco that found less than one-fifth drive to shop, and that they spend less money in aggregate than shoppers using other transportation modes (PDF). The study indicates drivers spend more each trip than transit riders, but visit less often and account for far fewer total visits and therefore spend less total.

The data contradict the stereotype that shoppers drive to shop and by consequence need on-street parking or free parking to attract them to downtown and prevent them from shopping at malls in suburban areas.

From the study:

Comparing the recreational activity spending amounts by mode, drivers and carpoolers spent more per visit than all other modes, at an average of $88 each. Considering that they came into downtown San Francisco an average of four days per month for recreational purposes and comprised 17% of all respondents, the monthly total for each driver averaged to $259. Transit riders, spent an average of $40 per visit, but traveled to downtown at almost double the frequency, an average of seven days a month. Therefore, over the course of the month, transit riders spent an average of $274. With transit riders comprising the majority of respondents, 60%, the results show that they generate substantial business in downtown. Walkers outspent both transit riders and drivers, spending $291 per month and came to downtown eight days a month.

TA Transportation Planner Zabe Bent explained that the surveys for the mode choice study were conducted at three locations downtown (Union Square near the parking garage, Stockton and Market, and 4th and Mission near the parking garage) that were meant to capture drivers and transit riders equally.  The surveys were collected on weekdays during peak holiday shopping in late November, 2007, and again during weekdays in April, 2008. 

In a complementary study conducted by the TA, 72 percent of business owners surveyed in commercial districts said they thought their customers drove alone to shop, while another 15 percent assume customers drove some of the time (PDF).  Further TA data show that while commercial districts in high car ownership neighborhoods like West Portal see up to 41 percent driving shoppers, nothing comes close to the near 90 percent perception among business owners (PDF).



A Livable Street in the Making: 17th Street Ped Plaza Nearly Complete

work_crew_2.jpgDPW worker painting around an unused track in the plaza. Bollards in the background on the right and left will be filled with gravel and soil and will have plants growing out of them. Photo: Matthew Roth
In less than 24 hours, city officials, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, will be standing in a new pedestrian plaza on the former roadway at 17th Street at Market Street to announce the long-anticipated opening of the street as public space, the first of several such projects that will appear throughout the city over the next year. 

DPW crews have been working at a feverish pace to complete the city's first "Pavement-to-Parks" plaza, pouring yellow, slip-resistant road paint over the surface and installing 70 demarcation bollards that will be filled with soil and gravel and adorned with fan palms, yucca jewels and birds of paradise. Crews are installing movable barriers at both ends of the plaza to allow for emergency fire access. Tables and chairs will also be situated around the plaza, and locked at night on a nearby catenary poll. 

"The goal of this opening on Wednesday is to show how you can do something really quick, really simply," said Andres Power, an urban designer at the SF Planning Department.

Liz Ogbu, an architect with Public Architect Inc., which has designed the project pro bono, said, "This is a little nuts. It’s sort of forced everyone to have to think out of the box and sort of roll with the punches and just be quick on their feet."

For example, Ogbu said they ran out of paint Sunday and a new shipment was still a day away but "somebody came up with the idea of, well, we can tap the traffic paint, and we were a little skeptical because we couldn’t match the color, but it works well and we’re in good shape.”

Crews have also set up the bollards to accommodate the streetcars and buses that will continue passing through the plaza. Ogbu said plazas with transit ways have worked well in some European cities, including Amsterdam.

"All the Muni drivers have been giving us thumbs up as they’ve been coming through," said Ogbu. "And the business owners who we’ve been back and forth with, they’re in good shape.”



Paradise LOSt (Part I): How Long Will the City Keep Us Stuck in Our Cars?

Editor's note: Today we begin Part I of our occasional series on LOS reform.

Bus_in_traffic.jpgTraffic engineers are reluctant to give exclusive lanes to buses (or bikes) for fear of the impact on cars

The Pseudo-Science of LOS

There's a dirty little secret you should know about San Francisco: It's engineered first and foremost for automobility and will never be able to shed this bias if the traffic engineers are in the driver's seat wielding their traffic analysis tools like bibles. As long as the city continues prioritizing the use of transportation analysis known as Level of Service (LOS), you might as well burn our Transit First policy for warmth.

On the one hand, LOS is a very simple and blunt metric for understanding the speed that vehicles can move about the city. LOS measures the amount of vehicular delay at an intersection, with A through F grades assigned to increased delay. This measurement is taken during the peak 15 minutes of evening rush hour and if an intersection slips from LOS D to LOS E, traffic managers will try to mitigate the impact, which usually means widening the road, shrinking the sidewalks, removing crosswalks, softening turning angles, and adjusting signal timing to speed the movement of vehicles.

LOS_Graph.jpgLOS delay from Highway Capacity Manual
LOS analysis seems like science, free from political or ideological considerations, the perfect traffic-engineering tool to rationalize our cities, but the methodology behind it is far from precise. As Jason Henderson, professor of geography at San Francisco State University, said at a recent presentation, LOS is a very poor tool methodologically. In the early years of its development, the "science" was merely traffic engineers assuming what made motorists uncomfortable. He cited the fact that LOS F used to represent a delay of more than 60 seconds, but that in the 2000 Highway Capacity Manual it was revised to 80 seconds. And motorist behavior studies since have shown that inconvenience with delay can depend on numerous factors and differ dramatically between drivers.

Yet the result of relying on this poor methodology to shape the growth of cities has a profound affect on the politics of human mobility, privileging the movement of vehicles before the movement of anything else. Quite simply, LOS analysis has given us Phoenix and Atlanta, congestion and ever-longer commutes, and a whole host of ills that accompany reliance on the inefficient use of street space for our cars.

"I've been doing transit analyses in California for 20 years," said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal of Nelson Nygaard, a transportation and land use consulting firm. "In my practice the single greatest promoter of sprawl and the single greatest obstacle to transit oriented development (TOD) and infill development is the transportation analysis conventions under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, LOS."