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The End of Peak Driving?

Cross-posted from City Observatory

A little over a year ago, a gallon of regular gasoline cost $3.70. Since then, that price has plummeted, and remains more than a dollar cheaper than it was through most of 2014.

Over the same period, there’s been a small but noticeable uptick in driving in the US. After nearly a decade of steady declines in vehicle miles traveled per person, car use has suddenly pushed upwards. Average miles traveled per person, which were 25.7 a year ago, have jumped up to 26.4 in July—the first sustained increase in driving in more than a decade.

Some in the highway community have heralded the growth in driving in recent months as a sign that we need to invest much more in road construction.

The increase isn’t very big, however. In historic terms, Americans are now driving at about the same rate as they were in 2000. It would take nearly a decade of growth at the current rate of expansion just to get back to the level of driving of 2004. But there’s little reason to believe anything like that is in the cards.

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Census: 95% of New SF Commuters Since 2006 Don’t Drive Solo

As San Francisco’s economy booms, a lot more people are commuting, and very few are doing it in a car.

Between 2006 and 2014, the city saw a net growth of about 86,400 commuters, and 95 percent of them don’t drive, according to data from the US Census American Community Survey. The ACS numbers provide the best available year-to-year data on commuting habits, though because of sampling error they are not absolutely precise.

The numbers show a clear trend: Transit, walking, and bicycle commuting are each growing markedly faster than solo car commuting.

Among SF residents, the number of transit commuters and solo drivers is now about equal — a significant gain for transit commuting since last year’s survey.

Changes in driving and transit use among SF residents only. Image: Jeremy Pollock/Twitter

Changes in driving and transit use among SF residents only. Image: Jeremy Pollock/Twitter

Among all workers in the city, 40 percent now primarily take transit to work, surpassing solo driving (33 percent drive alone, and another 9 percent carpool).

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SFPD Driver Strikes and Kills Cyclist “DJ” Pinkerton, 23, on Dangerous Road

Persia at Sunnydale Avenue in McLaren Park, where Pinkerton died, is set for a safety upgrade next year. Screenshot from ABC 7

Persia at Sunnydale Avenue in McLaren Park, where Pinkerton died, is set for a safety upgrade next year. Screenshot from ABC 7

Donald “D.J.” Pinkerton, 23, was killed on his bike in a crash with an SFPD driver on Friday night at a dangerous intersection at the edge of McLaren Park which is set to get traffic calming improvements.

The SFPD has told reporters that officers are still investigating the crash, which occurred at about 9 p.m. at Sunnydale and Persia avenues in the Excelsior District. Based on reports so far, Pinkerton was riding down a service road from the weekly bike polo event he organized when an SFPD officer driving a cruiser struck him.

DJ Pinkerton. Photo via ABC 7

DJ Pinkerton. Photo via ABC 7

SFPD spokesperson Albie Esparza told KPIX, “They were just driving regular, no lights or sirens, not going to a call, just regular, routine driving approaching this intersection.”

D11 Supervisor John Avalos said SFPD Ingleside Station Captain John McFadden already told him that the crash was Pinkerton’s fault, and that he “may have been intoxicated.”

“I feel like what I heard was, it wasn’t our fault, it was his fault that it happened,” Avalos told Streetsblog.

“This is a tragedy,” Esparza said in a statement soon after the crash. “Our thoughts go out to the bicyclist’s family, as well as our two officers involved as this is a tragic incident.”

Esparza added that SFPD is conducting “a thorough investigation” of the crash, and that “an administrative process will also be conducted for the member driver involved, which is standard procedure to include toxicology sample.”

SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Noah Budnick said the organization’s staff “were shocked when we learned of Donald ‘D.J.’ Pinkerton’s death.”

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Today: VTA Board Could Enshrine Road Expansions in Sales Tax Measure

Santa Clara County’s proposed 20-year sales tax could go toward making dangerous mega-wide roads like the Lawrence Expressway even wider. Photo: Santa Clara County

The Valley Transportation Authority Board of Directors today could enshrine road widenings in its 20-year transportation sales tax, proposed for the ballot in Santa Clara County in November 2016.

The agenda for today’s 5:30 p.m. board meeting includes approval of the sales tax measure language, which includes goals [PDF] to “provide congestion relief” and “relieve roadway, highway, and expressway bottle necks and minimize traffic in residential neighborhoods.”

“In the past this goal was met with roadway widening,” wrote Gladwyn d’Souza, transportation committee chair for the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta chapter, in a letter [PDF] to the VTA board stating the organization’s concerns about the language. “Subsequent analysis has shown that the relief is temporary due to induced driving.”

The sales tax proposal, called Envision Silicon Valley, would fund at least two decades of transportation infrastructure projects in the South Bay, including the BART extension to San Jose, a network of bus rapid transit lines, a county-wide trail network, and safety improvements for walking and bicycling.

But widening Santa Clara County’s already-dangerous expressways to “relieve bottle necks,” even as traffic declines, would work against San Jose’s goals to reduce driving and end traffic fatalities, as called for in San Jose’s Envision 2040 General Plan and Vision Zero plan. Ninety-three percent of traffic fatalities occurred on major city streets and county expressways last year.

“It’s a fact that our transportation systems have been designed in the past to move cars efficiently,” SJ Transportation Director Hans Larsen told the City Council when it approved the Vision Zero plan on May 12. “This is a change in paradigm to say that safety is the top priority.”


New Data Shows Most Trips in SF Are Made Without a Private Automobile

Based on a new, more accurate travel survey, the SFMTA found that driving has made up the minority of trips for at least three years. Image: SFMTA

San Franciscans don’t drive nearly as much as previously thought, according to new SFMTA survey data. But the needle hasn’t moved much in recent years either.

More than 50 percent of trips in San Francisco are made without a private automobile — and it’s been that way for at least three years, according to travel survey results presented at an SFMTA Board meeting today [PDF, page 18]. Last year, 52 percent of trips in the city were made by transit, walking, biking, car-share, taxi, or ride hailing services like Lyft and Uber.

Solo driving accounted for only 27 percent of trips in 2014, the SFMTA found, with carpooling accounting for another 21 percent. Those two types of trips are what the agency counts as “private auto” trips.

The findings are a significant departure from previously released data on city travel patterns, which had estimated that 62 percent of trips in the city are made with private autos. But those numbers were based on a less accurate survey methodology, SFMTA Sustainable Streets Director Tom Maguire told the Board.

The old data “probably didn’t tell us the whole picture,” said Maguire, who explained that the old numbers were based mostly on traffic planning forecasts and U.S. Census data that are at least five years old. The new data is based on a local, annual “Travel Decision Survey” conducted by the SFMTA which asked residents and commuters detailed questions about their travel behavior.

How San Franciscans traveled in 2014. Image: SFMTA

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Studies Show Car Traffic in San Francisco is Dropping

Car traffic at Mission and Third Streets has declined by 7 percent over the last few years, according to SFCTA counts. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Car traffic has dropped in San Francisco in recent years, despite an economic boom and a growing population, according to studies by the SF County Transportation Authority.

A newly updated study (reported by SF Weekly) by the SFCTA counted fewer cars at 11 of 15 intersections during evening peak hours this year, compared to earlier counts taken between 2009 and 2012. Driving speeds, meanwhile, are “increasing moderately.”

As SF Weekly’s Joe Eskenazi pointed out, the data fly in the face of anecdotes from drivers — who almost universally feel that car congestion is always getting worse. And given the city’s booming economy, population, and construction in recent years, that’s one scenario that certainly would have been plausible had the 20th-century status quo continued.

“Anecdotal evidence is hard to counter,” Eskenazi wrote. “But what statistical evidence does exist flies in the face of your well-worn anecdotes.”

SFCTA transportation planner Dan Tischler acknowledged that, despite the somewhat limited scope of the study, all of the evidence available indicates that San Francisco commuters are driving less, and likely switching to other modes to get around.

“We are not really sure if traffic conditions are worse now than they were a few years ago, but we do have strong evidence that transit is playing an increasingly significant role in handling growth in travel demand,” said Tischler.

Most importantly, Tischler noted, driving speeds have largely remained flat, or even increased slightly, from 2011 to 2013. That contradicts any notion that fewer cars were counted because congestion is causing them to moving through more slowly. (Slower speeds would actually increase throughput, since cars follow one another more closely at slow speeds.)

“Lower traffic volumes, combined with higher speeds, indicates that lower traffic volumes may be due to less demand rather than too much demand,” Tischler said.

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Santa Clara County Still Plans to Widen Expressways, Despite Lower Traffic

Traffic congestion has worsened on Lawrence Expressway over the past decade, but has remained steady or lessened along Santa Clara County’s other urban expressways. Photo: Santa Clara County

Santa Clara County is still operating under plans that assume it can build its way out of traffic congestion by adding more lanes of traffic, plus new overpasses and underpasses, to the county’s 62 miles of expressways — dangerous arterial roadways that were “upgraded” decades ago with freeway-like ramps and overpasses. This is in stark contrast to the 21st-century approach taken by other cities and transit agencies in the region, which are planning for reduced traffic volumes by centering future urban growth around transit corridors and high-quality networks for walking and bicycling.

The county is still in the preliminary stages of its Expressways Plan 2040 — a long-term plan to “improve” the county’s system of eight 1960’s-era expressways, which “were designed to relieve local streets and supplement the freeway system.” The current expressways plan is a 2008 update of a 2003 planning study, which identified and prioritized among a long list of highway expansion projects that could meet “expressway needs.” Those “needs,” of course, consisted of reducing traffic delays at intersections for drivers.

“The Santa Clara County Expressway Master Plan has historically promoted additional auto capacity and grade separations (separating cars from local cross-traffic to increase their throughput), with limited accommodation for other types of travelers,” SPUR stated in its July report on strategies to improve transportation in the South Bay. “Future expressway master plans should aim for a multi-modal expressways system that is integrated with local efforts to grow sustainable, multi-modal communities.”

Santa Clara County maintains a network of eight expressways, and is coordinating plans to widen and extend Santa Teresa Boulevard and Hale Avenue to Gilroy. Image: Santa Clara County

“Going back to the 1960’s, the expressways were built with the intention of carrying automobiles,” said Santa Clara County Transportation Planner Dawn Cameron. “For over two decades, we’ve been working at what is basically retrofitting an expressway system that was built fifty years ago.”

The 2003 and 2008 plans did recommend new sidewalks, better crosswalks, improved signal timing, and striping changes, all of which would reduce hazards for walking and biking across or along the expressways. Long crossing distances and high speed traffic make the expressways inherently dangerous to walk or bicycle along, or even just to cross.

Twenty-six-year-old Daniel Campbell was killed in April while walking across Capitol Expressway at Seven Trees Boulevard in south San Jose, in what KTVU called a “hit and run accident.” In June, 51-year-old Richard Yanis was severely injured after being struck by a hit-and-run driver just two miles away, on Capitol Expressway at Silver Creek Road.

Despite this clear danger, projects to reduce hazards for people walking or bicycling remain a low funding priority for the expressways, comprising three percent of the estimated $2.5 to $2.8 billion in capital program funding needs identified by the 2008 plan.

In comparison, sound walls and landscaping would receive four percent of funds, and the remaining 93 percent of funds would be spent on increasing vehicle capacity.

Meanwhile, traffic congestion seems to be going away on its own, without billions of dollars in new construction.

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SFCTA: Geary BRT Will Take Hundreds of Cars Off the Street Every Hour

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Geary BRT is expected to reduce car traffic on the street in large numbers. This graph shows hourly car volumes projected in the westbound direction. Image: SFCTA

Once bus rapid transit is finally up and running, Geary Boulevard will carry thousands fewer cars every day in 2020, compared to a scenario where it doesn’t get built.

A rendering of the recommended plan for Geary BRT at 17th Avenue in the Richmond. Image: SFCTA

That’s according to a preliminary analysis [PDF] presented by the SF County Transportation Authority. The traffic counts vary, depending on which of several design alternatives are built, and some of the cars taken off Geary during rush hours would divert to parallel streets instead. Nonetheless, a Geary without bus rapid transit would have more cars than one with it.

Just how big is the difference? A traffic projection for the intersection of Geary and Divisadero Street shows about 2,200 westbound cars each hour — compared to about 1,000 fewer cars with the Geary BRT “3-Consolidated” option. However, the SFCTA doesn’t plan to build that option, as it would require the expensive undertaking of filling in the Fillmore underpass.

The SFCTA’s “preferred” option is the “hybrid” alternative, which only includes bus-only center lanes in the Richmond District. The other three quarters of the Geary corridor would get side-running bus lanes, many of which exist today.

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SFMTA Considers Restricting Cars on Crooked Lombard Street

Photo: Aaron Bialick

The “crookedest street in the world” block of Lombard Street is a world-famous tourist attraction, but the resulting car traffic causes congestion and safety problems and may lead the SFMTA to ban tourists from driving that stretch.

In an attempt to reduce pedestrian injuries and blocks-long car queues, the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday will consider several summer trials to allow only “local” cars on two blocks of Lombard. The restrictions would apply on eastbound Lombard, between Larkin and Leavenworth Streets, on Saturdays and Sundays from June 21 through July 13, and on Friday, July 4. The SFMTA will consider longer-term, even permanent, restrictions after monitoring the impacts.

According to an SFMTA report [PDF], the push for restricting tourists from driving on curvy Lombard came from the residents who live on it, as well as District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell. The effort has support from Russian Hill Neighbors and the Lombard Hill Improvement Association.

“In prior years, this portion of Lombard Street has experienced a number of vehicular collisions, pedestrian injuries, and residential property damage,” the report says, also noting “chronic congestion in the summer months” that reaches three blocks back to Van Ness Avenue, where queued drivers “can delay regional transit and vehicular traffic.” At the entrance to the crooked block, drivers also often block the Hyde Street cable car.

“Residents are also concerned about the mixing of large pedestrian crowds… with vehicular traffic,” the report notes, listing several crashes with railings, pedestrians, and fire hydrants on the block within the last few years. In one incident, a speeding driver reportedly crashed into a retaining wall, rolled the car over and fled on foot.

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Warriors Arena Moving to Mission Bay: A Win for Transit Accessibility?

Third and 16th Street, the new proposed site for the Warriors arena. Image: CBS-KPIX

The Warriors announced this week that the site for the basketball team’s proposed arena would be moved from Piers 30-32 on the Embarcadero to Mission Bay, quelling opposition from waterfront development foes. Whether or not the new site will work out for better or worse in terms of accessibility to regional transit, however, is still up for debate.

The Mission Bay site at 16th Street and Third Street is nearly two miles from the nearest BART Station, out of normal walking distance for most visitors. Instead, fans taking BART will be expected to transfer on Muni lines such as the T-Third on the Central Subway corridor, which will stop right out front, and possibly the 22-Fillmore, if extension plans for that line are constructed in time. The distance from BART may be a loss in the eyes of some transit advocates, but it does have its upsides, argues Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and a BART Board member.

Ultimately, Radulovich thinks the Warriors are best off staying at the existing Oakland Coliseum, which is close to BART and the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, making it a more transit-accessible location than either of the proposed San Francisco sites. But the Mission Bay site does leave open more opportunities for nearby transit access than the Embarcadero piers, given all the transportation plans in the works for Mission Bay.

At the proposed Pier 30-32 site, the 0.7-mile walk from Embarcadero BART “was far enough from BART to dissuade many folks from walking,” said Radulovich. He pointed out that once the Central Subway opens in 2019, riders reaching BART via rail would rely on the N-Judah (which Giants Ballpark visitors already cram on to) and the future E-Embarcadero historic streetcar line, as the T-Third will no longer run on the Embarcadero. “Historic streetcars are expensive to operate, low capacity, and have accessibility challenges,” said Radulovich. Additionally, he said, “It would have added to the capacity problems at Embarcadero Station, which is currently the most crowded BART station.”

Furthermore, arena parking would be especially problematic by the Embarcadero. “The auto traffic that would have been generated by the hundreds of planned arena parking spaces would crowd streets like The Embarcadero and Second,” said Radulovich, “where we’d like to see the city reduce the roadway width to improve sidewalks and create protected cycle paths.”

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