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The Bay Area Should be Hyper Skeptical about Hyperloop

Hyperloop cutaway drawing. Image from SpaceX.

Hyperloop cutaway drawing. Image from SpaceX.

Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s pitch for a transportation technology that he says will whisk people from somewhere north of Los Angeles to the East Bay in 35 minutes, was in the news again thanks to a two-day conference held at Texas A&M University. Engineering students from around the world displayed designs for a Hyperloop vehicle.

So what is a Hyperloop? And what does any of this mean for advocates for safe, sustainable transportation?

It shouldn’t mean anything, because for now it’s just a big experiment. Except that Musk sets the whole thing up as a challenge to California’s statewide rail modernization and electrification project, also known as High-Speed Rail (HSR). HSR will bring clean, sustainable mass transit into the realm of city-to-suburb and city-to-city transportation. That’s why it’s getting funded in part by cap-and-trade proceeds. It will help fund Caltrain electrification and the connection to Transbay. It will replace many short-haul flights and cars for trips to and from Northern and Southern California and the cities of the Central Valley. So Musk, developer of the Tesla electric car and sometimes environmentalist, should be solidly behind it. Instead, here’s the start of his introductory paper for Hyperloop:

How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world? Note, I am hedging my statement slightly by saying “one of”. The head of the California high speed rail project called me to complain that it wasn’t the very slowest bullet train nor the very most expensive per mile. The underlying motive for a statewide mass transit system is a good one. It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving. The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate (if unsubsidized) and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it?

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Streetsblog Talks with San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Scott Wiener, who has served District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since 2011, was re-elected this week as chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The Authority was created in 1989 and it works closely with the Municipal Transportation Agency, funding and shepherding long-term projects such as the Van Ness and Geary bus improvements and the Central Subway. Wiener has long been a leader in transportation issues—probably because, unlike some elected officials, he actually rides the trains and buses.

Here’s what he wrote in a post about his reappointment as chair of SFCTA:

    “I’m deeply honored that my colleagues just reelected me as Chairman of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. I will continue to work very hard to improve transportation options as our city and region grow. We have so many needs – increased frequency and reliability of service, more subway lines, a complete revamping of BART and Caltrain, a second transbay tube, and high speed rail to downtown San Francisco. We have huge challenges, and with aggressive and innovative work, we will meet them.”

Streetsblog talked with Wiener about cycling, his goals for improving Muni, and general mobility in San Francisco. But first, late last December Supervisor Wiener pulled out his phone to check an appointment and got robbed. The thieves took his phone and then demanded money. Wiener got his phone back and managed to maneuver them in front of an ATM camera. Streetsblog started by asking him about that encounter and what it says about personal safety in San Francisco.

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Streetsblog: So you got the thieves on a security camera?

Scott Wiener: It was either an incredibly smart move or an incredibly stupid move, but I got my phone back and the people are in custody. I was walking down 16th Street at Valencia and I had briefly taken my phone out to look at my calendar to see where I was going. A woman who was with two guys snatched the phone out of my hand and I was able to get it back from her by paying. So I got them to an ATM machine so that they would be on video; two of the three are now in custody.

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San Francisco MTA Backpedals on Powell Safety Improvements

Workers push a cable car on a soggy morning. SFMTA is already rolling back safety improvements on Powell. Photo: Roger Rudick

Workers push a cable car on a soggy morning. SFMTA is pulling back safety improvements. Photo: Roger Rudick

The SFMTA Board passed a partial rollback this afternoon of the “Powell Street Safety & Improvement Pilot,” an 18-month test project to evaluate banning private vehicles on the particularly busy stretch of Powell Street between Ellis and Geary.

The change, based on staff recommendations, took a plan that reserved the street for “Muni, paratransit, taxis and commercial vehicles only” and changed it to also allow private vehicles “picking up or dropping off passengers at the loading zone in front of 230 Powell Street.” Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk San Francisco, said it will be impossible to enforce that private cars are only loading at that location and not driving through. “You can’t have a cop there all the time. It undoes what the pilot did and is pretty disappointing.” The decision was part of SFMTA’s “consent calendar,” meaning it was passed without discussion or a vote.

It was only last December that the city started the pilot. Given that Powell–between the cable cars, delivery trucks, taxis and private automobiles–was a virtual parking lot, safe-street advocates have long argued that the street should be transformed into a transit and pedestrian promenade. Powell doesn’t even connect to Market Street, since the southernmost block was turned into a plaza in 1973. As a result, drivers end up doing u-turns, further jamming up the street. It’s also a concern for maintaining San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, which aren’t able to handle stop-and-go traffic, because it wears out and frays the cables.

Either way, it should be self-evident that there’s no room for private cars on this stretch of street, just from looking at photographs from past issues of this publication and others. And SFMTA is trying to reduce the number of cars through incremental changes. For example, in 2011, all parking was removed from Powell south of Geary. But not everyone is keen on getting cars off of this stretch of Powell.

“Several Powell Street property owners came forward and asked that we also include the northbound side of the street [accessible to private vehicles] as a condition of their support for the project legislation,” explained Paul Rose, a spokesman for SFMTA. “Staff agreed to this change, and the Board directed staff to return in January with the requested modification, as long as staff was confident that the ‘less restriction’ regulation would still achieve the pilot goals.”

“Our role in this process was to convene stakeholders that would be impacted by the change,” wrote
Union Square Business Improvement District (BID) Executive Director Karin Flood. “In the case of Powell Street we had to balance the need to accommodate the large number of pedestrians walking up Powell with the loading and unloading needs of the individual hotels and merchants.”

Safe street advocates, meanwhile, were frustrated. “It’s pretty disappointing to see this street opened up to private vehicles again without a complete evaluation of the pilot program,” said Ferrara. “This will impact pedestrian safety.”

“This is a really old system,” explained a cable car conductor on Powell who asked Streetsblog to withhold his name. He motioned to a cable car he just helped push across Ellis. “It’s much better, much safer with the street closed [to private cars].”

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Terrifying BART Shooting Shakes Bay Area

Photo: Matthew Roth

Photo: Matthew Roth

I was waiting for an inbound BART train Saturday evening at eight in Rockridge when there was an announcement: “severe disruptions due to police activity at West Oakland.”

My train arrived a few minutes later. We held in downtown Oakland for maybe 15 minutes. Then we rolled through West Oakland without stopping and accelerated to full speed into San Francisco. It wasn’t until I got home and my phone rang that I realized what had happened was actually serious: my friends in Rockridge wanted to make sure I was okay, because they saw on the news that somebody was shot to death, presumably on the train right in front of mine.

Predictably, the shooting was the lead story in the media, ratcheting up the fear. “The reason public transport violence is problematic is that users cannot avoid the risk, so each event is more frightening to a larger number of persons than crime in the street,” said Franklin Zimring, Director of Criminal Justice Studies at Berkeley. Even though “exposure to violent crime is lower than it would be in a lot of neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco.”

The last incident on public transportation of this level of violence was the shooting of Tommy Clayton, 19, last April, on a Muni T-line train in the Bayview District. That said, there are between 90 and 70 homicides a year in Oakland and about 50 in San Francisco. It’s inevitable that some will happen on transit.

“The problem is you can always stay out of neighborhoods that have bad reputations, but if you’re dependent on public transport, you can’t stay away from it,” said Zimring. “Furthermore, I can control where a car goes, so my feeling is going to be somewhat less vulnerable.”

That’s perception. But whether from crime or crashes, the Freakonomics blog lays out the relative safety of transit over driving with data from the US Department of Transportation. Bottom line, if people get so terrified by a well-publicized shooting or rare train collision that they decide to drive instead, they increase their risk of getting killed.

And the fact is random violence on transit—and the Oakland shooting doesn’t look random—is pretty rare, explained Officer Carlos Manfredi, a spokesman for SFPD. For most riders, there are a few tips to keep in mind; a way to regain some of that sense of control. For example, when it’s not crowded, try to ride near the driver. “The driver has a radio and can call for help right away,” he said. Manfredi also recommends standing away from the doors, since thieves are looking to make a quick getaway. “And look up, away from that smart phone screen, whenever the bus or train comes to a complete stop.”

Others take the police to task. “There are many ways to make Muni safer, and one is to have consistent police presence,” said SF Supervisor Scott Weiner. “Like police walking beats on our streets, ensuring a police presence on buses and light-rail vehicles must be a priority.”

Manfredi said they do patrol the system, but that it’s a resource issue. “The average officer will respond to 15 to 35 calls in a 10-hour shift,” he said, adding “An officer is required to ride twice per shift.”

There are accusations that cops shirk this requirement. But Manfredi says cops do patrol Muni plus they commute on transit just like anyone else. Even off duty, “They will typically intervene if they see a crime in progress,” he said.

None of this mitigates the revulsion from last Saturday night. One man is dead. Others had a traumatic experience that will haunt them for years. A killer remains at large. More disturbing, perhaps, is that crime remains such a huge problem in Oakland. But let’s hope fear won’t drive anyone from transit and into private cars, where more people die, generally without the headlines.

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Facebook to Fund New Transit Study on Dumbarton Corridor

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The damaged rail bridge that is part of the 20-mile Dumbarton Corridor. The Facebook study would look at the western approach area only and not the bridge itself????

The damaged rail bridge that is part of the 20-mile Dumbarton Corridor.

Last March Facebook completed its new open-plan headquarters building on its campus in Menlo Park. CNBC put together a video tour. Buildings are nice. But of Mark Zuckerberg’s 12,000 employees, roughly half work in Menlo Park, with growth expected. How do they get to and from work?

Facebook announced yesterday that it was partnering with SamTrans to launch a “Dumbarton Corridor Study.” The study will cost $1 million, with Facebook fronting the entire nut.

If you’re not familiar with the area, there’s a 20-mile stretch of old railway tracks that runs from Caltrain’s mainline in Redwood City, continues past Facebook’s Menlo Park campus, and then runs across the fire-damaged Dumbarton Rail Bridge to the East Bay. It carried passengers long ago, and freight continued to use the corridor up until the 1980s. SamTrans purchased the tracks for a possible expansion of Caltrain in 1995. But then the bridge was all but destroyed in a suspicious fire in 1998.

“When SamTrans and the Transportation Authority purchased the Dumbarton rail corridor more than 20 years ago, we recognized the important role this facility could play in the regional transportation network,” said San Mateo County Transit District General Manager/CEO Jim Hartnett in a prepared statement. “This study represents an important public-private partnership that will provide lasting benefits for congestion relief across the region.”

“Facebook is committed to supporting initiatives that help reduce regional roadway congestion and is pleased to partner with SamTrans to explore ways of improving traffic and transit options on the Dumbarton corridor, ” said Facebook Campus Facilities Director Fergus O’ Shea, also in a prepared statement.

However, it should be noted that this new effort is not reactivating a 2011 project and study, defunded in 2014, into bringing passenger rail back to the corridor.

That ambitious plan would have linked Caltrain, the Altamont Express, Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor, and BART, as well as East Bay bus systems, at a multimodal transit center in Union City. Instead, this new Facebook-funded study will likely consider more modest goals such as “Maybe improving bus service, maybe looking at some improvements to the West and East Bay approaches of State Route 84, stuff like that,” explained Tasha Bartholomew, a spokeswoman for SamTrans. That’s primarily because the $200 to $300 million funding for the original project has been redistributed, explained April Chan, ‎Executive Officer for Planning and Development at SamTrans.

Chan said that some kind of rail option isn’t completely out of the question. A short starter segment might be feasible, but first they have to do a study to find out if “new funding measures will be out there with future pots of money.” She said they’re also hoping to recycle at least some of the work done in the 2011 study.

Currently, there are three highway bridges spanning the San Francisco Bay, from the Oakland Bay Bridge to the Dumbarton highway bridge in the south, but there are no commuter or intercity rail crossings. Amtrak and Caltrain riders have to transfer to BART or a bus to cross the Bay.

In the meantime, Facebook is attempting to solve its employee housing and commuting issues in a variety of ways. One is a $10,000 cash incentive for employees to move closer to the campus. Considering the Peninsula’s notoriously high housing costs, the success of this is yet to be seen. Then there are the controversial “tech shuttles.” Another option: partially funding housing close to its headquarters.

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Guest Editorial: SF Needs to Get Serious About Connecting Caltrain

Despite the renderings, the Transbay Transit Center won't have any Trains without a big push by City Hall. Image Source: the Transbay Center website

Despite the renderings, the Transbay Transit Center won’t have trains without a big push by City Hall. Image from Transbay Center website

The new Transbay Transit Center (TTC) is scheduled for completion in 2017. The foundation of the TTC, and the thing that makes it such an improvement over the old Transbay bus terminal it’s replacing, is its underground train station for Caltrain and High Speed Rail. It will bring Caltrain, the connection between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, into close proximity with five Muni and four BART lines and over 40 bus connections, not to mention San Francisco’s huge downtown employment center. The TTC should one day be the most important transit hub outside of New York City—a Grand Central Station of the West.

Now imagine that Grand Central without any trains. That’s what San Francisco will have if it doesn’t get working soon on a 1.3 mile downtown rail extension (DTX), to actually bring the trains from Caltrain’s current King Street Station to the TTC.

Years ago, the City and County of San Francisco appropriately identified DTX as its number one candidate for Federal New Starts funding. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission ratified the selection and the Federal Transit Administration approved it. The DTX enjoys the strong support of both California Senators and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. In Sacramento, it is recognized for its importance to all of Northern California.

In November 1999, SF voters approved Proposition H by nearly 70 percent. The law mandates that “The Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the SF Transportation Authority, and all relevant city officers and agencies shall take all appropriate actions to generate the revenue necessary to finance the Caltrain extension downtown.” In November 2003 the SF voters approved Prop K by 75 percent, which provided $270 million for it. In June 2010 the voters approved Prop G by nearly 84 percent, calling for high-speed trains to go to the TTC. Clearly, voters want trains in their new station.

But DTX barely registers with the current regime at City Hall.

Mayor Edwin Lee’s administration knocks the project. And at a recent meeting, SF Supervisor Jane Kim was asked why City Hall was “ambivalent” toward the long-awaited DTX project. Her answer was “we all support DTX, but it’s very expensive, and we don’t know where we can find the money.”

It is surely expensive, at about $2.6 billion of the overall $4.5 billion project budget. But considering the importance for Bay Area commuters, the City needs to start looking hard for those funds. San Francisco is so far allocating less than three percent of DTX’s costs, compared to the nearly 35 percent allocation to the relatively low projected ridership of the Central Subway project. Why do City officials continually talk of finding additional funds to extend the Central Subway, build Bus Rapid Transit on Van Ness and Geary, bring the Warriors to town and “beautify our streets”—but they don’t talk about building DTX? Is City Hall failing to recognize how embarrassingly empty its TTC will be without trains and the tens of thousands of daily riders they bring? Maybe the City is forgetting all the additional commuters who will drive cars to and from San Francisco? Or maybe they just think someone else will rescue the project?

The financing for DTX will come from the City and County of San Francisco, the Transbay Mello Roos District, San Mateo County, Bridge Tolls, Caltrain surcharges, California Cap-and-Trade funds, CaHSRA, the federal New Starts Program, and private investors. But only the City of San Francisco has the savvy, financial muscle and political clout to pull it all together. The project needs serious and ongoing advocacy from Mayor Lee and the rest of City Hall—so far, there are no signs of it.

The heart and foundation of the TTC is Caltrain and High Speed Rail. With the right leadership, Caltrain can be running into the station by 2023. Without it, San Francisco will have built a humongous bus stop and a monument to civic incompetence.

Gerald Cauthen is co-founder of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group and SaveMuni. He has managed the design and construction of Muni, San Francisco Water Department and Hetch Hetchy infrastructure projects.

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“Just Transit” Contest Winner to Straighten Out Caltrain Station Mess

Back in October, the Schmidt Family Foundation announced its “Just Transit SF Challenge,” a contest to come up with good transit improvement ideas that can be implemented quickly. The three winners were announced this month.

Bike lanes as currently configured at Caltrain. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The current street situation at Caltrain. Photo: Bryan Goebel

The $125,000 first prize went to RideScout and TransForm, which are partnering to improve transit using financial incentives. In many cities, off-peak transit tickets are discounted to encourage people to ride trains and buses when they are less crowded. This project exploits modern technology to take things further, offering discounts for people to ride when loads are light or even encouraging them to use a less direct route if it will reduce crowding.

The grant will pay for the fare discounts the first year, during which the grantees will study to what extent financial incentives can work, using smart phone technology, to change travel patterns. After that, they’ll have to get SFMTA and BART to buy in. That may mean charging more at peak times and on heavily-crowded routes to offset the expense. Either way, it should bring in more revenue by making sure trains and buses have fewer empty seats on off-peak routes. In this sense, the project is trying to apply the kind of math airlines use to make sure planes don’t fly with empty seats.

Another winner addresses a problem that’s all too tangible to anyone who has ever used Caltrain’s King Street Station.

“Curbing the Caltrain Cluster,” which won a $50,000 award, is a joint project from Livable City and Lyft. How will it work? Suppose you get off your Caltrain and need a Lyft. The way things work now, you end up wandering past Muni buses, bikes, cars, and through the taxi queue trying to find your ride. “Curbing the Caltrain Cluster” proposes numbered stalls, so that when you call your Lyft, Uber, or whatever service, it also tells you to go to stall number 9, for example.

So when a Lyft driver heads over to Caltrain and looks at his app, “It will say your rider will proceed to ‘X’ location,” explained Scott Reinstein, development and communications director for Livable City. The plan is also to separate cars, buses, and bikes as much as possible.

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House Transpo Bill Spells Trouble for Transit Projects Across America

redline

Chicago’s Red and Purple Line modernization project could be delayed or worse under the funding formulas in the House transportation bill, says Representative Dan Lipinski. Image via CTA

A provision in the House GOP’s new transportation bill threatens to upend how transit agencies fund major capital projects, delaying or killing efforts to expand and maintain rail and bus networks.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRR), released Tuesday and marked up in committee yesterday, would change funding rules for the three federal programs that support transit maintenance and expansion projects, known as New Starts, Small Starts, and Core Capacity.

Currently, transit capital projects are eligible to receive 80 percent of their funding from federal sources, with local sources providing the remaining 20 percent. This is the same as the federal match available for highway projects. But the new House bill would cut the maximum federal match for transit projects to 50 percent while leaving the highway formula untouched. The bill would also prohibit transit agencies from counting funds from other federal programs (TIFIA loans, for instance) toward the local portion.

Representatives from urban areas warn that the House bill jeopardizes projects to maintain and improve transit systems. At the mark-up hearing yesterday, Representative Dan Lipinski, a Democrat who represents Chicago, said the measure “could end or delay Red and Purple Line modernization projects in Chicago.”

By cutting the potential share of project funds available from federal sources, the bill would also make transit projects less appealing relative to highways in the eyes of local governments, which would have to pitch in a smaller percentage for road projects.

Smaller cities are more likely to take advantage of federal matching funds that exceed 50 percent of a project’s total cost. Albuquerque, for instance, is counting on an 80 percent match to build its downtown BRT route. Larger cities are more likely to supplement a 50 percent federal grant with another source of federal funds, like TIFIA loans.

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Got an Idea for Better Mobility in the Bay Area? Here’s Where to Send It

Six years ago there was no such thing as Uber. And a short time before that, bike-share and car-share were just ideas. Today, there’s an array of new ways to get from A to B. None required new bridges, trains, roads or other expensive infrastructure.

Just Transit SF with city backgroundSo what else is possible?

That’s what the Palo Alto-based Schmidt Family Foundation, created by a Google executive, hopes to find out with its “Just Transit SF Challenge.” They’re soliciting ideas aimed at “helping provide equity to areas that don’t have transportation access now,” explained Jessica Early, an administrator of the challenge. The contest is part of the “11th Hour Project,” a program of the foundation, which aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Awards are in three categories: $125,000, $50,000 and $25,000. “Prize competitions spark innovation in a way that traditional grant-making often can’t,” added Early.

This is not about pie-in-the-sky fantasies. Contestants must partner with an agency, business, or non-profit that can implement the idea, at least in part, by 2017. Partners might include BART, SFMTA, or an organization such as PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Justice), which works on solving environmental issues in low-income communities of color.

“A hundred grand and great ideas shouldn’t substitute for investing in bus reliability, or putting subways in the ground,” said Nick Josefowitz, BART Director, District 8. “But I’ve always been impressed by how much systems can be improved when you bring in a bit of money and some fresh thinking. That’s why this prize is so exciting to me.” Read more…

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Will the Bay Area Continue to Reduce Driving With Improved Transit?

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Commuters in SF and the East Bay are ditching cars faster than anyone in the nation, as evidenced by regular crowds packing on to BART at 19th Street in Oakland. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Commuters in the Bay Area ditched cars faster than in any other major metropolitan area between 2006 and 2013, according to a new U.S. Census report. With studies showing that car traffic in San Francisco is declining, the report is one more sign that efforts in SF and the region to attract commuters to transit, walking, and biking may be working.

The report looked at work trips in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward Metropolitan Statistical Area. The Sacramento Bee summed up the findings:

Commuting by private car in the densely populated region, including carpooling, dropped from 73.6 percent of workers in 2006 to 69.8 percent seven years later, giving it the nation’s third highest level of alternative commuting.

Commuters in the New York City-centered metropolitan area were least likely to use private cars to get to their jobs in 2013, but even so, a majority – 56.9 percent – still did. Ithaca, NY, had the second lowest use of cars, 68.7 percent, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s not clear which modes of transport the 3.8 of commuters who ditched cars switched to, as the local breakdown wasn’t immediately available. Record-breaking transit ridership on BART and Caltrain have continued to make headlines over recent years (though, per capita, ridership has declined over the last 20 years).

“The Bay Area continues to be a leader in shifting away from driving and toward alternative transportation modes, particularly public transit, but we need to do much more,” Supervisor Scott Wiener, who sits on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, wrote in a Facebook post today.

Wiener emphasized the urgency of some of the major expansions envisioned for regional transit: “A second transbay tube, train service to the Transbay Transit Center, electrified Caltrain, more subway lines, and a lot more bus service everywhere.”

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