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Streetsblog Talks With SF Bicycle Coalition Incoming Director Brian Wiedenmeier

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BriansmilingEarlier this week, the SF Bike Coalition announced it is tapping its development director, Brian Wiedenmeier, as its new executive director. Wiedenmeier takes the reigns from Margaret McCarthy, who had served as the organization’s interim director during a search to replace Noah Budnick, who resigned last year.

Streetsblog sat down with Wiedenmeier to find out more about him and his goals for the organization.

Streetsblog: So why bike advocacy?

Brian Wiedenmeier: I associate cycling with joy and freedom, I began riding a bike as a child and as someone who grew up in a small town in the Midwest. It’s not cool after 16, so I bought a car to get to my job. But when I went to college at the University of Minnesota a car was not something I could afford, so I started biking again out of necessity. But then I realized what a freeing, amazing thing it was–this simple machine that let me experience the city in a new way.

SB: Tell us about cycling in Minnesota.

BW: Minneapolis is a great city that’s blessed with a network of fully separated bike paths that run through parks. And they have the midtown Greenway which is an old piece of rail infrastructure, a freight line that ran in a trench through the city. It’s been re-purposed exclusively for the use of bicycles and pedestrians. It’s a magic thing with bicycle on-ramps and off-ramps that get you cross town in no time flat.

SB: But you decided to move to San Francisco. How was that, cycling-wise? Read more…

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Mission Madness: How Effective is the Big Meeting Format for Outreach?

SFMTA's Matt Brill addresses a boisterous crowd on Mission Street. Photo: Streetsblog

SFMTA’s Matt Brill addresses a boisterous crowd about Mission Street. Photo: Streetsblog

Roberto Hernandez, the “Monarch of the Mission,” didn’t put down the microphone when his two minutes were up. Heavy set, with his trademark fedora, he had already gone several minutes past the cut-off alarm, shouting about how someone with seven children can’t possibly ride the bus, reminiscing about riding a bike before there were bike lanes in San Francisco, and generally cursing SFMTA and the Mission Street transit-only “red lanes” that he connected with the ills of gentrification. At least, that seemed to be what he was saying, in addition to something about lowriders. It was difficult to understand, thanks to all the boos, hisses, and cheers, with roughly half the crowd shouting, “your two minutes are up!” or “cut off his mic” and the other half shouting, “Let him speak!”

It’s a scene that seems to play out every time SFMTA holds one of these large community meetings about whatever fill-in-the-blank project. Someone will take over the mic, break the rules, and whip the room into a lather.

But Monday night’s meeting was especially bad.

It must have been 85 degrees at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. That’s probably because 200 people crammed into the space to support–and bemoan–the SFMTA’s transit-only “red carpet” lanes installed last March on Mission. Or maybe the heat was from the smoldering rage, seemingly intensified by the thudding noise from a dance class above that vibrated throughout the meeting room, which is also an art space.

That said, before the raucous meeting officially got underway, Streetsblog was able to talk one-on-one with a few of the attendees and presenters.

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VTA Sales Tax With Massive Highway Expansion Program on November Ballot

The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) hopes to use $350 million in new sales tax revenue to widen Highway 85 with new express lanes, free for buses and carpools but charge a toll to solo drivers. Image: VTA

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)’s half-cent “Envision Silicon Valley” transportation sales tax is now headed to the November 8 general election ballot in the county, after receiving the unanimous approval of the transit agency’s Board of Directors on June 2.

The new sales tax would fund a massive highway expansion program, spending $1.85 billion on expressway and highway projects over the next 30 years, along with $1.5 billion to extend BART to Santa Clara, $1.2 billion to repave streets, $1 billion for Caltrain upgrades, $500 million for VTA bus and light rail operations, and $250 million for pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements.

“I love driving my car, and I think 97 percent of our population does as well,” said VTA Board and San Jose City Council member Johnny Khamis at the June 2 meeting. “More than 52 percent of this budget is dedicated to transit and less than 48 percent is dedicated to roads. In the meantime, 97 percent of population uses roads, whether you’re on the bus, or a car, whether it’s hybrid or electric, or on a bicycle, you need a road. We don’t float on air.”

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Book Review: Planning Rock Stars Write Case-Study Bible for Livable Cities

Jason Henderson talks about his new book, co-written with Nicole Foletta, about designing car-free and car-lite cities, at Green Arcade Books. Photo: Streetsblog

Jason Henderson talks about his new book, co-written with Nicole Foletta, about designing car-free and car-lite cities, at Green Arcade Books. Photo: Streetsblog

A wise man once said there are few if any urban planning problems that haven’t been solved somewhere on earth–the challenge is just finding the best stuff to copy. That’s the approach of Low Car(Bon) Communities: Inspiring Car-Free and Car-Lite Urban Futures, a new book by Nicole Foletta and Jason Henderson, published by Routledge. Foletta is Principal Planner with BART, with experience working in Europe. Henderson is a geography professor at San Francisco State University and Streetsblog contributor.

The 157-page volume starts out explaining why it’s so urgent to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and why the key to that is discouraging car use and car ownership. It identifies the concept of “car free” and “car-lite” communities–cities that are designed in such a way to not just make cars unnecessary, but to discourage their use by closing some streets to traffic and restricting parking.
Screenshot from Jasons book

This, of course, is quite the opposite of how most American cities, San Francisco included, were planned in the post-war environment, where governments built wide roads, freeways, and ramps and provided so much free parking it’s practically viewed as an inalienable right. But Foletta and Henderson make a compelling case that this has to change immediately. “The World Bank frets that the lack of a universal cooperative global climate policy will result in temperature rises exceeding a disastrous four degrees Celsius within this century–perhaps as early as 2060,” the authors write. “Meanwhile, transportation is not only 22 percent of the global total, bust is also the fastest growing sector for global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The authors argue that cities around the world must, therefore, study the best examples of what works to reduce automobile use. Planners must then figure out how to emulate whatever they can from cities that have the lowest transportation-derived CO2 emissions. Using pictures, maps and charts, the book attempts to lay out some universally transferable strategies.
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Balboa Park Station Open House

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BART Planner Tim Chan explaining station plans and hearing comments from morning commuters at Balboa Park Station. Photo: Streetsblog.

BART’s Tim Chan explained station plans and took comments from morning commuters at Balboa Park Station. Photo: Streetsblog.

This morning from 7 to 10 am BART officials, consultants, and even a legislative aide for Supervisor John Avalos’s office answered questions and heard comments from the public about plans to modernize Balboa Park Station, one of the busiest in both BART and Muni’s networks.

From BART’s webpage on the project:

The goal of the project is to develop and prioritize potential station improvements to upgrade and modernize the station’s function, safety and security, capacity, sustainability, appearance, and improve the customer experience. BART is also partnering with the City to identify plaza improvements to support the Upper Yard Affordable Housing Project.

It would be hard to argue that Balboa Park station doesn’t need improvements. A confluence of three Muni trains, seven buses, and the southernmost transfer station for four BART lines, it seems an obvious place for intense transit-oriented real estate development. But with I-280 on one side and a Muni Light Rail maintenance facility on the other, developing the area is challenging. “It doesn’t work for cars, pedestrians, or cyclists,” said Frances Hsieh, the legislative aide for Supervisor Avalos.

“It’s an aging station desperately in need of an upgrade,” said Tim Chan, manager of station planning and development for BART.

Members of the public who stopped by seemed to agree.

“It’s generally dirty and it feels unsafe,”  said Edward Anaya, a lawyer who commutes through Balboa Park from his home in Excelsior. “There are walkability and safety issues competing with the traffic from I-280.”

Jennifer Heggie takes the bus from Sunnyside to pick up BART at Balboa. She said the station has already improved and it used to “smell like urine,” but she wishes there were a shelter on the Geneva side for people connecting to buses there. “It’s cold at night.”

Chan said that’s one of the things they want to fix, by adding “more weather protection” for people transferring between BART and Muni. They also want to “extend the canopies at the ends of the BART platforms” so people don’t have to bunch up when it’s raining.

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development is working on the Upper Yard affordable housing project, planned across from the old car barn and powerhouse. It’s currently used as a parking lot.

Read more…

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Mission Transit Lane Removal Nudged Closer to Reality

Even though the pain dried only three months ago, there's already talk of removing the bus-only lanes on Mission. Photo: SFMTA.

Even though the paint dried only three months ago, there’s already talk of removing the bus-only lanes on Mission. Photo: SFMTA.

Last April, businesses on Mission Street started to gain some traction in pushing against SFMTA’s “red carpet” bus-only lanes, which they claim—contrary to the available evidence, it should be noted—are hurting their bottom line. The result: Supervisor David Campos asked the SFMTA to “make a radical shift in the program,” as he put it in a Facebook post.

The first step in that “radical shift” is now happening, and it may not bode well for transit advocates. According to an SFMTA release:

District 9 Supervisor David Campos and Ed Reiskin, Director of Transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), today announced a series of activities to gather additional feedback on the Mission Street Improvement Project, which established bus-only lanes on Mission Street from 14th Street to 30th Street. The activities include a community hearing, merchant walks in the project area, and a survey of residents and visitors on Mission Street. The community hearing, to be held on June 20 at 6:00 PM at the Mission Cultural Center, provides an opportunity for community members to discuss their experiences and suggestions for improving the project.

The problem, of course, is public meetings on transit projects seem to attract a disproportionate number of, well, grumps. “One of the things that stands in the way is often times a small number of deluded people are the ones who show up. And they complain and their complaints may be irrational and factually incorrect. But because they show up, they’re the ones who win the day,” said Jeff Tumlin, Principal and Director of Strategy for Nelson\Nygaard Consulting, at an SF Transit Riders event.

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Why are More Facebook Workers Driving to the Office?

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Protesters block a "Google Bus." Data from Facebook suggests more people are driving as a result of SFMTA restrictions on Tech Shuttle routes. Photo: Chris Martin

Protesters block a “Tech Shuttle.” Data from Facebook suggests more people are driving, perhaps in anticipation of SFMTA restrictions on shuttle routes. Photo: Chris Martin

As Facebook prepares to expand its West Campus in San Mateo County, it is presenting environmental reports to groups such as the Menlo Park Transportation Commission. Commissioner Adina Levin brought this to Streetsblog’s attention from the report: apparently more Facebook employees started driving in the past couple of months to the social media giant’s headquarters in Menlo Park. From a post by Levin in the Friends of Caltrain Blog entitled “San Francisco shuttle changes increase car traffic:

Facebook disclosed that their car commute trips had spiked in recent months, adding about 400 more cars to San Francisco streets, due to new San Francisco rules changing shuttle stops.

Reviewing the the next expansion of their Menlo Park campus, Facebook shared results of their successful transportation program, which had about 50 percent of employees refraining from driving alone – until SFMTA changed shuttle stops as a result of resident protests. The drive-alone rate, which had been about 50 precent, increased to 54 percent of Facebook’s 10,000 workers.

Napkin math suggests about 400 additional Facebook drivers on San Francisco streets and highway 101 following the shuttle changes. Facebook’s driving rate is still much lower than the 80 percent plus drive-alone rate at typical suburban office parks. But the extra cars are surely not what San Francisco’s policymakers and activists were hoping for.

The SFMTA rules changes she’s referring to started in February of this year. Some of them were designed to, according to SFMTA’s material, improve labor relations and help the environment by mandating newer model buses. However, it also included the following change:

  • Commuter shuttles over 35 feet long must stay on Caltrans arterial street network.

“Recent changes to the program were in direct response to what we heard from many in the community and from elected officials,” said Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesman. “Shuttle companies can still use those smaller neighborhood streets. They just need to use shuttle buses that are more appropriate for them–buses that aren’t over 35 feet long.”

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SPUR Talk: The Election and the Bay Area’s Future

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David Latterman of Fall Line Analytics and Alex Clemens of Barbary Coast Consulting Discuss the Election. Photo: Streetsblog.

David Latterman of Fall Line Analytics and Alex Clemens of Barbary Coast Consulting discuss the election with a packed house at SPUR SF. Photo: Streetsblog.

Wednesday afternoon SPUR sponsored a discussion about the previous day’s election and what it could mean for the Bay Area. The panel consisted of Alex Clemens of Barbary Coast Consulting and David Latterman of Fall Line Analytics. It was attended by some seventy people, with at least ten more standing in the back.

First, Clemens gave his initial impressions. “In the greater scheme of things this was a crap election,” he gibed. Turnout, their charts showed, has fallen from a historic high of forty percent in 2008 to thirty percent in more recent years “which we should all be rightfully ashamed of,” he said. But, he added, perhaps the low turnout shouldn’t be a huge surprise. “We had five local elections that had no opposition, [and] a presidential race and a state senate race that won’t get decided until November.” Latterman explained that turnout figures would improve as the final counting is completed. Read more…

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Not Voting for Buses? Bay Area Transit Study Open Thread

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Go Giants indeed! Just not by bus if one can avoid it, according to a an MTC study. Image: Torbakhopper

Go Giants indeed! Just not by bus if one can avoid it, according to an MTC study. Image: Torbakhopper

Election day is a good time for a discussion about a recent Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) study that seems to show that Bay Area residents are using their transit choices to, in effect, vote for rail, ferry, and ride-hailing, but not for more buses. From an East Bay Times look at the study:

The problem is that buses, by far the biggest piece of the transit puzzle, saw ridership drop 15 percent from 1991 to 2014, more than canceling out the 63 percent surge in train and ferry use, according to data from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. With private tech shuttles transporting employees from home to office and the proliferation of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, are buses merely outdated behemoths ready to go the way of the dinosaur?

Is it really true that Uber and Lyft are responsible for declining bus ridership? Are tech shuttles really pulling people from city buses?  With ride-hail, it depends which study one consults. According to a March study from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), ride-hail works hand-in-glove with transit:

A survey of 4,500 people across the US confirms that people who routinely use “shared modes” of transportation (e.g. bikesharing, carsharing, and ridesharing) were more likely to use public transit. These individuals were less likely to drive, more likely to walk, and saved more on overall transportation costs.

But an earlier study from the University of California Transportation Center at Berkeley shows the opposite.

Read more…

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M-Ocean View Subway: Is this Project Really About Trains?

View from inside an inbound M-Oceanview. Why should a train full of people sit in a mixed-flow turning pocket waiting for cars to make a left into a mall? Photo: Streetsblog.

View from inside an inbound M-Ocean View just south of Stonestown. Why should a train sit in traffic waiting for cars to make a left into a shopping mall? Photo: Streetsblog.

Thursday, SFMTA joined several agencies at the Bay Area 2040 open house in Oakland. One of the projects presented was the M-Ocean View improvement plan. As the Examiner reported today, SFMTA is now leaning towards an all-underground option, with a tunnel stretching from West Portal to Parkmerced. This project, at around $3 billion, would re-align the M-Ocean View to the west of 19th Ave. and put it in a tunnel. Ostensibly, the project’s objective is to increase capacity and the speed of the trains to better serve SF State and the burgeoning community of Parkmerced.

From the SFMTA’s factsheet from the section entitled, “Key Benefits of Full Subway” PDF:

MUNI METRO SPEED AND RELIABILITY: No delay to train from waiting at intersections [emphasis added] makes for faster and more reliable service. Undergrounding the M- and K-lines through West Portal also addresses this major bottleneck

Somebody has to point out the elephant in the room.

Why is the train waiting at intersections in the first place?

The M-Ocean View, for its run down 19th, has its own right-of-way. But at each intersection, it has to wait for lights to cycle and automobiles to cross.

Obviously, putting the train in a tunnel is not the only solution.

Liz Brisson, Project Manager, Urban Planning Initiatives Sustainable Street Division for the SFMTA, explained at Thursday evening’s open house that there are short-term improvements to the M-Ocean View in the works, such as giving it more priority at signal lights and reducing the length of the turning pocket, seen in the photo above, at Stonestown. Right now an inbound M-Ocean View train has to wait behind left-turning cars before it can proceed into the Stonestown station.

But why just shorten the turning pocket? Why not get rid of the one that’s blocking the trains? And why signal “priority” instead of pre-emption: meaning why not when the train approaches, gates come down or the light always turns red for the cars and green for the train? The answer is obvious: it will cause more delay for privately owned cars.

The SFMTA’s studies also say the train goes slow because of closely spaced stations and that some stops should be eliminated and consolidated. But stop consolidation doesn’t require tunnels.

As this publication has covered for many years, San Francisco has long had a “transit first,” policy, at least in theory. But what clearer example could there be that transit is still far from first, when trains full of hundreds of people have to sit behind cars turning into a shopping mall?

Certainly, projects to create bus-only lanes on Van Ness, Mission and Geary are a step in the “transit first” direction. But putting Light Rail trains in a tunnel, when they already have a right of way (ROW), doesn’t sound like “transit first.” It sounds like a way to get the train out of the way of the cars.
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