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How Sprawl Worsens California’s Terrible Drought

California is in the throes of a drought that Governor Jerry Brown called “unprecedented in recorded history.”

Sprawling development strains California's fragile water resources. Photo: Stockton City Limits

Sprawling development strains California’s fragile water resources. Photo: Stockton City Limits

There are many factors behind the severity of the state’s drought, and one of them is land use. In a prescient post from last year, Jon Mendelson at Network blog Stockton City Limits warned that California’s water crisis was likely to get worse, adding that cities like Stockton aren’t doing themselves any favors by continuing to build the most water-intensive kind of development: sprawl. He says Stockton could be a poster child for the kind of development that strains natural resources in California:

Recent reports from Smart Growth America (“Paving Our Way to Water Shortages: How Sprawl Aggravates the Effects of Drought”) and Western Resource Advocates (“A Comparative Study of Urban Water Use Across the Southwest”) argue that the type of growth that’s been a hallmark of the Central Valley the past few decades leads to cities that consume far more water than is sustainable.

The studies found that urban growth patterns with a relatively low density of units per acre — especially those featuring primarily single-family houses — use more water than higher-density, mixed-use plans. They also indicate that the more pavement used for a development, such as for parking lots at a sprawling strip mall, the less rain recharges groundwater stores. These impervious surfaces carry stormwater to drains and ultimately into waterways where it can’t be used for consumption, instead of allowing water to soak back into the ground to be extracted by wells.

The findings, while directly related to other regions, are applicable to Stockton. Climate models for the coming century generally predict dwindling snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the primary source of drinking and agricultural water for Stockton and California as a whole. That means the current worst-in-a-century drought could become common. Cities such as Stockton, which is predicted by the general plan to grow significantly from its current size of 300,000 during the next 20 years, will have to do with less.

Don’t be mistaken — the sprawling development patterns of Stockton and cities up and down the state aren’t wholly to blame for this year’s drought. The lion’s share of California’s drought should be attributed to record low rainfall in 2014 and an antiquated water rights system.

(It’s also true that agriculture consumes more water than urban users, so some might argue San Joaquin County would become more water efficient the more local farmland is turned to houses. It’s a noxious viewpoint considering our immediate region relies economically on ag production and doesn’t have to import its farm water like the Central Valley’s west side, but it’s an argument nonetheless.)

But the point remains that with a growing population and a water supply that will at best stay the same, planners and developers would be Coke-bottle-glasses shortsighted to not take every chance to make cities more efficient when it comes to water.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Plan Charlotte shares public health expert Richard Jackson’s research linking the obesity epidemic to the unwalkable environments we’ve constructed. And Seattle Transit Blog says one secret to affordable housing is to build more transit.

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Seattle’s Making It Easier for Families With Kids to Ride the Bus

Traveling on transit with a toddler is challenging enough. But transit agency policies can make the situation a lot worse.

Bus riding with baby just got a lot easier in Seattle. Photo: Seattle Transit Blog

Bus riding with baby just got a lot easier in Seattle. Photo: Seattle Transit Blog

Until very recently, Seattle had the kind of rules that made “any long outing with a small child involving buses… suck,” according to Seattle Transit Blog‘s Matthew Johnson, a new father. King County Metro required parents transporting a kids in strollers to unload the stroller, fold it up, and hold the child in their laps.

But taking transit with the kids just got a lot easier for folks like Johnson. Late last month, Metro introduced a new policy, Johnson explains on Seattle Transit Blog:

• Once on board the coach, a child may remain seated in the stroller as long as the child is strapped in the stroller and the stroller is secured in the securement area. If the securement area is not available, the child must be removed from the stroller and held in the lap of the adult customer or in a seat alongside the adult customer. Customers with disabilities using mobility devices have priority in the securement area. (This rule does not apply to ADA Accessible strollers.)

• Folding strollers must be folded and placed under or between seats, unless the stroller is too full to do so or if the stroller is occupied and secured per above.

• Non-folding strollers:

  • Must not block the aisle or doorways.
  • Must be under the control of the owner at all times.
  • May be parked with the brake set in the priority seating area if space is available. Note that customers with disabilities and seniors have priority use of this area.

This is similar to progressive stroller policies adopted by Chicago’s CTA and L.A. Metro, and is a good common sense solution. Thank you Metro!

Michael List, Metro transit operations manager, said of the reform, “We saw this as a way to help families with children travel more easily with strollers but keep them as safe as possible on moving buses.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Streets.mn compares Minneapolis’s transit fare evasion rates with those of other big metros. Stop and Move reports that Fresno might be getting its first protected bike lane. And Richard Layman at Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space ponders the Chicago mayoral election and whether cities can simultaneously invest in their downtowns and their neighborhoods.

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The Critical Difference Between 30 MPH and 20 MPH

It might seem like a small thing: reducing motor vehicle speeds 10 miles per hour. But that 10 mph can make an enormous difference for the safety of a street and how comfortable people feel walking or biking there.

This diagram shows how a drive's visual field is impacted by the speed they are traveling. Image via Streets.mn

A driver’s visual field shrinks as speed increases. Image via Streets.mn

Bill Lindeke does a great job explaining what he calls “the critical 10″ in a recent post at Streets.mn:

If you look at the average speed of traffic on urban commercial streets, there are a lot of things that begin to change when you slow down cars from the 30 to 35 mile per hour range into the 20 to 25 mile per hour range. Most importantly, perception, reaction time, and crash outcomes are far better at 20 than at 30 mph, while traffic flow doesn’t seem to change very much.

The perception angle is perhaps the most interesting. Driving speed has a dramatic effect on the driver’s “cone of vision.” You can see a lot more detail at 20: people on the sidewalk, a bicyclist in the periphery, or the ‘open’ sign on a storefront. At 30 mph, the window shrinks dramatically.

The same is true for what you might call ‘reaction time. I’ll often talk to drivers about urban bicycling, and they’ll respond with a terrified story about the time that they “almost hit” a bicyclist that “jumped out” at them. And “I didn’t see them” is a common refrain heard by any police officer investigating a crash. The problem is that once you hit 30+ speeds, it’s a lot more difficult to stop in time to make any difference on a potential crash.

These three factors are the big reasons that crash outcomes vary so dramatically on either side of “the critical ten.” It’s no exaggeration to say that lives depend on getting speeds right.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The State Smart Transportation Initiative shares new USDA findings about the relationship between transportation and access to healthy food for low-income people. And Carfree Austin says the Texas capital has work to do stitching its street network back together for better walkability.

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Why Are U.S. Transit Agencies Failing to Implement Modern Train Designs?

Transit systems with open gangways are in green, and systems without are in red. Click to enlarge. Map: Transport Politic

Almost every urban rail system in America lacks a key design feature that’s become standard in cities around the globe: open gangways, which let people easily walk between cars, increasing capacity and leading to smoother operations.

Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic points out that even New York City’s extensive and crowded subway system won’t be including open gangways any time soon. He wonders when U.S. transit agencies are going to catch up to the rest of the world:

A train with open gangways designed for the London Underground. Image via Transport Politic

Open gangways provide a number of advantages: One, they expand capacity by allowing riders to use the space that typically sits empty between cars. This added capacity means that a metro line can carry more people with trains of the same length. Two, it allows passengers to redistribute themselves throughout the train while the vehicle is moving, reducing problems associated with many people boarding in the same doorway, such as slow exiting times and poorly distributed standees. Three, it increases safety at times of low ridership by increasing the number of “eyes” in the train. There are no obvious downsides.

Open gangways offer passengers the benefit of an improved, less congested, and safer environment as compared to trains with individual cars, the standard you’re used to if you live in the U.S. And it’s no surprise that transit agencies all around the world are choosing open-gangway trains for virtually every new vehicle purchase. This is documented in the following map, where green cities represent places where the metro systems run at least some trains that are all open-gangway. Those that are red do not.

Read more…

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Biking Skyrockets Where San Diego Added Buffered Bike Lanes

Buffered bike lanes were added in spring 2014. Image: Bike San Diego

Build bike infrastructure and they will ride. It’s true just about everywhere, including San Diego.

Thanks to bike counters set up around the region, Network blog Bike SD got data showing that cycling has skyrocketed on two streets where the city added buffered bike lanes last year:

Photo: Bike SD

In late 2012 SANDAG, the region’s planning agency, installed bike counters around the entire county. The question to answer was: how many people were actually riding in the region?

According to the count data obtained from SDSU’s Active Transportation Research, the bike traffic in Uptown has gone up — by an average of 346% since 2012.

And it looks like the biggest jump in bike ridership happened after the buffered bike lanes were striped on Fourth and Fifth Avenues in 2014.

Even in car-centric San Diego, if you build the bike lanes, people will ride.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Wash Cycle reports that 18 percent of households in the DC metro region use bikes for transportation. The Dallas Morning News’ Transportation Blog writes that Mayor Mike Rawlings, a proponent of the Trinity Toll Road, says the Federal Highway Administration won’t stand in the way of the project. And Bike Portland says a flashing warning signal seems to have reduced right hook collisions involving bicyclists at a problematic intersection.

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Albuquerque Bike Advocates’ April Fools Prank Could Turn Prophetic

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry announces a new network of buffered bike lanes in this very clever Photoshop job. Image: Urban ABQ

Every April Fools Day, we’ll see several dream scenarios announced on different sites in the Streetsblog Network — you can call them pranks, but they’re also exercises in imagining a better future. This one from Albuquerque yesterday really hit its mark.

The team at Network blog Urban ABQ created a post showing Mayor Richard Berry announcing a buffered bike lane system for the city’s downtown. The post went viral and even led to a local news segment, where the mayor was forced to admit there were no such plans. But Berry did offer some encouragement, telling KRQE News, “It’s something that ironically has been in… discussions at top levels.”

Here’s the vision Urban ABQ laid out in the original post, complete with one very convincing doctored picture:

Mayor Richard J. Berry announced that the City of Albuquerque will be developing turquoise-colored buffered bike lanes on several Downtown streets.

The project is part of the Mayor’s Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets, an initiative of the Federal Highway Administration to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety across the country.

Read more…

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“Less Parking, More City”

Adding parking spaces might seem like the answer to traffic problems, but it ends up making them much worse.

That’s the message in this video produced by the Mexico branch of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which Paul Barter shared at his blog, Reinventing Parking.

Mexico City has been adding parking at a feverish pace — faster than housing, offices, or retail – thanks in part to poorly conceived minimum parking requirements. The city is expected to add 175,000 parking spaces in the next three years. For half the cost of building all that parking, the city could create busways capable of transporting 1.5 million people to their destinations daily.

Barter reports that ITDP has been working hard to reform parking mandates in Mexico, and that the country and many of its localities are now revising their policies.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Review STL reports that downtown St. Louis is getting one of those new “neighborhood Walmarts” near its subsidized ballpark. Pedestrian Observations ranks metro systems around the world by ridership per kilometer. And City Observatory shares some major findings about delays faced by American commuters.

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The Case for Letting States, Not Cities, Shape Development Near Transit

Connecticut is investing in rail upgrades that will improve service to downtown Meriden, but the city isn’t planning to take advantage by developing a large site next to its train station. Image: Google Maps via Itinerant Urbanist

A bill circulating in the Connecticut legislature — HB 6851 — would give state officials greater control over development near transit stations.

The measure has met with some resistance because it would weaken powers that have traditionally belonged to local government. But Sandy Johnston at Network blog Itinerant Urbanist says that in Connecticut’s case, that’s probably a good thing:

Transit-oriented development, or TOD, is a central pillar in Governor Malloy’s statewide transportation plan. And there have certainly been successes; the new CTFastrak busway, connecting Hartford and New Britain, has spurred redevelopment along its route, and the governor’s office has made funds available to further TOD efforts in that corridor and along the soon-to-open New Haven-Hartford-Springfield (NHHS) rail line. Malloy has not just pushed the state’s significant (and expensive) transit projects, but has put considerable capital, both political and fiscal, behind the state’s efforts to build TOD around the new or revamped stations.

The problem is that Connecticut’s municipalities have not always been amenable to the state’s TOD strategy. A 2013 Regional Plan Association Report entitled “Halfway There” revealed that of the stations along the Metro-North New Haven Line, the state’s busiest transit corridor, only around half had (realized or envisioned) plans for mixed-use walkable development in the station area.

Read more…

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Don’t Be Mistaken: Vancouver Gets a Lot for Its Transit Dollar

Vancouver’s transit system is subsidized at a relatively small rate of 20 cents per ride. Graph: Canadian Urban Transport Association via Human Transport

Vancouverites go to the polls in May to decide whether to raise sales taxes to fund a slate of transit improvements. But polls show the measure is headed for defeat.

Other arguments aside, Jarrett Walker at Human Transit says one supposed “con” — that transit provider TransLink is incompetent and wasteful — ought to be nipped in the bud. To the contrary, Walker says, Vancouver transit is a great deal.

The numbers confirm that Metro Vancouver is getting excellent value for its transit dollar. Todd Litman of Victoria Transport Policy Institute recently put these numbers together.

First, subsidy per passenger-kilometer (one passenger moving one km on transit). What do regional taxpayers pay to move the massive numbers of people they move every day? Less than 20 cents per ride, which is right on the Canadian average and far better than what’s achieved in the US, Australia, or New Zealand.

One measure of this is passenger-kilometers per capita. How much personal transit does Vancouver provide?  How many people can travel, and how far, to access jobs and opportunities without contributing to traffic congestion?

Read more…

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Comparing 20 Years of Housing Growth in American Cities

Here’s an interesting way to visualize how different regions are growing (or not). Using a tool developed by the University of Virginia Demographics Research Group, Michael Andersen at Bike Portland shares these charts showing where housing growth has happened relative to city centers. The dark brown lines show the number of occupied housing units at one-mile intervals from the urban core in 2012, and the orange lines show the distribution in 1990. The gap between the lines tells you where housing growth has happened, and there is huge variation between regions.

In Denver, for instance, you can see that housing growth was concentrated between eight and 20 miles from the city center:

Image: Bike Portland

Denver: The orange line shows occupied housing units in 1990. The brown line shows 2012. Image: Bike Portland

In other places — especially large, in-demand coastal cities like LA — housing growth has barely changed (note that the y-axis is scaled differently in each chart):

Read more…