Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sanger mayor excited that highway expansion will boost sprawl

Over the past decade, California has passed various laws and initiatives aimed at decreasing driving, carbon emissions, and sprawl.

No one has told the Central Valley, which is celebrating the groundbreaking of yet another highway expansion project. 
“This will connect us all in a more meaningful way,” said Henry Perea, chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and one of many speakers at a ground-breaking ceremony Friday. “When I see this freeway, I see a gateway to economic prosperity.”

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/08/16/3445266/work-kicks-off-on-next-eastward.html#storylink=cpy
This week the Fresno Bee announced that yet another round of highway expansions would kick off in the rural parts of the county. The expansion plan will take a two-lane road, and make it four lanes, with a median wide enough to support two more.

Everything you see marked as 180 was built over the past decade, and there's more to come.

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 Image: Fresno Bee

That "gateway to economic prosperity" has the mayor of Sanger seeing dollar signs. For him, the highway means people can choose to live further and further away from Fresno, where most of the regional jobs are. With a four-lane expressway, one can comfortably commute at 80mph, rather than having to suffer the indignation of being stuck behind a truck doing 55.
Since the first phase of the expressway was built, Sanger’s Mayor Joshua Mitchell said that “more families bought homes in Sanger month after month than any other city in the Fresno area.”
The last round of expansion finished up about a year ago. The speakers at the groundbreaking to this new phase were thrilled to talk about the many changes that have come to the area.
Speakers applauded the Kings Canyon Expressway project for helping with the movement of goods and services, improving traffic congestion and driver safety, and connecting communities.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/08/16/3445266/work-kicks-off-on-next-eastward.html#storylink=cpy
Improving traffic congestion! Ah yes, those massive backups in unincorporated Fresno County are infamous. Google's satellite service captured the hustle and bustle of 180 in this image taken almost exactly a year ago.

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But wait! We musn't look at the section that's been "improved," what of the area that will see expansion? Surely it must be drowning under the stress of congestion? Why else would those orchards be asked to make way for highway lanes?

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The extensions and widening of 180 have been ongoing for over a decade. Like all highway expansions, it doesn't come cheap. 
About $24 million of the current $41.6 million project is funded by Measure C, first passed by voters more than 25 years ago as a half-cent sales tax to improve transportation for Fresno County’s 15 cities.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/08/16/3445266/work-kicks-off-on-next-eastward.html#storylink=cpy
$41.6 million to widen a road in the middle of nowhere?

The last round of widening clocked in at a little under $40 million. That last widening project is marked in red.

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To put that in context, Fresno's bus system has seen four routes completely eliminated, headways increased to no better than 20 minutes, and fares hiked over the past five years. There hasn't been an improvement in service in over a decade, and none are planned until 2015 - maybe.

This isn't the only bit of construction on 180. The "braided ramps project" costing a cool $67 million, has been under construction for over a year.

The folks at Caltrans are downright giddy.
Freeway construction included the 41/180 interchange with three levels of four bridges — the highest and longest bridges at that time between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“It’s exciting to see,” said Joe Kosko with Caltrans construction. His work on 180 dates back to the completion of the 180 connection between Highways 41 and 99 in the early ‘90s, which improved circulation downtown. “There are hundreds and hundreds of people working on these jobs to make them work.”
Well if you put it that way, it all makes sense!  With an unemployment rate of 12.6% (PDF), it would be FOOLISH not to spend $41 million to hire "hundreds and hundreds"! If the project employs 500, that's only $82,000 a job! The median household income for Fresno, by the way, is $32,236.
Thinking of all the 180 improvements, Hall said, “It’s one of those things that you look back in hindsight about and say, ‘Thank you.’"

I wonder if the property owners feel the same way?

We always hear of how rail construction might "devastate" acres upon acres of farms.... but we've never heard a peep about how the ongoing 180 project has turned farmland to concrete.

Some of my first posts on this blog were about the last round of expansions.

From 2009 to 2010

I can't see that these farmers were impressed. Their isolated homes now front an expressway.

Does this project look any different? Nope, it's more farmland and some pretty, rural groves.

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If you're not familiar with the area, you might suspect I'm cutting out some major trip generator just to the east. Some major attraction that warrants a wide expressway. Another large city? A military base? Some kind of industrial facility? Surely there's something all these extensions are reaching out to, right?

Nope. 180 takes you into a National Park. That's it. If you keep driving, you enter the beautiful park, and then come upon a dead-end.

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The project connects Fresno to nothing. For now anyway - if the mayor of Sanger's dreams come true, one day the highway will be lined with tract homes and strip commerce, where orchards and farms used to be. Only then will there be demand for the highway - because building the highway created it.

This latest round of expansion isn't the last. The poor town of Centerville seems to have gotten itself in the way. The next round - scheduled for 2016 - will probably involve demolishing this entire village. I'm sure that groundbreaking ceremony will be just as joyous.

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\Sanger mayor excited that highway expansion will boost sprawl
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/08/16/3445266/work-kicks-off-on-next-eastward.html#storylink=cpy

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

LA to convert more crosswalks to continental style

Less than a month ago, I noted that LA hired a pedestrian czar, and one of her first duties was to begin installing continental (ladder-style, or zebra) crosswalks at dangerous intersections. I called on Fresno to follow suit, both in hiring a bike/ped expert, and in beginning an inexpensive, but highly effective process of converting crosswalks to the more visible style.

A continental crosswalk in downtown LA

Well, according to a local TV station, LA has upped their game.

Last year, Murphy, along with former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced a project to test the system by upgraded 50 of the most dangerous intersections, including 7th Street and Alvarado Street, Hollywood Blvd and Highland Avenue, Slauson Avenue and Western Avenue, as well as others.

The city plans to upgrade 19,770 crosswalks across Los Angeles. The cost is of the project is said to be $50 million, the average equivalent to $10,000 per intersection.

The cost goes toward the cleaning, repaving, and application of the thermal plastic stripes of the crosswalks.

The funding for the project comes from the Measure-R fund’s half-cent sales tax.
“Relatively, the cost is low relative to the impact of really affecting drivers’ visibility to pedestrians,” LADOT Pedestrian Coordinator Magot Ocanas told CBS2′s Art Barron.
CBS Los Angeles

The article notes that the simple act of painting the more visible lines resulted in a 25% decrease in pedestrian collisions.  Part of that may be the advance stop bar, which improves visibility for drivers making right turns on red.

A 2010 study by the FHA noted significant advantages of the continental style vs the bar style. The recommendation was making them the default.

Consider making bar pairs or continental the "default" for all crosswalks across uncontrolled approaches (i.e., not controlled by signals or stop signs), with exceptions allowing transverse lines where engineering judgment determines that such markings would be adequate, such as a location with low-speed residential streets.
That same link shows significant visibility gains for the continental type over the simple one used in most of Fresno.

Seems obvious right? Longer lines = more visible. Sadly, a few years ago an engineer with the city told me they won't install them because there was "no proof" that they make things safer.

Now that the proof is piling on (in addition to common sense), maybe it's time to expand continental crosswalks beyond the ten or so downtown?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Hyperloop proposal: Bad joke or attempt to sabotage California HSR project?

Was Elon Musk's s mega-announcement really just a last-ditch attempt to sabotage the California High Speed Rail (HSR) project, rather than a serious proposal to revolution travel? Something smells very fishy, so let's take a look....

By now you've probably heard about Elon Musk's widely publicized proposal to build a tube transit system that can get you from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes.

I was excited to hear about the proposal, as there had been some hype attached to it.  Elon Musk is a serious guy - founder of Tesla, SpaceX and Pay-Pal - so when he says he has something big, it makes sense to listen.

The headlines note the following facts:

  • SF to LA in 35 minutes
  • Cost under $6 billion
  • Something that could be built within the next decade

Fantastic right? The future is here!

Problem is, taking a look at the documents that came with the announcement, it seems to be a fantastic joke. Those claims do not appear to be true - his own proposal doesn't even get close to supporting them.

Now before I get into some details on why the proposal is so wrong, let me ask a question:

Was the headline an attempt to derail the California High Speed Rail project instead of an actual proposal for a real project?

Sadly, we live in a world where people read headlines...and then stop. We also live with a media that isn't so great at fact-checking, and letting us know when that scandalous headline was actually not true.

Remember "climategate", when some hackers discovered that the worlds climate scientists had conspired to cook the books, and climate change was fake? That made quite the headlines. When a few months later it turned out no books were actually cooked....well, not so many headlines. For years people refereed to the incident, based on the initial headlines and not the fact-checking.

Or try this; ask around. Were WOMDs found in Iraq? I think you'll find a whole lot of "yes" or "maybe" or "I think so" rather than what happened when the headlines were gone, and none were found. Funny how the memory works sometimes.

The point is, headlines can have a hell of an effect.

What I am wondering, was the announcement of this project the transportation equivalent of "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

That is, once people see the bullet points above, the immediate reaction is  STOP THE HIGH SPEED RAIL PROJECT! One CNET article even noted that the proposal came just in time to save us from sinking money into HSR!

Why are we building something that is more expensive, slower and will take more time? That makes no sense! It's madness! Damn the government!

.....except of course, what if the proposal is NOT cheaper, does NOT save as much time, and will NOT be faster to build?

Should we trust that man who claimed that California building the world's slowest bullet train (false) and the world's most expensive rail line (also false) as his inspiration? 

Taking a closer look at the proposal, I am going to ignore the whole technical side of things - the pods, the power source, the air pressure....the guy is an engineer (I am not), so I will assume all that stuff is right. After all, that's his area of expertise. He builds cars and spaceships, I assume he can build a pod.

We'll take a look at the other side of things, the infrastructure, political and budgeting side. The side he doesn't have experience in.

This is the PDF

Claim one: The project links San Francisco to LA.

It's the most simple claim of them all. Surprisingly, it's not true.
The system consists of capsules that travel between Los Angeles, California and San Francisco, California. The total trip time is approximately half an hour, with capsules departing as often as every 30 seconds from each terminal and carrying 28 people each
What do the included maps show?

For LA, we get this:

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Look closely. The line terminates nowhere near LA, but in Sylmar. By conventional rail, you've still got over an hour to go on the Antelope Valley Metrolink Line to reach the city. 

What of the other end, in San Francisco?

The smaller map seems to indicate this end does actually serve SF...

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With one tiny little problem.

The cost analysis conveniently forget one little detail: The SF bay. A new bridge? A new tunnel? How do you get across it! Who knows - the project team certainly doesn't.

That cost is far from trivial. The brand new eastern span of the Bay Bridge - ie, only half the bay - has now exceeded $6 billion in costs.

How about the Transbay Tube, what BART uses to cross the sea? Built in 1970, it cost the equivalent of over $1 billion today.

So now we're looking at a a system that doesn't actually reach LA, and while the map suggests it reaches SF, the costs don't include it....

And that's not all. Stations are sort of important. The document provides us no indication of the size a system like this needs, but if it were to be built in downtown SF or downtown LA, a good amount of land would be needed just for your basic station services. If you have a pod leaving every 30 seconds, you also need quite the stacking area.

High Speed rail will be pulling into the under-construction Transbay Transit Center - which has a price tag of $4 billion.

Hyperloop? No costs included in proposal. Woops.

Claim two: The project can be built for $6 billion

Within the next few days, you will surely see some reputable websites destroy the pricing estimates for the viaducts and the tunnel as being way too low. For example, the "silver bullet" seems to be that the thing will be built on viaducts. Yeah, well, that was the plan with HSR as well. That's why the cost blew up. Viaducts don't come cheap.

As I noted above, the project also doesn't even attempt to price the connection into LA or SF.

The thing about that.....that's sort of what matters. That's where the high costs are. The big breakthrough of this project is where they claim they save money:

The key advantages of a tube vs. a railway track are that it can be built above the ground on pylons and it can be built in prefabricated sections that are dropped in place and joined with an orbital seam welder. By building it on pylons, you can almost entirely avoid the need to buy land by following alongside the mostly very straight California Interstate 5 highway, with only minor deviations when the highway makes a sharp turn

Ok, Building in the Central Valley is cheap. We know that. That's why the HSR project will be built there first. It's flat, there's plenty of land, and the ROW is relatively easy to obtain.

Amusingly enough, the California HSR budget for the Central Valley is under $10 billion. Ie, in the same ball-park as this proposal.  The reason the HSR project is going to cost $60 billion is because it has to face an uncomfortable truth; actually getting to LA and SF is expensive. Very expensive. That's where there's no free land. That's where you have years of property acquisition. In the shorter term, the plan for HSR is to simply share existing tracks, which the Hyperloop can't do.

So either the budget explodes, or the project doesn't actually serve the main cities. You can't have it both ways.

Is it a big deal?

Claim three: The project gets you from Sf to LA in 35 minutes

What's the big deal if the project terminates in Sylmar and, say, Dublin? Still, 35 minutes is remarkable right? HSR doesn't even come close. 700 miles per hour? WOW!

One little problem...

HSR between downtown LA and downtown SF: 2 hours, 28 minutes

Hyperloop trip between downtown LA and downtown SF:
1 hour from LA to Sylmar via Metrolink
20 minute transfer
35 minutes to Dublin
20 minute transfer
1 hour 10 minutes from Dublin to SF via BART

Total: 3 hours 25 minutes

An entire hour more than traditional HSR! It turns out that stopping at the edge of the metropolitan area, where nobody is actually going, sort of kills your time advantage. You see the same when comparing rail vs air. Sure, planes fly at 550mph....but the airports aren't your destination.

So the big time advantage? Suddenly gone. Unless you pour tens of billions into reaching the downtown destinations. You can't have it both ways.

Claim four: Land isn't an issue

Isn't the hypothetical world great? It's amazing how assumptions always go your way!
Even when the Hyperloop path deviates from the highway, it will cause minimal disruption to farmland roughly comparable to a tree or telephone pole, which farmers deal with all the time. A ground based high speed rail system by comparison needs up to a 100 ft wide swath of dedicated land to build up foundations for both directions, forcing people to travel for several miles just to get to the other side of their property. It is also noisy, with nothing to contain the sound, and needs unsightly protective fencing to prevent animals, people or vehicles from getting on to the track. Risk of derailment is also not to be taken lightly, as demonstrated by several recent fatal train accidents

Assumption 1: HSR doesn't use viaducts so people are forced to travel several miles to cross their property. We know that's false. That's what made HSR pricey. Tunnels and viaducts.

Assumption 2; Property owners don't care if you build your enormous aerial system through their property. We'll look at this in a second.

Assumption 3: Building a support structure every 100 feet does not disrupt farmland. They can't even be serious here.

For assumption 2, the project team made the biggest mistake in the world of infrastructure:

They ignored the NIMBY. (not in my backyard).

Why could we send a man to the moon in a decade, but California has taken decades to not even start building their HSR system?

Because there are no NIMBYs on the moon. 

The NIMBY is not a rational creature. The NIMBY does not want to help you. The NIMBY doesn't just want you off their property, they want you out of their city.

To assume that people will willingly grant your line of support columns an easement is an exercise in the absurd.  Worse is the assumption that an aerial structure is popular.

Remember Cape Wind? It was a Massachusetts proposal to build an off-shore wind farm. Far away from homes and property, way out in the ocean. It got held up for years and years and years by lawsuit after lawsuit.

You know what the problem was? Views. Aesthetics. People didn't want to look at these things way out in the ocean.

People love their views. Farmers love their views. To assume that an aerial structure is your golden ticket out of years in the courtroom is plain idiocy.

Cape Wind eventually won in court. It still hasn't been built.

Why will HSR cost $60 billion? Because their plan actually acknowledges the NIMBY, the court fees, and the settlement sums.

And again, all this assume they don't even try to actually get into a city. Let's not even get started on the Grapevine. Most of the land there is owned by one giant company - Tejon Ranch. No, they do not want your project running through their land. Just like everybody else.

Claim (assumption?) five: Politics aren't an issue

Let's pretend for a second this is a serious proposal. let's pretend we have a $50 billion project to link Oakland (not quite SF) with North Hollywood (not quite LA). Let's pretend the travel time is equivalent to HSR. Now we have a project that takes the same amount of time, but is cheaper.

What's not to love?

One major problem: It's a point to point system. LA to SF. No other stops. Why is this a problem?

Politics. HSR was initially funded via proposition 1a. If this project were real, it would be funded publicly as well - Musk does't propose to spend a dime. Take a look at the map of support, green being yes of course. It passed with 52.62% support.

 photo loop03_zps3d01178d.jpg
Notice something? The counties which votes yes have a stop on the HSR line. Those not served, voted against it. Essentially, "if I can't have it, nobody can!"

The Hyperloop proposal ignores the Central Valley. Goodbye Fresno, Modesto, and Bakersfield votes. You know how HSR loops over LA to serve Palmdale? Goodbye desert vote. You know how HSR continues to Anaheim? Goodbye Disney. How about San Jose? San Diego? Sacramento?

There's a reason HSR stops at every major city, and it isn't just because it makes sense for travel planning: It's politics. You want the vote, you need to serve the people. Good luck skipping most of them.

Claim six: It can be built quickly, within a decade

Perhaps the viaduct system, pods, and stations etc. can be assembled quickly. Not an issue.

What is, is everything that comes before it. For one, it's a new technology. You need to build a test system, and every safety agency needs to get their grubby little hands on it. Add a couple of years. Then you need to get your financing in order. All private money? Yeah right. Add a five more years for public money - triple that depending who's controlling the purse strings. And then you have your land battle. Your property acquisitions. Your court cases. Your injunctions.

Elon Musk, you aren't building some space toys in the middle of the desert. You want to build over, across, and next to people's homes. This isn't the 1960's anymore, you can't urban renewal your way to your goal. HSR began serious planning in the 1980's. It's using proven, off-the-shelf technology. You really think you won't hit the same road-blocks?

So what's going on here? This proposal is so off base it feels as if it was put together during a weekend of drinking.

Is Elon Musk broadcasting an incredible display of optimistic naivete, or is there a much more sinister goal here?

If you follow transit projects, you'll know that a VERY common strategy of opponents is to say they support your idea, just not your implementation.

"Oh we LOVE the idea of transit between x and y. We just don't like that it's expensive and unsightly light rail, we will TOTALLY support the BRT project that is cheaper, can be built faster, and is better for riders!'   .....and will not receive popular support, thus killing the project at the ballot box

You see the opposite as well in areas that are more pro-transit ."Oh we LOVE the idea of transit between x and y. We just don't like that it's ground-running light-rail , we will TOTALLY support underground subway that is safer and faster!"  ....and will be so expensive the project will be cancelled before the first shovel hits the ground

The goal isn't to build a better system. It's to destroy the process by presenting a false choice.

To me, this seems to be the mother of all false choices.

A remarkably attractive headline by a wildly respected man. What better way to pull support from HSR than by creating an alternative proposal that is better in every way? That's the thing about fiction though, it can be anything you want it to be.

Will the people fall for it? If they do, I guess it's time to put down a deposit for a new Tesla.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Do nearby food trucks increase demand for office space?

An article from Portland earlier this week caught my eye.

As firms pile into downtown — it's the most crowded commercial real estate area in the city (PDF) — researcher Patricia Raicht of Jones Lang LaSalle has stumbled on a surprising trend. Downtown office buildings, she says, consistently fill up faster when they're close to food carts.

In the first six months of 2013, Raicht said, 92 percent of net demand for high-quality downtown Portland office space occurred within two blocks of a food cart pod.

"When our brokers are out talking to tenants, what they’re hearing over and over again — and particularly with creative tenants and tenants that have a younger demographic — is that there are a lot of things that are really important to them," Raicht said in a July interview about the trends in net absorption rates for Class A and Class B office space.
Bike Portland

If this study is correct, it has interesting implications for the Fresno market.  You may have heard of Carthop, an "event" which started out as a weekly "meeting" of the local food trucks on the Fulton Mall. It has since expanded to other days of the week.

Carthop has been a success because it brings a food court of options to an easily accessible location during the lunch hour. On the Fulton Mall, it means all the area workers get to try something new for lunch once a week.

The fact that the event has been made somewhat permanent may be good news for nearby towers with high vacancy rates, as they can use the event as a marketing tool when finding tenants.

According to the same article:

Factors that almost every young firm seems to be looking for in office space, she said: bike access and parking; plentiful light; open, unwalled office layouts; easily configurable collaborative areas; and a pod of food carts within walking distance.
The Fulton Mall area certainly has ample parking, bike access, lots of light...and at least on Thursdays, a pod of food carts within walking distance. As for unwalled office layouts, the obviously varies by building.

Employees certainly want amenities nearby. Not everybody likes to make their own lunch ever day, and if your building is isolated, it makes going for lunch a hassle. I don't think it's a surprise that one of the densest clusters of offices is around Fig Garden, which has the very popular Whole Foods as a lunch spot.

On the other hand, the location of Fresno's future 10 story building  is completely isolated from amenities. True, a large commercial center is planned across the street at Friant and Audobon, but that's been "in the works" for many years. Even if that center does open with attractive lunch spots, the walking environment is extremely hostile. Perhaps not the best way to make employees happy.

Downtown may not have a Whole Foods, but food trucks bring in a variety of foods, including locally sourced and organic options. That's certainly a highlight for certain classes of firms.

It would be interesting to see if the same relationship has been observed in Fresno.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A look at the GV Urban Broadway property

I've been pretty busy lately, not posting nearly as much as I'd like. I've been sitting on some pictures I took of the next big GV Urban project for over a month now, and I figured I'd sort of dump them now before they get too old.

Here's my article about this specific project.Of course, this is the project that will benefit from the Broadway streetscape, eh, parking, project.

It's in the red rectangle.


There was some preliminary activity. Again, these pictures are over a month old, so I assume there's been some dirt moving.

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The house will be preserved and restored.

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Parking will be added here.

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Across the street....I guess this is sort of part of the mural district?

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Closer look at the house

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I hope the trees aren't destroyed

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Sidewalk needs some work

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....and that's it!

Bonus: High Speed Rail will go here. With all this empty space, why are they moving the freeway?

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