Wednesday, August 31, 2016

FAX to hold workshop on proposed restructuring

Tomorrow, Thursday September 1st, there will be a workshop on major changes proposed for the FAX bus system, which serves Fresno into adjacent communities. Thanks to James Sponsler who left a comment on my last post with this important tip.

This appears to be a major change by FAX standards, which runs a system that has effectively remained stagnant for 40 (yes forty) years.

The core components are:
  • Frequency
  • Grids
  • More weekend and evening service 
Effectively, the new plan reduces coverage in order to increase service. Fresno has not spent a dime in actually improving service in decades. In the past 15 years, 4 lines have been eliminated, and one was added - paid for by the Childrens Hospital. The last increase in service (to 15 minutes on core lines) was funded by a federal grant, and those improves were reveresed when the federal money dried up. While higher frequencies are fantastic, it is a shame it comes at the expense of certain neighborhoods.

I'll look into the details in a later post, but you can check out the presentation from this page.


Note: Fresno was recently awarded $8 million in cap and trade funds to improve transit.

"In combination with the opening of the initial BRT service, which has received significant federal and state funding, these investments are expected to support additional improvements to the BRT corridor, as well as supporting near-BRT improvements to the Shaw and Cedar corridors. Overall ridership improvements are expected to exceed 50% 12 months after implementation, and 90% by the final year of the project." 

It is not clear if this workshop uses any of that funding, or was an independent effort which the funding will complement.




There's some more exciting news at this meeting. The council is being asked to approve an agreement that will allow the city to receive $4,600,000 in Measure C money to build the new Midtown Bicycle and Pedestrian Trail. The good news is that this will allow construction to start quickly. The bad news is that it eats up all trail funding until 2021.

That's right, we can spend hundreds of millions on highway expansions but less than $1m a year on trails. Sigh.

Anyway, here is the project. I am unsure if this funding covers all the sections shown.



More details here.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A quick update on downtown Fresno cconstruction projects

It's been a few months since I've been able to post photos of what has been changing in downtown Fresno. Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to explore the area and take photos, so I present to you a different type of update. Here are some photos I took in May, along with a look at what those projects look like this week, with photos sourced from friendly people around the web. It's amazing how much (and how little!) can change in 3 months.


Tuolumne Bridge - High Speed Rail Project 

When I last visited this project, it looked like this:
















And now it looks like this:

01 CAHSR
Source: High Speed Rail Authority

The bridge is slated to be completed this year.

Fulton Mall

It is very difficult to provide a summary of the Fulton Mall, because it is such a massive project. That is, every block is in a different stage of development, as you can see in my full post here. However, the most obvious changes are at the southern end, where construction began.

My photos from May:

















Steve Skibbie provides a look at progress this week from overhead.

02 Steve Skibbie

And the Fresno Bee from the ground. 

03 Fresno Bee



Bus Rapid Transit

Bus Rapid Transit is sort of under construction. I say sort of because Fresno is no longer getting anything that resembles BRT. But those sweet, sweet transit funds are being put to use. The project involves realigning some bus stops - which happens to be a perfect opportunity to rebuilt the Van Ness underpass. Indeed, it's why BRT is so expensive, most of the funding is being used to upgrade old car infrastructure, like traffic lights, and do so while spending transit funds. Sad.

I don't have a before photo, so here is a rendering of the new intersection (above the underpass)

05 BRT

And another great photo by Steve Skibbie.

04 Steve Skibbie

And one from the Downtown Fresno Partnership

06 downtown fresno part

It's not all transportation related!


Friday, August 19, 2016

Amtrak California gets new funding, trainsets (thanks Wisconsin!)

Early this week, the California State Transportation Agency sprinkled $390 million in grants around the state, courtesy of the successful Cap and Trade program. Streetsblog California highlighted the projects, but I would like to give special attention to the Amtrak funding. 

California has shown the strongest support for intercity rail in the country. Aside from developing High Speed Rail, three of Amtrak's busiest routes exist entirely within California, and are funded by the state. Earlier this year, the San Joaquin saw a new 7th daily train, and now the other lines will get some love.

Particularly poetic is the lease of Talgo train-sets to run between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. What makes these trains special is that they were purchased by Wisconsin for their High Speed Rail Project. That project was cancelled by Scott Walker, but not before the trains were built, and the state was put on the hook for not following through.
Wisconsin taxpayers will end up paying $9.7 million more for two state of the art train sets — for a total of roughly $50 million — but leave the trains with their Spanish manufacturer, under the settlement of a nearly 3-year-old lawsuit.

The bizarre and expensive outcome for Wisconsin — paying for a product but not keeping it or ever using it — reflects the depth of the political disagreement in which Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed, and then GOP presidential candidate and Gov. Scott Walker nixed, a no-bid contract with Talgo Inc. for trains from Madison to Milwaukee and then on to Chicago
Journal Sentinel

Of course back in 2010, Scott Walker placed a return to sender stamp on $810 million which the feds were gifting the state to build rail. California ended collecting a lot of that cash, with the rest going to the Northeast Corridor.

Where's what the Pacific Surfliner corridor will be getting:
 Provides $15 million to the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency over 5 years, coupled with existing resources available through the LOSSAN annual operating budget, to deploy 31 Talgo rail cars on the Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo services. This equipment enables faster acceleration, lower fuel consumption, faster journey times (about 25 minutes faster) and easier customer loading and unloading than the current Amfleet and Horizon fleet that it will replace (single-level, high boarding height equipment). The equipment will lead to at least one additional train consist in addition to the nine consists used today in daily operation, and ensure that all equipment in the corridor has low-level boarding. It also will improve the customer experience with fully automated doors, improved passenger communications, and easier to maneuver configurations, particularly for passengers with disabilities. The additional equipment will also provide equipment deployment flexibility that will allow for increased capacity on crowded Los Angeles-San Diego trains, and more schedule flexibility to enable better peak hour service to LOSSAN North stations, including Santa Barbara.

This new capacity is especially important because there have been severe delays in acquiring brand new trains. A few years ago, the state purchased old New Jersey Transit trains to supplement the fleet. They've been working well. These trains will be even better - they're brand new and designed to be fast. Thanks Scott.

Additional funding will improve service reliability:

Provides $66 million to partner with SANDAG and NCTD to construct double track, new bridges and numerous related infrastructure improvements between Elvira and Morena and over the San Diego River, creating a 15-mile, higher speed double track section between Miramar and Santa Fe Depot. Also invests in removing the one-train-at-a-time bottleneck at Carlsbad Poinsettia station through installing inter-track fencing, a new grade-separated pedestrian undercrossing, new station platforms and other related improvements that significantly improve railroad capacity and customer safety.

Northern California and the Capitol Corridor also gets some love.

Partners with Union Pacific Rail Road (UPRR) to extend two morning and two evening trains to Roseville, allowing travelers three morning trains from Placer County to Sacramento and the Bay Area and three evening trains back to Placer County. Project builds nearly 8 miles of third track and a new Dry Creek bridge near Roseville, improves track and signals in the corridor, and constructs a second platform and station improvements at the Roseville station. Also constructs a layover facility with capacity for three trains to be stored overnight near the Roseville station. Project is implemented in a manner consistent with achieving higher levels of service in the future.

Partners with Caltrans, Amtrak, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission and UPRR in conducting a service optimization plan designed to achieve increased ridership through improved reliability, better schedules and service integration, and more efficient service delivery. Benefits of this effort will be corridor-wide in nature and will aim to improve reliability at all stations. This effort will also improve reliability of the Altamont Corridor Express and Amtrak San Joaquin passenger rail services, and reduce delays to freight trains operated by UPRR and BNSF Railway, upon implementation.

Unfortunately, the San Joaquin line gets no dedicated grant, although both projects have some benefits. The Talgos allow more statewide flexibility with rail-cars (which are shared among the three lines), and the schedule integration should provide improved trips for all users. 

You can get the full information here:  
http://calsta.ca.gov/Newsroom/CalSTA-News/CalSTA-News-Items/2016-08-16-Agency-Awards-390Mil-in-Cap-and-Trade-Grants.aspx 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Google Maps Launches Areas of Interest - How Accurate is it in Fresno?

A week or so ago, Google refreshed their maps service. Most of the changes were minor - new road outlines, a different typography, and a few other minor tweaks designed to make the maps easier to understand. However, as part of that update, they introduced what could be a major new feature: areas of interest.
These areas of interest are determined algorithmically, using an automated process to pick out areas with the most stores, restaurants, or bars, but Google says it's also using a "human touch" in high-density areas — like New York City — to point people to the coolest locations.
The Verge
How great are these results? Well, it depends.

Let's start with a small town: Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. With only 7,855 people, it is the smallest capital in the country. At a glance, the areas of interest seem to work quite well. The new shading does draw you in quickly.




Zooming in, we see that the highlighted area is indeed full of activity.



If it's your first time in town, the new feature certainly did its job.

How does it work in a dense urban area, like San Francisco?

Again, pretty damn well. The orange areas pop out, and are also accompanied with their neighborhood names. Union Square, the Castro, the Pier 39 Area. Yup, it seems to be working. Those are the areas full of shops, cafes, and things to do.



But Fresno is a little different. It isn't a small town with a well defined commercial main street. And unlike San Francisco, it is lacking in distinct neighborhood clusters (aside from the Tower District).

So how does the feature work in a suburban context

Let's start with the southern half of Fresno. Here a couple of distinct neighborhoods do pop out quickly: the downtown Fulton Mall area, Chinatown (not labeled) and the Tower District. Small, but visible.



However, the other points of interest are more well known for their strip mall anchor. Over by Brawley and Shaw (top left) our attention is drawn to a couple of retail centers anchored by Target, Walmart, Dick's Sporting Goods, Ross, and a movie theater. Certainly a retail destination, but not quite an area worth a stroll. A little to the east, upscale Fig Garden is correct highlighted, as are Manchester Center, Fashion Fair, and Sierra Vista Mall.

However, even though Blackstone is pretty much commercial from end to end, most if it is dark - including the new Walmart at Ashlan.

East Shaw is similar. In this image, Shaw is lined with commercial on both sides. And yet only Sierra Vista and the Walmart Center made the cut. Movie theater, pet store, bowling alley, Olive Garden and Applebees - sorry guys.  You have to zoom in to even see most of the activity here.



And while the algorithm does seem to favor anchors like Target in suburban areas, some businesses are apparently more noteworthy than others. The River Park Costco is always packed from open to close, but apparently it doesn't make the cut, nor does the Home Depot. But Best Buy and office Depot do.


And for some reason, "buybuy BABY" is more interesting than Babies'R'Us. Check out how the area of interest cuts off!



That's not to say that Google is fully biased to mega retailers. Neither the Walmart on Herndon west of River Park nor the Kings Canyon one made the cut, and two Targets are also left out (Barstow and Shields)

Of course these arbitrary decisions make the product less useful. Without a clear explanation for what the criteria is, there is too much room for error and abuse. Google could easily use this as a revenue opportunity - pay us, and every Babies'R'Us will automatically be marked as an area of interest for example, and their competitors de-listed. While Google is well in their rights to do so, not disclosing that kind of arrangement could seriously hurt the value of the software for the user.

Additionally, when Citylab explored the new feature, they found that it might be unfortunately tilted towards wealthier areas.

“non-interest” neighborhoods and corridors seem to have in common is that they are poorer than the cities that surround them. In two of them, English isn’t always the language you’re most likely to hear on the street (Westlake is heavily Spanish-speaking, while in Dorchester you’ll hear Spanish, Vietnamese, and Jamaican and Haitian creoles, among other languages). Large swathes of Northeast D.C. have some of the lowest broadband adoption rates in the District. Businesses without an online presence appear to have a distinct disadvantage

I didn't notice this problem too much in Fresno. While lower Blackstone is notably dark, so are many upscale businesses in northern Fresno, such as Sprouts, Trader Joes, and the fancy shopping center at Friant and Fort Washington. Meanwhile, Chinatown popped up, which surprised me.

Overall, I think the feature is a good idea, but for most of Fresno, it is useless. If it's your first day in town, the feature might point you to a genuinely interesting neighborhood - the Tower - or Manchester Center, which might not quite meet your standards for "interesting."

I wouldn't be surprised if other cities with similar development patterns have the same problem.

On the other hand, the new distinction can make more sense when looked at on the more local context. That is, biking distance versus driving distance. In that case, the Walmart/Panda Express/Applebees complex may indeed may be the most interesting destination in your side of town. Of course, that's a Fresno problem, not a Google one. 


"Downtown" West Shaw Avenue