Five things I’m thinking about transportation, Dec. 21 edition

BAY AREA TRAFFIC AND SMOG: I think it’s high time that other cities/regions get due credit for their lousy traffic and smog.

I was in San Francisco area this past weekend and took the above photo on a decidedly un-breezy day when San Francisco’s smog output wasn’t being blown inland to other parts of the state. Yes, San Francisco produces smog (as well as smug) — but the media doesn’t write much about it, instead focusing on the places where the smog ends up. Places such as the Central Valley and Sequoia National Park.

And while I’m on my soapbox, the Bay Area’s traffic is pretty miserable, too. But we don’t read much about that in the national press because (I’m hypothesizing) national media visiting S.F. or Silicon Valley probably stay in hotels close to their stories, whereas reporters shipped into L.A. usually have to drive to get where they’re going here in Sprawlsville.

For all the transit in the Bay Area and, in particular, San Francisco, everywhere I look there are cars, cars and more cars — and traffic is often terrible on area freeways. You ever try driving from San Francisco to Livermore at rush hour via the Bay Bridge and I-580? It’s no different than going from downtown L.A. to the Antelope Valley — even with a BART train running up the middle of the freeway for part of the trip.

While the Bay Area boasts some excellent transit, there are still challenges. In San Francisco, the roads are narrow, hills are steep, blocks are short and frequent stop signs and traffic signals slow travel considerably. Rail only reaches into a few parts of the city and a four-mile trip in non-peak traffic (Pacific Heights to Pier 33, for example) can easily take 45 minutes via bus and streetcar.

Even with restrictive and expensive parking, traffic and lack of garage space, many San Franciscans still drive. The result: mean travel time to work in San Francisco: 29.1 minutes, according to the Census Bureau. Mean travel time to work in Los Angeles: 29.3 minutes. The only difference, as far as I’m concerned, is volume — we have more people and cars than the 415 Territories.

BONUS SAN FRANCISCO THOUGHT: The pie at Delfina’s is beyond terrific — so is the meatball dish as an appetizer or side. The location at California and Fillmore is easy to reach via the #1 Muni bus that runs on California and Sacramento from downtown or the #22 Fillmore bus.

L.A. STREETCAR FUNDING: I don’t think it’s a big deal at all that the city of L.A. didn’t receive federal funds in the most recent round of so-called Tiger grants.

The streetcar project is still very much in its early stages. I think the money will eventually come, but not until a route is chosen and the project gets through its environmental study phase.

BULLET TRAIN: WORTH IT OR NOT?: I think one of the better pieces I’ve read on California’s high-speed rail project is in this week’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column on ESPN.com by Gregg Easterbrook.

Easterbrook’s weekly analysis of NFL games is always smart and he likes to focus on some of the amazing and dumb mistakes that NFL coaches make over and over again. But he likes to delve into other subjects and has lots to say about whether high-speed rail would work between San Francisco and L.A. — in his view the distance may be too great — and whether people in Iowa, etc., should pay for it.

Give the column a read — the bullet train item is about halfway down. Warning: if cheesy photos of NFL cheerleaders bothers you, close your eyes while reading Easterbrook’s column or have someone recite it to you.

TRANSIT LEADING TO HIGHER EVOLVED BEINGS?: I was on the Gold Line yesterday, three seats down from a dude whose earphones were leaking some kind of awful death-metal-type music. This was due to Universal Law 7.4, subsection 11, which states “those with the most awful taste in music will always play their music the loudest while in public.”

What surprised me is that while the dude had his earphones in, he carried out a regular conversation with the other dude next to him. He wasn’t just going through the motions — Dude #1 could somehow hear Dude #2.
I’m not sure what this says about humanity. Either the dude has highly evolved ears or maybe he’s just a highly evolved moron. Tough call.

HELLO 2012: We’ll be posting very lightly next week as I use the quiet holiday time to prepare some posts for next year.

It should be an interesting year at Metro with a lot going on — the release of the final environmental studies for both the Regional Connector and the Westside Subway Extension and the opening of three major projects: the Expo Line to Culver City, the Orange Line Extension to Chatsworth and the ExpressLanes congestion pricing project on the 10 and 110 freeways.

That’s in addition to all the usual goings-ons. Interesting year it will be, as Yoda might say.

13 replies

  1. SF Muni would function a LOT more efficiently if it just eliminated some stops. Seriously there are way to many of them, light rail included. The N-judah rail line for example would be much faster if it eliminated 2/3rds of the surface stops. One thing though that Muni seems a lot more willing to do than LADOT and Metro though, is to ultimately have signal preemption for all its rail lines and major bus lines. Of course, this has not happened yet apparently because Muni is flat-out broke but they did do it on the T-third line and have it installed all along the embarcadero (although it has not been activated for some reason). At least that is a goal for Muni unlike the car-culture centered LADOT. For Muni it’s called TPS (transit preferential streets), we need that goal in LA.

    As far as high speed rail is concerned, I certainly disagree with their notion that the distance is too great as it is very much comparable to other locations with HSR like Japan and France. As far as people in other states paying for it, well, the interstate highway system was funded the same way. But more significantly. it’s the unfortunate model that exists when the federal government has most of the money that individual states should really have. The states have to beg for their share of transit monies in hope that they will receive them from a unnecessarily large federal government which just ends up spending it on the military anyway. States would probably have more money to spend on local and statewide transit projects if so much of the peoples tax money was not absorbed by the federal government.

  2. Good points about the Bay Area. Most folks in both cities don’t realize that LA County has more transit riders than the entire Bay Area. When Measure R is complete, we’ll have more rail riders as well; indeed, Metro Rail is close to BART’s ridership already. Now if only Metro started to increase bus service again…

  3. Gregg Esterbrook is just plain wrong saying Euros prefer flying the route from Paris to Lyon because it is 285 miles. Within 15 years of the Paris-Lyon high speed rail opening rail market share had risen to over 70% while the air share had dropped from 31% to 7%. Car and bus share also dropped from 29% to 21%.

    Paris-Lyon is one of the most successful high speed rail routes in the world generating a steady operating profit large enough to have paid off its entire construction cost. SDG (2006) Air and Rail Competition and Complementarity. Final report. European
    Commission, DGTREN found that for the air-rail mode split, showing that where rail journey times are reduced below 4 hours, rail share of the rail-air market increases rapidly with further journey time reductions, and rail tends to have a market share of at least 70% and sometimes effectively drives air out of the market when rail journey times are below three hours. California high speed rail journey time from San Francisco to Los Angeles will be will under three hours.

  4. The comment by on whether people in Iowa should pay for California’s HSR. At Saturday or two ago, here in West L.A. a couple wearing black and yellow University of Iowa tee shirts were walking down Wilshire Blvd. towards a local sports bar. They were on their way to watch Iowa play somebody with other Iowa alums. If the Iowa farmer doesn’t want to pay for our HSR, then stop sending your kids to California to live here.

  5. San Francisco is best experienced on foot or on a bike. Slower car/bus speeds, frequent stop signs and safer pedestrian crossings definitely add to traffic for commuters, but it’s also what makes the city such a charming place to live. Faster speed limits and minimal pedestrian crossings like we have in LA definitely moves cars through the city faster than other cities, but it comes at a great cost, as traveling around LA on foot or a bike is a hellish experience compared to SF.

  6. Steve, I cannot believe you thought that bullet train article was well crafted. Its arguments are mostly implied from deliberately truncated half-facts. We’re to assume the TGV Paris-Lyon route is underperforming. So, the TGV line goes to Lyon for no reason? Afterall, only residents of Paris could use the line to travel only to Lyon? Unfortunately, they prefer to fly? First, the line has multiple destination pairs along the route. Together, they create the demand for the entire line. Second, people from Paris do take TGV line to Lyon. It’s not surprising that Easterbrook omits the numbers, because they don’t favor his projection onto reality.
    To keep with his reliance upon anecdotal evidence. I rode ICE from Munich to Berlin (367 miles apart versus 381 miles for LA-SF), a 3.5 hour ride versus a 1 hour flight. Add processing time to the flight, at least 45 minutes on each end, and 3.5 hours for a train versus 2.5 for flying must be a no brainer to many. The train was packed. For Californians the choice will be 2.75 hours by train versus 2.5 for flying. I bet the trains will also be packed, and yes, there are towns between Anaheim and San Francisco, too. Don’t get me started on his bogus subsidy analysis. Steve, some of us stopped believing the Easter bunny long ago.

  7. People in California have been paying for just about everything in “Iowa” and just about every other state for most of the 20th century and still the case today. Our “re-capturing” our own money that goes to the Federal Treasury would simply mean the Californians would be paying for the California High Speed Rail (NOT “bullet trains” as the lazy and crazy moniker creating press like to call it). This would mean places like “Iowa” would have to leave within its means, or raise taxes, and states like New Jersey and other no income tax sates, will really have to start paying for things themselves. Cal is King in paying for EVERYTHING in our 50 states, with New York a distant 2nd contributor to the Federal pig-tough and Texas? an even more distant 3rd. All 49 of the other states are leaches of California’s massive economy. However, I say, fine, we are part of the USA and California pays for New Orleans new levees with LOVE, and every other public works project that comes from the Feds. I just think pea-brains who think that other states are paying for anything in California don’t know what they are talking about. So, let’s get back OUR CA money and build OUR High Speed Rail.

  8. Steele on Wheel isn’t going to cut the mandated time limit the train must travel between L.A. & S. F. Maglev seems the only technology that fits the bill, but that technology is MORE expensive than steel on wheel.

  9. San Francisco’s horrific traffic downtown is really due to some very poor planning:
    When SF put up most of those tall buildings in the 1970’s, they didn’t widen most of the the streets those buildings were on one inch. The result was no room for all those cars–YES, cars, as Steve himself pointed out–even with BART running then and now, the number of solo drivers in afternoon rush is shocking. Do downtown drivers/commuter still lean on the horns throughout the afternoon rush? It is a sad joke just trying to drive a HALF MILE during the PM rush.

    Contrast that with LA, and its decision to widen streets and provide bus cut outs (I don’t know the proper name, but you know where the street has a pocket for a bus to leave the flow of traffic while boarding passengers) on all the streets where ANY of the new high rises, built mostly in the 1980’s, were to be built. The result is a very wide Flower and Figueroa (they were narrow before) and you will notice 5th past Olive becomes noticeably wider with bus pockets at the Gas Company and another pocket at US Bank Building. This was all done to accommodate expected increase in traffic and allow buses to not bring things to a halt. The result is traffic downtown moving much better than downtown SF even with the wall of vehicles running north on Fig.

    Leaving the street narrow did NOTING to persuade people to use public transit to commute into downtown SF while in downtown LA many people take public transit to work in spite of much more free flowing traffic in downtown LA compared to downtown SF. Today, SF lives with its legacy of a really poor decision that actually diminishes the quality of life rather than enhancing it. Downtown streets were just as narrow as downtown SF streets (most of LA’s east/west streets downtown are still narrow) one widens the street by claiming some of the land that would otherwise be part of the building. So, the building is pushed back from the original curb by several feet to accommodate a lane and bus pocket with without impacting other buildings. In other words the building is set back some feet from what would have been the original curb to allow a lane and pocket. No excuse not to be done in SF.

  10. @ Corner Soul
    Which is exactly why SF needs more underground rail lines in the city. You can have both rapid commuter/metro type transit while still having pedestrian and biking safety because the two modes are separated. Just think of how beneficial a Geary BART/Muni tunnel would be for the city. Same for Van Ness. SF is ripe for more underground lines and the city is quite frankly too compact and the streets are too narrow for so much at-grade transit to really work all that well.

  11. @Bobby McGee: Sure… wider streets move cars faster, but they also suck the life out of urban areas. So instead of a vibrant urban core (24/7 activated streets humming with pedestrians and cyclists — and yes, gridlock for maybe 2 hours of the day), you get free flowing highways for streets, small pockets of pedestrians / business activity, and eventually a decaying urban core full of empty parking lots, abandoned buildings and less people (essentially DTLA today, compared to it’s heyday in the early 20th century).

    Thankfully, LA is slowly changing with mass transit investments, more bike lanes, road diets and traffic calming to bring back pedestrians and a more human scaled urban environment. This will pull more residents to the center of the region, boosting business and the overall quality of life within the city.

    @Connor Gilliland: I couldn’t agree more, having lived in the Richmond and spent a good amount of time stuck in traffic, on the 38 Geary (or even worse, the 47/49 down Van Ness). I think the BRT plans are shortsighted, as Geary and Van Ness seem way beyond the capacity of a bus line.