Category Archives: Policy

VMT Isn’t the Problem

For several years, people interested in transportation and urban planning have been discussing the impacts of motor traffic (mainly private cars) on all sorts of things. Over the last several decades, planning in much of the world has trended toward catering to car traffic, often at the expense of other modes of transportation. A popular measure of how much traffic there is is vehicle miles traveled (VMT) which is as it sounds: a tally of how far vehicles are traveling. Here in America, that figure rose for several decades as more people drove more. All that driving has had a real impact on many different aspects of society.

In recent years, advocates are increasingly shining a light on the true effects of that impact, with many cities starting to take notice and advance (largely token) measures to address the imbalance. The advocates often point to VMT as part of the proof of the ills of the current transportation network in America and one state has even gone so far as to transition their traffic impact metrics to VMT instead of LOS that it is virtually everywhere else. But is VMT really the issue? Or perhaps a better way to ask the question is would the effects of cars on society be different if they weren’t going as far, particularly as it relates to the physical environment?

When approached from that point of view, the answer seems more clear: VMT is not the problem but merely a symptom. This will certainly come as a shock to many people who have argued that VMT is bad for several years. Certainly, there are several ills that increase as cars are driven more such as crashes, emissions, time spent away from family and home, and many other less-than-optimal outcomes. However, at the end of the day, VMT is just another metric that can be used to identify and describe the true problem: car-centric planning and design. But without acknowledging that the true problem is one of design priorities, not the metric, we risk taking the wrong approaches to addressing the issue because there are many car-centric solutions to the problem of high VMT which are ultimately detrimental to the goal of using VMT in the first place.

These solutions can take one of several forms. In some instances, new roads can shorten trip distances and there are even entire projects that shorten trip distances (i.e. grocery store in a community). Both of those types of projects can be completely car-centric and unusable by other forms of transportation, yet they can at least nominally, be recognized for reducing VMT because they technically do. However, few would say that such a project is actually beneficial to a community. New roads have the potential to induce driving while a project that brings shops closer but also plops a large parking lot in an otherwise quaint environment can degrade the quality of the neighborhood, including by ultimately injecting many more cars into a part of town that may have previously not been so heavily traveled.

At the other end of the spectrum, a people-centric environment can be detrimental to lower VMT by being designed to completely exclude cars or at least force through traffic to take a detour around the area that adds length to what would otherwise be a straight trip (see video below). Such a location sounds like it would be beneficial and desirable in many a community, but a focus on reducing VMT can lead to a project that would whittle away at the oasis in an attempt to provide a reduction in VMT. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is the same issue that has long been a hallmark and the bane of the LOS metric and led to calls for its removal. Under LOS, car-centric projects were advanced, even at the expense of all other modes, because they were projected to “improve” vehicular flow to maintain certain levels-of-service. Similarly, absent astute guidance and engaged leadership, that status quo threatens to continue under the guise of reducing VMT.

Of course, the future is far from certain. Advances in autonomous and electric vehicle technology may well mitigate the more pressing issues of private car use by reducing crashes and emissions. However, the use of VMT as the metric to measure how car-centered society is may well prove to just be a stepping stone to a broader realization that cars and people just don’t mix and that places where the latter are living, working, and generally going about their lives are not places where cars should be unless they’re just visiting.

More Parking, Apartments Headed for Riverside’s La Sierra Metrolink Station

Transit and transportation agencies pay a lot to provide the patrons somewhere to store their car while they use the service, despite the dubious results, and these parking lots consume a lot of land. Yet, even in the face of oversupply, agencies continue to push forward with plans to expand parking options at stops and stations. One member of that club is the Riverside County Transportation Commission. Back in March, they took comments on a plan to add over 500 more spaces to one of the stations along the Metrolink 91/Perris Valley and IEOC lines. This expansion would occur on an agency-owned vacant lot directly adjacent the existing parking lot.

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The apartments under construction as seen from the southeast. Due to the bluff, they are around the same height above the street as the homes.

In addition to the 500+ spots planned for transit passengers at the station, the Metro Gateway project is currently under construction on two other pads at the station. This development will add 187 units to the neighborhood, but despite being directly across the lot from transit, will also include nearly 300 more spots for the residents and their visitors. That brings the total number of new spots at the station up to about 800, not just the 500 planned by RCTC, an increase of around 75%.

A recent parking audit of the station found around 100 free spaces at 8:30 AM, representing an occupancy of greater than 90%. However, because there are no trains heading west between 7:40 and 10:40 and only one heading east at 9:21, it’s reasonable to assume that the 8:30 numbers represent a daily peak, though it is plausible to believe that some of those spaces might be used by students attending CSU Fullerton when the school year starts. Nevertheless, there continues to be space available and the recent opening of the extension of the 91 Line to Perris added nearly 1700 more spots to the total available in the area around Riverside.

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Putting up signs that say “transit oriented” doesn’t automatically make something actually transit-oriented, even when built by a train station.

Meanwhile, though it’s being billed as TOD, the Metro Gateway development would be better described as transit-adjacent development. In addition to the exorbitant amount of parking included, Metro Gateway lacks any visible signs of incorporating a mix of uses that would bring life to a site that is realistically devoid of life. While there is a retail plaza already located across La Sierra Ave. from the station where the new residents will likely be able shop as well as a bowling alley next door to the north, including some office/retail/light industrial space as part of the project would’ve been really helpful for improving the current parking crater around the station more than just some apartments will. Doing so would’ve been a great way to make the La Sierra Station more than just a pair of platforms and a parking lot, but perhaps even eventually providing space that could be used for satellite classes offered by the namesake school.

It’s disappointing to see that RCTC continues to feel that even in the heated SoCal housing market, the best use for prime land near transit with service directly to LAUS, Oceanside, Riverside, and San Bernardino is to let people store their cars to ride said trains. The biggest upside to a parking lot is that it is relatively easy to replace them with something better in the future. But still, even at present, if RCTC thinks having that much (free!) parking there is really necessary, it should be consolidated into a parking structure on the site to enable other development on the remaining parcels. The station area could easily support a vibrant community around it if only some forethought and creativity were used. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call to that end as RCTC still has several other parking lots throughout the county.

More photos of the site and project are available here.

Parking: Not Just an American Concern

While looking for background information to bolster the post about riding between Utrecht Centraal and Vleuten stations, I came across the documents pertaining to the conversion of Zandweg into a fietsstraat. Included were the written comments and responses [PDF, Dutch] provided during the consultation period for that project. While every other topic addressed in the process had three, maybe five comments total, the comments about parking took up five whole pages, comprising the decided majority of the concerns raised. What gives? Don’t the Dutch like biking?

In truth, it should ultimately not be such a surprise. Though they’re known as the country of biking, there is also quite a lot of driving done in the The Netherlands and their road network is arguably more efficient than ours. Additionally, they do continue to spend a lot of money on road projects such as the Leeuwarden Vrijbaan initiative or the ongoing massive project to widen the freeways between Schipol, Amsterdam, and Almere. The majority of these projects are directly intended to make driving easier, with familiar phrases like “relieve congestion” and “provide economic stability” showing up as the reasons for the improvements. The only difference is that they think of bikes when making those improvements.

Back to Zandweg itself. The fietsstraat has since been completed, as can be seen in the earlier video (or on Google Maps). Also visible are the numerous parking bays, some with parked vehicles, some without. But what’s striking is that many of the homes and businesses along the route have driveways with plenty of space available for parking onsite. Parking along Zandweg is additional and as near as I could tell, free. That should be a familiar concept to many Americans and one which clearly crosses borders. That’s further evidence that many concerns are basic human concerns, not just limited to certain people. What works there can work here too. All we have to do is stop insisting that “we’re different” and start emulating the best examples.

Almere’s BOD

One enduring topic that often permeates planning and transit circles is whether bus or rail is a better solution to mobility. Generally speaking, rail does make sense after a certain point, but where exactly that point is remains a bit of a mystery and up for interpretation. However, people tend to agree that if separate right-of-ways and especially grade separations are employed, it might be better to consider rail over buses.

In that regard, the Dutch are somewhat of heretics, building dedicated bus lanes on many major streets and dedicated busways all over the country in areas that most people would assert are better suited for rail. In the city of Almere, the busways are unique, even by Dutch standards, because it was master planned from the very beginning with a functional bus network that connects the town and feeds the half dozen rail stations that connect the city to the rest of the country in what one writer has called “bus-oriented development”.

In the (now closed) comment section of that piece, a fierce debate quickly broke out questioning whether Almere’s bus network would be better as trams light rail. (Even with tram vehicles, the operation would be far closer to the average light rail provision here in America due to the dedicated right-of-ways.) The reasoning varied, ranging from the fact that the right-of-ways already exist to the size of the city itself, with several examples of smaller cities with functional tram networks being presented as evidence that it could (should?) be done.

However, one factor seems to have completely eluded all but one of the debaters: Almere is a Dutch city. Being Dutch, that means that bicycles can probably be considered viable options and Almere does not disappoint. As documented by BicycleDutch, biking is easily accessible to everyone everywhere in the community and bike parking is integral at major destinations and transit stations. As such, many people undoubtedly bike to the city center or train instead of taking the bus as even with good transit provisions in town, shorter journeys still end up taking a similar amount of time.

That most people are choosing to bike instead of use local transit isn’t just speculation. A look at the stats show that on a national level, biking absolutely crushes local transit [BTM = bus/tram/metro], with the latter never accounting for more than 10% of all journeys and the two modes not even reaching parity until the 15-20 km trip distance range. Meanwhile, all residential developments in the city are within 3 miles (5 km) of one of the six (yes, six) train stations and city-level stats show that biking accounts for 31% of all journeys of 7.5 km or less. As such, the likelihood that the busways will be upgraded to trams/LRT is rather low as there just isn’t much need for such a conversion, at least not at present.

Almere is a great example of how bikes (all, not just colorful ones from kiosks) can vastly extend the reach of transit as well as the success of the Dutch campaign to get people biking more for short trips. Whether designed for from the beginning or as a repurposing of space from cars to people, bikes fill an important part of the transportation puzzle and dedicating space for bikes in a community is one of the most cost-effective things a transit agency can and/or push for to improve its operations. The benefits realized by Almere are well within reach of American communities too, it just requires adjusting priorities for people over cars.

Evaluating RCTC’s Coachella Valley Rail Proposals

For a little over a year, the Riverside County Transportation Commission has been undertaking a study to explore the possibility of providing daily passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley. This is at least the seventh time in nearly 30 years that the concept has been explored. (Previous studies of all or parts of the potential route were the focus of or included in other efforts previously completed in 1991, 199319992005, 2010, and 2013.) But with this being take seven on the project, perhaps it’s time to figure out exactly what needs to be done to get this plan off the shelves and to see trains rolling.

The elephant in the room continues to be that the only truly viable alternative to reach the area is by routing passenger traffic through the Union Pacific Yuma Subdivision that heads east from the Colton Crossing. As one of the two principal freight rail arteries in and out of SoCal heading east, Union Pacific understandably has concerns about the proposition of running an increased number of passenger trains over their rails. Currently, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited operates through the corridor, but it is only thrice-weekly service with late night/early morning stops in the area–hardly usable by the majority of potential travelers.

The latest report provides five Alternatives along with reasons for/against them. As the Yuma Subdivision is the only existing route to the Coachella Valley, all the differences occur from the Colton Crossing to LAUS. The five Alternatives (resulting in six total possibilities) are to use the BNSF San Bernardino Sub (Alternative 1), use the UP LA Sub (Alternative 2); use the UP Alhambra Sub (Alternative 3), use two variations of the Metrolink San Gabriel Sub (Alternative 4), or use a hybrid option blending Alternative 4B and 3 (Alternative 4). Four of those options made it through the course level screening to a more detailed analysis and will be expounded upon: 1, 4A/B, and 5.

Alternative 1

As mentioned above, west of Colton is where the differences lie. Of the four potential routes advanced to fine-level screening, Alternative 1 was the only one looked on favorably and advanced to the level of further planning/EIS. Several factors in its favor exist including most principally, a corridor population that is around 25% higher than the others have or would provide in the near-term. Though all study is being done using the assumption of Amtrak service similar to the existing Pacific Surfliner, this proposed route would be the functional equivalent of extending the Metrolink 91 Line out to the Coachella Valley and would in effect, be adding a limited stop train from LAUS to Riverside. Ideally, the Rail2Rail program should be implemented over that portion of the route to allow people to take advantage of that option. From Riverside, the train would then continue north to the Colton Crossing, where it would turn east to reach Indio as outlined above. RCTC currently still has quite a few unused daily allotments for the route, so implementing service via Alternative 1 would only require buying (or leasing) the trainsets and building a few stations. This route also has the second-fastest projected travel time and high ridership.

Alternative 4A

The second Alternative considered at the fine level is branded 4A. This option would be routed primarily over the San Gabriel Subdivision, which is owned by LA Metro and SANBAG for operating Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. However, the San Gabriel Sub is at present, not directly connected with the Yuma, so this option requires several things be done to make that connection. The proposal calls for squeezing a track to connect to the northbound BNSF line between I-10 and the Colton Crossing and also just continue it through Colton to connect to the Metrolink Short Way Subdivision that is used by the IEOC Line to reach San Bernardino and Metrolink to access their Colton yard. A flyover would then be built to connect that track with the San Gabriel Subdivision and the report also calls for the two segments of double-tracking already underway to be built. This Alternative would have Inland Empire stops at Rialto and Montclair before heading to LA over the same route used by Metrolink. According to the analysis, this option would produce the fastest travel time of 3:06 as well as the second-highest ridership.

However, it was ultimately, it was not selected for further study due to requiring a minimum investment of $141mn more than Alternative 1 and potential ROW issues, including relocating a trucking facility at the BNSF San Bernardino yard. But looking at the reality of the area, a connection could probably be built to connect to the existing flyover and thus avoid relocating the majority of the trucking yard. Presumably, some of the money would also go into the double-tracking projects mentioned above, but it’s primarily slated for providing the connection to the BNSF tracks and Short Way in Colton as well as the flyover to connect with the San Gabriel Subdivision. Additionally, at least two actual bridges would be required (one over La Cadena, one over Lytle Creek) and though there is a little room for it, adding a fourth track through Colton will require a couple things to be moved and at least two more grade crossings be expanded. Though not studied in the report, the Colton track does provides an opportunity for a Colton stop to be added to the IEOC Line and potentially the CV train as well.

Alternative 4B/5

The last two Alternatives, 4B and 5, are functionally the same, so they’ll be looked at in tandem. Both would use the same connection in Colton as presented by 4A to reach the Short Way, but would instead utilize the San Bernardino Downtown Passenger Rail extension to continue all the way into the recently completed San Bernardino Transit Center located downtown. Going to the SBTC would provide connections with numerous transit services serving the San Bernardino Valley, Mountain communities, and Victor Valley areas. This option also avoids the need for a flyover in the BNSF yard, but leaves the recommendation for the double-tracking along the San Gabriel Sub. However, the train would have to switch ends in San Bernardino before being able to continue to LAUS. According to the report, this maneuver can take up to half an hour, so accommodating it is projected to likely necessitate another layover track be added to the site. The layover also effectively cuts the journey into two separate trips. That could be great for station-area businesses in San Bernardino, but results in a major hits on ridership and travel times. Unsurprisingly, these two options have the longest scheduled travel times but lowest ridership.

The rest of the route is for Alternative 4B, identical to Alternative 4A. Alternative 5 instead uses the UP Alhambra Subdivision into LAUS from near the El Monte station which provides a potential bypass of the single track line on I-10. Both 4A and 5 would differ from 4A in that they would not stop at Rialto, only at Montclair. Additionally, 5 require second flyover in El Monte to provide access to the Alhambra Sub without running into freight congestion. Course-level screening indicated that Alternative 5 would require double-tracking of the Alhambra, but the ongoing Alameda Corridor East San Gabriel Trench appears to be taking care of that. Still, in comparison to Alternative 1, these two options have a potential cost of $130mn more for 4B or $162mn more for Alternative 5. Due to both the cost but especially the turn time depressing ridership, these two Alternatives were also nixed from further configuration.

Results

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alternative 1 has been selected for further study and advancement to the EIR/EIS stage. This is the only Alternative that would actually serve the City of Riverside, which, notwithstanding the relative lack of necessary investment compared to the others, likely was a part of the deciding factor for its favorable consideration in a study commissioned by RCTC. Progress toward those environmental documents is undoubtedly being worked on now. Additionally, though Measure A doesn’t put much money toward rail, cap and trade money might provide the ability to acquire equipment and start the service. With new locomotives on the way for the Surfliner and Metrolink, there will probably be some surplus power available in the LA area soon that, pending funding, can be leased for a decent price to get things rolling within a few months of final approval of the environmental documents. Hopefully, that can happen before the 40th anniversary of the first study.

Bikeways and Traffic

A common complaint and critique of separated bikeways is that “competent” bicyclists can travel at the speed of traffic in the roadway and would be “held up” on bike-specific infrastructure and therefore bikeways shouldn’t be built at all. Though that reality has been repeatedly shown to be inaccurate on well-designed facilities, the belief is still carried forward and trumpeted that bikeways restrict the speed of riders.

However, as cities across the country and globe increasingly realize that there is no way to ever build their way out of congestion, they’re instead turning to other mechanisms and methods of dealing with the growth that is occurring. As priorities change, complete streets policies are being enacted that reallocate the space of existing roads for all modes as well as dictate how new roads should be constructed to make the best use of space to move people, not just cars.

What happens when such a change occurs? Overtoom in Amsterdam (pictured below) gives us a good example. One of the main routes heading into and out of the city, it has space for all users. The exact profile differs based on location, but very generally is arranged with buses/trams/taxis in the central lanes, one lane per direction for general traffic, parking for cars and bikes, separated bikeways, and of course, sidewalks. The result is a thoroughfare that has the capacity to move far more people than the number actually moved on typical arterial that scars many cities, but just as long as they’re not trying to drive alone in a car.

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The predominant configuration of Overtoom for the majority of its length.

The following two videos show how the street looks and works in real life.

This one is composed of several snippets of how the street functions over the course of the evening rush hour. At times of high congestion, the bikeway is absolutely faster than the general travel lanes, even for those who are not riding particularly fast at all.

This second video shows the entirety of the street as it heads out of town.  The location where the first video was filmed is to the right at 0:16, in the shop with the yellow awning. At over four minutes to go just over a mile, the speed of transit for the corridor by car is slower than many people can comfortably bike, even though this doesn’t appear to be filmed during rush hour per se.

As cities grow and become more congested, bikes will continue to be looked as as a way provide an alternative to driving. Though not typically well-understood by many, bikes actually do offer competitive travel times to driving a car, even with infrastructure that people like to assume mandates slow biking. That’s a view that simply isn’t supported by the evidence, especially the prevalence of scooters using Dutch bikeways (often illegally).

Transit Bypasses for Bikes

The latest post from BicycleDutch isn’t even about bikes and transit, it’s about biking in the rain. But the location where it was filmed in Utrecht provides the opportunity to also get another good look at an exceptional solution to a common issue frequently raised about separated bikeways: what to do around a transit stop.

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A pair of bus stops and their bypasses outside of Montfoort, NL. Image: Google Street View.

The preferred approach is to use  floating transit stops that allow bicyclists to pass by without coming into conflict with buses (or trains) and only minimal interaction with passengers. Floating stops can even be used with conventional bike lanes as they remain a great way to address the problem of buses and bikes. Yet, the minute details continue to evade many planners and engineers, resulting in facilities that can be dramatically bad.

 

As can be seen in BicycleDutch’s video, there is a bus stop directly adjacent the bikeway. Yet, despite this being one of the busiest locations for bus activity along Potterstraat, transit users do not present a problem to the bicyclists at all. As they exit the bus, they are on a relatively wide island that is lined with a barrier, ensuring that the interaction between users occurs at as few a points as possible. While most Dutch transit stop bypasses aren’t quite that wide nor do they include a barrier, the concept is still carried forward.

But perhaps the most important part of the design is how the bikeway passes the stop. In the one featured in the video, it is a straight line with no deviation at all. That is preferred, but likely not always practical. In the absence of that opportunity, everything should be done to make the curve as smooth as possible and it should be designed for a realistic biking speed (i.e. 20+ MPH). When done right, riding around a stop is a pleasant experience that is barely noticeable.

In tandem with protected intersections, transit stop bypasses are a great way to build a protected bikeway network. Since both infrastructure elements can work with traditional bike lanes, they offer a great way to tackle the biggest problems of a separated bikeway first, then fill in the remaining gaps as money becomes available. The biggest challenge is getting the minute details right, so planners and engineers should travel to and ride both the best and worst examples to get a real feel of how to build them properly.

SANBAG Slowing Chugs Ahead with Metrolink Double Tracking

Yesterday, the SANBAG board of directors approved a motion directing staff to begin searching for a firm to complete an environmental document and 30% design for a chronically needed double-tracking of Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. This comes after it zoomed through the agency’s Commuter Rail & Transit Committee last month. The proposed segment of double track will be a pivotal piece of infrastructure that will allow Metrolink to better serve and grow the corridor with the highest ridership.

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The Metrolink San Bernardino Line Twitter account (@MetrolinkSB) is an ongoing chronicle of the innumerable near-daily cascading delays caused by the  prevalence of single track on the route.

The biggest improvement will undoubtedly be the ability to ease congestion and decrease some of the delays that are a surreal problem on the line nearly every single day. The proposed segment will add about three miles to an existing siding of just under two miles, creating one of the longest sections of double track along the line. The project will also mean the addition of a second platform (and likely pedestrian underpass) at the Rialto station, which will hopefully be long enough to serve Metrolink’s new eight-car trainset being used on the San Bernardino Line.

If done right, the improvements could greatly benefit not just Metrolink  users, but the city of Rialto too. Currently, there are several vacant properties that are located next to the Rialto station which provide a perfect opportunity for smart TOD that can integrate developments into the station via the proposed pedestrian underpass (or overpass if that’s the final decision) and dozens more within a kilometer. The newly expanded parking lot at the station can also be leveraged to meet parking requirements for developments, reducing the “need” to build more parking in an area that is not exactly constrained. Furthermore, AB 744 can also be invoked as a last resort for any developments that include affordable housing components.

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The second of two bicyclists who proceeded past the lowered gates at Lilac Avenue in less than a minute.

The double tracking project will also provide the perfect opportunity to perform several necessary safety enhancements. The biggest is likely the ability to upgrade up to eight grade crossings to be quiet zones, a very welcome and necessary move that would provide relief to the surrounding communities that are currently subject to hearing more than 1000 horn blasts a day. Additionally, quiet zone improvements can form one part of efforts to decrease unauthorized access to the rail corridor that currently sees frequent use as a walkway by the community at large, including children heading to/from school.

The SANBAG staff report included with the item [PDF, p. 97] mentions that this project came out of a joint study with LA Metro [PDF] that looked at the most cost-effective strategies to improve San Bernardino Line service (which should’ve just been titled “what should we double track first?”). The report also mentions that LA Metro is moving forward with a similar proposal for environmental and preliminary engineering for double-tracking Lone Hill to CP White in LA County and makes the case for waiting on both studies to be complete before seeking grant funding for both in tandem. That may ultimately not be the best idea, especially if one study gets delayed or contested, as the improvements are needed immediately.

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SANBAG’s Chief of Rail & Transit presents at the December Board meeting.

No timeline was presented at the meeting, but the Countywide Transportation Plan projects that it will be at least another decade [PDF, p. 128] before the project is complete, up to four years after projects to widen the two adjacent freeways, I-10 and I-210, are completed. That’s absurd. Building three miles of track next to an existing track in an active rail right-of-way that has room to fit five tracks shouldn’t take ten years to accomplish. With Metrolink continuing to bleed ridership, that amount of delay to complete the first of several needed double-tracking projects is rather unacceptable, especially in light of AB32 targets for 2020 and with funding available from Cap & Trade for rail projects. It is imperative that anything that can be done to speed the process along be undertaken.

To be fair, the Metrolink San Bernardino Line Infrastructure Improvement Study did present and recommend that an accelerated timeline and funding schedule funding schedule be used, which it appears that SANBAG is attempting to pursue by completing the study in tandem with LA Metro. If those recommendations can be followed, it would be very encouraging for both Metrolink riders and the region as a whole, especially as VMT-based CEQA standards come into the picture.

More photos available on Flickr.

Montclair’s Arrow Station Misses the Mark on TOD

The City of Montclair is betting big on their transit center (dubbed the “Montclair Transcenter”). Located in the northern part of the city, it features a stop on Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line (now including the daily “express”), a hub for several Foothill Transit and Omnitrans routes (including the Silver Streak and Route 290), one of Caltrans’ biggest park-and-ride lots (Excel spreadsheet), and will in the future be a stop on the extended Gold Line. Additionally, the Pacific-Electric Trail dips right down to within a block of the station at this point. Still surrounded by relatively empty land, it isn’t an understatement to say that it presents the perfect opportunity and support to build exemplary transit-oriented development that caters well to those who are or want to be car-lite or even car-free.

The Arrow Station development under construction is one of the ongoing stabs at TOD in the area surrounding the station. But thus far, the prognosis on the transit-oriented part is not good at all. Though the North Montclair Downtown Specific Plan calls for creating an entryway to the city from the station by way of extending the current pedestrian underpass that exists at the station, the land where it would open up is still occupied by a warehouse. Unfortunately, no provision has been made to provide an interim connection between the development and the station until that entrance is built.

Intermission for pictures.

The result is that although the homes in Arrow Station are less than 75 feet from the tracks and residents can see the platforms from their windows, bad planning forces them to make a trip of over 1/3 of a mile to actually reach the station. To add insult to injury, even though Arrow Station and the Transcenter are both on the east side of Monte Vista Avenue, that 1/3 mile trip requires passing through two traffic signals because there is no sidewalk on the east side of Monte Vista through the underpass.

A screenshot of one of the listings for homes available in the Arrow Station development on Zillow.
A screenshot of one of the listings for homes available in the Arrow Station development on Zillow.

Predictably, neither set of homes under construction (in two adjacent communities: The District and The Walk) makes any mention of the development’s proximity to the Transcenter as an amenity on their website because for all practical purposes, it might as well not exist. (Though to be fair, it doesn’t make mention of proximity to freeways either. Or really anything at all.) However, Zillow comes through and does state that the homes are within “walking distance” of Metrolink.

It’s probably too soon to be able to gather any meaningful data on transportation usage from the community under construction. Perhaps some people might actually brave the odds and make their way to the Transcenter anyway. However, fixing the connectivity problem is a surefire way to make choosing transit an easy and intuitive choice for the residents from Day One. (It would also help sell homes by providing a greater pool of potential buyers.) A temporary easement, a ribbon of concrete, and some lights are all that it takes. What’s lacking is the forethought to include them.

 

Is RCTC Purposefully Killing Rail Transit to the San Jacinto Valley?

Earlier this year, the Riverside County Transportation Commission joined several transportation agencies around the state to gripe about the uncertainty of revenue projections due to the recent gas tax swap formula that has resulted in a lower gas tax this fiscal year. This should come as no surprise, as the vast majority of Riverside County’s Measure A funds are being poured into building wider roads throughout the region. With only 15% of the money dedicated to transit, it should be imperative that they do everything possible to stretch those dollars.

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A screenshot of the map included in the 2005 Riverside County Commuter Rail study shows potential routes and options for rail service. Image: RCTC, edited by author.

Although Measure A sends the vast majority of revenue raised toward building wider roads, Riverside County voters also expected some increase in rail service when they voted to reauthorize it in 2002. In 2005,  RCTC delivered a report on some options for increasing rail connectivity in the county. Out of that report, a further (peak commuter-focused) extension of the currently ongoing Perris Valley Line extension an additional seven miles east to Hemet/San Jacinto* was rated very favorably. That extension would also serve an area similar to that of the planned Mid County Parkway, potentially reducing the need for RCTC to build another freeway through the center of a disadvantaged community.

However, buried deep in the Environmental Impact Report/Statement for the SR-79 realignment is a ticking time bomb against the prospect of rail service ever reaching San Jacinto. In 2013 [PDF, page vi (12)], the report had this to say:

The design options would include a near-grade crossing over the San Jacinto Branch Line with embankment and structural section for SR 79. The near-grade crossing over the existing railroad would be approximately 0.9 to 2.4 m (3 to 8 ft) above grade. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, at the point where the realigned highway would cross the railroad, it would be at a height of less than ten feet above the rails. This dismal synopsis was repeated in the Recirculated EIR/EIS [PDF, page 3-167 (243)] that went out earlier this year. For those of you keeping track at home, no trains can fit under bridges that low (not even a manned rail rider on the shorter side). Section 9.1 of CPUC General Order 26-D says that it’ll be at least six feet too low and based on Metrolink’s dimensions (PDF, page 3), their equipment needs a minimum of 16 feet of clearance above the rails. (Metrolink is the logical service provider for this extension as they would already be operating to Perris.)

So in short, despite the fact that RCTC already identified the San Jacinto extension as being one of the most viable and cost-effective options for rail service expansions in Riverside County, RCTC already owning the line, and RCTC leading on the SR-79 realignment project, RCTC did not stipulate that their own freeway construction would need to provide adequate clearance for any future trains that they would plan on their own tracks. That is a breakdown of colossal proportions.

Further on, the report does acknowledge that rail transit has been considered on the corridor. However, they consider constructing overpasses to make sure that train service on an existing line remains viable to be the responsibility of the rail project, not the responsibility of freeway that is severing the rail access:

In the future, if a separate project is developed that adds passenger rail service, a grade-separation project would need to be considered.

In short, RCTC is shooting a worthy project in the foot. The only question is are they doing it on purpose or is this merely a (massive) oversight? Unfortunately, we may never know. However, Caltrans does still have to issue final approval and building a(nother!) freeway runs counter their recent admission that building freeways doesn’t help traffic at all. Instead, Caltrans needs to be more proactive about alternatives, in this case by putting their foot down and not allowing a viable rail transit line to be severed by a freeway. (They really should go a step further and require that the rail extension to Temecula via the SR-79 alignment that was also identified in the RCTC rail study to be built concurrent with the freeway.)

Failure to do so makes it much harder for the all levels of government to meet legislative goals focused on reducing GHGs, VMT, and disparate impacts of transportation dollar allocations, especially in the Inland Empire. Cities along the route of both freeways (realigned SR-79 and the Mid County Parkway) are already looking forward to the freeways “spurring development”, but injecting two new freeways into the San Jacinto Valley without also upgrading transit is all but guaranteed to ensure that no TOD will be built. Instead, there would be more sprawling development in what is already one of the most sprawled regions of the country [PDF]. That doesn’t have to happen, but it requires Caltrans and RCTC officials doing the right thing and lead.

*For those who may feel tempted to call the area rural, including its own residents, remember that were it not for RCTC and SCAG, Hemet alone is populated enough to require its own metropolitan planning organization under federal law and San Jacinto is really close.