Is San Bernardino Ready to Modernize E Street?

Opportunities to completely change a street for the better for free (or close to it) don’t come along very often, but the City of San Bernardino currently has the option on their plate as a portion of E Street is reconstructed. Running north-south through the heart of the city and downtown, E St. is home to the bronze-rated sbX Green Line and connects the two of the most vibrant corridors in the city, Baseline St. and Highland Ave., with downtown, uptown, and CSUSB in the northern part of the city and is part of the historical business loop for the legendary Route 66. However, even though E St. previously won a Streetsie in 2014, some of the benefits of BRT seen in other cities have not yet reached the entire corridor, with this segment continuing to support a plethora of empty lots and boarded-up buildings.

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The current configuration of “E” Street is vastly overbuilt and encourages dangerous behavior among road users. Image via Streetmix.

At present, this portion of the street still looks very much like a Death Road, with four lanes for traffic and on-street parking. That has led to conditions that encourage unsafe driving and crash data SWITRS shows a string of incidents stretching through the entire project area to lend support to that idea, including some bike and pedestrian casualties. This is particularly troubling since the route is heavily used by children who attend San Bernardino High School and Arrowview Middle School, with the students themselves providing anecdotal reports of rampant disrespect from motorists. Additionally, E St. is unfortunately also at the epicenter of the resurging epidemic of violence that has wracked the city this year, with the owner of one of the small businesses in this stretch losing his life earlier this year during an armed robbery.

Currently, the overbuilt four-lane design moves less than 10k vehicles per day, a figure that despite being nearly 20 years old, is apparently still pretty valid as confirmed by looking at more recent counts obtained at the intersections of E St. with Baseline and Highland. These numbers are well within the bounds of the volume of traffic that just two lanes can handle quite well, which makes this an ideal road diet candidate. That means that this is the perfect opportunity to make sure the rebuild is a complete street that functions better for all users.

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Put “E” Street on a diet. Image/Streetmix.

But what would a road diet look like on E Street? Since they’re not moving curbs, two general travel lanes would be swapped for a center two-way left turn lane and a pair of bike lanes. While some might think it appears like a “loss” for the street because there are fewer general travel lanes, such a proposal is likely to improve operations for several reasons. First, the current configuration encourages speeding and there are several cross streets that have significant left turn traffic, particularly around San Bernardino High School during the morning/afternoon. These left turners frequently hold back the left-hand lanes as they wait for a gap in oncoming traffic, so a road diet allows them to wait out of the stream going straight, a stream that is often exceeding the 35 MPH speed limit. Meanwhile, the single lane of traffic reduces the ability for people to speed.

Jeff Speck explains road diets.

Also, despite the elements on the street that some might consider to be unsavory, quite a lot of people actually do already travel up and down E St. by foot and by bike, including as mentioned above, many students. This design moves the traffic a little farther from the sidewalks, making it a little calmer and more appealing for pedestrians. Additionally, the bike lanes provide a better designation of where bicyclists can be expected and possibly in conjunction with signage, could be an effective strategy to combat the frequent ‘salmon‘ riders in the area.

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This section of E Street is also home to the original McDonald’s. Image by author.

The effect of these changes will provide a vastly improved street environment that is likely the missing link in years of efforts to revitalize this area of the city. The slower, more even speed of the motorists allow them to notice businesses that they had never seen before when blasting by at 50 MPH while the bike lanes and improved pedestrian experience lead more people to walk or bike through the corridor, both of which are groups that can easily stop in stores along the way and in the process, end up spending more over the course a month than the typical motorist. As has been seen elsewhere around the country, road diets do not have negative impacts on business, but do the opposite and increase business. With a high number of vacant storefronts in the stretch, using this project as opportunity to right-size the street is a great way to get the boards to come down and breathe some new life into the area. It would also provide a good connection to the new park coming to the corner of 9th and E, which will include a new skatepark that BMX riders will certainly frequent.

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The location of E St. in relation to alternatives to reach downtown from this area, including a freway. Image/Google Maps, edited by author.

Undoubtedly, there will be some naysayers and people will be concerned that it would increase trip times. However, it’s worth looking at the area view. Since San Bernardino was built on a grid, there are numerous options for those who may feel hampered. Additionally, given the impressive level of decay and decline that currently permeates this segment of the street, the built environment cannot get exponentially worse. But given the existing traffic safety issues, repeating last century’s mistakes on a blank slate is a step backwards. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to die before trying to address the issue. If it doesn’t work out or the capacity is eventually needed, it’s easy enough to go back and restripe it to the old setup. But with the opportunity to do for minimal cost what other cities around the country are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to do, San Bernardino owes it to itself and to the residents to go ahead and join the 21st Century by giving it a go. The only question is if San Bernardino is ready to do what it takes to be an All-American City again.

 

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.

Progress Report: Perris Valley Line

Things are ever so slowly coming together on SoCal’s biggest rail expansion of the year: Metrolink’s Perris Valley Line. The Riverside County Transportation Commission is leading the project that will add a hair over 24 miles and four more stations to the Metrolink system, an undertaking that has been in the works for decades. RCTC originally purchased the San Jacinto Branch Line being used for the extension back in 1993. They’ve sat on it since then, largely content with limiting their rail ambitions to numerous studies of all the options. However, BNSF does still service some customers along the subdivision and the portion through Moreno Valley is where some freight cars got blown over a couple years back.

Trains were originally supposed to be rolling by the end of 2015. And they were, with RCTC holding an opening ceremony back in December. Unfortunately, nearly a quarter of the way into 2016, those rolling trains still are not carrying passengers. Though trains have been running tests since October, there are still varying levels of construction continuing at all the stations; the Downtown Perris station is probably the most put together of the lot. This presents another setback for a project that has already seen it’s share of delays from studies and a NIMBY lawsuit.

In traditional suburban commuter rail fashion, all four stations are surrounded by a moat of parking, with probably at least 1,100 spaces spread among them. This is ultimately not surprising, especially since RCTC is currently embarking on a parking lot expansion at the La Sierra station, but it remains to be seen if this is really the best plan in the long term. The good part about parking is that it can be easily converted to something else and since it is already provided, perhaps the communities where they’re located will be able to leverage them to meet minimum requirements. Nevertheless, let’s have a quick glance at what has been built thus far.

South Perris

The South Perris Station is the end-of-the-line for the current extension, but the rail corridor is the one that would eventually continue on to San Jacinto if RCTC doesn’t kill it first. But since it is the current end, this site consists of not just a platform and parking lot, but several tracks for layovers and overnight storage of the trainsets. Everything at this site is still under construction including the layover yard, the parking lot, and the boarding platform. It’s probably not an understatement to say that this is the least complete of the bunch. Totally surrounded by farmland, this station is (obviously) largely designed to capture park-n-riders from places like Menifee, French Valley, and even Hemet. However, the literal absence of anything built immediately adjacent to it does provide a great opportunity for the City of Perris to leverage the transit connection to direct development there in the future. But with both an airport and sewage treatment plant nearby, there is certainly room to discuss whether residential would be the best type of development for the location.

Downtown Perris

In a direct contrast to the So. Perris station, the Downtown Perris station is probably the most complete of the four. It’s not just a stop for Metrolink, but also the hub for RTA’s operations in the area and the bus bays are already seeing use. It is located in the center of Perris directly adjacent the historic Sante Fe depot in the city and the tracks from the Orange Empire Railway Museum are being extended to provide access directly from the train station and the station itself has several very prominently featured memorials to the late Disney animator Ward Kimball.

Though this station is also surrounded by a moat of parking directly adjacent the station, there is one mixed-use development across from the station with several dozen apartments as well as some City offices occupying some of the retail spaces. Other spaces are still vacant, but that will probably change soon, especially once trains are running. There are also quite a few vacant lots in close proximity to the station and with UCR just two stops away, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some renewed interest from developers. Already, some affordable units within a half mile of the station have recently been completed and more are probably going to be on the way.

At the station itself, the pedestrian accommodations are a refreshing to see in a region that critically lacks any such provisions. However, the ped and bike connections to access the site could do with some improvement. Most egregious is likely the intersection directly adjacent the station block, where pedestrian crossing is prohibited on the leg of the intersection closest the station. Predictably, that manifested itself by way of an elderly gentleman crossing CA-74 at the rail crossing. Additionally, RCTC has unfortunately not gotten the memo on good bike parking and installed ‘wave’ racks at the station itself.

Alessandro

The Alessandro station is another primarily commuter-focused station. Since the likely ridership will come from Moreno Valley and the eastern side of Riverside, its major component is also a couple acres of blacktop to allow people to store their cars. It’s surrounded not by farmland, but by warehouses and there are a couple of vacant lots nearby too. There is also an office building or two directly adjacent the station, but it remains to be seen if the reverse commute will actually go all the way to Perris and thus be useful enough to draw ridership to use it. Additionally, there are several pads on the station site itself with signs stating their availability for building as well as empty lots across the street. Similar to South Perris, it also presents a great opportunity to take advantage of the budding transit potential with some smart development, especially given the relative proximity to the Alessandro BRT project currently being planned.

Hunter Park/UCR

At the time of stop by, the Hunter Park/UCR station was probably the second most ready for use. This station is also primarily a park-and-ride lot located in the midst of warehouses. Unfortunately, the same NIMBYs who delayed the train were also successful in stopping plans for a station that was to be more proximate to UCR itself and which could’ve provided a great anchor point for the Riverside Reconnects streetcar. It has been rumored that the station might still be built in the future, but that is a long way off from reality at the moment. The station that did get built is directly adjacent the UCR Bourne School of Engineering Annex, about a mile and a half from the main campus. Fortunately, RCTC took the forward-thinking step of ensuring that the sidewalk from the platform extended to both sides of the block where the station is located, providing a convenient cut-through of what is otherwise a half-mile long block.

This is also the most northern station and the last of the four new ones when heading west on the line. Much like the Downtown Perris station, it will be a hub for buses in the area and includes a bus-only loading zone. Since the station isn’t actually on the campus, hopefully UCR will run a shuttle to meet the trains and provide students that connection. There are also some vacant lot opportunities directly across the street that are available, hopefully the City of Riverside can guide development to those areas. Given the proximity to the school, student housing probably would be best, especially since the population generally owns fewer cars anyway. But other types of housing shouldn’t be shunned, especially since it will be one station away from downtown Riverside.

A handy feature of both the HP/UCR and Alessandro stations is their use of bioswales for onsite water management. That’s a refreshing change from the status quo in the vast majority of parking lots that rely on funneling water into gutters and drainage systems. Every bit of water that we can not send down the river soon as it hits the ground is beneficial to a region that is still in a drought. Such seemingly little things can have a big impact and hopefully this is indicative of a new approach to water management.

That’s it for now. At a future date (likely after service begins), I’ll take the time to delve into each station individually. Meanwhile, many pictures of the current state are available here.

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.

 

An(other) Utrecht Bike Commute: Utrecht Centraal to Vleuten

Last time I rolled around Utrecht, I looked at how one might travel from the Kanaleneiland neighborhood to De Uithof and the Utrecht University Medical Center area. On that trip, it became apparent that making that a journey by bike would likely be faster than transit and for a motivated or e-bike rider, just about as fast as driving. That should make it obvious as to why Utrecht scores high on the list of bike-friendly cities: there is no penalty for riding.

This time around, I’m going to take a look at another possible and common trip option in The Netherlands: from the rail station to home. Around 40% of the users of the Dutch railways get to or from the train station by bike, which has resulted in the world-famous bike parking garages. But the excellent bike infrastructure extends well beyond the station, which provides great mobility to the entire region.

Utrecht is growing and one place where that is occurring is the new area under development called Leidsche Rijn. Located around four miles to the west of the historic city, it already has three train stations, with one being the western endpoint of the Route 28 BRT line. But, although the trip detailed here is almost unnecessary, the excellent bike infrastructure means that it is a time-competitive and comfortable option for people. Furthermore, the city is investing lots of money into improvements that will make this trip even better [Dutch], including a new bridge over the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal, to encourage people to bike for this journey.

jaarbeurspleinsign
The sign outside the Jaarbeursplein garage provides information about the experiment and a map.

00:00 – Jaarbeursplein (Fietsenstalling)
The journey begins inside the Utrecht Centraal station, which is undergoing a massive reconstruction project known as CU2030. Part of that includes one of the latest Dutch bike innovations: Jaarbeursplein. A 4200 spot parking garage is nothing extraordinary by Dutch standards  and indeed, Utrecht is in the process of building another on the other side of the station that will have triple the capacity. The experimental part of Jaarbeursplein is not the hardscape but the support. It’s the first to have an attendant 24/7 and is also connected to the fiets P-Route, which shows bicyclists real-time information on how many spaces are available at several different bike garages around the city.

After exiting the garage, we’re in the actual Jaarbeursplein. Out front is a taxi stand, some bus stops (now removed), a passenger drop off, as well as the light rail line to IJsselstein/Nieuwegein. Not only does the line transport residents to and from the city, it also provides access to the Westraven park & ride lot that provides visitors a place to park while they visit the city center. A fee of €5 provides a daily parking pass AND free ticket to ride into the city via public transit for up to five people.

1:25 – Westplein

The road in Jaarbeursplein is also named Jaarbeursplein and is mostly for accessing the buildings around the square. People can also use it for dropping passengers off, but dead-ends for motorists by Westplein. However, it does continue straight through for bicyclists, I just never actually needed to go that exact route, so I didn’t have video of that small segment, hence the fade.

The point where the video fades in is the filtered permeability that makes this a through route for bicyclists, but not motorists. Going right at that point would lead to a underpass of the station and to the city center. However, the path to the outer neighborhoods is straight ahead.

Here, the bikeway crosses over Westplein, which includes the Fietsenstalling Westplein Zuid facility in its central median. (It should be noted that the tramway used to go this direction and connect on the other side of the station, something which can still be seen on Google Maps. The median is where the tracks were.) As it is a bit of a walk away from the trains, this parking is more for the community and visitors than commuters. It’s also part of the P-Route system.

After crossing Westplein, I turn left onto a bidirectional bikeway that parallels Westplein, which is nominally the Overlandroute. I never actually measured it, but it looked (and felt) to be around the same width as the bikeway on Beneluxlaan, which was nearly 12 feet wide. A few hundred feet along, we arrive at stoplight at the intersection of what is really a whole bunch of streets; the whole area is a mess. The street to the right enters into a residential area, so traffic volumes aren’t extremely high. Additionally, bicyclists at this location looking to turn right into that street can do so without stopping at the light.

2:15 – Overlandroute/Leidseweg

After the light and crossing Damstraat, the bikeway continues as a bidirectional facility that goes straight ahead while the road curves away. Due to the proximity to so many uses, there is definitely probability for pedestrians, so a sidewalk is provided next to the bikeway. However, the bikeway itself is only about 75 meters long. It merely forms a connection, not the main route.

The bikeway ends into Leidseweg, which is directly parallel one of the canals. Although not officially signed as a fietsstraat, my experience with it at several different times led to noticing at least a 2-3:1 ratio of bikes to motorists using it. No doubt, this is partly because Leidseweg is part of a 30 KPH zone and is one-way for motorists. For bikes, that means that those heading out of the city are going contraflow. However, that’s not at all a problem since it’s a residential area and traffic is kept even lower with the one-way street network.

Additionally, the entire street is paved in bricks, which certainly is able to keep unnecessary motorists away, but definitely impacts ride quality for bicyclists too. Streets like Leidseweg are what make the balloon tires found on so many Dutch bikes a desirable feature. Although the canal side of the street is a bit smoother, it’s still brick and isn’t the best ride around. Coming from the smooth connecting path, it’s definitely a bit jarring.

About two thirds of the way down Leidseweg is the first of several intersections and bridges along the route. The intersecting streets are Koningsbergerstraat/Jan Pieterszoon Coenstraat. Generally, there is no priority in a 30 KPH zone, but since Leidseweg is the main bikeway, it has priority here and in a bit of a rarity on Dutch streets, cross traffic has a stop sign. Also, the Jan Pieterszoon Coenstraat bridge is one-way only for motorists, so they can only turn left onto Leidseweg. One can continue past this intersection almost without realizing that it’s there.

A couple hundred more feet is the Abel Tasmanstraat/Muntkade intersection. While the previous one is a little offset, the one with Abel Tasmanstraat and Muntkade is better described as adjacent T-intersections. Additionally, both roads allow two-way traffic, as does the bridge. As a result, this intersection is definitely busier. However, Leidseweg still has priority through here too.

4:30 – Muntbrug/Leidseweg

Immediately past Muntkade is the Muntbrug [note: currently undergoing renovations] which spans the Merwedekanaal. The bridge, which is closed to motor vehicles, is almost certainly a big part of what keeps the level of motor traffic on Leidseweg down.

Just over the bridge, the route intersects with the Kanaalweg Fietsroute. That bikeway runs north-south through the entire city of Utrecht, sometimes as a bidirectional separated bikeway, sometimes as a fietsstraat. It contains only one level crossing of a major street throughout the entire journey. Anyone who lived along it could use this route to get between the train station or even city center while passing through no more than five traffic signals the entire way and likely never facing a stop sign either. That creates a pleasant, non-stop cycling experience.

After the intersection, Leidseweg continues and is once again a 30 KPH zone. It’s two-way for about a hundred feet, then reverts back to the one-way configuration (as well as the brick pavers). This is also a residential area and the profile and usage is similar to the other side of the canal, with parking on one side, motor vehicles allowed one-way, and bidirectional for bicyclists. At the intersection with Bartoklaan/Mozartlaan, Leidseweg again has priority,

IMG_1523
Signage on Leidseweg warns motorists to watch for bikes while turning.

though this street (one street, two names) doesn’t have stop signs. Additionally, the direction of the one-way reverses at the intersection and is thus in the direction of travel away from the city. (The change in direction also means that the smoother brick pavers are gone too.)
The final segment of Leidseweg is again two-way for motor traffic. However, the opposing one-way streets keep motor traffic volumes low which makes routes pleasant for biking while still maintaining the ability for motor vehicles to access them.

6:50 – Kennedylaan

After nearly a mile, we arrive at another traffic signal at the intersection of Pijperlaan. The light is only red for about 15 seconds before we’re again on our way. Here, Leidseweg ends for motor vehicles, but bicyclists can continue straight ahead on a short connector that makes this the continuous route for bicyclists. The bikeway passes some buildings, then crosses Kennedylaan with priority. The intersection includes prolific markings to that effect as well as a raised table and a mirror. Adjacent Kennedylaan, the route is a bidirectional separated bikeway parallel to the roadway that branches off after about 600 feet to connect with the bridge over the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal and rejoin the road that branched away after Damstraat. While parallel to Kennedylaan, the bikeway is nearly 12 feet wide. That expands to 13 feet on the path up to the Meernbrug, where the bikeway rejoins the route for motor traffic that was crossed at Westplein.

9:05 -Meernbrug

The Meernbrug [Dutch] carries Dominee Martin Luther Kinglaan over the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal. That road provides a rather straight shot into the city center directly from the A2 motorway. The bridge also has a path hanging off the side that is admittedly, not the most enticing of facilities. It’s open to the wind and cold and some parts need surface maintenance. However, it does provide a connection across the canal and a supplementary connection [Dutch] is in the works, due to open soon. The path that leads away from Meernbrug on the other side of the canal, Dominee Abernathylaan, is of top quality. I never measured it, but it appears and feels to be at least 12 feet wide and includes a sidewalk. It curves around, following the contours created by the freeway ramps, then splits. Going the intended route means following the fork to the right and going back down.

11:15 – Rijksstraatweg

Turning left onto (what quickly becomes) Rijksstraatweg, I passed under several structures. The first is a bridge that carries the bikeway that continues straight, the next two are the twin Leidsche Rijn tunnels [Dutch] that carry the A2 motorway past Utrecht. Similar to other newer tunnels around the country, the underside of the bridge/tunnels includes an art installation of colored lights to help maintain social safety. The route under the tunnels is closed to motor traffic, which makes this end of Rijksstraatweg to be virtually car-free.

After exiting from under the tunnel bridges, there’s a small bridge that connects to the bikeway that parallels the A2/Stadsbaan Leidsche Rijn into Leidsche Rijn it. The same exact destination can be reached via that route as well, though with a few more turns. Once in the open, Rijksstraatweg also becomes a fietsstraat as motor vehicles are allowed to drive here to access the homes along this segment. But since the Leidsche Rijn tunnels still block access, there is no reason for motorists to continue farther than the homes. The result is that bike heavily outnumber cars, making the road is a de facto bikeway, which is the intent of a fietsstraat.

12:50 – Zandweg

Not far down the road, the fietsstraat moves to the other side of the canal. The street it continues on, Zandweg, forms the bulk of a fietsstraat that stretches all the way to the city limits of Utrecht. At six kilometers long, it’s the longest in the country (and probably the world). Motorists can drive on the entire length of Zandweg, but there are segments of opposing one-way which mean that Zandweg can never be used as a through route or effective shortcut to anywhere. (In case anyone has ever wondered whether Dutch brick streets are just stamped concrete, observe the piles of brick beside the sidewalk beginning about 18:30.)

Design features such as a low bridge, raised table intersections, and speed humps keep speeds down throughout the length. Following established fietsstraat tradition, it also is assigned priority over most intersecting streets, even in instances where it appears to possibly not be the best idea. There is one crossing at Europaweg where the bikeway yields, but there are generally breaks in traffic that allow someone to cross, which is what happens as I approach.

The majority of use along Zandweg is residential, though there are also some businesses interspersed throughout. Thus, although there are motor vehicles present, bikes still outnumber cars along the route as most through motor traffic uses Rijksstraatweg on the other side of the canal. Along the way, there are around three times as many bridges to allow non-motorized users to cross the canal as there are for motor vehicles. Those all help to make it a viable route for bikes, but not so much for cars.

22:55 – Busbaan Vleuterweide/Utrechtse Heuvelrug

At length, I arrived at one of several entrances to the Vleuterweide [Dutch] community of the Leidsche Rijn development. This particular entrance one is solely for buses and non-motorized users. The bikeway and busway form the only direct route through the center of the development to the Vleuten station on the other side and allows for those two modes to have transit times across that are perhaps too swift [Dutch]. All other motorists seeking to cross must go around the perimeter on what forms a rough ring  road.

buildyourdreamhouse
There are still signs in Leidsche Rijn inviting people to “build their dream home”. Image Google Streetview, translated/edited by author.

About two blocks down, I arrived at fifth stoplight of the entire journey. It turned soon, though perhaps not as quickly as it could’ve given the lack of conflicting traffic. Going ahead, I continued on what I now realize is a road for construction access only–the communities are very much still under construction. Nevertheless, it caused no real problems as there was no traffic anyway. The official path to the left side was not particularly appealing either, being another 30 KPH zone paved in brick. The short stretch on the construction road inadvertently avoided that segment.

The construction road leads to a staple of Dutch bikeway planning: a short segment of separated bikeway through an intersection. This is the intersection of the busway and the ring road as well as a road that provides access to motor vehicles the the inner part of the community, including all the shops as well as the denser development. However, as stated before, it does not provide a direct path through for motorists. They must take the long way around. However, the roads are used as bike infrastructure and the bike route alternates between 30 KPH zones and bidirectional separated bikeways through this area, depending on the situation. The route is continuous, though not necessarily with priority at every junction, as can be seen in the video.

29:35 – Stroomrugbaan

This is the location of the ring road on the other side of the main Vleuterweide development. This particular intersection has proven to be quite problematic, with several serious collisions, including one death, having occurred in its short time of existence. As a result, changes are in the works [Dutch], including an integration of the busway into the adjoining roadway between Stroomrugbaan and the Vleuten station entrance.

After passing through the ninth and final stoplight of the six mile trip, a left and quick right bring me to Inktzwamsingel. This road is another 30 KPH zone, being only intended to serve as an access to the homes there. With no connection to the busway or intersection, there is no motor traffic there that doesn’t belong. The road curves around the building and at the next corner, there is a temporary sidewalk that leads directly to the Vleuten train station. Even though the construction and final form aren’t even finished, a route is provided so that people do not feel the “need” to drive and thus develop that habit.

31:10 – Vleuten Station

The end of the journey is the end of the line. At the Vleuten station, there is a park & ride lot for people who drive to the trains or buses, but it can only be reached from the Vleuterweide side. Though there isn’t a full-fledged bike parking facility like Jaarbeursplein, there are hundreds of bike racks, both covered and uncovered, available for those who bike to the station and were generally pretty well used.

32:30 – Professor Titus Brandsmalaan (Vleuten)

After passing the station, I took one of the underpasses of the railway into the village of Vleuten itself. Vleuten used to be its own municipality, but merged with others over the years until finally getting absorbed into Utrecht in 2001. The underpass I take is only open to nonmotorized users. After the underpass, I turn onto Professor Titus Brandsmalaan that parallels the railway through the southern side of the village. As can be seen, there are quite a few cars parked, not sure if those are all for Vleuten residents or also includes people who have driven in to access the train and parked there. At John F. Kennedylaan, there’s another underpass of the railway that is open to motor vehicles, but only buses are allowed to continue through in its entirety. Private vehicles can only drop people off at the station. The final underpass as the video ends is at Odenveltlaan, and it also is only open to nonmotorized users.

In other words, all three underpasses directly between Vleuten and Vleuterweide are closed to private motor traffic. Someone wishing to drive to the shops or activities in Vleuterweide is directed onto roads that skirt around the development that are nearly a mile apart. The result is that journey times for bike, driving, and to some extent, bus are all about equal. There is little

In total, the entire trip took about 28 minutes worth of moving time between the two stations, about eight minutes faster than projected by Google Maps. This compares to a ten minute trip on transit (though the bus takes nearly the same amount of time as biking) or 15-20 minutes driving. I was also not going particularly fast, especially toward the end. For someone going faster, it should be possible to shave another four to six minutes off the time.

Also, since people don’t live at the train station, the ride to their home would almost certainly end earlier, perhaps in one of the homes off of Kennedylaan, Zandweg, or near the entrance of Vleuterweide. That would bring the bike trip to a little over 20 minutes, which is again almost as fast as driving. When combined with the overall pleasant trip experience, there is little to gain by driving. That’s what we should be aspiring to in our cities as well: a comfortable biking experience that is competitive with driving for people of all ages and abilities.

Update: Some minor editing and notes about infrastructural changes that have happened in the eight months between shooting the video and this blog post.

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.

riversiderail
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.

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