Tag Archives: SCAG

What If: Priorities

Where do your community’s priorities lie? That’s a question that we should all be asking ourselves as we prepare to make infrastructure investments that will have an effect for decades into the future.

Nowhere is this more evident and important than in our transportation decisions. In many communities, the transportation network rests on a backbone of arterial roads. However, decades of

A typical arterial cross-section being used in many newer developments all around the country dedicates all space to cars.
A typical arterial cross-section popular in the region dedicates the majority of space to cars.

car-centric planning and design have resulted in facilities that are increasingly referred to as “stroads“. They’re not good streets, but they’re not good roads either and in the end, everyone gets the short end of the stick. The result is a facility that suffers from “peak hour” congestion and that doesn’t serve those who aren’t driving.

But there’s a better way. With a little shift in thinking, it becomes easier to design a transportation network that is good for the mobility of all, whether they be on a bike, in a car, walking, or using transit. When viewed as a corridor and principles of complete streets are applied, these facilities can be optimized to provide maximum movement of goods and people, not just cars.

An arterial dedicated to moving people takes on a different form.

With that understanding, it becomes evident that the current system is grossly inefficient and needs to change. But what does the alternative look like? Using the same room as before, a redesign of the corridor assigns each mode its own dedicated space optimized for its specific travel needs. Cars and trucks don’t slow down transit, transit doesn’t block lanes to load its patrons, and bicyclists are free to pass along on their own separate path optimized for biking. For roads that access industrial facilities, it can even be tweaked a bit more to offer a dedicated truckway in the corridor that is reinforced to handle the axle loads of trucks.

Far from just musings, this design is in use already in The

Archimedeslaan in Utrecht includes a roadway for motorists, a busway (bus times shown), and a bikeway.
Archimedeslaan in Utrecht includes a roadway for motorists, a busway (including a bus information screen at stops), and a bikeway. This corridor has the capacity to move triple the amount of people as the “Major Arterial” above.

Netherlands, where mobility in numerous cities is provided for all in a manner optimized for their needs. The same model can be used in the existing cities and especially new developments here in the Inland Empire. Instead of building the biggest roads today in anticipation of “future demand”, they can be built with all modes in mind in a method that greatly increases the efficiency of all the systems for all.

This is vitally important as despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the transportation infrastructure in the Inland Empire region has shown no improvement in recent years, barely maining a D+ rating in both the 2005 and 2010 assessments from the local branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers, but requiring  a whopping 67% increase in annual investment during that time. If we are going to ever truly see signs of improvement on not just the roads, but many other local issues, there needs to be some real change in priorities. Switching the focus to the movement of goods and people over just cars will set the Inland Empire up for a more robust and resilient future.

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Interstates of Steel

Is this the light at the end of the tunnel to ensure efficient passenger service?
Could government ownership and maintenance be the light at the end of the tunnel to ensure more and more efficient passenger service? Photo credit: adamr.

For years, Amtrak has been getting delayed by freight traffic on the tracks where it runs, which in itself is ironic because those very same railroads prided themselves in timeliness when they operated passenger services. However, this isn’t just about Amtrak. Transportation agencies looking to add commuter service to relieve congestion on their crowded freeways, but often run into a railroad unwilling to allow those trains to operate over their tracks.

As such, perhaps it time for the government to own, maintain, and dispatch all  the major rail corridors in the country, just like is done for major roads and airports that are also critical components of our transportation system. Could that be the answer to the problem of providing more efficient passenger service as well as just getting more  passenger service period?

Benefits

Several benefits  could emerge from such a proposal. The first is clear: the ability to provide more passenger service, especially for commuter agencies. The second, though perhaps not quite at all as obvious, is that it would open up the rail industry to the winds of the great free market in a way not possible in the past. The third is that regions could provide the best rail infrastructure appropriate for their area. All of those are benefits that both SoCal at large and the IE would greatly appreciate.

Better passenger rail options

With the Inland region continuing to grow, our transportation agencies are running out of ways to keep people moving. Yet, while the area is crisscrossed with hundreds of miles of track and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money into projects that at least in part, benefit the railroads (aka grade separations, especially the Colton Crossing), a lack of capacity from the freight railroads means that the ability to further pursue rail options. For example,  RCTC is looking to provide passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley region and is interested in making good use of the imminent Perris Valley Line by offering more connections. However, that would require operating on either BNSF’s or Union Pacific’s tracks, something which UP is not known for being extremely open to and BNSF is not particularly  famous for either. Other projects around the IE would also greatly benefit from the ability to better operate over the regions rails. Proposals to provide train service to destinations such as Ontario International Airport, the High Desert, the Temecula Valley, and other points in the area all continue to run into the same problem.

More competition among, less regulation of carriers

New ownership can also lead to increased competition among carriers. As it is, many railroads have varying agreements for ‘trackage’ and ‘haulage’ rights on each others’ lines. With a single owner entity in charge of the rails themselves, every railroad would in effect have trackage rights everywhere and the race would be on. There would be direct competition among the carriers because they would all have the option to serve all customers. Such a move could also even spur entrepreneurship in the sector as a startup railroad would no longer have to try to find a right-of-way to buy and refurbish or go through the arduous process of establishing an entirely new one, one that is perhaps right next to an existing line. Additionally, it could greatly reduce or completely eliminate the need for the Surface Transportation Board to set rates for some services as they do now.

Regionally-appropriate infrastructure

The ability for regions to provide the right rail infrastructure for their area is another huge area of opportunity and one that would be exceptionally beneficial to SoCal and the IE. In addition to the aforementioned congestion benefits that could come from increased passenger operations, this area is the home to the worst air quality in the nation and the residents of the IE and the LA Basin have suffered the ill effects of bad air for decades. While some of it may certainly be due to China, most of it is homegrown, with transportation accounting for a significant source of that pollution. Improvements are occurring, but a lot more needs to be done to meet emissions targets that are quickly approaching. While certainly not the only strategy necessary, one large area of opportunity rests in a reduction in use of diesel locomotives, especially in the LA Basin area, by way of electrification. Currently, the major freight railroads in the region (BNSF and UPRR) are not extremely interested in paying to electrify a small portion of their extensive national networks. However, it could be accomplished on the local scale by transportation commissions or MPOs such as SCAG.

Sooner = better

There’s no time to waste, tomorrow beckons. As it is, billions of dollars are to be poured into the rail network of this country over the next couple decades, with a significant amount coming from government already. While some of the proposal will certainly be quite controversial and require lots of lawyers in long meetings, the end result would be a system that is optimal for industry, customers, and purposes of the public good. As such, the process should begin as soon as possible so that those can be realized in a reasonable amount of time. We owe it to ourselves to do so.

Diving Into the ATP

Caltrans released the staff list of recommendations for this year’s round of the Active Transportation Program funding cycle last week. In it were some winners and others for us out here in the Inland Empire.

The Active Transportation Program combined several fragmented pots of money allotted for several different years into one single feeding frenzy. Emphasis was placed on projects that benefit disadvantaged communities and Safe Routes to School and the proposals delivered.The vast majority of the proposals purported to tick one or both of those boxes, which led to some noggin scratching at some of the “disadvantaged” communities on the initial list.

Nevertheless, lots of good did come out of it. Without making this a publication to rival the length of Atlas Shrugged, a brief look at the local projects competitive at the State level [PDF] is prepared below. It’s organized by county and is based off preliminary staff recommendations. Formal adoption of the awards for the State/Rural level will occur on the 20th, after which everything that didn’t get funded goes down to the MPO level. For the Inland Empire, that means SCAG will be doling out its portion of funds to the remaining projects.

Riverside County
  • County Department of Public Health
    •  SRTS Active Transportation Program City of Perris $350k
    • SRTS City of Jurupa Valley $500k
  • Jurupa ValleySRTS Troth St. $627k
    • Pyrite St. SRTS $665k
  • Moreno Valley – Citywide SRTS Ped Facility Improvements $1.64mn
  • Perris
    • Murrieta Road Ped Improvements $1.10mn
    • Perris Valley Storm Drain Channel Trail $1.20mn
  • Riverside – Downtown and Adjoining Areas Bicycle and Ped Improvements $877k
  • San Jacinto – Safe & Active San Jacinto SRTS $989k

County IE total*: $7,950,000

San Bernardino County
No access
Colton’s award will allow them to identify opportunities to improve the connectivity of the facilities in the City, such as a connection here to the trail.
  • Colton – Active Transportation Plan $265k
  • Omnitrans ** – West Valley Corridor Connector $3.5mn
  • Ontario – SRTS Active Transportation: Bon View, Corona, Euclid, and Vineyard Avenue Elementary Schools $1.16mn
  • Rialto – SRTS Plan $1.45mn
  • SanBAG
    • SanBAG SRTS Plan $400k
    • Metrolink Station Accessibility Improvement $4.68mn
  • Yucaipa – Safe Routes to Calimesa and Wildwood Elementary Schools $872k

County IE total*: $12,327,000

*Not included in these counts were awards to cities outside of the area generally considered to be the “Inland Empire”, which can admittedly be somewhat nebulous. If all projects are included from all areas of both counties, Riverside County total would be $21,931,000 and the San Bernardino County total $13,422,000.

**Though listed as part of the county ‘VAR’ on the Caltrans worksheet, Omnitrans has been included as part of San Bernardino County totals because it operates almost exclusively within communities in San Bernardino County, with only two or three lines entering Los Angeles or Riverside counties. Without the Omnitrans award (but including all awards within the County), the San Bernardino County total would be $9,922,000.

Technological Distractions

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion put on by the Urban Land Institute on transportation in the Inland Empire. It centered heavily on the changing landscape regionally that is being brought on by demographic shifts and consumer preferences. Suffice it to say that not many more single-family homes should be built for awhile.

Of course, the main focus was the changing shift in how people move themselves around. Not surprisingly, biking and walking as possible solutions to transport problems were given only passing mention. During the Q&A with the panelists, I sought to further clarify info about biking and walking and got decent feedback. Part of SCAG’s initiatives do focus on increasing the bike/walk mode share from the presently paltry levels to be slightly less paltry.

But my hackles were raised a little by the suggestion of one of the panelists that the bike industry needs to be “doing its part” to develop “smart bikes”. The argument was that since cars are getting smarter and will soon be able to communicate with each other, then bikes on the road should also expect to communicate with the cars, with an insinuation that they had no part in future transportation if they can’t “play fair”. I find that to be a glaring error and I hope planners don’t lap this up like they have John Forester’s outrageous claims.

We’ve all been anxiously awaiting the self-driving car for decades. At the current rate of development, cars will soon be able to communicate with each other and share information in real time about positions, speed, intended path, etc. to reduce collisions. Currently, newer cars are also already employing systems that can recognize a bike/ped in the path of the car and assist the driver in avoiding hitting them. The implications of this continue to be debated, but requiring bikes to also communicate with cars isn’t the solution to accommodate the unique needs of bicycle riders and certainly shouldn’t be touted as an alternative to actually building safe infrastructure (which is overwhelmingly done via separation).

Using the above video as an example, I’m not sure how the situation would’ve been much different had the bike been able to communicate with the car. The rider recognized the road hazard and swerved to avoid it. While a smart bike certainly could’ve beamed the deviation information to the car, the car should’ve already detected it anyway and applied the brakes. The video shows what is likely a low-speed environment similar to a fietsstraat (bicycle boulevard), so absolute separation isn’t expected here anyway. However, on an open road, relying on intervehicular communication and detection techonology alone cannot be allowed to replace the need for fully separate facilities.

The reasons are two-fold. First a bike cannot quite operate like a car, even if equipped with gizmos and gadgetry. Despite the advent of electronic braking and the proliferation of electric-assist or full electric bikes along with more flashy improvements, bikes must still often deviate from their paths for road hazards that a car needn’t worry about in an unpredictable fashion. On high-quality, separated cycle paths, this is hardly an issue (in part because such hazards are far fewer to begin with). A deviation there wouldn’t put them in the path of a car, just perhaps in front of another rider. Deviating on a 55 MPH arterial puts them in the path of someone driving 70.

Secondly, a bike is not going fast in the grand scheme of things. Most riders in countries with large segments of the population traveling by bike ride in the vicinity of 12 MPH. While many American bike commuters profess to travel at 20 MPH, that’s still relatively slow compared to a car. One of the advantages of autonomous and fully automatic, self-driving cars would be that they can operate more efficiently at higher speeds than allowed in the current environment due to elimination of human error. At the moment, Texas has a stretch of highway with an 85 MPH limit and many other states have 80 MPH as the top limit. (It’s officially 70 MPH here in CA, but we all know that CHP will fly past you on I-5 when you’re cruising at 90.) Autonomous cars could conceivably drive in close proximity at double that speed, but sticking a bunch of bikes in the car’s pathway, whether or not they’re communicating with the car, will still drastically reduce the speed of the cars, perhaps all the way down to bike speed.

So while “smart” bikes would certainly be interesting additions, let’s not continue to ignore the means of actually making roads safer for riders and other non-motorized users. They can’t be expected to mix with streams of fast traffic and slowing the traffic to their speed is foolish. Removing interactions as much as possible is still by far the best option available for actually encouraging bicycle use among the masses. After all, most would ride if they felt safe, while hundreds more stick to sidewalks or salmon bike lanes because it feels safer even though it’s the exact opposite. Technology is great, but a far greater ROI is available at much lower cost with some relatively simple planning.