Archive for the ‘Urbanism’ Category

A Site for Sore Eyes (and Sore Bicycle Rims) on Lakeshore Ave.

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Some people’s thoughts bend toward the numinous when they see a crude outline of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a cloud, or in a piece of gum stuck to the sidewalk. Others of us worship differently, and feel the presence of grace when we come across a crude outline of a bicyclist indicating the imminent birth of a bike lane, like this one I photographed yesterday on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland:

Lakeshore Bike Lane

I haven’t been so excited about seeing a bike lane since I saw the protected 9th Avenue bike lane in Manhattan (complete with its own bicycle traffic signals) in August, or the lovely bike lane at the eastern end of Alameda in April. What makes this latest bike lane special isn’t its design—it looks to be a standard 5-foot paint job between the car traffic lane and the car parking lane—but rather its location, and the contrast with what was there before. Lakeshore Avenue alongside Lake Merritt has long been a truly awful road on which to ride a bicycle, which is unfortunate for me because my bicycle is my primary mode of transportation and Lakeshore is the most direct way from my apartment to most points north or west of here.

Lakeshore was terrible to bike on for many reasons: the pavement was pitted and rough; there was almost no room to squeeze between the car traffic and the parked cars; drivers went too fast around Lakeshore’s many curves; the heavy recreational use of Lakeside Park means that a lot of people are getting in and out of their parked cars, increasing the likelihood of being doored; and after dark the road was not particularly well lit. If you took all the most dangerous aspects of riding a bike in a city and put them together in one street, you might end up with something resembling Lakeshore Avenue in its former incarnation. I would sometimes take a less direct route home, especially after dark, in order to avoid having to bike on Lakeshore.

Lakeshore Bike Lane

So the brand new pavement, the reduced number of car lanes from 4 to 2 (which will hopefully reduce speeding) and the new bike lane really do come as a revelation. I knew that bike lanes were included in the master plan for the park and roadways around the lake, but I had also heard some recent speculation from people in the neighborhood that bike lanes were not going to be painted on Lakeshore after all, because there wouldn’t be enough room between the parking lane and the car traffic lane. I’m glad to see that those rumors were unfounded, and we are definitely getting our bike lanes after all.

I’ve been pretty down on Oakland lately, for reasons that I can’t entirely pinpoint, but the privileged status of the automobile here is certainly one factor. The danger posed to vulnerable pedestrians and bicyclists from automobiles (which are all too often controlled by reckless, oblivious, or downright angry people) was tragically brought home two weeks ago when an 11-year-old girl in East Oakland was killed by a hit and run driver as she walked across a crosswalk from a bus stop to her school at 8 o’clock in the morning (as far as I know the killer still has not been identified). I’ve written plenty before about the importance of making the world safe for pedestrians and cyclists (including schoolchildren). The resurrection of Lakeshore Ave.,with its new pedestrian islands in the median, its bike lanes, and a reduction in its number of car lanes, should be a model for other parts of the city (like, say, lower Park Boulevard, perhaps?).

BART and the Repelatron Skyway

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

“Dad, I’ve just figured how to lick our whole problem. Instead of running a road through the jungle, we’ll build an aerial highway above the treetop level!”

Both Mr. Swift and Mr. Newton were astonished.

“I’m afraid that I don’t follow you, son.”

Tom went on enthusiastically, “By running the highway above the trees, we can sidestep the mess of hacking a route through the jungle!”

“Great, but how do you intend to support this aerial highway?” put in Uncle Ned. “It certainly can’t float in the air!”

“That ís just exactly what it will do,” Tom explained.

Tom Swift and his Repelatron Skyway

A BART's-eye View of Oakland

On Tuesday night, the Oakland City Council will consider a resolution opposing the current plan for the Oakland Airport Connector, which I wrote about at greater length (twice, actually! No wait, thrice!) back in May. To summarize: BART is planning to spend over half a billion dollars to build an elevated people mover from BART to the Oakland International Airport. For the privilege of schlepping our luggage across several additional traffic lanes from the shuttle to the terminal and saving a few minutes of travel time, passengers will pay twice as much fare as we currently do on the AirBART shuttle—not including the additional fee added onto all plane tickets out of Oakland Airport in order to recoup the money that BART has demanded from the Port of Oakland for the project. Meanwhile, Oakland gets yet another overhead band of concrete to add to the interstate overpasses and existing BART viaducts that already blight our neighborhoods. Oh, and BART is also borrowing $100 million from the Federal government to fund the project, so even BART riders who don’t live in Oakland and don’t visit the airport are likely to see their fares rise more in coming years in order to service all that additional debt.

All in all, it’s an unmitigated disaster, and the only superficially appealing argument in its favor is that it will create jobs in economically depressed East Oakland. The problem with that argument, of course, is that good public works projects create just as many jobs as bad public works projects, so even if people want to spend half a billion dollars on public transportation projects in order to create jobs, then the money should be spent on projects that will…I don’t know…just a crazy thought here…actually help to transport the public more effectively.

Also on the agenda for the city council meeting is yet another battle in the Great Oakland Parking War of 2009, so the city council chambers will be half full of furious merchants and drivers fuming about parking meters and tickets, and half full of furious transportation activists fuming about BART’s boondoggle. Unfortunately, the Oakland city council cannot stop the BART project directly, but the hope is that if the city council goes on record in opposition to the project, then it will get the attention of bodies that could stop the project, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. (Some MTC commissioners have basically admitted in public meetings that the project is a big waste of money that will leave BART on bad financial footing for decades to come, but they mostly shrugged and voted to approve it anyway, apparently out of deference to BART’s board.)

For people who read local political and transportation blogs, this is all old news—and for those who live farther afield, it is probably of little interest—but since I have a little soapbox here I figure I might as well stand on it and say my piece. I took the photo above over a month ago, but for me it captures BART management’s attitude toward Oakland pretty well: they couldn’t care less whether Oakland gets trashed, as long as they can whisk suburban commuters to downtown San Francisco or the airports with minimal contact with Oakland soil. Elevated BART tracks carry passengers over Oakland’s neighborhoods while elevated freeways carry drivers over Oakland’s streets—a separate transportation grid several dozen feet above ground level, which “sidesteps the mess” below. I couldn’t help but think of Tom Swift’s “repelatron skyway” which was mentioned by a commenter on a previous post. Oakland’s a city, not a swampy jungle, but you wouldn’t know it from the way BART behaves. And when you protest that BART’s wasteful project can’t simply float on borrowed funds, they look you in the eye and tell you, “That is just exactly what it will do!”

East 18th Gets Thrift Store that Lakeshore Spurned

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I noticed today that an Out of the Closet thrift store is about to open on East 18th Street, in the space that Hollywood Video used to occupy. Employees who were there setting up the shop told me that the grand opening is on Saturday. I normally wouldn’t write a long post about the opening of a thrift store in my neighborhood, but the opening of this particular store says a lot about the city of Oakland.

Out of the Closet

I’ll begin at the beginning. Over a year and a half ago, a GapKids store on Lakeshore Avenue closed (the regular Gap store a few doors down remains open). The landlord entered into negotiations to rent the empty storefront to a thrift store chain called Out of the Closet, which is operated by (and supports) the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. When neighborhood residents got wind of those negotiations from a post at the Grand Lake Guardian website, some of them were not pleased to hear that a déclassé thrift store—and especially a thrift store with a bright pink and blue color scheme—was going to be coming to that shopping strip, which has become a pretty nice little shopping district in recent years, thanks in part to the efforts of some of the same people who objected to Out of the Closet.

My City Councilmember, Pat Kernighan, wrote an open letter to the community in which she said that when she learned about the negotiations, she had “immediately contacted the owner’s broker, Steve Banker of LCB Associates, and told him that a thrift store would not be welcomed by the majority of area residents.” She apparently believed that the majority of residents would not welcome a thrift store because she had been contacted by 15 people who were not happy about the coming of the thrift store, but only by 3 people who approved of the store. I’m very dubious of that conclusion. Anyone who has ever dealt with the public in any way should know that people are much more likely to speak up if they are angry about something, and in this case, that phenomenon was amplified because most of the neighborhood residents who even knew about the negotiations were people who had read about it in an anti-thrift store blog post which encouraged people to call Kernighan to complain. That’s hardly going to produce a representative sample of public opinion.

In any case, Kernighan made clear in her letter what her own feelings were: she wrote that she personally didn’t think the store was a “good fit” for Lakeshore, and that she was trying to get a “more desirable” store to move into that location. She said she had contacted representatives of Out of the Closet and “explained that Lakeshore is trying hard to attract more shoppers with disposable income to keep all the stores in business and that a thrift store would lead in the other direction.” She also expressed the concerns that people would dump stuff in front of the store after-hours, and that the thrift store would create blight.

Many local residents clearly agreed with her, and some of the comments on the post called Out of the Closet a “dumpy, cheap chain” and expressed a desire for locally-owned mom and pop stores, cute boutiques and restaurants, etc. Other people took strong exception to Kernighan’s letter, and interpreted her comments about “good fit,” “more desirable,” and “attract more shoppers with disposable income” as a not-so-subtle way of saying, “we want poor people to stay away from Lakeshore Avenue and keep to their own neighborhoods where they belong.” I was one of those who took offense, and I wrote a somewhat intemperate comment on her open letter reflecting that point of view. In my opinion, the socioeconomic diversity of Lakeshore Avenue is a feature, not a bug, especially as it is surrounded by a wide variety of residential neighborhoods, with upscale single-family homes on side, and some of Oakland’s densest middle-class apartment districts on the other. For a Councilmember basically to be telling a large percentage of her constituents that they weren’t welcome on Lakeshore Avenue really bothered some of us.

Anyway, within a week, Kernighan announced that Out of the Closet had withdrawn its effort to take over the GapKids space. I don’t know whether the objections of Kernighan and others were a factor in the collapse of the deal, but presumably they didn’t help matters. Apparently East 18th Street, which tends to attract people with less “disposable income” than Lakeshore, is considered a “good fit” for Out of the Closet, because I haven’t heard any objections from Kernighan (she represents both shopping districts). I look forward to shopping there, and as far as I’m concerned, Lakeshore’s loss is East 18th’s gain.

The little brouhaha over Out of the Closet on Lakeshore is sadly typical of the way business is done—or rather, undone—in Oakland. I’ll give some other examples. Chip Johnson, the East Bay columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written several times about a guy he knows who was stymied in his efforts to open a little bike shop in Chinatown because of Oakland’s byzantine zoning laws and expensive permitting process. Johnson points out that the city bureaucracy seems designed to hamper economic development and enterpreneurship, not encourage it (so much for the mom-and-pop stores that Kernighan was so eager to support).

In another example, A Better Oakland wrote yesterday about a City Council “Emergency Ordinance” requiring new nail salons and laundromats to receive a “major conditional use permit” from the city for the next year, until the City can find a more long-term way to deal with the proliferation of nail salons. It costs about $3000 just to apply for one of those conditional use permits, and presumably many of them would not be granted because, as the ordinance says, “the proliferation of nail salons and self-serve laundromats along major retail corridors has become an increasing concern to Councilmembers, retail store owners and merchant associations.” In a city with a high violent crime rate and many vacant storefronts in every shopping district, it’s hard for many people to understand why “emergency” action must be taken to prevent more nail salons or laundromats from filling some of those vacant storefronts.

Finally, the East Bay Express has an article this week about how an Oakland city official discovered that used book and clothing stores could be regulated under a state “Secondhand Dealers” law which is intended to help police track stolen goods. The law is primarily meant for pawnshops, and it requires that all employees be finger-printed and a special annual fee of more than $500 must be paid for secondhard-dealing permits. Most onerous is that detailed records of each item bought and sold must be kept, and the personal information (I assume that means name, address, and driver’s license number) of each customer must be documented. Most cities exempt non-pawnshops from these requirements, but Oakland recently sent letters to 48 second-hand retailers warning them that they had until September 10th to apply for these permits and start complying with this law. Needless to say, it would be a death sentence for used bookstores—which aren’t exactly a booming business these days—if they started having to ask each customer for their personal information in order to buy a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights or The Iliad.

I’ve never considered myself especially “pro-business” (it depends on the business!) and in a lot of ways, I’m politically in line with the Oakland City Council: I’m pro-labor, I worry about the fraying of our already-porous safety net, I would like to see less income disparity and more social justice, I support strong environmental regulations, etc., etc., etc. In many parts of the county, I would be at the far left end of the political spectrum. But there’s a joke about how a conservative is a liberal who’s been a victim of crime, and my own version of the joke is that a conservative is a liberal who has lived in Oakland for more than a few years. Oakland seems to be overflowing with examples of how government’s meddling in private contracts, or micromanaging economic development from the top down, can lead to adverse unintended consequences.

Oh, and that former GapKids storefront on Lakeshore Avenue that people were so eager to keep Out of the Closet away from a year and a half ago, because it wouldn’t be a “good fit” for the neighborhood? It’s been sitting empty ever since.

Traffic Calming on Park Boulevard Today

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I wrote in January about some of the problems with lower Park Boulevard, my neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. One big problem I noted is that cars treat it like a speedway instead of a city street, which makes it pretty scary for pedestrians and bicyclists, and therefore diminishes its potential as a thriving urban street (the closure of the Parkway Theater in March—temporary, we still hope—doesn’t help either). I also pointed out that Oakland, unlike some neighboring cities such as Alameda, does not seem to enforce traffic laws very forcefully. (I’m being charitable here; I almost never see drivers pulled over for speeding or other reckless behavior in Oakland, unless the traffic stop is done as a pretext for checking out a “suspicious” person.)

So I was interested to see more than half a dozen officers near the corner of Park and 5th Avenue this morning, clocking drivers with a radar gun and pulling over the speeders.

No Speeding!

I don’t know whether they were issuing full tickets or just warnings (maybe it depended on how fast the driver was going), and I don’t know what long-term effects these operations have, but I was at least happy to see that someone was aware of the problem. I told one of the officers that in addition to speeding, another big problem on that stretch of road is that drivers almost never stop for people at crosswalks. I was going to ask whether anything specific had prompted today’s operation, but unsurprisingly, the officer didn’t seem very eager to stand around chatting. (He seemed about as interested in my thoughts on crosswalks as cops usually are when I share my opinions with them, which is to say not at all interested—but it never hurts to try, right?)

I can imagine that some people might think it’s a waste of resources to have 8 or 10 Oakland police officers conducting an anti-speeding sting in a relatively quiet part of the city, since the OPD is chronically understaffed and has more serious crimes than speeding to worry about, but personally, my only small complaint about this sting is that it was happening in mid-morning, instead of two hours earlier—I had biked down that exact same stretch of Park at 8:30 this morning, and I literally had to pull over to the side of the road because there were so many cars driving so fast, and I didn’t feel safe “sharing the road” with them. Oh, well: better late than never.

An Awful Message to Kids: Stay in School (but get there in a car)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I was flabbergasted when a commenter on one of my Flickr photos back in April told me about an elementary school in San Jose which had (at the behest of the SJPD) instructed parents that bicycles “are not allowed as a means of transportation to or from school,” apparently because traffic patterns around the school were considered too dangerous. And I was flabbergasted again today when I read a post at Streetsblog about a family in Saratoga Springs who were confronted by school officials (and a state trooper who happened to be on the scene) when they defied a ban on students walking or biking to a local middle school.

I don’t have too much to add to the Streetsblog post, so I won’t go on a lengthy rant, but these stories are symptomatic of how schizophrenic our culture is right now when it comes to transportation. On the one hand, we hear a lot from politicians up the entire food chain from city councilmembers to President Obama about encouraging people to walk and bike in order to be more healthy, burn less petroleum, and pollute less. And sometimes they even put our money where their mouths are, installing bike lanes, improving streetscapes to be more pedestrian-friendly, funding new mass transit lines, and so on.

On the other hand, we have a culture that has been built around the assumption that everyone will always drive cars everywhere. That culture is reflected both in the physical design of our towns and cities, and in the mindset of the vast majority of policymakers, including many of those who pay lip service to “green” issues. People making these decisions in school districts from California to New York are presumably worried—with good reason—about the prospect of a kid getting hit by a car on the way to school, but instead of taking steps to make routes to school safer for people on bikes, their solution is simply to ban bikes. This is like dealing with violent crime by banning citizens from leaving their homes, while doing nothing to stop the people who are committing the violence.

Not only is the solution backwards, but it also contributes to a terrible public health problem. The CDC reports that childhood obesity rates more than doubled among kids aged 6-11 in just 20 years, and more than tripled among kids aged 12 to 19. Lack of adequate physical activity is one of the major causes of this increase, and childhood obesity can lead to any number of medical problems. In the face of this public health crisis, it is literally a sign of deep sickness in our culture that schools are discouraging kids from walking and biking to school, instead of doing whatever they can to encourage kids to bike to school (traffic mitigation, separated bike paths, school-sponsored “bikepools” and “walkpools” that would get kids to travel to school with other nearby kids in order to keep them safer, and so on).

I’m not totally naive, and I know that most parents will still want to drive their kids to school, either out of convenience or out of a fear of traffic or abduction. But a change in culture and mindset on these issues doesn’t require that everyone, or even most people, start sending their kids to school on foot or on a bike. All it requires, at least as a first step that could be taken immediately, is that we start making it easier for parents who want to do this, instead of treating them as pariahs or criminals who should be reported to Child Protective Services.

If You Build Community, They Will Come (a corollary: If You Raze It, They Will Leave)

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

They came on foot, on scooters and on skateboards. They came on scraper bikes and fixies and longtails. They came in strollers and buses and, yes, some of them came in cars. However they got there, a lot of people came out to enjoy the Lakefest held on Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue on Saturday and Sunday:

Lakefest 2009

I wouldn’t normally post anything about a street festival that was mostly indistinguishable from all the other street festivals which are held on summer weekends across the country (a closed street, booths with crafts or T-shirts or massages or information about local organizations, food vendors, outdoor tables and chairs in front of the local restaurants and cafes, music stages, inflatable bouncy houses and slides for children—you know the routine). What most interested me about this festival, however, was the counterpoint it provided to an event that had happened two days before and a block away.

Closing for Business

The owner of the Grand Lake Theater, Allen Michaan, who is still fuming about the changes to parking meter rates and hours that I wrote about two weeks ago, held a meeting at the theater to discuss how businesses should respond to the increases. He proposes a local business closure all day on Thursday (Aug. 6th) in order to protest the new meter rules. He is also gathering signatures for a petition to recall City Councilmembers unless they rescind the higher rates and hours.

Closing for Business

I couldn’t help but be struck by the difference between these two events. In one case, you had a festival that closed a busy street to car traffic and reduced the amount of parking in the neighborhood (because the many parking spots on Lakeshore Ave were rendered unavailable), yet people showed up in droves nonetheless, to hang out, to eat, to drink, to buy, to watch and to listen. In the other case, you had some local business owners who are raising so much hell about the “parking crisis” that they may end up losing even more customers.

Lakefest 2009

How might their behavior cause them to lose customers? Three possible ways that I can see: First, residents who might have been willing to pay a bit more for parking are now basically being told by Michaan and a few other vocal merchants that it makes more economic sense to drive to a distant suburb to see a movie or visit a restaurant, because they will save a few dollars on parking (a dubious proposition, in my opinion, once you factor in the “value” of one’s time and the cost of fuel). I can’t help but wonder if any people have avoided coming to the area because they have seen Michaan or another business owner on TV talking about how the city of Oakland is going to “mug” and “extort” them if they try to park in this neighborhood. Second, organizing the business closure on Thursday will bring attention to the issue as they hope, but it will probably also piss off a lot of customers, who may well blame the business owners instead of the City Council if they come here to do some shopping and discover that their favorite stores have voluntarily closed for the day. This reminds me of a kid on a schoolyard who gets upset and takes his ball and goes home—he might succeed in punishing the other kids, but he also punishes himself. Third, turning this issue into World War III garners support from those who agree with them, but it also alienates the Oakland residents who disagree with them on the issue, or who at the very least think that their tactics are misguided and divisive (some commenters on local blogs are already saying they will start avoiding the businesses that are leading this campaign).

I won’t get too much into the merits of the debate, since I pretty much said everything I have to say in my earlier post. (I didn’t expect to write a second post about parking in as many weeks, especially since I don’t even own a car myself.) My personal opinion is that whatever pocketbook pain drivers experience now is literally small change compared to how expensive driving will soon become (the chief economist of the International Energy Agency is now warning that we will soon face oil shortages which will put our economy and way of life in even greater peril than they are now, a view of peak oil that was widely dismissed as a fringe theory just a few years ago). For better or worse, many people will have to start driving less because it will become so expensive, and it will probably be a difficult transition, but my general feeling is that the process will be much less painful in the long run if we start encouraging a change in behavior now instead of waiting for external circumstances to force the issue.

Given that likely future, combined with Oakland’s desperate need for more revenue in the present, I am inclined to support meter rates which will raise revenue, will reduce the amount of time drivers spend circling the block looking for a spot, and will encourage people to start walking, biking, and riding the bus for more of their routine trips. That said, if the effect on our neighborhood’s businesses is as dramatic as the merchants claim, then I am not necessarily opposed to changing the current meter rules. Maybe a compromise of $1.75 instead of the new $2 or the old $1.50? Maybe a return to $1.50, but keeping the extended hours? Maybe allowing cars to stay in spots for more than 2 hours at a time? Maybe different prices at peak times versus offpeak times? I don’t know, but whatever the right balance is, it should be guided by statistics and rational debate, not anecdotes, counterproductive media campaigns, and recall threats.

In other words, even if it’s true that local business has fallen by more than 30% due to the meter changes, and even if it’s true that the City Council should rescind or alter the new meter rules, I still don’t think that the combative reaction of Michaan and others is a productive approach to this particular issue. It has certainly succeeded in getting attention to the issue: the Tribune and the Chronicle have published several articles each on the subject, and the issue has been all over TV and the internet too. The crowds at Lakefest suggest to me, however, that angry business owners would have been better off brainstorming about creative ways to entice people to our neighborhood and building an even stronger sense of community, rather than banding together to accuse elected officials of “municipal muggings” and “extortion.” Do these people look like they are being mugged or extorted?

Lakefest 2009

Positive efforts to draw people to the Grand Lake area wouldn’t preclude also making an effort to change the meter rules, but rants, threats, closing of businesses, and demonization of councilmembers don’t seem like constructive ways to encourage people to come to our neighborhood. (One also wonders where these local business owners were when it was being debated by the City Council several months ago—one blog post on the topic attracted 47 comments back in early June, so it’s not as if some people weren’t aware of the possible changes to come. Perhaps if these business owners were more engaged with the local decision-making process, we wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess to begin with.)

This neighborhood has a lot going for it, and I think most people in Oakland appreciate the advantages that a neighborhood like Grand Lake has over a mall with free parking in Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill (two cities cited by Michaan as being “successful” because they have free parking). How about a campaign to remind people of the unique character and businesses in this neighborhood, and more special events to draw people to the area, instead of a divisive feud with the City Council and a publicity campaign that may serve to drive away even more customers? Has Allen Michaan pointed out even once in his media interviews that, as the Grand Lake Theater’s own website advertises, there is a free city-owned parking lot across the street from his theater where people can park for 4 hours at a stretch, or that his theater is one of the few in the Bay Area where an adult ticket still costs less than $10, at least a buck less per ticket than most theaters in neighboring communities? That is the kind of information that he should be spreading far and wide in the media, in order to encourage people to come enjoy his beautiful theater and other nearby businesses, but instead he seems so absorbed in his own righteous indignation that he cannot do anything except focus on the negative and lash out at the City Council—actions that seem likely to exacerbate whatever ill effects the new meter rules are having on his business.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Parker Scorned

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

The Grand Lake Theater here in Oakland is well known for its political advocacy, from messages on the marquee calling for the prosecution of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to anti-war events featuring Barbara Lee and Sean Penn. Normally the issues the theater focuses on are national, at a safe remove from the day to day lives of local residents—heaven forbid you should make your liberal bay area customers feel uncomfortable about their own lifestyles, when it’s so much easier to reassure them that they are right-thinking and right-acting, unlike those nefarious folks in Washington.

The management of the Grand Lake have recently found a local issue that is worthy of their attention: increases in parking meter hours and fees. To the barricades, drivers!

Cause Celebre

Judging from media reports and the reactions of some residents of my neighborhood, the theater’s stance is squarely in the mainstream of local opinion. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article about how the increased meter hours, increased fees and increased enforcement are “inspiring a revolt.” CBS5 had a story a few days ago featuring indignant drivers and business owners on Grand Avenue, which concluded by saying that people plan to “storm the city council meeting next week.”

Even though I don’t own an automobile and think that most of our cities are far too car-centric, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of these drivers or merchants. Obviously I don’t want commerce to move away from local stores and neighborhoods and toward malls in the suburbs, and I can also understand how infuriating it is when a mismanaged government or institution (BART comes to mind) punishes the poor and middle class with increased fees in order to make up for shortfalls in its budget. (Increased fees of various kinds, whether they be parking meter fees in Oakland or tuition fees at state universities, are a predictable consequence of a dysfunctional government and a population which has been persuaded by pandering politicians that governments can somehow keep spending more and more money without raising taxes.)

As sympathetic as I might be, however, there are benefits to extended meter hours and increased fees that deserve to be spelled out. Anyone who has driven to (for example) Grand Lake or Chinatown for dinner after 6:00 when the parking used to be free has probably spent some time circling the block looking for a parking space. When people drive in circles looking for scarce open spots, the costs of parking have not disappeared, they have just been transferred elsewhere: instead of paying for a meter, one is paying in wasted time, and paying in agitation, and paying in extra gasoline use, and paying in toxic emissions, and paying in increased traffic volume as other cars circle looking for parking as well.

Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor who has become an unlikely guru among many urbanists, has spent years trying to persuade people that parking should cost more money, and that failure to apply market pricing to public parking has been terribly detrimental to our cities (his best-known work is titled The High Cost of Free Parking). His basic rule of thumb for curbside parking is that meters should cost the lowest possible price which will render about 15 percent of spaces vacant at any given time, and that the money earned from meters should be used in that same neighborhood for local improvements (streetscaping, sidewalk cleaning, security, whatever), so that local residents and business owners feel invested in the meters instead of oppressed by them.

Setting meter prices high enough so that there are always some vacancies eliminates the Yogi Berra problem (“nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”) and encourages more turnover, so that you have more shoppers making more visits to a particular street, instead of a smaller number of visitors occupying spaces for longer periods of time. And if higher meter costs encourage some people to walk, bike, or use mass transit instead of driving—well, so much the better. An alternative “solution” to parking shortages has always been to build more and more parking, but that has some unfortunate repercussions: it ruins public spaces with unsightly parking lots, and it just gives people an incentive to drive even more, which in turn increases the demand for parking even more, leading to the construction of yet more parking lots. Some people might think that more car traffic and more parking lots would be good for Oakland’s most walkable shopping districts in the long run, but I’m not one of them.

Shoup argues, based on real-world examples such as Old Town Pasadena, that while merchants and residents typically resist increased parking fees at first, they often become supporters after they get used to the change, because they see the benefits that can accrue from increased revenue and increased consumer turnover, especially when money is used directly for neighborhood improvements that make the area more welcoming to shoppers, such as nicer sidewalks, less grime, less crime, etc. San Francisco is experimenting with a demand-based pricing system in certain neighborhoods which causes prices to fluctuate dramatically from less than a buck an hour to over ten dollars an hour for the same parking spot, depending on when it is being used. (The gist of Shoup’s arguments are outlined well in this Streetfilms video and this Toronto Star article, and in many other articles and interviews linked to from his UCLA website.)

I’ve gone on at some length in the past about some of the unexpected benefits of getting out of one’s car (or losing it altogether) and biking and walking places instead. Yes, it often takes a bit longer, but there are quality of life benefits that far outweigh the drawbacks, as far as I’m concerned. (For an example of the stress and anxiety that can come from driving a car everywhere, see the gentleman featured in the CBS5 report I mentioned above—some people complain about how shrill and entitled we bicyclists are, and I won’t argue with that, but I’d say we can’t hold a candle to the average American driver when it comes to entitlement and righteous indignation. Even the CBS5 reporter, who seems generally sympathetic to their point of view, describes people as “ranting and raving.”) As I mentioned in my post about how much nicer it is to get around by bike instead of by car, it wasn’t until I was forced by circumstance (a totaled car and not enough money for a new one) to start riding a bike everywhere that I realized that I actually preferred it for most local trips. I think human beings are often remarkably bad at knowing what will actually bring them satisfaction.

Given how hard it is for people (all of us, not just automobile drivers) to imagine that a change in lifestyle might actually improve our lives, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people who are outraged about having to pay more for parking in Oakland live within walking distance of the destinations that they currently drive to, and whether they might discover that spending 20 minutes strolling to the Grand Lake Theatre for a movie, or to Arizmendi for coffee and pastry, or to Walden Pond Books for a used paperback is actually a much more pleasurable experience than driving there and looking for parking (even free parking). I agree that it would be a shame if people start driving to malls in the suburbs instead of driving to Oakland neighborhoods for dinner or a movie, but if some significant number of people start walking and biking to those Oakland neighborhoods instead of driving because they don’t want to pay $2/hour for a meter, or because they fear getting a parking ticket from an overzealous parking enforcement officer, then I would consider that a feature, not a bug.

Eyes on the Skies

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I often walk my dog over to a neighborhood called Haddon Hill, which looms over Lake Merritt from the East. It’s a nice neighborhood, with a lot of pretty streets, well-kept properties, and a bit of local history (Henry J. Kaiser, for example, had a large home built for himself which still stands at the corner of Haddon and Hillgirt). It took me a while to notice that there’s another reason why the neighborhood is good for walking: there are no telephone poles or overhead wires. In an area of about 8 or 10 square blocks, all that infrastructure which often clutters our urban and suburban skies are submerged, except for the occasional streetlight. Here is a shot looking one direction from the “dividing line”:

Wireless

And here is a photo shot from the same location facing the other way:

High Wire

The neighboring streets, which have wires criss-crossing them every few dozen feet, are still very nice, but once you notice the visual clutter, it starts to seem more offensive. A bit closer to my apartment, here’s a view toward the palm trees of 9th Avenue, which used to form an allee on John “Borax” Smith’s estate. It could be a nice view of a hillside and some trees, if it weren’t for all the obstructions:

A Good View Spoiled

I wonder whether anyone has ever studied possible correlations between visual pollution like that, and home values, or crime rates, or residents’ peace of mind. Remarkable research done by a group at the University of Illinois has shown that the presence of greenery in public housing projects is correlated with lower crime, stronger communities, and reduced stress. Could the same be true for all the poles and wires breaking up our views of the skies? When telephone poles were being erected around the country in 1880’s, some locals would cut them down. In 1889 The New York Times ran an article with the headline “War on Telephone Poles,” a title which was borrowed for a recent Harper’s article on the subject (unfortunately, I cannot read it since my subscription to Harper’s lapsed years ago). We laugh at those NIMBYs and luddites now, but were the late-nineteenth century technophobes onto something?

Of all the offensive things that have been done to the American landscape, urban telephone poles and the wires sprouting from them are surely among the least awful, but we’ve become so inured to the depredation of public space that we hardly even notice its features anymore. One of my commenters recently remarked about the dramatic contrast in Los Angeles between its impoverished public sphere and the sumptuous private spaces there. LA is worse than a lot of cities in that regard, but the disconnect exists all over, and blocking our sightlines with a tangle of wires probably doesn’t help.

Pavement to Parkland

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

More of this, please:

Depaving

Happiness on Two Wheels

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

It’s been a while since I waxed rhapsodic about riding a bike, and now that summer is upon us, this is probably as good a time as ever to sing the praises of the two-wheeled commute. We cycling evangelists are sometimes considered strident and holier-than-thou about our choice of transportation. I suppose that’s unavoidable, since it’s self-evident that we are morally and ethically superior to our fellow human beings in every way. Whatever the merits of our self-righteousness, however, lecturing and scolding can be counterproductive when one is trying to spread the good word to benighted souls, and our emphasis on the environmental, financial and geopolitical benefits of burning up less petroleum can give the impression that riding a bike is a difficult sacrifice, a hardship that must be endured for altruistic reasons.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, so I want to dwell a bit on another benefit of getting around by bicycle which is sometimes given short shrift: the psychological benefit. I’ve thought about this in the past, but it was clarified for me during last month’s Bike to Work day. I usually don’t observe Bike to Work Day in any special way, since I bike to work every day anyway, but for some reason I got into the spirit of it this year, so I woke up early to join a loose peleton (which included my city council rep) from the Grand Lake Theater to City Hall, where they were serving a free pancake breakfast to bike commuters in the plaza out front. I then picked up a free Arizmendi scone at an “energizer station” next to Lake Merritt, then a free cup of coffee at Fruitvale BART station, and by the time I got to work I was as happy as a clam.

Now, I’m a real sucker for free food and drink, but it wasn’t only the free stuff that put me in a good mood. It was also noticing that all the other people riding their bikes to work that day, some of them presumably for the first time, had smiles on their faces. How often do you see car drivers smiling as they commute to work? Almost never! Instead you see a lot of stressed-out grimaces and furrowed brows. It occurred to me that people on bikes tend to look pretty happy as they cruise around town, and will often give a friendly wave to each other as they pass. People in cars, on the other hand, generally look tense and anxious in the gnarl and snarl of rush hour traffic. Sure, some of the friendliness among cyclists is probably just the camaraderie that comes with encountering a kindred spirit, but I am convinced that the cheerfulness of many bike commuters can also be attributed to the salutary psychological effects of riding a bike instead of driving by car.

As I thought about it, I realized that I’ve always tended to be in a better mood upon arrival to work after getting there by bike. When I used to drive a car most of the time, I would occasionally ride to work if my car was in the shop, and while I’d be annoyed about have to leave the house earlier, I would arrive feeling refreshed and chipper. Thinking back to when I lived in New York, I remember when I started riding my bike from Brooklyn to Times Square sometimes, instead of taking the subway every day. The trip took the same amount of time, but when I rode the bike, I would be more alert and cheerful when I arrived, whereas I would still be groggy and grumpy on the days when I took the subway. What’s amazing is that even though I was aware of the correlation between biking to work and feeling good once I got there, I still used to drive my car, because it was “more convenient” and would “save time” (as if time can actually be saved, rather than just spent in more or less rewarding ways). What folly! It wasn’t until my car was totaled that I was able to fully recognize that it was more a curse than a convenience.

So I can sympathize with the stressed-out commuters in their cars, because I used to be one of them. My usual route to work now takes me over and alongside Interstate 880, but in the past I used to join the unhappy masses on 880, and the experiences couldn’t be more different. I used to be just another agitated driver strapped down to my seat, tailgating slower drivers out of frustration (to the point where I once rear-ended a Camry that stopped short in front of me), and changing lanes obsessively in hopes of gaining a few seconds’ advantage. I now quite literally rise above all that, and every time I glance down at the people in their cars, I remember how miserable I used to be driving down that same stretch of road.

I-880

Nowadays I pass over that unsightly ribbon of stress and ride along the waterfront instead, which is why I end up taking so many pictures from that area. Instead of having to stare at bumpers, asphalt and concrete, I get to look at boats, buildings, parks, water and the occasional piece of art. Instead of being subject to the vagaries of traffic, I can ride happily along at whatever pace I choose, enjoying the scenery, breathing in the relatively fresh air coming off the water, and probably feeling the effects of exercise-produced endorphins.

Another reason that riding a bike improves one’s sense of well-being is that one feels far more connected to the places one is passing through. (In this, it resembles evolution’s ideal innovation in human transportation—that is, walking.) Even if one avoids the freeways in a car, the physical separation between a driver and his surroundings means that one often doesn’t care, or even notice, whether the streetscape is pretty or ugly, or whether a neighborhood is alive or dead. The effects of that alienation from the surrounding environment may be hard to measure, but I believe that it has real consequences for one’s state of mind. Even a description of my route to work conjures a comforting sense of place: instead of getting to work via “Interstate 880,” I now get there via Brooklyn Basin, Embarcadero Cove, Union Point, and Jingletown. Have any freeways ever had such evocative names? Not all of my ride to work is beautiful, but none of it is dull.

Port of Oakland

Even the decaying vestiges of the area’s industrial glory days are fairly picturesque:

Dock of the Bay

What’s most remarkable to me when I compare riding to work and driving to work is how driving a car can dramatically change one’s relationship with other people. You can take a generally calm and easygoing person—for example, me—and put him behind the wheel of a car, and he is suddenly transformed into a kind of sociopathic monster, who sees other drivers as the enemy, sees pedestrians and bicyclists as irritating obstructions, and is willing to put lives—his own and others’—at risk by running a red light, or swerving around a blind corner, or cutting off someone else on the gamble that you won’t both pull a reckless move at precisely the same moment. And for what? To shave a couple of minutes from one’s commute? Agitation and anxiety are a high price to pay for that small amount of “saved” time.

I don’t know precisely what psychological mechanism is at work, but there really seems to be something about being inside a metal box, separated from the rest of humanity by a barrier of glass and steel, which encourages anti-social behavior. I can still feel the change in mindset occur on the rare occasions when I get behind the wheel of a car, and I need to remind myself to breathe deep and relax—and to stop for those bothersome pedestrians at crosswalks. We like to think that some people are nice and some people are assholes, but the truth is that most people can be both at different times; context, circumstance, and the expectations of others can have a huge impact on one’s behavior. I really think there’s something about getting behind the wheel that can often make normal people act like psychopaths.

Of course some bicyclists also ride recklessly and selfishly, and I can attest from personal experience that being on a bike doesn’t make one immune to road rage. Just as a lot of car drivers are very responsible and considerate, a lot of bike riders are jerks (it’s worth noting, however, that a jerk on a bike is extremely unlikely to maim or kill anyone). And riding a bike does have its drawbacks, such as arriving to one’s destination sweaty, and the danger inherent in sharing roads with heavy metal objects moving at high speeds. (That last issue is why it’s so important to design streets that feel safe to ride a bicycle on—there are a lot of people who would enjoy getting around by bike, but who are reluctant to do it because they simply don’t feel safe riding in traffic.)

When it comes to fostering peace of mind and mental health, I doubt any mode of transportation will ever beat walking, but when getting someplace by two feet is impractical, the two wheels of a bicycle are the next best thing. Exercise, fresh air, independence, and none of the stress that comes with stop and go traffic, or waiting for a late bus, or crowding into a subway car: what’s not to love?

Spendthrift BART directors vote to raise fares

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

As I feared and warned about just two weeks ago, BART’s profligate board of directors just voted to raise fares six months earlier than planned, citing budget deficits. See, it’s okay to waste money, because you can always get transit-dependent citizens (along with BART employees) to pay for it. Never mind that those citizens are also suffering in this lousy economy, and that the reason many of them use public transportation is because they can’t afford to own cars, and that for environmental reasons we should be doing everything we can encourage, not discourage, use of public transit. Here is CBS5’s early story on the vote:

Bay Area Rapid Transit riders can expect to start paying more to ride and park this summer as the transit agency tries to close a $250 million deficit projected over the next four years.

BART directors voted Thursday to adopt three fare hikes that will go into effect on July 1.

At the end of a lengthy discussion, BART directors voted to raise basic train fares by 6.1 percent and to add 25 cents to the minimum fare for short trips. They also voted to charge an extra $2 surcharge for all trips to the San Francisco International Airport.

The 25-cent increase in the minimum fare will increase the base fare from $1.50 to $1.75.

BART directors also voted to begin charging a $1 parking fee at eight additional stations. Parking fees are already in place at some BART stations.

BART had not been slated to increase its fares until Jan. 1, but directors voted to move up the fare increases by six months because of BART’s large budget deficit.

Union contracts expire on June 30 and BART is also likely to ask for significant concessions from employees to help make up for the budget shortfall.

I haven’t heard yet whether Lynette Sweet, the BART director who recently said that raising fares to SFO would be “hard to swallow” and a “hardship,” voted for the fare hike.

It was pretty clear that something like this was coming, but I thought that the BART directors would wait a while, for fear that it would appear unseemly to raise fares two weeks after deciding to waste half a billion dollars on a train-in-the-sky to Oakland Airport. Apparently they had no such qualms, however.

The Train to Nowhere?

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

If you’ve ever taken AirBART from the Coliseum BART Station to the Oakland airport, then you know the service is pretty slow and unimpressive, especially considering the $3 fare each way. So you might think that public transit advocates in and around Oakland would be delighted by BART’s proposal to build a faster connection between the BART station and the airport terminals. Under the plan, the AirBART bus service would be replaced by an elevated people mover that would whisk passengers at a rapid clip from the BART station to the airport. Sounds great, right?

Wrong! The fact that local transportation activists and bloggers seem to be unanimous in their condemnation of BART’s proposal for the Oakland Airport Connector is an indication of how problematic the plan is. To start with, BART would have to borrow $150 million to fund the $522 million project. Yes, this is the same BART that is scheduled to raise fares by over 5% next year, and is threatening that it may have to raise them even more to make up for shortfalls in their budget. So while the citizens of the Bay Area who rely on BART to get around day in and day out are being asked to shell out even more for fares, BART’s directors want the system to go deeper into debt to fund their longtime dream of a people mover that will soar above an East Oakland neighborhood. (Gotta protect those air travellers from the Oakland riffraff!)

You might ask: Well, won’t the train at least provide a top-notch service to passengers, taking them from BART to the terminal quickly and easily? No! While the proposed connector will get from the BART station to the airport much more quickly than AirBART, the $522 million budget will only pay for a single stop at the airport, between the two existing terminals, and on the far side of all the car and bus dropoff lanes. So while passengers will get to the airport quickly, they will end up farther away from the terminals than they currently do with AirBART, which stops at each terminal, and which only requires passengers to cross a couple of lanes of traffic to get to the gate. If they build a third terminal at OAK, as there is talk of doing, then passengers will have to walk even farther from the train to reach it.

On top of those issues, what seems worst about BART’s proposal to me is that they expect to charge passengers $6 each way for the airport connection (that’s on top of the BART fare that they have already paid). That high cost might be defensible if there was no better option as a replacement for AirBART, but in this case, there is another option. In a matter of a few weeks, the local transportation advocacy group TransForm put together a Rapid Bus proposal that would cost a tenth of BART’s proposal, would require no new debt, would be quicker to implement, would serve more people, would be almost as speedy, could pick up passengers near the hotels and businesses on Hegenberger Road if desired, could stop directly in front of each terminal, and best of all, could be absolutely free for passengers, because the money saved by not building an elevated people mover would allow BART to fund operational costs into perpetuity.

It’s frankly pretty sad that a group of activists seem to have put together a more appealing plan in a few weeks than BART was able to put together in decades of planning (an airport connector has been in the works forever; in 2000, Alameda County voters passed a measure to fund a $130 million connector, which has morphed into today’s proposal, which provides worse service than the original proposal at $400 million higher cost—and has lower ridership estimates to boot).

I hope the BART directors don’t underestimate the appeal of a free shuttle from BART to the Airport. $6 might not seem like much in comparison to the cost of a plane ticket, but I think the psychological difference between a free shuttle and a $6 people mover is enormous, especially for the price-sensitive people who are presumably likeliest to use BART to get to the airport in the first place.

I’m notoriously frugal, to the point where I once rode my bike 10 miles to the airport in the pre-dawn darkness, and locked it there for several days, all because BART doesn’t run all night and I was too cheap to pay for a cab or a shuttle. Another time, after returning from a trip, I walked from the airport to work in San Leandro because I didn’t want to wait for a bus, then dish out $1.75 for a ride of only a couple of miles (also, I just like to walk). So I might not be a typical case, but when you charge riders $6 for a 3-mile shuttle, on top of the roughly $2-$6 that they have already paid for bus and BART fare to get to Coliseum BART, you are giving people a pretty big incentive to just skip BART altogether and take a cab or a door-to-door shuttle.

At the last meeting of the BART board in late April, they reluctantly agreed to table the airport connector proposal until tomorrow, in order to study other options more closely (imagine that: studying other options closely before going $150 million deeper into debt). That’s when TransForm leapt into action and produced their counterproposal. If BART opts for the $6 elevated tramway instead of the free high-speed shuttle buses, I suspect it will not be on the merits, but rather because they have had their sights set on a sexy high-speed people mover for decades, and are too blinded by that long dream to weigh the pros and cons of the various options.

Like a lot of other people, I prefer trains to buses for vague, possibly irrational reasons (I basically never take the bus; if I’m crossing the bay, I will take BART, and if I’m staying in the East Bay, then I will usually either walk or ride a bike). So I understand the urge to build a train instead of replacing AirBART with an improved rapid bus service. In this case, however, the activists and bloggers have persuaded me that the costs (both to BART and to its passengers) of building the train in the sky are way too high to justify, especially given the limitations of the service that it would provide. I won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s BART board meeting where they will be deciding whether to go ahead with their grandiose plans, but local transit activists promise to be there in force, and I hope the BART directors are able to set aside their longterm fantasies and pursue a less flashy, but more practical, option instead.