Putting the ‘Square’ in Railroad Square

by Lois Fisher (Close to Home in the Press Democrat)

What if we had a proper square in Railroad Square? A place that people disembarking from the SMART train and looking toward downtown could see as a leafy, bustling urban oasis that told them, you have arrived. Stop and stay awhile. It would feature shade trees, benches, a playground, places for art displays and maybe a fountain. It would be a ready-made site for public events, farmers markets and concerts. Surrounding the square would be shops and restaurants with lots of outdoor dining on the new wider sidewalks on two sides of the square.

A square in fact has been proposed for Railroad Square. It would create a “public realm” that would offer shade and a community feel to an area that will see an increasing number of people living in new buildings in proximity to the SMART train.

Parking in the area between the back of the historic Santa Rosa Depot and the linear strip of grass along Wilson Street could be relocated to the edges of a new square while retaining the same number of parking spaces. Parking is key to the economic success of downtown retail, and it needs to be preserved.

At this point, two options are proposed for the design of the square. One is a green square like Sonoma’s, with the green space separated by a curb from the parking that surrounds it. The other option would be more like an Italian piazza. This area would be bestowed with beautiful stone structures like the Hotel La Rose and Aroma Roasters buildings that were built by Italian craftsmen. What if a stone piazza were to stretch from stone building to stone building without curbs? Shade trees would be planted in tree wells to make it a cool oasis.

This square could be seen as a smaller younger sister to Courthouse Square, with the history of the railroad — steam trains, electric trains and the Fourth Street trolley — included somehow in the final design. Whichever design is selected, the key historic characteristics of Railroad Square would need to be preserved so that Railroad Square keeps its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Historic Railroad Square Association supports the idea of a public square in this area as long as common sense crime prevention through environmental design principles are incorporated into the design to discourage vagrancy.

These include being sure that surrounding business owners have a clear view of the square from their shops, that the square design is simple with no grade changes and that no areas are hidden.

The addition of a police substation and cameras to this area, along with incorporating a program similar to the Downtown Action Organization’s “Blue Shirt” patrol would help with security.

Finally, regular power washing of the sidewalks would increase the enjoyment of all who visit. Railroad Square property owners just voted to tax themselves to help with the maintenance, security and promotion of this historic part of town. This new entity is called the Railroad Square Community Benefit District, and it would implement these security policies if the plaza is included in the city’s downtown plan.

There is a City Council meeting this coming Tuesday, from 1 p.m.- 3 p.m. at Santa Rosa City Hall, to discuss the Downtown Station Area Plan update.

Happily, the idea of a square in Railroad Square is included in this preferred plan, and many City Council members support the idea. If you support this idea (or even if you don’t), please come to this meeting and let the consultants and public officials know your thoughts. We welcome a dialog on this idea to create a beautiful new addition to the public realm in downtown Santa Rosa.

Lois Fisher is an urban designer with Fisher Town Design. She lives in Windsor and teaches urban design as an adjunct faculty member at Sonoma State University.

Santa Rosa artist Judy Kennedy is the co-creator of this idea. This piece was written with support and input by Dick Carlile, Civil Engineer and Curt Nichols, Landscape Architect, both members of the Railroad Square Association.

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Free Transportation Or Better Transportation?

Excerpts from an article by Steve Hanley, Clean Technica

Free public transportation may not be the panacea for urban congestion many advocates think it is …. an experiment with free transportation in Austin, Texas between October of 1989 and December of 1990 …. found significant issues, not the least of which was that buses became rolling homeless shelters. The report summary concluded,

In the fare-free demonstrations in larger systems reviewed in this paper, most of the new riders generated were not the choice riders they were seeking to lure out of automobiles in order to decrease traffic congestion and air pollution.

The larger transit systems that offered free fares suffered dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness due to younger passengers who could ride the system for free, causing numerous negative consequences. Vehicle maintenance and security costs escalated due to the need for repairs associated with abuse from passengers. The greater presence of vagrants on board buses also discouraged choice riders and caused increased complaints from long-time passengers.

In other words, the promised reward — fewer cars on the road — did not materialize and the costs of operating the public transit system increased significantly. The TransitCenter has examined several cities that have implemented free public transit programs and found mixed results. In Dunkirk, France, the plan has seen ridership increase 85%, but in Tallinn, Estonia, a similar program saw only a 3% rise in ridership. In general, TransitCenter suggests, people are perfectly happy to pay for public transportation if it is efficient, clean, and timely. It says on its website,

“When researching our forthcoming report, Who’s on Board 2019, we surveyed 1700 transit riders in seven different cities across the US. What we heard is that most low-income bus riders rate lowering fares as less important than improving the quality of the service. This suggests that if a transit agency had to choose between devoting funds to reducing fares or to maintaining or improving service, most riders would prefer the latter. The idea of making transit “free” turns out to be less appealing to the public than making improvements to transit.”

What are superior and sustainable ways to move the needle on ridership? Making transit fast, frequent, and reliable. In just a few short years, Seattle has nearly tripled the number of people able to walk to frequent transit, and ridership continues to climb. Ridership has also been gaining in San Francisco, where SFMTA has an ongoing program to speed up buses. Cities like Austin, Richmond, and Columbus are redesigning their bus networks to better connect people to jobs, and seeing ridership growth as a result.

TransitCenter says the cost of parking or accessing cities by car can make a big difference in the number of people riding public transit. In London, congestion charges have led to an 18% increase in people taking the subway. In Los Angeles, Phil Washington, CEO of LA Metro recently created a stir when he proposed a similar congestion charge could raise $12 billion a year — money that could be used to fund free public transportation with plenty left over. Under his plan, buses on major routes would come every 90 seconds. The plan is a long way from being adopted but it has created lots of healthy debate, which is a good thing. TransitCenter concludes its latest analysis of the value of free transportation this way:

Free transit makes for a terrific news hook. But the only way to see the full benefits of transit – like improved air quality, less congestion, and more vibrant cities is for people to actually start riding transit in substantial numbers. To this end, agencies should immediately make transit more accessible by offering discounts to riders who need them the most. More employers should be compelled, whether through penalty or incentive, to subsidize transit passes.

But what advocates and policymakers should actually be focusing on is a multi-pronged approach to make driving less attractive, and undoing policies that make driving feel free. Cities and transit agencies should work together to raise parking rates and replace swaths of curbside parking with transit priority streets.

And while congestion pricing isn’t feasible for most US cities, large metro areas with robust transit networks should start laying the groundwork. Funneling money from these pursuits directly into improving transit will yield precisely the type of benefits sought by proponents of free transit.

The Takeaway

The takeaway is this. The paradigm that says anyone should be free to drive into any city at any time — a notion that became firmly rooted in the American psyche after the explosion of suburbia after World War II — needs to be a blown up and replaced with a new one that emphasizes public transport options that meet the needs of most members of society at affordable prices. The age of the car is ending. It’s time to move on to what’s next.

And let’s not forget that any new public transit options need to utilize zero emissions vehicles, whether they are buses, ride sharing vans, or other vehicles. There is no point in making it easier to get around if doing so results in a dying planet.

Source: https://cleantechnica.com/2019/12/08/kansas-city-is-first-major-city-in-america-to-offer-free-public-transportation-is-that-a-good-thing/

Deadliest Year for Pedestrians and Cyclists in U.S. Since 1990

by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs (The New York Times)

On average, 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed each day in traffic crashes in 2018. Distracted drivers and bigger vehicles may be the culprits, experts say.

More pedestrians and cyclists were killed last year in the United States than in any year since 1990, according to a report released on Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Most of the news about traffic safety has been good in recent decades, as vehicle manufacturers have added safety features, drunken driving deaths have fallen and seatbelt use has climbed to nearly 90 percent. But in recent years, pedestrian and cyclist deaths have been a disturbing outlier.

The number of pedestrians killed grew by 3.4 percent last year, to 6,283, and the number of cyclists killed rose by 6.3 percent, to 857, even as total traffic deaths decreased. On average, about 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed each day in crashes. Together they accounted for one-fifth of traffic deaths.

Kate Kraft, the executive director of America Walks, a group that advocates for walking safety, said she was infuriated by the report’s findings. She expressed hope that the new data would encourage politicians to make their cities safer for walkers by lowering speed limits, improving traffic signal efforts and creating more pedestrian-only public spaces.

“The fact that we have proven interventions, but we are not likely to implement them, is the tragedy,” Ms. Kraft said. “These are senseless deaths.”

Read more for some of the report’s key findings and their implications.

Scooters Offer Chance to Rethink Urban Rights of Way

by William Fulton, California Planning & Development Report

From Central Park West to San Diego’s hip North Park neighborhood, cities are removing parking spaces, replacing them with bike lanes, and getting pushback from residents and business owners.

In urban neighborhoods across the country, well-capitalized electric scooter companies are invading, sometimes met with support from policymakers who see them as a useful transportation mode and sometimes met with resistance from residents and politicians who view them as a safety hazard and little more than metal street litter.

What’s really going on here? Depending on how you look view transportation, bikes and scooters are the key to future, clean urban mobility or a sideshow that distracts from maintaining mobility across large metropolis. But I think the basic problem – the reason we’re having a hyper-emotional discussion about these transportation modes on both sides – is that we’re not framing the issue right.

The problem isn’t that bikes and scooters are necessary or that they’re a menace. The problem is that, in urban locations across America, we need an intermediate mode of travel between cars and walking – an easy to way to travel between a half-mile and two miles. In the transit business, this is called the “first and last mile” problem. Cars are a hassle and walking is too far, so these intermediate modes need a right of way, whether they are bikes, scooters, Segways or vehicles that haven’t been invented yet.

On urban streets, we know how to accommodate cars that go between 25 and 45 miles an hour, which often also wind up parking on the street. We also know how to accommodate pedestrians (though we don’t always do this well), who tend to travel at about three miles an hour. What happens when somebody shows up in a small vehicle that travels 10 to 15 miles an hour? They either travel in the street, where they’re too small and too slow to navigate amidst car traffic comfortably; or they travel on the sidewalk, where they are too big and too fast to travel amidst pedestrian traffic comfortably. And where do they park?

What’s happening is that cities are taking space away from cars – parking spaces – in order to give it to these intermediate vehicles a thoroughfare. (The most persistently amusing example of the problem this creates is police cars parking in bike lanes).

Read more at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/20190829

SCTLC and Climate Change

by Jack Swearingen

Transportation and Land Use in Sonoma County, California: what’s the connection to climate change? Practically everything. These three issues are joined at the hip—along with a few others such as housing, air and water pollution, runoff, open spaces, endangered species, energy use, and even social issues like road rage.

But individual contributions to these problems are insignificant, and individuals can’t affect the global picture—Right?

Wrong. Environmental impacts on a global scale are the summation of contributions from seven billion people living their individual lives. SCTLC operates on the principle that individuals can make a difference. We can drive less, use public transit, carpooling, and ride sharing, consume less, and teach our neighbors how to do so. We can influence public policy makers by writing letters, making phone calls, and giving public testimony at City Councils, the Board of Supervisors, and any number of topical meetings.

Individuals can multiply their influence by working with advocacy groups such as SCTLC, Sierra Club, Green Belt Alliance, North Bay Organizing Project, Transportation for America, TransForm,etc.

Members of industrialized societies like North America, Europe, China, Japan, Korea, and India consume the great majority of energy and materials, and contribute the great majority of waste into the biosphere (air, water, and land).

In Sonoma County we don’t generate electricity from fossil fuels and we have very little heavy industry. But we heat our homes and businesses with natural gas, light them and cool them with electricity, and discard tons of plastic—some of it on roadsides. Nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gases in SoCo come from vehicle tailpipes.

How is transportation connected to land use? Because they are 2-dimensional, roads provide access to all land that is paveable. And our system of development allows subdivisions to be built far from urban centers and services, requiring new roads must be built and more vehicle miles to be driven. Unfortunately it falls to the County to maintain the roadways — and in Sonoma County we have built far, far more road miles than we have the funds to maintain.

And while we are on the topic, pavement changes the albedo of the land, absorbing more infrared light from the sun and increasing surface temperature. And because pavement is impervious, oil drips collect on the surface and run off into the shoulders with the rains. This is not a trivial problem; it is big enough to pollute the soil. To prove this point to him/her self, reader might wish to do their own calculation. Estimate the number of vehicle miles traveled, the number of drips per vehicle-mile, the size of each drip, and see what you come up with. My guess is that you will be startled.

Conversely, trains are 1-dimensional; they promote transit-oriented development near stations. And the ballast on the right-of-way is permeable; rainwater percolates instead of running off. As a contingent benefit, rail transit stimulates economic development more than buses because it is permanent. Investors can anticipate a long-term future near transit stops.

And then we come to energy. Fossil-fueled vehicles with solo drivers of are the most energy consumptive form of transportation out there. Yet this represents the lion’s share of transportation in our county, in the State, and in the U.S. Electric vehicles (EVs) can reduce the use of fossil fuels, but they won’t reduce congestion, sprawl, or land use. Thus far the impact of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft has been to increase congestion in urban areas.

Buses consume less fuel per passenger-mile than autos when they are full; but until the public shifts from autos to buses in significant numbers, no real gain is manifest. And buses are subject to the very traffic congestion that they are intended to reduce.

Steel wheel on steel rail is the most efficient form of transportation that we have. But getting from home to station to work and return is the obstacle. If people would leave their autos at home and ride the bus to the train, the net result would be more buses, more trains, fewer autos, less congestion, reduced emissions, and—shall I say it?—less road rage.

Transportation, energy consumption, land use, pollution, smog, climate change (read anthropogenic global warming): these issues are joined at the hip. Amazingly, the solution to one is a solution to all. It begins with our willingness to be inconvenienced slightly for the sake of the planet and the creatures that live upon it.

(Re)coding communities for smart growth

Tyler Quinn-Smith, Smart Growth America

There’s a secret weapon available to communities that want to modernize their zoning codes and help make smarter growth the norm. Codes for Communities is a wide-ranging technical assistance program at Smart Growth America that covers all kinds of zoning reform and guidance on form-based codes. In just two years, the program has had tremendous impact in communities of all sizes across America.

Zoning codes are the unseen yet decisive guiding force that can either help or hinder the creation of great, walkable, people-scaled places. Reforming these codes doesn’t come easy for any community. Updating antiquated zoning regulations can be daunting and it’s often difficult for elected officials and residents to even imagine a scenario where things can be better. But, thanks to the Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI)—a program of Smart Growth America—there are resources to help communities move forward, including a comprehensive three-course curriculum, a library of exemplary form-based codes, and zoning experts ready to guide you through the changes that your community needs to make to achieve the walkable, human-scaled, context-sensitive growth they desire.

No matter how simple or complex the issue, FBCI’s Codes for Communities program provides local governments with guidance for success by drawing on the experience and talent of the nation’s most experienced coding professionals. FBCI offers all levels of assistance, from a brief code review to in-depth analyses of existing regulations, interviews with key stakeholders, presentations to community leaders, and a final report with findings and recommendations.

Read more at https://smartgrowthamerica.org/recoding-communities-for-smart-growth/

Should electric vehicle drivers pay per mile?

Laura Bliss, CityLab

Since EV drivers zip past gas taxes, they don’t contribute to the federal fund for road maintenance. A new working paper tries to determine whether plug-ins should pay up.

More than 1 million electric cars are now zipping (quietly) around the United States. That’s still a tiny fraction of the nation’s 260 million-strong vehicle fleet, but EVs hit a sales record of 208,000 registrations in 2018. As more mass-market plug-in models hit the showrooms, more charging stations pop up, and the menace of “range anxiety” fades, new EV drivers are born every day.

But are all those Bolts, Volts, Leafs, and Teslas paying their fair share for the asphalt they drive on? The Highway Trust Fund, the federal government’s purse for road maintenance, depends on the 18 cents per gallon U.S. motorists pay in gasoline taxes. But it’s nearly insolvent, in part because Americans drive more fuel-efficient machines than before. So states like California, Washington, and Illinois are mulling a “mileage tax,” where drivers pay a fee based on the number of miles driven, rather than the amount of gas they burn. Oregon, where a pilot program asks participants to pay 1.7 cents per mile in lieu of paying a gas tax, is the example to follow.

Yet the question of getting plug-ins to pay up may be trickier than it seems. In a new working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Lucas Davis, a professor of business and technology and a director of U.C. Berkeley’s Energy Institute, and James Sallee, a professor in the school’s department of agricultural and resource economics, estimate that while the U.S. does indeed forgo millions in tax revenue thanks to EVs, instituting a special tax on electric vehicles might produce unwanted side effects.

Read more at https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/07/electric-vehicles-gas-tax-mileage-fees-highway-trust-fund/594466/

What is TOD?

by Joel Woodhull

Transit Oriented Development is becoming increasingly popular, but what is it really? TOD is a concept that is only a few years old. It is still being defined while simultaneously being corrupted in practice. A paper by Dena Belzer and Gerald Autler, “Transit Oriented Development: Moving from Rhetoric to Reality” tries to bring some coherency to the concept. Most of what follows is taken from that paper.

Places and Nodes
A theme that is evident throughout the history of transit is the distinction between places and nodes. The role of transit in creating a link between individual places and the broader region means that transit-oriented development, unlike other forms of development, should explicitly perform a dual function as both a node within a larger regional or metropolitan system and a good place in its own right. Station areas must provide access to transportation services and in many cases function as regional trip destinations, but the same areas must also serve as trip origins and, ideally, as coherent neighborhoods that do more than simply serve the station.

Contrast this relationship with that of freeway nodes, where nodes are the antithesis of places — essentially “no-man’s lands” with the poorest access on the network.

Evolution to TOD
Transit and development have a convoluted history. At first, in the streetcar suburbs at the turn of the last century, the streetcar lines and their adjacent residential communities typically evolved in a setting that no longer exists today. A single owner would build transit to add value to the residential development by providing a link between jobs in an urban center and housing at the periphery of a city. These places would be more aptly described as “Development-Oriented Transit” since transit was built to serve their development rather than vice-versa.

Then the long period of decline in transit ensued, with the loss of rail systems which were essential to the linkage between transit and land-use. With the exception of some of the commuter suburbs around older cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, which continued to function reasonably well as transit-based communities, most transit became a last resort rather than a reliable transportation option tied to development.

After World War II a new generation of transit systems was planned and built. The BART system in the San Francisco Bay Area, MARTA in Atlanta, and Metro in the Washington, D.C. area were opened in the 1970s. These systems were designed explicitly to work with the automobile, with the assumption that most people would drive to suburban stations rather than walking, biking, or riding feeder-bus systems. In this case, these systems were viewed as primarily serving a regional purpose, and the stations were considered nodes within this larger system, with little regard for the local place where each station was located. This form could be called “Auto-Oriented Transit”.

Today we are getting what might be called “Transit-Related Development”, where transit agencies and the federal government see large-scale real estate development on transit agency owned property as a way to “capture” some of the value created by high intensity access. This “joint development” approach has been used successfully in some locations, but simply generating a bit of revenue for the operating agency only begins to tap the potential of the relationship between transit and development. In other words, the “highest and best use” in financial terms is not always the best in transit or neighborhood terms.

Recently, interest in TOD has broadened beyond the possibility of financial return. Increasing evidence now exists that transit-oriented development can yield many more benefits than merely increased land value. The last decade saw subtle but promising shifts in the landscape of transit and development, with the convergence of a number of trends: growing transit ridership, increased investment in transit, frustration with congestion and sprawl, the smart growth and new urbanism movements, and a generally greater recognition of the advantages of linking development and transit. We are beginning to glimpse the full range of benefits that could be achieved with “Transit-Oriented Development”.

Defining Transit-Oriented Development

With the above as background, we can state some TOD performance criteria that will allow us to judge the quality of projects and to think clearly about the tradeoffs that must be made when pursuing a project:

1. Location Efficiency. Reduced auto dependency will result from an effective blending of convenient and efficient transportation links (node functions) with enhancements of the ability to carry out most everyday tasks close to home (place functions).

Location efficiency requires neighborhoods that provide high-quality transit, a mix of uses, and pedestrian-friendly design. Proximity to transit is just one of several key variables that determine the location efficiency of a neighborhood. Other critical factors include net residential density, transit frequency and quality, access to community amenities, and a good quality pedestrian environment.

2. Value Recapture. The location efficient mortgage is one way of capturing the value from reduced automobile dependence, by allowing families who can spend less on transportation to spend more on housing.

Extracting the excess investment in parking is another way of capturing value for the community. Parking is a significant but generally unrecognized component of high spending on transportation. Reducing parking requirements can have a significant impact on building costs, especially housing. Empirical research that has found that the average increase in the price of a housing unit with a parking space in San Francisco was $39,000 to $46,000 (Jia and Wachs 1997).

One way of accommodating cars while reducing the parking excess is to “unbundle” parking from housing and other building uses, to create a separate market for parking. This mechanism lets those who don’t value parking to spend their money on other things.

Savings from reduced parking costs (whether in residential units or other development) can be captured by households, developers, and local governments. They can be invested in assets, like housing, that appreciate in value over time and allow for individual household wealth accumulation.

3. Livability. Livability is subjective and defies easy definition. No definition can be completely objective. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrive at a definition of livability that is based on collective subjectivity rather than the values of a particular individual. Measures of livability that relate directly or indirectly to transit-oriented development include:

Improved air quality and gasoline consumption.
Increased mobility choices (pedestrian friendliness, friendliness, access to public transportation).
Decreased congestion/commute burden.
Improved access to retail, services, recreational, and cultural opportunities (including opportunities for youth to get involved in extra-curricular activities within the neighborhood).
Improved access to public spaces, including parks and plazas.
Better health and public safety (pollution-related illnesses, traffic accidents).
Better economic health (income, employment).

4. Financial Return. Planning for TOD projects requires understanding what type of return each of the public and private participants expects and ensuring that certain return thresholds can be met. But, while this means that TOD projects must be responsive to the discipline of market and financial realities, it does not mean that all development at transit-oriented locations should always strive to achieve the “highest and best” use for the site.

5. Choice. TOD is about expanding rather than circumscribing options. It is current patterns of suburban development that leaves few options for residents in terms of housing type or mode of transportation, not TOD.

Although a certain minimum overall density is certainly a prerequisite for making TOD work, it is not true that TOD will necessarily require everyone to live at higher densities than they already do. In many parts of the country, notably in California, there has been a proliferation of medium-density housing (apartments, condominiums, townhouses) that is not connected to transit and that incorporates none of the mixed- use or internal mobility of TOD. These projects function as high-density auto-oriented suburbs, with all of the disadvantages of density and none of the advantages of choices that TOD can offer.

Enhanced choice may entail:

A diversity of housing types that reflects the regional mix of incomes and family structures.
A greater range of affordable housing options.
A diversity of retail types. Diversity will necessarily be limited by the market area and the particular desires of the residents; however, this outcome could be measured in terms of how well the retail mix meets the needs and desires of the residents as they themselves define them.
A balance of transportation choices.

6. Efficient Regional Land-use Patterns. Transit-oriented development can foster much more efficient patterns and cut down on traffic generation. The fact that this development is concentrated around a transit station means that it consumes less land, generates less traffic, contributes much less to congestion and air pollution than more typical suburban development.

When a significant number of origins and destinations in the region are well-linked to a station, transit becomes a much more viable option. At the same time, transit-oriented development is one of the most important tools for creating more efficient regional land-use patterns. The more growth that can be accommodated in station areas, the less sprawl there will be.

Another (shorter) discussion of TOD is by Jeffrey Tumlin and Adam Millard Ball, “How to Make Transit-Oriented Development Work Number one: Put the transit back.” May 2003. PDF file