While the premise of Environmental Impact Reports is to disclose the negative environmental impacts of projects that might harm the environment, the most notable information in the EIR for Caltrain electrification is how it might benefit the environment.
Caltrain electrification is expected to increase ridership. By doing so, it will decrease vehicle miles travelled and greenhouse gas emissions. The improvements are forecast to start in 2019 when electrification is planned to go live, and to escalate in 2040 by which time the downtown extension to Transbay terminal is expected to be implemented.
Image from Green Caltrain.
However, the EIR does not analyze a set of measures that could significantly increase environmental benefits. One glaring gap is that schedule scenario assumes that in the 2040 period Caltrain will run only 2 out of 6 peak hour trains all the way to Transbay terminal, where there are more jobs nearby than the rest of the line put together. It wouldn’t cost more to run the trains to Transbay, and Caltrain has said that there aren’t current technical limitations that would prevent them from running all the trains to Transbay. So there isn’t any good reason to underestimate the environmental benefits of the Downtown Extension project.
There are some other options that Caltrain omits, because they are only analyzing the projects for which they currently have funding.
Continue reading on Green Caltrain.
Petaluma Transit bus
In my last post, I wrote about the role of pedestrian outings, especially those that include slightly daring retail purchases, in widening the experiences of youths, helping them become familiar with their environment and putting them on paths to more productive and contented lives.
But on foot, or even on bicycle, isn’t the only way to expand youthful horizons. Transit can be a powerful tool in delivering new experiences to youths.
I regret that the communities in which I grew up didn’t have transit systems and am thrilled that youths today have more transit access. However, I’m concerned that many youths aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities. Much like saying that “Those who don’t read are no better off than those who can’t”, “Those who don’t hop on-board a bus are no better off than those who don’t have transit access.” Continue reading
Neighborhood retail in Seattle
In my last post, I commented about the eastside of Suisun City needing a retail area to develop its walkability. It’s an observation I’ve made previously. But this time I thought about the proximity of the available site to the middle school serving Suisun City and measured that opportunity against my own youth. What the introspection showed me is that we should be building a world that could be a training ground for our children as they learn how to be adults, but we’re not doing it.
Like many of my generation, I mostly grew up in drivable suburbia. But there were times when my world brushed against the outer fringe of urbanism. One of those times was in the spring of my eighth grade year.
My family lived in a conventional subdivision, perhaps six to eight lots per acre. Good, solid middle class homes. I attended an intermediate school about a mile away. Most days, now to my chagrin, I got a ride to school. The ride was mostly unavoidable. I played the baritone horn (yup, band nerd), which wasn’t easy or safe to transport by bicycle.
But there were still days when I walked home after school, perhaps because passing on horn practice for the evening. On those days, I often walked with a trio of friends, Marty, Phil, and Bucky. (I seem to have grown up in Mayberry.)
Historic filling station in downtown Pleasanton
Gas stations, or whatever their future replacements might be, aren’t going to go away. Much as there were livery stables until the dawn of the automotive age and gas stations since then, there will always be a need for places that fuel our personal transportation vehicles. But that doesn’t mean that we should design our cities around them.
A 16-pump gas station was recently broached in Petaluma. The concept elicited a range of responses. Some argued that the location near the busiest intersection in town was wrong. Others argued that the station would generate too much traffic. Still more argued that an over-sized gas station, particularly one that might use gasoline as a loss-leader to attract customers for other goods, would be unfair competition for existing gas stations. And those on the other side of the discussion argued that the public needs the lower gas prices the station is expected to offer.
Further complicating the picture, gas stations are a permitted use on the proposed site. This means that, as long as the application conforms to all pertinent standards in the zoning ordinance, the applicant can develop “by right”. The City may require changes in the site plan, but can’t deny the gas station.
Although many types of development can be done “by right”, it’s rare for all the pieces to fall into place. In this case, many citizens are concerned that gas stations can be built “by right”. Continue reading
Older retail in Suisun City
For those readers who don’t live in Northern California and don’t follow the news from my part of the world, it has been a historically dry year for the northern half of the Golden State. Depending on the metric used, it may be drier than any previous year in this century or the last. (Next week, I’ll attend a meeting on the relationship between land use and drought. I hope that much of the information is worth sharing.)
Once one adjusts to brown lawns, shorter showers, and higher produce prices, living in a drought can be rather pleasant. Day after day of blue skies, no roof leaks, and no umbrella shopping. It’s not the kind of weather that leads to cabin fever.
Nonetheless, I found myself antsy about a week back. I’d been without a reason to go out and visit interesting communities since the fall. The absence of on-the-ground ah-hah moments was wearing on me. So I scheduled a family lunch at the far end of a daytrip, made an itinerary of good and bad urban spots between home and lunch, packed up my camera and notepad, and hit the road early in the morning.
I’ll share my observations and insights over the next few weeks. Continue reading
Zoning in San Rafael. Each color has a precise government-approved list of acceptable and unacceptable uses. Free market indeed! Image from MarinMap.
It’s not often you’ll find people arguing against smart growth while also arguing for urbanism. When it happens, one wonders if it was a mistake. That seems to be the case with a screed penned by Lawrence McQuillan of the Independent Institute in Oakland, though his argument is worth highlighting.
While arguing that density isn’t a very effective way of decreasing greenhouse gases, he makes the market urbanist argument I’ve made time and again in The Greater Marin:
If governments ended their war on home construction, builders could buy the land they need to construct the housing that local people want, not housing that politicians and smart-growth activists want. That would increase the stock of affordable housing and help the environment too.
While McQuillan digs at smart growth, his critique more aptly applies to our country’s existing urban policies. We have spent so long trying to structure and restrict where and how our cities grow, especially within already built-up areas, we’ve made our cities totally unaffordable for those who want to live there and our suburbs too far from the core for those who want the big-yard, drivable lifestyle.
McQuillan adds: “[H]ere lies the folly of government master plans to control growth. People are not chess pieces to be moved about at the will of politicians and bureaucrats. People have dreams and aspirations for themselves and their families.” And yet through policies that have been in place for over 60 years, politicians and bureaucrats have played a helluva lot of chess with our lives.
If governments like those in Marin lifted density and parking controls and focused instead on maintaining small-town character, if they stopped artificially segregating commercial and residential uses, if the federal government stopped its $450 billion annual subsidy for single-family home development*, if the state stopped subsidizing 70 percent of road maintenance and construction with sales taxes and other non-user fees, perhaps we’d see some equilibrium return to our transportation and housing markets. We wouldn’t need regional housing quotas or ABAG or affordable housing grants because the housing market would simply meet the demand.
It’s unfortunate that only one kind of government intervention – the kind he doesn’t like – is the target of McQuillan’s ire. The massive and ongoing interventions in our real estate market deserve just such a libertarian flaying.
*Yes, that’s almost a half-trillion dollars every year in direct and indirect subsidies for single-family home development.
Hat tip to Save Marinwood for the article.
New York City Hall
Despite my roles of civic participant, consultant, and blogger, I don’t spend a lot of time chatting with public officials. However, occasional opportunities come my way. I had a couple of recent conversations that are worth sharing.
One conversation was explicitly off-record. The same restriction wasn’t placed on the other conversation, but I understood an implicit expectation that I wouldn’t share the information with too much specificity. Luckily, I needn’t offer names or quote exact words to highlight the key observation.
In the first conversation, a public official expressed frustration that some of his colleagues aren’t more willing to accept the environmental tradeoffs that come with more dense, urban-type development.
In the second conversation, a different public official acknowledged that he believed in induced traffic (the theory that traffic will expand to fill new roads, making traffic relief an impossible goal) and that the only fair and reasonable response to induced traffic was to offer development incentives for walkable settings. The public official also cautioned that the general public would neither accept the first point nor acquiesce to the logic of the second.
Both positions, of course, are straight from the urbanist playbook and were welcome to my ears. Continue reading
The Olympics closing ceremonies are behind us and the City of Sochi is beginning to ponder what to do with $51 billion of streets and stadiums that were built for a now concluded two-week party.
It won’t be an easy task for Sochi. A report by a South Carolina television station provides a short summary of the fate of past Olympic host cities. There are a few bright spots, but the overall picture is bleak.
I’ve often suggested that a rotation of Olympic sites might be a reasonable way to control costs and to minimize the civic disruptions of massive Olympic construction. (The British Open uses a similar “rota” of golf courses and has been an admirable success for more than 150 years.) Perhaps the four most recent Summer and Winter Olympic host cities, with one site added for geographical balance, could be the start of a conversation. The quadrennial Olympics would return to each host city every twenty years. Continue reading
Can living in a well-designed place make us happy? Is contentment more a function of good design than of financial wealth? Have poorly designed places been sapping our satisfaction with life?
Author Charles Montgomery tackles those questions in his book Happy City. He begins with Enrique Penalosa, who in his term as mayor of Bogota, Columbia espoused the expansion of bikeways, public transit, and parks as a way of building a contentment that might exceed the contentment of financial prosperity. Montgomery then continues into an examination of the post-World War II land-use patterns of American cities and their possible connection to a lack of American emotional fulfillment. Continue reading
Padua Municipal Building
For a holiday respite, I devoted my Friday posts through December and January to recounting my trip to Venice in 2007. Using photos and notes from the trip, I highlighted the urbanist issues of day-to-day life in perhaps the most famous car-free city in the world.
However, I reached the end of January without exhausting the stories and insights that I’d hoped to share. With Venice being too fascinating to leave behind with tales untold, I decided to continue with the occasional Friday post into February and beyond. Today will be the first of those extra posts.
During my time in Venice, I took several day trips to other Italian cities. The first outing was to Padua, only thirty miles from Venice, but far enough to become familiar with railway travel in Italy.
(Language note: The outing to Padua also alerted me to another of my language faux pas, much like “Pompa”. The train station in Venice was called “Ferrovia”, which had a romantic sound to my ear. I liked the feeling of “Ferrovia” on my tongue. And then I realized that the train station in Padua was also called “Ferrovia”. Upon cogitation, the reason became evident. “Ferro” is the Latin root for iron and “via” is the Latin root for road. “Ferrovia” wasn’t the cool name of the Venetian train station; it was the generic Italian word for train station. Oops.)
Padua was a great daytrip, but not because of any one aspect of the city. Padua has a number of points to recommend it.
The sprawling and lively outdoor market. The sense of history in standing before the University of Po where Galileo worked on his theories of planetary motion. The antiquity of the formerly Roman city of Patavium. The Donatello equestrian statue that is considered a milestone of the Renaissance. All of these add to the Paduan experience.
But ultimately what mattered was that Padua was an accessible city, fully walkable and enjoyable from the train station. It was a walkable urban place that opened itself to the traveler in a way that too few American cities do.
Frescoed colonnade at Palazzo
As was true of most of my Venetian adventure, my travels eschewed rubber-tired vehicles. Vaporetto along the Grand Canal to train to electric single-track street car into downtown Padua. It was a fine way to travel.
Within Padua, the outdoor market is reportedly the second-best outdoor market in Italy, made even more memorable by the architecture surrounding it, including the Palazzo della Ragione, the 13th century town meeting hall. With interior dimensions of 235 feet by 85 feet and no interior columns, the Palazzo remains an impressive engineering effort, even 700 years after its original construction.
The light inside the Palazzo was faint for photography, but I took my favorite photo
Basilica of St. Anthony
of the day in the frescoed colonnade outside. I’ve always been a sucker for a good colonnade.
Moving away from the downtown core I found the Duomo for Padua. It’s a handsome building, but plays second fiddle to the real star of Padua, the Basilica of St. Anthony. The Basilica is a major pilgrimage destination for Catholics, many of whom want to see the tongue of the well-spoken St. Anthony that displayed in the Reliquaries. The Reliquaries were closed when I was there, so I missed the tongue.
Equestrian statue by Donatello
The horse statue in front of the Basilica is interesting. It may look like town statues everywhere, but when it was cast by Donatello, it was the first life-size bronze equine casting in over 1000 years. One more sign that the Renaissance was truly underway.
Lastly, I visited the cloisters of the Basilica. As always, I can’t resist a good colonnade.
Cloisters at St. Anthony
Becoming foot-weary, I headed back to the train station (ferrovia!) and thence Venice, thrilled by the amble around Padua and the quiet joy of a walkable town.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)