April 28, 2019

Urbanist Abroad: I’ll Have What San Francisco’s Having

During a recent trip to central California — bookended by a weekend in Yosemite National Park, and Passover/Easter break with family in Sacramento — I found the missing middle.

Yes, a barely-justifiable work-week in between, in San Francisco. A friend lives in Inner Sunset, a stone’s throw from Golden Gate Park, and I ended up getting a respite from household duties in Vancouver, and 40 hours of deep-focus on work. Most important, I found a few hours each day to explore the city. (#privilege)

Which, in turn, opened up a game of “got’em, need’em”. You may know it, and if you do, it might have been decades since you thought of it.

The gist: you and a friend sit down with your respective hockey or baseball card collection. (OK fine, but just go with it…) You pick up a stack of your friend’s cards, and proceed to flip through them — rhythmically, perhaps even trance-like — saying “need’im” for those you don’t have, and “got’im” for those you do.

“Got’im, got’im, got’im, got’im, need’im, got’im, need’im, need’im, got’im…”

Of course, they were always men in these trading cards, so it was ‘im for “him”, and not ’em for “them”. (In my youth, the only sport for women that seemed to get much mainstream media attention was tennis. I wonder why.)

Hence, “got’em / need’em” being an essential GenX meme that I believe can easily be used by urban travellers to other cities. What reminds you of home? What do you want to bring home?

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The New York Times reports that in three counties in California’s Bay Area, a family of four with a household income of $117,400 is now classified as low-income. This is the threshold in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties used to calculate entry into local and federal housing assistance programs.

“To generate the number, officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development factor in the median income and average housing costs in an area. The second-highest threshold is in Honolulu, according to the agency — but the third is also in the Bay Area, in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley. The New York City area, where a family of four earning up to $83,450 is classified as low-income, came in at No. 9.”

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Councillor Andrea Reimer has Facebooked this:
Nine years ago today, the Greenest City Action Team made its first recommendations to Council. In the time since then we seen:

  • a 27% reduction in waste
  • 32% reduction in distance driven per person
  • 49% increase in green jobs
  • 42% increase in local food assets
  • 15% reduction in GHGs
  • more than half our residents now walk, take transit or bike.

At 3.9 T person, we have the lowest per capita emissions in North America and we’ve made longer range commitments to ensure we continue to get results on a range of green policy areas including transportation, green economic growth, zero emissions buildings, zero waste, access to nature, clean water, local food and air quality.
Questions: Do people care?  Will this kind of progress even get reported, much less registered in the public mind?  Have we moved on, caring more about housing to the exclusion of other agenda items?
Or do we simply discount progress, focus on the failures, and generally ignore or minimize the positives even as we raise the bar for the future.  Like this email that came in at the same time from Michael Alexander:
Time for Vancouver to leapfrog 50%?

San Francisco sets bold new goal: 80 percent of trips by sustainable modes
Last week, Mayor Mark Farrell announced a new goal to make 80 percent of all travel in San Francisco by a sustainable mode of transportation. That includes walking, biking, public transit, and carpooling. Having exceeded our former goal of 50 percent sustainable trips, San Francisco is well-poised to achieve this new goal—and we look forward to helping the city get there.
The new 80 percent goal supports another major pledge the Mayor made during Earth Month: committing San Francisco to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Learn more about San Francisco’s carbon reduction efforts.

I should clarify the purpose of the post (and why I changed the title.)
The Greenest City initiatives were an example of a government setting out priorities, establishing both vision and goals, and committing to a timeline. And then doing most of what it said it wanted to do – sometimes beyond the expectations of both advocates and critics.
The response? As far as much of the media and public: yawn. Too often Instead: cheap cynicism.
Critics are dismissive. Advocates raise the bar. Some give a quick acknowledgement and then move on – to the failures, the inadequacies, the missed opportunities.
It’s as though the achievements are inconsequential or inadequate to deal with more urgent matters.
This is not helpful at a time when we need positive examples and reinforcement to tackle the challenge, in particular, of climate change. The celebration of success is not unwarranted if earned; it’s essential if hope is to be maintained and continually renewed.

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If you have been in San Francisco  California in the last few weeks  you have probably seen them-electric scooters are everywhere. And as discussed by a reporter for the New York Times section California Today  in San Francisco “Shared electric scooters are available to reserve and rent by app for as little as $1 a ride. They are billed as a way to “help make transportation better and more environmentally friendly” by one start-up, Bird, which has netted $100 million in venture capital funding.”

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City Council in San Jose California is voting on giving Google “exclusive negotiating rights for parcels of city-owned land next to the Diridon train station, part of a plan to transform 250 acres of downtown San Jose into a transport hub connected to office towers and apartments.”  
Price Tags Vancouver originally wrote about this concept last year where the City of San Jose has been working with Google to create the new Silicon Valley which is vastly different from the original.  Version 2.0 will be  compact, walkable and accessible by public transportation, a stark departure from the suburban sprawl that has brought the cradle of American technological innovation to the brink of a gridlocked meltdown” as reported in the New York Times. Housing and affordability have been major problems in the San Francisco area where like Vancouver, middle class workers cannot find affordable accommodation. The  Diridon station plan will house offices for up to 20,000 workers but only about 10 per  cent of needed housing.  To give you a sense of the size of this office space, the 8 million square feet are three times the size of Apple’s new “spaceship”  head offices.

Here are the interesting 21st century words about city making from the Mayor of San Jose ~“The future of Silicon Valley critically depends on our development of a vibrant urban center. We’re trying to retrofit the city that was built for automobiles into a city built for people.”
Key to the plan is a central rail transportation hub. “Diridon station, named after Rod Diridon, a tireless advocate of public transport for the Bay Area and already a hub for Amtrak, Caltrain and San Jose’s light-rail system, will be the “largest intermodal transit hub in the West,” according to the mayor.”
By tying in the Diridon station with Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and the new high-speed rail being constructed in the central valley employees would have access to other housing areas.  The BART connection is expected by 2025 and further connections would enable a worker to travel from Fresno to San Jose in under an hour.
You can take a look at the background to the new plan here.


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Sidewalks are the mark of universal accessibility for walkers, people in wheelchairs, and people with babies in strollers. There is an emerging voice that with motordom, “Prioritizing the mobility needs for one mode while being silent on all other modes, it’s messed up.” And motordom is  being championed in Los Angeles,not walking.
Urbanist and writer Alissa Walker in Curbed.com has written a compelling article about sidewalks~and lack of them. While groups of sidewalk “advocates” do inventories and champion city councils to build/mend sidewalks, plant trees, and make walking easier, it’s just not been a priority for municipal government. Many citizens in metro Vancouver cities struggle with the same issue. “Someone in City Hall told me there’s no constituency for sidewalks and that’s why it wasn’t a priority for them,” says Investing in Place’s director, Jessica Meany… “They said no one is knocking on their door asking to fix sidewalks.” Even though Los Angeles has the largest sidewalk network in the United States, Los Angeles County has “invested less than 1 percent of all its transportation funds for sidewalks, including crosswalks and signals, although a ballot measure passed in 2016 bumped that up to 8 percent for the next 50 years. Investing in Place estimates that half of the city’s 11,000 sidewalk miles are insufficient for basic navigation. In 2016, after almost a half-century of deferred maintenance, LA put up a billion-dollar plan to fix just the pavement, but now it can’t keep up with the repairs—the city receives more requests in a week than it can address in a month.”
While  one hundred years ago sidewalks were perceived as “the centers of American cities—public places for business transactions and social interactions. ” Ms. Walker suggests that maybe sidewalks are not so great. Before sidewalks all uses were pushed in the street. Why did pedestrians end up with a “sliver of space” and accept the invention of “jaywalking” which shamed and blamed pedestrians who dared to leave their alloted sidewalk? What is curious is that the interest in maintenance of municipal walking infrastructure coincides with the surge of education of the health benefits of walking and the wearing of fitness trackers.
But despite guerilla gardening, people plazas, parklets out of parking spaces and “complete streets “the dramatic shift in mode share—people swapping car trips for walking trips in large numbers—didn’t happen. Americans are driving more than they were before the supposed walking revolution. In 2016, Americans drove more miles than they have in any other year in history. (Compare that to Paris, where a combination of pedestrianization projects and vehicular regulations has meant 45 percent fewer car trips since 1990.) In U.S. cities, most of the talk about walking remains just talk.”
New York City and San Francisco have effectively redesigned some streets for pedestrians and had traffic deaths fall, to the “lowest number of traffic deaths last year since the introduction of the automobile”. The rest of the country? Not so much. Street safety is also an ” an environmental justice and racial justice issue,” says Emilia Crotty, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group Los Angeles Walks. Across the country, she notes, African Americans and Latino Americans are 60 percent and 43 percent more likely to be killed while walking than white Americans.” Ms. Walker also notes that one-third of Americans don’t drive, and that Americans are getting older, with 20 per cent of the population 65 or older by 2030.Those old Americans are “outliving our ability to drive safely and comfortably yet seniors keep driving because their independence relies on it. “If you stop driving, you cease to exist as a viable human being.” 
A coalition of transit tech companies have announced a unified vision which includes car-sharing, bike-sharing and ride-hailing, as well as profit making.They are “vowing to work together toward streets of the future that are “shared, multimodal, and zero-emission.” Ms. Walker suggests that supplying new transportation options means that there can be a major transformation of how we use space. Since walking is “the connective tissue” that allows us to move between options, it is now time to get out of sidewalk repair that “perpetuates a driver-first mentality” and “shift to one surface that serves all the mobility needs of its citizens”…”One hundred years from now,

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Like most things, when you look at pedestrian crashes and fatalities, these tragedies can be averted in a very simple way~but there is the cost to motordom of not getting on its vehicular way with the briskness drivers have come to expect. Many of the pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries happen when vehicles are turning left through a marked pedestrian crossing when the pedestrian has the right of way.  You can of course go ahead and build substantial infrastructure to narrow streets and build proper infrastructure. But there is one very simple way  to save lives at low-cost.  That is using the “pedestrian interval” as demonstrated in the YouTube video below.

As this article in CityLab states “Leading Pedestrian Intervals”  or LPI s  are streetlights that give walkers a head-start before cars venture into an intersection. Given even a few seconds of priority, most people wind up at least halfway into the crosswalk—where they’re plenty visible to drivers—before cars are allowed to go straight or make turns (including the ultra-dangerous left).”
When San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle adopted Vision Zero (with the goal of no lives lost to road violence) they also used LPIs at heavily used intersections. “New York City has been a leader, adding 2,201 since 2014 for a total of 2,483 across the boroughs. Now, nearly 20 percent of signalized intersections citywide have LPIs, according to a report by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. They give pedestrians a 7- to 10-second head start. Most are located in the city’s highest-risk traffic corridors.
And there are huge cost savings. The average cost of reconfiguring a crosswalk for an LPI is $1,200. As a New York City spokesperson noted “They don’t require any trench digging, concrete pouring, or lane closures. Sometimes new push buttons and controllers are needed; often engineers simply study local traffic patterns and reprogram existing lights.”
Research is showing that the use of LPIs can reduce pedestrian-vehicle collisions by 60 per cent.  A 2016 study of 104 intersections in New York City saw a decline in pedestrian and bike fatalities and severe injuries of  40 per cent. A report done by Transportation Alternatives suggests that these “head-start” lights for pedestrians may be the reason for the huge decline in New York City’s pedestrian fatalities, as many are the result of vehicles failing to yield in intersections. As the executive director of Transportation Alternatives states “Dollar for dollar, this is a really smart, life-saving investment that ought to be a part of any city’s effort to eliminate traffic deaths.”


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The California Department of Motor Vehicles have just released some new statistics on test autonomous vehicles (AV’s)  operating in that state. California requires owners of these vehicles to annually report the number of hours driven  and the number of hours that the vehicle is~well, steering itself. As reported in the Atlantic Monthly Waymo the self-driving car from Google owned Alphabet is still leading the pack. Waymo  AV’s “drove 352,545 autonomous miles with 63 total disengagements, for a yearly average of 5,595 miles per disengagement. In the company’s best month, November 2017, they did 30,516 miles with a single disengagement. ”
While these numbers are remarkable, it was noticed that the “disengagement rate” did not decline from the 2016 numbers. Waymo put two million total miles on their cars in twenty different cities in the last year. In 2018 Waymo is commencing a “self-driving taxi service” in Phoenix, a trial that will expand to other cities. Waymo uses customized minivans produced by Chrysler and it is expected that thousands of these AV’s will be produced as Waymo continues expanding to a truly autonomous service.
Who else is in the field? The number two AV tester in California,  GM’s Cruise, drove 125,000 miles in San Francisco in self-driving mode, with 105 disengagements. Tesla reported zero miles. Instead of using costly sensor arrays Tesla is arguing that their “billions of miles of real-world driving data” will develop their autonomous technology. The “shadow mode” in the Tesla gleans data without actually taking control of the vehicle, developing the system by data accumulation as opposed to physical vehicle testing.
As the Atlantic Monthly writer Alexis Madrigal concludes: “We’re not seeing a spike in the number of companies that are able to execute well on California roads, nor are we seeing an explosion in the number of miles driven or massive reductions in disengagements per mile. It could be that this is happening in other states, outside the regulatory reporting spotlight. But for now, this looks like a two-car race with a Tesla revving its engine in the infield.”


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