Monday, September 14, 2015

Caltrans Offers $25K to Solve California's Transportation Problems

The other day I learned about Caltrans innovation contest, "$25K to find a new way". As it happens, it came up in a discussion about how the size of the price seemed unmatched to the scope of the problem -- sort of like sitting in New Orleans with 60 MPH hurricane winds swirling around, and offering $25K for innovative ideas on hurricane preparedness infrastructure. You know it's going to get worse, but it also seems a bit late to make a real impact.

Here in the Bay Area we're being inundated with more and more people, more and more cars, more and more traffic. Population growth and the corresponding increased load (i.e. traffic) is drowning our ecosystem. For every one story office building or business that is torn down to build three-story high-density town-home condos, you need to multiply each residence by 1.5 cars and probably about one child or so. And yet, there are no new schools being built, and the best answer for traffic seems to be adding the occasional lane here or there.

Finding Solutions
With the influx of so many new people into the Bay Area, the Republican solution would probably be to classify this as an immigration issue. Too many people coming here, destroying the existing way of life. And so, taking everything they learned from Sid Meier's Civilization 2, they would probably demand to "build city walls". Sadly, building a wall is an all-to-common solution presented, not only in modern American politics, but in the various dystopian, post apocalyptic stories -- walls and the ugly evil that lies outside the walls.

Forget the physical wall. Imagine a legal wall, something like California citizenship or a California preferred status -- something along the lines of status on an airline. First, imagine how it might work: I've been a California resident for over 20 years, this entitles me to use the "CA Preferred" lane in traffic, to park in the "CA Preferred" spaces. Maybe it even gives employers incentives to hire "CA Preferred". But if you think for one minute that something like a "CA Preferred" status might incentivize a company like Google to hire a local resident, I think you're crazy. Walls will not solve that which ails us.

Another grand solution is High Speed Rail. Oh, hey, we're working on that. But for those of you high-speed rail fans, here's an interesting story from the Atlantic about, "how come our trains can't run like the trains in Germany". While I found it kind of funny that the folks on the east coast look to Europe as the benchmark for train service (I think Japan makes a better benchmark), it still provides some very interesting assessments from the guys that run the train system in Germany.
Specifically, the report warns against putting stops in sparsely populated areas because that slows trains down. Put them only in the center of major cities, recommends report author Eric Eidlin, as Germany has done. The ICE train, for example, makes no stops during the two-hour journey between Berlin and Hamburg. France, on the other hand, has often dispersed train stations around the urban periphery and the result, Eidlin notes, has been not just slower trips but less-efficient connections to other modes of transport. “California should carefully consider the economic development and access challenges that French cities such as Aix-en-Provence and Avignon have experienced with exurban and peripheral stations,” Eidlin writes. “Thankfully, California has made the wise decision of siting most HSR stations in central cities. However, one notable exception to this is the proposed Kings/Tulare station east of Hanford, which would be located in an exurban location.” Also, the Milbrae and Burbank station locations will be in less accessible areas.
It's kind of funny that the consider Milbrae(sic) a less accessible station since that's your connection to SFO. Then again, there's a broader bit of humor in that, even the "convenient" Bart train between SFO and San Francisco takes nearly 40 minutes as the route takes you out to Daily City before bringing you into the city. The reality is that none of our transportation systems are built with any sort of hub and spoke approach nor any sense of express.

Perhaps the funniest "serious" solution that I heard was a recent KQED broadcast talking about the ferries on the bay. There's talk of dredging and adding ferry service into Alviso. Tired of the Google bus? You may be able to take a boat ride to the South Bay.

Root Cause
Part of the reason we're all suffering from these transportation problems is that the Bay Area operates as a bunch of independent cities that just happen to be near one another. There is no grand plan nor is there the ability to come together and deliver a strategic regional solution. Independent cities means that, if Mountain View decides to let Google or Linked In expand their campus and add 10,000 new workers -- and if that, in turn, creates monster traffic on 85 and 101 -- Mountain View can sit back and say, "bummer for you surrounding communities, we're getting our tax revenue. Highway capacity is the state's problem." (Levi Stadium vs Mt. View parking is an example of this.) And because there is only a small part of it that seems like a city problem, each city feels a limited concern about zoning and the impact of replacing old one-story buildings and lots with 3-story high density homes. They are just a few more buckets of people -- they aren't the flood that's drowning the area.

Meanwhile, transportation infrastructure like an efficient rail, light rail, subway and bus infrastructure -- it might be nice, but not in our backyard.

My Solution
The ideal world would see us with a train system like Tokyo. Train stations would be like mini-malls, centers of commerce. There would be a mix of express routes and slower lines with more frequent stops. An ideal would be rail lines that ran down the middle of every freeway and express way across the bay area, visible from the freeway so that those stuck in traffic can see how much faster the train gets there. If every major road in the Bay Area had rail / subway interconnections, I think we'd be in much better shape to handle the relentless influx of people.

Unfortunately, this probably doesn't fit within the scope of Caltran's contest. So here's another thought. Legislate that all CA businesses over a certain size must offer "work from Anywhere" ala Automatic (Wordpress). If nobody has to go to an office, you've got to figure a certain percentage reduction in traffic.

No comments: