Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The joy of small spaces

It's sometimes said that Jefferson's original draft of the American Constitution protected the "inalienable rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of land. Whether this is true or not, American planning practices have certainly reflected the ideal that more space is inherently a better place. 

Bigger is better. More, more more. Our consumerist culture, while not inherently bad in moderation, has led many of us to believe that moving up is having more stuff.

But there is a joy in small things too.

The little places are where we find space to live.

Cars Are Space Hogs.

And by space hogs, I don't mean pigs-in-spacesuits. This picture:

which was produced by Transport for London (I believe) illustrates how cars are a wasteful use of real estate. 

As you can see, 60 people in 60 cars (60 cars * roughly 10 foot wide lanes * roughly 30 foot lengthwise spacing) = 
18000 square feet

60 people in 1 bus = (roughly 10 foot wide lanes * roughly 70 foot lengthwise spacing [this is generous]) = 700 square feet.

60 people on bikes = (60 bikes * roughly 4 foot wide lanes * roughly 8 foot lengthwise spacing = 1920 square feet

The area ratio of auto:bicycles is roughly 10:1 and for buses is roughly 25:1. And this is very very conservative. I haven't even incorporated the fact that automobile infrastructure in the USA is generally very spacious (wide shoulders, turn radiuses, parking spaces, etc.) so the real ratios are somewhere north of 50:1 - or even 200:1.

Back in the 1950's when America was a vast, unpopulated land, the relative cost to society of allocating swaths of land (roughly 10-20% of most metropolitan areas) to the use of automobiles did not seem like a waste. But with explosive population growth, the relative value of land has shot up, and thus the relative opportunity cost of automobile infrastructure has also shot up. 

We need to explore using our transportation real estate more efficiently and more effectively. A combination of car-sharing, bicycle infrastructure, public transit, and walking will help us cope with the increasing population, both in absolute numbers and in density. Plus it'll have various health, quality of life, and sanity benefits for the population as you've already outlined.

Oh, and for further context, one last thing. 

The average parking space takes up about 350 square feet of room, whether in a parking structure or in a surface lot.

On average, there are about 3-4 parking spaces per automobile in most American cities.

Therefore, for every automobile on the road, we must build about 1200 Square Feet of parking lots.

The average American dwelling is about 900 Square Feet in size.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Building Hyperloop from SF to LA is a Colossal Waste of Money and Time

Note: Please read the post in its entirety before hating! c:

Elon Musk, famed founder / investor of Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX, recently revealed his much-hyped concept for an ultra-fast, ultra-cheap technology that would whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in all of 35 minutes at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour in an elevated vacuum tube.

The entire system, end to end, would cost $6 billion dollars -- and while that sounds like a large chunk of change, it's less than the $70 billion dollars expected for much-debated California High Speed Rail project, which is beset with delays and cost overruns, and construction hasn't even started yet.

According to Musk, the Hyperloop technology could enable passenger and freight travel over long distances with:
  • incredibly fast speeds
  • a near-perfect safety record
  • low capital and operating costs
  • 100% reliability
  • other statistics that are meant to blow California High Speed Rail out of the water
Honestly, I have no idea whether the Hyperloop will actually fulfill the rather lofty claims set out by Musk and other supporters of Vac-tube technologies. I shall withhold judgment in this case, even though it's likely that the $6 billion price tag doesn't quite capture the full costs associated with complex, prototypical technologies being implemented in novel situations in a highly politicized landscape with incredibly expensive land and extensive permitting process that require decades of work and research. I will still withhold judgment on this point.

What IS, however, a colossal waste of money and time, is the idea that the Hyperloop should be built from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Yes, I understand that the SF-LA corridor is one of the most travelled in the entire country (other than the Northeast Corridor); however, California High Speed Rail is already building in that corridor and has spent millions of dollars in planning, permitting, and design in that specific corridor. Building two competitive services in the same corridor would only be a waste of money. The Hyperloop should be built on a different route instead: maybe San Francisco-Sacramento-Lake Tahoe-Reno, or Seattle-Portland-San Francisco, which are both corridors with comparably high levels of traffic. This way, if both projects succeed, we end up with two separately useful systems, instead of two redundant systems.

And honestly, I think this concept of network-building may have gone over Mr. Musk's head. Transportation, out of all industries, works best with limited competition in a government-subsidized or cooperatively-managed and funded network. If every airline were required to build and maintain its own airports, very few airlines would have the financial resources to fly; and I would think that after a number of years, we would begin to see a monopoly of the airline industry, or some sort of private coalition of airlines that would regulate, maintain, and develop airports much like a public agency would. Likewise, if we required bus companies to build their own roads, we would probably not have any intercity bus services at all.

For simple economic reasons, duplicating capital-intensive infrastructure is a wasteful policy. Whether high-speed rail or a Hyperloop tube, laying down two sets of tracks connecting the same two destinations purely for reasons of creating competition (i.e. not because demand is so high that one track does not have enough capacity --) is wasteful beyond any point of economic rationality.

Mr. Musk (or whoever decides to build this technology, eventually...), please take note.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Robson Square vs. The Robson 5: Fruitful Debate or False Dichotomy?

Vancouver's planning circles and concerned citizens have been abuzz with news over the proposed reopening of Robson Street between Howe and Hornby to automobiles and buses. Peter Marriott has done a fantastic series of articles on Gordon Price's blog on the importance of leaving Robson Street open to the #5 Robson route. In short, the main problem with the Robson Street closure was that because of detours, the #5 Robson lost crucial connectivity with the rest of the city west of Robson Square.

So since Peter's done all the work of explaining the reasons, I'd just like to tack on a couple of my own observations:

(c) HCMA

1. Normally I visit the West End every now and then, 

to get delicious, delicious ramen at Kintaro or Santouka (Denman @ Robson). Since the rerouting of the #5, I haven't visited the West End at all, because it now takes about 10 extra minutes to get there (at least when coming from areas south of FC). While that might not seem like a whole lot of time, I would imagine it would quickly add up for a resident of the West End: an extra 20 minutes a day is an extra 100 minutes of commuting a week. The 5 Robson also happens to be a particularly high ridership line, so the aggregate amount of time wasted is substantial.

2. The grounds for a transit vs. pedestrian debate are tenuous. 

Examples from around the world show that it IS possible to have transit and pedestrians in the same space. What's more, it's also possible to have buses and pedestrians in the same public space. Andrew Jones demonstrates some excellent examples of light rail and streetcars that cruise through public spaces. Here are a couple of public squares where buses are allowed or given exclusive access:

The Baldachin (great glass roof) in Bern, Switzerland, houses a public square and combination bus/light rail interchange. The S-bahn/intercity train station is located underneath, so there is always tons of activity and movement, even though the city of Bern itself isn't even half as populous as Vancouver. (pop: 125 000)

(c) Mel and John Kots. Flickr

And my favourite is a little plaza in Paris you've probably never heard of (yes, I did just say that!). I'm not even sure if it has a name. Tucked immediately beside St.-Paul station on Ligne 1 is a trapezoidal sliver that works perfectly in its role as a public space: a narrow, slanting public square to mimic the narrow, crooked streets of Le Marais. Even though it's tiny, only buses and delivery trucks are allowed though. Other vehicles need to reroute.

(c) Google Maps, edits by me

Buses move slowly through the square, but it's a lot faster than making the long detour:
but no cars allowed through! (c) Google Street View

Metro riders spill out into the space and create a lively atmosphere whenever the time, whatever the season. The bus exclusive lane is on the left; Rue de Rivoli is on the right. There's even room for a carousel (the covered yurt in the back):

Just a few examples of some of the creative planning that's been done around the world to accommodate public spaces and effective transit. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Could truck-exclusive lanes help transit?

I used to be against the idea of the Gateway Program altogether, but now that it's in construction, I can only offer suggestions to make its use as efficient as possible.

One of the main reasons for the Gateway Program is to help facilitate the movement of goods from the interior to the ports: specifically, to help trucks quickly get from the far end of the Valley to the coast, either at Metro Vancouver, North Vancouver, Tsawassen, or the Roberts Superport.

While trucks might see slightly better congestion management immediately, the sad fact of the matter is that in five years' time, the trucks are going to be battling the same level of congestion on major routes throughout the region, leading to the same delays in freight traffic and the same losses that have been worrying the BC Ministry of Transportation this whole time. Automobile Traffic fills most of the space it is given, unless careful mitigation of land use or travel restrictions is involved, or the city spends ridiculous amounts of money continually expanding the network. (Houston has been able to decrease congestion relative to other American cities while spending $1 billion per year for 15 years. That's 5 Gateway Programs, or 15 South Fraser Perimeter Roads over 15 years, or enough transit to put every city in Metro Van on Skytrain, [or build out an amazing regional rail system to Hope (via the interurban), run medium-speed trains to Whistler (75 minute travel time), and fund the rehabilitation of the passenger railway corridor to the US border to accommodate 300 km/h High Speed Rail to Seattle]. However, the $15 billion price tag doesn't nearly account for the environmental and social effects of the induced sprawl.)

From the above study:

"The problems people associate with roads - congestion, air pollution, and the like - are not the fault of  road investments per se. These problems stem mainly from the unborne externalities from the use of roads, new and old alike..."

So why not mitigate the new roads - North Fraser Perimeter Road, South Fraser Perimeter Road, and Highway 1 improvements - by effective tolling and/or truck-only lanes? The relative importance of a truck full of time-sensitive shipments is much higher than that of one average commuter (or three to four, if you want to define it by the size of a truck) - so why don't we let the trucks have priority? This would ensure long-term usability of the new roads specifically for the freight sector, which needs the Gateway Project the most.

The "plight" of car commuters, however, will only be eased with strict land development regulations along the corridor, a new strong regional transit network that provides a viable and useful alternative to the current automobile-exclusive infrastructure, and perhaps a tolling system which will allow the people who need to commute by car the most (highest willingness-to-pay) to have access to swift-moving, decongested roads? The two developments (tolling the highways and improving transit) need to happen at the same rate and at the same time. Tolls shouldn't be raised if transit is not improved at the exact same time. Funding scheme for Translink, anyone? Anyone?

The idea of separating trucks and cars has been supported in depth by these folks and these folks too.  Take a look.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cute: Super Mario Skytrain Map

Dave Delisle from Dave's Geeky Ideas has this awesome Super Mario Bros. 3-esque rendition of the Skytrain System in Vancouver. Cute and a little nostalgic for anyone who grew up playing Nintendo.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

4th and King (Caltrain Railyards) Proposal

As part of an urban design studio at Stanford (URBANST171), I created an urban development plan for the Caltrain Railyards that currently sit South of downtown San Francisco. Future plans call for I-280 to be converted into a ground-level boulevard at 24th St. in Potrero Hill and Caltrain to be buried underground in the same tunnel as California High Speed Rail, leaving an enormous plot of land available for development. Caltrain hopes to move the 22nd st. station to the intersection of 16th st. and 7th, and bury the station at 4th and King underground, along with the possible High Speed Rail station too. HSR and Caltrain would then continue up to the Transbay Terminal just off of Market St.

As part of my proposal I concentrated on the transportation connectivity of the site to the rest of SF, something that has been lacking in recent years. 

Some more images from the proposal:

Here's the entire presentation, somewhat successfully imported into Prezi. Contact me if you'd like the original ppt, which is a bit more coordinated in terms of fonts and color schemes.

Many thanks to Danno Glanz of Calthorpe Associates, an amazing teacher and mentor.