real transportation solutions

Measure A 2022, which will be on the ballot this November, is a bundle of old ideas and a commitment to doing things the old way, the way that has dominated our transportation system since World War II. It does not address current transportation challenges. It proposes building more freeways, more interchanges, and widening roadways. It proposes to continue and increase the motor vehicle dominance of our transportation system. Sure, there is a weak commitment to fix-it-first, for the first five years of the 40 years. Sure, there are some complete streets, but that won’t make a dent in the pedestrian and bicyclist-hostile roadways that traffic engineers have built for us.

When Measure A fails, we have a chance in Sacramento County to identify and implement progressive and effective transportation projects and systems. What would a better transportation system look like?

  • One not so dependent on sales taxes. Sales taxes are regressive – low income people spend a much higher percentage of income on sales tax than do higher income people. Property taxes and congestion charges are a much fairer way to fund transportation. We have been too dependent on sales tax, for not just transportation, but many government functions.
  • One that recognizes and works to overcome the disinvestment that low income and high minority communities have suffered. Our transportation system is largely designed to ease the commutes and travel of high income individuals, not of society as a whole. The light rail system was designed with the needs of suburban, largely white commuters. So too were our freeways. At least 70% of transportation expenditures should be in and for the benefit of disinvested communities.
  • We have all the lane miles and pavement we will ever need. It is time to stop adding lanes miles and stop adding pavement. Not just because of the climate implications, but because these are low-return investments. Instead, transportation expenditures should support walking, bicycling and transit.
  • Big transportation projects such as freeways and interchanges claim big job benefits, but they are in fact much less efficient at generating high paying jobs than many other types of infrastructure investments. New construction spends most of its funds on materials, not on labor. The construction companies make large profits on large projects, but little of that filters down to workers. Small to moderate projects would employ many more people.
  • A transportation system dependent on motor vehicles, whether they are fossil fueled or electric, has strongly negative impacts on our places: direct air pollution, tire dust pollution, noise, traffic violence, loss of land to parking and roadways rather than productive development, and probably most important, it intimidates people out of walking and bicycling. A transportation system based on walking, bicycling, and transit eliminates most of these negatives.
  • A car dominated transportation system pushes everything further apart, jobs and housing and shopping and medical far away from each other. Cars not only encourage but largely demand low density development, so that there is space reserved for cars, all the parking and roadways that take up a large portion of our cities. It requires a car to participate in society, and thereby requires low income people to expend an unsustainable percentage of their income on transportation. A transportation system that relies much more on walking and bicycling allows things to be closer together, so that cars are not necessary for most daily travel.
  • Transportation investment should depend much less on state and federal funding, and much more on local funding. Large portions of the Measure A funds are intended to be matches for grants. But grants cause planners to focus on what the state and the federal government want, not on what the county or cities need. When the income from taxes or fees is close to the people, the solutions are much more likely to be what is desired by the people.
  • Private vehicle travel does little to contribute to making our places and our lives better. A innovative transportation system would focus on access to services, and make those services available nearby. It would reduce vehicle miles traveled, both by changing our development pattern and by actively working to reduce motor vehicle travel.
  • Our current transportation system has destroyed a lot of natural and agricultural lands, paving it over with roadways and low density housing. The best way of preserving nature and agriculture is to focus our attention and our funding on already higher density areas, which means infill.
  • None of the projects in Measure A are designed to support infill development. A progressive transportation system would focus nearly all investment on infill areas. It would cost much less money, and be much more productive.
  • Measure A calls out and essentially requires completion of the Green Line light rail to the airport. But who will use it? Unless service hours are 24 hours a day, it won’t be usable for many of the airport workers, who work before and after peak travel times. Instead, it may become yet another very expensive service for high-income travelers, just like our freeways system. Instead, we need to rethink our transit system to determine what citizens want and will use, and build a more efficient system around that. We know that frequency is freedom, so we must shift spending towards that, even while maintaining a reasonable level of areal coverage.

I’m sure you can think of many other things that an innovative, equitable transportation system would accomplish. Please suggest!

motorist hegemony

I have been seeking a term for the car dominance of our society that captures how oppressive it is to anyone walking or bicycling. Totalitarian is not it, that implies that walkers and bicyclists would be disappeared and have absolutely no rights. Authoritarianism certain overlaps, but doesn’t really capture it. I saw a term used recently that I think does capture it: motorist hegemony.

Hegemony is the political dominance of one group over all others. Others (walkers and bicyclists) are tolerated so long as they don’t get in the way of or inconvenience the ruling class (which is car drivers, in this case). To be more specific: “In Marxist philosophy, cultural hegemony is defined as the ruling class’s manipulation of the value system and mores of a society, so that the ruling class perspective is the world view of society; thus, in the relations among the social classes of a society, the term hegemony describes the cultural dominance of a ruling class, which compels the subordination of the other social classes.” (Wikipedia)

What do you think? Do you have other ideas? The War on Cars is a frequently used term, but the irony of this escapes most drivers (it was a term used by a NYC entitled white person to complain about removal of parking for bicyclist facilities).

Sacramento open streets for eating

With the removal of blockages to motor vehicle travel on Capitol Avenue, a few weeks ago, and R Street, recently, Sacramento no longer has any streets closed to motor vehicles for the purposes of encouraging outdoor dining. There are still a few locations with sidewalks diverted to the street for outdoor dining, and parking lanes dedicated to outdoor dining, but many fewer than there were.

Following onto the SacBee article and tweet this morning (https://twitter.com/sacbee_news/status/1554800490478796801), a number of other people have commented on the issue today, on Twitter. Unfortunately, there weren’t tags on the tweets, so it is hard to find those twitter threads.

The city says that the end of the closure (to cars) was the decision of the business owners. Did the city talk to them to find out what they needed? To negotiate with them? I doubt it.

The city, of course, says that they are working on a permit system for outdoor dining, but the discussion of the permit system that I’ve seen is that it will only be for sidewalk diversions and parking lane dining. The city does not envision ever closing a street (to cars) for dining again, ever, anywhere. Why wasn’t the permit system in place before these dining areas disappeared? I believe it is because the city slow walks (pun) everything that has to do with creating a more livable, less car dominated city. There are powerful forces, in Public Works in particular, but other places as well, that don’t believe in walking and bicycling, or public spaces, and will do everything they can to make sure those things don’t happen. The pandemic reversed this, temporarily, because there was such a strong demand from the public, but the city has now slid back into its anti-livability comfort zone.

The city (I think) went to the trouble and expense of installing bollard anchors along much of R Street, from 15th Street to 10th Street, and the cross streets, but seems unwilling to use them.

R Street now, car dominated
R St Sacramento street dining
R Street then, people dominated

When I went by today to get a current photo of the street, I noticed that Iron Horse Tavern has blocked the sidewalk on the south side of R Street, leaving no alternate route or ADA accommodation. I suspect that this is one of the businesses here that thinks all its customers arrive by car, and they don’t need to serve anyone else. Please make their wishes come true, if you are a walker or bicyclist, and avoid this business.

Iron Horse Tavern on R Street, blocking the sidewalk

car sickness on Capitol Ave

I walked by the section of Capitol Ave in Sacramento, east of 18th St, as I have done many times, but today it struck me how dead this street is, now. It was alive for a while:

Capitol Ave, Sacramento, pandemic street closure, August 2020

But now it is sick again. To extend the analogy, it has always suffered from car sickness (a street dominated by motor vehicles), but had a relatively brief recovery when the street was closed to cars and opened to people walking and bicycling, and now a relapse into car sickness:

Capitol Avenue, Sacramento, opened to cars but not people, June 2022

The street feels abandoned. There are no people walking or bicycling. There are a very few people at the restaurants. It is hot, hot, hot, with insufficient street trees and an overly wide pavement. Note that if the street were closed (to cars) again, the street could be significantly narrowed, just space for bicyclists. Parking, unnecessary. Bike lane, unnecessary. Travel lanes, just enough width for emergency vehicles. Leaving plenty of space for outdoor dining, and street trees, and even a little nature.

During the closure (to cars), the street felt alive, even when there were few people there, even in the morning before most of the restaurants opened. People were walking and bicycling, and hanging out.

I don’t know why the closure was ended, and all the street canopies and seating removed. I’ve heard a lot of different stories: it was the city, it was the Midtown Association, it was the business owners. So I can’t point any fingers. But what I can say is that what was once clearly alive is now barely hanging on. Will it die? Probably not, but it won’t ever be healthy again, until the cars are again removed.

Cars kill business, cars kill cities. Why do we allow our city to be dominated by cars?

small business, not homeownership

Many organizations and governments are again touting homeownership as the path to economic security and wealth creation. I have my doubts. The wealth generated for people who own homes is not wealth out of thin air, nor is it wealth out of moral superiority. It is wealth out of exclusion and externalized costs. Every day, the gap among homeowners, and renters, and unhoused people grows, and the structure of wealth accumulation depends upon this gap.

As we, as a society, come to realize that we cannot continue to subsidize single family homes and their development pattern that requires large amounts of infrastructure, huge amounts of driving, and an impoverishment of cities, the single family home will lose value. This is hard to believe, given the exponential increase in home prices, but it will happen. As has been said by many others, the suburbs will largely collapse of their own weight, of their permanent debt burden. See growth ponzi scheme. Some will survive by changing their form and becoming small towns within the bigger city, but most will not. Detroit is the fate of most suburbs.

So, when the reckoning comes, and the American dream of homeownership comes to an ignominious end, what then is the alternative?

I’d like to propose small business ownership as a better model. No, I have no illusions that small business ownership is easy, or that it is any quick path to wealth. The business owners I talk to would find this laughable. But the wealth that is gradually accumulated is real wealth for the owner and real wealth for the community. It does not need subsidized infrastructure. It does not need an expensive transportation system and associated harms. It may need a small boost from the government, at times, but largely it survives and thrives by being part of an ecosystem of a healthy (and wealthy) community.

Some people claim that homeownership is the way to erase the disparity in wealth between white people and people of color. I’ll let the people of color speak for themselves, but for me, nothing about the current system or the proposed system of widespread homeownership looks likely to erase the gap. In fact, though it may bring a few people from the renter category into the homeowner category, it will very likely cast the rest downward into struggling renters and unhoused. If the government spends money to increase homeownership, as seems the politically preferable action these days, what then of the unhoused? What then of renters? What then of people who live in substandard and deteriorating housing, whether they own it or rent it?

I believe that government should stop subsidizing, and stop promoting large developments and large businesses. Large developments and large businesses seek government support in order to make what they do more profitable, but it is at the expense of the rest of us. This is nowhere more clear than in our transportation system, which was designed, and continues to be designed, to support large corporations and large shopping areas (malls), to make possible long distance commuting which is necessary when we separate single homes from work, shopping and recreation, and which destroys both the general environment on which we depend and the local communities that suffer from this system.

All efforts should instead be focused on small businesses. What do they need to succeed? What small government actions would support them? In this, I am completely aligned with the Strong Towns message:

leaf blowers

In the City of Sacramento, there are two sections of city code that address leaf blowers, both in Title 8: Health & Safety.

8.68.180 Portable gasoline-powered blowers.

        A.     It is unlawful for any person to operate any portable gasoline-powered blower on residential property or within two hundred (200) feet of residential property, except between the hours of nine a.m. and six p.m. Monday through Saturday and between the hours of ten a.m. and four p.m. on Sunday.

        B.     It is unlawful for any person to operate any portable gasoline-powered blower on residential property or within two hundred (200) feet of residential property during the hours permitted by subsection A of this section if the blower creates noise exceeding the following specified levels measured at a distance of fifty (50) feet from the blower:

  1. Blowers purchased or otherwise acquired between May 15, 1992, and November 15, 1995, shall not exceed seventy (70) dba.
  2. Blowers purchased or otherwise acquired after November 15, 1995, shall not exceed sixty-five (65) dba.
  3. Blowers in use on or before the effective date of the ordinance codified in this chapter or purchased or otherwise acquired before May 15, 1992, shall not exceed seventy (70) dba after November 15, 1993. (Prior code § 66.02.213)

8.70.020 Use of portable blowers.

No person shall operate a portable blower when the air quality index is 101 and above. (Ord. 2020-0042 § 1)

Strong Towns approach to public investment

This is a follow-on to my post don’t forget the little things. Though my post doesn’t have the same message, it goes back to the idea presented by Strong Towns, that big projects are not the secret to improving communities, but small steps, refined and repeated. This applies just as much to transportation as anything else.

Strong Towns has informed my thinking about transportation in ways that I’m not always aware of and acknowledging, so here is a start. If you care about the livability of your community, and the financial stability of your city/county/state, I cannot more highly recommend the organization.

The Strong Towns Approach to Public Investment

What about mass murder?

I will pause for a moment my mission to publicize and formulate ideas that make for a more livable place, more walkable, more bikeable, with effective transit, a diverse range of people, and jobs close to home.

The city, and the streets, are not safe for many people, not just because of traffic violence, but because of all types of violence. The last two years have seen a rising awareness that Blacks are not safe in public space, subject to oppression by law enforcement and violence in the places they live, and on the streets they use. What was once the problem of ‘driving while Black’ is now obviously the problem of ‘walking while Black’, ‘bicycling while Black’, and ‘existing while Black’. The same is true, to perhaps a slightly lesser degree, for Latinx. Hatred of trans people is growing, and they are unusually subject to violence. And now it is becoming clear that it is also not safe for Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

The incident in Georgia was probably a racial hate crime, but whether it was or not, it was a crime against those who died, and against society. Misogyny is also a hate crime. White supremacy is also a hate crime.

We have become a society where many people encourage the arming of everyone including mentally unstable individuals (usually white males, but not always), and they then try to absolve them when they act out. The former president encouraged hatred of ‘others’, meaning anyone not a white male, but focusing on people of color. The Republican party has long been the defender of the idea that the 2nd Amendment and the ‘right to bear arms’ is more important than all other amendments, and the rest of the constitution, and life itself. If people are not safe from gun violence, particularly white supremacy-fueled gun violence (by individuals and under the color of law), then all other freedoms are moot. The former president has blood on his hands on this one, and so do all his supporters, and so do all of the people who have opposed restrictions on gun ownership. Gun ownership in urban places is a pox on our humanity.

I will continue to be a voice for livable places. I appreciate every day the work of people to make those place safe and welcoming for everyone. I often think that I should join those voices in a more active way, but I also see that there are now many such voices, but still only a few voices for more livable places, and I feel like I need to continue to be one of those voices. We must adapt places and build places where the transportation network supports affordable housing for everyone, and affordable housing supports an effective and equitable transportation network. That is my mission. But I know that my work is for naught if people are not safe in those places.

I’m tired of the electric vehicle conversation

Warning: Grumpy old man mode.

I am really, really growing tired of the electric vehicle boosterism that pervades the environmental community. It is sucking all the air out of organizations and meetings, diverting attention away from solutions that would have a much greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The transportation sector is responsible for 41% of GHGs in California (2020), and that percentage will continue to climb as we work to reduce the other sectors. Except for this pandemic period, GHG emissions from vehicles have continued to climb every year, and they will probably go back to their rise when the pandemic is over, and that is already happening in some places.

Do electric vehicles have a lower emissions impact than fossil fuel vehicles? Yes, but the difference is not enough to justify the boosterism. Until our electricity supply is 100% renewable (with storage of course needed for peak periods), and we are not importing electricity from other states, the impact from electric vehicles will be unacceptably high.

And there is the other impact of vehicles. You’ve all seen the images, a take off on the old one showing the number of and space used by cars, buses, bicycles and walkers, showing congestion from electric vehicles being exactly the same as fossil fuel vehicles. But congestion is actually a friend to walkers and bicyclists, so mostly a concern to transit and drivers.

The biggest problem with cars is that they dominate our cities, and make compact, walkable development and neighborhoods impossible. I live in a place (downtown Sacramento) where nearly all of my needs are within walking distance, and the few that are not are within bicycling distance. I’m car free and have been for ten years (I had written care free instead of car free, but you know, it is much the same thing).

Yet car drivers through downtown, many but not all of them people who don’t live in downtown, challenge me for right-of-way every time a use a crosswalk. Crossing the street should not require either yielding my right of way to drivers, or trying to intimidate them into stopping (which most walkers are too afraid to do, rightly so). When I’m bicycling, drivers running red lights and not coming close to stopping at stop signs are a constant danger, meaning I have to be on high alert rather than enjoying my place and my ride. The nature of the majority of drivers is that they willingly intimidate walkers and bicyclists. People driving electric vehicles are not any better. Tesla drivers are giving BMW drivers a run for their money in competition for the worst drivers on the road.

Because of the space taken up by cars, the roadway, on-street parking, off-street parking, everything is further away. Downtown and midtown, things are still within a reasonable distance, but that is not true anywhere else in the region except downtown Davis, old town Folsom, and old town Roseville. The amount of land devoted to cars is truly amazing, and sad, and criminal. Six lane or more arterials, with parking lanes and turn lanes. Six lane or more freeways, with the ever present threat to widen them. Katy Freeway (26 lanes in Houston area), coming to your community, courtesy of Caltrans!

I suspect a lot of the energy behind electric cars is just people who really don’t want to give up their car, at all, ever. They are the same people who bought Prius cars because they were more environmental, and continued driving the same or more, and then bought Tesla cars because they are even more green, and continued driving the same or more.

Car drivers kill more than 40,000 people every year in the US, and it looks like 2020 is going to be 43,000 when the official data is in. Motor vehicle fatalities are usually a bit above gun-related deaths. Cars are the leading cause of death for children and young people. Many people tolerate this as just part of the way things are, but it is not the way things are. It is the result of our American car addiction, and the design of our roadways (engineers are morally and legally responsible for this), and the choices of drivers.

Here is my suggestion. We remove one-half of all cars from service, by whatever means necessary, with whatever funding it takes. There should be criteria that prioritizes: 1) the most polluting cars; and 2) cars owned by drivers who drive a lot, 3) cars that are not used but still take up space on the street. I realize that there are homeless people living in vehicles, and I’m not talking about those, but the ones just gathering dust and leaves and cobwebs. I am not suggesting that the government pay going prices for these vehicles, but something quite a bit less. If necessary to induce the change, we can simply refuse to renew registration on vehicles in these categories.

Then, and only then, we start subsidizing replacement of the remaining internal combustion cars with electric, starting with the lowest income people. If we devote X amount of dollars to this, and X amount only gets us up to 40% of the median income, that is just fine with me. As many studies have shown, it is high income people that are receiving almost all the benefits from electric vehicle incentives. That is classist and racist, and must stop. We might eventually get to higher income levels, but only after replacement in the lower income levels has been achieved. That means we need to immediately end the programs as they exist and revise them to be equitable. If you are an electric car booster and and not working to achieve equity, you are just being an entitled jerk.

Please, let me not hear anything about electric vehicles the next time I go to a meeting or jump on Twitter. Please.

corner retail, part two

My earlier post on corner retail was in preparation for talking about an idea that corner retail should be acknowledged, supported, and promoted in the upcoming Sacramento 2020 General Plan. The general plan tentatively promotes higher density by allowing a reasonable floor area ratio for properties throughout the city, while removing development constraints that add nothing to safety or livability. Assuming the plan and the resulting code to support it does significantly increase the number of homes and people able to live in the city, if the city remains as car-centric as it is, the result will just be less parking availability and more congestion (both of which I’m in favor of, but I recognize most people are not). It would go towards solving the housing issue, but do little for livability and climate change issues.

So what is the solution? A place where people can perform most of their daily activities without driving. In other words, corner retail. The jobs issue is a separate one, though corner retail would also increase the number of jobs within walking distance.

Karma Brew, my neighborhood bar, on the corner of P St & 16th St, 2-1/2 blocks from my house

I am not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but I’ll throw out an idea. I don’t think rezoning corner lots from residential to commercial is necessarily the answer, because that might encourage entirely new buildings replacing existing buildings. Obviously many existing buildings would need to be changed to serve as retail, but I don’t think wholesale replacement is good, and it is not respectful of that claim of ‘neighborhood character’ (which is often a cover for concerns not voiced, but is nevertheless a consideration).

Rather, I think a by-right conditional use permit (is that an oxymoron?) is the better solution. That way the building remains similar to what is there now, but becomes functional as a retail location.

Where? I’m partly of mind to say everywhere, every corner. Much of the existing corner retail predates zoning (grandfathered in) or is already under a conditional use permit. But I’m also of mind to limit it to fewer locations, which would be any corner fronted on at least one side by a collector or arterial street. In the lower density parts of Sacramento, I don’t think much corner retail would show up, because it takes a certain density to make retail viable, but there would certainly be more than there is today. Wouldn’t you like to be able to walk to a coffee shop in your neighborhood. Or walk to the market for a few items?

Note that I’m not clearly defining what corner retail is. Does it mean there is only one business present, or allowed, or could it be a few small footprint businesses clustered together? Some of the locations I’ve identified are not on actual corners, but they have the feeling of corner retail. The general plan and the supporting code would have to define corner retail.

Below are two maps of Oak Park, on the left, arterials and collectors, and on the right, GoogleMaps with markets selected. The scales are similar but not identical. As you can see, some corners on arterials or collectors already have corner markets, and there are other corners with retail that is not a market, but there are a number of locations that could have corner retail under my proposal, but do not. I picked Oak Park just because I’d spent time there recently looking for markets and other corner retail (photos below).

The slideshow below shows some of the corner retail, mostly markets, in Oak Park. Note that in general these locations are much more car-oriented than the ones I showed in the central city, because the area is much more car dominated. I will say more about that in the future. It does not include the many, many businesses that are part of commercial zones along Broadway and Martin Luther King. If you zoom in on Google Maps, a commercial area overlay shows up as pale yellow. I am gradually collecting photos of retail in other areas of Sacramento and will eventually post them.