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Worldwide links: Is the future in Finland?

The future of urban transportation may live in Finland, Berlin is taking cars off of its most famous street, and light rail won't run from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Raimo Papper on Flickr.

"Mobility" has a new meaning Is Helsinki, Finland the home of the future of transportation? The city is testing self-driving buses on increasingly difficult routes and is at the forefront of the "mobility as a service" movement, which essentially would make buying your mobility like buying a phone plan: you'd pay by the month (rather than by the call) for a spectrum of options. (New York Times)

Pedestrians coming soon: Berlin will be taking cars off of its most famous street, Unter Den Linden, which used to be the city's major parade route and is its current museum strip. The move away from automobiles began with the construction of a new subway segment under the street. The route once carried 30,000 cars a day but is now down to 8,000, and it's likely to be one of the first pieces of the car-free central city that leaders envision happening by 2019. (CityLab)

Stop that train: A measure to build a light rail extension in Virginia Beach failed Tuesday evening, leading the state's transportation secretary to ask local transit planners to stop working on the project. The $155 million already set aside for the project will be redistributed to projects based on the state's new transportation investment scoring system. (Virginian-Pilot)

Building more earth: Humans are constantly shifting the earth below them, both as they build and destroy. For example, after WWII, 75 million tons of rubble from bombed out buildings in Berlin was collected and taken to a dumping site that now forms a not-insignificant hill called Teufelsberg. Anthropologists are studying these man-made base levels of cities, referring to them as an earth layer called the Archaeosphere which, in Sweden's case, can mean extracting raw materials left behind. (Places Journal)

Direct route delayed: A rail tunnel linking the current Caltrain terminus to the new Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco will not be complete until 2026. Lawsuits related to the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, which has started to lean, are holding up money for new tunnels. The tunnels are expected to be used by Caltrain and High Speed Rail once they're finished. (SFist)

Quote of the Day

"Regionalism is a Trojan Horse term right out of the lexicon of the 1970s. So-called regionalism was never a compromise. It was always a stealth tactic, an abandonment of the city, which was considered half dead anyway by the city's own leadership. Regionalism was always a ruse to shift resources to the suburbs."

- Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze discussing whether the city's long term health is better off building more suburban transit, or focusing on the core with a new subway line. (Dallas Observer)

Transit


Get a look at 23rd century public transit in the latest Star Trek movie

In the Star Trek universe, transporter technology can instantaneously whiz characters from starships to planets and back again. The latest Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, shows us transporters in service as public transit.


Public transporter booth. Screencap from Star Trek Beyond. Click for video.

Although transit has never been a key element of Star Trek, which is rarely set in big cities, the franchise's long history does include a few scenes with futuristic transportation.

A few seconds later in that same scene, a high-speed train zips by.

In the previous movie, 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness, we saw a brief glimpse of a futuristic articulated bus.

And finally, in a 1995 TV episode of Star Trek Voyager, one character emerged from a 24th Century San Francisco subway system called Trans Francisco.

But all those futuristic trains aside, the transporter has got to be the coolest of Trek's multimodal options.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Budget


WMATA says bus fares are low (while trying to raise them). That's not really true.

The latest WMATA budget proposal would raise fares on Metro rail, bus, and parking, while also cutting service. It's a crushing plan for everyone. In proposing to raise bus fares, the agency claims they are lower than in other cities, but for many riders who ride both the bus and rail, our bus fares are actually among the highest.


Image from Arlington Transit.

When announcing the fare hike plan, the WMATA press release read:

For bus riders, one-way local bus fares would increase from $1.75—among the lowest nationally—to $2.00.
We've heard "Metro bus fares are low compared to other cities" before. Last time Metro raised fares, in 2012, the PR around the change said the same thing. However, that's misleading at best—at least for the many riders who ride both bus and rail.

A lot of people don't just ride the bus. They take a bus from home to a Metrorail station and then ride the train, and back again in the evening. Or a bus to a train to another bus.

That's not just because they are using a lot of transit. Large parts of the bus network are designed as feeders to the rail system. In fact, many buses don't go downtown at all, but end at a Metrorail station. When Metro opened, many existing bus lines were cut back to the nearest rail station, with the expectation that riders would take the bus only locally or to the nearest rail station rather than all the way to a distant job center.

If you do ride bus to rail or vice versa, you pay the full fare on both minus a 50¢ discount. By comparison, New York (for eaxmple) charges non-pass users $2.75 for any bus (or rail) trip, but a trip on a train and a bus (or more than one bus) still just costs $2.75, no more. You can't ever take a Metrorail and Metrobus trip for only $2.75.

How do bus fares really compare?

This table compares fares for combo trips in the eight cities with the highest transit usage. Since our rail system's fares vary based on how far you travel, it's more complex to compute the bus-to-rail fare, so for simplicity let's look at how much you'll pay for a bus trip once you've already paid for a rail trip from some other location.

City & agencyBus fare (w/card)1Bus fare after railBus fare after other rail
Washington (WMATA) proposal$2.00$1.50FREE from VRE and for MARC or VRE pass holders
Washington (WMATA) today$1.75$1.25
Philadelphia (SEPTA)$2.25$1.00$1.65 from PATCO2
Chicago (CTA)$2.2525¢Full fare from Metra
New York (NYCT)$2.753FREEFull fare
Atlanta (MARTA)$2.50FREENo other rail
San Francisco (MUNI)$2.504FREE$2.00 from BART
Los Angeles (LACMTA)$1.75FREEFREE from Metrolink
Boston (MBTA)$1.70FREEFull fare from commuter rail
but free for pass holders

1 All fare calculations assume you have the electronic fare media for that city. Most agencies offer better fares for people with the card (SmartTrip in Washington, MetroCard in NYC, Clipper in SF, Breeze in Atlanta, etc.)

2 Riders transferring from PATCO to select city train and bus lines can buy a round-trip ticket for $3.10, for an effective per-direction fare of $1.65.

3 Riders using the pay-per-ride MetroCard also get an 11% fare bonus when putting $5.50 or more on the card, making the effective fare for riders who don't have passes as low as $2.48.

4 SF MUNI fares are scheduled to rise from $2.25 to $2.50 on January 1, 2017.

By this computation, the cost to get on a Metrobus after riding rail is more expensive than on any other system in the eight cities where people ride transit the most. Five offer free transfers, and of the other three, Metro is by far the stingiest with its transfer discount. It's definitely misleading to say the bus fare is lower in Washington than other US cities.

Free transfers for Metro?

WMATA could make free transfers part of a fare increase package. There's precedent for that, most recently in Los Angeles. LACMTA used to charge full fare for a bus ride after a subway ride (and even switching from one bus to another), but instituted free transfers in 2014 as it raised the base fare from $1.50 to $1.75.

There are other good reasons to institute free transfers. Because there's no free transfer, and because the base bus fare (to compensate somewhat) is lower than elsewhere, many poorer residents ride the bus long distances on the lines which don't just end at a rail station. The trip from Southern Avenue to Foggy Bottom on the 32 local might be excruciatingly slow compared to a two-train trip, but it's cheaper. This exacerbates a class disparity between rail and bus riders.

Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel confirmed via email that the current fare increase proposal "does not contemplate any changes to existing transfer discounts." The region needs to work to find alternatives to fare increases that could trigger a "death spiral," but if a fare increase does happen, the agency should reexamine its transfer policies.

Correction: The initial version of this post omitted Los Angeles' Metrolink under the "other rail" column in the table, and omitted some free transfers for MARC and VRE. These errors have been corrected.

Links


National links: Haunting housing

Costumes are one thing, but buildings can be scary too! Also, a look at how we can use design to make life better for everyone, not just some pople, and a question about whether self-driving cars will actually lead to less car ownership. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Casey Hugelfink on Flickr.

Buildings of fear: Gory costumes make for good Halloween fright, but what about architecture and city design? Here's a list of eight movies where the featured buildings and urban design will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Got any scary building stories yourself? Share them in the comments! (Fast Company Design)

Social justice in design: In much of the US, wealthy neighborhoods have been getting infrastructure upgrades like plazas and bike lanes while areas with less economic and political power still need sidewalks and basic safety features. How can we make our investments more equitable? Partly by understanding the different needs of different riders, but also by advocating for others. (Momentum Magazine)

Which road does the future take?: In the future, will people ditch their own cars and share vehicles, or will individual ownership continue to be the norm? Having the former would mean convincing people to forego the most immediately appealing option, which is a tall order. (Transport Politic)

That sinking feeling: San Francisco's Millennium Tower is sinking, but the reason why isn't so clear. Some residents blame the construction of the Transbay Terminal, which is next door, but others wonder why the tower only went up on a concrete foundation rather than going into bedrock. After all, this is earthquake country. (San Francisco Magazine)

First transit, then higher prices? Since the Green Line light rail recently started running between Minneapolis and St. Paul, real estate prices along the corridor have slowly gone up. One bedroom apartments that used to rent for $550 per month now cost over $800. This isn't the neighborhood's first go-round with transportation infrastructure being related to displacement, and while affordable housing is going up, it doesn't seem like it will be enough to stem the tide. (Pioneer Press)

Quote of the Week

University of Southern California urban planning professor Lisa Schweitzer sharing her thoughts on how nobody is doing enough to make climate a priority in land use policy:

"Ever notice that you don't generally see big developers necessarily advocating for broad land use changes, despite being packed on many a city council and zoning board? Instead, they seek variances for their own individual projects. That's because they, too, get a nice rent boost from the constrained housing supply when their projects luck into variances and other developers are kept out."

Transit


Worldwide links: Does Seattle want more transit?

Seattle is about to vote on whether to expand its light rail, stirring up memories of votes to reject a subway line in the late 60s. In San Francisco, people would love to see subway lines in place of some current bus routes, and in France, a rising political start is big on the power of cities. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by VeloBusDriver on Flickr.

Subway in Seattle?: Seattle is gearing up for a massive vote on whether to approve a new light rail line, and a Seattle Times reporter says the paper is, on the whole, anti-transit. Meanwhile, lots of residents haven't forgotten that in 1968 and 1970, voters rejected the chance to build a subway line in favor of a new stadium and highways. (Streetsblog, Seattle Met, Crosscut)

Fantasy maps, or reality?: Transit planners in San Francisco asked residents to draw subway fantasy maps to see where the most popular routes would be located. They got what they asked for, with over 2,600 maps submitted. The findings were also not surprising, as major bus routes were the most popular choices for a subway. (Curbed SF)

Paris mayor --> French president?: Sometimes labeled as the socialist "Queen of the Bohemians", Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has quietly moved up the political ladder, and she's now a serious candidate to be France's future head of state. Hidalgo did the unthinkable by banning cars from the banks of the Seine, and her ability to make change at the local level makes her believe cities are, in many respects, more important than the countries they inhabit. (New York Times)

How romantic is the self-driving car?: In the US, driving at age 16 was a 20th century right of passage. But what happens when we take the keys away? What happens to people's love affairs with cars if cars drive themselves? Does turning 16 mean anything in terms of passage into adulthood? In this long read, Robert Moor wonders how the self-driving car will affect the American psyche, and especially whether older drivers will ever recover. (New York Magazine)

Pushing back on art in LA: Local activists in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, are pushing back against artist spaces they feel are gentrifying the neighborhood. Research shows that the arts aren't necessarily a direct gentrifying agent, but planners do watch art spaces to analyze neighborhood change. (Los Angeles Times)

Quote of the Week

We've had this concentrated population growth in urban areas at the same time that people have been doing an increasing percentage of their shopping online. This has made urban delivery a more pressing problem.

- Anne Goodchild on the growth of smaller freight traffic in urban areas. (Associated Press)

Housing


Rent in our region is expensive. Does that mean it's unaffordable?

It's no secret that rent prices in the Washington region are very high. But when we talk about affordable places to live, we often forget that there are two components to affordability: there's how much we spend on rent, but also how much we earn in income.


Rent here might be pricey, but is it expensive? Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Typical surveys like this one by Zumper usually find that a select group of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington have the most expensive apartment prices. According to these measurements, Washington has the fourth-most expensive rent of any large city in the country.

But if rent is $1000 in two different cities, but the average income in City A is 50% higher than in City B, then residents of City A can afford housing more easily, generally speaking. A recent article by Greater Greater Washington contributor Kate Rabinowitz demonstrated how cheaper cities also often lack good-paying jobs.

Here's how various metro areas stack up

To better evaluate this relationship, I looked at households across major metropolitan areas and how much of their income they spend on rent.

Two terms that are critical to understand renting affordability are rent-burdened households (those than spend over 30% of income on rent) and severely rent-burdened households (those that spend over 50% of their income on rent). For my own analysis, I chose only to look at rent-burdened households.

I also did not include median income in this analysis, as large cities in the United States have a large amount of income inequality, so median income does not necessarily reflect the experience of low-income households.

Additionally, I chose to use Census's Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) for data samples, rather than just large cities proper since most Americans live outside of major cities. Here are the 33 metropolitan areas with a population of above two million:


Graph by the author.

The results are very different from what we might expect. Cities typically associated with high rent, such as Washington (7th place), Seattle (10th place), Boston (12th place), and San Francisco (16th) have below-average numbers of rent-burdened households. Rent burdens in Texan cities are among the lowest, while the places where the most people use more than 30% of their income to cover rent are in California and Florida.

For reference, although many cities have significantly lower rent burdens than the US average, over half of renting US households spend above 30% of income on rent. Consequently, over 45% of renting households are rent-burdened in even the most affordable cities.

At the other end of the spectrum, over 60% of households are rent-burdened in the most unaffordable metropolitan areas, such as Miami and Riverside.

Although these measurements help better explain housing affordability, there are a few things that this analysis does not take into consideration.

  1. This analysis only looks at renting households. Some metropolitan areas may have a larger share of owned households, which are difficult to compare to renting households.
  2. The data measure the total number of rent-burdened households; they say nothing about households that are severely rent-burdened. That is to say that these measurements tell us about the breadth of the problem, not the depth.
  3. This analysis does not evaluate apartment size or household occupancy. Accordingly, residents of cities with expensive rent may make the "economic choice" to live in single apartments with a high number of occupants (roommates, multi-generational households, etc.).
  4. The Census's measure of rent-burden does describe how housing subsidies, rent control, and other mechanisms affect households' ability to afford rent. In all likelihood, liberal housing policies in cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco decrease the number of households that are rent-burdened.

Washington DC's relatively high incomes may make it more affordable in comparison to economically depressed cities. This does not mean, however, that all households in the region have equal opportunities to find affordable housing, especially those below the median income.

As income influences affordability, higher salaries should be part of the larger debate of housing affordability in the region and across the country—especially since incomes have stagnated for most workers, while the price of housing continues to rise.


Housing


Zoning: The hidden trillion dollar tax

Zoning in cities like DC is starting to get expensive. Maybe trillions of dollars too expensive.


Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker.

The intuition is straightforward. These cities' strict zoning rules limit their housing supplies. That sends rents soaring and prevents people from moving in. But because these cities are hubs of finance, healthcare, and technology, they are unusually productive places to work and do business. When people have to live elsewhere, they miss out on all this.

As a result, displaced workers, who can't move to New York or San Jose, are less productive and therefore earn lower wages. The country misses out on their untapped potential--fewer discoveries are happening, fewer breakthroughs are being made--and we're all poorer as a result.

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn't necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Zoning rules have clear benefits, but it's a question of balance

Zoning and land-use regulations have benefits. Some ensure basic health and welfare; they keep toxic dumps away from your child's school, for example (though this works better if you're well-off). Others aspects of zoning provide more marginal benefits, and to say these laws safeguard your health would be a stretch, like rules that keep duplexes and other multi-family housing out of your neighborhood.

Large swaths of Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 have these types of rules: they're zoned "R-1-A" or "R-1-B," which only permit suburban-style detached homes. As the "general provisions" section of the zoning regulations say, "The R-1 District is designed to protect quiet residential areas now developed with one-family detached dwellings."

This, of course, is not an accident: DC's zoning map also shows who has power in the city, and who does not. Parts of Georgetown, for example, have a unique zoning designation called "R-20"; it's basically R-1, but with stricter controls to "protect [Georgetown's] historic character… limit permitted ground coverage of new and expanded buildings… and retain the quiet residential character of these areas and control compatible nonresidential uses."

Meanwhile, equally-historic Barry Farm is zoned RA-1, which allows apartment buildings, like many other parts of Ward 8. And, of course, Barry Farm abuts a "light industry" zone, sits beside a partly abandoned mental hospital, and was carved in two by the Suitland Parkway. While Washington's elite can use zoning with extra care to keep Georgetown the way it is, the same system of rules hasn't exactly led to the same outcomes for Barry Farm.


Barry Farm. Image from Google Maps.

What to do?

Washington is better than San Jose, where the majority of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes, but our own suburban-style rules still have room for improvement.


This could be Atlanta, but it's actually Ward 4.

Addressing this problem doesn't necessarily require us to put skyscrapers in Bethesda or Friendship Heights, turn the Palisades into Tysons Corner, or Manhattanize Takoma. More human-scale, multi-family housing in these places, currently dominated by single-family detached homes, could be a massive boon to the middle class and poor.

If half of such houses in Chevy Chase rented out their garages, or became duplexes, I'd estimate that could mean 25% more families living near world-class transit, fantastic parks, good jobs, and good people.

As Mark Gimein wrote recently on the New Yorker Currency blog:

The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success.

If you're curious for more on Moretti and Hsieh's work, see this short description of their paper and this PBS interview with Moretti. For an in-depth discussion of zoning's effect on the economy (with less math), see this speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Pedestrians


National links: Ancient ruins that nobody visits

There are ancient ruins in the United States but people don't treat them as tourist destinations like they do ones in other countries. Also, not everyone gets to weigh in on how their city is planned, and Ford Motor Company is trying out a different transportation strategy. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.


Photo by John Fowler on Flickr.

Ancient ruins ignored: The US has a number of ancient cities, including Cahokia near St. Louis and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. But we don't visit the same way we do places like, say, Machu Picchu. Part of the reason may be that ancient ruins in the US don't exactly mesh with the narrative that this land was uninhibited, waiting for Westerners to simply come and put it to use. (Pricenomics)

Not so representative: Metropolitan planning agencies are notorious for overlooking the opinions of people who live in dense urban areas, especially people of color and women. According to researchers in Austin, Texas, while 63% of their regional population is white, white board members represent 90% of the technical advisory council and 85% of the transportation policy board of region's metropolitan planning organization. Women make up 33% and 30% of these same two boards even though they make up half of the total population. (Streetsblog USA)

Will Ford change urban transportation?: The Ford Motor company is making urban travel part of its business model. The company has bought Chariot, a transit-like company that shuttles people from home to work in large cities, and is paying to bring 7,000 bike share bikes to San Francisco by 2017 (there are 700 now). The company says its goal is to drive down the cost of mobility for everyone. (Medium)

Is "out" the only way forward?: Cities that spread outward have produced more housing than those which have curbed the sprawl, according to a Berkeley economist. More units in sprawling areas has meant lower prices, which means cities will face a hard decision going forward: contain development while production in the core lags and prices go up, or sprawl into the outer areas of the region, a solution that brings high transportation costs and environmental damage. (Wall Street Journal)

Crosswalk, redesigned: A series of crosswalks are being redesigned in San Francisco to promote safety, taking into account the fact that drivers hit three people each day. The idea is to make pedestrians easier to spot by using multiple zebra crossings and raised curbs, but also to make the crossings more park-like. (Curbed SF)

Our transportation habits are wasteful: When writing a book on garbage, Edward Humes noticed that we waste a lot of space and resources on transportation, so he wrote a new book called Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation. The fact that vehicles designed for five people ferry around one person, for example, led him to think the car is a social, economic, and health problem that needs to be solved. (New York Times)

Quote of the Day

"If you look at legal requirements on levels of nitrogen dioxide in particular, Oxford Street gets in the first week of January what it should in an entire year. That's one of the reason why there's an urgency to air quality plans."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who himself has adult onset asthma, discussing the air quality problems London faces thanks to endless streams of diesel buses. (CNN)

Transit


National links: We'll pay you to avoid rush hour

BART, San Francisco's major transit system, wants to reward riders for avoiding rush hour, drivers have run into a house in Raleigh 6 times in 9 years and the owners can't sell, and an engineer in Oslo has turned kids into "secret agents" in a bid to report street hazards. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.


Photo by Storm Crypt on Flickr.

Frequent rider miles: San Francisco's BART is piloting a rewards program that will give points to riders who use the system at times next to, but not during, peak periods. The program gives riders one point per mile an hour before and after the peak rush hour, with 1,000 points equaling to use toward BART passes. (Curbed SF)

Uber as transit: Altamonte Springs, a suburb of Orlando Florida, is subsidizing Uber rides for residents in lieu of a transit system. The city manager had hoped to create a system of smaller buses that came when called until his project idea was killed last year by the USDOT. The agreement is the first of its kind in the country, and is controversial because it leaves out key segments of the riding population including the the disabled and those without bank accounts. (The Verge)

Stop driving into my house: Speeding drivers that fly around a sharp turn on a big arterial have hit a house in Raleigh 6 times in the last 9 years. The family constantly fears for its safety, but the city won't do anything about the road, where people constantly drive over the speed limit, nor will it help the family move out of the house, which is impossible to sell. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Housing takes a loss: Small dorm-sized apartments called microhousing have been regulated away in Seattle. One legislative change after another brought higher standards, larger floor plans, and higher costs. Best described as death by a thousand cuts, the fight against microhousing has added up to a loss of over 800 units per year. (Sightline Institute)

Walk to get smart: There is a great "link between mind and feet". According to science, we are able to come up with ideas and think better when we're walking because of our body chemistry. When you go on a walk, your heart pumps faster and and circulates more oxygen to all parts of your body, including your brain. (New Yorker)

Put the kids to work: An app in Oslo called Traffic Agent was created to allow children in the city to report hazards. A local traffic engineer came up with the idea when she realized that it would be tough to complete a traffic report on all city roads and wanted to get more children involved in traffic safety issues. The data and information will be used in the future when the city closes the core to vehicles. (Next City)

Quote of the Week

"We're trying to get back to that great system that we had. Get rid of the debt and get rid of the tolls and have a low-cost system that everybody can benefit from."

- Retired engineer Don Dixon on Texas' plans to look at making all of the state's toll roads free. Doing so would cost $24 billion.

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