Category Archives: California

About Davis

Even the Trikes are under lock and key in Davis
Even the Trikes are under lock and key in Davis

Davis, California is a nice college town, with a small but vibrant downtown, filled with an assortment of restaurants and cute shops, not all of which are selling bicycle paraphernalia. But Davis does define itself by its mode of travel, its bike logo is prominently displayed on everything, including trash cans. The Amtrak station is just at the edge of downtown, and I had a relatively straight, two mile walk from the station to the West Village on the opposite side of town and campus, across the freeway, to give a talk at ITS-Davis.

Waste disposal in Davis, California. Mission-style materials with clear iconic branding
Waste disposal in Davis, California. Mission-style materials with clear iconic branding

West Village is designed to be carbon neutral (sort of, ignoring all the carbon-exporting that we all do), and is this modernist, TOD like set up, where the storefronts are replaced by research offices, while apartments are upstairs. But it is really more Bicycle-oriented development than transit oriented. The campus is transected by the Sprocket Bikeway.

UC Davis West Village
UC Davis West Village

I was not entirely clear how to get from Amtrak to the building, so being a modern person with a GPS-enabled cellphone and without a paper map, I attempted to use the tools at my disposal. For the record, Apple Maps wanted to direct me to somewhere outside Los Angeles, as the new West Village streets were not in their database. Google Maps was more accurate, but pedestrian directions are still wonky, especially since the bikeway is not well signed. Both apps leave a lot to be desired from the UI perspective.

My Flickr photos are here

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About Hayward

B Street Crossing, Hayward California
B Street Crossing, Hayward California

I went to Berkeley to go to Hayward, where I gave a talk at CSU East Bay. I had only been there once, about 15 years ago. My flickr photos of Hayward are here.

Hayward is an older early 20th century town that I believe is geographically determined as the intersection of the extension of Altamont Pass and the Railroads parallel to the Bay. It was always part of the Bay Area economy, but got absorbed as part of the continuum of development encircling the Bay in the mid-20th century. Wikipedia discusses the history here.

BART came to town, and is the focal point of downtown, which has seen some attempts at revival. While most of the storefronts are leased, these do not appear to be high end shops, though there is a very nice independent book store. (The Bay Area seems to have more independent book stores remaining than most of the rest of the US). Still non-glitzy shops need a place to be, so this is an observation of the character of the neighborhood and the opposite of a condemnation of its lack of yuppie gentrification.

Part of the problem with Hayward is how some of the streets (not B Street where the shops are strongest) but some parallel and perpendicular routes, are totally given over to the auto, and function as high speed freeway entrance ramps.

The CSU campus (formerly CSU-Hayward, now CSU-East Bay) is in the hills, and has a nice set of buildings which seem to be dating from the 1960s through the present day, surrounded by acres and acres and acres of surface parking lots. It is not expected you will get to campus except by car or bus, and it is too far to walk from BART (which  came a little bit after the campus, which was founded in 1957, and moved here in 1961). This probably reflects its history as a commuter school, and surely many if not most students and staff do arrive by car, given its location and design. This is in clear contrast with UC Berkeley, which has very little parking available, and most students (who live on or near campus) walk, bike, or take transit.

About Berkeley

I lived in Berkeley from 1994-1999. I have visited a few times in the interim. The city is both the same and different. Obviously the streets did not move, and most of the buildings are still there. Even more surprisingly, many businesses did not change over this period, though some have. The old five-and-dime store (a Newberry’s, part of the roll-up of five-and-dimes that included a number of local chains across the US) in Berkeley, which closed soon after I moved there was replaced by a Half-price Books. Some one-story retail buildings have been replaced by five story apartment buildings with ground-floor retail. The most successful of these appears to be the Trader Joe’s at University and MLK.

Trader Joe's
Trader Joe’s

But if Berkeley is locationally so desirable (and in many ways it is, the weather, the University, the amenities – all optimized for child-less singles in their twenties, of which there are many in the United States who do not live in places as nice as Berkeley), why have there not been more of these 5-story buildings been built upgrading the commercial streets. What is capping supply? Is it the cost of building in Berkeley due to regulation? The fear of rent control? Neighborhood opposition? Or an actual limit to demand? I am not familiar enough with the current state of politics in Berkeley to know for sure, but it sure seems like Berkeley could support far more people in an economically productive way. When I lived there the housing stock was aging and not well-maintained, a product undoubtedly of rent control. I have a friend living in the same unit as in 1994, all that time under rent control. He complains about the landlord of course, but his rent is really, really cheap, and one suspects his landlord has ordered a hit.

Even with the perfect-seeming weather in Berkeley (that is, it is winter, and I don’t need a coat, therefore it is perfect), people always find a way to complain. The problem is the drought. The mountains are not getting snow, so pretty soon, the San Francisco area won’t be getting water, and everyone will die of thirst. Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration. Pretty soon the cost of water will have to rise.

I stayed at this particular Rodeway motel in 2007, and it was good, clean rooms, hot high-pressure water, modernized facilities, large screen TV and free internet, so I went back. It is still well-maintained. Strangely, I think I got exactly the same room.
Someone could write a paper on the bid-rent curve for hotel rooms on University Avenue in Berkeley as one gets steadily farther from the Campanile on campus.

The Cheesesteak Shop
The Cheesesteak Shop

People of course have their favorite things. Still the best cheesesteaks in the US are to be had at thePhiladelphia Cheesesteak Shop on University Avenue, they taste the same as they did 15 years ago (though the sweet peppers should be chopped more finely and better interspersed). They honored my stamped (frequent cheesesteak eater) card, which I filled out when I left Berkeley but never had a chance to redeem (15 years ago). It is sort of amazing I still had it, but there it was, with my pile of passports, transit cards for other cities, and other things in my travel drawer, emptied from my wallet in a fit of optimization a few years ago.

I wish someone would open a Minnesota franchise. The cheesesteaks of the upper Midwest are fine food, but they are not truly Philadelphia style cheesesteaks, as interpreted by the excellent cooks of Berkeley. (No, this is not part of the slow food movement out there).

The Berkeley of the 1960s is gone, now packaged up as an historic memory with associated tie-died trinkets to give the place a past, just like Northfield with its Jesse James days. There is of course much cognitive dissonance, left-wing sentiment, a naive idealism about human nature, and a tendency to favor politically correct slogans in the community, particularly from the old-timers. It appears to me, 15 years on (even more so than when I was a graduate student, a time that did not resemble the ’60s either) that the students today are trying it on as they might a costume, rather than as a truly internalized belief in their own self-importance and without the drive to change the world as their grandparents might have felt.

Maybe it is because their grandparents won and there is nothing worth getting worked up over. Maybe it is just a post-modern hedonistic fatalism associated with the end of empire that no longer believes in the narratives about right and wrong. Or maybe I am projecting, and everyone else really has a righteous passion and I just can’t see it.

The culture feels more materialistic. While buildings were not fully occupied, business generally seemed to be doing better in Berkeley than it has in a long time. I think there is some Palo Alto Envy, and there does seem to be a more vibrant start-up culture emerging in the city. I provide two examples. The transportation start-up Via Analytics, (I talked with some of their employees/graduate students)  is doing very interesting work on improving transit fleet synchronization.  SpoonRocket  delivers hot fresh meals for $6 from their kitchen/distribution center on University Avenue, via a fleet of specially equipped cars. It looks like a nice service, and is certainly cost-effective for the time-starved graduate student /entrepreneur class. I can’t imagine it is profitable. But they both suggest that Information Technology will permeate the transportation and logistics sector, and change not only how we do things, but what we do.

Travels through California: Berkeley to Davis via BART and Amtrak

It had been a while since I took Amtrak. My US Amtrak journeys include an over-night long distance trips (Atlanta – Baltimore and back) trip while I was in college (really uncomfortable, about an hour late, and not repeated) in the 1980s, and a few trips on the Metro-liner in the Northeast Corridor (which were fine, though slow) in the 1990s. I also have experience taking my now wife to Amtrak, for trips from Berkeley to Fresno, one of which was delayed 13 hours because of mechanical problems several states away. I have of course taken trains in other countries, which are generally decent rides, some better than others, some hybrids between transit and inter-city, some cleaner, and so on. Most have been highly punctual though, aside from various person-under-train events, which is either very common, or for which I am a magnet.

So after checking it out with two people before I bought tickets, just to make sure, I was pleasantly surprised at the Capitol Corridor, operated by Amtrak between the Bay Area and Sacramento. I was going to UC Davis to give a talk. The train was fairly modern, on-time, and clean. The user experience is pretty good. The ticket itself was “unreserved” so while I didn’t get an assigned seat, I could use it for other train trips, and was not bound to the scheduled ride. The fare was $23 each way ($46 RT).

Now Amtrak is still not a completely modernized system, though far better than it had been on my last Amtrak experience (and of course this is Amtrak California, which is not exactly the same thing as Amtrak elsewhere). They still use paper tickets, and don’t seem to have any way to integrate this line with the standard Bay Area payment systems (Clipper Card). (London is integrating its commuter trains with the Oyster Card, so this is not an impossible task, and seems the likely direction payment technologies should be taking).

BART and Amtrak interface at Richmond station. I was closer to the North Berkeley BART than the Berkeley Amtrak station, so I took BART to Amtrak. Doing it over, I might have just walked the extra distance, since there are no guaranteed transfers, and missing the BART train on the return cost me at least another 10 minutes wait, in addition to BART being slower than Amtrak due to the additional stops.

Going to Davis, I was early at the Richmond Amtrak station (but not so early that I could catch the previous train), a train stopped (not mine) with no information on the Variable Message Sign (VMT), this leading me to wonder whether it was in fact mine (which was listed on the VMS as the next train). The conductor informed me it was not. So human information systems still work even if the electronic systems are incomplete. Other people asked me about the train, so I guess asking is still standard operating procedure at train stations, and I am just anti-social (or new-fangled) for wanting my information machine-intermediated.

On-board, conductors scan your paper ticket and then still print out paper, using their mobile scanning devices to know who is going where. This paper slip is affixed above your seat, so they don’t have to bother asking for proof of payment again. You have to imagine the future is a small electronic indicator above the seats with that information that uses no paper, assuming they are going to continue to rely on proof of payment on conductors checking almost everyone’s ticket rather than gates and tap-in, tap-out. I do acknowledge the simplicity of paper, so this might in fact be more efficient even though it is less advanced. Similarly, proof of checking payment on-board reduces total travel time by minimizing queues at the entrance/exit gates. Still machinery is cheaper than labor, no?

The return trip was equally efficient. The load factor (off-peak time in the off-peak direction) in the morning was about 25%. In the afternoon (peak time in the off-peak direction) it was about 70%.

Travels to California

As a Transportationist, I observe transportation. These are my observations on travel to  last week from Minneapolis to Berkeley (via Metro Transit, Delta, BART). Some things work better than others, some better than I imagine. Some still puzzle me.

On this trip, I left Minneapolis, taking Metro Transit #8 bus (I was the only passenger on this run) to the Franklin Avenue LRT, with an almost perfectly timed transfer, and straight to the airport. Using the security off the skyway which connects Piers C and G, the security line was essentially empty (or should I not mention that secret). The Delta airlines flight was on-time and landed safely in San Francisco. I walked to the AirTrain which I took to the BART station.

I brought a paper BART card with me, which nominally had 5 cents remaining, from my previous trip. Sadly the machine did not accept this or allow me to add fare, so I abandoned it. Maybe someone with more patience than I will be able use the 5 cents. Instead I purchased a new $20 BART card. The new ones are plastic-y. I did not see any place I could purchase a Clipper Card, the multi-modal contactless smart card payment system the region is promoting (the region’s GoTo or Oyster Card), which would have been convenient were I to also take other transit services. The trip from SFO would cost about $8.

At the station, I waited for BART about 10 minutes before it was ready to depart. I transferred at MacArthur Station, pleasingly located on a platform outside in the middle of a freeway designed to maximize my intake of automobile emissions. The timed transfers within BART though are very efficient, so I could just walk across the platform to the Richmond bound train without delay.

At North Berkeley, I exited BART and walked to my motel, the Rodeway Inn. I really liked the idea of walking to a 1950s era parking-lot centered motor court. University Avenue in Berkeley, like University Avenue in St. Paul, was re-designed for the auto era. Still the fine-grained nature of shops in Berkeley is more pedestrian oriented than that in St. Paul. But the sidewalks are narrow and there is on-street parking as well as four travel lanes plus a median turn lane, and sometimes right turn lanes. University does feed to I-80, so it carries a lot of freeway directed traffic. But the street front is like the section of Fourth Avenue in Dinkytown. San Pablo Avenue is probably the better analog to St. Paul’s University, as it was the main route before the Interstate, and thus probably saw its heyday in the 1950s or 60s.

Still, there is a surprisingly large amount of traffic in Berkeley in general. Part of that is undoubtedly because of the traffic calming on side-streets pushing traffic from the smaller grid streets onto the arterials. Still, there are a lot of cars for such a small, pedestrian-friendly, transit served place in a good climate.

Also, where is the bike-sharing system? I normally think of the Bay Area as ahead on social and technology trends, but it seems to be slipping. Even bike-worshipping Davis is only talking about it now.

Perhaps it is the cooperative culture of Minnesota that allowed NiceRide to be launched so much earlier than in California. Perhaps California just took its “eye off the road” so to speak, fascinated so much by information technology that it missed some basic applications.

 

On my return, it took 90 minutes door-to-door from my hotel via BART and the airport AirTrain  to the security line at SFO. Driving (off-peak) would have been about 35 minutes. Though BART is fast, it still has stops, and it is not as fast as the freeway. More importably, the frequency (on Saturday morning at 6 am) is about every 15 minutes, and I waited most of that time. BART sounds faster because it is so loud in the tunnels (metal wheels on metal tracks in an echo chamber). In the tunnels, my iPhone was at maximum volume and I could barely hear the streets.mn (or any other) podcast.

The configuration at the mostly remodeled SFO (they are now rebuilding the tower) still puzzles me. If I still have to ride a shuttle at the airport from BART, why did they bother extending it “to the airport” at all, why not just extend the shuttle to the BART line, which would have been cheaper, since it deals with smaller, lighter vehicles. This never made sense, I still have to have a “two-seat” ride, who cares which seat they have to ride in for the 1 minute extra difference.

SFO surprisingly doesn’t have electronic message signs saying which gate various flights are at. Though SFO and MSP have topologically similar configurations (the terminals are basically a closed square around a central parking ramp). SFO seems to have the shorter walks (perhaps due to Air Train), while MSP provides overall better service to users (more shops, more traveler information).

Do we hear $100 Billion?

LA Times: California HSR is now more expensive: Bullet train cost estimates to rise: “Bullet train cost estimates rise to $98.5 billion. In a key change, the state has decided to stretch the construction schedule by 13 years, completing the Southern California-to-Bay Area high speed rail in 2033 rather than 2020.”

And now my estimate from 2009 (based on Reason Foundation work and the logic of the situation) of at least $80 billion, perhaps controversial, looks small.
However cost estimates have grown from $13 billion, cited in this early (1994) CalSpeed report “Revenue and Ridership Potential for a High-Speed Rail Service in the
San Francisco/Sacramento-Los Corridor” by Daniel Leavitt, Erin Vaca, and Peter Hall.

Reason study on California HSR

Reason Foundation has completed a study of the proposed California High Speed Rail line. The net: it is an unwise investment. Links below:
* News Release
* Policy Summary (.pdf)
* Full Study: The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report (.pdf)
* Brief: High-Speed Rail Plan Is A Financial Boondoggle
* Brief: Marginal Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions
* Brief: Exaggerating Rails Effects on California
* Findings at Glance