Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Centered Bay Area -- A Better Way to Grow

May 27, 2010

"Centers" for the San Francisco Bay Area

                The Bay Area is a thriving metropolitan region, the fourth largest in the United States, with three  anchor cities in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, and a complex, extensive and stunningly beautiful geographic setting of hills and water on the Pacific coast.   Its population is somewhat over seven million, and it expects another million people in the next fifteen years or less.    How will the Bay Area handle this growth?   Where will it put its next million people?  
                Our region now settles its new households mainly on its outer rim in single-family houses and townhouses linked by freeways  to the region's more central Bayside areas, where older settlement and jobs are concentrated.   Land and houses on the edge are less expensive than buying housing closer toward the center, but living in a dispersed way at a distance means long commutes, almost invariably by car.  Dispersion and commuting add up to great expense over time, not only in money from family budgets, but in many hours of time spent driving, and in gasoline, which becomes CO2, and other forms of pollution.   Despite the initial apparent savings at the time of house purchase, in the end, the "sprawl" style of life, for  a large population and over decades, is extremely inefficient and costly.   Has our national  swoon since World War II for the car, and the way of life it brings, been a great self-indulgence that looks less smart and sound in retrospect?    We certainly still spend time, money and energy in driving which we could be using for education, healthcare, family life, or for greater social equality and ending poverty.  Can this huge bloc of "sprawl" expense in American life, monetary and beyond monetary, be reduced as the country inexorably continues to urbanize,  or, more accurately, to move into metropolitan regions?   
                Yes, this burden can be brought down.   The way to do it is to come together and settle in sufficient proximity to one another, that is, with sufficient density, that we can use much more collective rather than individual transportation.    Would this mean concrete-gray city life, with no privacy, security, open space and green nature?  No, it does not have to mean that kind of urbanization, which many Americans, and certainly Californians, traditionally shrink from. 
                The key to escaping from the car reliance that lays an annual tax approaching $10,000 per car on all of us, is for the region's cities to build in the form known as transit oriented development (TOD).  Or, much better, in the higher form of TOD which can be called walking transit oriented community  (WTOC),  in which people live close enough to their transit connection, and to most of their community services and activities, that they walk to them.  They do not take a car to a BART, Caltrain, MuniMetro or VTA station that is surrounded by big parking lots.  Density, of course, can be just thrown together, or accumulated over time, but a transit oriented settlement could also be structurally and carefully designed to be clean and safe for adults and children, and so that green and open space for sports and recreation, and for being outdoors in the California climate, can be abundant and very nearby. 
                How would that be done?    Such a walking transit-oriented community (WTOC) can be called a "Center, and will be built around a BART, Caltrain, or similar trunk transit stop.   If many Centers were constructed, we could speak of a Centered Bay Area.   In a network such Centers would strengthen the transit system and each other, and  collectively could take a good share of the million new people the region expects to receive in the coming decade-plus.
                What would such a Center look like?  It would be of substantial size, because it should not be a niche facility that serves a subset of the population, such as the rich, or the poor or the old.  Rather, it should have enough capacity to hold all sorts of people, many with their jobsites, and to mix them as much as they want in community life.   Let's say 10,000 people.   How far is walking distance to the transit stop (perhaps underground or elevated) that will be at the center of the Center?  Let's say at most  2,000 feet, or a little less than half a mile, with perhaps some provision also to use bikes within the Center.     A circle with a radius of 2,000 feet around a station gives an area of about 12 million square feet, or 288 acres.  Putting 10,000 people there gives a density of about 35 persons per acre, not remarkably high.   But, if we house that population in that space in the one-and-two story dwellings that are traditional in American suburbs, we basically cover all the area, and that's the end of the green space. 
                Here's  a turning point in the design.   The solution is to move the cultural middle-class norm from a single family house to a spacious, well equipped, owned apartment, and to harvest the huge space gain from stacking residences one on top of another.   Achieving space for "open space" is the first rationale for moving toward mid-rise and high-rise buildings.  But it is also true that a smaller proportion of the population than in the past now lives in the nuclear-family-with-children demographic group for which the single-family house developed.  Secondly, the life of many urban upper and middle class families in the last hundred years in the United States and Europe makes it clear that children can grow up just fine in apartments that have as much interior space as traditional single family houses and have safe access to green space nearby.
                Now we're most of the way there in designing a better pattern of living for the next swathe of the Bay Area's growth between now and 2025.  Let's look to Copenhagen for the way to put density and open space together, using the very traditional form of the "street"  (which becomes a pedestrian/bicyclist path rather than carrying cars) arranged in a "fingers of the hand" pattern, but around a full circle.   This creates pie wedges of open space, which add up to about half of the Center's total area.   This open land will serve small uses such as community gardens, neighborhood swimming pools, tot lots and basketball and tennis courts toward its narrow point, and serve larger uses such as soccer fields, baseball diamonds and groves of trees in the wider outer portions.   Living sociably along the pedestrian "street" which leads to the transit hub, lots of people and kids are literally three steps from the open space.   It becomes their backyard.
                Automobile roads and parking are put entirely underground, not necessarily immediately, since excavation is expensive, but eventually.   This means that the Center's entire surface is free of the noise and danger of car and truck movement and also of the huge space encumbrance of parking, although there will be provision for rare use of the surface pedestrian walkways by emergency vehicles.    
                We want to make housing in a Center be of high quality, and also want very seriously to keep its cost down.    Although, as in Vancouver, B.C., some townhouses will be mixed in, a key building block of the Center is the prototypical mid- or high-rise structure, mainly residential, but often also with a couple of floors of "mixed use" at its base.   This building is a challenge for architects.  It is envisaged in this paper as a "slender tower,"  as pioneered by Hong Kong and  Vancouver.  The  slender tower form eliminates two unattractive drawbacks of most urban multi-story buildings: daylight that comes only from one side of the apartment, and a dismal internal corridor on each floor with doors on both sides.  The building aspires to be both "solid" in its feel, and light in its construction, using the newest materials and construction technologies available -- or even to be invented.   Apartment ceilings should be high, floor space allowances per person should be generous, and careful attention be given to acoustic protection of each dwelling space.   It could be possible to pre-fabricate, on-  or off-site, a set of highly designed light-concrete floor panels.   These, fitting into a steel or reinforced frame, would form the floors of apartments above them and the ceilings of those below, while carrying water, radiant heating/cooling, and electricity conduits, serving both upwards and downwards.   In the relatively mild climate of California at least, provision for radiant heating/cooling need not extend to the edges of the floor plate but could serve only an inner core to be used on our rare cold evenings and very hot days.   Every possible energy (and especially fossil  energy) efficiency in the use of the building would be sought and exploited--for example, HVAC based on heat pumps, permitting CO2 -bearing natural gas supply to be omitted.  The goal is to supply good internal space for a construction cost as close to $200 per square foot as possible.   Since we are fighting high initial costs, apartments could well be sold in a loft-like unfinished state, with residents creating their interiors over time at their convenience.
                   If cost minimization is to extend to the very  substantial "soft costs" of such a project, common purpose and cooperation, rather than divergent interests and antagonism, between the developer and the local municipality is a critical need.   Thereafter, there are efficiencies in end-user financing methods, such as an initial rental period of hire-purchase when a household first moved in.  A regular extra payment above the normal rent, which a family could consider to be its savings program, could accumulate into an equity stake in the dwelling unit, eventually enabling the household to be in an ownership  position, and regular mortgage to come into force.
                 Indeed, if the WTOC features of a Center allowed a family to own only one car in place of the normal  two or more cars per household that are required when living in sprawl, the saved cost of not running one car over a generation would come close to paying off the cost of a generous condominium.   The family's residence would then be owned free and clear, which is a big part of the entry ticket to the middle class in our society.  It would be capital accumulated for the next generation of the family.   Such a transforming gain is far more than what is left after owning a series of rapidly depreciating second family vehicles over thirty years.   This provides an insight into the costs of sprawl, and the social and economic gains for a household from avoiding them.
                In the early 1960's as air traffic and airport construction boomed around the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration was troubled by the huge internal walking distances that were arising within airports.  The agency commissioned the renowned architect Eero Saarinen to develop an alternative prototype at Dulles Airport near Washington D.C.   Saarinen's airport was a strikingly beautiful compact structure in glass and concrete that used specially designed people-carriers to move passengers out to aircraft that  did not have to cluster around a lengthened periphery of the building, but rather parked at a distance and received passengers by means of the "mobile lounges."   The elegant building was highly efficient, certainly for the passengers, but the experiment did not succeed.  As new airports were built around the country, airlines dictated gigantic versions of the one-plane, one gate system rather than the Saarinen plan.  Eventually even Dulles itself built an annex in the old style.    Nonetheless, the experiment was an honorable and constructive one.  
                Similarly, since the various feature of a Center are interlocking, it should be built as a whole, and it is a very large whole --  a multi-million dollar investment that the traditionalist housing sector, with its municipal planning and zoning side as well as its finance-dominated market side, would not easily underwrite in the near future.   Although a Center incorporates many major long-term economies through its greatly reduced car use and its density and compactness, some of a Center's important elements, such as multi-story buildings and underground parking and car circulation, are indubitably expensive, although they will have long service lives.  
                Think about the huge daily costs, inadequacy and damage of our present "sprawl" metropolitan layout.   Support for building one, or a small number, of test prototype Centers in the Bay Area would be a potentially very rewarding intervention in the Dulles tradition by a higher level of administration, such as a full metropolitan region, a State, or even the Federal government.

(See following post for a Sketch-up drawing, and a table, supporting this text.)

Graphic and Table for preceding post: Centered Bay Area, A Better Way to Grow

Monday, May 10, 2010

Organizing and Modernizing Transportation in a Metropolitan Region

This is a note, done originally for RAFT (Regional Alliance for Transit), which makes certain administrative suggestions for the San Francisco Bay Area, with its particular organizations and history, but the broader principles advocating "Walking TOD," and the observations in the two boxes, should be applicable to any metro region in the developed countries.

Working Principles for the MTC
(SF Bay Metropolitan Transportation Commission)

1. Land use and transportation should be analyzed and managed together, not isolated from one another in the bureaucratic tradition that MTC and ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) clung to for years. Integrating land use and transportation in regional planning reflects the basic reality that good land use and transportation are in fact mutually dependent and totally entwined with each other. It is beyond obvious that in the real world major transportation efficiencies can be achieved through coordination with public and private land use investments. Reciprocally, land uses succeed or fail depending on transportation investments that do or do not support them. For MTC, coordinating transportation and land use implies cooperation with ABAG and working persuasively with local bodies.
2. The MTC, with its substantial data and analytic resources, should work on the Bay Area's nine counties as a true region. In developing its Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) every four years, and its other plans, it should move away from "stapling together" local or special interest projects and investments. At the Commission level, the MTC needs to fight the log-rolling bias that comes with its composition by locally elected officials. Working within a modernizing regional vision (discussed below), the MTC should be more analytical, comprehensive, and long-range in its planning, and less responsive to particular local and institutional interests. An aspect of this is that the MTC should prioritize regional transit connectivity. When a project, such as the TransBay Terminal/Caltrain DTX, is within one city or county but has connectivity implications that are region-wide, MTC should define the project as regional, not local, and be ready to be active.
3. In a situation of huge unmet demand for transportation and smart growth capital, the MTC should work harder to get performance from every dollar of investment. It is good that the Commission often chooses transit investments over road spending, but all transit proposals are not created equal, and each requires hard-eyed cost-benefit analysis in its design. Every feature, not just the overall concept and function of a project, should justify its costs. The region should stop gold-plating some transit projects, and recognize that such gold-plating is always at the expense of other meritorious and needed projects that go unbuilt. It should be understood by all parties that transit agencies can propose anything, but the MTC disposes. To live up seriously to the responsibility that this implies, the MTC should analyze all proposals more stringently and be much readier to quash bad projects. At the same time that it accepts national kudos for investing in transit, MTC's failures on this score cause waste in the billions. Examples are the BART extension to SFO, extending BART to San Jose, the Oakland Airport Connector, and the Muni Central Subway in San Francisco. Building a new East Span of the Bay Bridge, rather than seismically upgrading the existing bridge, appears to be an extravagant version of a necessary project. Although responsibility is not entirely clear, at $6+ billion the East Span now stands as a major misallocation of resources within the MTC's territory.
4. MTC should whole-heartedly advance the sustainability purposes of SB 345 and AB 32. Carbon dioxide emissions from human energy use are a main cause of global warming. Therefore, systematic reduction and early elimination of carbon emissions a critical and urgent goal of public policy in all spheres, very much including land use and transportation planning. An informed public now knows, and the general public is learning, that the most important damage from mass automobile use is the very large scale emission of CO2 from petroleum-burning engines. Since the Bay Area has little heavy industry, the share of CO2 from cars is particularly high here. Greenhouse emissions alone are a sufficient reason, to reduce, and to end as soon as possible, mass use of fossil-fueled cars and trucks. The long-range way to do this, and to achieve other important objectives as well, is to move toward a transit-oriented metropolitan area, since public transportation emits less CO2 than do petroleum-fueled cars. When it is electrically driven (rail service or electrified buses), transit can emit virtually no CO2 if it uses power that is generated without fossil fuels.
5. However, in a shorter time range, the MTC should seize a new and quicker way to cut fossil greenhouse emissions from cars: the plug-in electric vehicle, either hybrid or entirely battery powered. The Bay Area, with its relatively low-carbon electricity (2% coal, 45% natural gas) from a relatively responsive electric utility (PG&E), is well positioned to use electric drive to cut its transportation greenhouse emissions. An "electric mile" that replaces a "gasoline mile" in this region eliminates between 90% and 100% of a vehicle's CO2. Vehicle electrification, consequently offers rapid and deep cuts in regional greenhouse emissions, and this is without prejudice to the necessary longer-range steps toward a Bay Area focused on transit-oriented development (TOD). Working with the Air District, the State government and PG&E, MTC should go to work immediately to prepare the Bay Area for the earliest and quickest possible diffusion of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.

Framework: A long-range vision to steer towards
The Bay Area as a whole should be moving toward a transportation future which is very different from a business-as-usual extrapolation of its auto and freeway-based present. All the nine-county organizations, such as MTC, ABAG, BAAQMD and BCDC, should be employing their regional reach, and the professional skills of their staffs, to work out the implementing specifics of that goal and to encourage steady movement toward it.
What is this new goal situation? Population growth is inevitable for the Bay Area with its mild climate, vigorous modern economy and attractive and complex geography of water and hills. As it grows, the Bay Area should not resist urbanization, but should move decisively toward transit-oriented land use planning and much greater reliance on high-quality public transit. This is a purposeful change from our primary historical pattern that transportation planning and investment maximize auto mobility, and the region grows through outward geographic extension (sprawl). In a large region such as the Bay Area, with both cities and suburbs, this change of course means moving from a suburban vision to one that is more urban, stressing for example, maximizing personal access to destinations, often through walking proximity, in place of endless efforts to increase motorized personal mobility across the substantial distances within the region. In a new regime, population density will rise in selected and well prepared locations, and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will go down.
Taking into account the Bay Area's quite particular geography--and also its substantial existing transportation infrastructure--the MTC should look ahead to a region in which transportation is more collective, easier to use and less expensive. This goal-vision, to be achieved over perhaps thirty years, should strongly influence land development and transportation investments starting now.
What would a "new" region look like?
A. It will be based on carefully designed nodes (Centers) of high population density built within about 2,000 feet (walking distance) around transit stations. Centers will be linked together by frequent very high quality transit service, mainly rail or Rapid Bus, forming a regional network.

B. The bulk of transportation will be provided between Centers by high quality transit (in most cases, heavy or light rail), and within Centers by walking or bicycling, not by cars. This is walkable TOD (WTOD), in which housing and other destinations forming a complete community are grouped close enough to high-frequency transit that people walk to their station or transit stop, rather than drive. Such stations/stops are likely to have compact plazas around them, closely surrounded by shops, civic facilities and housing. They are not surrounded by large parking lots.
C. This creates a map to be overlaid on the existing (and largely to be undisturbed) map of the region, featuring Centers (typically 10,000 people within walking distance around a transit station/stop) and their connecting transit links. Such nodes should receive as much of the region's incoming population in the next thirty years, and their connecting transit lines should receive as much of the transportation invest-ment, as possible.

D. Improving trans-portation does not mean simply multiplying transportation options. Transportation policy should seek complemen-tarity and connectivity, rather than competition, among modes. This means that for a given kind of trip or corridor, a judgment should be made and the "best mode" should be favored for investment and optimization, rather than trying to treat modes "evenhandedly" and maintain a range of options for every transportation situation. A corollary of this is that policy, scheduling, and station design should make transfers between modes (bus-rail, car-rail, bus-car, air-rail) as easy as possible.

E. In choosing a "best mode" among different kinds of transportation to be favored in a given case, the region should confirm and exploit "natural" relationships and hierarchies which are familiar. Externally, travel beyond 500 miles in length will normally be by air, while inter-regional travel between significant cities more than 100 miles, but less than 500 miles, apart will normally be by rail, eventually High Speed Rail. Within the metropolitan region, travel among nodes will be by frequent high quality transit. Travel between Centers/nodes and "the field," (that is, surrounding non-node territory), and between two destinations which are both in the field, will be by car. (There will also be middle options and territories: the hourly or daily rental car, bicycles, taxis, buses and the bus-served spur from a main network route. These are omitted from this very summary discussion for simplicity.)
F. Proximity of destinations (bringing them to walking distance, and walking as such) is to be maximized. Richard Register's good motto is "The shortest distance between two points is to bring them closer together." Most people's house or apartment should be within walking distance of their supermarket, for example.
G. Beyond walking/biking distance, we will recognize two types of trips within the metropolitan region: Trunk trips (as in trunk line) and non-trunk trips. Trunk trips are trips which are common and frequent and for which significant public capacity is provided. Trunk trips generally include most home to work trips (commutes), radial (center-periphery) trips in a radially organized region, or trips between two nodes. MTC's land and transportation planning policy for the coming decades should systematically: 1) use land so that the share of trunk travel is maximized (i.e., pull people into nodes or Centers), and 2) optimize/max-imize the capacity, frequency and quality of public transit service on trunks. Such trunk transit can be highly specialized, and can be highly capitalized since it serves large numbers of people.
H. Non-trunk trips are all the other trips, a giant miscellany or residual category. Although in aggregate there may be more non-trunk trips than trunk trips (certainly, say, in a Los Angeles), each non-trunk trip is of low frequency, and they have little in common, which is why they cannot be grouped into trunks. Sideways trips in a radially organized region, multi-destination trips (since mode choice for a trip is controlled by the lowest frequency segment), trips with origins or destinations, or both, outside nodes (that is, in the "field" area), and significantly, trips, even on a trunk route, at a low-frequency time of travel, such as late at night, are generally non-trunk trips. Non-trunk trips are handled by cars, including small electric networked vehicles as recently proposed by MIT and GM experts.
The MTC, ABAG and the BAAQMD should advance the implementation of WTOD in the Bay Area, both through fostering WTOD projects as these arise from other entities, and by intensely sponsoring particular experimental/demonstration WTOD projects, as the FAA funded Eero Saarinen's Dulles Airport in the 1960's.

The MTC and the Bay Area should look ahead, see the basic logics, and plan to speed up the system transition/replacement task and make it less painful, rather than wait passively for economic forces blindly to work their course. If this modernizing change can be made quickly, and in a planned rather than a helter-skelter way, the available gains, in money, time and quality of life, are huge.
A metropolitan region -- a Bay Area -- in which most trips by most people are handled by either walking or trunk transit, will be a better region--and more socially equal region--to live in. The fossil-burning car and light truck, which today cause much waste and adverse side effects, will be far less intrusive. There will be as much mobility and access as ever, or more, but getting around will cost less in both money and time, and the savings will be usable for other things, like education, health care, family life, recreational and cultural life, husbanding the environment, and ending poverty.

Box One

The Transition from an Auto-Suburban system to a Transit-Urban system--the Pitfall of Going Gradually
The FOCUS program of the regional agencies' Joint Policy Committee, which has marked out Priority Development and Priority Conservation Areas (PDAs and PCAs), is the product of a long debate in the Bay Area about Smart Growth. FOCUS is headed in the right direction toward increased transit oriented development, but it is too gradualist. Its pace is slow because many people in the region are opposed to the modern form of growth, for reasons of traditionalism, direct short term economic interest, or other. There is a still greater number of people, probably a majority, who have not heard or thought about growth and transportation issues. Their default reaction, when they are first aroused, is to resist change from the familiar. So change is slow, site by site, and within sites.
Gradualism, however, in this field raises its own important problems because the amount of land in the Bay Area around transit stations/stops which can be used for TOD, especially serious, walking TOD, is physically finite. Once a transit-adjacent parcel of land is developed only partially, or at a low level of intensity, it is extremely hard to redevelop it again within a couple of generations, because first-generation residents come to have a vested interest in resisting further or new development. This means that the initial low intensity development around a transit node which is characteristic of a the present gradualist approaches, effectively rules out higher density development for the indefinite future. But the Bay Area is a growing, already significantly urbanized region with extremely high housing costs. Its core, the Bay-touching cities, needs a major expansion of housing supply, which is to say that it needs quite high-density TOD development, despite traditionalist and NIMBY resistance. It is important to recognize that gradualist, sub-optimal projects are systematically harmful for the needed much denser land development at good transit sites. This gradualism is clearly seen in the restrictions imposed on the Hayward Park development at a Caltrain station in San Mateo, and by the struggles about density increases and the height of buildings in downtown Berkeley, with its major BART Station.
A solution for this impasse is for the region (while continuing to lay the groundwork for smart growth gains in the 120 PDAs) to support one full "walking TOD" settlement as a test-prototype in one location, using regional, state and federal, as well as market, resources. A Center for 10,000 people in a radius of 2000 feet around a Bay Area rail station should be built, as the Federal Government hired mega-architect Eero Saanrinen to build Dulles Airport near Washington D.C., as a proof of concept project. As we look for post-suburban forms of urban structure, there would be a lot to learn from such a project even if it did not succeed. Success, however would soften current fearful opposition, and reassure investors and city officials throughout the region. That would allow WTOD developments to spread more broadly and provide a path for the region out of its growth dilemmas.

Box Two

What's wrong with cars?

Due to its individual, retail character, transportation by private car is expensive. Collective transportation, in contrast, is in effect purchased wholesale, and systematically costs less if use levels are high.
The attraction of the automobile is its flexibility. Combined with the road system that has been built for it and that now exists as a fixed asset, the car can go anywhere at anytime. It is genuinely an agent of personal freedom, which is part of its very deep and great appeal. It is great for non-trunk trips, which are by definition retail and individual, rather than collective.
There are limits, however, to the rational scalability, or appropriate "market share", of the car-based mobility system. These limits differ in rural, suburban and urban settings, and therefore, the boundaries of the car-based system are inevitably an issue when urbanization is going on, as it is here. The present huge annoyance and expense (in time as well as money) of traffic congestion and parking make it clear that with automobiles providing 90+% of transportation, we have reached or exceeded the optimal automobile mode share in many important parts of the Bay Area.
The automobile functions as the default, residual mode of mobility, but the problem now is that the retail residual mode has become the universal mode. When the private, often single-occupant, car is used for trunk travel within a metropolitan region, the misfit presents itself in the form of high expense, frustrating road congestion and the onerous burden of providing and using enormous volumes of parking.
In that case, the car is an unspecialized mode or instrument being used for a task that has grown large enough that it could be handled by a specialist instrument, and there is an inevitable loss of efficiency. This dysfunction is masked by the other roles that the car plays in our culture: status symbol, protective personal carapace, and so forth, but the bad fit in an urban setting between the car and its most basic function of point-to-point transportation nonetheless takes a steady toll. As wholesale COSTCO is outcompeting retail Macy's, the car will be inexorably forced out of cities as urbanization intensifies, due to the "retail" car's own inefficiency in "mass" situations.
Rather than suffer through years of resisting such a fundamental trend, we should anticipate and exploit it. Major long-term economic gains can be harvested by stopping marginal tinkering with the automobile system (for example, Shoup-style reforms of parking, HOT lanes, and discussion of "intelligent highways"), and instead evolving purposely toward a structurally different and more urban system. Our region should focus, under MTC leadership, on designing and building a new, more efficient and more sustainable system of transportation, complementing and supported by appropriate land uses. The MTC, in fact, has considerably accepted this thinking, but its new vocabulary still masks much inertia and resistance to change.