GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL AND STILL HAVING IT ALL
When people felt confined by their “urban” environment, they wanted to move to the “sub-urban” areas where there is more space between houses, where yards are larger, streets are wider, and well…. where everything seems more spread out!
Perhaps it was because of the high crime or traffic congestion in the city, or maybe it was too many stairs. Whatever the reason, when I was eight years old, my family moved from San Francisco to the Peninsula (aka: the suburbs). In the suburbs, we had more room to play, but as a kid, everything looked bigger anyway. Nevertheless, the grammar (now called primary) school was walking distance just a few blocks away. But as I got older, the junior high (now called middle) school was farther away, and the high school was even farther.
It was then that I discovered the public transportation infrastructure was, and still is, rather… sub-standard! Everything except the auto infrastructure, of course! If I missed the school bus, I had to walk a very long distance home. That precluded staying at school to get help from a teacher or to complete my “homework” at school. The sidewalks between my school and home – if there were any, were poorly maintained and disconnected. Just going to school, going shopping, or even connecting to mass-transit was three miles away. It could be a 5 or 10 minute drive (if traffic permitted), a 15 to 20 minute bike ride, or a 45 minute walk.
In the suburbs, you sacrifice convenience for space. Public transportation, whether bus or train, usually arrives once every hour – maybe, and they are all disconnected. The train station and the allegedly “rapid” transit station could be anywhere from 1/2 to two, or maybe even three, miles apart – with the shorter distance usually being the more dangerous route. If you get off the train and miss your connection, you’ll wait another hour. Moreover, all three community colleges in San Mateo County are located at the top of the hills, while the mass-transit routes are concentrated on the valley floor. So a three connection one-way trip could take you up to four hours to reach your destination.
URBAN / ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING
Today, I serve on San Mateo County’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) – a body composed of 2/3 politicians and 1/3 public members. It seems odd that a committee of politicians are appointed to serve as advisors to themselves, but that is how the county charter is structured. Perhaps the purpose of public members is to advise the political members what the field conditions are like, since the majority of political members neither ride bicycles nor use public transportation. But the overall purpose of this committee is to evaluate which bicycle and/or pedestrian project shall receive transportation grant money. Choosing between projects that have strategic importance versus those that are inherently dangerous is not easy. Nor is deciding between projects that benefit the greatest number of people versus those that benefit fewer but more vulnerable segments of the population – children or seniors; or projects that are located in upper class cities versus lower class cities.
Also needed to be considered is whether a project can be completed relatively quickly or need to be phased-in over time. With a smaller or less expensive project, will it complete a strategic connection – achieve a “bigger bang for the buck” so to speak, compared to a larger and more expensive one? Where a strategic connection involves going through someone else’s property, that property must either be purchased or an easement must be secured for the right to encroach or intrude upon it. This is true whether the parties involve only government agencies, or government agencies and private owners. With the latter, it may be easier to wait until the owner decides to sell rather than attempt to force a sale justified with a public benefit (called eminent domain). But not securing this vital piece of property up front may jeopardize the entire project, thereby costing more money in the end. The Time Value of Money (TVM) principle assumes the cost will escalate over time (present value ≥ future value), because money in your hand today is worth more than a promise for something tomorrow.
Unlike a city’s downtown, whereby the streets are managed by the city; a suburban shopping center is privately owned, and the grounds are managed by private security. There are distinct social advantages to publicly owned land. If the property management declares bankruptcy, the entire shopping center can become a “no-man’s land,” whereby pedestrians must walk perhaps a distance of 1/2 mile around the cyclone fenced parking lot. Although inferior street design is easier to rectify than demolishing a poorly deigned building, the travel route is for all practical purposes fixed once a building is constructed. Private property owners are no longer obligated to construct bikeways or walkways through or around their property, so it is important to anticipate the need for bicycle and pedestrian transit ways as part of the development process.
However wealthy the city, there are always relatively wealthier and relatively poorer sections within that city; and there can be obvious signs of discrimination, without really being exclusionary – A cul-de-sac in a working class city has a sign clearly posted at the entrance that says “Not A Through Street” yet it has a hidden pedestrian walkway tucked inside. A newer subdivision that lies between a major connector street and mass-transit has a wall around it like a fortress, a locked gate at the entrance of the connector, and a sign at the opposite entrance that also says “Not A Through Street,” yet it too has an unmarked walkway tucked inside it. In San Mateo County, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) controls a 23,000 acre watershed that has signs posted everywhere that says “No Trespassing” yet I was told you can make an appointment to enter – if you can find the application page hidden somewhere on their website.
WE VERSUS ME
If life is a journey, shouldn’t our journey be just as important as our destination? If we are most productive when we are having fun, then bicycle and walking trails should not be for just recreational – they should be connected with mass-transit stations. And where they do not connect directly, those commuter routes should be made as pleasant as a park trail. Wouldn’t it be nice if your commute was just a walk in the park? It could be!
But if a bike trail can be used as a commuter route, why don’t our commuter routes accommodate bicycles? The main travel route in the Peninsula connecting San Francisco to San Jose is currently El Camino Real (or ECR), which for most suburban cities is a six-lane wide parking lot during peak commute periods, and a vast asphalt empty-space during non-commute periods. Either way, the number and speed of vehicles are intimidating to bicyclists and pedestrians. Whenever everyone must share the same space and there is no agreement, the most powerful, most intimidating, and most dangerous vehicle will win by default!
A major struggle is taking place right now that could revolutionize the way people can travel. Starting from the south and working northward, Santa Clara County’s Valley Transportation Agency (VTA BRT) with San Mateo County Transit (SamTrans BRT) want to install a dedicated bus lane along the ECR corridor called Bus Rapid Transit, while the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition want protected bicycle lanes or bicycle tracks (SVBC bikeways), which could accommodate manual bicycles, motor assisted bicycles, motor scooters, and motor bikes to share a lane free of auto traffic. Can El Camino Real accommodate both, or will one winner take all? If you want El Camino Real to be the “People’s Road” instead of just the “Royal Road” for the rich, contact your transportation agency and make your voice heard!
While everyone is fighting for an equal share of the road, why not dedicate a lane for trucks as well? This proposal will not restrict cars from using the truck lane, or trucks from using the bus lane for passing when the other lane is traffic free; but when there are fewer trucks than cars, or fewer buses than trucks, providing a dedicated place for everything will keep ECR from turning into a freeway during non-commute time, and will guarantee alternatives when the auto lane is a virtual parking lot.
When cars were a novelty, manufacturers marketed their vehicles as status symbols, popularizing the guy who owned a car as the one who attracted all the pretty girls. But when the market became saturated, the allure shifted to who owned model X, Y, or Z. Eventually, the allure faded and roads simply became congested. Cars represent material possession, and we humans have a tendency to become pack rats. There will never be enough room on the road if everyone brought their “mobile homes” to work every day. A car is actually a means of getting from Point A to Point B, but cars are just one of many ways to get there. All the amenities of a car – seats, music, climate control are merely expensive comfort features. Rather than buy those amenities in a private vehicle, we need to invest our collective resources improving our environment and public infrastructure – landscape architecture and comprehensive transportation planning!
City Car-Share currently does not serve the suburbs (see map); and neither does Zipcar, the for-profit car-share company. But with a solid bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure in place, the conditions will be ripe to introduce a non-profit car-share service where it is needed most – in the suburbs where traffic originates! The key to weaning people off petroleum vehicles begin with relinquishing ownership! Car-share includes insurance, whereas car purchases and insurance represent a sunk cost! Why pay for usage up-front if you don’t have to? Ultimately, the most admired person will be the one who has access to it all but owns only the minimum – the one who is smart enough to leverage resources most wisely.
LIVING LIKE GLOBAL CITIZENS
There is a time and place for everything under heaven. Neighboring cities like San Francisco have almost completed their sustainable vision for several major streets (Market St makeover). Bay Area bicyclists and pedestrians can already experience the benefits. It is time for the suburbs to rise to the occasion as well. Despite the media’s attention on China’s air pollution, only about 5% of their 1.4 billion population own cars. The majority use bicycles or motor scooters. In fact all of Asia rely on two-wheeled vehicles. It’s just too expensive to own a car, both economically and environmentally. Roads can accommodate 10X as many two-wheeled vehicles as four-wheeled vehicles without becoming congested. Despite the fact that Zurich Switzerland is a very wealthy city, both rich and poor alike use mass transit (Zurich, the World’s Best Transit City). So why do the wealthy in the SF Bay Area scorn mass transit? Private single occupancy vehicles are an anomaly all over the world, so let’s design our roads to be multi-modal. It is about time we learn to live like global citizens!
In the end, when we travel to our final destination, we won’t be able to take it with us. So why must we carry our life’s baggage everywhere we go?