31 October 2015

Observing European Cities: Norwich

I recently made a visit to the UK and France - principally to visit family and friends. However, I couldn't help but notice many of the changes their cities are undergoing, and also how their streets and transit systems have similarities and differences from ours. Below are a few observations I made in Norwich, England, the first city I visited:

Streets and Parking Lots

Bus Gate (a sort of Transit Neckdown): One Lane - two directions - bus only/taxi only
Here's a location where buses go in both directions, but the street crossing with a neckdown goes to a single lane for two reasons:
  1. Pedestrians are given the highest priority with the shortest walking distance at the crosswalk, a long neckdown, and a raised roadway at the level of the sidewalk (or pavement in UK speak).
  2. By having the one-lane neckdown, motorists can see that this is the entrance to a bus-only taxi-only zone and must turn into the parking lot (left in top photo), or turn around.
Pedestrian crossing street at raised crosswalk that's also a bus gate for two-way bus traffic.
Before the bus gate the street looked like a normal two-way English street near the city center, as shown in the Google Streetview below, still available online.

Now the street entering the city center has normal vehicular traffic required to turn right into the parking lot on the right. Buses, as shown in the next two images, must go through the "bus gate" that is also a raised crosswalk. The buses going inbound yield to outbound buses.
Pedestrian crossing at neckdown on Theatre Street seen from double decker bus entering central Norwich. Image: Brian Stokle

This second image shows how the bus on the far side of the neckdown is about to go through, while the bus I'm in is waiting for the other bus to pass by.

Pedestrian crossing at bus gate/neckdown on Theatre Street seen from double decker bus entering central Norwich. Image: Brian Stokle
Parking lots with cobble stone parking stalls
By paving the traffic lanes of the parking lot, but installing "cobbled" stone parking spaces where water can infiltrate the ground, this parking lot design appears to be a great combination of practical and enviromental.

Having the traffic lanes, where the most vehicular traffic passes, and the most wear and tear occurs, in paved form makes sense. A dirt rutted lot doesn't make sense. Parking spaces receive the least wear and tear and activity, so they are the target locations for designs that have water infiltration. Planting grass is good for little used lots, however for busier lots, a cobbled or stone layout with space between the stones allows much more water infiltration than a classic asphalt paved parking space.

20 MPH Slow Zones on residential streets
Many studies have shown that the risk of deadly injury from vehicles is reduced to nearly zero when cars travel no faster than 18 or 20 miles per hour. Looks like Norwich has instituted slow zones on purely residential streets and put some colorful perspective to the speed limit signs. Many of the signs  graphic image were different on each street.

City Maps

Attractive City Map looks good, but...
I noticed a decent number of Norwich city center maps scattered about. The color scheme is quite attractive:

  • dark blue background
  • medium blue streets
  • lavender restricted/transit streets
  • even lighter lavender pedestrian zones
  • light blue river 
However for someone less familiar with the city, the similarities in colors and shading make the map a bit harder to read.

The maps are also not necessarily "north on top" oriented. Rather, the maps are oriented so that when you look at it, in front of you is the same as the top of the map. I'm on the fence about these orientation varying maps. I personally get confused a bit, but that may only be that I'm less practiced at using them. I'd be curious if there have been any studies looking at these type of maps and how they may be more, less or equally effective at wayfinding success compared to traditional north on top maps.

more to come later

01 September 2015

For your consideration... AC Transit Bus Stop Locations

Where would you put bus stops for my proposed AC Transit Transbay bus service to Caltrain's 4th & King Station and other possible stops? As I mentioned previously, having Transbay buses serving SoMa, Civic Center, 4th & King Caltrain, and points south would reduce some strain on BART's system, and encourage transit ridership.

Most interestingly, a Transbay bus route from the East Bay to Caltrain's 4th & King station could show the real need for the Caltrain Downtown Extension. A bus would show that folks really do want to take AC Transit to Caltrain, and ultimately one day, have Caltrain serve the East Bay via a 2nd Transbay Rail Tunnel that would connect them with Peninsula and Silicon Valley jobs.

There are many opportunities and challenges to consider on a new bus route.
  • Potential, but mostly unknown ridership
  • Which bus route(s) should go to these San Francisco locations?
  • Route time
  • Bus parking
  • Traffic congestion (AM & PM are very different)
  • Bus stop location opportunities and constraints

5th Street - Caltrain only
Exit: Fifth Street
Stop: Townsend St (between 5th and 4th)
Entrance: Harrison and Essex via 3rd St

5th Street - Caltrain and UCSF Medical Center Mission Bay
Exit: Fifth Street
Stop 1: King St (between 4th and 5th)
Stop 2: Mariposa St at 4th St
Stop 3: Third St at Townsend (optional)
Entrance: Harrison and Essex via 3rd St

SoMa Long
Exit: Fremont St
Stop #1: 2nd St at South Park
Stop #2: Caltrain Station (Townsend at 4th St)
Stop #3: Showplace (Brannan at 7th St)
Entrance: Bryant and 8th St

31 July 2015

Golden Gate and SamTrans do it? Why not AC Transit?

All buses converge on San Francisco's Transbay Terminal, all buses from other counties that is. SF Muni buses can go wherever they want to - it's their county right?
An AC Transit BA bus and Muni 108 Treasure Island leave the old Transbay Terminal a the same time.
Image: munidave via flickr.com
But you, the bus rider, the customer, simply want to get to your destination, whether to work, to visit a friend, or to enjoy a ball game or a night out. If you come into San Francisco from San Mateo County, or Marin County, you can take SamTrans and Golden Gate Transit buses respectively. If you're coming in from the East Bay, most folks take an AC Transit bus. Sure there's BART, and ferries, but many folks do not live near a BART station, so a long distance bus does the job.

Golden Gate Transit and SamTrans weave their way through the city's streets along Van Ness, Mission, and Potrero streets, dropping off folks as they enter. The Transbay Terminal (currently the Temporary Transbay Terminal) in downtown San Francisco is their final destination, and their first pick up point. They then pick up people along their route through San Francisco as they leave. This allows for some of customers to get to destinations other than downtown with a once seat ride, or a single transfer.

AC Transit does not offer this option. If you're going to San Francisco from Alameda or Contra Costa counties, and you're on an AC Transit bus, you get off at the Transbay Terminal. If you're going beyond Downtown San Francisco, you're required to make a transfer to a Muni bus or Muni Metro, or BART (if you're lucky). Note that when the new Transbay Transit Center opens to buses in 2017, bus routes and operations will be very similar to today's operations.

Let's consider some destinations in San Francisco that an East Bay AC Transit Transbay bus rider might want to get to, and how they'd get there after arriving at the Transbay Center.
  • Downtown: walk
  • Civic Center: transfer to 5 Fulton and 5R Fulton Rapid
  • Mission Bay: walk to Embarcadero at Folsom St, then transfer to N-Judah or T-Third
  • Haight Ashbury: transfer to 7 Haight/Noriega
  • Fisherman's Wharf: Walk to Market St, then transfer to F-Market
  • SF State: Walk to Embarcadero Staton, then transfer to M-Oceanview.
The bus transfer makes sense in most cases. The majority of AC Transit Transbay Riders are likely going to Downtown San Francisco, so a special AC Transit bus to the Haight may not make sense due to low demand. However, what about high demand locations in San Francisco that are not within walking distance of the Transbay Center? An AC Transit route to a high demand location might be better served by an AC Transit route to avoid transfers and possibly induce more transit ridership (and reduce vehicular traffic on the Bay Bridge).

In addition, some AC Transit Transbay riders, may not even have San Francisco as a destination, but rather somewhere in San Mateo County - which they would reach via Caltrain. In this instance, a rider must walk 2-3 blocks from the Transbay Center to the Folsom St. Muni Metro Station. Board an N-Judah or T-Third, and then transfer again at the 4th & King Caltrain station to board a Caltrain train. For example, if you live in Alameda, but work in Downtown San Mateo, you must transfer twice, and pay three times. 

I propose that some AC Transit Transbay buses go to a handful of high demand San Francisco destinations other than the Transbay Center. The 4th & King Caltrain Station, Civic Center, Mission Bay, and even parts of SoMa far away from BART. Buses serving these new SF destinations could be extensions of existing routes - stopping at the Transbay Center first, and then moving on to another area in San Francisco, or they could be completely new routes.

In fact, this exact idea has already been proposed. The Bay Crossing Study Update of 2012 proposed adding AC Transit service to 4th & King Caltrain. (see PDF link, Page 36)

"Passengers utilizing AC Transit to cross the Bay Bridge must transfer to another transit service to reach their destination, unless within walking distance. The forced transfer is a deterrent for potential AC Transit passengers.

AC Transit buses could be routed to destinations beyond the Transbay Terminal, including Caltrain’s 4th and King Station, Mission Bay and other hubs, particularly those offset from BART. The buses could then return to the Transbay Terminal, or return directly to the Bay Bridge."

San Francisco Bay Crossings Study Update, Presentation 2012. Source: Bay Area Toll Authority/MTC
If the Bay Area Toll Authority recommended this idea in 2012, then why has it not gained traction. Is it funding (for drivers and/or vehicles)? Politics as in Muni won't let AC Transit do it, or AC Transit isn't interested? or something else?

30 June 2015

Harvey Milk Hill has a ring to it

Historically our society has named places, highways, airports, streets, parks and other places after people we revere. In San Francisco some examples include:

  • Willie L. Brown Bridge (western span of Bay Bridge)
  • Joe DiMaggio Playground
  • Geary Street (first mayor and last alcade of San Francisco)
  • Patricia's Green (Patricia Walkup spearheaded converting the Central Freeway into Octavia Boulevard north of Market St.
  • Isadora Duncan Lane
  • Mt. Sutro
We may not know some of the named people, we may not like some of the names chosen. But it is up to us to decide what to name places and rename them.  A street or a park or even a hill doesn't have to keep it's name in perpetuity. New York City recently renamed the Triborough Bridge to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Why can't we do that?

Image: Wikipedia.org
Many have called for naming something important after former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk who championed gay rights (and the "Pooper Scooper" Law). He already has several civic places named after him:
  • Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Building and Harvey Milk Photo Center (Duboce Park)
  • Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library
  • Harvey Milk Plaza (Castro Station)
  • Harvey Milk Elementary School (aka Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy)
Image: SF Rec and Park

Image: SF Public Library

For a while there was a campaign to have San Francisco International Airport named after Milk. That campaign failed. However, it did consider the idea that a highly revered figure in city history should have a major place named after them.

After asking folks via Twitter to consider giving names to some unnamed hills in Golden Gate Heights, one responder suggested Harvey Milk Hill! That got me thinking. He should have a hill named after him. We have so many hills in San Francisco, but we don't know the names of most, and some don't even have official names.

So I'm calling folks to nominate hills that should be named Harvey Milk Hill. This could be a hill that already has an established name, or those that have no name or have unofficial or uncertain names.

I first nominate Castro Hill as the peak to re-name Harvey Milk Hill. The hill is located at Collingwood and 22nd St. The peak rises to 407 feet in elevation and has a prominence of 75 feet.

Several other hills have a higher prominence, but I believe that Castro Hill, residing in Milk's former neighborhood would be a perfect choice.

22 May 2015

Forgotten Hills: Golden Gate Heights or Sunset Heights

Normally, a high and prominent peak it get's noticed. However, when it's a ridge, often shrouded in fog, and has two different names, you get confusion. On top of that, in San Francisco, it's a crowded field of peaks, so it's hard to get noticed if you don't have a monument, lavish homes or a radio tower on top. Welcome to Golden Gate Heights, err Sunset Heights - some of the highest peaks in San Francisco you never knew existed.

In this installment of Forgotten Hills, we look at the Forest Hill-adjacent hill, that's really a ridge that has two competing names. The hills are less like Mark Twain/Samuel Clemmons, and more like Franklin W. Dixon/Carolyn Keene/Edward Stratemeyer of the the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew book series. You probably barely know of the authors' existence, let alone the fact that the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series were originally written by the same man

The name "Sunset Heights" dates back to the late 1880's when the company Easton, Eldridge and Co. marketed a block as "Sunset Heights" according to Lorri Ungaretti. Although Aurelius Buckingham and Sol Getz tried to claim credit, Ungaretti's book Stories in the Sand gives Easton Eldridge and Co. the credit. However, these 1880s "Sunset Heights" were what started the "Sunset" name for western San Francisco, but are not now considered the current Sunset Heights. In fact, they are considered part of the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. 

I could not find any "history" on the name of Golden Gate Heights. I can only speculate that the area may have changed from Sunset to Golden Gate as a way to differentiate further that it is not the Sunset District.
Image: OutsideLands.org
Name: Golden Gate Heights. Also known as Sunset Heights
Height: 812 feet
Ridge/Hill Group: Sunset Heights - part of the central San Francisco "massif', which includes Mount Davidson, Twin Peaks, Mt. Sutro and Sunset Heights. The geographic heights include Forrest Hill.
Prominence: 312 feet (450 feet from west). Forest Hill is the 3rd most prominent peak in San Francisco.
Confusion: The names "Sunset Heights" and "Golden Gate Heights" seem to describe the same neighborhood and hills. Golden Gate Heights may be the high elevations of the neighborhood, while Sunset Heights is the greater neighborhood that includes the slopes leading from the "flats" of the Sunset District (both Inner and Outer Sunset).
Where: Western San Francisco, west of Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro, and South of Golden Gate Park.
Cross Streets: Between 7th and 16th avenues. South of Lawton St, and north of Taraval St.


Golden Gate Heights are a north-south ridge between Kirkham St to Taraval St. The ridge has four peaks, although the USGS map technically shows six peaks. To me, GG Heights is essentially a prominent and high ridge with three somewhat prominent peaks: 
  • Grand View Hill (666 feet)
  • Larsen Peak (761 feet)
  • Forest Hill (812 feet) 
The heights lie due west of Twin Peaks and slightly southwest of Mt. Sutro and Clarendon Heights with the Midtown Terrace neighborhood and Laguna Honda ravine lying between them. To the east is the Sunset District gradually sloping down to the Pacific Ocean. The West Portal neighborhood to the south. To the north is the Inner Sunset neighborhood, with Golden Gate Park with Strawberry Hill a further north.

Note that geographically, the heights are one ridge - Golden Gate Heights. The neighborhoods of Forest Hill and Golden Gate Heights sit atop and on the slopes of the heights.

As mentioned earlier, Sunset Heights as a name is first found in the 1880s. Naming of current Sunset Heights or Golden Gate Heights ridge is hard to find now. The neighborhood is called "Golden Gate Heights" in the real estate industry, and the park on the second highest peak has the same name. However, the neighborhood group is called Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People. I hope that is sufficiently confusing. 

Even the peaks have naming confusion. Grand View Hill is sometimes called Turtle Hill, and has also been found misnamed  as Larsen Peak. Larsen Peak is sometimes called Golden Gate Heights or Sunset Heights. Hawk Hill is not really a hill, but rather a steep slope of the southwest flank of Forest Hill. The only peak void of confusion is Forest Hill, the highest peak. Below is a breakdown of each peak, going from north to south.

Peak #1: Grand View Hill
Elevation: 666 feet
Alternate names: Turtle Hill, incorrectly named Larsen Peak
Coordinates:  37°45'22.32"N 122°28'18.60"W

Peak #2: Unnamed Hill (north)
Elevation: 750 feet
Alternate names: Cascade Hill (after the Cascade Walk steps)
Coordinates:  37°45'11.91"N 122°28'12.62"W (approximate)

View of Unnamed Hill (north) from Funston Ave (top two images)). View southwest to the Pacific Ocean at Aerial and Funston near Unnamed Hill (north). Images: Urban Life Signs
Peak #3: Unnamed Hill (south)
Elevation: 725 feet
Alternate names: Funston Court Hill (after Funston Street and the private court off the street), incorrectly named Larsen Peak
Coordinates: 37.751284°N, 122.469783°W (approximate)

Peak #4: Larsen Peak
Elevation: 761 feet
Alternate names: Golden Gate Heights Park Hill, Sunset Heights Park Hill, Golden Gate Heights, Sunset Heights
Coordinates: 37°44'59.8"N 122°28'10.9"W

Peak #5: Forest Hill
Elevation: 812 feet
Alternate names: none
Coordinates: 37.748240°N 122.467360°W (approximate)
The five peaks of Golden Gate Heights. Image: Urban Life Signs
Geographically speaking, defining the boundary of any "heights" or "valley" is actually a bit silly because there is not specific boundary. The only definite part of a heights, are its peaks and a ridge. The only definite part of a valley is it's flat or nearly flat parts that have very little slope. It's really the slopes that define the boundaries. 

However, we're talking about a geographic feature AND a neighborhood. When confronted with the street grid imposed on a hilly area, we generally follow streets to define neighborhoods. Several sources have given Golden Gate Heights its boundaries:

27 March 2015

Oh Tube, Oh Second Tube

...take me north on a numbered street to GearyLand.

Folks heavily preferred 2nd Street and 3rd Street in this year's poll on Transbay Tube alignments. At least that's what the poll results of the Second 2nd Transbay Tube Alignment through SoMa Poll find. Nine months ago, I polled several 2nd Tube alignments when the Townsend and Folsom alignments virtually tied for first place. For this year's poll, "East-West" alignments (Folsom and Townsend) duked it out with the new upstart "North-South" alignments (3rd St and 2nd St). A bonus choice for Pier 70 and Potrero Hill was given modest attention.

Possible Mission Bay/Third St station location for a 2nd St/Post alignment. Image: Google StreetView
On the face of it, the 3rd St - Union Square alignment won the poll with 30% (14 votes) of the 47 responses. However, with 27% (13 votes), the 2nd St - Post Mission Rock alignment was virtually tied with 3rd St - Union Square. Potrero Pier 70 - Van Ness came in third place with 17% (8 votes), while Folsom - Powell, and Townsend - Division tied for last with 13% each (6 votes each).

With 47 total votes, the poll was a success. However, this year's poll (2015) only received about half as many votes as the 2014 poll, which received 93 votes. Does that mean anything significant? Probably only that I promoted the 2014 poll much more than the 2015 poll. The bigger the outreach, the more feedback. Lesson learned.

Analyzing the 2015 poll data more, we find some interesting elements. If we combine the votes for the north-south alignments (2nd St & 3rd St), and we separately combine the east-west alignments (Folsom and Townsend), we find that 2nd & 3rd St overwhelmingly won the poll by earning a combined 57% of the votes, while Folsom and Townsend only combine for 26% of the votes.

12 March 2015

A 2035 Rail Plan for Oakland

The Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube connect two places: San Francisco and Oakland. Too often the Oakland side is either ignored or made as a footnote in the Bay Area. With the booming local economy and corresponding traffic congestion (highway and rail), there has been recent talk of building a Second Transbay Tube (#2ndTransbay). Much of the talk, (Urban Life Signs included) has centered on where a 2nd Tube’s rail lines would go in San Francisco (SoMa? Mission Bay? Market St?). Now it’s high time to talk about where and what kind of rail should go to Oakland and the East Bay.

Why a new Tube?
A new tube, whether for BART, or commuter rail and high-speed rail, is needed for multiple reasons:

  1. More capacity
  2. Redundancy to ensure a resilient city after a major quake
  3. Reduce dependency on automobile – more transit options
  4. Upgrade the First Transbay Tube
  5. Create more housing and jobs in existing city centers, and other neighborhoods

We are at a critical moment when BART is beginning studies for a new 2nd Transbay Tube, mayors of San Francisco and Oakland have publicly supported a new tube, and city staff in Alameda have voiced support. We cannot plan and fiddle around to build a 2nd Tube for 30 years. We need to develop a host of funding sources, plan the project and start building within seven years so a tube can be operational by 2026. I'll discuss funding, which is critical, later.

Most folks will want to see the rail options and maps now. I have outlined the reasons for a new Transbay Tube and rail lines after the maps.

Factors in deciding where a new Transbay Tube should go

Four-Bore or Two Bore
Many have suggested that a 4-bore tunnel (2 BART tracks + 2 conventional tracks) be built to allow a BART gauge rail line + a standard rail line for Caltrain, CapCorridor and future High Speed Rail. Building a 4-bore tunnel would be more expensive that one 2-bore tunnel, but presumably cheaper than building two separate 2-bore tunnels.

The challenge is that a 4-bore tunnel only makes sense if the two rail lines (BART & HSR) are near each other at each end of the new 2nd Transbay Tube. If it’s deemed that BART really needs to arrive in Mission Bay in San Francisco, but HSR arrives at Howard St, these are not near each other. Likewise, if an Oakland BART tunnel arrives via Alameda but an HSR train arrives in Oakland near Emeryville, a 4-bore tunnel doesn’t make sense.

BART gauge vs. Conventional gauge

BART trains run on a unique gauge (track width) of 5 feet 6 inches. All other trains, including Caltrain, Amtrak, CapCorridor, future HSR, and ACE all run on conventional gauge, which is 4 feet 8 ½ inches. Due to the uniqueness of BART’s gauge, its capital and operational costs are higher than a standard gauge subway/metro system. A new BART rail line could have standard gauge, however, it could not interoperate with the original BART lines. A cost-benefit analysis should be made to determine whether a new BART line in a new Tube should be made to BART gauge or Conventional gauge.

Rail Service
Whatever gets built, transit rail service between San Francisco and Oakland should be planned for all modes. A comprehensive look at Transbay crossings is necessary (and is happening). Any new Transbay Tube should be part of a plan that includes not just BART, but also Caltrain, CapCorridor, future High-Speed Rail and a future Eastshore Rail service. All of these services could use a new Second Transbay Tube.

The Proposals
I've put together four rail alignment proposals. One is based on alignments presented by BART. Others incorporate ideas that I have heard from other folks or I have considered myself. All of the proposals have the following:
  1. A High Speed Rail station in Oakland (in or near downtown)
  2. Rail lines that could interlink with BART's existing rail lines.
  3. Lines that pass through Downtown Oakland, Alameda, and sometimes Emeryville
Finally, note that many of the ideas and alignment pieces presented below can be mixed and matched. Rail on I-980 could be BART or conventional rail or both. Likewise the MacArthur Eastmont line could be conventional rail or BART rail. If it were conventional rail, in most instances it would be served by commuter rail/metro rail with an overhead catenary wire. But the technology is less important. For this reason, the rail lines are not distiguished between BART gauge and conventional gauge. 

The Basic: Oakland Alameda - Jack London Plan
This plan is based on vague alignments being considered by BART in its BART Metro Vision. The proposal has two transbay tubes: a BART tube connecting at Jack London Square and near Fruitvale, and a High Speed Rail tube entering Oakland just south of Emeryville. The existing Broadway Tunnel would be upgraded from a 3-bore tunnel to a 4-bore tunnel, adding capacity. An intermodal station in West Oakland is unnecessary as the same functions are served by the new Jack London Oakland HSR station.

The idea for a Third Transbay Tube comes from Roland Lebrun, who suggests that conventional rail should arrive in the former Oakland Army Base because rail from the San Francisco Transbay Center should leave via Howard Street in SF. To keep things simple, let's call this the Key Route alignment since this is where Key Route rail passed before the Bay Bridge was built.

28 February 2015

A Quest for a Cord

This is a story about the search for a flip-phone recharging cord. It is also a story about the Mission, its unique offering of shops and services, and also it's people.

One day, while my parents were visiting San Francisco, my dad said he needed to get a recharge cord for his 20th century flip phone. He had forgotten his cord (most likely since he only uses the phone two dozen times a year). Flip phones were once common but finding a cord now sounded as challenging as finding an 8-track tape player.

So after visiting Walgreen's on Mission and 23rd St we stopped by the most obvious place I knew of - at least the most obvious place I knew of while I grew up. That place? Radio Shack of course! But Radio Shack didn't carry that specific recharge cord. The staff were helpful and indicated that the shop next store might have it. That's when we walked into Cyber Iman, Your IPhone, Computer Repair, Cell Phone Accessories store. This place had to have a recharge cord for my Dad's Samsung flip phone - it has the banner "Cell Phone Accessories" added on under the store sign!