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Archive for January, 2011

To help close California’s gigantic budget deficit, Governor Brown wants to eliminate hundreds of local redevelopment agencies and enterprise zones. These entities have long been derided by critics as having little to no impact on employment in poor areas — while rewarding politically-connected developers with massive taxpayer subsidies. Thanks to Propositions 13 and 98, redevelopment agencies cost the State $2 billion in lost revenue. With the State facing a projected $25 billion shortfall, it is obvious why the Governor wants to curtail the program.

For transit activists, the Governor’s proposal offers a win-win opportunity. That is because the vast majority of redevelopment funds has been spent promoting autocentric development. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, redevelopment agencies leveled whole neighborhoods to make way for new highways. When that became unfashionable, planners left the homes intact but still didn’t give up on autocentric design. Billions of tax dollars have been poured into strip malls and other retail. Boosting sales tax revenue is the name of the game. And since transit riders are perceived as spending less than car drivers, redevelopment was about enticing shoppers to drive and park in the neighborhood.

For example, consider some recent projects funded through the San Jose Redevelopment Agency.

  • Central Place Garage: Underground parking garage with 330 spaces. San Jose Redevelopment Agency contribution is $12.5 million. The project website ironically states “the facility is accessible through Central Place, a pedestrian-friendly street.”
  • 4th Street Garage: 7-story, $57.5 million parking garage, situated in close proximity to where the San Jose BART extension is supposed to be built.
  • HP Pavilion: This indoor arena features 1800-2100 parking spaces. The Redevelopment Agency contributed $135 million (so far).
  • James Lick Parking Lot: $375,000 in Redevelopment funds to beautify a high school parking lot.
  • Fairmont Hotel: 500 parking spaces in two-level garage. The hotel complex has received $56 million in subsidies.
  • Maplewood Plaza: $500,000 subsidy for a strip mall.

The list goes on. Millions in corporate subsidies for Mariott, Adobe, and even a Ross “Dress for Less” store. And what about the infill Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), and Affordable Housing projects? Well, they feature parking ratios ranging from 2- to 3-per housing unit.

Does it makes sense to label a housing development “TOD” (or Affordable) when it features so much parking?

Consider the economics of 101 Fernando Street. This apartment complex features 65 low-income and 258 market-rate rental units, ground floor retail, and 564(!!) parking spots in a two-level subterranean garage. Bear in mind, it is situated in the “heart of downtown” walking distance to public transit and other amenities. The redevelopment agency provided a $9.3 million subsidy. Eliminating just one level of parking, to a more reasonable 1:1 parking ratio, probably would have been cheaper.

With their survival at stake, redevelopment agencies and their allies are pushing back. Last Friday, the League of California Cities held a protest / news conference to announce its opposition. This is the same League which has historically opposed ‘Routine Accommodation’ mandates designed to incorporate bikes/peds/transit into redevelopment. This will certainly be an interesting battle in the upcoming Legislative session.

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Blame Michelle Obama

While overall traffic fatalities fell last year by a “record” amount, pedestrian fatalities have shown little improvement. And what is the explanation for this? According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Assoc., it is all Michelle Obama’s fault:

First lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to get people to exercise outdoors might be a factor in an increase in the number of pedestrian deaths during the first half of last year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. GHSA executive director Barbara Harsha said her organization doesn’t know why there were more deaths in the first six months of 2010 than in 2009, but the increase is notable because overall traffic fatalities went down 8 percent during this period, and the increase ends four straight years of steady declines in pedestrian deaths. But the “get moving” movement, led by Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to eliminate childhood obesity, could be to blame, Harsha told The Washington Examiner.

The GHSA report is depressing reading. We all know why streets have become more dangerous for pedestrians, but the engineering profession refuses to own up to its responsibility. Instead, the GHSA report professes ignorance as to the causes, and the organization’s spokeswoman blames the First Lady instead.

This recalls Upton Sinclair’s famous principle: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” As long as the traffic engineering profession gets paid to build bigger and faster highways, the non-motorized users will suffer the consequences.

Pedestrian Fatalities 1999-2009

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As a follow up to yesterday’s blog post on the trade barriers to European automobiles, let’s dig into the traffic fatality statistics. The whole point of these trade barriers, after all, is to prevent Americans from driving “unsafe” automobiles. We should expect to find a huge improvement in US road safety, relative to foreigners, right? Especially given that “record” decline last year in annual highway fatalities.

This graph comes from a 2006 paper by General Motors safety researcher Leonard Evans, titled (appropriately) The Dramatic Failure of US Traffic Safety Policy (“TR News”, Jan-Feb 2006).

Evans examined the overall safety trend beginning in 1979. Some may notice the graph stops at the year 2002. Taking into account the “record” decline last year, the US is still doing poorly. The 2009 normalized value is 66, well above the level other countries achieved back in 2002. The trend has not gotten any better.

Evans hypothesizes US traffic safety policies began to diverge from those of Europe starting in the late 1970’s. Instead of accident avoidance, America’s approach shifted to technological gimmicks (air bags, etc), and roadway improvement. The result has been catastrophic in terms of injury and loss of life. If the US had matched Britain’s declines, there would now be 10,000 fewer annual fatalities.

The graph above only measures total fatalities — could this just be a consequence of increasing VMT? Not according to Evans. Here is the graph of fatalities per VMT:

Traffic fatalities per 100 million miles of vehicle travel in US and Great Brittain

The obvious conclusion is that Federal traffic policy has not only prevented the sale of fuel efficient cars, it is killing tens of thousands of Americans.

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SUV and small truck sales are booming again, and Detroit automakers have returned to their bad old ways. But when prices surpass the $4/gallon mark again, what plan do they have for the next gas crisis?

One simple answer: re-brand fuel-efficient cars they already sell in Europe. Believe it or not, both Ford and GM do quite well selling gas-sipping cars in Europe, where the price per gallon can easily double US prices.

But alas, it is not so simple. Under Federal “safety” regulations, it is illegal to sell European automobiles in the US market.

Back in 2008, an AP article went into all the difficulties:

But introducing the cars to the U.S. market isn’t as simple as changing the speedometer from kilometers to miles. Ford has to reconcile American and European safety regulations — everything from the color of rear turn signals to the positioning of crash test dummies — that will keep the cars from hitting U.S. highways anytime soon. Competing interests among automakers, governments and the insurance industry are hampering efforts to standardize safety requirements worldwide. That means extra engineering to make different versions of vehicles for different markets.

As noted in the article, there are dozens of minor differences in safety regulations. And those differences don’t necessary make vehicles any safer for the American consumer:

Medford said NHTSA’s test to make sure cars are safe for unbelted occupants is important in the U.S. market, where people who weren’t wearing seat belts make up 45 percent of all traffic fatalities. “The data that we have really drives the direction and the nature of the standards we develop,” he said. But car makers grumble that NHTSA’s requirement makes cars less safe for belted occupants, since protecting people without seat belts requires more powerful air bags and other changes.

Another major shortcoming in the American regulatory framework is in the design of bumpers. American bumpers only have to protect the car; whereas Europe bumper tests simulate crashes against pedestrians.

Smart car sold overseas for 9 years before reaching the US market

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Hot Sexy Train Attendants

Some photos of the, um, etiquette training for train attendants on China’s new high-speed rail services. Applicants should be 20-years old (or younger), and of “dignified appearance”.

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