Sunday, March 31, 2013

In Fresno, is lack of spending on transit keeping unemployment high?

Over at The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark recently wrote an excellent article looking at per capital funding across the nation for transit. A large focus of his report was the inequality present in funding, and how low income areas, the ones which most need better transit, are the ones with the lowest amount of support for their systems. He draws the conclusion that the shift to local funding, instead of federal, can lead to big problems.

Naturally, Fresno is a prime example of an area that desperately needs more transit, but doesn't allocate sufficient funding for it. Later on in this post, I will use his charts to show that Fresno predictably ranks near last in the 65 cities he looked at.

He even calls out the city in an example:

In sum, this evidence suggests that states and local governments, left to their own devices, will restrict funding on transit operations based on the income of their inhabitants, not based on need. It is not rational that the state and local funding for transit in San Jose is more than six times higher than that in Fresno, just 150 miles apart, much because of the latter’s significantly lower household incomes and more Republican voting tendencies. Fresno, after all, has more than double the poverty rate of San Jose and thus has a significant transit-dependent population that is not being appropriately served.

One conclusion that can be drawn from his data is that the poor Fresno showing is simply a result of the circle of poverty.

For example, an area with more poverty will bring in less taxes. However, demand for services will be greater than in richer areas - higher need for welfare, police and important services that the wealthy can buy for their family, but the poor cannot (like preschool). One could argue that Fresno is too broke to provide services like buses or parks, because they're too busy providing other "essential" services on the limited income the city brings in.

Problem is, transportation is fundamental, and while I'm a big proponent of parks, the lack of a bus can mean the difference between staying unemployed and finding a job. A park is not so critical. While Fresno may indeed be broke, that doesn't mean much - what's more important to look at is what money is being spent on.

That is, say Fresno had $100m in tax revenue, but they spent $100m on road construction. Now the city is broke. But say they instead spent $50m on roads, and $30m on transit. Now the city is swimming in money, with a $20m windfall, AND they provided a great bus system!

The point of the overly simplistic example is that one needs to take a close look at where the money goes. Fresno CAN pay for a workable transit system. They just choose to spend the money elsewhere, on things like constant repaving, road widening and traffic signals at intersections that don't need one for another decade.

The big problem is that it's hard to lower the 15.4% unemployment rate when people can't get to the jobs. (Fresno ranks 364 out of 372 cities in employment according to the BLS)

If you're sitting unemployed in south Fresno, you have little money. Perhaps you can't afford a car, the monthly payments, the insurance, the gas and the maintenance. Maybe if you had a job you could, but right now, you're broke.

Say a job opens up in River Park that you qualify for....but the hours are 3pm-11:30pm. In Fresno, that person who's willing to work can't apply for the job because the buses stop running shockingly early - before 10pm.

Problem is, Fresno is filled with many unemployed folks lacking in skills, and the only jobs they can get hired at are those most others would pass over - that is, the jobs with the least pleasant hours. Reporting for duty at 5am to start serving up breakfast at a diner? Not if you're using FAX, no buses at that time. Cleaning up at a bar until 2am? No way to get home. Live in Fresno, and want to work at the new giant Wal-mart in Clovis? No bus service there.

You get the point. The lack of a usable transit network is part of the reason unemployment is so high - for the jobs that exist, the people who most need them can't get to them.

LA and SF have atrocious pavement conditions on their streets, because they repave something like every 30 years. Some of their streets look like war-zones. But while simulating the streets of Baghdad may be ugly, one can still get to work on a bumpy road. LA and SF may have shockingly low road-repair budgets, but they do offer comprehensive bus and train networks. Wouldn't more potholes be an acceptable price to pay if it means the bus system was usable? Wouldn't delaying the 20 road widening projects that are going on at any given time, until the demand actually requires them, be acceptable if it meant more buses?

What about biking to work? Just this weekend, not one but two cyclists were killed in Fresno. While a missing snake gets extensive newspaper front page coverage, those two stories barely added up to one paragraph of reporting. The deaths were on Chestnut and Kings Canyon and Jensen and Ivy.

The residents of Fresno need a safe and reliable way to get to work. Without one, the region will continue to stagnate.

From the article...

Guess who sits as the cities with most poverty AND the lowest transit funding?
Fresno and good friend Bakersfield.

 photo fresnobike1_zpscfb70fe1.png

There's a strong correlation between conservative values, low income areas, and not providing the tools people need to get to work

 photo fresnobike2_zpsb01a8847.png

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Downtown vacancy rate not so bad

Last week the Bee ran an interesting graphic showing office vacancies around the city. One would expect that with all the doom-and-gloom surrounding downtown, that the vacancies there would be much higher than elsewhere.

Surprisingly, that is not the case.

For the entire city:

The vacancy rate at the end of the year was 13.01% compared to 13.03% at the end of 2011, the report said. That means about 2.7 million square feet of office space out of the 25 million square feet of office space in the market, which includes government-owned offices, is empty.
Downtown, the vacancy was 11.66% - or below the city average. East Shaw had the absolute worse vacancy rate, at 20.48%, with West Shaw not far behind.

It's relevant to note that while the city wants to destroy the Fulton Mall to "bring back business", the very auto-focused Shaw has the highest vacancies in the area, well above the pedestrian oriented downtown. It's no surprise that Clovis got a grant to attempt to revitalize their portion of Shaw, and that the feedback given was to make the area friendlier to non-automobile users.

It's no surprise that the northeast has the lowest vacancy rate at 7.93%, thanks to all the shiny and new buildings. That being said, that's not a low number, which makes surprising the development of a new ten story building in that section of town, which is actually near Woodward park. That area is given a vacancy rate of 11.54% (almost equal to downtown), but it's unclear where the lines are drawn separating the districts.

This is the graphic presented by the Bee

 photo officevacancy_zps7c727231.jpg

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bakersfield in unexpected places

I did not expect to see a sign advertising the country music of Bakersfield while making a layover in the Nashville airport.

It was my first time stopping in that airport, and while I was expecting country music (there sure was a lot of it), one never expects to find references to Bakersfield or Fresno outside the valley, and yet, they're strangely common. I'm sure I'm not the first to notice this.

 photo 2013-03-16145744_zpsdf8127d1.jpg

Speaking of airports, I find that the food available inside tells you a lot about the city. Dallas, for example, has an enormous airport, but absolutely terrible food - basically just bad fast food. I've no interested in visiting that city. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, you'll find an assortment of local restaurants - pricey, with small portions, but very tasty. IE, what you'll find outside the airport. In Boston, you'll naturally be overwhelmed by the number of Dunking Donuts locations and Legal Seafood outlets.

In Nashville, I had some absolutely delicious ribs for under $10, and while it was never on my radar, I wouldn't mind visiting the city to experience some more of that.

Fresno should probably follow suit and expose people to the real food available in town. How about a Tacos Tijuana stand?

Anyway, as I'm traveling, I won't be able to post anything this week. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Oakland Airport Connector, a year of testing?

The city of Oakland is building a new elevated rail line to connect their BART station to the airport. It's not a complicated line - like most airport shuttles, an unmanned train will simply shuttle back and forth every 5 minutes. I believe they're using the cable technology common for the application.

Construction is moving along well, but this certainly caught my eye:

The connector will replace the Oakland AirBART buses, operated by the Port of Oakland, that now take passengers to and from the airport using local streets. Construction is expected to end late this year, and will be followed by about a year of testing.


A year of testing? If that is accurate, it's ludicrous. A few weeks ago, I brought up how nice it would be if rail lines could be  built like roller coasters. That post was mostly in jest, as a light rail line doesn't have that much in common with a roller coaster. However, if there's one form of mass transit that most closely resembles a theme park ride, it's an airport cable shuttle. 

Over at The Coaster Guy, we see a coaster that is under construction, and will open around memorial day.  They will test for two weeks, maybe three. 
 photo SFMM_FTUpdate_20130310_23_zps89e52ef4.jpg

We should expect similar from a system as simple as an airport rail shuttle.

Sometimes it seems like the onerous rules in place aren't there for safety, but are an attempt to make transit projects less attractive. It's like the way the TSA can harass transit passengers. Do you think the TSA would ever set up a road block before a Manhattan tunnel and check the trunk of every vehicle for explosives? Of course not, it would be an enormous inconvenience.

How about forcing drivers to do a year of testing? That is, before getting a license, a full year of training with a certified instructor. That would certainly make our roads much, much safer, and indeed many countries do require many hours of driving with a trainer before being able to apply for a license. I'd wager that the safety benefits would be many times bigger than requiring a cable-shuttle to move back and forth for a year. Why don't I think that would ever happen?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Latest excuse to knock over buildings downtown: A park

Fresno likes knocking down buildings downtown. Perhaps love is a better word, as it seems to be some kind of never-ending fetish. Recently, two such adventures in demolition have gotten the city in trouble. In one lot, near Community Hospital, the city authorized GV Urban, an apartment developer, to knock down two century-old homes. The houses were torn down, and now a year later the lot sits empty, tangled in a historic preservation lawsuit. Elsewhere downtown, a property owner wants to eliminate the old YMCA. The replacement plan? A surface parking lot.

The result of this strange attraction is the current state of downtown: empty dirt lots and ugly asphalt surface parking as far as the eye can see.

Naturally, there's more to come.

This time around, the city wants to build a new park downtown. Fair enough, downtown doesn't have much green space, and one way to attract residents is to build amenities.

Here's a look at the target area. Can you find a suitable spot for a park?

 photo parks1_zpsea5afa6e.png
Let me make this easier. In bright red, all the empty lots and surface parking (in yellowish-grey, a lot which was empty when the image was taken but now has apartments and the previously mentioned lot held up in court. In dotted yellow, a proposed GV Urban project).

 photo parks2_zpsad2c6f4f.jpg
Shocking huh?

Clearly, there is ample space to locate a beautiful new downtown park!

Let's zoom in to the intersection where it's proposed....An intersection that will conveniently benefit the GV urban projects

 photo parks3_zps0d0f55d2.jpg

So where does Fresno pick for the park? It's so hard to pick among empty lots......

Obviously, some of the only occupied buildings!

There are five commercial buildings' on the property that will need to be demolished. As of January 15, 2013, only three of the addresses associated with this site were occupied.
Council Document (PDF)
 Only three? Uh, an occupancy rate of 3/5 is pretty damn good for Fresno...

In blue, the latest target for demolition.

 photo park6_zps094fb057.jpg
A complete street-wall in Fresno? We can't have that!

 photo parks5_zps594aa208.jpg

Now, do you want to know what the best part is?

In the above image, see the orange arrow pointing at the existing green park? It is nice enough, has basic landscaping (ie, what you would expect from the new park in this town).

 photo parks7_zps69d4c654.jpg
What's special about this plan, is that the city has given this park to GV Urban, so they can bulldoze it and build part of their new rental units on that land. 

So on one hand they're saying there's this critical need for parks in the district....but part of that critical need is because the only existing park is scheduled for demolition!

But wait, there's more!

All this action is happening a quarter of a mile away from Fulton Mall, the pedestrian mall which is essentially a park - trees, fountains, and yes, even playgrounds with sand. 

If you haven't been following along, you probably could have guessed it - the city wants to demolish that too.

If you thought this couldn't get any worse, you clearly didn't read the Sunday Bee. The big story?

Things are so bad at Fresno City Hall that it's swiping cash from the ailing Parks Department to help the struggling Convention Center pay its light bill.

The $350,000 from Parks was supposed to fix up green space neglected in the 4-year-old economic downturn. It'll now go to a Convention Center PG&E bill that, even with the extra dough, remains nearly $400,000 in arrears.


Rudd in his Feb. 28 report to the council said every penny in the Parks maintenance fund not headed to the Convention Center almost certainly will backfill unexpected expenses connected to outsourcing.

Read more here:

Fresno Bee

Read more here:
So the city is so broke they're raiding the parks department to pay PG&E bills. The same parks department that is essentially a skeleton crew because they were the first to be cut during the financial crisis. They're not going to be left with a penny.

But naturally, there's enough money to demolish five buildings, three with businesses, to build a brand new park a block away from an existing park that's slated to be demolished.

So where is that money coming from?

Council President Blong Xiong is still trying to get the Universally Accessible Park built in his district on the west side of Highway 99. Council Member Clint Olivier still sees hope for the Martin Ray Reilly Park in his district in southeast Fresno. City Hall has millions in state grants for construction of both. The sticking point is maintenance. It's not an insurmountable hurdle. The council last Thursday approved construction of a tiny neighborhood park in the heart of downtown's Cultural Arts District. State money will build it; Granville Homes will keep it pretty for two years.

Read more here:
A state grant. And how do they solve the maintenance riddle? They get GV Urban, who was given the existing park for almost nothing, to mow the lawn for only two years. Not 50, not 30, not even ten, just two.

Sounds like a great deal, doesn't it?

Friday, March 8, 2013

SimCity 5 arrives to abysmal reviews, 1950's planning

It was just over a year ago that I was pleased to report that SimCity 5 had been announced, and would be released a full ten years after the fourth iteration in the series. However, as details of the game trickled out throughout the year, I began to lose interest and resigned myself to an eventual disappointment.

There were two major concerns:
1) The release would do nothing to rectify the previous urbanism mistakes of the series
2) The always-online requirement would be an enormous failure and idiotic burden on consumers

Well, the game launched this past week and I was right on both points. Let's start with the second, which is currently receiving the most press:

SimCity 5, which is mostly a single-player experience, requires that you always connect to the EA servers to do anything in the game. No internet, no game for you. What could go wrong?

The company claims it's because of several unique and important features in the game. It's a nice story, but we all know it's their attempt to fight piracy. Like most good media companies, EA has taken the attitude that the paying customer must suffer if it means piracy may be diminished.

In this case, buyers have found it impossible to play the game. Open the software, and try and reach the main menu? You're put into a " server queue" of 20+ minutes. And once you load up your region? Many have found themselves kicked out of the program when they try to enter their own city. Worse, once inside, after an hour of hard work, many have found their progress was not saved. Others have found the program asking them if they want to revert to an earlier save or to abandon the city and start again. Bugs are rampant as well.

Essentially, the game that was shipped, but because of the online requirement, is not playable. EA has been spending all week frantically trying to fix the problem. Their latest strategy? Disabling features, including the "cheetah" speed mode inside the game, and various social options.

CNET, a tech website, declares the launch a disaster

 photo sim1_zpsf10af4c2.jpg, an up-and-coming gaming website, which initially praised the game with a 9.5, has amended their review.

 photo sim2_zps7016b87e.jpg has weighed in with a 5 out of 10.

Meanwhile, at Amazon, which has stopped selling the game, possibly because they were being overwhelmed with refund requests, the reviews are a constant flood of anger.

 photo sim3_zps229544cd.jpg

In an attempt to recoup money theoretically lost to piracy, EA has managed to destroy one of their strongest, longest-running and best-loved franchises (the first version came out in 1989). The PR and business disaster will probably lead to an apology in the form of "free downloadable content"  and a round of bonuses to the executives.

Of course this blog isn't a gaming one, so lets take a look at the other place the game failed: in allowing one to design a livable city.

SimCity has never been entirely realistic. That's ok; it's a simulation, but it's also a game. They have to balance "fun" with "real", and obviously take into account technical limitations. That being said, SimCity 4 launched a decade ago, and was a fantastic game. In the years after launch, the game was improved massively, thanks to dedicated work by fans to add new transport options, buildings and more. The fundamentals couldn't be changed, but so much was improved that one starting SC4 for the first time should load up on the various modifications before playing if they want to receive the real city building experience.

For a fan, the wish list for SC5 was a short one

-Mixed zones (the series allows residential, commercial, industrial, and density levels within each)
-Curved streets
-Progressive transit options (streetcars, BRT, gondolas etc)
-Improved transportation modeling
-Modern ideas - cycle tracks, congestion pricing etc
-Improved graphics

The core of the game was so solid that the wish list should have been easily obtainable, especially after a decade of progress - it doesn't take much work to improve on "fantastic".

Instead, the newest game is a massive step backwards.

Want to design an urban paradise?

Than I hope your dream is a tiny Phoenix, because that's all you're going to get.

Not only did the game not add mixed use, but now density is tied to the kind of road you build (not transit or zoning). Want a modern subway system? Nope, not available, even though every game in the series has let you build one. Streetcars? They've been added - but only running in the middle of a 6 lane "avenue". Pedestrian malls? Of course not, and don't even ask about bikes.

It might be 2013, but Sim City 5 will let you simulate 1950's America, and not much else. Curved roads were finally added to the city - perfect for those new cul-de-sacs!

By the way, you'll note I said "tiny Phoenix". Apparently the new graphics engine isn't very efficient, because the city sizes have been limited to "comically small". Further, every city is surrounded by a green belt. That may have been a progressive idea a century ago, but today we tend to frown upon giant expanses of empty space separating land uses...

Resigned yourself to designing a small town? Well forget agriculture - that's also been stripped out of the game. 

Note the highway at the top of the screen - it can't be modified. The game revolved on the assumption that every city is connected to the region by interstate-highway.
 photo simcity5_zps9283b0fd.pngSource: review (3/5)

One can hope that the brand isn't damaged enough by this debacle that we do get a SimCity 6. And maybe by then the developers will have looked around and realized that there's more to city building than wide roads and single-zone development.

One last word of advice if you do purchase the game (assuming the server issues are ever resolved, and you like rewarding failure). Don't expect to spend dozens of hours crafting the perfect city. The game has disasters, like zombies, which can't be turned off, and because the game is "always online", it's impossible to reset to a previous version. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Just what Clovis needs, another Mcdonalds

Not content with having opened two new locations in Clovis in the past couple of years, and rebuilding the other two, Mcdonalds will be adding yet another location to the fine city.

The location will naturally be open 24/7, have dual drive-thrus, and operate in one of the most visible intersections of the city.

The new location will be at Shaw and Clovis, across from the Sierra Vista mall and the Fresno-Clovis bike trail.

New location is x, existing Mcdonalds in the immediate vicinity marked as well.  A and C are the Mcdonalds outside the Wal-mart and the Mcdonalds inside the wal-mart, a theme that you find at every regional wal-mart. B is a mile away on Ashlan and Clovis and was completely rebuilt last year.

 photo mcdonalds1_zps3da60707.jpg

(you don't want to know what this map looks like if other fast food locations are added)

Naturally, the drive-thru is what will front both Shaw AND Clovis, completely killing pedestrian interaction for the next decade or more.

And the great irony? The approval of the Mcdonalds appears in the same planning agenda as a report on the ongoing efforts to revitalize Shaw. The uncomfortable irony is that the city has held many meetings with residents asking them what they like and dislike about Shaw, and what keeps them away from businesses.

Guess what the people say?

Too many cars. The sidewalks suck. The lighting is poor. No bike lanes.

So what does this project do to improve that?

"The project will help the Shaw Avenue corridor continue to revitalize along with other new developments in the area."

That's right folks, by blessing Shaw (and Clovis) Avenues with the beauty of a double drive-thru lane, the project helps in revitalization. Who knew that revitalization was so easy?

Wider sidewalks? Landscaping FOR pedestrians? Easy access to mcdonalds?

The beautiful view from Clovis Ave - the city's main street.

 photo mcdonalds2_zps410ec210.jpg

Just blank walls and another dead corner. Naturally, the entrance of Mcdonalds faces the parking lot, not the street. And the sidewalk? An amazing 4 feet wide - the bare minimum. Try and walk side-by-side on one of those. I guess it was too hard to find room for pedestrians with all the car infrastructure.

In green, the lovely pedestrian access. Remember, the regional bike and pedestrian trail is just across the street.

 photo mcdonalds3_zpsfed6a2bd.jpg
Mind you, it doesn't have to be that way. Fresno is home to a single pedestrian-friendly Mcdonalds, a model that clearly is no longer in corporate favor. Note that while the design looks old, the store itself was completely rebuilt from the ground up last decade. I believe the style was chosen because this was the location of the first Mcdonalds in Fresno, which was one of the earliest expansions for the chain. The design allows for ample parking and a drive-thru, without killing the pedestrian experience from the sidewalk.

 photo mcdonalds4_zps3d7a2f7a.jpg
It's not just Mcdonalds. Other chains that rely on their drive-thrus are able to build a model that at least acknowledges the pedestrian and doesn't completely destroy a corner.

It isn't beautiful, but its leagues better.

 photo mcdonalds5_zps6a051fdf.jpg

That one is also in Fresno though. I can't find a single example of a pedestrian-friendly fast food place in Clovis. Less than a mile away from the new McDonalds, this Burger King features the same "screw you" design for pedestrians.

Nothing quite says "welcome, dine here!" like a wall. I'm sorry, were you expecting a sidewalk? But isn't the landscaping just beautiful? Makes it seem like a real nice neighborhood.

 photo mcdonalds6_zps6255489c.jpg

I find it somewhat alarming that Clovis is becoming worse than Fresno when it comes to auto-dominated ugly fast-food restaurants. That sort of became obvious when they approved this design for Clovis Ave in old town....the city's prized historic and only pedestrian area. This was built in the past 2 years.

 photo mcdonalds7_zpsce93048e.jpg

I think I'll have a post about the "Clovis Way of Life" soon, because it's become readily apparent that the unique character of the city is long gone. While Fresno has actually made steps towards fixing the errors of the past, Clovis is making the same mistakes Fresno made a decade or two ago, and once the shine of the new stucco is baked off by the summer sun, some may find the city as appealing as its neighbor.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Downtown speed limit to rise

A minor item in this weeks city council meeting involved raising the speed limit of P street downtown from 25 to 30mph. While a small change, it's probably one in the wrong direction. P street is close to City Hall, the train station, and a fair amount of pedestrian-oriented businesses. Raising the speed limit might help a driver save 3 seconds, but will negatively impact the safety and comfort of the street.

The two sections being raised are on P between Divisadero and Fresno, and between Tulare and Ventura. In green is the section remaining at 25mph

 photo speedlimit_zpsaad53551.jpg

Across town, there is a change for the better - the speed limit is being lowered. The section is going from 40mph to 35mph and is on Fowler between Kings Canyon and Belmont. That just happens to be the location of the newest roundabout which I provided a photo tour of.

You can see google maps has added the roundabout.

 photo speedlimit2_zps8a355faa.jpg

In the second example, the speed limit is lowered because a major piece of traffic calming, a roundabout, was added. Perhaps the city can take the money they want to spend removing the Fulton Mall and instead fix the other streets downtown to make them safer for all visitors.