Back in March, in my contribution “California Smart Growth and Improving San Joaquin Valley Quality of Life,” in no uncertain terms, I pointed out it was prudent that land and resources, water and fuel for example, in the San Joaquin Valley be “consumed” wisely. I rationalized that sprawl – a seemingly good thing back in the ‘50s and ‘60s but which has since created unforeseen and unintended consequences, i.e., traffic congestion and air pollution – “if such should become of considerable concern and importance or become serious enough, then the probability is high that people will embrace Smart Growth Practices (SGP), which in may instances incorporates public transportation and the TOD [Transit-Oriented Development] that in many cases goes along with this.”
Well, it looks like for Fresno in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley and California’s sixth largest city, that defining moment has finally arrived – and not a moment too soon.
This evening [Tuesday, December 9th], a public meeting at Fresno’s downtown convention center to plot a more “sustainable” course for the city’s growth – and for its future as well – will be held.
In an editorial in the Dec. 9th Fresno Bee titled: “A future for transit: Metropolitan area will need much denser development,” it is opined “Mass transit, one answer to our dependence on cars and trucks, doesn’t work very well in areas such as this where decades of planning decisions have pushed urban limits farther and farther into the rural countryside. …People in Fresno have long sought the ‘American Dream’ of the suburban home, with four or five residences per acre. Getting used to the idea of 20 units per acre or more, as some envision, will be difficult.”
If not for AB 32 and SB 375 being passed, it seems highly likely this kind of talk wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen. But the legislation has been enacted and efforts are now underway to chart a new brand new building course to change what has up till now been a decades-long “business-as-usual” and “status-quo” building policy.
“ …This landmark [SB 375] legislation makes cities change the way they grow if they wish to keep receiving state transportation funds. In short, cities like Fresno and Clovis will have to grow denser instead of sprawling forever toward the horizons.
“That could, in turn, create a real opportunity for viable public transit systems, which require certain densities of population to succeed,” according to the editorial. No argument there.
But there is, however, contentious debate over what form this TOD-dependent public transportation should be and no doubt will be the focus of discussions tonight.
A news release released just yesterday [Dec. 8th] by the American Public Transportation Association boasts of public transportation’s comeback and was aptly titled: “Public Transit Ridership Surges as Gas Prices Decline — Highest Quarterly Transit Ridership Increase in 25 years.”
According to the APTA.
“Last year 10.3 billion trips were taken on U.S. public transportation – the highest number of trips taken in fifty years. In the first quarter of 2008, public transportation continued to climb and rose by 3.4 percent. In the second quarter of 2008, as gas prices rose to more than $4 for a gallon of gasoline, public transit ridership increased by 5.2 percent. The third quarter transit ridership increase of 6.5 percent continued the trend of more and more Americans turning to public transportation in record numbers.
“In congratulating President-Elect Barack Obama on his recent announcement for a major economic stimulus package that includes transportation infrastructure investment, [APTA President William W.] Millar said, “Investing in public transit can quickly create hundreds of thousands of “green” jobs for Americans and help get our economy back on track. In addition, increased public transit use reduces our dependence on foreign oil and lowers our nation’s carbon footprint.”
All of which should be taken into consideration in determining where the biggest public transportation bang for the buck will be had.
In a related Fresno Bee story the preceding day [Dec. 8th]: “With density comes transit: Fresno Co. to unveil plan to boost ridership,” the author wrote:
“BusRapidTransit, a hybrid of light rail and traditional city buses, is under consideration for a corridor running east from downtown along Ventura Avenue and Kings Canyon Road.
“The study is mapping other such corridors, including Blackstone, Shields, Shaw, Herndon, Clovis and DeWolf avenues. Lined up along them are the activity centers, many of them already in existence, such as major shopping centers and business parks.”
But is bus and BRT the best option? I’m not so sure.
According to the APTA in its press release: “Light rail (modern streetcars, trolleys, and heritage trolleys) had the highest percentage of ridership increase among all modes, with an 8.5 percent increase for the third quarter. Light rail systems showed double digit increases in the following areas: Baltimore (19.6%); Minneapolis (18.3%); Sacramento (16.5%); New Jersey (15.9%); Los Angeles (15.3%); Dallas (15.2%); Denver (15%); Buffalo (13.4%); and Memphis (13.3%).”
In Fresno, transit all seems to be about mode type. Transit bus ridership stands at roughly two percent of the area’s population, which is half a million.
Shelley Poticha and Gloria Ohland of Reconnecting America literally and figuratively wrote the book on streetcars. In their book “Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty First Century,” Poticha and Ohland write: “The permanence of the fixed-guideway system, developers and investors say, helps mitigate the risk, and the higher densities and lower parking ratios typically permitted in downtowns make projects more profitable.
“Moreover, streetcars are prime examples of the concept of value capture: Acknowledging that a streetcar will increase property values and stimulate business because more customers will be walking down the street, the impetus for streetcar projects and at least some of the funding often comes from the business sector, with operations funding raised through business improvement districts.
“This is not to contend that streetcars cause development to happen. Rather, in the words of Rick Gustafson, CEO of the Portland Streetcar, they ‘create the right decision-making environment’ for policy and investments that will support compact, walkable, high-density, sustainable development. And developers and investors are far more willing to take a risk and build at higher densities with lower parking requirements.
“Streetcar critics will argue that this development probably would have happened anyway somewhere else in the region – that a streetcar isn’t going to lead to a net increase in development. But that’s missing the point, which is that the development is happening at higher densities and with a mix of uses and less parking in those very neighborhoods where residents are most likely to walk or take transit – and streetcar systems typically connect with a regional transit system and therefore promote overall transit ridership – instead of in neighborhoods that don’t have density or transit. In other words, this is the most substantial kind of development, and the kind that can yield increased sales and tax revenues for local governments and local businesses, and be used to leverage community benefits like parks and affordable housing,” or even streetcar extensions and improvements.
It remains to be seen how this will all play out.
Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.