Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of newsworthy urban transportation developments.
If there’s any one thing that distinguishes the raft of heavy- and light-rail transit systems that have popped up in scores of American cities since 1971 from their pre-World War II predecessors, it’s this: They were designed as hybrids for a car-dependent society. All of them, even the Washington Metro, have as a major function “remote vehicle storage” — that is, allowing car-owning suburbanites to drive to a facility where they can leave their cars in a garage and take a train to their jobs in the cities.
Now, almost 50 years after the first of this new wave of rail transit systems opened, the thinking about what function they should perform has shifted: Many urban planners, developers and city officials see them as tools to reshape the suburban landscape in a more walkable, multimodal fashion. Building large parking garages around stations cuts off that possibility, and that has led the agency building a Los Angeles-area light rail extension to propose eliminating the garages it was going to build around its stations.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has made many of those car-bound commuters fearful of taking transit lest they get added to the rising count of the infected. Studies showing that transit riders are no more likely to catch the coronavirus than others are have so far failed to reassure them, and the cars that they are now driving into the city instead are slowing things down for the buses still rolling down their streets. This has led one city, San Francisco, to take a page from New York’s playbook and at least temporarily turn some of its street space over to buses (and taxis and bikes) exclusively.
Something else the COVID coronavirus has done is upend the way Americans vote. Social distancing requirements and the rise of voting by mail have led many jurisdictions to dramatically shrink the number of polling stations they will operate on Election Day. But this in turn will make it harder for the many voters who will cast votes in person to do so. One of those jurisdictions, however, is fortunate to have a suitably large facility right next to a rapid transit station, and the agency that runs the rapid transit has just finished cleaning the station and will reopen it in time for coming elections.
Foothill Light Metro Extension To Cut Station Parking by Eliminating Garages
The Foothill extension of the LA Metro’s L Line, originally known as the Gold Line, will bring the Greater Los Angeles rail transit system to San Bernardino County’s doorstep once an extension now in the planning phase is completed sometime around 2025. The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reports that the plans for the line have changed significantly, however.
The Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority announced June 24 that it now plans to eliminate parking garages in favor of surface lots at four of the line’s five stations in Los Angeles County: Glendora, San Dimas, La Verne and Pomona. At the fifth and last of the stations, Claremont, the agency has not yet decided whether it will still build a garage or provide parking via a combination of a surface lot and leased parking spaces nearby.
The move will cut the total number of parking spaces at the stations nearly in half, from 3,570 to 1,959.
Gold Line Construction Authority chief communications officer Lisa Levy Buch told the Daily Bulletin that the agency dropped the garages from its plan because the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), which will operate the line, told the authority that it was “building too much parking” at its stations. LA Metro, she said, would like to have the land available for housing construction down the road.
The changes are consistent with a parking program LA Metro adopted last year. That program seeks to both cut long-term maintenance costs and preserve land-use flexibility.
The proposal is not yet final, however. Buch said that the authority is collecting feedback both from the cities along the line and the general public, which has until July 8 to comment on the change.The proposal will also have to undergo environmental review.
If the additional funding to complete the project is obtained, the L Line extension will run from the current terminus in Asuza to Montclair in San Bernardino County by 2025. Right now, funding is in place to get the line to Pomona; the current budget of $2.1 billion is one-third higher than the original $1.4 billion budgeted for the entire extension. Another $450 million will need to be found by 2021 in order to complete the extension as planned.
SFMTA Sets Up Temporary Bus Lanes on San Francisco Streets
The San Francisco Examiner reports that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) will create temporary bus-only lanes on several city streets in order to keep buses moving as car traffic rises but ridership fails to keep pace as COVID-19 travel restrictions are eased.
The lanes will be set up on streets used by four Muni bus routes that serve heavily transit-dependent populations in neighborhoods on the east and south sides of the city. The neighborhoods in question, which include the Mission District, Mission Bay, Dogpatch, Forest Hills, Balboa Park and Portola, are vulnerable to increased street congestion caused by a rise in car commuting into the city.
The goal is to maintain the current speed of bus service and allow the additional buses that will be needed to maintain socially distant travel as ridership recovers to move freely as well. The bus lanes will also be open to taxis and emergency vehicles, and some of them will be bike accessible.
Most of the 30 people who commented on the proposal during its public comment period supported it and applauded its emphasis on equity for essential workers, many of whom are lower-paid and rely on mass transit to get around the city.
The lanes will cost $250,000 to implement; the funds will come from a fund for projects meant to improve transit reliability. The city intends to apply for COVID relief money to reimburse the fund. Implementation begins in August, and all the lanes should be fully operational by six to eight weeks later. The city’s traffic director will be able to authorize additional temporary lanes if conditions warrant them. The lanes will go out of service 120 days after emergency orders are lifted unless the SFMTA Board of Directors votes to make some or all of them permanent.
Atlanta Voters Will Be Able to Ride MARTA to a Huge Polling Place This Summer and Fall
The coronavirus has also disrupted the way Americans are voting in this year’s elections. Many more states and cities are allowing voting by mail, and the need to find in-person polling stations that can support social distancing combined with a reduction in the number of people available to staff the polls has led several large cities to consolidate multiple polling stations into a handful of large consolidated locations, or in some cases just one.
One of those cities is Atlanta, where the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and Fulton County have partnered to turn the Hawks’ State Farm Arena into Georgia’s largest-ever voting precinct for this year’s primary and general elections. The county and the team will have the facility ready for early voting in Georgia’s Aug. 11 primary runoff election when that begins on July 20.
And when that happens, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) will be ready to carry voters to the polls.
An agency news release states that MARTA will have its MBS / State Farm Arena / Georgia World Congress Center / CNN Center rapid transit station open and ready to serve riders in time for the July 20 start of early voting.
Both the arena and the station closed in early March when concerts and other events at the arena were canceled because of COVID-19 restrictions. MARTA used the closure to make needed repairs, install upgrades to station equipment and deep-clean the entire station.
MARTA joined the Hawks and Fulton County in announcing the creation of the super-precinct at a June 29 news conference. The facility will allow in-person voting to proceed in a manner that complies with CDC social-distancing guidelines.
“MARTA is proud to support the right to vote and in fact, exists because of that right,” MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker said in the release. “Voters in Fulton and DeKalb Counties and the city of Atlanta decided in 1971 they wanted public transit, and Clayton County followed in 2014. As more jurisdictions consider joining MARTA, the right to vote and direct access to voting is paramount. With the unprecedented challenges we’ve all faced this year, we don’t want voter access to be one of them.”
The Hawks will also allow voters to park for free at the arena parking lots during the voting period. (Now if MARTA would offer free fares to voters….) The facility will also be in place for the November general election.
Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.
Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.