Sunday, November 29, 2009

Visit The New CAHSR Blog

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Our move to a new home is complete. Please visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog - is the new URL. If you are reading this on RSS, is the new feed. Please also update your bookmarks!

This site will remain as an archive of the site, though no new comments will be allowed, and no new posts will be put up here. Thanks to everyone for making this blog the leading source of information for the California High Speed Rail project since March 2008. On to the new home!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why An HSR Design Competition Is An Excellent Idea

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

One tried and true practice for designing projects with a great deal of public interest - and public controversy - is to hold a design competition. Many important public memorials have been designed this way, including the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and the World Trade Center Memorial in lower Manhattan.

Such competitions serve several purposes. They open the often contentious process of designing important yet potentially divisive projects to public scrutiny, enabling the public to participate in the selection process (therefore making them more invested in the project itself, instead of as bombthrowers from the sidelines). They also help people see what is possible and what is desirable in a particular project by having architects imagine new and interesting ways to design the project. Instead of an abstract concept or a feared design, like the "Berlin Wall" on the Peninsula, people can see something that interests them, inspires them, and gets them to see the project not as a threat but as a possibility for welcome change, an opportunity to do something new, interesting, useful, but that meets their own goals and desires.

It is in that vein that calls for an HSR design contest on the Peninsula are such a welcome development:

Joseph Bellomo has a simple proposal for the California High-Speed Rail Authority: Leave the design of the proposed high-speed rail to the world's brightest designers.

Bellomo, a Palo Alto architect whose projects emphasize modular construction, energy efficiency and sustainable design, laments that the design of the controversial 800-mile rail line has so far been dominated by teams of engineers, each working on a separate segment of the line.

So while other local architects, urban planners and concerned residents are busy lobbying the state for underground tunnels, Bellomo advocates a different approach for selecting the design of the proposed line -- an international design competition.

Last month, Bellomo sent a letter to the rail authority, the state agency charged with building the $45 billion rail line, proposing a two-tiered international competition in which architects and designers from around the world would send in proposed designs for the entire line. The proposals would be narrowed to three finalists whose ideas would be further developed.

"The only way to get good design, holistic design, is through competition," Bellomo said.

I'm not as convinced that we need a design competition for the entire route, but a design competition for some elements of the project, including the Peninsula Corridor, makes quite a lot of sense. It would help make the CHSRA seem like less of an outside invader and more of a facilitator of modern designs for a modern urban landscape, allowing residents and architects and planners to come together to present innovative designs appropriate to the location.

This is especially valuable on the Peninsula because the objections to HSR there are almost entirely aesthetic (though they're rooted in deeper issues of economic opportunity and a desire of some to protect what they have at the expense of others). The desire for a tunnel is driven by the conviction that an elevated structure designed by CHSRA will merely resemble a giant freeway. As we've shown before, above-grade HSR tracks can be built elegantly, blending well with their surrounding urban environment. A design competition can show ways to build HSR that meet both the operational criteria of the CHSRA and the other criteria of local HSR supporters. Such a design competition will never silence the hardcore HSR deniers, but that isn't the purpose here.

Bellomo isn't just calling for a design competition in the abstract. He is also offering his own idea, which you can find at his site (scroll down about halfway to find the HSR section). His proposal is for what he's calling a "solar corridor", an elevated track with a steel enclosure that holds photovoltaic solar panels. His Peninsula design leaves two Caltrain tracks at-grade, allowing for its electrification, and a either a single or double track in the elevated viaduct. In some ways this resembles Rafael's La Vitrine concept from back in March, though with important differences.

I can't say I'm sold on the Bellomo concept. And it's unclear whether the visual impact of the "ribs" would be embraced by the locals. Also left unstated is what happens to the at-grade tracks at existing grade crossings. But I am glad to see him giving some thought to how to implement HSR along the Peninsula.

His idea of an HSR design competition for selected segments of the route is a very wise idea. It won't solve everything, but it is worth embracing.

NOTE: Tonight's the night for the switch to the new blog. Take the chance to update your bookmarks. If you haven't already registered a username, please do so - it'll make your posting life much easier.

This site will remain as an archive, but comments will be closed as of tonight, 10PM Pacific. Unless of course something goes wrong in the transfer.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Open Thread

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Enjoy your holiday, everyone!

I'm staying here in Monterey for the occasion, as I can't imagine a better place to spend a long weekend. But many Californians have taken to the crowded roads this week, an 8% increase over last Thanksgiving (on the roads, at least). I'm sure a lot of them could have used a high speed train option for their in-state travels.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unsafe At Any Speed

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

There are at least four families in Palo Alto who will be having a less joyous Thanksgiving this year - four families touched by the tragedy of suicide. This year, four teenagers have committed suicide by walking in front of Caltrain locomotives on the at-grade section of the tracks near Gunn High School.

Now, a group of Palo Alto parents are pushing a petition to demand Caltrain slow down to a 5 mph crawl between West Meadow and Charleston Road in Palo Alto:

We ask Caltrain to implement a schedule, effective immediately, of slowing all trains from West Meadow to Charleston to a speed of 5 MPH in order to prevent further suicides on the tracks in this area.

In preparing this request our research has turned up a number of facts that support this measure.

1. They will not go elsewhere. Research has shown that individuals bent on suicide at a hot spot will not simply move further down the tracks. See links.
2. If you restrict access to the ‘means’ you will reduce the number of incidents. It has been proven that even a small impediment at a suicide hot spot reduces the number of incidents at that spot. This is why we are also watching the tracks. We believe that this vigilance, in combination with slower trains will reduce the number of incidents and perhaps stop them.
3. In the case of a suicide hot spot the threshold for the individuals who may be considering suicide is lowered. This is especially true for teens . This means the existence of the hot spot and access to it is increasing the number of incidents.
4. Although teen suicide has many possible causes and there are many preventive measures we may take as a community, slowing the trains is a short term solution.

Although a train at 5mph may be no less deadly, we believe it will be less attractive while giving us the chance to clear the tracks and giving the driver time to stop.

Currently it takes the commuter trains less than a second to clear the crossing at 60mph. At 5mph this would increase to approximately 4 seconds, a negligible delay for drivers when compared with a human life.

Slower trains will reduce the allure of this area, allow time for track watchers to clear the tracks, and give Caltrain engineers the chance to stop the train if necessary. Most importantly, slower trains now will give us time as a community to work together in launching a multi factorial effort to curb teen depression and suicide over the long term.

Caltrain takes these suicides, and any other safety hazard along the tracks, extremely seriously. And it's hard to fault parents who want their kids to experience safe conditions.

That being said, you might as well stop the trains entirely if you're going to insist they crawl through at 5 mph. I don't know if this is a good short-term solution or not, but it is clearly not a long-term solution for either the parents, Gunn students, or Caltrain.

It's difficult for transit infrastructure to be designed in a way that can stop someone truly determined to kill themselves from doing so, as the Golden Gate Bridge and BART have discovered. That being said, this rash of suicides reminds us of the inherently dangerous nature of grade crossings where fast, heavy trains are operating. (Light rails and streetcars have potential issues - but then so does any other vehicle operated on the roads.)

Back in June this blog asked why the death toll of at-grade rail crossings was being excluded from the conversation about high speed rail on the Peninsula. The fact is that Caltrain on the Peninsula as it stands right now - at-grade through a densely populated urban area - is unsafe at any speed. A 5 mph slow order is no lasting solution to the problem of how to operate a modern passenger railroad safely through such a landscape.

Some may accuse me of "politicizing" the issue. But it has already been "politicized," long ago, by those who argue that their own property values and their own personal, idiosyncratic vision of urban aesthetics and what their community should "feel" like trumps the safety needs of the general population, including Gunn students.

"Politics" is the process by which individuals and groups make collective decisions, and how they weigh competing needs and desires. Right now in Palo Alto, there is a politics that prioritizes preserving the status quo over providing for safe, affordable, reliable, clean, and economically stimulating passenger rail. Whether the tracks go over or under the grade crossings, it is clear that the status quo for Caltrain and Palo Alto no longer works.

The community needs to come together to find a long-term solution to make the railroad as safe as possible, balancing that against the need for that railroad to continue operating at improved efficiency. They need to recognize that while there is no way to provide for perfect safety, some ideas, like grade separations, are such obvious parts of the solution that anyone who argues against them out of a desire to preserve their own pocketbook or their own sense of aesthetics should be, at best, questioned relentlessly about their priorities.