In the Inland Empire, Freeway Overpasses Can Win Urban Planning Awards

Such a beautiful site! This freeway interchange pays tribute to the nearby Air Force base. Image: Falcon Engineering Services
This freeway interchange offers eye candy for jet pilots using the nearby March Air Reserve base. Image: Falcon Engineering Services

The American Planning Association advocates for excellence in planning. But to judge from the awards given by its Inland Empire chapter, sometimes the notion of “excellence” is in the eye of the local beholder. The chapter gave its 2015 Urban Design Award to a sprawling freeway interchange where Van Buren Boulevard crosses over I-215 in Riverside.

As Jason Arango points out on GJEL’s blog, there are a lot absurdities about this award:

  1. It’s not urban–the overpass is located in the middle of a field.
  2. It ignores walking and biking. For pedestrians, there is one long 90-foot crosswalk. For bicyclists, there’s a bike lane –in only one direction–that requires bike riders to cross two lanes of accelerating freeway onramp traffic.
  3. There is literally nothing special about it, says Arango. “Some airplane designs that are barely visible from the freeway pay tribute to the nearby Air Force base. But that’s it. . .If anything, it embodies and reinforces the status quo.”

Furthermore , writes Arango:

By giving this project a Best Urban Design Award, the APA Inland Empire Chapter is encouraging a precedent of dangerous, automobile-centric 1950s design that doesn’t meet the needs of 21st century cities. While the safety hazards of this design might not seem to matter that much, it’s going to last a long time. If the Inland Empire continues to develop in a sprawling, car-centric manner (like the APA Chapter seems to encourage), this interchange could ultimately serve as yet another barrier to active transportation.

Boo, Inland Empire APA. If your vision to be “leaders in initiatives regarding the economy, environment, and equity,” is truly “the measure by which we want to be judged,” as the APA website claims, then we’re judging. And this award is a fail.

Note: GJEL are sponsors of Streetsblog San Francisco. We were first alerted to this story on Twitter.

  • I’m guessing that because of the fact that they’ve included the “we’ll notify Caltrans to move the bridge” clause, they’ll claim that it isn’t severed. I’m also extremely interested in the latter tactic, but the comment period for the EIR/EIS already closed quite some time ago, so I’m not sure how receptive to suggestions they will be.

  • It’s a cool looking design, but I do agree with the tone of the article that it seems too car-focused with little regard for pedestrians and cyclists. Of course, car-centric design is endemic to pretty much all of the Inland Empire.

  • Walter Crunch

    Let’s keep building massive care infra so as to pass off the external costs of travel to everyone else…weeeeeeeeeeeee!

  • CalRobert

    “I’d much rather see a larger-scale movement toward either slow-speed streets or separated facilities that are worth using.”

    I would too, but I haven’t yet got my Dutch visa. The US hates change too much to accept that. A properly buffered bike lane with physical separation is still pretty good.

  • I’m not a big fan of bike lanes at all. The presence of a bike lane means that the road has been designed wrong. They’re a poor excuse for bike infrastructure as they are by necessity, located on roadways designed for moving motor vehicles. That is not optimal for biking and putting bikes on the edge of that is perhaps the worst idea ever; the shoulder is designed for errant vehicle recovery, not vulnerable user conveyance. I’d much rather see a larger-scale movement toward either slow-speed streets or separated facilities that are worth using.

  • The retrofits are cool for the older communities, but in new-build communities, I expect nothing less than Dutch-quality bikeways. I comment to that effect on EIRs, though it still gets pushback for being “not to standard” or “outside the scope”. A couple developments have proposed Class I paths wide sidewalks as bikeways, but they lack true understanding of how to design bikeways for bikes and based on the designs, also never bothered to realize what Class I standards even call for. Comments to the effect of creating a bikeway network with grade separations during the site preparation stage of a project have thus far not been able to provide any relief as those things are all seen as extra.

    Another huge issue are the trip generation standards. They use absurd numbers like an average of seven round trips a day for each unit at an apartment complex or SFR. As such, plans for 500 units would be expected to dump 3 500 more vehicles per day onto the roads, which in turn hits the LOS-based CEQA standards and leads to more lanes, especially at intersections. Even at the expense of sidewalks, bikeways, and transit facilities. With the standards setting the numbers, alternatives can’t even really be considered to actually be alternatives for purposes of the traffic analyses at present. The cities love it, especially out here, because that’s how they fund the Ponzi scheme (e.g. look at the attached horizon year map for LOS on the City of Perris’ roadways).

    That’s why the VMT-based standards will be so crucial: they will force developers and traffic engineers to actively look at ways to reduce that seven down to a two or three. At that point, I expect that they’ll finally start to look at providing bikeways that people, even VCers, will want and prefer to ride and let their kids ride. Unfortunately, it sounds like the VMT standards probably won’t be in effect until 2018 or so at the earliest. Unless a developer can wrangle change out of a city/county on their own, it’ll likely be at least 2022 before we even begin to see the first VMT-based developments hit the ground out here. Though I do expect AB 32’s 2020 targets to cause quite a bit of a stir out here because I have my doubts that they will be met. The need for other solutions might become pressing.

  • CalRobert

    I’m actually conflicted about EV’s. I like the lower emissions (and noise – as someone who lives near a busy street I hate engine noise), but I worry that the cheap driving they enable will only make sprawl worse. Something like car2go becoming more widespread would be awesome, though. Imagine zipcar but with one-way rentals. In time it could be autonomous vehicles as well.

    Though this is all, at best, a poor compromise. I really just want bike lanes and a dense neighborhood that doesn’t have two ton death machines (Elon Musk’s words!) hurtling through it.

  • neroden

    EVs, however, have a higher upfront cost than gasmobiles. Though used EVs may help with that, it’ll take a while, because right now used EVs are attractive to people who would otherwise buy *new* gasmobiles.

  • neroden

    You should check to see whether severing the San Jacinto Branch Line is actually illegal. If the branch line is still considered a railway under the authority of the Surface Transportation Board — which is true even if it’s a “railbanked” trail — then it can’t be severed without STB approval.

    If not, it can be, but you can still hammer the EIS for nonconformity with the region’s *own* plan for Metrolink expansion and demand that they raise the bridge.

  • Yes, exactly. My community isn’t so cul-de-sac-laden as others, but it still requires appreciable effort to go anywhere, especially when not driving. Not that driving is really glamorous either since “maintenance” is apparently not a concept that the Inland Empire is familiar with.

  • CalRobert

    I agree re: surprisingly cheap car ownership and expensive transit. My wife considered taking the bus to work, and is even served pretty well (single-line ride with 8-15 minute headways), but it’s cheaper for her to just ride our 170cc scooter, even after considering depreciation and maintenance.

    It is sad to see the decline of the manual transmission, but I’m hoping as EV’s become more common we just do away with gears entirely. I love shifting, but it’s kind of silly when an electric motor gives you mountains of torque from a standstill.

  • CalRobert

    My dad lives in a bland house in a maze of cul de sacs and he doesn’t understand what I have against it, even though I’ve pointed out it used to take me 2 hours to get to work via bus.

  • It is, but both RCTC and SANBAG are hampered by how the transportation measures in the respective counties are written. Currently, both send almost all their money to more highways and moving cars and changing that will be extremely hard to do since that’s what the measures mandate be done with the money. Furthermore, a more transit-friendly measure such as R or BB simply is not politically feasible at the county level in either county at the moment. So the best hope that I can see is the CEQA switch to VMT, but even that is a couple years from taking effect and worse yet, some of the cities out here have LOS-based standards that were approved by voters. The wake-up call likely will not happen until AB32’s 2020 targets come knocking.

  • There is actually talk of extending the Gold Line all the way to Ontario International Airport and SANBAG is working on DMU service to run between San Bernardino and Redlands.

    However, despite the progress, there are several issues. A huge one is that most of the IE transit is focused on two things: last resort transportation or getting people to LA/OC/SD. Transit travel between the two IE counties is tortuous and in many cases, literally faster by bike over 20-30 mile trip distances.

    The other big issue is that the area is expanding. There are probably developments at various stages of planning that will add at least a third of a million housing units to the region by 2030. The expectation continues to be that everyone will drive and all of these developments, spurred along by CEQA requirements, are building freeway-sized roads “complete streets” to serve these new communities. I don’t need to remind everyone here how horrendous this auto-centric style of planning is, but it’s what we’re getting out here in the IE and the transit continues to be solely an afterthought. For every mile of fixed-guideway transit that’s planned, there are probably at least 20 miles worth of freeway lanes.

  • In some of the older ones, especially the cities that started as streetcar suburbs, definitely. Those tend to have more of a grid network to build on. But newer developments (i.e. late-70s on) moved away from that to the cul-de-sac bedroom communities. The ones built through the 80s are some of the worst, with few filtered permeability options and decidedly non-grid street networks. Biking is reduced to ‘BIK LANs’ if we’re lucky, walking requires dodging vacant lots with no infrastructure, and transit plays its usual role of last resort option with at best, half hour headways for many routes and of course, the buses that just don’t run early/late enough to be usable for a large swath of the population. I’d love to see changes, but the will and funding to retrofit these situations simply doesn’t exist in the region at the moment.

  • I’d agree there; I only look for cars w/ manual transmission. I’m really rather disappointed with the upcoming crop of used cars as manual transmissions are getting dropped from even the usual econoboxes in favor of CVTs (*shudder*).

    Also, that really speaks to how cheap driving truly is. People like to make the case that not owning a car saves a lot of money, but that just isn’t true out in this region at all. Parking is free and plentiful, new cars are the exception, not rule, and gas prices are better than in LA. A $5000 car can last for a couple years and still be resold for $3500 after the ownership period, bringing that cost way down. Even for a single person out here, owning a car can end up costing not drastically more than not while also providing an almost immeasurably greater amount of freedom and mobility. For a family of two or more out here, there’s no way that they’re saving money by being car-free, especially if they have to go between Riverside and San Bernardino counties frequently.

  • Gezellig

    Yes, and even though the following protected bike lane in Temple City is technically still west of the Inland Empire, it’s spatially similar enough to the IE to offer an example of how to do complete arterial streets in suburban areas, whether that’s in:

    http://la.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/05/Temple-City-10-14May18.jpg

    ^ later-20th-century residential areas (with fewer intersections and generally higher speeds, as would be common in new IE developments)

    http://la.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/05/Temple-City-12-14May18.jpg

    http://b.3cdn.net/bikes/bfc61f40686dc634b6_7rm6bxgg5.jpg

    ^ commercial stretches

    http://www.bikesgv.org/uploads/1/0/3/4/10345694/6978478.jpg?355.3333332538605

    ^ and even 1950s-style suburban tracts with lots of driveways directly on arterial (older midcentury areas of the IE have this style of development, too).

    As @marvennorman:disqus pointed out in a Streetsblog interview earlier this year:

    http://cal.streetsblog.org/2015/05/13/damien-talks-episode-2-bike-inland-empires-marven-norman/

    these kinds of things can easily be integrated into new developments and are so cheap they’re what he calls “rounding errors” in terms of overall cost.

    The problem is getting forward-thinking developers and city codes to allow/require this. Since far too few communities have so far incorporated these proven best-practice designs, CalBike is actually pushing for standards which would mandate them in the state of California when a road surpasses a certain speed/car volume threshold:

    http://cal.streetsblog.org/2015/11/06/damientalks-24-ryan-price-and-calbikes-legislative-report-cards/

    Here’s an example of “new-build” residential areas incorporating protected bike lanes and intersections from the get-go in Austin:

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CGLx9yMWwAApNyk.png

    http://www.peopleforbikes.org/page/-/images/austintilleyontheground_2.png?nocdn=1

  • CalRobert

    That’s good to see!

  • Gezellig

    It’s started to happen a bit. The sbX bus (16-mile bus rapid transit in San Bernardino/Loma Linda) opened last year:

    http://la.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/05/12272405-an-sbx-brt-vehicle-at-the-new-cal-state-san-bernardino-platform.jpg

    Sometime in 2016-17, sBX will link up with Metrolink, which already goes to San Bernardino:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c0/Metrolink.png/950px-Metrolink.png

    But is being expanded to the Downtown SB Transit Center. As it is, the San Bernardino Metrolink line is the busiest.

    In addition, LA Metro’s Gold Line is also being expanded pretty far out in the IE:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Gold_Line_Map_%28Future%29_of_the_Los_Angeles_County_Metro_System.png

  • CalRobert

    Perhaps as density continues to increase in that fashion it will be feasible to serve those communities with more transportation options.

  • Which is why a lot of the older bedroom communities out here are now “multifamily housing”.

  • CalRobert

    I don’t disagree with you, I just think that driving when you can’t afford it sucks. That was me in my early 20’s and it was miserable – rent or gas isn’t a decision somebody should have to make.

  • IE poverty isn’t like LA poverty. Everyone out here drives, even those who city folks like to think can’t or shouldn’t be able to afford to. It’s almost always the only realistic option, especially when going more than five feet from home.

  • Gezellig

    That’s kind of the whole point–why should only more affluent people get the best infrastructure?

    Remember, adults who bike to get around in the US are disproportionately lower income:

    http://sightline.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/images/legacy/who-bikes-2-e870c0931cb451b7e8b37cdd4bafbb3d-preview.gif

    Also:

    Fact: 40% of adult bicycle riders earn $20,000 or less. Despite these high numbers, people from income bracket are the least satisfied with the bike paths, lanes and trails in their area and only 41% reported familiarity with places to ride in their areas.

    More equitable infrastructure (such as the protected bike lane pictured below) reduces reliance on car trips:

    http://peopleforbikes.org/page/-/uploads/GLP/unstylish%20danes.jpg

    …which disproportionately helps those of lower incomes:

    http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/does-better-biking-help-poor-people-denmark-shows-the-slow-huge-payoff

    In the words of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, every neighborhood should have protected bike lanes because bicycling is “for everybody, in every neighborhood.” But like all urban policies, protected bike lanes can divide us and our cities when done wrong.

    http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/race-ethnicity-class-and-protected-bike-lanes-an-idea-book-for-fairer-citie

    This guy’s also got it right:

    An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation. –Enrique Peñalosa

    And certainly by his actions you could also extend that to “where even the rich use public transportation, bike and walk.”

    This kind of development in the Inland Empire is directly and antithetically opposed to the ideals of “leaders(ship) in initiatives regarding the economy, environment, and equity.”

  • CalRobert

    And yet it’s an impoverished area where many can’t afford to drive a car.

  • Gezellig
  • Phantom Commuter

    And people keep moving there because they can afford to live there. Get off your high horse.

  • This is the tame side of things in the IE. The same freeway which is served by this onramp was recently widened and the Riverside County Transportation Commission is planning hundreds more lane-miles of freeway all over the region, including two completely new freeways. One of them would cut through the heart of a disadvantaged community, the other would mean that an extension of Metrolink to serve several growing communities would no longer be feasible. That’s just the freeways. Between RCTC and WRCOG, they’re also planning hundreds of miles of arterials that are basically expressways completely hostile to biking and walking. Some are already built, but many more are still awaiting funding, either by way of grants or via the TUMF program. Furthermore, brand new communities are being built that vastly overbuild the infrastructure to an absurd level. People keep thinking that the IE can just be ignored, but this is one of the fastest growing areas of the state and though there are some farms, it mostly isn’t “rural”. Decisions are being made and projects are being built that will have a huge impact on mobility and emissions goals. But without input and coverage, the sprawl will continue.

  • Gezellig

    Pssst….IES APA-CA…you’re partying like it’s 1959.

    Meanwhile, in another world, this is how you design areas around a freeway that hew to actual principles of “leaders(ship) in initiatives regarding the economy, environment, and equity”

    https://nieuweoudeschool.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/wp_000602.jpg

    http://www.peopleforbikes.org/page/-/uploads/GLP/guess%20where%20this%20is.jpg

    P.S. those are not in California, nor even America. Though there’s absolutely no reason not to have that here.

    Try again.

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