Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rail Fever

Pacific Surfliner arriving at the Santa Ana Amtrak station
A couple weeks ago, I took the train (Metrolink & Amtrak) for the first time to visit a friend in Orange County. In the past, since I moved to Pasadena and went carless in November, I had always rented a Zipcar for such trips. Somehow, it never occurred to me that taking a quick, clean commuter train to Orange County might be the better, and cheaper, option.

Now I'm hooked. Rail is such a relaxing way to travel -- I already take the Metro Gold Line for my daily commute -- and it completely bypasses the usually torturous traffic clogging the various routes from L.A. to the O.C. And when I return to Union Station, it's an easy transfer to the Gold Line. From now on, I'll take the train to Orange County as much as possible.

I've even incorporated rail travel into a planned weekend trip to the Bay Area. I'll be flying up late Friday afternoon, after work, to make an 8:30pm concert in Petaluma, but for the return trip I'll be on Amtrak's Coast Starlight train. The trip from Emeryville to L.A. will take more than 12 hours (please hurry up that high-speed rail project!), but I'm looking forward to the coastal scenery along the way and ample time to read one or two books.

Rail Travel Pros
  • Direct Routes into the Heart of Cities (versus airplanes that land at cities' peripheries)
  • No Traffic
  • Safe (safer than automobiles, at least)
  • Scenery
  • Historic Rail Stations (I was completely charmed by the Santa Ana depot.)
  • Inexpensive ($55 for Bay Area to L.A. vs. min. $100 by airplane)
Rail Travel Cons
  • Slow (until the California High Speed Rail network and Desert Xpress are completed)
  • Limited Connectivity (no rail service to Las Vegas or San Francisco)
  • Expensive (for longer trips where sleeper cabins are necessary)

Metro + Mobile Technology = WIN

Nextime iPhone app
I'm not a huge fan of taking the bus -- it's slower and bumpier than trains, and sometimes the stops are maddeningly close to each other. Mobile technology may not be able to address those issues, but I just discovered an iPhone app that helps with one of buses' biggest drawbacks: their unreliable schedules.

I've learned to distrust the printed timetables and Google Transit's directions, which are based on those schedules when taking the bus. All too often, the bus will arrive 10 minutes late, which is especially frustrating when you compare buses' performance with that of Metro Rail trains, which (based on my experience) consistently arrive on-time.

NextBus web app from Metro's official vendor, NexTrip
Earlier this month, Metro announced its NexTrip service, which uses realtime data from GPS units onboard buses to predict when the buses will arrive at a stop. Zach Behrens of KCET recently listed NexTrip as one of the reasons Angelenos should start taking the bus more often. ($5/gallon gas is another.)

Now, there's an iPhone app that combines Nextrip's functionality with a slick presentation and intuitive UI.

Nextime ($2.99), from Massachusetts-based Nextransit, apparently consumes the same GPS data as NexTrip but makes Metro's official realtime bus arrival web-app see above) looks absolutely clunky by comparison.

Open Nextime and allow it to access your current location, and the app will list all the Metro Bus lines soon serving your area along with each bus' expected time until arrival. It will even tell you if you need to walk briskly -- or run -- to catch the bus. There are other useful features, including notifications that alert you when it's time to leave for the bus, and maps of each stop.

Nextime will notify you when it's time to leave for the bus stop.
Since the GPS data is publicly-available through Metro's Realtime API, I would love to see Google incorporate it into their transit directions for both Google Maps and the native iPhone Maps app. And I'm sure the software developers participating in Metro's Developer Challenge can take inspiration from Nextime when creating their mash-up apps.

With more data available from Metro and presented in a useful way for the end-user, it's easier than ever to leave your car at home and take public transit around L.A.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Least Walkable Block in Pasadena

Freshly-paved sidewalk along Colorado Boulevard, between Arroyo & Marengo
I'm only exaggerating, of course, but there's a one-block stretch of Colorado Boulevard that sorely needs a makeover. Separating the buzzing retail district of Old Pasadena on the west from Paseo Colorado and the Civic Center to the east, the stretch of Colorado between Arroyo and Marengo is unfriendly if not hostile to pedestrians, interrupting the flow of foot-traffic between some of Pasadena's liveliest neighborhoods.

Pasadena real estate blogger Brigham Yen has written about this block in the past in his excellent Ideas for Pasadena series. In a more recent post about the ongoing Pasadena Civic Center Improvement Project, he voiced hope that the freshly-paved sidewalks and new landscaping might address some of the block's problems and improve connectivity between the surrounding neighborhoods.

I know he's only being optimistic, but I don't see these very minor changes having any effect. There are more fundamental problems with this block that need correction:

1. Aloof Office Buildings

In this block, Colorado is straddled by two imposing office buildings that make little attempt to interact with the street. For example, the so-called Darth Vader building sets its main entrance back about 60 feet from the street, angling the doors away from the sidewalk as if to express disdain at the pedestrians passing by. This is a scene that belongs in an Irvine office park, not in otherwise-pedestrian-friendly Pasadena: 

Angled slightly from the sidewalk, the main entrance to the "Darth Vader Building" keeps its distrance from the passersby on the street.
In fact, the entire perimeter of the building is separated from the sidewalk by landscaping. There seems to be have been a conscious effort by the building's architects draw a distinction between the business inside and the street traffic outside.

The AT&T tower across the street is no better. It's also set far back from the sidewalk, its street entrance hidden behind the building's support columns. In fact, the street entrance isn't used as an entrance at all --  a sign announces that it's an exit only. Presumably everyone with business here enters through the parking garage.

2. Lack of Retail or Dining

With no shops or cafes, these two buildings are silent after office hours. They may not be a perfect location for retail, but adding a restaurant or a small coffee house would go a long way towards energizing the block.

The lack of any activity after dark also creates the impression of an unsafe block. In her classic book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote about the important role that ground-floor shopkeepers and the residents upstairs played in keeping order on the streets of Greenwich Village. Here, there is absolutely no one keeping watch on the pedestrians below. Crime may not actually be any higher (I would be interested to see the statistics), but I'm sure I'm not the only pedestrian who's quickened his pace while passing these buildings.

3. Poor Lighting

With little activity in the office buildings and poor street lighting, the block appears dark and uninviting at night.
Of course, that impression of danger isn't helped by the lack of adequate lighting. Through both Old Town and in front of Paseo Colorado, both the street and sidewalks are well lighted. In this one block, however, there are only a couple tall street lights that hardly illuminate the sidewalks at all. Sadly, there are no signs that the current construction project is addressing this problem; the old streetlights remain in place and no new ones appear to be on their way.


Downtown Pasadena is a terrific place to live, especially for those who prefer public transit and walking over driving. I've had many thoughts on my new city (many of which I hope to share eventually on this blog) since moving here in November, but this one block irks me every day as I walk from my apartment to the Gold Line station.

Can anything be done to salvage these buildings? Or should they, in a perfect world, be razed and replaced with mixed-use developments?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ditching My Car?

I've been driving since I was 16. Driving is, of course, a rite of passage for American teenagers. But driving has also been a necessity since I joined the workforce (and during my four years commuting to UC Irvine).

Now that I'm relocating to LA, that's changing. LA's MTA is building the Expo Line, which will offer two stops within a five minute walk of my office. My employer, USC, also operates several tram lines that connect to LA's burgeoning rail transit system. So when I move this fall, you can be sure I'll move somewhere close to a Metro Rail stop. (Right now, we're leaning towards the Gold Line, but the Red Line is an option, too.)

The Expo Line that someday will possibly take me to work

It won't be my first experience commuting to work via public transit. When I spent a summer of 2003 in the Washington, DC, area for an internship, I took the Metro from my apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland to my office in Alexandria, Virginia. (Don't ask.) It wasn't the most convenient way to get there, but I loved being able to relax and simply read. Driving, especially when you have to deal with traffic and stoplights, can be stressful.

I'm even considering selling my car. Why make payments -- and pay for parking -- on a car that will sit in the garage almost all the time? I have a certain friend who did something similar a while ago, and even blogged about it. Turned out well for her!

And besides, as others too are realizing, car ownership isn't what it used to be.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

LA's Street Grid

The City of Los Angeles's sprawl (from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro) masks the fact that it has a relatively straightforward street grid... at least if you stay close to Downtown. Numbered streets run east-west, named streets (Figueroa, La Brea) north-south. 

The numbered streets begin, unsurprisingly, with 1st St., the street that City Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall live on. What I was surprised to learn was that the street grid runs all the way to 266th St., in LA's Harbor City neighborhood.

View Larger Map

Looks charming!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Life in Miami... er, Long Beach

When I moved to Long Beach, I thought I knew what to expect: laid back aging surfer dudes strolling Second Street in flip flops, rowdy college students hopping from bar to bar, and even freak tornado storms that make Belmont Shore look more like Venice.

So when, driving to my apartment, I saw something that looked quite out of place -- a Miami-Dade police car -- I knew I had to investigate.

Miami-Dade police in Southern California?
Turns out that Long Beach is a the television and film production business' go-to stand-in for Miami. This particular day, CSI:Miami had chosen to shoot in Naples, my neighborhood. One of my favorite shows, Showtime's Dexter, also routinely films in the area. (There's even a website that lists all the shooting locations. This beach shack where Dexter met a serial killer is actually a tiny taco stand that I jog past everyday.)

Miami is this way!

When you think about it, the choice of Long Beach is not too surprising. Palm-tree lined streets, boats filled with marinas. And viewers will never notice the cooler, dryer air, of course.

Anyway, back to the more mediocre procedural drama on CBS. My main route to PCH was blocked by police -- this time, genuine Long Beach police officers:

Sorry, we closed to road to help put another piece of crap on network television.
The policeman I spoke to was helpful, though, and pointed some things to check out: a charred car, a Hummer rigged up with cameras and sound equipment, extras walking around in colorful sub-tropical outfits, and a planned explosion for later that afternoon.
A forensic mystery!
Although I've never seen the show, I do have to thank CSI:Miami for making me aware of my town's Miami-like qualities. Since that day, I've even taken to wearing guayabera shirts, smoking cigars, and snorting coke... well, maybe not.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Backpacking in Big Sur

Last weekend, I drove up with my buddy Chris for a short hiking trip in Central California's Ventana Wilderness. When I read in a California backpacking book about a trail to natural hot springs just eleven miles out of the town of Big Sur, I knew I had to take the hike. I'd never soaked in a natural bath before, and I had only driven (quickly) once through the famed region that inspired so many artists and writers.

Highway 1 was, of course, absolutely stunning -- it must be one of the most beautiful drives mile-for-mile in the world. On the way, Chris and I listened to one of my recent favorite albums, "One Fast Move or I'm Gone" by Jay Farrar (of Son Volt) and Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie). Farrar and Gibbard adapted Jack Kerouac's lyrical novel "Big Sur" for music. Here's one of my favorite tracks:

Another video here (of Farrar singing the title track).

The hike itself was lots of fun, although we did hit some bad timing -- a cold front moved in on our last day, and we were hampered on our seven mile hike back to the trailhead by strong winds and constant rain.

Here's a repost of my trail review on Yelp:

Warm natural springs, shady redwood groves, and open vistas. Also, swift streams, fallen trees, and miles of ups-and-downs. And, oh yes, crowds and crowds of hikers.

The trail to Sykes Hot Springs (signed as the Pine Ridge Trail by the Forest Service) must be one of the most congested backpacking routes I've taken. When solitude is one of the reasons for seeking out wilderness, as it is more me, running into hikers every fifteen minutes on the trail is sure to earn the trail a demerit. But the novelty of soaking in a natural sulfur spring after an eleven mile trek is still worth it.

On paper, the trail doesn't seem to difficult. Eleven miles (one-way) to the springs, with not very much net elevation gain. Once on the trail, though, you realize that it's a long, maddening succession of climbs and descents -- nothing too steep, but demoralizing nonetheless. We also encountered dozens of fallen trees that we needed to scramble over or around, and a couple stream crossings that required more than easy rock-hopping. For someone who's taken a few long hikes in the Sierras, it was nothing new, but the surprises didn't wear well on my inexperienced hiking buddy.

We split the trail up into three days (two nights), and I would recommend this to anyone who has the time. We camped both nights on the wooded banks of the Big Sur at Barlow Flats, a large campground that's a short but steep hike from the main trail and hence more secluded than either Terrace Creek or Sykes Camp itself. Barlow Flats is seven miles from the trailhead, so we split the trail up into seven miles upstream with a pack, four miles up to the springs and four miles down with out a pack, and then a seven mile hike downstream with the pack again. I'm sure this was much easier than hiking the entire 22 miles with a 35 pound pack.

We hiked through a storm on our last day; a tree snapped and fell only twenty feet from me (loud as a thunderclap!), and we arrived at the parking lot soggy and fumbling for the car's temperature controls.
Wish I had photos, but I didn't bring a camera!