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?