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Transportation Nation

San Francisco Airport Bans Rideshare App Companies from Taxi Line

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Last month, San Francisco International Airport issued cease-and-desist orders to six different app-based rideshare companies like Lyft, SideCar, and UberX.

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Transportation Nation

Ostriches, Brownies, and Childbirth: Memories of a Golden Gate Bridge Toll Taker

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Last week, the Golden Gate Bridge switched to its new all-electronic tolling system. The change has been smooth, with just a few reports of confused drivers stopping at the toll plaza. For most people, it won’t be a big deal, because over three-quarters of commuters use the electronic payment system Fastrak.

Mary Currie, the spokesperson for the Golden Gate Bridge Transit District, estimates the switch to all-electronic tolling will save the district – which is facing a big deficit– $16 million over the next eight years. “Every government agency is faced with having to downsize, and as service providers in the transit world labor is our biggest expense,” said Currie. “So that is directly relates to the all-electronic tolling project. It’s labor.”

In other words, it’s the toll collectors. Officially called “bridge officers,” they’ve been taking drivers’ money since the bridge opened in 1937. On March 26, 2013, all 28 of them clocked in for the last time. All but eight officers had arranged to retire or switch to another job in the district.

Jacquie Dean was one of those eight bridge officers, and she said goodbye to a career that spanned 18 years on the Golden Gate Bridge. As the country moves to all-electronic tolling, Dean represents a group of people who soon won't be there to have stories to tell. From ostriches to babies to "the best sunsets in the world," Jacquie Dean shared some of her favorite memories of the bridge and her feelings as she moves forward.

Like Dean's memories of the driver who always hands out goodies to the toll takers. "Joyce...makes the best brownies in the world....she is just the nicest lady." And the relationships that develop even in the brief period of time it takes to make the toll transaction. "The kids grow up," she says. " You watch them from the first day of kindergarten -- they bring you little pictures that they've drawn -- graduations from fifth and sixth grade...going into high school."

And then there was the day the ostriches got loose. "I don't know if you know ostriches are quite fast and quite strong," she says. "And our toll man had to go out there and try to wrangle ostriches on the Golden Gate Bridge and it did stop traffic for about 30 minutes."

But Dean didn't get to deliver a baby -- that job fell to one of her colleagues. "And actually on (the baby's) birth certificate it says he was born on the Golden Gate Bridge. There are only two people in the world that were actually born on the Golden Gate Bridge."

Listen to the conversation below.

 

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Transportation Nation

BART, Unions Begin Contract Negotiations as Agency Emerges from Deficit

Friday, April 05, 2013

BART train (photo by Keoki Seu via Flickr)

Rising ridership and sales tax revenues on San Francisco's BART system mean the agency is no longer operating at a deficit, which has triggered labor negotiations that could give union workers their first raise in four years.

BART contracts for its union workers – who make up almost 90 percent of BART’s over 3,000 employees– are set to expire on June 30th. And that has sent BART and union leaders to the negotiating table. Both sides are hoping to avoid the bitter and contentious fight that happened during the last contract negotiations in the summer of 2009.

But things were different in 2009. Ridership was declining, and the system was facing a $250 million deficit over the next four years. BART went into negotiations with the goal of cutting $100 million in labor costs through reductions in health care and pensions, and changing what they considered “wasteful” work rules, like unnecessary overtime. A last-minute deal that kept wages static, prevented a strike by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, or ATU – the union that represents the system’s approximately 900 station agents and train operators.

That deal did save BART the $100 million it wanted and laid out plans for four of the five unions and non-union employees to get a one percent raise if strict guidelines were met, including increased ridership and sales tax revenues. This week, BART announced the guidelines have been met, so most of their employees will be receiving their first raise in since 2009.

“With record ridership and an aging system, our employees are working hard to provide on-time, reliable service for our riders,” BART General Manager Grace Crunican said in a press release. “The bar was set high for our employees to receive this increase and the predefined standards were met.”

Since 2009, BART has increased its ridership – from 340,000 to over 390,000 in the latest monthly report. And it’s no longer operating on a deficit, but the system does have a $10 billion unfunded capital need for renovation and expansion projects.

“This year’s labor negotiations will be focused on bargaining a fair contract for our hard working employees as well as ensuring the long term financial health and sustainability of our system,” Crunican said.

BART says they’re looking at the same issues as last negotiation: employee health care, pensions, and work rules.

“We must pave the way for BART to continue to be the backbone of Bay Area transportation for decades to come,” Crunican said. “BART is looking to protect its future fiscal stability with measures to more effectively share the risks and costs associated with its employee benefits program.”

Antonette Bryant is the president of ATU Local 1555. She said calling last negotiation contentious was “a gross understatement.” But this time, she said, she wants to have the contract settled June 30th.

“We want them to pay a fair wage for our employees and increase safety and service for the BART patrons,” Bryant said. Meaning, they want a pay raise.

Bryant also said the one percent raise announced this week should not be considered as the transit workers’ only salary increase.

“I want to make it clear that this is not benevolent,” she said. “This is something they have to do. They owe us the money from the previous contract negotiations.”

As negotiations go on, both parties hope to have a deal by June 30th and to prevent the fighting that happened four years ago.

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Transportation Nation

Poll: Fewer Than Half of Californians Support High-Speed Rail

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A map of the planned high-speed rail system in California (photo by flickr user Richard Masoner)

Back in 2008, California voters approved a $10 billion bond to plan and build a high-speed rail system across the state. Four years later, support for the high-speed rail has waned. Now that the estimated cost is $68 billion, a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that only 43 percent of likely voters support the project.

That number hasn’t changed since the last time the survey was conducted, about a year ago. When asked if they would support a high-speed rail if the cost was lower, support jumps to 55 percent. But the cost has gone down since the last survey, from $100 billion to $68 billion. It’s unclear what number would tip the public back in favor of the system, but they haven’t reached it yet.

At the same time, a majority of Californians (59 percent) think a high-speed rail system is important to the state “quality of life and economic vitality.”

Meanwhile, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has continued to win or settle its legal battles with cities across California. The Authority plans to move forward with construction this summer. The state must spend its $2.35 billion of federal funding on the project before 2017.

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Transportation Nation

Devil's Slide Tunnels Open After a Long Fight

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Devil's Slide Tunnels under construction in 2009 (photo by flickr user Mars Hall)

The new tunnels at Devil’s Slide on the northern California coast are finally open to drivers. This marks the first time cars have driven through a brand-new California highway tunnel in almost 50 years. The Devil’s Slide tunnels, officially named the Tom Lantos Tunnels, have been under construction since 2007 but have been a source of controversy since the 1970s.

When Highway 1 was built along the California Coast in the 1930s, it included a 1.2 mile stretch of road on an extremely unstable piece of hillside between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay called Devil’s Slide. During especially rainy winters, the ground would give way, causing the road to break and forcing drivers into a 45 mile detour. In 1995, the road was closed for 158 days.

Since the 1960s, California’s Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, had been looking for an alternative route. Caltrans proposed a highway bypass that would cut through the coastal hills. Locals and environmental activists were vehemently against the bypass, which would have been a larger freeway and split Montara State Park. The groups successfully used the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Coastal Act to postpone construction of the bypass through the 1970s and 80s. At the same time, the groups fought for a tunnel as the solution to the Devil’s Slide.

Caltrans had originally said that a tunnel would be too costly, but an independent study in 1996 showed that the tunnel was “reasonable and feasible.” In November of 1996, 74 percent of the voters of San Mateo County approved an initiative that stated a tunnel was the only permissible repair alternative to Devil’s Slide.

Construction began in 2007. The tunnels are over three-quarters of a mile long, with a total of 32 ventilation fans. The project’s cost of $439 million was fully funded with Federal Emergency Relief money, secured by U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, the tunnel’s namesake.

In a press release, Brian Kelly, the acting secretary of California’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, praised Caltrans and the other groups that worked to make the tunnels a reality.

“Ingenuity, will, and perseverance combined to get this project done. The new tunnels are state of the art structures that blend well into the beautiful, natural surroundings on this stretch of Highway 1,” he said. “Thanks to the work of the men and women who dedicated themselves to completing this project, motorists and emergency responders will have a safer journey from this day forward.”

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Transportation Nation

Bike Sharing is Coming to San Francisco and Silicon Valley

Monday, March 25, 2013

A D.C. bike share station (photo by flickr user James D. Schwartz)

Bike share is rolling into the Bay Area this summer.

In August, Alta Bicycle Share will launch 700 bikes at 70 stations. Half the bikes will be in San Francisco; the rest will be distributed throughout Palo Alto, San Jose, Redwood City, and Mountain View. The project is being led by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (known as the Air District), along with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and other local transit agencies.

Related: Your Bike Goes Here: BART Welcoming Bikes on Trains All Week

Aaron Richardson, a spokesperson for the Air District, said Bay Area residents should expect to see the number of bikes increase quickly.

“We will be growing, this is the initial amount in the pilot,” he said. “We’re actively searching for more funding and sponsorships.” The pilot will cost $7 million. The Air District's website calls for an additional 250 bikes to roll out in the months following the program's launch.

Alta Bicycle Share already runs Boston’s Hubway, Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare, and other programs in Chattanooga and Melbourne, Australia. The company also has the contract for New York's incipient program. Both Hubway and Capital Bikeshare have proven popular, with Capital Bikeshare logging over three million rides since it was launched in 2010.

Related: The Secret Routes of Silicon Valley Company Shuttles

Kristin Smith is the communications director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which has been a big supporter of the the project. She said the Coalition was hoping for more bikes to jumpstart the program. She noted that Washington DC started a bike share program with moderate success in 2008, but when the city joined forces with Arlington County, VA in 2010 and dramatically increased the size of its fleet, Capital Bikeshare really took off.

“That’s a thing to think about,” she said, “not starting too small.” But “we are very excited about bike share. It works all over the world, and it will work in San Francisco.”

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Transportation Nation

Your Bike Goes Here: BART Welcoming Bikes on Trains All Week

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A commuter with his bike on BART (photo by Isabel Angell)

Usually, bikes aren’t allowed on San Francisco-bound BART trains during peak morning commute hours, or back to the East Bay in the evening. And they’re not allowed in the 19th Street or 12th Street stations during commute hours at all. But this week, BART has opened up all hours and stations to bikers. It’s a trial period, and to make it work, BART officials and cycling groups are urging to riders follow the rules: no bikes on the first three cars during peak hours, and no bikes on crowded trains.  The transit agency has also produced an explanatory video about the pilot program.

Robert Raburn is on the BART board of directors, where he represents parts of Oakland, San Leandro, and Alameda. I ran into Raburn as he was wheeling his own bike around the station, making sure everything was going smoothly. He said he was excited to see how things go this week– but that people have to be patient.

“The reality is that in many cases we’re not going be able to open the floodgates and allow hundreds more bikes on any one train," he said. "That won’t work. We’re asking all bicyclists to use common sense and courtesy.”

At least this morning, the common-sense approach seemed to be working. In the hours I rode the train –- from 7:00 to 8:30 -– I didn’t see anyone shoving their bikes onto a packed car.

It seemed like what hadn’t been working was the ban. I talked with John Dillon at the 19th Street station– a station that usually doesn’t allow bikes during peak hours.

“Usually I ride my bike to a station that’s about two (stops) further away and then illegally put it on a train I’m not allowed to ride and try to keep it out of people’s way. But I have to get to work,” he explained.

When I talked to him, Dillon had just let a crowded train pass by. He said he always waits for a car with more room -- even if it means missing two or three trains.

Keith McKinnon takes BART from El Cerrito Plaza to Embarcadero every day. He said he regularly sees bikes on trains they’re not supposed to be on, but it doesn’t bother him. When I asked him if bikes ever make the train too crowded, he shook his head.

“No, the bicyclers usually stay out of people’s way,” he said. “They’re usually off on the side. So no."

Of course, not everyone flaunts the ban– I talked to plenty of people who were excited to finally board with their bikes. Ronnie Haning said that’s why he took BART today.

“I like riding my bike on the weekends,” he said. “Why not, you know, commute for a week?”

BART’s already updating cars to make more space for bikes. The fleet will be fully modified by June. After this week, BART officials will meet with community members, and survey commuters to decide whether they want to get rid of the bike ban for good.

 

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Transportation Nation

Private Contractors May Not Be the Answer to Public Transportation Cuts

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fairfield Transportation Center (photo from Fairfield and Suisun Transportation's website)

(The Bay Area -- KALW) As cities across the country face steep budget cuts, many local governments are looking at their transportation departments and wondering if someone else could do the same job for less money.

That’s exactly what Fairfield, California thought. The small city (about 100,000 residents) contracted MV Transportation to run the bus system for the Fairfield and Suisun Transit organization, or FAST, hoping the company would bring a regular bus service to its suburban population.

But the reality was less than perfect, and it could serve as a cautionary tale to cities considering a private company for their public transit.

Zusha Ellison, a reporter for the Bay Citizen, uncovered a whole mess of problems with MV Transportation, from chronically late buses to city council members forgiving some of the $164,000 in fines that the company had racked up.

Ellison talked to George Fink, the former head of FAST, who spent his time trying to reign in MV Transportation. But the transit company was well-connected in the local government, which made it difficult for FAST to police the company. Fink remembers getting calls from his boss after criticizing MV Transportation, telling him to back off.

There have been other cases where private operators have taken over public bus systems with mixed results. When Nassau County, New York shifted it's bus system to a private operator, service was reduced on 60 percent of the routes in an effort to limit losses*. North of New York City, a Poconos bus operator filled a gap when transit cuts reduced public bus service, but the fleet used was shabbier and drew regulatory scrutiny. And a private eco-friendly operator in Detroit launched with some fanfare last year, only to shift business models for lack of customer demand.

The Farfield California is one example--a stark and cautionary example--of what can happen when local transit is turned over to private ownership, according to the Bay Citizen report.

 

* Ruth Ott of Veolio Transportation, the company that runs NICE Bus, wrote to contest our assessment of service cuts that we first reported the cuts a year ago. She writes:

We have improved both service quality and operational performance ... Customer satisfaction and customer perception of punctuality, vehicle reliability, bus cleanliness, quality of passenger information, operator courtesy have all increased significantly, by 50% to 60%, as measured by independent market research surveys.

We have made the best use of the available budget for transit service.  The available dollars in 2012 were actually $35 million less than the $156 million that had been estimated by the MTA [ed note: the previous operator].

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Transportation Nation

Anti-Islam Ads Return to Muni

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A controversial Muni ad from last year's campaign by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (photo from flickr user Steve Rhodes)

(San Francisco - KALW) Many San Franciscans were shocked by anti-Islam advertisements that appeared on ten Muni buses Monday. The ads show inflammatory quotes by Islamic fundamentalists accompanied by a picture of the speaker, an anonymous terrorist, and in one case, a victim. One shows a picture of Osama Bin Laden next to the quote: “The first thing that we are calling you is to Islam,” alongside an image of the burning World Trade Center.

This isn’t the first time San Francisco has dealt with controversial ads from the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a controversial anti-Muslim group led by Pamela Geller. Last August, Muni buses featured ads calling Palestinians “savages” and urging people to support Israel; the ads sparked outrage. In response, Muni launched a self-funded campaign alongside the AFDI ads saying the transit agency did not support discrimination.

The disclaimers the SFMTA ran in response (photo by Steve Rhodes via flickr)

AFDI ads have also appeared in the New York City subway system and on DC's Metro.

San Francisco officials are once again roundly denouncing the ads.

In a press conference held on Monday, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee made it clear he does not support the ads.

“Hate has no place in our city,” he said. “San Francisco is a city that celebrates its diversity and hateful speech and discrimination against our Arab and Muslim communities will never be tolerated."

San Francisco Board of Supervisors president David Chiu echoed that sentiment. "As a former civil rights attorney, I'm proud to stand with our Arab and Muslim American families to send a united message that San Francisco embraces diversity and tolerance, not hate and bigotry," he told the crowd.

Chiu said he planned to introduce a resolution formally condemning the ads as racist and Islamophobic at the Board’s next meeting.

Muni believes it must accept the advertising from the AFDI based on a federal court decision in New York last year. In that case, a district judge ruled that New York City’s transportation agency couldn’t discriminate against advertisements that could be considered offensive– especially if they were political in nature.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency –which oversees Muni– has announced it will donate all $5,000 of the revenues from the ads to the Human Rights Commission to study discrimination against Muslims and Arabs in San Francisco.

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Transportation Nation

BART Fares and Parking Fees Set to Rise

Thursday, March 07, 2013

(photo by Isabel Angell)

Public transportation costs are set to rise in the Bay Area, a region with some of the most congested freeways and longest commute distances in the country.

Last week, BART directors voted to pass a scheduled increase for ride fares and parking fees. These increases are designed to be small and incremental and to rise with inflation. The first fare hike will happen on January 1st, 2014 and will raise prices by 5.2 percent. That means the average ride will go from $3.59 to $3.78. Further fare increases will be implemented every two years until 2020.

In a BART press release, board president Tom Radulovich said the increases are necessary to keep the system up to date and make improvements going forward.

“These small increases are an important part of BART’s financial health, especially as we face a $10 billion unfunded capital need,” he said. “We want our passengers to know we don’t make decisions like this without great consideration."

That $10 billion is supposed to go to long-term BART projects like extensions to Livermore and Silicon Valley, a BART/Oakland Airport connector train, and to build enough new train cars to replace the system’s aging fleet.

BART fares went up most recently last July, when the minimum ticket price was upped to $1.75 and the average fare increased by five cents. That increase was part of a series of four small inflation-based fare hikes that started in 2006. This new round of increases is a continuation of that same program.

The directors also approved a plan to increase parking fees. While the ride fare increase had little opposition, raising the parking fees was a much more contentious issue. East Bay directors had argued that the increase was unfair because it affects their constituents disproportionately. Most of the BART parking lots are in the East Bay, where commuters often drive long distances just to get to a station.

Currently, most stations parking lots cost $1 a day and some are free (except the crowded West Oakland lot, which costs $5). Under the new parking program, all stations will cost at least $1 a day, and each lot will be evaluated to determine how often it fills to capacity. The stations that are more crowded will be subject to a 50 cent increase every six months. Some stations parking lots could end up costing as much as $3 a day.

Kevin Melanephy is a regular commuter on BART. He parks in the El Cerrito Del Norte station in the East Bay every day to get to work. While he may not like the fee hikes, there’s not much he can do about it.

“I still have to go to work,” he said. “So I’ll have to pay whatever.”

BART officials say they had to raise parking fees because the under the current system, the revenue doesn’t cover the maintenance costs for the parking lots. It costs BART $21.7 million per year to run the parking lots, which includes security, lighting, and cleaning. Parking revenues currently cover $15.6 million of that. The new parking fees will be used to close that gap and to repair stations.

“Many of our aged stations are in desperate need of upgrades and improvements,” Radulovich said. “This new money will go towards projects such as escalator and elevator reliability, improved lighting, more secured bike parking, shuttle programs, better drop-off areas, and other improvements to stations and access.”

Buoyed by a recent survey where 70% of riders said the system was a good value for the money, officials remain confident that people will continue to turn to BART, even with the price increases.

 

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Transportation Nation

California is Least Improved in Highway Conditions

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The I-880 freeway in Oakland, Calif. (photo by Julie Caine)

California has the worst track record in improving its highways, while spending twice the national average per mile.

That's according to a new study by the Reason Foundation. The libertarian think tank studied improvements to the nation’s highway infrastructure over a 20-year span, contrasted with money spent per mile. They looked into seven categories that represent the state of the highway system: fatalities, deficient bridges, percent of urban and rural interstate highways in poor pavement condition, percent of urban highways that are congested, percent of rural primary roads in poor pavement condition, and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow. The study noted how much each state improved –or worsened– in each category between 1989 and 2008. It turns out that overall, most of the country has made big improvements in highway conditions over the last 20 years.

Lead author Dave Hartgen says he’s not ignoring the problems with the national highway infrastructure, which he admits are plenty. (In its last report card for the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a “D.”) But he says the results prove the United States highway system isn’t “crumbling.”

“The overall condition of the state-controlled road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape,” he said in a press release. “The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good.”

While the study shows the country is improving, California noticeably lags behind. California was the only state that improved in just two categories: fatalities and deficient bridges. In contrast, 37 states improved in five out of the seven categories and 11 improved in all seven. California fared particularly badly in urban congestion and urban interstate road conditions. The state has two of the most congested metro areas in the country– the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. And the condition of its California’s urban Interstate roads, like the Bay Area’s hated I-880, have declined by more than 20 percent since 1989. Only Hawaii is worse. Over the twenty years covered by the study, the state spent $5.84 million per mile of highway– more than twice the national average of $2.85 million per mile.

But there is a silver lining: California has reduced its fatality rate by 1.1 fatalities per 100 million miles of highway. That’s the 13th best improvement in the country.

To learn more, check out the full study here.

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SF Program Free Muni for Youth Gives 40,000 Students a Free Ride

Monday, March 04, 2013

Students celebrate the start of Free Muni for Youth (photo by Isabel Angell)

Starting this month, some kids in San Francisco can ride the bus for free. The new program, called Free Muni for Youth, aims to make life a little easier for the city’s low- and moderate-income families. The city estimates that 40,000 young people qualify for the program.

"It started in a small room, just a couple pieces of pizza and people are like, we should make free Muni for young people,” said Nick Persky. He’s a 17 year-old junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School and the vice chair of the San Francisco Youth Commission, a group of 17 young people who advise the mayor on youth issues. Persky wasn’t around when the idea for free Muni for young people first came about–he said it dates back about a decade–but he’s proud see it put into action.

“We thought it was never possible, but as evidenced by today, it is something that is possible,” he said. “It’s pretty special to be a person in high school, to be a person who is unable to vote, to be able to see what young people can do to bring policy change in our local government.”

Part of the reason kids need a free ride is that years of budget cuts have all but eliminated yellow bus service in San Francisco. For a lot of students, that means Muni is the only way for them to get to school. Paul Monge-Rodriguez, a legislative aide for the San Francisco Youth Commission, said people shouldn’t think of it as a handout.

“It’s almost like a reallocation, still investing in the same types of services, but just through a different source of funding,” he explained.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors approved a pilot program almost a year ago, but the plan was contingent upon a $4 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional transit board. In July, the MTC denied the grant. But in the fall, a new grant surfaced and SFMTA director Ed Reiskin recommended that $1.6 million of it be used to fund a 16-month trial.

Last week, the diverse coalition that made Free Muni for Youth a reality held a press conference to celebrate its official launch. Everyone involved, from young people, to city Supervisor David Campos, to Reiskin, was quick to praise the others for their continued cooperation.

Reiskin told the students, “You guys are the ones that made this happen,” noting that this was the best grassroots initiative he had ever seen.

Still, Reiskin said funding the program was a difficult decision, because Muni’s infrastructure has a lot of existing problems and it needs all the money it can get. But ultimately, he sided with the young people of the city.

“The system has a lot of needs,” he said. “But the community has needs too.”

It was an emotional day for many of the people involved. Claudia Gonzalez, a mother of two from Potrero Hill, spoke through an interpreter about her experience.

“It was a very stressful process,” she said. “I remember going to these meetings and I felt very betrayed by the MTA board because we would go in front of them and tell them about how difficult it was for us, and they would look away and they wouldn’t answer us, they wouldn’t give us a straight answer, and that was a very, very arduous process for us.”

Gonzalez said she owes a big thanks to POWER, an advocacy group that played an important role in organizing the campaign for Free Youth for Muni. Now, her two kids (age 11 and 13), will get a free ride to school.

Throughout the day, though, everyone agreed the majority of the praise should go to the youth who organized  and fought on their own behalf for the right to free public transportation. At the press conference, SF Unified School District Superintendent Richard A. Carranza summed up a popular sentiment about the students’ instrumental role.

“The grown ups are in awe of how well organized and articulate our youth are,” he said to a cheering crowd of students and onlookers. Looking out at students, he announced, “I’ll see you on Muni!”

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Car Share Parking Attracts an Unlikely Foe in San Francisco

Thursday, February 21, 2013

(photo by Guerilla Features/Jason Tester via flickr)

(San Francisco -- KALW) San Francisco's Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance to allow residential developers to add more parking spots to their new apartment buildings–- if those spots are dedicated for car-share programs.

The city considers itself a national leader in car share, and in 2011 it began reserving on-street parking for area nonprofit City CarShare.

So it wasn't a surprise when the ordinance, which was proposed by Supervisor Scott Wiener, passed unanimously. What surprised some was the opposition to it.

In a letter, Sierra Club secretary Sue Vaughan said the plan "will add to overall congestion and negatively impact the flow of transit and air quality.”

The Sierra Club says building more parking spaces -- even for car share -- violates the city’s Transit First policy. That's a 1973 initiative that puts public transit investment as the city’s top transportation priority, and is designed to discourage private automobile traffic.

Apartment parking is hot commodity in San Francisco– under the current rules, developers can only build one space per unit. But for many San Franciscans, that’s not enough. A quick search on Craigslist shows people renting their coveted spots upwards of $300 a month.

Now, the city is considering reducing that amount: a recent development on Market and Castro was allowed just one half of a parking spot per unit. The idea behind the restriction is to get people out of cars and into other methods of transportation, like Muni or biking.

Before the new ordinance, car-share spots counted toward the development’s maximum. For example, the planned building on Market and Castro has 24 units, so that means 12 parking spaces. If the developer wanted to add a car-share spot, it would have to be included in that 12. Under the new ordinance, they could add between two to five spots designated for car-share only, in addition to the 12.

Instead of making new parking spots for car-share programs, The Sierra Club suggested converting existing street parking spots. But Supervisor Wiener’s office countered by offering studies that show each new car share vehicle replaces between eight and ten private cars. In fact, a UC Berkeley study found that after signing up with a car-sharing program, almost half of households with a car got rid of their vehicle.

The San Francisco Supervisors hope that developers will take advantage of these new car-share spots. So do the city’s car-share members, who are seeing their usual spots at gas stations and open-air lots disappear as they get converted into buildings and other uses.

This isn't the first time the Sierra Club has taken a counterintuitive position. Last summer, the group opposed a regional transportation referendum in the Atlanta area that would have generated $3 billion in transit funding. The Sierra Club said that proposal didn't go far enough.  The referendum didn't get the majority it needed to pass.

Follow @IsabeltheAngell on Twitter.

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SF Mayor Pledges to Fix Muni

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A crowded Muni bus (photo CC by Flickr user Art Siegel)

When he came into office last year, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee said fixing Muni wasn’t a priority for him.

But in his 2013 State of the City address, Mayor Lee devoted almost ten minutes of his speech to the often-reviled public transit system.

Muni’s cars and buses are often overcrowded, sometimes to the point where they can’t stop to take on new passengers. And about 40 percent of Muni vehicles run late, according to an independent analysis by the Bay Citizen published last June. It’s a system so hated by some riders, it even provokes poetry (read “Ode to (Not Muni) Transit" from Muni Diaries). Lee said he sympathized with a ridership plagued by overcrowded chronically late buses, and he promised that changes to Muni are coming soon.

“I know it’s frustrating to push your way onto an overcrowded train or watch an overloaded bus go by,” said Lee. “And I understand the anxiety that comes with being late to work, late to pick up your kids or late to school because you were on time, but your bus wasn’t. I am very pleased to report that positive changes are underway, and with the full support and leadership of the MTA Board of Directors, the nation’s seventh largest public transit agency is once again focused on operations and investing in infrastructure, in maintenance and in safety.”

He concluded by unveiling the “San Francisco Transportation 2030 Task Force,” a group designed to tackle the city’s transportation problems.

But San Franciscans won’t have to wait for the task force to report back to learn what some of these changes are going to be. In 2008, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) started a project called the Transit Effective Program. Known as the TEP, the project began a as a comprehensive effort to overhaul the Muni system. It’s focused on two major issues: making changes that minimize delays on the Rapid Service lines and restructuring regular bus routes to reduce crowding and tardiness.

So far, the TEP has proposed some major changes to Muni. Of Muni’s 79 lines, 32 will have changes to their routes and 40 will have changes to their stop frequency. Six lines will have entirely new routes and three will be eliminated. Designed around the city’s changing commute patterns and congested areas, the SFMTA hopes that these changes will streamline the system and increase Muni’s reliability.

The TEP also proposes some changes to Muni’s Rapid Network corridors. The Rapid Network is a group of 12 exceptionally busy lines that officials have identified as routes they’d like to make faster and more frequent. These are so-called “engineering changes,” or improvements that physically change the structure of certain intersections and transit stops. Think adding “Muni-only” traffic lanes, building new boarding islands, and replacing stop signs with traffic lights.

There are already a couple of TEP pilot projects going on right now. One is taking place along a three-block stretch of Church Street, a busy road in the city’s center. SFMTA has made one of the lanes “transit-only,” meaning only  buses and taxis can use it. It lets Muni bypass the usual traffic and should reduce delays, according to the SFMTA engineers.

Currently, the SFMTA’s Planning Department is busy making sure the rest of the TEP proposals meet California’s environmental standards. The final draft of the Environmental Impact Report is expected in about a year. After that, the SFMTA will implement as many proposals as they can get funding for.

Now riders will just have to wait and see whether these changes are really going to be effective.

Follow Isabell Angell on Twitter: @IsabeltheAngell

 

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Transportation Nation

Golden Gate Bridge Switching to All Electronic Tolling

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza (photo by Isabel Angell)

(San Francisco -- KALW) Last week, the Golden Gate Bridge began testing a new all-electronic toll collection system. In the past, there’s always been the option to hand cash to a human being.

But in sixty days, if all goes according to plan, human toll collectors will be completely phased out. Mary Currie, the spokesperson for Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, said it’s mostly about the budget.

“We have a $66 million, five-year shortfall, and with the movement from manual collection to electronic collection we can save approximately $16 million over an eight-year period,” Currie said.

Currie expects the change will be fairly easy, because more than two-thirds of the people who cross the Golden Gate Bridge today already have a FasTrak--an opt-in program that lets drivers pay their tolls electronically. But Currie says drivers can also pay using credit cards or cash, use smart phones or kiosks to pre-pay.

People who blow through the toll plaza without pre-paying will get a bill for six dollars mailed to their house.

The all-electronic toll system is scheduled to go into effect at the end of March.

But if this Q&A in the San Jose Mercury is any indication of how Bay Area residents feel about the switch, the Golden Gate Bridge transit district has their P.R. work cut out for them. People are asking about everything from what to do when driving a rental cars to how to this will work for those who only take rare trips across the bridge. While the transit district has answers for most of the questions, drivers will need to know them before the big shift.

Of the 28 toll Golden Gate Bridge toll workers, 14 have either retired or have found other jobs within the transit district. In the event the district can’t place the remaining workers, they will get a severance package, the details of which are still being negotiated with the toll takers’ union. The union has not made any toll workers available for comment.

Though many highways use all electronic tolling, by Currie's count, the Golden Gate is the largest bridge to attempt such a system in the United States. Two smaller bridges that have eschewed cash tolls are the SR 520 "floating bridge" in Seattle and the Leeville Bridge in Louisiana. Currie said that while Golden Gate Bridge is among the first bridges to try this new tolling system, it certainly won’t be the last.

“We will see all-electronic tolling across the United States in the next 10 years,” she said.

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SFO Airport Now Has City's Most Valuable Art Collection Outside Museums

Monday, January 28, 2013

Under CC license from Flickr user Thom Watson

Terminal 2 at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) has been praised for its modern architectural design, which takes into account the needs of post 9/11 travelers. For instance, T2 has comfortable Recompose Area where passengers can put back their shoes and belts after passing through security check.

Most of the shops and restaurants are also located within the reach from the gates, so that passengers can easily see their flight status. But there is something else that makes Terminal 2 special: its art collection. KALW's Artjoms Konojovs went to the airport, but not to catch a flight. Give a listen:

[mp3]http://cpa.ds.npr.org/kalw/audio/2013/01/WEB.SFOArt.mp3[mp3/]

You may not think of an airport as a place to see art or take an audio tour to learn more about its paintings and sculptures. People mostly come here for one reason: to travel.  But the City of San Francisco spent nearly two-and-a-half million dollars on artwork in Terminal 2. It's part of a city ordinance passed in 1969, which mandated that 2 percent of any construction costs be allocated to art enrichment or public art. As a result, SFO now has the most valuable public artwork collection in the city outside its fine art museums.

Above either side entrance to SFO’s Terminal 2 stretch huge artworks of hand-painted glass: bird wings to the left and airplane wings on the right. They are large, impressive, and, if you call a number posted next to the front door, they are explained.

“This artwork ‘Air Over Under’ plays with our experience of flight," says a recorded voice on the phone. "Seattle-based artist Nori Sato said that once we leave our standard point of reference – the ground, it can be hard to figure out where we are.”

Then, the artist picks up where that narrator left off. “Depending on where we are in the air,” says Sato on the recording, “we can be above the clouds, below the clouds, in no clouds, in the middle of clouds, and the image was constructed with that in mind.” It's like a museum audio tour, but in an airport and on your cell phone.

Susan Pontious, director of the Civic Art Collection and Public Art Program for the city Arts Commission, runs the art program at the SFO in terms of the permanent acquisitions.

Inside the terminal, two objects hang from the ceiling on either side of the terminal entrance, right in the middle of the check-in area. Both look like they are made from different sized pieces of plastic.

“These two pieces are called “Topograph” and are inspired by topography of the Bay Area – and they also kind of remind me of clouds,” says Pontious.

The artist very carefully considered suspension mechanism as part of her aesthetic.

“They always remind me of these upside down rain clouds which is very appropriate on a day like today,” says Pontious.

Before the security gates is a small lounge where people can wait for arriving passengers. Most of the walls are covered by artwork from Marc Adams: big red tapestries with bright flowers that were inspired by the Bay Area gardens. It creates a cozy living room-like atmosphere.

“It is a technique and craft that you don't see that much anymore. I think this is one of the reasons they are valuable to us. And they are just flat out beautiful,” adds Pontious.

Near the lounge are a series of doors used by airport personnel to access the gates. We pass through into the Recompose Area, where people put their shoes and belts back on after the security check. The area is bright and airy, and home to an installation called “Every Beating Second”.

“The inspiration for the artist was that this is a place where you maybe took a little bit of a time to look around you and maybe notice some things.”

“Every Beating Second” consists of three nets hanging down from the ceiling. Each is a mixture of pink, purple and blue. Looking closer, travelers who pause to look up can see the nets moving a little bit, as if hovering in a breeze.

If you find yourself waiting for a flight at SFO, take a moment and look around. You can enjoy one of San Francisco's newest, most sophisticated, and expensive art galleries. It's arrived at Terminal 2.

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99% Invisible Explores Design for Airports

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Courtesy of 99percentinvible.com and http://www.gensler.com/#viewpoint/features/49

When Roman Mars spoke with Allison Arieff about the design of airports she said, if all airports simply played Brian Eno’s album Music for Airports over the speakers, every airport would be better.

In this episode of 99% Invisible, using the new T2 terminal at SFO as an example, Allison Arieff of the New York Times talks us through some of the considerations that go into designing an airport terminal, how the priorities have changed since 9/11, and how architects struggle to keep pace with ever-changing technology.

Give it a listen:

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Transportation Nation

Why One San Francisco Bike Lane Design Is Upsetting Drivers and Cyclists (AUDIO)

Friday, January 25, 2013

JFK Boulevard, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. (Photo Courtesy of SFMTA Livable Streets)

A prominent bike lane in San Francisco may be suffering because of its unique design. The ambitious, and expensive, bike lane striping of Golden Gate Park stands out from the other projects of San Francisco's bike plan for the criticism it draws from cyclists and drivers alike, in part for a disorienting placement of line of parked cars.

“I think it’s one of the dumbest things I ever saw that they put these stripes down here,” says driver Jimmy Harris of the lanes, pictured above.

Average speeds of drivers and bike riders have both fallen, a success at what's known as traffic calming. But also a stark test case of transportation psychology as users cite narrow lanes and an unusual arrangement of parked cars as confusing.

Ben Trefny and Rai Sue Sussman took a ride along JFK Blvd, with a measuring tape, to see why these particular stripes are raising hackles of bike riders and drivers. Give the audio version a listen.

Here's more: 

For a bit of background, the streets of San Francisco are changing. There are separated bike lanes on Market Street. There’s green paint all over the much-used bike path called the Wiggle. The city is definitely becoming more bicycle-friendly.

After many delays, the city’s bike plan is taking effect, with streets long-designed for car traffic being reconfigured for other modes of transportation. Four years ago San Francisco had 45 miles of bike lanes. Today there are 65 and with more on the way. Plus, 75 more miles of streets will be stenciled with symbols designating them as bike-friendly routes. It’s all having a big impact.

According to the San Francisco Bike Coalition, bike trips have increased more than 70 percent since 2006. But the planners’ choices for JFK Blvd. havn't been implemented so smoothly – and it’s flat-out rankled many of the bicyclists it’s supposed to serve.

The wide JFK Blvd. used to have almost no stripes whatsoever. Now, it’s full of them, creating several chutes designated for different purposes:  there’s a bike lane at either the edge; then buffer zone; a lane for parking; and then in the center a car lane in each direction.

Last spring, we talked with Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, about that project: the striping of Golden Gate Park

“Imagine the parking lanes that are kind of being moved out more into the center of the street, and the bikeway – the dedicated bikeway – will be against the curb, or against the green space, or the sidewalk area,” she said. “So that people biking actually have that physical separation from the moving traffic. JFK we think is a good street to try this because it is a very wide street it's way wider than most streets in San Francisco, so there was room there to try something different.”

It cost at least $425,000 to lay the stripes down – and the MTA estimates more than that to plan it all out.

So, what do the people who travel along JFK think about the new configuration?

“From a drivers’ standpoint, it’s pretty bad,” adds Daly City’s Nick Shurmeyetiv. “Honestly, the first few times I came in – like the first few times it really threw me off. I wasn't sure what was going on. I thought it was a traffic jam, or I don't know what,” he said of the parked cars that appeared to be a lane of traffic.

Frank Jones, from Concord says, “Well, we did pull up and stop behind somebody. And we thought, ‘They're not moving.’ Then we realized – there was nobody in the car! So we went around them.”

A count of cars lined up in the designated parking lane across from the De Young Museum one Friday afternoon showed 11 of 46 vehicles at least partially in the buffer zone. They followed a pattern: typically, each vehicle was aligned with the one in front of it. So if one missed the mark, many more would do the same. And they never missed on the side with car traffic. Only on the side toward the bikes.

“Yeah, you know the roadway, the width is a little narrower, but for the most part, this isn't a place to be going really fast from A to B,” says Peter Brown, who works as an SFMTA project manager.

If it’s the SFMTA’s goal to slow traffic on JFK, it’s been successful.

For cars, average speed has dropped about two or three miles per hour since the road was striped, according to a preliminary report. It makes sense, as the thoroughfare is much more narrow, now, and cars have to fully stop if anyone in front of them is trying to park.

Average bike speeds have also dropped, from an average of 14-and-a-half miles per hour to less than 13 during the week and a little slower on weekends. The report suggests that’s because bicyclists who used to cruise really fast up or down Golden Gate Park now have to slow down for other cyclists and the people who are trying to get across the bike lanes to their cars. Calming traffic, on paper anyway, arguably makes the route more accessible and safer.

The SFMTA surveyed people who use JFK both before and shortly after the new stripes went in. Almost 90 percent of responders felt like they understood the striping, but only about 60 percent liked it. Some people, like Lita Ward, don’t.

“I've had several incidents where I've nearly collided with people getting out of their cars, that are crossing the bike lane into the sidewalk area,” says Ward. “Obviously, we can't stop quickly enough... I think it's a great concept, but drivers need to be aware of what that change means for bicyclists."

It didn’t take long, wandering around JFK to see that scenario unfold. Just west of the De Young, two teenagers on mountain bikes blew through a stop sign on the downhill slope. A pedestrian crossing the bike lane to get to his car had to jump out of the way as they rapidly approached. The kids obviously hadn’t anticipated his presence, and the pedestrian didn’t notice until it was nearly too late.

Some people think better signage and public awareness campaigning would solve some of the ongoing issues with the newly striped lanes of Golden Gate Park, including longtime bike activist Chris Carlsson, who runs Shaping San Francisco, which looks into ways to improve the city.

“A proper educational campaign, in conjunction with an infrastructural transformation, I think could be really successful,” says Carlsson, who is one of the founders of Critical Mass.

[Related: Listen to an oral history of how Critical Mass was founded]

The people who most advocated for – and implemented – the striping of Golden Gate Park are examining the effects. The SF Bike Coalition has a webpage devoted to the “JFK Separated Bikeway Project.”

The page addresses some of the problems: cars that aren’t parked where they’re supposed to be; people crossing the bikeway without looking. SFMTA has a page called the JFK Cycletrack. It includes a survey in which people can share their thoughts about what they like and don’t like.

Even with the imposed structure, people are making the new configuration work for them. Sporty bicyclists take the car lane (which is allowed) to avoid slower-biking tourists and families; pedestrians walk in the bike path to avoid sprinklers; and cars drive through like they did before – only slightly slower.

But more than six months in, because of ongoing parking issues and -- for San Francisco -- the unusual off-curb parking situation, it appears that the striping of Golden Gate Park is not working quite as it was originally imagined. The removal of more than 80 parking spaces alone will be enough to change usage of the road. And unless a large-scale redesign is implemented, an experiment in shared road design may simply require users to get used to a number of imperfections.

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Transportation Nation

An Oral History of San Francisco's Bay Bridge

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rendition of the new span of the Bay Bridge

After eleven years of construction, the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span is set to open to traffic this fall.

Meanwhile, the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), part of University of California-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, is soliciting stories from people who were there when the original Bay Bridge opened in 1936.

Sam Redman, a ROHO historian, recorded a number of interviews with folks who remember that time. He shared excerpts with KALW’s Steven Short.

"The clips that I’m sharing today are from people who happened to be in the Bay Area at the time," said Redman, "people who were working on the bridge—Rosie the Riveters or tow truck drivers and engineers and other people that worked on the Bay Bridge."

Redman played a few soundbites from the World War II generation who actually watched the bridge as it was actually constructed.

Like Ralph Anderson.

“It was going to be wonderful. I didn’t realize that the ferries wouldn’t be there anymore. But to go across the bridge on the Key System trains, the whole lower deck was trucks and trains. And that worked out great, I thought that was a good system. And to go across the bridge for a quarter, I was impressed and pretty soon the bridge was going to be paid for and you wouldn’t have to pay anything.”

(Currently tolls on the Bay Bridge are between $4 and $6 dollars, depending on the time of day).

Yes, you read that right: the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, as it was initially constructed, carried rail. The Key System operated from 1938 to 1958.

(Image from keyrailpix.org)

"One of the interesting thing about this series," said Redman, "is learning about some of the failed proposals that we’ve had for bridges, including a span that would have run similar to the Bay Bridge from Alameda, south of the current Bay Bridge into San Francisco to alleviate some of that traffic congestion that was building up early on on the Bay Bridge.  It exceeded all traffic projections almost right away."

Redman said one of the things that amazed him while conducting the Bay Bridge's oral history project is "the way people have worked have changed on the bridge since time it actually started. Like Bay Bridge painters, for example. New rules and regulations mean that for their actual work it takes longer to paint the Bay Bridge, but that’s to actually keep the Bay that’s beneath them healthy. Before, the paint would just go directly into the Bay."

Here's a remembrance from Berkeley resident Norma Grey:

“In 1936, they just summarily announced that we were going to California. And it was precisely because my dad could not find a job. And so he borrowed $100 from his brother, put his three little girls and what possessions he could put in a Model T Ford and drove across the country. He stopped in Berkeley. Their plan was San Francisco, but it cost 25 cents to go across the new Bay Bridge.”

"Twenty-five cents would have been enough to buy a meal for the evening for the family," said Redman. "I think that puts in context how hard times really were. And it gives us a little insight into the folks who worked on the Bay Bridge. Job openings at the Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge would have looked pretty appealing at that time, even though they were pretty dangerous jobs."

Redman added that the working conditions at the time helped keep construction costs down -- compared to today.

You can see differences in terms of safety, in terms of pay, in terms of all sorts of workplace conditions changes. In the course of building new bridges, people will look at the old Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge and say, gee, these were completed on budget and on time. But it’s because of a remarkable range of changes in labor that are actually good changes in many respects.

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Clarifying Prices When You Hail a Cab with Uber, other Apps

Thursday, January 10, 2013

(San Francisco Bay Area) Back in December, KALW ran a story about Uber, the app that matches users to the closest town car or taxicab. Uber gets its money by charging its own rates for livery cabs, which can cost much more than a typical meter.

Listener Mark Gruberg called in to let the station know that they missed something: that regular cabs are using apps, without the extra cost.

MARK GRUBERG: "One significant thing that was left out is that the cab industry is using the same kind of app as Uber – services like Cabulous and Taxi Magic put you directly in touch with a driver from your cell phone, the driver picks you up and charges you a taxi rate, not an Uber rate, which is approximately 70 percent higher than taxis at best. Then because they use surge pricing, it could be astronomically higher at busy times."

KALW asked Isabel Angell, who reported the original story on Uber, if she had anything to share.

ISABEL ANGELL: "So here’s the deal with Cabulous. It’s now called Flywheel, and it works a lot like Uber. It’s the same idea of using an app to match the passenger to the closest cab. But here’s where it’s different: unlike Uber, Flywheel doesn’t mess with the meter. They just take 60 cents from the driver off each Flywheel-generated cab ride. You can pay the driver in the car or use the app, like Uber. A third of SF cabs use the app – that’s about 580 taxis. So right now, I have the app pulled up on my phone, and I can see all the cabs using Flywheel around San Francisco. Currently, they’re mostly centered around Downtown, the Mission, and the Marina, with one lonely cab in the Inner Sunset. So maybe I would have to trek back to the Outer Richmond to see if it really stands up to the test!"

Uber's "surge pricing" system means that when livery cabs are in high demand, the price of a livery cab spikes. This is designed to encourage more drivers to stay on shift when cabs are needed most, like in the rain or on holidays, according to Uber. In New York City for instance Uber issued a warning to the press and users  before New Years Eve that prices could be five times the rate of a normal Uber ride, which is already more expensive than a yellow cab ride. They even added a "surge sobriety test" that required users to confirm that they understood how much they were paying.

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