Mental Maps (you don’t have to be “mental” to have one)

Simply put, a mental map is one’s image of the geography around you. It is a personalized map that you have created that tells you how to get to all the places that you normally go to.

Here is the mental map I drew of Millbrae.

You can see that each area or district is within its particular bubble and the major streets separate those districts. I broke up Millbrea into several areas: single-family housing, shopping (along Broadway) and the station area which is totally cut off from town and therefore relatively unknown by residents. El Camino is such a huge and unfriendly street for bikes and pedestrians that it creates an edge in residents’ mind such that they don’t even think about what is on the other side. I would love to see other residents’ mental maps of town.

A person creates these maps simply by walking around and creating paths to a given destination. What I would like to see is the creation of a path all the way from downtown (Broadway street) to the station so that residents will use transit more.

Here is the second mental map that I drew that would integrate the station into town.

This map shows that if there were easy ways to walk across El Camino (good crosswalks and a more narrow street) people would create a mental map that would include the station. The connections or paths are the key.

Here is another map that I saw this morning on 7×7.

Mental Map of San Francisco

Mental Map of San Francisco


If you want to read more here’s the Wikipedia post. The folks that run the Tube in London have been working on these amazing walkable maps b/c they want to encourage more people to walk to destinations that are within a few minutes walk instead of taking the Tube. Wouldn’t these be great to at Millbrea station or downtown San Francisco?


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Existing Conditions around Millbrae Station

If you wanted to walk or cycle to Millbrae station today, how easy and pleasant would it be? Most likely, it would start out really well walking along Broadway street in downtown Millbrae stopping at Pete’s for coffee to see all the regulars. You would feel very safe crossing the streets b/c traffic is slow moving due to a fairly narrow street and nicely designed crosswalks which drivers notice. For the first five minutes you could daydream about how nice 1930’s style street design is, but then you would be woken up by the loud and fast moving traffic of El Camino Real.  Here there is no dilly-dallying; its all business, speed and efficiency for cars, but for you it would be hard to simply find a crosswalk b/c there aren’t many. The ones that do exist force you to walk pretty fast b/c  you have to cross six-lanes of traffic.

The goal of this blog is to create a pleasant and safe path all the way to the station. In an earlier post I wrote about what this path would look like. The good news is that half of the path already exists right now on Broadway street. It’s a great little street with wide sidewalks, shops, great crosswalks, slow traffic, and lot and lots of people.  You could get all of your regular shopping done on Broadway and only have to park your car once. Here are a few images of the simple yet perfect Broadway street.

Great sidewalk with places to sit.

Great sidewalk with places to sit.

Nice pavers make the crosswalk visible.

Nice pavers make the crosswalk visible.

The problem is that the path abruptly ends at El Camino Real. Overall, this is a street designed for cars and only for cars. Millbrae has the widest section of El Camino on the Peninsula which is 140’ at Millbrae Avenue. Here are a few images of the intersections one must cross to get to the station and what the sidewalks look like.

@ El Camino the friendly street ends.

@ El Camino the friendly street ends.

Long 140' crossing @ El Camino and Millbrae.

Long 140' crossing @ El Camino and Millbrae.

This wide driveway means you really have to pay attention for cars.

No dilly-dallying across this wide driveway!

These are car oriented businesses, not for pedestrians.

These are car oriented businesses, not for pedestrians.

At the station things don’t get much better. The main entrance has no signage that tells you where to go. And remember that there are three different transit operators that use the station: Caltrain, BART and Samtrans.

No sign to tell you go up for BART.

No sign to tell you go up for BART.

The remedy could be as simple as putting up signage to show where to go.

An earlier post tells how these existing conditions could be improved.

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Will there be High Speed Rail investment on the Peninsula and San Francisco before 2034?

HSR is planning on building a stop at Millbrae Station as part of its LA to San Francisco route. The way things look right now (Winter 2012) it will be a while until the speedy trains zip through the Peninsula. Much has been written about the train and a good blog is the aptly named High Speed Rail Blog.

Recently there has been a proposal to get early investment on the Peninsula and San Francisco. The Chronical wrote  a piece about it a little while back. The San Francisco Transit Riders Union, of which I am a member, is having an educational forum on the issue next Monday, February 27th. Here is the info. and I would encourage you to attend.

SFTRU Forum on Modernizing Caltrain
Monday, February 27, 6 – 7:30 p.m.
Sierra Club Office
85 Second Street, Third Floor, Yosemite Room
San Francisco

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Build it and they will come (on foot).

How do we encourage folks to walk or ride to Millbrae station? Build a path and people will start to use it. Now image yourself at a trailhead in a park. You are not sure how to get to where you’re going but you want to get there. So you look for a path and you put your faith in that path to get you to the top. The pathway to the station would function the same way.

Right now few residents would walk or ride to the station and its likely many either don’t know its there or wouldn’t even think to use it because its so cut off. This is how I described it in my thesis:

“Residents’ difficulty connecting to the station is easy to understand because all access points are cut off by barrierlike arterial streets. In the residents’ collective minds El Camino Real is the edge of town and everything on the west side is terra-incognita.”

So we need to create a path for them to get there. Here is the pathway I suggest. Its only ½ mile from the north end of downtown (studies show that people are generally willing ½ mile to train stations).

Suggested path to the station.

The good news is that a large portion of this path already exists and most people already know it, Broadway street. Broadway Street is the central shopping street in Millbrae and has all the great features that encourage people to walk: interesting shops, slow traffic, places to linger and say hello. Unfortunately the nice pedestrian environment ends at Broadway and Victoria leaving people stranded. What needs to be done now is complete the path all the way to the station.

Remember that most people are used to driving, so when walking someplace, one needs to use different routes. I’m not going to walk on El Camino to get to Safeway. Instead I’m going to walk on Broadway because its so much more pleasant.

The path follows Broadway because its pleasant to walk on, but that all ends at Victoria and El Camino. The city needs to improve these two streets to make them better to walk on. Now remember the path to the top of the hills. Each turn is clearly marked so that you won’t get lost. The path to the station must be the same. A clearly marked path would look like Broadway and continue all the way to escalator at the station platform. Ample sidewalks, slow traffic, shops, outdoor seating along Victoria and El Camino would make the route obvious. Signs would help too.

The path should be complete and end at the station.

The most critical junction of the path is the intersection of Victoria and El Camino. Right now one cannot cross there, but the good news is that the city is pretty far along in the process of putting a signal and crosswalks there. Yeah! Below is what I proposed in my thesis. The city’s design is fairly close to this one.

Proposed improvements to the intersection of Victoria and El Camino (in black)


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Back after a great summer away

Its been all summer since I have written a new post, but I have a good excuse. I’ve been away traveling to the other great cycling cities of the west coast: Seattle and Portland.

Seattle Monorail and Space Needle. Both were built for the Worlds Fair in 1962

I was pleasantly surprised how similar Seattle and Portland were to San Francisco. Its as if San Francisco is the big town, Seattle is a regular sized town and Portland is the little town. Each has ports along the water, a distinct downtown with tall and beautiful buildings, distinct neighborhoods with public gardens, and a thriving cycling culture. Seattle and San Francisco are very hilly though the prior has one large hill that goes on and on for blocks whereas the later has hills pleasantly scattered throughout. Though San Francisco tore down its embarcadero freeway after the 1989 earthquake, both cities built ugly double decker interchanges which cut off their beautiful waterfronts. I think Seattle recently voted to replace theirs with a Boston-esque big dig.

On the other hand Seattle’s and Portland’s port are still fairly active whereas San Francisco lost its shipping business to Oakland (Its sad that folks in West Oakland have the double hit of air pollution from the wharf and the expressways. No wonder asthma is so bad over there.) Portland is far ahead of the other two in cycling infrastructure: bike lane coverage, bike boxes, and bike signals. I particularly loved the bike signals that allowed the cyclists to avoid conflicts with right turning vehicles. This is done through a special bike green light that allows cyclists to proceed before car traffic has the green light.

Though you can't see the bike green light, you can see how right turning vehicles could cut-off cyclists

Here are some other photos from the trip.

Colored Bike Box allows cyclists to move to the front of the queue and safely make the turn.

Wonderful lightrail cut-through @ the dept. of Urban Design in Portland.

Nice bike rack on the lightrail. SF just started to allow foldable bikes on their LR vehicles.

I am getting ready to publish another posting about transportation in Millbrae, so keep an eye out.

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Will it be a hotel on the East side of the station?

I just saw an old article about a decision the BART board made last fall about building a hotel on the east side of the station instead of an office building.

Currently the east side of Millbrae station is used for parking and Samtrans buses (the dictionary says you can spell “buses” with one or two S’s). The Station Area Plan recommends some kind of development (hotel or offices) on the ground level Samtrans bus bays in the future. If development does occur, the bus bays would be moved to the west side of the station. To accomplish this, California Ave would be extended north to Victoria Ave. to form a new circulator Street. (sorry this is getting complicated). The city is actually getting ready sometime this fall to put a signal at the intersection of Victoria and El Camino (yeah!). Here is a rendering of what the California Ave. extension would look like if built.

Rendering of the California Ave extension on the west side of the station.

In green is the new station square which would look like this when and if its built.
Rendering of the new west side station square.

Now that we have the lay of the land, I can continue. The city wanted a hotel b/c they can make a lot of money on room taxes (called a transient tax). BART wanted an office building b/c there would be more riders. I think an office makes more sense on the east side and a hotel makes more sense on the west side. A hotel would be one of the buildings that forms the station square (see above image) and is perfect b/c of all the people it would bring to the square. Plus, those people would be more apt to walk into downtown Millbrae for food/entertainment etc.

A hotel on the east side of the station is not going to help to realize the wonderful west side station square that is envisioned in the Station Area Plan, so I don’t think its a great idea. I wonder if the city council feels that any development is good development?

Here is a link to an article I found. I’ve never heard of this blog, so take it with a grain of salt.

Millbrae Patch

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Parking as Land Banking

Ariel view of MacArthur BART transit station

MacArthur BART Station

Ok, this is a little off topic (not about Millbrae), but …. I got to thinking about parking being a great temporary use because of an article on sfist about MacArthur BART transit village breaking ground (I wrote a report about it some years back).

Land Banking: buying land cheap and not doing anything with it until a later date when one can make a lot more money developing it. Cities do this all the time when a piece of land comes up for sale in an area they want to redevelop. They buy it and wait until the market is right for them to sell it for development.

So, many transit stops in the east bay are surrounded by acres of parking so that all the suburban folks can drive their cars to the station and take BART. These folks wouldn’t ride otherwise, but their cars emit tons of bad emissions in the first few minutes while the car warms up. Thus, effectively negating any air pollution savings from riding BART. I digress…..

At 1st I thought how stupid all this parking is in light of the missed opportunity of creating more homes near transit stops. But all this land was simply waiting until the market was ripe for development. So now the market is right and in the next years all of this ground level parking is going to be turned into nice transit villages. BART is doing it. Caltrain is doing it too! In the future we’ll see more places like Fruitvale!
Fruitvale BART Station

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