Transpo Update: SFPark, predicting traffic jams, and BART’s Fleet of the Future

New seats are a part of BART's "Fleet of the Future" - check them out this Sunday, May 1 at Fruitvale BART. Photo by Casey Miner

Commuting these days is taking a toll – literally, if you’re a driver crossing one of the Bay Area’s nine bridges. Add rush hour traffic jams and the nation’s highest average gas prices to that bill, and you might feel like selling your car. For commuters taking public transportation, we don’t have to mention the infamous bacteria residing on BART seats, or the bus that never seems to come on time – if the line hasn’t been cut altogether.

There are plenty of changes we’d all like to see in our commutes. Luckily, we have KALW’s transportation reporter Casey Miner to give us a glimpse at some of the new technology that could change the way we get around. It’s time for the transportation report.

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HOLLY KERNAN: So Casey, you’ve got a few cool new things to tell us about today.

CASEY MINER: I do. And I should say, they’re not just cool – they’re actually sort of life-changing. Now, lest you think this is an exaggeration, I want you to think for a minute about how much time you spend looking for parking in San Francisco. What if you didn’t have to do that?

KERNAN: That would be life-changing.

MINER: It would. There was a study recently that said people spend up to 52 hours a year looking for parking. Fifty-two hours. And for the most part, we just deal with it. But San Francisco’s trying something new. The city just officially launched SFPark, which is a program that will show you how much parking you’re likely to find on any block at any given time, and how much it’s going to cost. The cost will change throughout the day – spaces will be more expensive during busy times and cheaper during off-hours.

KERNAN: I’ve seen the SFPark meters around town for a while now – what’s changed?

MINER: Well, the city’s been installing the meters over the past year or so, mostly with funding from the federal Department of Transportation. And they’ve been embedding sensors in the pavement in eight different neighborhoods: really congested ones like the Marina, the Fillmore, the Mission and downtown. The sensors track when cars are parked on the street or in city garages. Last week SFPark launched its public data feed, so now you can check the site, or use the iPhone app, to see what parking is like before you leave your house.

KERNAN: What if I don’t have an iPhone?

MINER: There’s going to be an Android app soon, or you can just check online before you go. SFPark would actually rather you do that anyway – they really don’t want people looking at their phones while they’re driving.

KERNAN: So this all sounds useful, but is it actually going to make it easier for me to find parking?

MINER: They’re hoping it is. A big part of this is what’s called dynamic pricing, basically adjusting the cost of a parking space to reflect how much demand there is. Right now the maximum price is $3.50 an hour in places like the Marina and the Financial District and $5 an hour for special events like Giants games. As they collect more parking information they’ll adjust these prices. Eventually something like a Giants game could run you $18 an hour for a prime spot.

KERNAN: So how’s the program working so far?

MINER: Well, it’s only been a week so it’s hard to tell. But I will say that when I drove to Civic Center for the launch event, the site told me I’d be able to park right by City Hall, and I didn’t have to circle the block once. I should mention, too, that this isn’t just good for drivers. If it works well, it will be good for everyone. Here’s the president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, David Chiu. He doesn’t own a car.

DAVID CHIU: I think this is going to significantly help with congestion around the city, help not only car drivers but folks that bike on the streets, pedestrians, people on Muni, cabs. The whole traffic flow is easier when you don’t have people circling for a half hour  at a time looking for parking.

KERNAN: So Casey, as someone who drives to the city from the East Bay, I feel like I need more information than just where parking is available. Part of deciding whether to drive in is knowing how long it’s going to take to get here.

MINER: Right, and I think that’s something a lot of people would like to see: kind of one master app that could look at all the available information and just tell you the best way to get to work. Well, as it turns out, there are actually researchers at IBM trying to do just that. They’re partnering with Caltrans and UC Berkeley to test a program that would basically track your daily commute, check traffic conditions on the route, and match that information with historical data to kind of predict where you might run into trouble. After it does all that, it would send you a text or an email telling you the best way to go. So maybe one day it’s no problem to drive the whole way, but on another day things are so congested that it makes more sense for you to drive part of the way and BART the rest.

KERNAN: How is that different from the way people check traffic now?

MINER: Well, the idea is that it’s much more comprehensive. It doesn’t just tell you how traffic looks now, it tells you how it’s likely to look 45 minutes from now and gives you alternate suggestions based on that. The IBM guys are still trying out prototypes. But pretty soon drivers should be able to test it out on real commutes.

KERNAN: Alright, we’ll watch for that. And what about people who already take transit most of the time? What’s new for them?

MINER: Well, BART just started a 13-year, $3.4-billion overhaul of its entire train system. They’re redesigning the cars into what they’re calling the “Fleet of the Future.” We’re talking new seats, redesigned interiors, better space for bikes, information screens – the whole works. BART spokesman Linton Johnson told me they’re interested in all the system’s “touch points.” I’ll let him explain.

LINTON JOHNSON: A touch point is anything where you interface with a BART car – poles, handles, seats. Seats are the big one because that’s where your tush spends the most time. And the tushes of tomorrow want to have a nice comfortable ride.

KERNAN: So how are they making these decisions?

MINER: This week BART opened up its new seat lab, where people can come and try out different seats for width, height, and leg room. Right now BART has the widest seats of any commuter transit system in the country, but that’s probably not going to last.

BOB FRANKLIN: The first quality is that has to be easily cleaned. Easily cleaned, then make that as comfy as possible.

KERNAN: So where can people try out these new seats?

MINER: Well, the seat lab, appropriately, is mobile. They’ll be taking it around to different neighborhoods over the next few months.

BART's first public unveiling of the seat lab will be this Sunday, May 1, from 11am to 3pm at Fruitvale BART station.

Are you looking forward to BART’s “Fleet of the Future?” What about the ability to predict traffic? Let us know on our Facebook page.