Options and more options for the new San Rafael Transit Center

Options and more options for the new San Rafael Transit Center

Thanks to a century’s worth of bad regulations, the Bettini Transit Center in downtown San Rafael needs to be rebuilt so SMART can get to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. The transit center is the busiest transit hub in the North Bay and forms the lynchpin of service in Marin. Getting it right, therefore, is critical, and GGT has four options its considering to do so.

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Yes, cars really are bad for the environment

Yes, cars really are bad for the environment

Transit agencies tout themselves as fundamentally “green,” a real solution to global warming and environmental pollution. Every so often, however, an anti-transit activist will complain that buses pollute more than cars or point to SMART’s decision to run diesel trains and say they are just making the pollution worse.As it turns out, the transit agencies are often right, and the anti-transit activists are often wrong, though not always.

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What transit-oriented development should look like

What transit-oriented development should look like

When Scott Wiener released his proposal to spur up to 3 million new homes near transit (Senate Bill 827), it received swift condemnation and praise from all corners. Whatever its merits for housing policy – and I happen to think they are quite good – it is not great transit-oriented development (TOD) policy. Good TOD is about far more than housing.

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Rounding up Tuesday's results

Rounding up Tuesday's results

Last night was a big win for Democrats throughout the country, with wins in Maine, Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere around the country. In Marin, 20 nonpartisan seats to community service district (CSD) boards and municipal councils were up for grabs. How the seats went says a lot about where the county is going - and what kind of people Marinites are becoming.

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The Canal's parking shortage is not just a parking shortage

The Canal's parking shortage is not just a parking shortage

Earlier this year, San Rafael released its report [1] on parking demand in east San Rafael and found it sorely lacking. There were far too many cars for the space available, leading to overflow into other neighborhoods and constant frustration for its residents. Yet while the report detailed significant outreach and study of the problem, the recommendation for more parking was sadly lacking. Without a discussion of demand management with car sharing schemes or new bike infrastructure, the report could only go so far.

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How Marin could make the most of its bike dollars

How Marin could make the most of its bike dollars

As the historic home of mountain biking the California Wheelmen, and Safe Routes to School, Marin has a unique place in America’s cycling history. Despite that, the number of Marinites biking to work remains quite low and its roads are hardly bike-friendly. What does the research say makes biking more attractive? And how could Marin translate this research into its projects, policies, and priorities?

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New housing mitigates displacement? Seems like so.

New housing mitigates displacement? Seems like so.

It’s often assumed that new development pushes out poor people. But it seems as though development is actually slowing or halting the shrinkage of poor neighborhoods and drawing new low-income families into the city. At least, that’s what a first analysis of Census data shows between 2009 and 2014.

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How to add strategy to TAM's Strategic Vision Plan

How to add strategy to TAM's Strategic Vision Plan

Friday is the last day to comment on the Transportation Authority of Marin’s (TAM’s) draft Strategic Vision Plan. Billed as the planning framework of the agency, the document falls far short of its aims, serving more as an extended mission statement than a reliable strategy or roadmap.

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Not great, but pretty good: SB2

Either today or tomorrow, a housing package will go up for a vote in the California State Assembly. The final sticking point seems to be Senate Bill 2 (SB2), which would create a new dedicated funding source for affordable housing and homelessness rapid-rehousing. If it fails, it may scuttle the whole package. It should pass, but even if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t force the governor to veto the whole package.

What does SB2 do?

In brief, SB2 will raise fees on real estate paperwork filings by $75. The one exception is for home buying and selling: if you sell your house to someone who will live in it, then there is no fee increase for either your paperwork or theirs. All other transactions, including refinancing, liens, and commercial transactions, will be subject to the additional fee.

The fees will raise between $200 million and $300 million. 20 percent will be earmarked for state-supported affordable housing construction, and the rest will be earmarked for localities for a grab-bag of housing programs, including rapid-rehousing for the homeless, supporting construction of new homes, and down payment assistance [1].

Who does it impact?

Real estate owners who are doing more than buying or selling their own home. Investment buyers, developers, commercial owners, and people doing other things with their property are going to see their fees rise.

These are predominantly wealthier people. According to the US Census, the median household income of a homeowner is $91,056, vs. $47,237 for a renter [2]. Though some of that difference might be made up by household size differences, that is unlikely.

The coalition opposed to SB2 published a table of some of the alterations in their opposition letter [3]. Given that many transactions require more than one document, the result is sometimes a significant increase in filing fees. Foreclosure increases from $43 to $268 and construction loans increase from $128 to $353, for instance. Sob-story filings, such as in the death of a spouse, go up from $36 to $261.

It’s still worth it

Fees are not great ways to raise revenue. They ought to be used to cover whatever costs the fee-payer incurs, especially if that cost would otherwise be borne by society at large. They are not well-suited to be general-purpose revenue-generating devices. However, they can be a way around making politically poisonous decisions about what taxes to raise and what programs to streamline. In an optimal world, SB2 would probably raise taxes or find savings elsewhere and not raise filing fees.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an optimal world. We can damn political realities to hell as much as we like, but they will remain political realities nonetheless. So, living in this second-best world, fees can be a way to target a certain set of users for revenue. By raising fees only on real-estate transactions, the target will always only be those who are wealthy enough to buy or own property, even if the homeowner is in more dire straits than normal.

Another way to look at this bill is whether or not a similar bill should be repealed if it were already in place. Would it be fair to lower fees on some real estate transactions to cut off support for affordable housing, homelessness, and down payments? Not really. Those who will be helped by SB2 are likely in more need than those who would be hurt. Further, the argument against raising fees in that letter [3], that it hurts people who are otherwise in dire straits and results in bad recordkeeping, is an argument against the fees in general.

California is desperately short on housing [4]. $200 million is a drop in the bucket, but it’s $200 million more than California had before. The funding mechanism isn’t great, and it will hurt some that shouldn’t be, but the funding is targeted at the neediest of Californians. SB2 deserves to pass.

Works Cited

[1] Lisa Engel, “Assembly Floor Analysis: SB 2 (Atkins), As Amended August 29, 2017” (Sacramento, CA: Housing and Community Development, August 29, 2017).

[2] “Table B25119 Median Household Income the Past 12 Months (In 2016 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) by Tenure,” 2016 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau, 2010).

[3] “SB2 (ATKINS) - OPPOSE (as Amended August 29 2017),” August 29, 2017.

[4] Adam Nagourney and Conor Dougherty, “The Cost of a Hot Economy in California: A Severe Housing Crisis,” The New York Times, July 17, 2017, sec. U.S.

California to Marin: Follow your code

Some of Central Marin's zoning and general plan areas. These might actually be worth a damn someday. Image from MarinMaps.

Update: If you think Marin could do more to support affordable housing, contact Marc Levine and tell him you support Senate Bill 35, which this post is about, and Senate Bill 2, a package that would provide a permanent stream of funding to fight homelessness in California.

There’s no doubt that the San Francisco Bay Area is in a crisis: there are too many jobs, too many employees, and not enough housing to fit them all. Among other things, it is a massive drain on the economy, cutting national wages by somewhere around $9,000 per year on average [1]. Yet rather than taking up the responsibility laid before us, Marin and other communities around the Bay Area have chosen to shirk their responsibility to build homes for the region’s most in-need. The state looks like it has had enough obstruction, however, and will start to force cities to live up to their zoning codes. Under Senate Bill 35, cities that fail to live up to their Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) obligation will need to approve new housing that meets their zoning codes.

What does SB35 do?

In a nutshell, cities have a choice: either meet their RHNA obligations through whatever means they deem fit or allow developments that meet city rules to go through. The bill will allow for public and design feedback, but the design review board, planning commission, and town council cannot reject a project unless it violates a specific section of that city’s zoning or planning guidelines.

This kind of process is called by-right development. When someone purchases land, they have a right to do with it what they want within the boundaries of city law without needing to meet the unwritten rules that often come out in public processes. It is common for projects to be halted because of they are “too dense” or “too tall,” even if that density or height is allowed under the existing zoning. Under SB35, cities that don’t meet RHNA will not be able to stop those projects, at least not for those reasons.

To ensure density or height is whatever the community actually wants, the city will need to change their zoning code to reflect those densities or heights, ensuring a developer knows going into the project what is okay and what is not.

The only code not left in place by the SB35 are parking requirements. If a development is proposed under this law and is within a half-mile of public transit (no quality of that transit is mentioned), the city can’t impose a parking minimum. If it’s beyond that half-mile radius, a city can’t require more than one parking space per new unit.

Regarding CEQA, SB35 calls development proposals in places under the SB35 process “ministerial,” then goes on to define that ministerial process. For CEQA, actions classified as “ministerial” are important, as they are not subject to CEQA review. However, it is unclear in the Legislative Analyst’s report whether these developments are only ministerial as far as SB35 are concerned or if there are ministerial as far as the corpus of California law is concerned. If it is the former, then CEQA would still apply. If the latter, then CEQA would not [2].

For a developer, having a clearly-written development code written down would be a game-changer. It would allow investors to know at the outset how many homes can be built here or there, and what the likelihood of success really is. The fact is that the region has a critical shortage of housing is a crisis, and it is hurting the region, state, country, and even the planet by suppressing innovation and preventing the creation of billions of dollars in new wages [3].

Spotswood got everything wrong

Dick Spotswood, in his latest piece, rails against the legislation [4]. He calls it a threat to liberty, a back-door way to densify Marin. His article got just about everything wrong about the legislation – indeed, it was borderline journalistic malpractice to publish a piece, even an opinion piece, with such a tenuous grip on the facts – so it’s a good place to start on the myths.

“SB 35 uses an entirely different geographical term to define communities subject to fast-track, by-right rules fostering high-density housing.  Instead of applying the rules to ‘urban’ communities, Wiener’s criteria is that if even a village is an ‘urban cluster,’ then rules encouraging big-time development without pesky environmental review are applied.”

First, SB35 defines communities subject to by-right development as those which did not meet their RHNA requirements and says developments that qualify for the by-right designation need to be somewhere (an urban cluster), not in the middle of nowhere.

Second, this definition won’t reclassify rural or suburban places as “urban” for the sake of RHNA’s density requirement of 20 or 30 units per acre, as Spotswood seems to think.

Third, the only “big-time,” “high-density” development allowed would be those allowed under a town’s existing development rules. You won’t end up with dozens of Wincup-style developments unless the city already allows them.

“It wouldn’t be as bad if Wiener’s San Francisco wasn’t hypocritical when it comes to addressing the so-called ‘housing crisis.’ High-rise condos and apartments belong in job centers like San Francisco with comprehensive public transit networks.”

Here, Spotswood tells San Francisco, “You started it!” and expects that to be a valid reason for Marin to do nothing. That’s hogwash. Marin has been a horrible offender when it comes to adding housing for its own workforce, adding 17 times more jobs than homes in the past 7 years [5]. It’s a myth that Marin primarily sends workers to San Francisco, as more people commute into Marin than commute from it [6].

Further, it shirks the responsibility Marin has for its own workforce. Sure, the county couldn’t possibly absorb all the need, but Marin is one of the region’s minnows, nor is it the only one to be affected by SB35. Every town, city, and county in California would be subject to the law, so San Francisco would be even more on the hook – with its more permissive zoning codes – than would Marin’s towns.

Second, nowhere in Marin allows high-rises. Even downtown San Rafael has a 3- to 5-story height limit, hardly towers.

Third, Marin does have a comprehensive transit network in Marin Transit and Golden Gate Transit; it just doesn’t run as frequently as we would want because there isn’t the population density to support such a network. Deepening the system should be one of Marin’s goals for the future, as should other measures that would encourage travel by means other than driving. More homes, when coupled with a better transit system to serve them, keeps traffic stable [7].

“What’s good for Marin ought to be good for the city’s cherished people-scaled neighborhoods [like the Castro and Telegraph Hill].”

The irony of Spotswood’s argument is that these City neighborhoods are the neighborhoods we should want to keep, but they are illegal under Marin’s existing planning and building codes. They are at least 30 units per acre but often go up to 40 or 50. Shared walls generally aren’t allowed in the county, and neither is the kind of commercial/residential blend that makes much of San Francisco livable. High parking minimums of 1.5 spaces per home, coupled with a ban on tandem parking, means that what could be a great front yard needs to be a wide garage door instead. Not only that, but these neighborhoods were built long before the public process choked out much new housing in The City and region.

Given that SB35 keeps much of the planning and zoning codes intact, however, we won’t see much new growth of this kind of home.

Follow your code

If Marin and other places around the state want to keep going as they have, they are welcome to do so, but they will be forced to adhere to the letters of their own law. If they want to avoid the difficulty of writing down the laws they really want, then they need to figure out how to meet their RHNA goals. Those are the choices that SB35 will give communities. Doing nothing – or as good as nothing – will no longer be an option.

Works Cited

[IMG] MarinMap. MarinMap Map Viewer, 2017.

[1] Ronald Bailey, “Zoning Laws in New York, San Francisco, and San Jose Cut Americans’ Wages by $8,775,” Reason.com, Hit & Run, (May 25, 2017).

[2] Scott Wiener, “Planning and Zoning: Affordable Housing: Streamlined Approval Process,” California Senate Bill 35 (2017).

[3] Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti, “Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation,” NBER Working Paper (National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2015).

[4] Dick Spotswood, “Lawmaker’s Proposal to Extend ‘urban’ Zoning in Marin,” Marin Independent Journal, August 22, 2017, sec. Opinion.

[5] David Edmondson, “Ten Homes Is Not Enough,” The Greater Marin, August 7, 2017.

[6] Edmondson, “Marin’s Towns Are Destinations,” The Greater Marin, June 3, 2013.

[7] Canaan Merchant, “As Arlington Booms, Traffic Drops,” Greater Greater Washington, September 30, 2014.

Cars use up too much damn space

A common misconception I face is that I don’t like cars. On the contrary, cars are a wonderful thing: they give us freedom of movement, allowing us to go where we want, when we want. They are mobile rooms, so we can keep our stuff relatively safe wherever we go. They are personal mobility tools for people who have trouble walking. They’re a fabulous invention. But they use up too much damn space for everyone to use them.

Image by the author.

Or, if you prefer, a diagram of the same, with each box sized according to the space used by a traveller in the mode:

The tiny boxes in the corner are, in descending size, bus (half full), bus (full), train.

[The data above assumes a Level of Service of D for pedestrians [1], bicycles [2], and cars [3]; 1.2 passengers average for cars; 1 passenger for other private modes; 66-passenger bus; and 2,000 riders on a 10-car subway train.* Bike parking assumes 2 spaces, the size of which were estimated from a 12,500-space bike parking garage in Utrecht [4]; car and motorcycle parking assumes 3 spaces, the size of which were estimated from planning documents [5a; 5b]; and bus parking assumes a typical maintenance and storage facility [6]. Road space assumes 11-foot-wide urban lanes and 12-foot-wide freeway lanes.]

Jarrett Walker calls is this a problem of geometry: a dense city cannot run on cars [7]. There just isn’t enough space for most people to use it as their primary mode of transportation. Buses, trains, bicycles, and walking all use less space, so they become primary. I’d argue this is not just a problem of dense cities but also of chokepoints within less-dense places.

The first thing I notice is how much parking is needed, especially for driverless and urban cars. It looks like over half the space needs for urban cars come from parking, and almost three-quarters of the driverless urban car needs are from parking.

The goal of transportation planners ought to be to maximize the usefulness of their space. Driverless cars will help cut down on road usage, but their parking needs will still eat up much of the landscape. Driverless taxis would help more, but to be as space-efficient as a half-full bus they would need an average load of 20 people, and at that point it’s more bus than taxi.

In comparison, a bicyclist uses just 7 percent the space of a driver in a city. Someone on foot uses less than 2 percent.

In practical terms, the various space-intensive modes travel should be the most rare ways of getting around, used for practical reasons by people with mobility issues, people who have unusually long or circuitous commutes, and people who have loads to move. Travel by other modes should be much more common, especially at times when a lot of people want to go to a relatively compact area of the region (like at rush hour). These other modes should be just as fast or faster than driving (accomplished by improving those other modes), and relying on them should not feel like a burden.

Far from making driving harder, inverting mode shares so driving becomes more rare would actually make driving easier and better by making other modes much easier and much better. There’s no reason to give away 2,300 square feet of space to every car traveler when 27 square feet by bus or 7 and a half feet by train would do just fine for most trips.


* Trains are the only vehicle here that must operate in their own right-of-way. They can move around 50,000 people per direction per hour using realistic headways compared with 4,800 on buses in their own right-of-way. Without stops, which would approximate the other modes' metrics, a train could operate about twice as often and yield the 7.5 square feet needed per passenger indicated here. A parallel article would examine lane capacity, but that would necessarily exclude parking - a key factor in cars' inefficiency - and so this is not the place for that examination.

Works Cited

[1] “Current HCM Methodology,” in Pedestrian Level of Service Study, Phase I (New York, NY: New York City DCP, 2006).

[2] Dan Zhou et al., “Estimating Capacity of Bicycle Path on Urban Roads in Hangzhou, China” (Conference Paper, The 94th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Washington, DC, 2015).

[3] Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, “Appendix C: Transportation,” in Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Olympia, Washington: Sate of Washington, 2004).

[4] Juliana Neira, “World’s Largest Bike Parking Garage Opens in The Netherlands,” Designboom, August 10, 2017.

[5a] “Design and Improvement of Parking.,” Section 19.26.040, Roseville Municipal Code, accessed August 18, 2017; [5b] Peter Croft, “Light Vehicle Sizes and Dimensions: Street Survey Results and Parking Space Requirements – Information” (Auckland, New Zealand: Land Transport NZ, December 2004).

[6] Division of School Support, “School Bus Maintenance Facility Planner” (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, February 2011).

[7] Jarrett Walker, “Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry?,” Human Transit, July 21, 2016.

Ten homes is not enough

This past week, the IJ trumpeted 10 new affordable homes built in Novato, calling it “proof that Marin has room for affordable housing.” [1] These homes, which took 5 years to build, are undoubtedly welcome for their new owners, but the editorial makes a mockery of Marin’s housing crisis and the depth of the county’s need.

Over the past 7 years, Marin added about 785 homes – an increase of about 0.7 percent. [2] This might be impressive if it weren’t far outstripped by population growth of 4.4 percent, [3] six times faster than housing stock, or even more outstripped by jobs growth of 12.2 percent, [4] 17 times faster than housing stock.

Image by the author.

Image by the author.

In that context, a 10-home project is impressive mostly because it increases Marin’s pitifully meager annual housing production by 10 percent, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the crisis-level shortfall Marin is facing today.

If housing construction kept pace with job growth – never mind the regional housing need – the county would have added over 13,000 new homes, almost 2,000 per year. With inclusionary zoning, that would mean 400 affordable homes every year, not a mere 10 every 5 years.

This is a pace of construction that Marin is unlikely to ever meet, but it shows the sheer size of the hole we’re in. Marin doesn’t just need a few more homes; it either needs to increase its construction pace by an order of magnitude (or take active steps to hurt its economy and stop the creation of new jobs).

Celebrating the opening of 10 homes is great, and the work done by Habitat for Humanity is bold. But until we get to where this sort of opening is small potatoes, it’s like celebrating your D-average: nice, but also kind of sad.

Works cited

[1] Marin Independent Journal, “Proof That Marin Has Room for Affordable Housing,” Marin Independent Journal, July 31, 2017, sec. Opinion.

[2] US Census Bureau, “Building Permits Survey” (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau), accessed August 6, 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Center for Economic Studies, “Quarterly Workforce Indicators” (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau), accessed August 6, 2017.

Planning as physical philosophy

The Papers Series are lightly edited papers I wrote for classes at Cornell University as I studied for a Master's in Regional Planning. Often, references will be to printed books rather than to websites. If you want to check it out yourself, contact me and I will see if I have a scanned copy available.

This paper was originally written at the end of my first semester. It details the evolution of my understanding of planning as a discipline, not just as a subject area, through the lens of the semester's readings.

Since I began the program at Cornell, my thoughts and ideas about planning and planners have changed markedly, though I would classify the change as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. My once-clear perspective as a Glaeserian urbanist has become clouded by notions of justice, equity, participation, democracy, and humanity’s aptitude to tear down each of those. That said, the cloudiness in my outlook is one of added complexity, not of rejection. Like salt dissolving into water, I suspect these notions will dissolve into my urbanism, leaving something that looks similar to the original product but is quite different in taste and use.

My background as a blogger and advocate in Washington, DC, and Marin County steeped me in the world of activism, which stretches beyond the world of traditional planning and into engineering and politics. Alon Levy divided a subset of these activists, transit activists, into what he termed technicals and politicals:

Politicals are the people who tend to trust the transit authorities, support a general expansion of all rail transit projects, and believe the primary problem is defeating oil-funded anti-transit lobbies. Technicals are the people who tend to distrust what the authorities say, and prefer their own analysis or that of technically-minded activists; they support transit but are skeptical about many projects, and treat agency inertia and turf wars as the primary obstacles for transit revival. [1]

While Levy was concerned with transit activists only, the distinction is usefully applied to planning activists as a whole. In my writing I have striven to be technically minded first, leading me to believe that poor planning outcomes were fundamentally problems of rules and subsidies rather than inherent injustice. These were problems of “agency inertia” rather than unspoken bias or injustice, and I wrote from this perspective. [2a, 2b, 2c, 2d] As I anticipated Cornell, I thought that being able to easily discourse on FAR, traffic flow, zoning, bike lanes, rail procurement, and a host of other topics that I believed were core to planning would prepare me for class. I was wrong.

The great theme of my first semester was the exploration of justice and equity. From Samuel P. Hays [3] to June Manning Thomas [4] and a huge body of literature between and beyond, planning has roots that extend past the physical and deep into the philosophical. Planners are not simply engineers who must play politics to be allowed to do quality work, as Levy’s technicals might want. No, planning arises from the very political concerns of justice. Any answer to the question, “How ought we live?” must necessarily include economics and planning - the "we" in that question - as well as personal ethics and morality.

Though, as a planning course, we did not explore the question of how we ought to live directly, we did touch on the effects whatever answer must have on planning. In short, these principles are:

  • The promotion of economic equality
  • The promotion of equitable power distribution
  • The recognition and celebration of diversity in all forms
  • Reflection upon one’s own failures and successes

None of these planning principles deal with physical planning. Instead, planners must place those physical aspects of the profession in a subordinate position to justice. To this technically-minded armchair planner/blogger, this inversion of priorities within the planning profession was a surprise, though in retrospect it ought not to have been.

My undergraduate education in politics was steeped in concerns of justice even though contemporary politics rarely addresses justice directly. Rather, justice must be worked out through public policies. As a field with ties to many public policy arenas, planning must also look to justice as a guiding light. Curiously, these principles were outlined in papers and books long before the concept of justice itself was analyzed by planners [5a, 5b]. The success of Susan Fainstein’s The Just City [6] and Leonie Sandercock’s Towards Cosmopolis [7] strongly implies that there was a yearning for planning-focused philosophical examinations of the nature of justice, but the paucity of work on the subject prior to Cosmopolis implies that the cart came before the horse.

Although not as surprising as the importance of justice to planning, the prominence of politically left-wing solutions to myriad planning problems was unexpected. Bill Goldsmith’s twin lectures [8] on the progressive city, for example, were stridently and proudly leftist. [Note: the lectures were class lectures and are unavailable. However, Goldsmith's book, Saving Our Cities, was the source for much of series and is therefore recommended.] Dolores Hayden’s discussion of gender and city planning led to a decidedly collectivist model [9]. Sandercock praises the activist planner who leaves her career behind to fight for the underclass [10]. Meanwhile, Smart Growth activists (for example James Bacon [11], Streetfilms [12], and David Schaengold [13]) have actively tried to appeal to an economically conservative audience that would find such analyses repugnant.

The contrast between these two thrusts of planning thought is striking. Social justice is firmly based in progressive and left-wing theory, while prosaic discussions of urban finance find their basis in classical economics and right-wing theory. Although I expected some emphasis upon the former rather than the latter, I did not expect the political left to so dominate the field.

I wish to bring a variety of things forward with me into my planning practice, but perhaps nothing is more important than the impossibility of making people good. Although hardly a new concept, the at times utopian, at times downtrodden perspectives of Marxist and neoliberal urbanists alike remind me of the folly of trusting people to do the right thing. Neither Marxism nor neoliberalism offer systems that get people to actually abandon injustice. Rather, they both seek ways to restrain the fundamentally flawed nature of humanity.

In a planning practice, then, we must always be aware of the infinite creativity of people to seek their own well-being at the expense of others. No matter how great our plan, someone will probably find a way to muck it up. Since we must also be optimistic, as we planners ought expect our plans to be followed to some degree, our aim ought to be to be clear-eyed optimists who will expect failure to lurk around every corner.

When failure or success do come, self-reflection as described by Raphaël Fischler [14] must be at the core of my practice. Why did that meeting work and this one did not? What has gone right with that project after 5, 10, or 15 years and what has gone wrong? Did I bake failure into the project, or were outside forces at work? How might I inoculate my projects against such outside forces in the future?

Self-reflection must also mean a constant search for a truer meaning of justice. Justice, the context of planning, goes beyond one's personal definition of what is just and must respect for others’ definitions of justice. If I allow my own concepts of justice to fossilize, I risk losing some of my capacity to respect and honor diverse ideologies. Given that planners are also called to a more equitable power distribution, I must especially approach disempowered communities with humility. Self-righteousness is antithetical to the aim of both the former aim (respecting and honoring ideologies other than my own) and the latter (empowerment of the disempowered).

The first semester of CRP was an unexpected and delightful surprise. It was far more introspective, theoretical, and exciting than I had ever imagined it to be. Planning itself is clearly quite bold. As a field, it challenges how we order our society and asks us to truly be broad-minded in a way that pure political science does not. A politician must eventually find a constituency and find how to work justice within the confines that constituency sets, but a planner is called to form a more just society beyond whatever constituency she may be most comfortable with. I am happy to have joined that calling.

Works Cited

[1] “Politicals vs. Technicals: The Primary Division of Transit Activists,” Pedestrian Observations, June 28, 2011.

[2] David Edmondson, “A Greater Marin,” The Greater Marin, March 19, 2012; David Edmondson, “Reducing Passenger Train Procurement Costs” (Washington, DC: Competitive Enterprise Institute, June 5, 2013); David Edmondson, “Being Marin Again,” The Greater Marin, December 9, 2013; David Edmondson, “Tautological Housing Study Reminds Us That Demand Is More than Skin Deep,” The Greater Marin, February 11, 2015.

[3] “The Politics of Reform in Municipal Government in the Progressive Era,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1964): 157–69.

[4] “Social Justice as Responsible Practice: Influence of Race, Ethnicity, and the Civil Rights Era,” in Planning Ideas That Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice, ed. Bishwapriya Sanyal, Lawrence J. Vale, and Christina D. Rosan (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012).

[5] John H. Mollenkopf, The Contested City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983); Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[6] The Just City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

[7] Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for Multicultural Cities (Chichester, England: Academy Press, 1997).

[8] “The American City Today” (Lecture, Introduction to Planning Practice and History, Cornell University, October 7, 2015). See Saving Our Cities: A Progressive Plan to Transform Urban America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).

[9] “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work,” Signs, Supplement on Women and the American City, 5, no. 3 (1980): S170–87.

[10] Towards Cosmopolis.

[11] “Too Little Density, Too Much Road Surface,” Bacon’s Rebellion, November 12, 2015.

[12] Elizabeth Press, William Lind: A Conservative Voice For Public Transportation (New York: Streetfilms, 2009).

[13] “Why Conservatives Should Care About Transit,” Public Discourse, April 17, 2009.

[14] “The Reflective Practitioner,” in Planning Ideas That Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice, ed. Bishwapriya Sanyal, Lawrence J. Vale, and Christina D. Rosan (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012).


Valley to Valley: linking SMART and regional rail

The dream of urbanites across the central Bay Area, as they gaze out towards the golden hills of the Marin Headlands, is BART. They share that dream with the suburbanites who stare back at the picturesque view of San Francisco. That it didn’t happen is now simply a fact of life in the Bay, but we need not live with this fact.

Two weeks ago, I tackled the science of traffic congestion: why it happens and the damage it does to our transportation system [1]. Last week, I examined the best way to cope with congestion – an anti-congestion toll – and how to craft anti-congestion policies with an eye toward equity in Marin [2].

Yet an anti-congestion tolling plan works best when there are effective alternatives. Golden Gate Bus is, when it doesn’t face traffic, a fast and efficient mode of transportation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t run often and it runs into traffic frequently, especially within The City. As well, transfers between it and other long-distance transportation systems like BART and Caltrain are poor at best. Marin and Sonoma residents, then, don’t have viable alternatives to driving if their destination isn’t downtown San Francisco.

The plan in a nutshell

SMART South, as I call this plan to differentiate it from the SMART that is currently under construction, consists of the completion of the SMART system, the upgrades needed to operate at eight trains per hour per direction, and the upgrades, construction, and new trains needed to run SMART south to San Francisco and as a subway under Geary Boulevard.

This will include electrification of the existing line ($125 million [3] for 39 miles of track), pushing SMART north to Healdsburg and south to Marin City ($537 million [i] for 40 miles of surface track), rebuilding the Alto Tunnel ($60 million [4]), tunneling from Marin City to the Golden Gate Bridge ($850 million [ii] for 1.7 miles of tunnel), retrofitting the bridge ($392 million [5]), tunneling from there to the Geary Boulevard Subway ($1,365 million [ii] for 2.7 miles; the Geary Subway segment would be built separately from this project) adding passing track to the existing and new surface line to allow for higher frequency ($705 million [i] for 52 miles), elevating the downtown San Rafael track ($93 million [ii] for 0.6 miles of track), finishing the bike path from Marin City to Cloverdale ($5 million [i]), adding the Corte Madera/Larkspur, Mill Valley, Marin City/Sausalito, Vista Point, and Presidio stations ($500 million [ii]), and buying Caltrain-compatible bi-level electric trains to allow for a much and more frequent longer line ($654 million [6] for 38 3-car trains). There are also $250 million in miscellaneous costs associated with finishing the SMART line as promised. In total, this comes to about $5.5 billion for an effectively-new 85-mile system or about $65 million per mile. That’s quite a steal for American construction costs.

Passengers would be able to transfer at Union Square to BART and Muni’s under-construction Central Subway, and at the Transbay Terminal to Caltrain and high-speed rail. Depending on how the second transbay tube is built, passengers would be able to move on either to downtown Oakland or south to the Oakland Airport and Fremont without transferring.


The short of it is that anti-congestion charges on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (RSRB), Golden Gate Bridge (GGB) and the Novato Narrows could be leveraged into $1.4 billion [iii]. A 0.4% sales tax in Sonoma, Marin, and San Francisco could be leveraged into another $1.3 billion [iv], for a total of $2.7 billion raised locally. Regional, state, and federal monies cover about half the cost of major transit construction projects in California, and that’s the balance of the project. Ongoing operations & maintenance would be covered by fares, tolls, and sales tax income as well as state and federal support. The gritty details of all this, including a speculative financing plan and how to calculate anti-congestion tolls, will be in an upcoming post for the people who are truly interested.


SMART South as envisioned would be built alongside a secondary transbay project extending Caltrain and some kind of heavy rail subway across the bay to Alameda County. These would happen regardless of SMART South, so its value is really in connecting the North Bay with the South and East. How many riders would use that link?

Last year, I examined what higher frequencies could do for the base SMART system’s ridership and arrived at a conservative 12,100 daily trips. Adding the southern Marin, downtown Novato, and Presidio stations would push the ridership up to 22,000 using the same model [7].

Using 2014 Census data, it appears that roughly 7,500 people live within a half-mile of SMART and SMART South stations and work within a half-mile of BART or Caltrain, or vice-versa [8]. While only half of them are likely to commute via transit after this extension, additional riders would come from outside the half-mile radius, and commutes only account for about 20 percent of all trips. Wrap all that up and we have another 50,000-80,000 trips per day, depending on fares, travel time, and transfers. Given that this range comes from a model that assumes no anti-congestion tolls - and that such tolls boost transit use – I’d lean more towards the higher than the lower number. That would nearly double the capacity of the Golden Gate and northern Highway 101 corridor.


So for about $5.5 billion, paid for with new tolls and a 0.4% sales tax, SMART could dip south into San Francisco, fully tying Sonoma and Marin into the regional and statewide rail systems. It would provide a viable alternative to the freeway. Alongside tolling, it would make congestion a thing of the past in the North Bay, making deliveries more timely and commutes much more reliable.

This is merely a draft, of course, and should be subjected to more rigorous study. The political difficulties of yet another sales tax and yet-higher tolls are apparent. But SMART South is eminently attainable. With a little ingenuity and a little optimism about the future, it could be our next stop.


[i] Estimate from existing SMART costs.

[ii] Estimate from a variety of peer projects.

[iii] Assuming borrowing is on the same terms as MTC’s toll-related bonds and is spaced according to construction needs.

[iv] Assuming borrowing is on the same terms as SMART’s sales-tax backed bonds.

Works Cited

[1] David Edmondson, “The Science of Traffic and Its Awfulness,” The Greater Marin, July 3, 2017.

[2] David Edmondson, “Let’s Get into the Weeds: A Congestion Charge Plan for Marin,” The Greater Marin, July 10, 2017.

[3] Stephen A. Gazillo, “A Planner’s Guide to Fixed Guideway Electrification Projects,” Transportation Planning, November 2005.

[4] County of Marin, “Investigative Study to Begin on Alto Tunnel” (County of Marin, January 10, 2017).

[5] Charles Seim, Mark Ketchum, and T.Y. Lin International, “Golden Gate Bridge Mass Transit Feasibility Study” (San Francisco, CA: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, October 1990).

[6] Railway Gazette, “Caltrain Signs Double-Deck EMU and Electrification Contracts,” Railway Gazette, August 16, 2016.

[7] Transportation Research Board, “Elements Needed to Create High Ridership Transit Systems,” Transit Cooperative Research Program (Washington, DC: Federal Transit Administration, March 2007).

[8] Center for Economic Studies, “Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics” (Washington, DC: United States Census, 2014).