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.

Footnote

* 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.

Funding

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.

Ridership

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.

Wrap-up

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.

Footnotes

[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).

Let’s get into the weeds: a congestion charge plan for Marin

Last week, we discussed how tolling designed to eliminate congestion would improve travel times and improve the efficiency of our roads. [1] This week, we get a bit into the weeds about how such a plan would work.

How to eliminate congestion in the North Bay

Marin has four main entrances, three of which have significant rush-hour congestion: the Novato Narrows, Highway 37, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (RSRB), and the Golden Gate Bridge (GGB), with Highway 37 being the odd one out of the congestion game.* These congested gateways are a drain on people’s time and public resources. The Narrows is only moving 85 percent of the vehicles per hour that it could, the RSRB moves just 61 percent, and the GGB moves just 74 percent capacity.**

The entrances are all chokepoints, with few or no parallel routes, so they are ideal for tolling. The toll need to be charged both directions, so existing tolls on the GGB and RSRB would be cut in half: half heading inbound and half outbound.

A toll that eliminates congestion would allow another 4,380 vehicles per hour to move at rush hour, a staggering 35 percent increase over today's numbers.

To determine the exact amount a congestion toll ought to be, we need some pieces of information: the maximum number of vehicles per hour each road can move, also known as their flow rate; the existing flow at peak hour; the amount of demand there is at peak hours; how long the flow is congested; the length of the congestion; and the median income of the area. If all of this is known, then a little calculus is needed and then, voilà, the result. Unfortunately, with publicly available data it is very difficult to determine demand, so we need to work a little bit harder for a less precise number.

I wanted to find out how much extra time people were spending in traffic than they would if all the roads were at their maximum flow and how much that lost time is worth. Tie these elements together and we get some estimates. The Narrows needs a charge of about $5 ($108 extra per month), the RSRB needs $5 on top of its existing toll (, and the GGB needs $6 on top of its existing toll. Combined, these tolls would bring in an additional $102.4 million per year, which could be used to secure bonds of up to $1.3 billion (over 30 years at a 4 percent interest rate). For context, the Golden Gate Bridge brought in $129.5 million in toll revenue in the 2015/2016 fiscal year. [2]

Look regional

Because Marin’s transit system is part of a broader regional system of bridges and highways, any tolling plan would need to be regional in order to ensure that traffic doesn’t spill over onto some other road. As previously mentioned, Marin’s entrances have very few good roads and therefore can be fairly easily tolled. However, if Marin manages to unclog its traffic, East Bay commuters might try to cut through the county on their way to San Francisco. More drivers on Marin’s roads means higher tolls, and then Marinites and Sonomans would have to pay more than before. Any toll plan would need to be implemented across the whole region to ensure all the region’s freeways are used as efficiently as possible and nobody is charged too much.

Build equity into the toll

One of the oft-cited problems with charges like this is that it is regressive as it hurts the poor, who have more time than money, more than the rich, who have more money than time. I outlined a solution briefly last time, [3] but here it is worth fleshing out a bit more.

Carbon taxes are often structured in such a way so as to be revenue neutral, [4] so whatever income is generated is refunded to the users. However, an unclog-the-roads toll, like what’s proposed here, should be used to increase the tolled travel corridor’s capacity and so needs to provide a useful income. This could be done either by selectively exempting vehicles registered to poor drivers, but that would be logistically difficult. Instead, tolls should be a refundable state tax credit that phases out as income increases. (Refundable tax credits are refunded to the taxpayer whether or not she owes any money, and so they are always returned.) FasTrak, or whoever the vendor is, would inform their registered users every year how much they paid in congestion tolls, which the users could report on their taxes. Non-registered users, like tourists or infrequent users, would not get a form so they’d end up paying no matter their income.

It’s difficult to estimate how much of the toll income would be refunded, but given that drivers tend to be wealthier in general, especially in the suburbs, this may not be a significant portion of toll revenue. Should it become viable to issue monthly rather than annual refunds to poor drivers, it would likely encourage driving, which would in turn increase congestion. That would require higher tolls, offsetting the revenue lost to refunds.

Regardless, because the toll essentially is trading time for money, and the amount of time currently used up in traffic is worth about $102 million per year, that is roughly how much would come in from these tolls.

Next time, we will consider just what might be done with this revenue stream to make travelers lives better.

Footnotes

* Traffic from 37 does add to congestion on Highway 101 to the south, and congestion does regularly crop up on the road, but the MTC analysis this post relies on [5] reports very little congestion on the road itself. Without a proper traffic management analysis, it would be tough to say how these tolls would actually shift congestion around the North Bay.

** This is current peak-hour flow divided by optimal traffic flow. Optimal traffic flow is the maximum capacity of highway lanes [6]; peak-hour flow is from Caltrans [7].

Works Cited

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

[2] Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District, “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report,” Annual Report (San Francisco, CA: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, 2016).

[3] Edmondson, “The Science of Traffic and Its Awfulness.”

[4] UNFCCC, “Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax,” Momentum for Change, accessed July 4, 2017.

[5] Metropolitan Transportation Commission, “Time Spent in Congestion,” Vital Signs, accessed April 29, 2017.

[6] John D. Zegeer et al., “Default Values for Highway Capacity and Level of Service Analyses,” National Cooperative Highway Research Program (Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board, 2008).

[7] Division of Traffic Operations, “2015 Traffic Volumes on California State Highways” (Sacramento, CA: Caltrans, 2015).

The science of traffic and its awfulness

If only the guy in front of you would drive better, perhaps you wouldn’t be stuck in traffic. Slow, fast, break. Slow, fast, break. Shift lanes. Whoever it is, that driver sucks.

That’s what the driver behind you thinks about you, and what the driver behind that driver thinks about him, and so on. It’s traffic congestion, and it’s bad for everyone.

There are two aspects of congestion to be explored here in very brief detail: its physical results and its economic causes. Only once we understand the economic causes will we be able to figure out a solution.

Traffic makes roads terrible

Roads move traffic at a rate governed by a very simple model: the density of the vehicles per mile times their speed. But there is a trade-off. As the density of vehicles goes up, their speed goes down as drivers become more cautious. There’s a balancing point where density and speed allow a road to move the most vehicles. Shift the density a bit either way, and you don’t move as many vehicles, and you’re not getting your money’s worth out of the road. The relationship looks like this:

When traffic gets bad, roads exist on right-hand side of the diagram. Drivers like being on the left-hand side where speed is pretty high,, and taxpayers should want to be right in the middle, getting the most for their money. Image from ACCESS magazine [1]

When traffic gets bad, roads exist on right-hand side of the diagram. Drivers like being on the left-hand side where speed is pretty high,, and taxpayers should want to be right in the middle, getting the most for their money. Image from ACCESS magazine [1]

So, traffic congestion is when the road is operating somewhere on the right side of the curve. Basically, at rush hour, there are too many people that want to use the road all at once, increasing density way past the efficient level, making everyone slow down and the roads awful. This video does a good job of showing how this works. It’s boring, but stick with it [2]:

Basically, everyone slows everyone else down by trying to use the road all at the same time. Every additional vehicle on the road slows everyone else down just a little bit, which adds up to a lot. Past the balancing point, each additional vehicle also makes the road less efficient. Just how much is something we can quantify.

Time is money

When someone is slowed down in traffic, they get to wherever they’re going later than they’d hoped. This might cost maybe a few minutes, but when multiplied out over everyone stuck in (and causing) that traffic it ends up being a lot of person-hours. Economists, measuring a whole host of factors [3], translate this time cost into a monetary cost. Every vehicle “pays” a certain amount of time (alongside gas, maintenance, and tolls) which is the average cost of using the road. When someone new comes into the road, that average cost goes up just a little bit at the margins. This is called marginal cost of using the road. Each driver feels only the average cost; the marginal cost is divided up evenly between everyone else around them on the road. It’s like when someone cuts in line: everyone behind them is slowed down a bit.

In short, every vehicle faces the average cost and forces everyone else to “pay” a little bit more. Brendan O’Flaherty writes:

The final major kind of external cost that drivers impose on each other is congestion. On an otherwise deserted country road, or even on most city streets at four o'clock in the morning, it's difficult for one car to get in the way of another car or to impede its progress, and so congestion is not a problem. But when tens of thousands of cars an hour are converging on the Lincoln Tunnel during rush hour, they get in each others' way, and since the number of cars that can go through the tunnel in any minute is less than the number that want to go through, each car that enters the tunnel during rush hour is forcing all the cars behind it in the queue to wait a few seconds. Because drivers don't bear the cost of the congestion they cause, they cause too much of it.
I'm not saying that drivers don't bear the costs of congestion. Of course they do; being stuck in a traffic jam is unpleasant and time-consuming. But I don't bear the costs of the congestion I cause; instead I bear the costs of the congestion you cause, and so you have no incentive not to cause it. Or more starkly, think about a line of cars going through the Lincoln Tunnel. The first car may encounter no congestion, but if it were vaporized, every other car would get through the tunnel more quickly; and so the first car is causing a lot of congestion. The last car, by contrast, is encountering a lot of congestion, but causing none (if it were vaporized no one else would get through the tunnel sooner). [4]

O’Flaherty goes on to also describe how people shift their schedule around to avoid traffic, which has its own cost, and how people sometimes just grin and bear it, choosing to drive in traffic and pay that cost on the road instead. [5]

But all this cost is just in terms of time. It’s wasted, lost to everyone. If there were a way to shift that cost into dollars, then it would be possible to put that cost to productive use, or to return it to the people who need money more than time.

Anti-congestion toll

This is where congestion pricing, or demand pricing, or surge pricing, or whatever you want to call it, comes in. In essence, it’s a toll that charges people what they would otherwise pay in terms of time as well as the cost they impose on other users of the road (the marginal cost). This smooths out demand, so the road never gets clogged, and allows the money to be put to better use. The tolls collected could also be returned to poor drivers as a refundable tax credit. (I would have the electronic toll collector contractor, i.e. FasTrak, mail out a tax form to each of its customers itemizing the amount paid in anti-congestion tolls by month, which the customer could report on their taxes as a credit contingent upon income.)

The goal would not be to return the road to free-flow speed, but rather to the balancing point, where a road moves the most cars per hour possible. More people would therefore be able to get through the system at rush hour, meaning the whole driving system would be more efficient. Any money not returned as a tax credit could sponsor public transit or road improvements.

The London tolling plan, which did not include the tax credit, saw travel times fall and then stabilize within the controlled area, though traffic volumes continued to fall significantly. [6] London also saw the number of crashes and traffic deaths fall significantly. [7] The Stockholm plan saw the similar results but, intriguingly, drivers who were interviewed after the toll went into effect didn’t think they had changed their travel behavior. [8]

This is the only way to ensure congestion doesn’t occur without a recession because, as discussed above, people normally don’t feel the cost they impose on everyone else on the road and so they overuse it. With a toll like this, people will feel the full cost of their road use and so allow society to get the most out of the investment in roads.

Of course, people don’t like to be charged for what they previously got for free, especially when that would represent an unknown change. Stockholm residents, for instance, hated the idea of a congestion charge until it was attempted. [9] Manhattan has tried for years to implement a charge only to be blocked by state lawmakers. [10] When San Francisco talked about doing something on the Golden Gate Bridge, then-San Rafael mayor Al Boro called it a “Marin commuter tax.” [11]

Nevertheless, given that it is the only way to permanently resolve traffic, it is worth exploring how big the charge would be and what is possible with that income. That’s what we will explore next time.

Works Cited

[1] Richard Arnott, “A Bathtub Model of Downtown Traffic Congestion,” ACCESS Magazine, June 1, 2015.

[2] Washington State Department of Transportation, Doug MacDonald - Rice and Traffic Congestion, 2007.

[3] J. Hewitt, “The Calculation of Congestion Taxes on Roads,” Economica 31, no. 121 (1964): 72–81, doi:10.2307/2550927; Roberto Ayala, “The Value of Travel Time Savings: Departmental Guidance for Conducting Economic Evaluations Revision 2 (2014 Update)” (Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, July 9, 2014).

[4] Brendan O’Flaherty, “Congestion,” in City Economics, 1st ed (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005), 52.

[5] Ibid., 56.

[6] Transport for London, “Public and Stakeholder Consultation on a Variation Order to Modify the Congestion Charging Scheme Impact Assessment” (London, UK, January 2014).

[7] Alex Davies, “London’s Congestion Pricing Plan Is Saving Lives,” Website Type, Wired, (March 10, 2015).

[8] Jonas Eliasson, How to Solve Traffic Jams (Lausanne, Switzerland: TEDxHelvetia, 2012).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ben Fried, “Factchecking Cuomo’s Revisionist History of NYC Road Pricing,” Streetsblog New York City, February 18, 2015.

[11] Michael Cabanatuan, “Bridge Raises Tolls, Denies Doyle Dr. Funds,” SFGate, March 15, 2008.

Polishing poop: the SMART schedule

Update: SMART just reached out to me with news that they are looking at the schedule again based upon the feedback they've received, so stay tuned for a new schedule.

By now, word of the final SMART schedule is out, and the response is relatively negative. The schedule (PDF here) has a 90-minute gap right at the heart of the rush hour, between 7:26am and 8:56am. Folks were not having it on Twitter. These two tweets are fairly representative:

The SMART Board wasn’t happy with the results either. San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips told staff at the meeting where the schedule was released, “With these kind of gaps I’m concerned people will say, ‘I’ll continue to drive my car,’ I would encourage we revisit this” (1).

For their part, SMART spokeswoman Jeanne Belding wrote me indicating the schedule was a result of a survey of potential riders after a draft schedule was released. She added, “The schedule we are opening with is based on previous feedback, our staffing, and takes into account the fact that we have a single-track system” (2).

SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian indicated that the reason for the schedule is, in short, that it is complicated: with the system running as it is, a change to one train means all trains must be changed. And there’s freight trains to deal with, only four active passenger trains, and so on (1). But I think there is more to discover in the schedule, and that the system is not nearly as hamstrung as GM Mansourian seems to indicate.

Polishing poop

Let it be known that just because the schedule is bad doesn't mean SMART isn't operating under real constraints. Undoubtedly, this was someone's attempt to polish the poop (or shine the shit) that is their situation. Nevertheless, this is definitely not sufficiently shiny yet, and I think we can do better. Let's look under the hood at what we're dealing with.

First, we can divide the schedule into a series of what I call platoons: four trains, each departing 30 minutes after one another, followed by a minimum of a 90-minute break, followed by another platoon. These are set by the number of trains SMART can run at any given time: just four of their seven-train fleet. Spokeswoman Belding told me they have had trouble hiring drivers, citing the high cost of living as the reason, and so they are limited to just four trains on the tracks at any given time. She did not answer a question about when they expected to be at full strength (2).

Another limiting factor are the passing tracks. Taking best practices from Switzerland and Germany, SMART built a single-track commuter system with four four-mile-long passing tracks at key locations so trains could run in both directions and pass one another. The problem, of course, is that these passing tracks limit the schedule to certain ranges. What those ranges are, SMART can’t say, but we can assume that the schedule as presented is one solution.

Taking all this into account, we can trust that changing one train’s arrival or departure time more than a few minutes requires the rest of the schedule to be changed by the same amount.

Alternatives

So now, the problem at hand: what to do about that 90-minute morning gap.

I took this as gospel and rotated the entire schedule around the arrival time of Train 5 at downtown San Rafael. Here’s what I call San Rafael Rush:

The San Rafael Rush schedule gets everyone to downtown San Rafael before 9am and ensures people still have time to walk to work after the last train arrives. Unfortunately, it makes things tough on northbound commuters, giving very little flexibility for Marinites working in Sonoma.

The second option is what I call Early Bird:

This option pushes everything back by about 10 minutes, ensuring that the 90-minute gap ends right as rush hour is at its worst. I’m not so keen on Early Bird, as few people arrive at work during those early morning hours served by the first platoon, but it does make sure that people can at least get to the office by 9am.

There are other methods of making the schedule fit, but it’s important to understand that SMART is operating in a tension between what riders say they want versus what the data says they should do. Census data shows what we know: that a plurality of people working in San Rafael arrive between 8am and 9am, people whom the current schedule poorly serves. SMART also insists that its schedule is based upon feedback from its own scheduling poll of potential riders.

It’s also important to note that GM Mansourian’s statements that nothing can be done are obfuscation. True, SMART is limited in its schedule movement, and they will be until they get the drivers they need, but they can indeed do better than what they’ve given. There is a bit of hope on that front. The GM indicated they’d be open to changing the schedule based on feedback after the train has started running. “This is what we will test and get feedback. If we can tweak, we will tweak” (1).

PS - And just because you've heard it a thousand times already, I did promise to remind you not to risk getting hit by a train. Sure, they'll be far less dangerous than drivers, but that doesn't mean you want to be the guy making everyone late for work because you got squashed by a train. Also, I will take this opportunity to repost one of my favorite ads, Dumb Ways to Die.

Works cited

(1) Prado M. SMART schedule has major service gaps. Marin Independent Journal [Internet]. 2017 May 17 [cited 2017 May 22]; Available from: http://www.marinij.com/article/NO/20170517/NEWS/170519805

(2) Belding J. Service schedule & trains. 2017.

Why good transit map design matters

Public transit is not just for people in big cities. All across the United States, public transit is a lifeline for millions of people who cannot afford a car or cannot drive. Unfortunately, these routes often provide the barest minimum of service: four round trips per day, no Sunday service, early end times. To add insult to injury, they are very rarely mapped in a comprehensible way, forcing riders to study dense timetables and obtuse maps.

To solve this problem in Tompkins County, New York, I created a frequency map indicating all stops, all routes, and major connection points.

One page from the rider guide

The existing maps are quite poor: there is no system-wide map, forcing riders to flip between pages to follow a single line along its course. Service levels aren't indicated, with weekend or late-night service shown as being just as important as weekday or high-frequency service. Often, new riders will avoid buses they don't know, even if the bus is going where they want to go, simply because there's no way to know where it will take them. Further, the local system, TCAT, has flag-stop service, where riders can get on or off a bus wherever the driver can safely pull off the road, but it is not indicated. In talking with riders, my team and I found people often didn't even know about the service. The existing maps' final sin is that it groups routes together on the same line even when those routes have nothing in common.

The same area as above, but in my redesign

The new map fixes each of these problems. It adjusts line thickness to indicate mid-day frequency; groups late-night and weekend routes together with their weekday counterpart routes (the 70 is the weekend counterpart of the 30, so these are combined into a single line); indicates flag-stop zones; and is envisioned as showing the full county's system in a single panel. For rural riders, for whom roads are critically important to wayfinding, the road grid is underlaid behind the entirety of the map.

I started a similar project a few years ago for Marin and Sonoma, but my design skills were simply too poor to finish. It taught me a lot, but, given the major changes since starting this project, I suspect I would need to start again. More interesting would be a better map of Bay Area transit service: 

Bad design is not necessarily the fault of the transit agency - good designers are expensive and need management, and often staff and budgets are already too small. There is little time or energy to spearhead change. Still, they ought to consider the benefits that come from comprehensibly conveying the entirety of the system in one clear image.

Election Maps for November, 2016

As anyone who follows American federal politics knows, location can mean a lot when it comes to who votes for whom. Electoral maps on the local level are rather more rare, but no less informative. Here below are the maps of relative support for selected races and candidates from the November 2016 election. (1)

(You can click on the images for a bigger size and the PDFs are available, too, by request. Feel free to request more maps in the comments section. Note that this is not the final tally but one of the interim tallies. The exact levels of support may change a bit.)

President

Hillary Clinton won every single voting precinct in the county with at least 52 percent of the vote and Donald Trump got second place in all but two precincts, each of which are worth less than 100 voters. Rather than map first and second place, then, I wondered how the voting was distributed across the county.

Tiburon, Blevedere, Ross, Corte Madera and Novato were the most conservative of Marin's cities, though in Marin that means voting for Clinton with 55-65 percent of the vote rather than 80 percent. Jill Stein did best in West Marin's villages and downtown San Rafael, and Trump did his best in Novato.

District 4 Supervisor

In Marin's marquee election, Dennis Rodoni beat out Dominic Grossi in second-round voting. Broadly speaking, Rodoni carried the northeastern half of the district with broad-based support in Woodacre, Dillon Beach, Novato, and a slice of Larkspur. Grossi took the district's southwestern half, getting support from San Rafael, Corte Madera, Mill Valley, and a handful of West Marin villages.

This mirrors the support received in the first round, indicating to me that there was not much convincing going on in the latter half of the campaign.

Proposition 64: Marijuana Legalization

As with Clinton support, no precinct in the county rejected the measure. That said, we can see that support for the measure largely followed the same lines as the presidential race: places that were cooler on Clinton were cooler on legalizing pot, and vice versa.

2016.11-Prop64-Support.jpg

Measure A: "Strong Start" quarter-cent sales tax for child services

Marin's marquee ballot initiative was much more divisive. The measure, which would have passed a quarter-cent sales tax "to fund expanded preschool, child care and health services for low-income children in Marin," (2) did not pass. Though no precinct had less than half its voters supporting the initiative, because it was a new tax it needed a two-thirds majority. There is some of the liberal/conservative split seen in these results, but at first glance it looks bit more ambiguous than in the presidential election.

Look under the hood, however, and one finds a significant correlation between Clinton support and Measure A support. Here's that scatter-plot:

Basically, for every percentage of Clinton support in a precinct, that precinct also saw a half-point more support for Measure A. That's not a one-to-one match, but it is definitely there.

So Marin does seem to have something of an ideological split. Indeed, it may be possible to use Republican and ballot measure voting patterns to mark which areas are more or less liberal than the Marin County average. What to label this divide, of course, would be quite heated: both sides want to seem mainstream (and both are!) and being "conservative" in Marin is almost seen as a character flaw. Chime in in the comments if you have ideas ("populist" vs "progressive" or something?)

The core message of this post is that Marin does have politically diverse geography beneath the liberal veneer. Understanding it should be integral to any political outreach program.

1. Marin County Elections Department. November 8, 2016 General Election Statement of Votes Cast [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2017 Feb 7]. Available from: http://www.marincounty.org/depts/rv/election-info/past-elections/page-data/tabs-collection/2016/nov-8/sovc-listing-page

2. Halstead R. Marin voters face 11 tax measures on November ballot. Marin Independent Journal [Internet]. 2016 Aug 12 [cited 2017 Feb 7]; Available from: http://www.marinij.com/article/NO/20160812/NEWS/160819921

 

Returning to the Flood

Last week, San Anselmo came within inches of yet another disastrous flood. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the flood detention basin issue.

Background

After the flood in 2005, a plan was put forward to build a flood detention basin in Memorial Park which would protect the downtown from floods by temporarily diverting water to the park during heavy storms. The town received a $8.72 million state grant to build the $17.2 million basin and planning work began. In 2015, voters rejected Measure E – without downtown’s support – which would have allowed the use of Memorial Park as a basin. The flood zone board is now trying to figure out what to do instead.

Support for Measure E. Image by the Author.

Of those currently on the council, Matt Brown and Ford Greene oppose the conversion of the park. Councilmember Brown led the charge to pass Measure E. In the same election he also ousted now-former council member and basin supporter Doug Kelly. Councilmember Greene has consistently sided with Marin’s populists on issues such as affordable housing, zoning reform, transit, and the flood basin. Both have appeared at Citizen Marin and associated group meetings. The rest of the council (Kay Coleman, Tom McInerney, and John Wright) supported the conversion of the park [1] and presumably still would if it were a possibility.

Councilmember Brown is certainly unmoved by last week’s close call. To quote the IJ, “Brown said he and many other San Anselmo residents wisely chose not to buy property in the floodplain. He said spending millions of dollars to address flooding in the Ross Valley would be ‘tantamount to a bailout of somebody’s real estate decision.’” He also voiced skepticism that the town should even pay for flood mitigation: “[H]ow how much are we willing to pay to put that plan into place? This is a multimillion-dollar project, one that I believe the people have to decide if it’s worth implementing.” [2]

Councilmember Greene doubts that the basin system would even make a difference but advocates instead for another basin in Fairfax and the demolition of 636 San Anselmo Avenue, which straddles the creek. [3] This is one of the proposals currently undergoing public comment.

What now?

The basin would have been part of the work plan for Flood Control District 9, the board charged with reducing flood risk in Ross Valley, but the rest of the work plan is still proceeding. This includes raising bridges in San Anselmo, Ross, and Fairfax; creating flood detention basins at Loma Alta and Lefty Gomez Field in Fairfax; creating additional storage capacity at Phoenix Lake; and improving the creek channel in Ross and Larkspur. [4] The conversion of Lefty Gomez Field has already inspired opposition. [5]

Of course, the Memorial Park basin was part of the overall flood mitigation strategy for the watershed and, with its demise, an alternative needs to be found. There are four alternatives currently before the district board, each of which costs approximately the same as the Memorial Park conversion. You can read all about them here, but the gist of them is that each would be disruptive somewhere. The No Basin Alternative involves heavy roadwork on the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard bridge. The Sleepy Hollow alternative involves a detention basin at Brookside Elementary. Councilmember Greene’s preferred alternative would involve at least partially demolishing two of downtown San Anselmo’s iconic buildings. [6]

It is a shame that downtown San Anselmo has to endure not just neglect from its neighborhoods but active opposition to its success. A town ought to be more than a commodity to be used but a community that sticks together and looks out for one another. Downtown is supposed to be the heart of that community.

Works Cited

[1] Richard Halstead, “Dueling Ballot Measures over Flood Control Divide San Anselmo,” Marin Independent Journal, September 26, 2015; Peter Seidman, “Shelter from the Storm,” Pacific Sun, May 4, 2015.

[2] Richard Halstead, “Ross Valley Flood Scare Brings Calls for Action,” Marin Independent Journal, January 13, 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Marin County Department of Public Works, “FZ9 Project Fact Sheets,” Marin County Watershed Program, accessed January 18, 2017.

[5] “Save Lefty Gomez Field,” accessed January 18, 2017.

[6] Liz Lewis, “Update-Analysis of Replacement Project Alternatives for DWR Grant” (San Anselmo, CA: Flood Control Zone 9 Advisory Board, June 21, 2016).