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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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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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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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.

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.

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).

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.

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).

A high-frequency SMART corridor, revisited

In this week’s IJ Forum, guest and transit skeptic Richard Hall brought up something I didn’t expect: the argument that transit frequency equals freedom [1]. This is something that transit advocates have been harping on in Marin and elsewhere for years, and one of the key factors that is likely to hold back SMART from reaching its potential. Though I addressed this point back in 2012, with the train opening up this year it is worth revisiting how SMART might be able to reach higher frequencies, and how much it might cost.

There is blood in the single-track stone

Once operational, SMART’s trains will run in both directions simultaneously despite having only one track. It can accomplish this through the judicious use of passing tracks, meaning a strategic stretch of the corridor will be double-tracked so trains can pass one another.

At full build-out, from Cloverdale to Larkspur Landing, there will be 4 such passing tracks, each of which is 12 miles long, which will allow trains to run every 30 minutes in either direction. (This 30-minute time is called the “headway” in transit-speak.) To double the frequency to 15 minutes, we would need to double the number of passing tracks to 8. To double frequency again to 7.5 minutes, we would need to double the number of passing tracks again to 16.

At this point, the permanently single-tracked Puerto Suello Tunnel between North and Central San Rafael becomes the choke point. Any further increases would need to widen the Puerto Suello Tunnel and basically double-track the whole system. This would likely overkill for the foreseeable future.

Using the existing construction costs as a guide, the cost for the passing tracks on a 15-minute headway system is $60 million. The cost for a 7.5-minute headway system is twice that: $120 million [2]. If we include the cost of the trains needed to run such frequent service, the total cost would be $120 million and $307 million, respectively [3].

We can squeeze blood out of this stone if we are willing to spend the money for it.

Of course, ridership at this point becomes a problem. Is it worth it to run trains this often? Definitely.

There are almost 43,000 jobs and over 19,000 people within a half-mile of SMART’s stations. 2,237 people live and work within the station areas [4], but commute trips account for only about 20 percent of all trips, and this doesn’t include people who might use the park and ride services. Ballpark figures, using a ridership model [PDF] from the Transportation Research Board put the ceiling of SMART’s potential ridership at about 25,000 [5]. SMART itself estimates its ridership will be around 4,500 trips per day, which the model agrees with.

We need to dive a little bit into some wonky economics for a moment using these numbers but bear with me.

When a transit operator alters some aspect of a transit service, they of course also alter the ridership. Increase the vehicle speed and ridership goes up. Increase fares and ridership goes down. This is called the elasticity of demand: how much does a given change affect the demand for that transit service. The first example mentioned references the in-vehicle time elasticity because it indicates how much people change their habits based on how much time they spend in a vehicle. The second example is the price elasticity because it deals with the price of using the service.

Headways alter the access time elasticity, which is more valuable to people when it comes to transit. As much as you may enjoy your walk to the train, you probably enjoy the fact that you can work or sleep on the train en route a little bit more.

Access time elasticity among commuters is 1.28, which is pretty high. Decreasing average wait times by 1 percent by decreasing headways by 2 percent increases ridership by 128 percent [6]. Doubling SMART’s frequency to 15 minutes, then, will get us a 64 percent* increase in passengers: from 4,500 trips per day to about 7,380. Doubling frequency again could get us to 12,100 trips per day. This, of course, does not count the number of people who would use SMART for non-commute trips too, and it also ignores the effects of improving on the very infrequent service SMART is planning on providing in the middle of the day.

I would argue that a 15-minute frequency would absolutely be worthwhile on the basis of the commuters alone (the cost per new commute trip is $42,000, half the cost per trip on the baseline SMART system). A 7.5-minute system is not as cost-effective based on new commuters, but is significant if we include non-commute trips.

It may also be a viable alternative to a wider Novato Narrows. The traffic congestion there is in part due to a 15 percent increase in the number of cars travelling through to Central San Rafael, or roughly 500 more vehicles per hour [7]. Diverting 3,690 trips per rush hour (half of 7,380) would alleviate that congestion, at least until drivers fill up the space again thanks to induced demand [8].

So Hall is quite right on this point: transit frequency influences how people travel and how many people use the system. I am unsure whether he knew just how influential frequency can be, but no matter. SMART would do well to examine the effects of increasing its service frequency.

* Average wait times are half of the headway: if you arrive at a random point during the inter-train period, your average wait is half the full headway. Doubling frequency, then – a 100 percent increase – decreases average wait times by half that, or 50 percent.

Note: Given how off-topic any comments section can get in a SMART-focused article, I have turned them off for this post.

Works Cited

[1] Traffic in Marin, IJ Forums (San Rafael, CA, 2016).

[2] David Edmondson, “High SMART Frequency on the Cheap,” The Greater Marin, August 8, 2012.

[3] David Edmondson, “Can SMART Double-Track?,” The Greater Marin, August 6, 2012.

[4] Center for Economic Studies, “Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics” (United States Census, n.d.).

[5] Daniel G. Chatman et al., “Making Effective Fixed Guideway Transit Investments: Indicators of Success” (Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board, 2014).

[6] Arthur O’Sullivan, Urban Economics, 8th ed (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2012), 295.

[7] David Edmondson, “The 101 Corridor: Transportation Myopia in Practice,” The Greater Marin, January 13, 2013; Caltrans, “Traffic Volumes on California State Highways” (Sacramento, CA: Government of California, 2014).

[8] Connor Jones, “The Street Economics of Induced Demand,” The Greater Marin, December 21, 2015.

Supervisor races were all about geography

The June 7 primary election gave us political junkies a much-needed look at temperature of Marin County's electorate. In lieu of polls, it's easy to imagine the loudest voices are also the most politically powerful, but that doesn't seem to be the case this year. Instead, geography was destiny, with incumbents swinging to large victories in incorporated areas and challengers finding difficulty breaking out of their unincorporated enclaves. In West Marin, it was a classic case of North vs. South.

These maps were created using the First Count data released by the elections office on June 10. Full data counts won't be available until next week. A brief update will outline what changed once these data are released.

District 2: Katie Rice, Kevin Haroff, Frank Egger

Image by the author. Click to enlarge.

This election pitted incumbent Katie Rice against Larkspur councilmember Kevin Haroff and former Fairfax councilmember (now Ross Valley Sanitary District board member) Frank Egger. Haroff was endorsed by the Citizen Marin coalition and came out early against the Larkspur Station Area Plan. Egger orchestrated rezoning large chunks of downtown Fairfax to include more parking a few years ago and has called for more parking around Larkspur Landing.

First, Rice won every precinct and won the district with a whopping 57 percent. Nowhere did she earn fewer votes than her challengers. However, these two split the Citizen Marin vote, and there are areas where Rice won less than the combined totals of her challengers.

Rice was strongest in Gerstle Park, downtown San Rafael, and Larkspur, but would have likely lost Ross, Greenbrae, and northern Fairfax had she only faced one challenger. Egger was strongest in Fairfax, as he often is, but failed to make a good showing elsewhere. Haroff showed strongest in Ross and Greenbrae but did not do so well in his home city.

District 3: Kate Sears and Susan Kirsch

Image by the author. Click to enlarge.

Incumbent Kate Sears beat back a vigorous challenge from Citizen Marin co-founder Susan Kirsch who arguably started her campaign almost two years ago.

Strawberry vigorously pushed back against a then-years-old Priority Development Area, arguing it was a way for Sears to ram through new housing. Though that anger and resentment are largely in the past, its marks remain on this electoral stage, with Kirsch handily winning the Strawberry Peninsula and narrowly earning the support of nearby unincorporated neighborhoods on the Tiburon Peninsula.

Tam Valley/Homestead Valley/Almonte, home to Citizen Marin ally Sustainable TamAlmonte and numerous protests over Muir Woods tourists, however, went to Sears, as did all the incorporated towns in the district. Sears’ strongest support came from Marin City, possibly indicating that attempts to make inroads there by Kirsch and Community Venture Partners’ Bob Silvestri have not been terribly successful electorally. Sausalito, home to Citizen Marin allies and councilwomen Linda Pfeifer and Jill Hoffman, also went strongly for Sears.

District 4: The West Marin melee

Image by the author.

The chaotic 8-way race to replace Steven Kinsey resulted in a runoff between first-place Dennis Rodoni and second-place Dominic Grossi. No doubt the various endorsing bodies will be looking hard at the positions of both as progressive Wendi Kallins (frequently misspelled Wendy) and Citizen Marinite Al Dugan both failed to make the top two.

Rodoni, Grossi, and Kallins, along with 8th-place finisher Mari Tamburo, each claimed victory in at least one precinct. Rodoni’s support was concentrated in the urban areas of District 4, such as Larkspur and Novato; Grossi won the rural ranchlands of West Marin, as is befitting a rancher; and Kallins won her home of Forest Knolls, Olema, and San Geronimo. Dugan’s support, such as it was, came from East Marin, implying his platform of traffic and pension reform just don’t resonate out West.

EDIT: [A typo in my map reversed Rodoni and Grossi, which gives us an interesting chance at counterfactuals. Here's my alternative, corrected analysis:]

Rodoni, Grossi, and Kallins, along with 8th-place finisher Mari Tamburo, each claimed victory in at elast one precinct. Rodoni's support was concentrated in the township and urban areas of southern West and East Marin, including his home of Olema. Grossi won his home city of Novato and the more agriculturally-focused areas of northern West Marin, with just a few pockets of support in Southern Marin. In this first-round of results - we won't have the final vote tally until next week - Kallins won the central areas of West Marin in the San Geronimo Valley. Tam Valley was fairly evenly split.

Dugan support was strongly focused in East Marin, though he came in a distant fourth place. His support, such as it was, indicates his platform of traffic and pension reform just didn't resonate out West.

Intriguingly, Kallins seemed to be most in competition with Grossi, not Dugan, with a negative correlation between Grossi and Kallins vote shares. Dugan seems to have been a candidate on his own, with no clear negative correlation between his vote share and anyone else’s. He shares this in common with the other also-rans and Rodoni. This likely means that Grossi and Kallins split support. If Kallins supporters swing over to Grossi, he would be a formidible foe, able to command support of most of the incorporated areas of his district as well as the more populous pieces of West Marin. Rodoni would need to pick up not just Dugan supporters but many of the other also-rans to match. We will find out more as the Grossi and Rodoni campaigns gear up for the runoff in November.

If a pattern can be drawn, it is that Marinites reward competence and presence in their supervisors. District 4 residents rewarded supervisors with West Marin sensibilities. In Districts 2 and 3, their efforts or not, Kate Sears and Katie Rice have both been at the forefront of efforts to fix their districts' traffic. Yet this also cuts the other way: Strawberry and Greenbrae feel sidelined by their respective supervisors. Building trust will be difficult in these communities, but will be important: the superior organizing power of anger and aggrievement can make governing difficult even for an electorally safe politician.

Author's note: I am digitizing a huge amount of electoral data going back to 2013 for all races. If there is a race you would like to see mapped, let me know in the comments.

Author's other note: Unfortunately, Marin’s elections office does not keep shapefiles of electoral precincts, only lists of which residential properties belong to which precinct. This makes for unpleasant-looking maps, with holes and gaps where roads or uninhabited parcels are. But, short of redrawing hundreds of electoral precincts, it’s the best we have.

Citizen Marin slate loses big – what does it mean for their coalition?

In the aftermath of elections in three supervisorial races where incumbents prevailed handsomely and West Marin’s Al Dugan notched a dismal fourth place, behind progressive third-place finisher Wendi Kallins, it is worth asking whether the coalition that birthed them still has steam.

Citizen Marin and its coalition – Community Venture Partners, MAD, Larkspur Strikes Back, Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans, and Sustainable TamAlmonte, among others – came to Marin in a splash back in 2011 and has notched up significant victories halting plans that would have allowed Marin’s affordable housing supply to expand in Strawberry, Tam Valley, Larkspur, Terra Linda, and Marinwood. They elected Damon Connolly to the Board of Supervisors and fought hard against new bicycle lanes, transit infrastructure, and zoning reforms throughout the county.

This year seemed like a golden chance for them to solidify a majority on the Board of Supervisors, allowing them to not just block reforms and homes but also entrench car-oriented policies and push against regional planning efforts from a position of power. In Kevin Haroff, they had a Larkspur councilmember; in Susan Kirsch, a longtime activist with name recognition; in Al Dugan, a resume sure to appeal to pension reformers.

They also had time. Talk of the supervisorial races was active in anti-housing circles as early as two years ago, with Susan Kirsch penning a coming-out Marin Voice in 2014.[1] They even felt confident enough to campaign against Measure AA, with Kirsch calling it taxation without representation.[2]

Yet each, sticking to the familiar talking points about housing, regionalism, and traffic, lost big, with incumbents Katie Rice and Kate Sears beating challengers by double-digit margins and Dugan not even notching above 10 percent.

In the absence of solid data, it’s tough to say exactly why the three failed, but it’s likely the anger that propelled the anti-housing coalition to prominence is subsiding in the population at large. Dick Spotswood, for what it’s worth, agrees, writing, “Much of America is angry. Not Marin.”[3]

Even if this is the case, housing advocates and other progressive reformers have only started to win a conversation set by Citizen Marin. They have yet to really start a new one. Supporting the progressive vision of Marin as a collection of welcoming, car-optional and quiet suburban towns is quite a different thing than just disbelieving Citizen Marin’s fearfulness.

And there are real problems that have languished as progressives have fought a drag-out fight for better affordable housing, especially the utter mismanagement of Golden Gate Transit.

There is no guarantee that the conversation will shift or that the coalition is on its way out. It still has elected supporters throughout Marin, and the upcoming Plan Bay Area meetings offer it an opportunity to reignite the anger that launched its march. Dick Spotswood still occupies a powerful soapbox. Yet the tide that nearly shifted Marin’s political landscape certainly feels as though it is ebbing. It simply remains to be seen whether the coalition will be able to launch another successful anti-incumbent challenge.

Works Cited

[1] Susan Kirsch, “Building on Voters’ Push for Political Affirmation,Marin Independent Journal, November 12, 2014.

[2] Susan Kirsch, “Bay Tax Is Taxation without Representation for Marin,” Marin Independent Journal, March 9, 2016.

[3] Dick Spotswood, “Marin Results Don’t Reflect Much Voter Anger,Marin Independent Journal, June 11, 2016.