The injustice of bundled parking

The other day, we looked at a new apartment building proposed for downtown San Rafael with mindbogglingly expensive parking and tried to determine how the project could be improved. One big way that deserves a second look is allowing people to rent parking spots and apartments separately.

Thanks to city law, a developer is not allowed to unbundle the cost of those parking spaces from the rent it charges tenants. Tenants don’t get the choice of whether they get a parking space or not. They just do.

Unlike a single-family home, however, these garages aren’t adaptable. A tenant can’t just use their reserved 153 square feet (8’6” by 18’) for storage or as a workspace. Adaptation isn’t just impractical, but per the city code, it would be illegal. Instead, the parking space will just sit, an empty slab of concrete soaking up $700 per month in rent. That raises the income needed to rent a market-rate home by $25,200. This is fundamentally unfair, soaking money from tenants for a resource that may not be used, damaging the vitality of the city. It gets worse.

If I’m already paying for car storage, then it’s a strong incentive for me to get a car. The developer has already spent over $55,000; I might as well go the extra $5,000 and buy a car. That will incentivize me to do things like drive more, avoid transit, and otherwise help choke up the roads and air. It gets worse.

If I’m paying $700 per month for the required car storage and another $300 per month on car ownership (car payments, gas, maintenance), that’s $1,000 I won’t be able to spend around Marin, depressing my value as a resident. That’s $12,000 per year leaving the county rather than going to local business (gas and maintenance shops ship most of their income out of the local economy).

Not only does this law restrict personal freedom of choice, it drains away hundreds of thousands of dollars from the local economy each year, and that’s just on this project. If San Rafael’s empty parcels get a similar treatment, it will be millions. It encourages car ownership and traffic and wastes the money of people who might want to go car-free.

There are three, radically simple solutions.

Repeal the parking minimum requirements for all new development in San Rafael. Developers know that they need parking sometimes to sell or rent units, but the city shouldn't substitute the judgment of skilled businesspeople for the judgment of whoever wrote the parking codes long ago.

Allow developers to unbundle parking spaces from any rent or purchase. If someone wants to buy or rent a place to keep their car, they're welcome to it, but like most products it shouldn't be forced upon consumers.

Allow parking space owners or renters to use the space for other purposes, whether a storage unit or even a workshop. It's a lot of square feet, and the owner/renter is paying for it. They should have a right to do whatever they like with it.

Each of these may have some unintended consequences, which we'll discuss next week.

Checking in DC/Baltimore Railways in 1921

It's been many weeks since the last update on the mapping projects - it will be weekly from here on in - but there has been considerable progress made on the DC/Baltimore map.

When last we met, I had finished up Baltimore and was on my way to Washington. We've made it way, way out of Washington now, with service patterns to Hagerstown, Richmond, and York all laid out. I've finally started to chart out river ferry service, which means laying out geography, and that means I can start putting together service to the Eastern Shore and Delaware.

How far we've come.

How far we've come.

With 950 or so stops to cover, this has been the largest single project I've done. Given that it's nearly August, and the expected delivery was June, this is also taking much longer than I thought it would. And, it's only getting larger, with additional railway service in the Eastern Shore, where there's room for it, and a new connection between Winchester, Martinsburg, and Hagerstown.

In the end, this will show nearly all of the railway networks of Maryland and Delaware and about a quarter of Virginia's, along with slivers of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. I'd like to revisit these states and do state-isolated maps at some point, but not for a long while.

The purpose of maps like this is to show some of the underlying travel patterns that informed our built environment. As well, when activists consider whether to convert an old railway to a trail, or to build a new rail line, they may want to look at old rights-of-way to see whether there's some latent transit potential there.

This map is available for pre-order in the Map Store, alongside finished prints of the Marin County Interurban in 1939 and the San Francisco Bay Area in 1937.

How to improve the San Rafael apartment proposal

On Wednesday, news broke that San Rafael could soon find itself home to another 162 households, thanks to a proposed redevelopment of the Third Street garage and a couple ancillary buildings. This is the kind of development San Rafael needs more of, and the unique parking situation means it could get even better.

The basics

Lennar Multifamily Communities wants to build a 60-foot, 162-home building on Fourth Street across from Courthouse Square. Of these, 11 percent will be affordable. This is within the scope of downtown zoning and height limits, as well as within the realm of San Rafael’s place as Marin’s urban core.

Thanks to parking minimums, the lots where Lennar wants to build – 1001 Fourth Street and 924 Third Street – are too small to fit homes, businesses, and parking all on-site. To make things work, Lennar wants to incorporate and rebuild the 180-space Third Street garage, fulfilling San Rafael’s long-time goal of rebuilding the old structure.

This is on top of the minimum parking requirements for the apartments themselves, which comes to 194 spaces.

Parking is hella expensive

The Third Street garage is curiously expensive. The cost to tear down and rebuild has been estimated by the town to be about $10 million, or about $55,556 per space. This is well above the average for above-ground parking garages. Although some of the cost may be in demolition, it is still over 3.5 times the national average (PDF) ($15,552), and well over twice the cost of construction in San Francisco ($19,253) and New York City ($20,326).

If this is the cost of building a parking garage in downtown San Rafael, then over $20 million of development cost will be absorbed by parking alone - $10 million for the garage, $10 million for the additional spaces. The rest of the construction will probably cost around $14.3 million*, which means 60 percent of the cost of construction will be taken up by parking. It speaks to the huge demand for homes in Marin that this is even considered feasible.

Parking reform

Given the astronomical cost of parking in this project and the eminently walkable nature of downtown San Rafael, this may be a good place to eliminate parking minimums for affordable units, and to unbundle parking rental from apartment rent.

About a month ago, Dick Spotswood proposed eliminating parking requirements for affordable housing. Although I don’t believe he was serious – he regularly backs car-centric activists, politicians, and thinkers – perhaps we should take him seriously anyway.

Doing so here, with the current 11 percent affordable ratio, would eliminate 23 spaces from the project. That would shave $1.3 million from construction costs. If the affordability ratio were raised to 20 percent, it would cut 40 spaces, shaving $2.2 million from construction costs.

For the developer, that’s huge. Affordable housing is a legal requirement, after all, and its costs are subsidized either by taxpayers (in the case of nonprofit housing) or by market rate renters (in the case of for-profit housing). In this project, the parking requirements add $694 per month to the rent of one- and two-bedroom apartments and $1,042 to the rent of three-bedroom apartments.** Cutting out that cost would be nearly enough to subsidize the apartments on their own. Indeed, it may be enough to improve the ratio of affordable homes to 20 percent or higher.

Another concept that San Rafael should pursue is unbundling the cost of parking from rent. Providing the parking space as a benefit of renting encourages car ownership. Whether they want a car or not, renters would be paying for an extra 270 square feet of space in the garage.

Unbundling would allow car owners to pay for a space to park if they want it and lower rents for those that don’t, putting these homes within reach of more people and keeping more of renters’ money in downtown.

Indeed, there would be a multiplier effect of encouraging car-free living within downtown. People who walk or bike to retail tend to spend more money per month in their own neighborhood. And, by encouraging car-free living, new residents would be incentivized to stay downtown, raising sales tax revenue for the city, reducing traffic costs, and adding revenue to downtown businesses.

Further reductions could be made with transportation demand management strategies, such as providing residents and employees with subsidized Clipper cards and ZipCar memberships, and providing bicycle parking.

This will be a much-needed infusion of new homes to Marin and downtown San Rafael. The city has hardly grown at all in the past five years despite a crushing need for new revenue and new homes. This is precisely the right place, and the right form, for these homes to take.

*San Rafael has a floor-area ratio of 2.0 along Fourth Street, and the three parcels that will be part of the Lennar development have an area of about 59,900 square feet. If we assume the 70,686 square feet dedicated to parking will not be included in the floor area calculation, then the structure will be 119,800 square feet. Given its size, it can be wood frame construction on top of concrete, which costs $119.77 per square foot to construct. $119.77 * 119,800 square feet = $14,348,446.

**This assumes each parking space costs $55,556 to build and a market capitalization rate of 1.25 percent.

Grady Ranch, two years on

With Marin’s housing crisis in the national spotlight, and the Grady Ranch affordable housing proposal light attracting the journalistic moths, perhaps it is worthwhile to revisit the assumptions made when Grady Ranch was first proposed.

In my first post on the subject, widely linked to by opponents of housing, I said of the project:

Development [at Grady Ranch] would be bad by any measure. Car-centric sprawl [such as this] fills our roads with more traffic, generates more demand for parking, and forces residents to play Russian roulette every time they want to get milk. It takes retail activity away from our town centers, weakening the unique Marin character embodied in downtowns...
I respect the efforts of George Lucas and Marin Community Foundation to find a place for the low-income to live, but Grady Ranch is not it. Lucas and MCF need to look at urban infill sites and focus on building up in those areas that are transit-accessible and walkable, places that are actually affordable. Replicating the discredited drive-‘til-you-qualify dynamic in Marin is not the answer; it’s just recreating the problem.

But the calculus has changed. While infill development is far and away the superior path to building more affordable housing, anti-housing activists have blocked every attempt to bring more homes downtown or to retrofit Marin’s drivable places.

In fact, they have actively worked to weaken or defeat opportunities for infill development. With a willful campaign of misinformation they defeated the Larkspur and North San Rafael station area plans. They have beaten Fairfax's planned expansion of downtown into highway commercial zones to within an inch of its life with the same tactics.

All the while, these same anti-housing groups have done little or nothing to advance their stated agenda of more second unit homes. They were absent when the Novato Water District pushed for massive fees on secondary water hookups, leaving it to CALM and MEHC to defeat the proposal. They have not tried to broaden acceptance of housing vouchers by private homeowners, have not pressed for reduced permitting fees, subsidized construction, or a lift of off-street parking requirements.

So without new infill development, without new second homes, and a mounting crisis, there is no other place for homes to go except the greenfield.

This is not a philosophical position, but a pragmatic one. The affordable housing waitlist is over a decade long. Our seniors are living in storage units, and our families are living in their cars. The crisis has only gotten worse in the past two years, and the politics have not improved. Affordable housing advocates, though firm believers in smart growth, should not stand idly by while our crisis deepens.

In other words, by throwing up roadblocks to development that will generate comparatively little traffic or strain municipal budgets, housing opponents have forced advocates to make a gut-wrenching choice between the relative well-being of Marin's worst-off and the practices we know will make for a better built environment in Marin. Opponents of housing will get the highest impact development possible because they have made it impossible to build anything else. Nobody is happy about that.

As I also said two years ago, "[E]ven if Grady Ranch is an irredeemable project, that doesn’t mean the end result can’t be less terrible." Grady Ranch is now in the planning phase, and there are myriad ways to reduce driving trips and promote connectivity for the new residents there. Advocates should dust off their New Urbanist hats and dive in to provide guidance on how to reduce trips and automobile dependence at Grady Ranch.

Grady Ranch really is all wrong, but doing nothing would be even worse.

Will anything ever change?

With the death of Aura Celeste Machado on Point San Pedro Road still fresh in our minds, neighbors and safe streets activists are again calling for traffic calming on the high-speed thoroughfare. But they did the same two years ago when a driver killed Hailey Ratliff on her way home from school in Novato, and there were no substantial changes. Others rallied when a driver killed Olga Rodriguez on Heatherton in San Rafael last year, but nothing changed there, either. Will Celeste’s tragic death be the last straw?

Celeste was jogging around a fallen tree that hadn’t been reported to city maintenance workers when a driver hit her. Though she wasn’t killed instantly, doctors said she wouldn’t recover consciousness and her parents made the heart-wrenching decision to remove her from life support.

The section of road where she was killed is thickly peopled, with residential neighborhoods rising into the hills on one side of the road and commercial and other services descending on the other side into San Rafael Bay.

It is also a high-speed divided thoroughfare, with freeway-width lanes and a median barrier. The posted speed limit of 35mph means a typical speed of 40mph, and the forgiving roadway design means speeds of 50 and up are easy to imagine.

The speed and the design that facilitates it are important factors. At these speeds, any mistake by someone driving or someone walking is likely to mean death or life-changing injury for the person on foot.

Activists working with the elementary school have been trying to get a stop sign installed for years to no avail. A stop sign is the easiest form of traffic calming on a road like this, as it slows traffic down for a considerable distance around the sign as drivers decelerate and accelerate. It works well on D Street, as it slows drivers who have come down off Wolfe Grade on their way to downtown San Rafael.

We don’t know if a stop sign would have saved Celeste, but it would certainly have improved her odds. Though a collision at 40mph means almost certain death, a collision at 25mph rarely results in death.

The pessimist in me says nothing will change. We will pour out sympathies, again, and cry over the life cut short, again, but then still prioritize high-speed traffic over lives and safety.

I hope we can do more than shed crocodile tears.

Marin’s traffic in the decline – except at peak

On Marin’s roads, driving is down, daily traffic is down, and morning commutes are worse. The odd and seemingly contradictory data helps shed light on some of the core problems of congestion and travel in our county, and helps us confirm (and dispel) some myths about the state of driving.

Introduction to the data

On state and federal roads in Marin (highways 1, 37, 101, 137, and 580), Caltrans keeps track of average daily traffic volumes over the course of a year, average daily traffic volumes in the busiest month, and peak hour traffic volumes.  The latest dataset is from 2013, and there’s no data for 2009 or 2010.

California’s Air Resources Board (ARB) keeps track of the vehicle miles travelled, or VMT, throughout the county. When combined with data such as number of vehicles and number of people, we can know how many miles the average driver puts on their vehicle.

Broad trends

The broadest trend in Marin is faster traffic growth at the peak hour than during the rest of the day. This is most pronounced in Highway 101 north of Larkspur, where peak volumes rose an average of 9 percent between 2012 and 2013 while daily volumes are essentially flat.

This strongly implies people are driving to work more, that work is further away, and that more people are commuting to Marin from other counties.

Data from the ARB and Census backs up these hypotheses. Per capita VMT and trips per day has declined substantially since 2000 even while average distance to work has climbed, both for Marin’s working population and its workforce.

Trips per capita have seen steady declines since 2007, while VMT has only perked up in the past two years since its high in 2002.

Travel distance has continued to grow,at the expense of the shortest commutes under 10 miles.

Localized trends: Tam Valley

Perhaps nobody’s traffic has received such attention than Tam Valley’s. Complaints about Muir Woods tourists clogging local roadways have become integral to the neighborhood’s politics, but Caltrans data doesn’t quite bear out this narrative.

While travel to Muir Woods grew over the past five years, it actually declined in 2012 and 2013. As well, despite the overall growth, drivers diverting to Panoramic Highway – the access road to Muir Woods – only account for about 7 percent of peak-hour traffic at Tam Junction, the main intersection. Even during peak season, just one tenth of daily travel is to Panoramic Highway. The real growth comes from Mill Valley’s rush hour.

Commuter traffic coming from Mill Valley down Almonte Boulevard grew 23 percent from 2012 to 2013, a huge jump in an area with terrific backups. This is in spite of a 6 percent decline in daily traffic volumes at Tam Junction over the same period.

If tourists were the reason for the traffic backups today, volume would need to have spiked by 20 percent in 2014 to return to the high of 2011, which was long before the current ruckus over tourist traffic began.

Localized trends: Tiburon

Traffic is way, way down on the Tiburon Peninsula’s Highway 131. Between 2001 and 2013, volumes dropped by as much as 40 percent, or an astounding 19,000 cars per day. Rush hour traffic didn’t drop quite as much, but a 9 percent fall is nothing to sneeze at.

This fall fits almost perfectly with the decline in jobs and workers on the Tiburon Peninsula. According to LODES, the number of workers commuting out of Tiburon dropped by about 10 percent between 2001 and 2011, and the number of workers commuting in dropped by about 9 percent.

Localized trends: Highways 101, 37, and I-580

Marin’s spinal Highway 101 can be broadly split in two: the area south of the 580 Junction and the area to its north. Beyond the cultural differences between Northern and Southern Marin, they have different commute sheds, with northerners more likely to commute to San Rafael, and more likely to endure traffic from Sonomans, than their southern compatriots. Between 2001 and 2013, rush hour traffic grew slower and daily traffic fell south of 580, the opposite of what was occurring north of 580.

I-580 is undergoing similar transformations, with rush hours growing much faster than daily volumes. Though travel on all modes was essentially flat between 2011 and 2013, between 2010 and 2011 the rush hours grew mightily, heavily weighted toward the 101 junction. Between the 101 junction and Sir Francis Drake rush hour volumes grew an average of 27 percent; to the east of Sir Francis Drake, rush hours grew by just 12 percent.

Part of the reason for the growth in Northern Marin – though by no means all of it – is the significant added volume on Highway 37 to Solano County. While rush hours were once comparable to Highway 1, rush hour volumes are up 17 percent, and daily travel is up by a similar amount.

The growing importance of San Rafael as a jobs hub for Sonoma and Northern Marin is likely the cause of worsening rush hours on all three roadways.

Policy implications

Given the growing importance of San Rafael as a commuter destination, it is more important than ever for that city to do what it can to reduce the demand to drive into its downtown from the north, and for Sonoma’s transit agencies to treat it with the same seriousness GGT gives to San Francisco.

The lowest-cost policy for San Rafael and for the County is to aggressively approach the problem of parking as part of a broader transportation demand management scheme. Important to that would be to eliminate parking minimums downtown, establish parking permit districts in the surrounding neighborhoods to prevent overflow, and price street parking sufficiently to ensure there’s always a space available on the block where you want to park.

The location of growth in 101 traffic speaks to the importance of SMART in alleviating traffic congestion. 101’s 14-15 percent growth in peak hour traffic (really both of the two-hour morning and evening rush hours) heading to San Rafael from the north amounts to only about 500 cars per rush hour. Given how much a difference these extra cars have made to Northern Marin commutes, diverting an equivalent number of trips to a train would be a major boon.

Highway 37 is a sticky wicket. Widening the road would simply add congestion to 101 and encourage it near Vallejo. Congestion pricing and buses would be a far cheaper and more immediate solution. The ongoing study of travel along Highway 37 should incorporate both of these.

In Southern Marin, the travel demand from Mill Valley to San Francisco has already made Route 4 one of the most productive in GGT’s system. Further boosts to transit through that corridor will pay off, especially measures to allow buses to bypass the heinous backups.

Conversion of general travel lanes on 101 south of Marin City to HOV lanes would likely pay off upstream. Encouraging people to carpool or take faster buses – and there is no such incentive for Southern Marinites today – will mean fewer vehicles at the various chokepoints like Tam Junction.

Finally, while the drop in traffic around Marin is welcome, if travel isn’t replaced by other modes it’s a worrying sign for Marin’s economy. Cities and the county must invest in their protected bicycle infrastructure. Studies in comparable locations around the country have found people arriving by bike are much better customers for downtown businesses than people arriving by car. Marin is well-primed to take advantage of that fact, with its vibrant mountain biking scene and walkable town centers.

The siren songs of wider roads and a housing moratorium

The reflex is to forego all this transit-and-biking mess and push for more roads, or to call for a moratorium on housing. Both would be foolish.

It has been known since the 1930s that more roads simply fill up with more cars. Widening 101 at the Novato Narrows is expected to displace congestion from the Sonoma/Marin border to Central San Rafael. Widening 580 will only encourage more people to swap their Bay Bridge commute for a Richmond Bridge commute.

Housing moratoria won’t work either. Rush hour traffic has grown far, far faster than population. San Rafael and Tam Valley have seen almost no housing growth in the past five years but have seen stupendous rush hour traffic growth. There needs to be a plan to reduce driving demand among Marinites. Reflexively calling for a housing moratorium is misidentifying the problem, pointing the finger outwards when Marinites themselves are the cause of the problem.

Opponents of housing have floated an innovative idea: remove parking minimums from local development codes. If properly sited and blended with local retail, this housing could actually facilitate a drop in traffic. Portland conducted a comparative study of transit-oriented and car-oriented developments and found that the number of car trips diverted was far greater than the number of new transit trips. The authors speculated this was because more people were able to walk or bike from home for their daily errands.

A housing moratorium, then, is bad medicine from a misdiagnosis of the problem. Rather, Marin needs a parking moratorium. Coupling that with the transportation alternatives listed above could prove a sea-change in how Marin gets around, and may put a halt to the rapid rise in traffic.

San Rafael needs a progressive replacement for Nader Mansourian

First up: if you’re interested in becoming a new Director of Public Works for a small city, apply by the end of today.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from the Business Improvement District.

For years, San Rafael has been something of a mixed bag to Marin’s suburbanists. On the one hand, its downtown is the most transit-accessible places in the county. On the other, the network of one-way streets and pedestrian barriers – especially on Second and Third – have rendered large swathes of the city no-go zones for pedestrians.

With Nader Mansourian’s retirement as Director of Public Works in March, San Rafael has a chance to hire someone who makes moving people a greater priority. If I were a member of the city council, I would ask candidates the following questions:

1.       What do you believe the role of a city’s streets should be? The answer I’m looking for: for moving people, and for building the community's wealth. The answer I’m not looking for: to move vehicular traffic. The first answer indicates the candidate understands that traffic and street problems are more than just engineering issues around traffic flow. There are competing priorities for city streets.

The second answer indicates the opposite, that moving cars, regardless of the occupancy, is more important than pedestrian safety or encouraging more efficient use of the street network.

2.       What do you think of the NACTO standards? NACTO design guides have become one of the most important parts of building complete streets. They include scientifically evaluated standards for safe bike lanes of all types; for transit-only lanes; for arterial roads; and others.

Caltrans has endorsed NACTO's guides. Having a new director that embraces this shift is vital for the city.

3.       What do you feel the city can do to improve pedestrian safety? Roadways and pedestrian safety are more than simply a compact between people in cars and people on foot. Design can have a subtle and subconscious effect on driver and pedestrian behavior.

The most obvious results of Mansourian’s safety efforts are scores of Do Not Cross pedestrian barriers and the removal of the crosswalk at Third and Cijos. He largely didn't make use of the other, more subtle and effective tools in the toolbox.

San Rafael desperately needs a progressive in charge of its infrastructure, especially its streets. Mansourian was a highly effective engineer, but he was hidebound to outdated standards that run against the grain of modern best practices. San Rafael needs change. You should apply – applications are due at the end of the day.

Sausalito in backwards fight against ferries

For years, Sausalito had struggled with its success. Tourists on rental bikes flood the town every summer, creating a logistical and transportation nightmare for the small city.

Recently, attempts by the city council to cope with the challenge have been less about addressing the issue and more about resentment against tourists, cyclists, and the ferries they rely upon. The City Council looks set to vote its opposition to an expanded Golden Gate Ferry facility and has already expressed opposition to a National Park Service ferry to Fort Baker.

Background

Sausalito is part of the natural loop of bike-riding tourists to San Francisco: rent a bike, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, head down to Sausalito, hang out, then take a ferry back. Simple, easy. But downtown Sausalito is a tightly constrained place. Bridgeway, the only road running the full length through downtown, doesn't have the facilities to handle its bike traffic, and so it spills over onto sidewalks, rankling locals. According to Marinscope, some ferries have to leave for San Francisco half full because of the sheer number of people with bikes.

As far back as 2009 at least, the more colorful described these bike-riding tourists as "locusts." In 2015, conservative councilmember Linda Pfeifer proposed limiting the number of people on bikes from entering the city.

Sausalito isn't the only place with tourist problems. Tam Valley has been groaning under the weight of tourist traffic heading to Muir Woods along Shoreline Highway. Sharon Rushton, a political ally of Councilmember Pfeifer, has been fighting the National Park Service's proposals around the national monument for years, whether it has meant fighting shuttles, parking, or parking management.

Back to Sausalito

To help address the number of people taking the Sausalito Ferry with bicycles, GGBHTD has proposed expanding its Sausalito terminal.

The proposed new terminal. Click to enlarge.

According to planning documents (large PDF) the new terminal would allow a fully-loaded Spaulding ferry, which can accommodate up to 750 passengers with up to 100 bikes, to unload in 3 minutes and load in 6. This is a dramatic improvement over existing conditions, where ferries are reported to sometimes leave half-full.

As well, the new design would allow passengers with bikes to load simultaneously and separately from those without bikes, reducing some of the friction that causes delays in off-loading at San Francisco.

But the proposal has raised hackles with the council. Those opposed to the redesign aren't happy with the final pier's distance from shore and the amount of water covered. They'd like GGBHTD to begin regular dredging of the area so ferries could come closer to shore.

The top image is the current terminal; the bottom is the most visually intrusive design option of the proposed terminal.

To my eyes, the new design looks only slightly more intrusive than the old; it's unclear to me why adding an additional and ongoing expense of dredging would be necessary. Perhaps a commenter could enlighten me as to the downside of the new design's size.

This is not the only ferry project that may happen around Sausalito.

A National Park ferry at Fort Baker?

Two miles south, the National Park Service (NPS) is interested in building a new ferry terminal at Fort Baker. While details are sketchy, the NPS has said the ferry would be operated by the same company that currently operates Alcatraz service. According to Marinscope, the terminal would only be used for "special events" and would not include a parking lot.

According to Brian Aviles, planner for the NPS:

The intent is to complement the programs at Fort Baker and perhaps allow people to visit Fort Baker without having to drive. We felt it prudent to investigate installing a gangway and float. It would function to link the main Alcatraz embarkation point to Fort Baker. (quoted by Marinscope)

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, this is part of a larger project to add ferry service to water-adjacent NPS sites around the Bay, including Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond. It would allow NPS to focus tourist traffic towards ferry service rather than the current collection of ferries, shuttles, and parking lots.

While not part of the project's scope, Sausalito City Manager Adam Politzer finds the idea of NPS shuttles on Sausalito streets frightening:

Having a ferry terminal at Fort Baker, even just for special events, would create traffic on both Alexander Avenue and Highway 101, exacerbating an already intolerable traffic situation... The increased traffic would place strains of vehicle movement and parking. Adding shuttle buses to the mix would also increase congestion on busy Sausalito streets.

Councilmember Pfeifer adds:

It is pretty obvious what the strategic goal is... I can see over time they will be directing the overflow [from Alcatraz] to Fort Baker and shifting those folks to downtown Sausalito.

The concerns expressed by Politzer and Pfeifer echo Rushton's complaints about the NPS and Muir Woods. Through her organization, Sustainable TamAlmonte, Rushton and others have advocated to limit the absolute number of visitors to Muir Woods per year and has opposed efforts to expand local shuttle service, saying that such ideas amount to commercialization of the monument.

Yet this ferry concept seems to fit perfectly with Sustainable TamAlmonte's proposed alternative, which is point-of-origin shuttle service. In a 2013 letter to the Board of Supervisors, Rushton writes:

If an Independent Scientific Carrying Capacity Study on visitor load for Muir Woods and related parking & traffic proves the need for a more robust shuttle system, establish a Muir Woods Shuttle System (using small shuttle buses) that picks up and drops off Muir Woods’ visitors at regional points of origin (E.g. San Francisco, East Bay, and North Bay) and NOT within the Tamalpais Area Community Plan area.

Without a parking lot, the Fort Baker ferry terminal could only be a shuttle for tourists from San Francisco and never add to traffic congestion on Sausalito streets. Even under the most intense use of a ferry - the implementation of shuttle service - would likely only add 2 vehicles per hour per direction to Bridgeway, hardly a tipping point. And, by encouraging tourists to forego car rentals entirely, it might actually cut down on the amount of vehicular traffic within Sausalito.

Sausalito’s city council is standing in opposition to transit from two providers that could be vital to reducing congestion in their city and Southern Marin at large. The professed reasons to oppose either project – the scale of the GGBHTD proposal, traffic at the parking-free NPS proposal – don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Thankfully, neither proposal is likely to be seriously affected. GGBHTD may modify their ferry terminal design, but the project will go ahead when the council majority – with which Pfeifer generally does not vote – is satisfied with any changes. And the EIR commissioned by Sausalito on the NPS proposal may shed valuable light on the terminal’s impact and reiterate the baselessness of traffic concerns.

Sausalito and Southern Marin does have a serious tourist traffic problem, but opposing ferries and shuttles won't help mitigate the problem. 

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Over the past month, I’ve been working hard on my historic railroad mapping project, which is doing well over on Kickstarter. For sale are also 12×12 to 24×24 prints of the Northwestern Interurban map. If there’s enough demand, when the store opens up in May I’ll also include prints of the Highway 101 Strip Map and, if the project ever finishes, the North Bay Bus Map.

That’s not all I’ve been up to. I married a beautiful linguist, been accepted to graduate school, scrambled to find the money to fund said graduate school, and become involved to some degree in developing world urban policies. (Kinshasa and the Democratic Republic of Congo is an especially fascinating story.)

Of course, this has used up a great deal of time, and so I haven’t been able to update this blog as much as I ought to have. There is no shortage of issues to discuss, from the gorgeous new renderings of Whistlestop’s development proposal to Sausalito’s battle with transit, ferries, and tourists.

On top of all that, there is research out about the multiplier effects of transit-oriented design that I’ve been sitting on since February, a proposal for an on-street bike path from San Rafael to The Hub I’ve been sitting on since last year, and more. There’s so much to cover and so little time.

Marin County is fascinating not simply because of its place as my family home but also because its challenges are the challenges of suburbs around the country writ small. We avoided many of the problems plaguing many of America’s new suburbs but are reticent to tackle our own.

Next month, The Greater Marin will reopen on a new site, theGreaterMarin.org, advertisement-free and integrated with a store to purchase prints of the various mapping projects (the good ones) I’ve done over the years.

TGM has been on an unplanned hiatus, but I’m not going anywhere.

Mapping the derelict lines of the Bay Area

The old railroads that once defined the Bay Area and the country at large are typically just hinted at. Some lines only operate freight; others, overgrown rails, but many are just sinewy lines on a parcel map. While we do have old maps showing where the rails were, these are rail maps, not service maps.

Some years ago, I used old timetables to create a service map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban, which brought to life a system that has been gone for over 70 years. This year, I decided to do the same thing for the whole of the Bay Area, and I’m launching a Kickstarter to fund prints and maps of other regions of the country.

The first map, for the Bay Area, shows every train published in the 1937 Official Guide to the Railways that began within the 9-county Bay Area. After lines leave the Bay Area, the map shows their last convergence points before major hubs like Los Angeles. If you want a print, head on over to the Kickstarter page.

The maps makes clear how much of a legacy these old rail companies left to the region. BART’s southern East Bay lines largely follow the Western Pacific right-of-way, while Amtrak still follows the Southern Pacific, including the A5/A6 route to San Jose. The map also shows some of the oddities leftover from competition, like the parallel Amtrak and BART lines, sometimes just a few blocks from one another.

To the north, BART’s Bay Point line follows the Sacramento North, while its route to Richmond blends ATSF and Southern Pacific rights-of-way. Caltrain still runs on Southern Pacific track, as does ACE.

I don’t think anything runs on the dinky little Bay Point & Clayton right-of-way, which itself is a fun story.

If you like railroads, and you like cool maps, then you really will want to sponsor. Seriously, $40 is pretty good for a 24×24 poster.

I also have prints of my map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban. Next up is the Washington-Baltimore region. I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m really excited to see what comes out of the mist.

Manipulate the housing market with this one neat trick

Regulations often result in unintended consequences. Money flows to find any crack in the system, after all, and often those cracks are in very odd places. Zoning and building codes are no different, and they can manipulate not just how people do business but how we built our cities. In Marin, towns regulate density through a few different rules. Most prominent is units per acre, sometimes around 20 to 30 units per acre, but Marin’s various codes use other measures: floor-area ratio, parking minimums, minimum lot sizes, height limits, and minimum amount of open space.

Last month, the blog Urban Kchoze looked at this panoply of regulatory systems to illustrate how they alter the built environment, and found that they often don’t do a very good job of limiting traffic or population density. About Marin’s favorite regulation, units per acre, the author writes:

An interesting point to consider is what happens to the single individuals in North America that seek cheap housing options, since they are largely deprived of the small 1-Bedroom apartments due to regulations restricting the number of units that can be built per area? Well, they share apartments with roommates. Indeed, becoming roommates is the way consumers have devised to go around the excessive parking and density limitations imposed by North American planners. It is not a desirable situation, but when in a pinch, people will do it.

So North American regulations that limit the density of units but are less restrictive on FAR will result in bigger housing units as developers will build big units to maximize profits.

Policies that do the opposite, meaning limit FAR but are favorable to subdividing buildings in many units thanks to a lack of minimum lot size and low or no minimum parking regulation will have the opposite effect: tend to increase housing density but reduce the size of units.

Our current system doesn’t work very well. Rents are spiking, people are aging, traffic is growing, and the poor are crowding into tiny spaces, especially in The Canal.

As Marin continues to wrestle with the future of its town centers, especially in downtown San Rafael, leaders should figure out what exactly they want to limit. If it’s traffic, they should limit parking. If it’s kids for the school system, they should limit height but lift density caps. (Small homes don’t accommodate families well, after all.)

Marin needs to chart a way forward, but the only way to do that is to understand where we want to go, and what tools we need to get there.

SMART's new shelter designs are even worse than before

SMART may be on the verge of making a serious mistake. Back in August, 2014, the rail agency released its “65%” plans for stations to decidedly mixed reviews. Stung by the criticism, particularly from San Rafael mayor Gary Phillips who called the designs “ridiculous”, SMART went into a long internal huddle.

Shelter Option 1, from SMART’s “65%” station design
Shelter Option 1, from SMART’s “65%” station design

Last Wednesday, at its Board meeting, SMART offered something new. Focusing mainly on platform shelters, it proposed an alternative to the forest green “Option 1” design included in the 65% station drawings.

The new shelters, inspired by bus stops, use a “standing seam hip roof design” and are being referred to as “Option 2”. They are proposed to be painted black, although SMART staff seems willing to allow cities to paint them any color in the rainbow. Cities will have until March 31st to tell SMART whether they want this new shelter or prefer to stick with Option 1. Based on the feedback from SMART Board members, it appears that cities will be lining up for Option 2.

An inspiration for “Option 2” – Bus shelter in Duluth, MN
An inspiration for “Option 2” – Bus shelter in Duluth, MN

That’s unfortunate. The new Option 2 design has many serious downsides and will likely be viewed with regret once SMART begins its operations. Moreover, switching them out for something totally different later on may not be easy.

SMART is waiting until the shelters are chosen to lay a top slab of concrete on its station platforms. That implies that the details of the top slab (for things like utilities or drainage) are tailored to a specific shelter type. A switch to a different shelter in the future might require demolishing the tops of platforms, which would be costly and time-consuming. Given that, it’s far more critical for SMART get this decision right than it would be for a typical bus operator.

So what’s wrong with Option 2? Several things. A good rail platform shelter should have the following characteristics:

  • A very narrow footprint and open design to avoid getting in the way of customers circulating on the platform.
  • A broad canopy with an appropriate height to maximize weather protection; and
  • A nice aesthetic that is compatible with its surroundings.

Option 2 misses the mark on all of these.

Shelter Footprint

Space on SMART’s platforms will be very limited. It’s “side” platforms will be 15 feet wide, while its “center” platforms (set between two tracks) will be 18 feet wide. Let’s consider the larger of these two.

Center platforms will have two, 24 inch wide, nubby, tactile warning strips; one along each platform edge. That leaves about 14 ft. of room for patrons, or about 7 ft. on each side of the platform. With shelter Option 1, the footprint will extend about 2 ft. out from the platform center line on each side, leaving two, 5 ft. “travel lanes” on each side of the shelter. That’s manageable.

By contrast, the Option 2 shelter is much, much wider. It will extend a full 4½ ft. out on each side of the platform center line, leaving a very narrow 2½ ft. on each side of the shelter. That’s untenable.

A visual simulation on a PowerPoint slide from SMART’s recent Board meeting shows the full horror of this future condition (1:04:47 mark).

Screen capture from SMART PowerPoint – Feb 18, 2015 Board Meeting
Screen capture from SMART PowerPoint – Feb 18, 2015 Board Meeting

To make matters worse, the narrow 2½ ft. width between shelter and warning strip isn’t just a single choke point that customers will have to navigate around. The Option 2 shelters are only open one side, meaning that the “closed” side will present a long, continuous, 2½ ft. channel between platform edge and the solid glass wall of the shelter. SMART is proposing to ultimately add two or three of these monster shelters to each platform.

Suspended four feet in the air, SMART platform’s will be narrow islands, sometimes crowded with people, and far more populated with bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and luggage than a typical bus stop. The Option 2 shelters are going to pose great difficulties to circulating customers when SMART is in operation. While they may not violate the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they certainly violates the spirit of it. Amazingly, only one SMART Director (Russell) raised any concern about space constraints.

The green Option 1 shelters will allow for far more space on the platforms. However, SMART’s 30% station design shelters had a key advantage over both Option 1 and Option 2. They were porous. They did not have a continuous wall of windscreens separating one side of the platform from the other. This openness would allow for more platform space and for customers to freely move from one side of the platform without having to go all the way around a bulky and long shelter.

SMART 30% Station Design
SMART 30% Station Design

Weather Protection

At Wednesday’s meeting, SMART Director Kellner speculated that the Option 2 shelter would offer better weather protection than Option 1. In fact, the opposite is true. The canopies of the Option 1 shelter span 12 ft., while the heavier canopies of the Option 2 shelter only span 10 ft. and provide less coverage.

Moreover, the Option 2 canopies only offer weather protection on one side, according to SMART’s drawings. On the “closed” side of the shelter, the roof only extends a few inches over the wall of long glass, which will offer no weather protection at all.

The one-sided and enclosed nature of these bus stop shelters prevents customers from easily and casually ducking under the canopy on a rainy or hot sunny day. They have to deliberately and consciously move into the enclosure on one side, squeezing through the 2½ ft. wide choke point.

Aesthetics

Much of the politicians’ comfort with Option 2 seems to stem from the look, which avoids garish green paint and offers a more familiar shape. In the words of SMART Director Mouton-Peters, it “fits the cultural ethos” of Marin. The new shelter design was reportedly partly inspired by the shelters at the San Rafael Transit Center.

While beauty is subjective, I doubt most Marinites cherish the Bettini Transit Center’s shelters. Without a doubt, the most beautiful things in Marin County are inherent in the place itself: the green and gold rolling hills, the oak trees, and the historic town centers.

The best thing that a transit shelter can do in this environment is to stay simple and clean and get out of the way. SMART Director Rabbit offered some of this perspective when he wondered if these big, black, bus shelters might end up blocking views of more cherished places and structures near the stations. They will.

Little House on the Platform

A misguided approach on shelter design can begin easily enough. When most people think of a “shelter”, the most comforting image that comes to mind is a house. Then, when people think of an iconic shape for a house, the most classic vernacular is a triangular pitched roof. In fact, SMART staff noted that the new Cotati Depot building also partly served as an inspiration for the Option 2 shelters.

Unfortunately, a triangular roof that drains water into gutters on either side tends to be very heavy. It’s not structurally possible to cantilever the canopy very far. Moreover, the weighty triangular roof can’t be supported easily by narrow support columns in the center. It requires a much wider base, just like a house. That leads to bulk. The problem is that rail platforms are not spacious enough to accommodate a bulky “house” while also serving the increasingly complex function of patron circulation and access.

Lessons from Utah

In the 1990’s, Salt Lake City was part of a wave of light rail development in the United States. Some of the TRAX light rail stations, however, were designed with wide, black, bulky shelters that look remarkably like what SMART is now proposing. The result was difficulties with customer circulation and safety on the platforms. Trolley Station in Downtown Salt Lake City, pictured below, is a textbook example of excessive platform clutter.

Trolley Station – Salt Lake City, UT
Trolley Station – Salt Lake City, UT

Perhaps trying to moving past this mistake, the new shelters proposed for the 2013 North Temple Bridge/Guadalupe Station (which serves both light rail and commuter rail) in Salt Lake City are decidedly different. The design by Hatch, Mott MacDonald, offers some excellent characteristics.

SLC Trolley 2
SLC Trolley 2

First, the shelters are narrow at the base to avoid clutter and to allow for easy circulation and safety. They are porous to allow movement from side to side. They have wide spanning canopies for good weather protection. They drain to the center, so that water doesn’t land on passengers’ heads. They allow for some natural light to come through, are simple, and basically get out of the way to allow for views of mountains and cityscape. And lastly, the name of the station is positioned below the canopy where it can be read easily by people on the platform and in the train.

SMART’s Option 2 shelters literally offer none of these important features.

Where to Go Now

For SMART, it’s been a continuous climb down on stations. They began with a professional design led by an architecture/engineering firm with transit experience, not unlike Hatch, Mott, MacDonald.

Then, SMART turned the design of stations over to its construction contractor, Shimmick. Now, they spear to be doing something even worse, taking hail-mary design advice from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority (SCTA), a funding agency with no transit operations, railroading, or architectural experience. It’s the SCTA who suggested the Option 2 bus shelters.

Cities along the rail line should not take the SCTA’s recommendation and should rally around shelter Option 1 for the good of the SMART’s system. While imperfect, it at least avoids the serious problems presented by shelter Option 2. If painted a more neutral color than the proposed forest green, it could be a respectable piece of station furniture.

Of course, while it may be too late, the best long-term outcome for both the riding public and taxpayers would be for SMART to implement a truly professional shelter design that considers the myriad details of the customer experience.

What do driverless cars mean for suburban planning?

Self-driving cars are coming, and boosters of drivable suburbia are hoping they will be a potent weapon against mass transit and cities. But what they mean for towns and suburbs isn’t quite so clear. For the past 80 years, the US has transformed nearly every place in the country into one that is acceptable and welcoming to the personal automobile. It needs places to park (some estimates have that there are 6 parking spaces for every car), needs enough road space to be able to drive unimpeded, needs sole control over the roads, and so on.

In places built in the past 30 years, this has meant sidewalk-free eight-lane boulevards and massive malls at freeway interchanges. In places built before the car, this has often meant their wholesale destruction. (Santa Clara and Fremont, for example, are now undertaking efforts to “rebuild” their town centers.)

This has not been in service to the car as a vehicle, however, but to the car as a personal mobility tool. Very often, the only seat used in a car is the driver’s, massively enhancing the person’s footprint and leading to all kinds of horrific traffic.

With the advent of the driverless car, the belief is that we will no longer need personal vehicles, and this excess footprint will become unnecessary. Open up an app on a phone, order a car, and a vehicle (possibly with others in it going to roughly where you’re going) will drive by, pick you up, and drop you off near your destination. Along the way it’ll pick up other people going in roughly the same direction as you, bolstering capacity of the personal car to a grand total of five.

Five trips, one car. As one Twitter follower called it, it becomes mini-mass transit, but at the beck and call of an app and as flexible as it needs to be. If this method of travel becomes ubiquitous – and that’s a big if – then the personal automobile might become a thing of the past.

What, then, of the places we’ve outfitted at great expense to fit the personal automobile? These would need to be retrofitted to fit this new dominant mode, and we can do away with some of design choices that favored the personal automobile.

Probably the biggest change is the demise of the large parking lot. These huge slabs of asphalt dominate suburban commercial landscapes, often taking up 80 percent of commercial parcels. They dominate the streetscape, and arterial suburban roads are lined with them. Without personal vehicles to park, there’s no need for a parking lot. That land could be put to productive use.

All this will be wasted space.

With a transportation system that’s five times as efficient, too, there’s little need for wide arterial roads packed with single-occupant vehicles. As well, without human drivers, there’s no need for “forgiving engineering” focused on driver psychology and driver needs. We can narrow lanes from 12 feet (freeway width) down to 10 feet or even 9.5 feet and have the same vehicle capacity and speed. There would rarely be a need for roads wider than 2 lanes in the suburbs.

So, we can wave goodbye to parking lots and wide arterial roads. What could we do to optimize the suburbs to fit this new reality?

First, trip origins and destinations would be best served if they are along the same axis of travel, and they should be relatively evenly spaced and close together. Street grids lined with origins and destinations make sense, so as to maximize the directness of the travel. That means either a commercial street with homes behind or above.

With the loss of parking lots, it makes no sense to place storefronts far back from the street. They should be placed against the street to ease access for passengers.

Finally, there will likely be a need for a short walk to or from a vehicle, especially when returning home. It makes sense to make that walk a pleasant one, and to put amenities there, too.

corridor-capacity1

It’s important our density not get too high. Although boosting car capacity fivefold is a huge step forward, trains have eight to forty times the capacity. For the highest-density areas, where trains are already at capacity, driverless mini-mass transit won’t be enough to solve congestion or to adequately meet residents’ travel needs.

So in the retrofitted suburbs, there should be a balance between the need for a dense line of origins and destinations and the need to not overload the system. Perhaps just six stories, at most, in the most dense places of the suburbs.

For this kind of system to work and not devolve into that kind of nightmare, it needs to have simple and easy lines of operations, just like the streetcars did, with origins and destinations located near stops. Unlike streetcars, the whole street is a possible stop. Rather than a series of one-dimensional stops surrounded by a station area, there is a two-dimensional transportation corridor surrounded by a transportation area. The station neighborhoods currently in existence could easily be integrated into suburban corridor fabric.

At this point, this does not sound much like the suburbia we often consider “suburbia”. With no parking lots, no wide roads, a street grid, and shops and homes clustered up against the sidewalk, it sounds more like a town center. That’s because this transportation cloud functions much more like the streetcars of the old days than personal cars of today. The urban landscape described is precisely the kind of bus-transit-oriented development that suburbs could be investing in today. This article could have painted just the picture: "Imagine standing at almost any street corner, where every five minutes an electric train bus vehicle comes by..."

Indeed, if this system ever does overcome myriad regulatory hurdles, it will work best in places where buses and light rail work best. If this is our dream future, then we can start planning for it today. There's no need to wait for driverless cars.*

Of course, this system will likely be decades away, if it ever happens. There are huge regulatory hurdles to any driverless car, and any area where this system operates could be seriously disrupted by even one person driving their own car. As well, there are still questions of who owns and maintains the vehicles. In the interim, personally owned automated vehicles will likely start to ply the roads. (While they will reform how we use parking, they won’t do much about traffic.)

But if this system does come, it’s not something for champions of small towns, walkable living, and transit to fear.

*As people start to buy personal driverless cars, the need for vast parking lots will diminish. If we really want to start planning for that reality, too, then we should reform or abolish parking standards today. 

AN ASIDE: This system has been speculated upon for decades as Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, though generally it was theorized on rails. In fact, it already exists, in a sense, in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Much of the time, Morgantown’s system works like an elevator (push a button to summon a vehicle, push a destination button and you’re on your way). During rush hour, it operates like standard-issue fixed-route transit during peak hours, and in off-hours each car runs the whole track as a circulator.

Tautological housing study reminds us that demand is more than skin deep

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on a new study by the National Association of Home Builders which found just 10 percent of people born after 1977 want to live in the urban core; the rest want the suburbs or rural areas. The catch was that the study group was only those who had bought a house in the past three years or who plan to do so. In other words, people who want to buy a house want to live in a place where they can buy a house. But the study, an exercise in tautology if there ever was one, does add some value to the overall discussion about what today’s young homebuyers want out of a home, and the reaction to the study shines light on the foolishness of urban-vs-suburban partisanship.

What the study says

Just 10 percent of young homebuyers want to stay in the central city, while 68 percent want to move to the suburbs. These suburban homebuyers tend to buy smaller, older houses relatively close to the central city, and they put a premium on being within walking distance of amenities like restaurants, stores, schools, and transit.

This is not the typical car-oriented suburb. Rather, it’s a suburban town, the sort of place that grew up along the old streetcar lines before they vanished. It’s a place that can accommodate trips made by car, transit, biking, and walking.

It seems the same things that draw young people to cities remain valuable even when those same young people leave.

What the study leaves out

The NAHB study is a stated-preference study. In other words, it looked at what people said they wanted rather than what they actually did when presented with options, which is called a revealed preference study.

This is most clear in the disconnect between the cost of housing in a dense, walkable urban place and the cost of housing in a sprawling, drivable place. Outer-suburban and exurban homes were the first to lose their value during the Great Recession and have been the slowest to recover. Meanwhile, dense, central cities have seen the cost of housing soar, as have walkable towns near those cities.

These price signals are quite clear: the supply for outer-suburban and exurban homes exceeds demand, and the demand for central-city homes exceeds supply. Similar price stability and price spikes along transit corridors and in the old walkable streetcar suburbs shows this demand isn’t simply for central city homes but for walkable living.

More than that, the study doesn’t scratch the surface of where young people would want to live if central cities had similar prices and similar school quality to the suburbs. After all, the draw of the suburb might not even be a function of the suburban or urban form per se but a simple function of how inhospitable American cities are to raising a family.

Or perhaps it’s simply housing availability: most new housing development has been in the exurbs, and central cities have been housing laggards.

This last theory is held out by analysis by Jed Kolko of real estate analyst Trulia. Last week, he tweeted the following three charts:

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Image by Jed Kolko

Growth in population closely matches the growth in housing units across the urban spectrum: the more homes, the more people. In fact, a read of the last two charts shows that neighborhoods are adding households faster than homes in all but the most suburban neighborhoods (deciles 9 and 10), with the most pronounced difference in urban neighborhoods (deciles 2-4). As a result, the growth in home sale price is highest outside of the most suburban neighborhoods. While the most urban neighborhoods saw their prices go up fastest, it was the least urban neighborhoods that saw their housing supply and population rise fastest.

This is due to a number of factors, but the largest is the $400 billion worth of federal subsidies (PDF) poured into the most suburban of places. Given the price rises in more urban areas, it seems as though this and state-level policies are working against the underlying demand rather than chasing demand.

It’s a stupid debate

Anti-urban partisans are always quick to crow about the end of the cities and seem eager to pounce all over any shred of evidence that might support this thesis, context be damned. Anti-suburban partisans, alas, do the same about evidence for suburban demise.

Yet being a partisan for a particular kind of urban form is nonsense. The great structural debate about housing and transit in the United States is fundamentally about whether the provision of housing in all its forms has adequately satisfied consumer demand.

The NAHB study doesn’t presage the slaughter of the city and triumph of the suburb any more than the fact that Americans aren’t driving as much presages the opposite. It presents a look at where young homebuyers say they want to live (namely, in places where they can buy homes).

What does this mean for Marin?

Young people want places that look like Marin: walkable, suburban, not too far from the city, with a decent transit network. Consumer demand surveys of all young people, not just homebuyers, found that the strong bias towards walkable living is found among renters and homebuyers alike.

The problem, of course, is that there isn’t enough San Francisco, or Marin, to go around. As I have insisted since the beginning of this blog, the demand for new homes in Marin should be channeled into enhancing and spatially expanding our downtowns.

San Anselmo, for example, has space for 79 of new apartments above stores within its downtown core. That’s 79 new families that could be living and shopping in a totally walkable environment. If downtown zoning were expanded to highway commercial zones, that’s room for dozens more new families and businesses.

Marin could push against its own struggling town centers and try to hem them in, or it could take this as an opportunity to build upon the formula that works: walkable towns adjacent to nature. There is room enough for the entire spectrum of suburban home types in Marin. We can take advantage of that demand, and build a greater Marin out of it.

What did the Bay Area look like in the Age of Rail?

A few years ago, I published a map – really a cartogram – showing the service patterns of Marin’s old Interurban system, the light rail that covered all of Central and Southern Marin. Now, I’m starting on something a bit bigger: what did the Bay Area’s rail network look like in 1937? The Interurban map was motivated out of a sense of confusion about the system. Maps of the time just showed where rails went and what stations were along them, similar to road maps, but contemporary transit maps are different. Rather than showing the rail network, they show the service network – how trains move along the rails.

The resulting map lifted the fog from the system. Rather than just a musty map, I could see how someone could actually get around Marin on the Interurban.

This new project comes from a similar motivation. I’ve seen old maps of the Bay Area, like the one below, but they don’t give a good picture of what goes where and when. Sometimes they leave out or demote rival rail companies. Sometimes they are too low-resolution to show how different lines split off. And they never show how frequently service runs.

So far, thanks to a kind Twitter follower, I’ve obtained a 1,500-page scan of the 1937 rail guide, learned how to read the thing, and started to wrap my head around the Oakland lynchpin of the system. I’ve also determined that I won’t map local-service railroads, like Muni, the Key System or the Interurban. A regional street map doesn’t show local streets, after all, and focuses instead on the freeways. This map will focus on the “freeways” of the regional rail system – the fast, intercity service.

Still undetermined is how much to show. Do I show frequency? It varied wildly: while Western Pacific’s Scenic Limited only left once per day, Southern Pacific ran hourly commuter service between San Jose and San Francisco. Do I show the hierarchy of stations? Palo Alto is a major stop on the Peninsula, while Lawrence was frequently skipped on the same line.

My progress so far is fairly limited, but I'm using Oakland - the most complex part of the system - to try out variations on stop design, font, colors, and how to differentiate service styles. Stay tuned for updates.

The latest Oakland draft

The poetry of The Greater Marin

You may not know it, but The Greater Marin is on Twitter. It's fun, really, to get in touch with people who agree and disagree with me from all over the world. Follow me, if you don't already. A new tool turned all these tweets into semi-coherent poetry. The result made me smile, so I thought I might as well share.

S!@# Together

North San Jose neighborhood And design for your speed limit! That does not sounds good. Of Cut Wood. CUT WOOD, DAMMIT.)

Police, and idiot pedestrians. Buses, like the GOOG shuttles: Heh. Vegans. Urbanist world: cars uber alles.

Inane of nuances of Marin politics. With the new barrier, not less. Hearts drown performance metrics.

The county and bring up some gold. Napa, Capitol Corridor, and Marin. Not smaller. Just slower and cold.

We'll be back Monday, but if you can't wait, find me on Twitter.

More people are speeding on the Golden Gate Bridge – here’s why

16073676100_24d1279e0a_z When the new Golden Gate Bridge barrier opened, it was heralded as a new age of safety, but there were rumblings of problems immediately. Bridge Manager Kary Witt was quoted as saying, “I do think everyone is driving too fast. Everyone needs to slow down." A few days later, he was rather more forceful: “We're seeing too many drivers driving 20 to 30 miles over the speed limit. It’s completely unacceptable.” While the district seems to have been caught off-guard, this was an entirely predictable result.

Keeping roads safe is one of the most important tasks traffic engineers have. To do this, they will often try to improve a road’s safety by making it more forgiving of driver error: make the lanes wider, smooth out the curves, remove trees, and add median barriers. But this sort of improvement assumes that people drive a set way without regard to their environment.

This is not true. People drive as fast as feels safe, and they subconsciously react to visual cues to tell them what that speed is. Have you ever driven along a road at what felt like a comfortable speed, only to find that you were going 55 in a 35 zone? You were a victim of this subconscious pressure, called risk compensation.

By removing dangerous obstacles, engineers will often paradoxically make a road less safe by encouraging higher speeds. In a limited-access highway this might be okay, but on roadways that aren’t limited access – like the Golden Gate Bridge – it can create a dangerous false sense of security.

This is precisely what is happening on the bridge. Before, drivers on the bridge had a very visible cue that danger was omnipresent as traffic whizzed by in the opposite direction just a foot away. People would drive slower to ensure they had control of their vehicle and wouldn’t accidentally drift into traffic. They also had to navigate the very tight space between toll booths, slowing traffic further.

By removing the toll booths and adding the center barrier, the bridge district has lowered the perceived danger of crossing the bridge. This has encouraged drivers to drive faster, which has resulted in more crashes.

This is not a limited access roadway, either. There are driveway entrances and exits at the Toll Plaza and at Vista Point. Pedestrians and bicyclists cross the bridge on its sidewalks. This is a recipe for disaster.

It is perhaps understandable that the district would choose to spend millions on a median barrier. It was a harrowing crossing, and I know I never drove in the left lane if I could avoid it. But it is baffling that the bridge district was apparently unprepared for higher speeds as a result of this change.

There is a lesson here: traffic speed follows design. If towns and cities in Marin want to reduce speeds and increase safety, it must design roads that encourage people to follow the desired speed. The Golden Gate Bridge District has done the opposite, telling people to go one speed while silently encouraging them to go faster. If it’s serious about keeping speeds down, it won’t rely simply on enforcement to keep speeds down but will also seek design solutions.

A third lane on the Richmond Bridge is just a bandage

from MTC The push for a third lane to Richmond has sucked a lot of the air out of the conversation over Central Marin traffic. Cut-through drivers from San Francisco to Richmond are taking up all the space in Larkspur and causing horrific traffic. Thanks to induced demand, however, the third lane will likely fill up soon after it opens and we’ll be back to the same old story.

The most common way to think of traffic is as a gas that fills the space it’s given. No matter how much you build, there will always be traffic to fill it. This couldn’t be more apt for the situation faced by the Richmond Bridge.

Right now, for cut-through San Francisco-to-East Bay commuters, the Marin route is the fastest and cheapest way to get home. These drivers may have to deal with congestion and delays on Sir Francis Drake and 580, but it’s less than what they’d have to deal with on 80 and the Bay Bridge.

If we solve the problem and open a new lane on the Bridge, we’d reduce congestion in Marin enough that we could declare victory… until more people saw that it was a less-congested route than 80 and the Bay Bridge and switched. Either this area will return to its present levels of congestion, or the congestion will migrate to another bottleneck further south in the system, or some measure of both.

This is a much larger version of a problem faced by Los Angeles suburbs, where cut-through drivers, guided by their GPS, take surface streets to escape congestion on freeways. Delays become as bad on surface streets as on the freeway.

If congestion returns to Larkspur Landing, then the widening will simply buy us a few years of peace. If it causes another bottleneck, we’ll have bought some peace to Larkspur Landing at the cost of congestion elsewhere. If it’s both, then nobody wins.

Longer-term solutions depend on which outcome occurs; let’s look at each in turn.

Congestion comes back to Larkspur Landing only

If this occurs, the only real solution is to keep traffic on the freeway as long as possible by installing a proper 101-580 interchange in San Rafael. This interchange has been proposed before, but community opposition to a towering flyover connecting westbound 580 with southbound 101 scuttled the project. If the same opposition arises again, it might be worthwhile to simply remove that aspect and only do the eastbound 580 to northbound 101 aspect.

For now, at least, Caltrans ought to remove signs at the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard exit indicating that that is the way to 580.

Congestion occurs elsewhere in the system

The most likely location for congestion to occur is south of Marin City: on the Waldo Grade, Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard, or Van Ness, all of which are good targets for transit. Both Marin commute trips and local San Francisco trips are relatively easily served by transit. The upcoming Van Ness BRT line will make a big difference to that corridor, and an extension onto Lombard would help both GGT and Muni riders. Extending the HOV lanes onto the Waldo Grade by converting one of the through-lanes would speed transit and encourage carpooling, also helping alleviate congestion.

Alas, transit sometimes functions like adding more lanes: the amount of congestion stays constant even while the transportation capacity of a road to move people increases. At least we can comfort ourselves that fewer people will experience congestion from behind the wheel.

Congestion occurs both at Larkspur Landing and elsewhere

If this occurs, then planners will need to employ both solutions: add the interchange and improve transit.

The only permanent solution

The rub, of course, is that congestion is ultimately not a solvable problem without an economic downturn. Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles – all have tried to fix congestion by increasing roadway capacity, and none have succeeded. Anthony Downs, in his 1992 book Stuck in Traffic, said that widening a freeway doesn’t work thanks to what he called a “triple convergence”:

In response, three types of convergence occur on the improved expressway: (1) many drivers who formerly used alternative routes during peak hours switch to the improved expressway (spatial convergence); (2) many drivers who formerly traveled just before or after the peak hours start traveling during those hours (time convergence); and (3) some commuters who used to take public transportation during peak hours now switch to driving, since it has become faster (modal convergence).

The only way out is to view road space like a resource, and to price it as such. Jarrett Walker describes it thus:

Fundamentally, congestion is the result of underpricing.  If you give away 500 free concert tickets to the first 500 people in line, you'll get 500 people standing in line, some of them overnight.  These people are paying time to save money.  Current prevailing road pricing policy requires all motorists to act like these frugal concertgoers.  Motorists are required to pay for road use in time, rather than in money, even though some would rather do the opposite and our cities would be safer and more efficient if they could.  Current road pricing policy requires motorists to save money, a renewable resource, by expending time, the least renewable resource of all.

For the Bay Area, this would mean varying bridge tolls during the day so that congestion never builds up. Downs’ triple convergence would work in reverse.

With a rush hour 80 and Bay Bridge free of congestion, cut-through travel would be much less attractive for Contra Costa commuters. Those that still made the journey would likely not be enough to congest 101 at all.

But before then, we have a third lane and an interchange to try.

The 70 and 71 have issues

Last week, in covering GGT's quarterly schedule update, I mentioned that the 70 follows the 71 too closely for some of its runs, once just 3 minutes behind. This, however, was not an accident of poor scheduling but a deliberate choice. There are two reasons for this.

History. Years and years ago - long before the senior Marin Transit (MT) planner I spoke with came to work for the agency - GGT needed extra capacity on Route 70. They found that most passengers on the line were staying in Marin and crowded out the folks heading to San Francisco.

To beef up service, GGT asked MT to create Route 71, a Marin-only local bus. Though operated by GGT, the 71 would better fit MT's mission to provide transit within Marin County than in GGT's mission to provide service between Marin and neighboring counties.

At the rush hour times when the 70 closely follows the 71, then, the 71 serves as a relief bus, picking up all the local ridership and leaving the regional ridership for the closely-following 70.

But why not just use a larger bus for the 70? Because of the next reason:

Fare media. MT issues a raft of bus passes and discount cards for students, seniors, the disabled, and low-income riders that are accepted on all MT routes. Because GGT operates most of MT's system, the most common place to use these is on a GGT-operated bus, and it would seem logical that GGT would also accept these on its routes - the commute and inter-county routes - for trips starting and ending within Marin. Alas, it is not so.

Transit-dependent riders equipped with MT-issued passes will therefore avoid the 70, as they will need to pay full price for their trip. Instead, they'll board the 71, which does take the passes.

As a result, the 70 and 71 serve different ridership pools, both of which need to make the same transfers at San Rafael.

One planner I spoke with said that "everyone knows" the 70 and 71 don't make sense. Given the reasons above, it's hard to argue with him. GGT ought to take MT's fare media for intra-Marin travel but either can't or won't, and so the 71 provides 101 corridor service to MT's poorest riders. It's an exceptionally inefficient and wasteful workaround to what should be a simple problem to fix. (But, given transit law in California, I'd wager GGT can't take MT's fare media without a waver of some kind.)

Lack of seats is a concern, but the benefits of all-day 15 minute frequency on 101 would far outweigh the negatives. Larger buses, such as the MCI commuter buses or double-deckers like the Google shuttle, could also provide some of the necessary capacity.

New GGT schedule cuts Route 80, but more could be done

In GGT's quarterly schedule adjustment, the agency will do as it planned this past summer and cut the long-suffering Route 80, a plodding local bus route that stopped at every bus stop from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. However, Highway 101 service could use more tweaks to better integrate Route 71 and other lines south of San Rafael. New 101 bus service will look like so. Image by the author.

The new basic San Francisco-Santa Rosa service will operate like the image to the right. Timed transfers between the 101 and 71 at Novato will ensure easy access to any stop between Santa Rosa and Marin City, while the express/local service pattern will better serve the larger long-distance market to San Francisco.

This is similar to Clem Tillier's proposed Caltrain schedule, with a Silicon Valley Express and San Mateo Local.

Unfortunately, the timed transfers aren't ideal. Before 8:55am, transfers between the 71 and 101 are 6 minutes. After 8:55, they extend to 9 minutes, a hefty chunk of time for riders.

As well, the 70 often follows the 71 too closely, once as close as 3 minutes behind. Though GGT is providing four local buses in a given hour, or one on average every 15 minutes, it instead has a 3 minute wait, followed by a 30 minute wait, another 30 minute wait, then another 3 minute wait. Though GGT is running enough buses to provide show-up-and-go service, the agency effectively continuing its two-bus-per-hour baseline schedule. It is, quite honestly, a waste of money.

Other tweaks to the schedule are quite good.

  • A new ferry shuttle, the 37, will run between Smith Ranch Road/Lucas Valley to Larkspur Ferry Terminal in the morning and evening. Though the parking situation is still horrid, it's good to see the agency is continuing to expand its successful shuttle program.
  • Rerouting the 56 to the Broadway Tunnel instead of North Beach will save time - about 8 minutes per run - which will let commuters sleep in just a little bit longer, get home a little bit sooner, and save the agency about $50,000 in annual operating cost.
  • The popular routes 4 and 54 will receive more runs in both directions.
  • The 35 and 36 will become more consistent, with no service to Andersen Drive. Before, some runs would start on Andersen.

The largest concern is whether this new adjustment will lead to personnel shortages, which have plagued GGT for the past two quarters. Schedules should meet, not exceed, the agency's capacity, and adjustments are when any personnel shortages can be smoothed out.

While the adjusted Highway 101 service isn't as smooth as it ought to be, with long transfers and weirdly inconsistent headways between the 70 and 71, the new schedule is overall positive and uncharacteristically bold. As long as this doesn't lead to more personnel shortages, the new schedule will be a success.

UPDATE: To clarify, the updates to the 35 and 36 are at the direction of Marin Transit, which contracts out their operation to GGT. Any change to the 71, which is under the same contract, would need to first start with Marin Transit. A fuller post on that mess is forthcoming.