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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Unbundling parking isn’t simple, but it’s worth it

Municipal parking policies were not created with bad intentions, or without some thought. Though they have evolved into somewhat mindless orthodoxy, they do still serve the purposes of managing parking supply. Undoing this supply-sided management scheme in favor of a demand-sided management scheme is not a simple task.

Unbundling parking, which involves separating the cost to rent a parking space from the cost to rent an apartment, is one vital tool in managing parking demand. To be effective, though, it will need to address the same issues bundled parking addresses.

So how might a city cope with the concerns opponents will raise when considering unbundling parking?

Parking will overflow into the streets!

This is a real concern. Parking minimums were originally enacted to stop drivers from taking over neighborhood streets. Simply abolishing them today without concern for the consequences would be wrongheaded.

The basic concern, ensuring neighborhoods near to downtown don’t get overwhelmed, is resolved by a residential parking permit program. The city gives or sells residents the right to the street parking in their neighborhood and also grants them the ability to temporarily give permission to their guests. All others are either strictly limited in how much time they can spend in a given space or are banned from parking in that zone entirely. To target the program more narrowly, perhaps dwellers of new apartments could be barred from receiving parking permits.

It will become impossible to park downtown!

With all of downtown’s parking demand now squeezed into its own borders, the city will have to get creative to manage it.

While the first impulse is to boost parking supply, generally parking problems are a result of poorly managed demand. Studies into the view that there’s “nowhere to park” have found that sentiment to generally be illusory. Even in Tiburon, a study into their downtown’s parking problems found that there was more than enough off-street parking to handle demand; people simply weren’t looking for it.

In San Francisco, their SFPark program addressed the issue with price signals. They lowered the price of parking in their garages, which were generally underutilized, and on low-demand side streets and raised the price of parking in high-demand main streets. Even though some prices went up, overall the average cost of parking declined and street spaces opened up.

Paired with this demand-based pricing – which would have as its goal one open space on each block – should be transportation demand management policies. These policies, proven effective in communities across the country, are designed to reduce driving and therefore parking demand. Reduced ZipCar memberships, taxi or Uber discounts, transit discounts, and bike-supportive services and infrastructure are all proven to reduce demand for parking.

In short, building new supply should be the last thing a city tries. It shouldn’t be taken off the table entirely – no tool should be – but managing demand is much cheaper and effective than shelling out $50,000+ for a new parking space. Once the cost/benefit ratio of adding new parking is greater than the ratio of demand management schemes, supply should be considered, but with care: each parking space will be one or more new trips to the garage on roads that might already be clogged.

Low-income people won’t be able to afford a parking space!

Sometimes, a family does need a car. Herding a gaggle of kids onto a bus isn’t terribly feasible, and commuting to, say, Oakland by transit just doesn’t work on a daily basis. But with parking spots going for upwards of $600 a month, a low-income family might not be able to afford it.

The simplest way to approach this conundrum is to determine the ratio of how much a parking space costs to rent to how much an apartment alone costs to rent, both at market value, and to apply that same ratio to the affordable apartment rent. Okay, that sounds less simple that it did in my head, so here’s an example.

Let’s say a market rate two-bedroom apartment goes for $2,400 a month alone and the attendant parking space costs $600 a month. Together, the market rate for this place is $3,000: 4/5ths going to the apartment and 1/5th going to parking. Since the building has unbundled parking, the $600 is an optional add-on.

Now, let’s say the maximum rent a very low income family can afford for a two-bedroom is $1,200.* If we apply the same ratios as before, the family should be charged 4/5ths of their rent for the apartment itself and 1/5th for the parking. Since this building also has unbundled parking, they are charged a maximum of $960 for the apartment (4/5ths of $1,200) and $240 for the parking spot (1/5th of $1,200), meaning the most they would pay is still the most they could afford.

While $240 still sounds like a lot to charge per month, consider it in the reverse. While a low-income family may want a car, they might want the $240 per month more. Bundled parking makes that choice for them; unbundled parking allows the family to make that choice for themselves. And, even if they do choose to take the parking spot, they won’t be paying more than one-third of their income.

You just irrationally hate parking!

No, I just really hate unnecessary traffic, and I hate it when government makes choices for people. Bundled parking, an outgrowth of the latter, causes the former.

Donald Shoup, professor of urban studies at UCLA, has said that free parking is like a fertility drug for cars. It removes the price signals that tell people maybe there’s a better way to move around and creates a shortage of the road space and parking required to support car trips.

As with any goods shortage, this means that what people don’t pay in money they pay in time: time spent in congestion, time spent hunting for a space, time spent walking from wherever that space was found. As IJ columnist Dick Spotswood observed recently, population density in and of itself doesn’t cause traffic. It’s the number of cars those people own, and how often they use them, that causes traffic.

This means the people who really do need a car, like the family with the gaggle of kids, the contractor heading to a job, or the long-haul commuter trying to get to work, will get stuck behind people who really don’t need a car but have one anyway, all thanks to decisions made on their behalf.

San Rafael and other cities should look carefully at how they manage their parking supply. If they stay on the same path, they will only make more problems for themselves and residents.

*It’s actually $1,138 in San Rafael (PDF), but I’m rounding up for the sake of example.

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.