Transit in Marin

Terrapin Crossroads, Phil Lesh’s proposed music venue in Fairfax, CA, has been talked to death lately and, despite the fact that no formal design has been reviewed, is drawing quite a bit of excitement from the town.  Very rarely in Marin does a project of this relative scale bring more vocal support than opposition, but Fairfax is a rare town.  Still, one item itches: transit access. Getting to and from Fairfax by transit is, to put it mildly, difficult.  Golden Gate Transit (GGT), Marin’s principal transit system, only operates a few lines outside the County.  This is a problem if you’re among the 28% of San Francisco households that have given up the automobile and rely on transit and your bike to get around.  To get from San Francisco to Fairfax, the best-case scenario will take 1:20 at $5.25, and the last bus home leaves at 9:30pm.  That’ll probably mean you’d have to leave the town well before any Terrapin Crossroads shows begin.  Getting between Fairfax and the East Bay is even worse, as there are no direct routes.

Most Marinites probably don’t care.  Why bring more San Franciscans up to Marin, and shouldn’t they own a car anyway?  The people that choose San Francisco and Richmond are the people that start new businesses, the young people who are poor in cash but rich in talent and enthusiasm.  They are also the people high tech companies want to attract.

Digital Domain Productions, Inc., a digital effects and animation company spun started by Industrial Light and Magic alumni, is moving to Larkspur Landing, but they’re concerned about attracting the young people that come to San Francisco to live in the city, not the ‘burbs.  Digital Domain likely chose a location by the Ferry so they could access the car-free employees they want to attract.  They’ll contribute to the city coffers, but those employees will probably never venture outside of that neighborhood.

How could they, and why would they?  Fairfax has so much to offer, but it’s locked away.  A carless San Franciscan thinks of Fairfax as impossibly far away, and even those Digital Domain employees that would come into contact with Marin daily are stuck on a car-centric island wedged between two freeways.  Odds are high they’d never even see downtown Fairfax, despite its proximity, and that means lost sales, lost interest, and lost opportunities.

How could Marin break out of its self-imposed exile?

In the short-term, GGT and Marin should market the Marin Experience.  Open hills, good hiking, good food and villages away from it all – these are things a city dweller will trek to find.  Pushing the time of the last bus departure to midnight would give visitors a chance to enjoy dinner before becoming stranded.

Often suburban buses carry a lot of unknowns about them.  Making a simplified map showing what goes where, like my simplified road map at right, can go a long way to demystifying the routes and drawing new riders in.  Washington, DC, has a bus called the Circulator, which operates as an express connecting activity centers to one another.  A GGT circulator could move from Market and hit the major downtowns between the City and Fairfax.  This further simplifies the route and gives GGT a chance to brand each stop with the town’s character: antiques for San Anselmo, redwoods for Mill Valley, the Mission for San Rafael.

Longer-term, Marin needs to move to a more transit-oriented form.  It is laid out in corridors, meaning most new construction in Central and South Marin will be along a transit lane, and it’s high time for Marin’s cities to build with the buses in mind.  Eventually, ridership would improve enough that GGT will be able to become a viable alternative to the car and build better connections with the regional transportation network.  By then Terrapin Crossroads will be years old, and hopefully be a draw north for young San Franciscans looking for good music in the country.