Slowly, Marin County has transformed from a bedroom community to a working destination, yet residents still view their county otherwise. It’s time to change. The old stereotype for a Marinite is easy to trace. Looking for a new life, someone moves to San Francisco. She’s young and vivacious, she enjoys the city and all its grit. When she finally makes it big, though, it’s time to settle down, and there’s no better place to settle down than Marin County. She keeps commuting to the City but lives in Mill Valley with the family. Her friends and neighbors have similar stories, and so southbound 101 is a mess every day.
True though narrative is for thousands, it neglects a key fact: more people commute to Marin than commute from it every day. We have become a destination, and that has implications for how we approach the form and development of our cities.
In digging through the commuting numbers, there are some surprising finds. Marin residents were estimated to make 60,051 commute trips to other counties every day in 2010, while residents of other counties were estimated to make 87,573 work trips to Marin every day. That means that 45% more people commute to Marin than from Marin every day. The only counties that had a net in-commute from Marin were San Francisco and San Mateo; all others gave more commuters than they got.
This shows up in Highway 101 load numbers. Through Sonoma, the load peaks through Santa Rosa but declines sharply until leveling off near the Sonoma/Marin county line. The sharpest increase is at Novato, which adds 79,000 cars per day, and peaks at San Pedro Road. After that, 101 shows a sharp decline in load to the bridge, from this point shedding 82,000 southbound vehicles per day. If we include Novato and Terra Linda, 101 is only 25,000 vehicles heavier when it leaves the county than when it enters from Sonoma.
(When we try to include 580, things get a bit trickier because of the lack of temporal granularity in the available Caltrans numbers, but this quick-and-dirty analysis shows where the principal destinations in Marin are: San Rafael, Highway 131, and Bridge/Donahue.)
So what? Marin is a destination; what does that have to do with form and transit? It starts when county leaders and residents change how they think about their home. Golden Gate Transit, for example, has strong commuter links to San Francisco, but doesn’t coordinate morning departures from the City, and its links to the East Bay are woefully inefficient. As well, SMART is denigrated as a “train to nowhere” because it stops in San Rafael, which should be seen for the insult it is. Altering this perspective would lead to three big changes in urban form and transit.
First, we would encourage our downtowns as places to work, not just play and live, and we would find new places to build them. At the moment, office development focuses on suburban office parks, such as Marin Commons. Downtowns, meanwhile, are left as alternatives to the mall, quaint places that serve residents’ shopping needs rather than rich and active working destinations. Building up downtowns as working destinations by building offices - government, as in Novato, or otherwise - would give retailers and restaurants all-day clientele. Even small town centers, like Fairfax, have space for appropriately-sized office development.
Second, we would improve our inward transit links to serve the transit-oriented and carless residents of the rest of the Bay Area. Currently, only 2.4% of in-commuters use transit. Although much of this is likely due to perception rather than actual service, the long headways and lack of inbound commuter coordination is a needless barrier. We already boast 20-50 minute travel times from the City and 30 minute travel times from BART, but the atrocious state of inbound routes shows that GGT hasn't even thought about accommodating inbound commuters.
Third, we would start to redesign our cities as places to stay rather than simply pass through. The most egregious symbol of the pass-through mentality is the Second-Third Street corridor. The timed lights, speeding one-way traffic, and narrow sidewalks implicitly tell pedestrians that they aren’t wanted there, deadening the streetscape and what developments could come. Almost as bad are Novato Boulevard, Tam Junction and South Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
Marin will never supplant San Francisco, but its cities can capitalize on their role as satellites of that regional anchor. Strong towns would decrease commute times and encourage transit use; strengthen government coffers; and bolster the small businesses that call downtown their home. Marin has already moved in this direction; it's just a matter of whether it can capitalize on its success.