The SMART Area, Part 4: Buses, and the Future

Golden Gate Transit

Over the last few days I've been posting my impressions and comments regarding the San Rafael SMART Station Area Plan. It’s such a large, complicated, and potentially game-changing document that it needed more than just a single post. So far, we’ve covered land use and parking, and mobility, and this last post will cover buses the future of the site.

The hero of mobility in the Station Area Plan will not be SMART; it will be Golden Gate Transit. If a Sonoman wants to get to San Anselmo, she will likely go by bus. If a new resident in the Area Plan wants to go to San Francisco, he will go by bus. And if a Corte Maderan needs to get to Santa Rosa, she'll probably take a bus first. Yet, the bus system, as it stands, is widely lamented as inadequate, especially on weekends. How to improve long-range (beyond 2 miles) mobility for residents in and through the area, and how to accommodate the increased service in the study area, should certainly be part of the conversation.

The typical Marin bus route runs every 30 to 60 minutes and is far slower than driving an equivalent distance thanks to a few crazy loops, some too-compact stop densities, lack of signal priority, long stop layovers, and the general restrictions of running on surface streets in traffic. Although there is an effective and complicated transfer system, thanks to a 95% on-time rate, the bus as it currently stands is not a car-replacing transit system.

This bodes ill for transit-oriented development in the Plan Area, not to mention other towns that want to orient their ABAG zoning towards transit – essentially the whole of Marin except for Novato. Without an adequate framework, increased population will lead to more sprawl, meaning more traffic, more pollution, and less open space. We must make the bus work.

There's a debate in the activist community regarding how exactly to do that, but it comes down to a few priorities: improve the absolute quality of the bus service through frequency, improve the relative quality of the bus service by making cars a less attractive choice, and improve the efficiency of rider collection by putting residents and jobs near the stations. In the ideal this means bus rapid transit or just separated lanes, but in Marin's medium-term, such BRT lines on the old rail rights-of-way are probably politically infeasible, and auto mode share would likely remain too great to support the service. Express buses, however, make perfect sense.

Whenever I ride GGT, I hardly see any on-and-off boarding between major stations; people are going from center to center, and ridership is not evenly distributed along the route. GGT should acknowledge this and operate a high-frequency town-to-town express network. GGT's last semi-comprehensive system analysis showed that such express service, combined with developing a system of “green hub” transfer points, would benefit a huge number of riders. If marketed with SMART – a rubber-tire rail – GGT could have a success and draw riders out of the new developments along the SMART corridor.

To boost ridership more generally, GGT should mail every adult within a half-mile radius of the Transit Center a pre-loaded Clipper card with a year-long GGT unlimited ride pass, perhaps in conjunction with the proposed Zipcar membership. San Rafael should allow local businesses to cash-out of some parking requirements by purchasing annual transit passes for their employees. Boulder did something similar to these proposals and saw drive-alone rates drop from 56% to 36%, with the bus taking up the slack. Give people something of value, and they will respond.

The Area Plan makes no mention of improving overall bus capacity or promoting ridership, but it does make some recommendations on how to move the Bettini Transit Center to the SMART site. None of the proposals struck me as particularly attractive, as most of them involve transforming the blocks around the SMART station into rather pedestrian-unfriendly surface stations akin to the Bettini Transit Center today. Other proposals, such as putting bus bays along Heatherton and under the freeway are more attractive from a pedestrian perspective but offer limited capacity.

If San Rafael decides it needs a new parking garage west of 101, the bus terminal should be located to the ground level, giving riders a more weatherproofed facility and allowing the height above the terminal to be used effectively. Bettini's lack of developability is one of the major arguments in the Area Plan for its demolition, so the city should try to lump its desired but ugly infrastructure together. Using the example diagrams from the Area Plan, such a garage would likely provide between 10 and 20 bus bays, depending on the configuration and location of the garage.

The Future

SMART is coming to town, whether people want it or not, and with it will hopefully be a new neighborhood and a new swagger for San Rafael. The city has a chance to come to the forefront of urban policy in the North Bay through innovative (for Marin) land use practices like form-based zoning, parking minimum reform, and true transit-oriented development. Until now, these have simply been words in general plans and housing elements, but San Rafael may actually make it happen. The opportunities here should excite everyone who supports a more walkable, livable, and sustainable Marin.

That's not to say there aren't challenges. Parts of the city staff have a history of choosing car capacity over pedestrian-friendliness, and powerful organizations such as the San Rafael Neighborhood Association could still throw their weight against passage. Both impulses should be resisted by the Council. The opportunities are too great to let this plan slip by.

The Citizens Advisory Committee is meeting on February 2 at 7pm in San Rafael's Community Development Conference Room. The draft plan will go before the City Council some time in March. The Greater Marin will likely be back to its regularly scheduled programming Wednesday.