New on the IJ: Housing close to transit hubs is a time-tested model

Last week, IJ columnist Dick Spotswood wrote that he had a revelation: The best ways to provide new homes in Marin are to add housing to downtowns, emulate downtown forms, and add second units.

It may have been a revelation to him, but it’s not news to the Coalition for a Livable Marin — CALM. We’ve been advocating for just such an approach since we were founded.

Spotswood wrote the foreword to Bob Silvestri’s pro-sprawl manifesto, but he’s starting to understand the wisdom of Marin’s small, dense, rail-oriented downtowns.

Up until the 1940s, Marin was built to maximize ridership on our old light-rail system, the Interurban. Planners put high-density commercial and residential buildings right up next to stations and less-dense homes farther out.

The layout was deliberate. While people today often drive from parking space to parking space on their way home to run errands, yesteryear’s Marinites would walk from shop to shop to run errands on the walk home.

People taking Golden Gate Transit can often still do that, especially at one of the downtown hubs. Take the 27 from the Financial District to San Anselmo, pop into Andronico’s or Comfort’s for the night’s dinner, then walk home.

Most wonderful about this sort of development is how it’s used when people aren’t commuting. Kids can stop by the doughnut shop on a Saturday, parents can watch the street from the coffee shop, and seniors can live their days seeing neighbors and family without ever setting foot in a car.

Marin ought to encourage people to live in places like this, not just for the sake of affordable housing or greenhouse gas emissions but for the health of the town.

Continue reading on MarinIJ.com

RVSD board member pushes parking in Larkspur

According to a source trusted by The Greater Marin, Ross Valley Sanitary District (RVSD) Board Member Frank Egger wants to convert RVSD-owned land at Larkspur Landing from a 120-unit residential area to a 600-space parking lot, presumably to serve the Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT). To make this possible, Egger is pressing Larkspur officials to change the zoning on the RVSD parcel.

While it’s no great secret that LFT has a parking shortage, Egger’s idea is exceptionally foolish from almost any angle.

District Finances – RVSD has a crushing maintenance backlog and huge financial problems. Developing its residentially-zoned property for either sale or lease would provide a much-needed cash influx to the agency. While parking fees would generate some income to the district, it is significantly less than what 120 homes could bring in. Parking simply doesn’t generate the income development does, and that’s not to mention sales or property taxes to Larkspur.

Traffic – A new lot of 600 parking spaces would generate as many as 600 extra rush hour car trips. A development of 120 new homes would generate, at most, 240 rush hour car trips, though likely much less given the proximity to the ferry. If Egger is concerned about traffic, parking will be worse than homes.

Ferry Ridership – The new lot would generate up to 600 peak-period, peak-direction ferry trips, precisely the sort of trip the system has little capacity to accommodate. The 120 homes would generate up to 120 (more likely less than 100) similar trips. However, if built to attract visitors, the homes could complement future new development that would attract reverse-peak and off-peak trips. Golden Gate Ferry desperately needs people to commute from San Francisco to Larkspur Landing for the service’s sustainability.

Frank Egger has led the charge against the Fairfax Housing Element, especially against allowing the downtown to expand into areas now dominated by parking (an idea that even Dick Spotswood endorsed). From his perch on the RVSD Board, Egger is continuing to push a cars-first ideology. He wouldn’t phrase it this way, but it’s clear he’d rather build homes for cars instead of homes for actual people.

Extra ferry service added for Giants victory parade

Golden Gate Ferry is pulling out all the stops tomorrow, advertising what was billed to me as “load-and-go” service from Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) to the Ferry Building from 7am to 11:30am, which in practice will mean a departure roughly every 15 minutes. To accomplish this feat, the agency is pressing all but one ferry in the fleet into service on the route, creating a water bridge capable of moving around 2,100 people per hour from the county and San Francisco. It’s good news for San Franciscans and Marinites worried about how to get to the victory parade, but the problem is how to get to the terminal in the first place. But first, What You Need To Know About Ferry Service Tomorrow.

What you need to know

From 7am to 11:30am, ferries will operate in a load-and-go service model from Larkspur to San Francisco, loading up to their limits before departing. In the afternoon, they will operate in the opposite direction in a similar fashion. There will be terrible parking, so don’t try it. Route 29 and The Wave (Route 25) will operate as normal and will probably offer you the best way to get to the ferry, even if it does take forever. Taxis, bikes, and carpools are the best other ways to travel. Or you could just take the bus in: all regular bus service is still happening. If you’re taking the day off work, take a commuter run in. Full details on the GGT website.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that a third, less stressful way to get to the parade might be by BART. Either drive and park in the Richmond or El Cerrito park & ride lots, or take the 40/42 to the train. That way you can get to Civic Center and totally avoid downtown traffic.

Back to analysis

In total, the measure will be capable of moving about 9,400 people into the City during the morning period, roughly 10 times as many people as there are parking spaces. GGBHTD isn’t planning on running more buses to handle the crowds – they don’t have the manpower to operate their regular schedule, much less an added schedule - so regular Wave shuttle and Route 29 service is all the ferry will get. The 21 buses running on those two lines during the enhanced service hours will be able to accommodate around another 1,200 passengers, assuming very tight conditions on the 41-seat Orions generally used on the routes.

Bicycling is another possibility, but with only two Spauldings to provide their generous bicycle capacity, bicycle parking at LFT will be in short supply. Taxis might make sense, but congestion in the broader Larkspur Landing neighborhood will likely be wretched.

This is a great opportunity to show what LFT could be with minimal headways. If you miss your ferry, you can just catch the next one: if it’s not already docked, it’s probably steaming down the channel.

It’s also a great teaching lesson for what happens when Larkspur is used only as a park & ride. When primary access is by car, it’s necessary to go all-out to store the cars, and when a special event comes there’s no more capacity to move people to the terminal.

It will be a good day tomorrow to celebrate the Giants (rain notwithstanding), and the ferry is going to be one of the best ways to enjoy the festivities. Getting to the ferry, however, might be the hardest part of the trip.

Golden Gate Bridge bike/ped toll moves forward

As the Marin IJ reported, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) has decided to push forward with studying the cycling and walking toll on the bridge.

The vote was very close, 10-9 in favor. All but one of San Francisco’s representatives, John Moylan (who represents San Francisco’s mayor), voted against studying the toll. All but one of the northern representatives, Marin supervisor Kate Sears, voted for studying the toll. This includes Marin supervisor Judy Arnold and Tiburon mayor Alice Fredericks.

Most of the arguments for the toll, as relayed by people covering the meeting on Twitter, were more that it was important to examine it regardless of whether it’s a good idea, not that the toll itself would yield any non-financial benefits.

One observer on Twitter, John Murphy of Healdsburg, made the point that the toll could have a number of unintended consequences, mostly around trailheads. By email, he argued that recreational cyclists consider the ride from San Francisco to West Marin “junk miles.” A toll would be just one more reason to drive to Marin on weekends, exacerbating tourist traffic on Shoreline Highway and parking around trailheads.

He further made the point that tourist cyclists already often pay into GGBHTD’s pot by taking the Sausalito Ferry back to the City after riding across the bridge. Without Clipper cards, these riders pay the full cash price.

What the old studies said

According to commentary from MCBC on the 2005 proposal (the report itself isn’t available online), the proposed toll would raise somewhere between $600,000 and $1.8 million in 2014 dollars, or roughly between 9 and 27 percent of the five-year shortfall.

Unfortunately, the 1998 report indicated there would be no way to charge the toll except with in-person toll-takers, which would cut significantly into the revenue and cause huge lines to enter the bridge. Murphy, the Healdsburg commentator, pointed out that this would force people to spend more time parked, exacerbating the significant parking crunch.

One more alternative

There is another way to target tourist traffic, of course, one that would target tourists exclusively. Rather than charge people for the opportunity to walk across the bridge, GGBHTD should charge for the opportunity to park at either parking lot, and allow tour bus companies to reserve bus parking spaces for a flat fee. This is part of the strategic financial plan, under item 21.

Already, tourist traffic at the lots can cause backups onto the bridge; charging an appropriate amount for parking would reduce that congestion problem and raise money simultaneously. It would target tourists exclusively and wouldn’t require much more infrastructure than parking meters. It’s an idea that deserves study, rather than one more look at a bike/ped toll.

For now, the toll is not a done deal; it is only being studied. To ensure it doesn’t, write to your representatives who voted for the toll. Let them know there are better ways to raise money.

Yay

Del Norte

Board of Supervisors appointee Gerald D. Cochran

Marin

Supervisor Judy Arnold
Marin cities’ appointee Tiburon Mayor Alice Fredericks
Board of Supervisors appointee J. Dietrich Stroeh, GGBHTD Second Vice President

Mendocino

Board of Supervisors appointee James C. Eddie, GGBHTD Board President

Napa

Board of Supervisors appointee Barbara L. Pahre

San Francisco

Mayor’s appointee John J. Moylan

Sonoma

Sonoma cities’ appointee Rohnert Park Councilmember Gina Belforte
Supervisor David A. Rabbitt
Board of Supervisors appointee Brian M. Sobel

Nay

Marin

Supervisor Kate Sears

San Francisco

Supervisor London Breed
Supervisor David Campos
Board of Supervisors appointee Dick Grosboll
Board of Supervisors appointee Janet Reilly
Board of Supervisors appointee Dave Snyder
Board of Supervisors appointee Michael Therieault
Supervisor Scott Weiner
Supervisor Norman Yee

Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk toll just the latest in a string of bad ideas

Like all bad ideas GGBHTD has, the idea of charging a toll on bicyclists and pedestrians crossing the Golden Gate Bridge has risen again from its apparent grave. As it has before, the proposal has raised the ire of bike coalitions on both sides of the bridge, not to mention smart growth organizations in San Francisco. Whether the project will go forward, however, is anyone’s guess.

The proposal is aimed at reducing a 5-year, $32.9 million deficit caused almost exclusively by the Doyle Drive reconstruction, one which will increase with the construction of a new parking garage at Larkspur Ferry Terminal. Already, GGBHTD has hiked tolls, continues to raise transit fares, and implemented paid parking at Larkspur.

But as it has with each of these measures, GGBHTD has divorced financial and policy considerations. A half-hearted $1 ferry parking charge has done nothing to ease parking demand. Transit fares are still rising faster than bridge tolls, ensuring congestion is here to stay.

A new charge on cyclists and pedestrians will mean fewer cyclists using the span as a commuter route and more cars, or bikes, on the road.

Each of these measures raises money, but none produce tangible benefits to the district’s customers. Without policy goals, it’s just a money squeeze.

GGBHTD’s budget and planning staff need to come up with policy goals that also generate revenue and pursue those first. I’ve discussed each on this blog before, but they bear repeating:

Create a variable, congestion-fighting toll. As demand increases, the toll increases. Thanks to all-electronic tolling, implementing the change would be trivial. If set up properly, the end result will be the end of traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, a significant boost to transit ridership, and a significant bump in toll revenue. As a bonus, it would likely correct the growing gap between the average toll and the average fare.

Charge a variable price for the Larkspur Ferry Terminal parking lot to ensure 20 percent of spaces are free by the end of the morning rush hour. By allowing spaces to be free for the midday, drivers will be able to park and use ferries that are generally exceptionally empty. GGBHTD will get a boost from parking and fare revenue. This will also obviate the need for a new $10 million parking garage on the Marin Airporter site.

If General Manager Denis Mulligan can’t get his team to meld policy and financial goals, it’s vital the board do what it can to stop the latest iteration of GGBHTD’s inept planning process.

The SMART station debate: who’s right?

2014's 65% design

2014′s 65% design

SMART’s “65%” designs for stations were recently unveiled and promptly criticized by some politicians, pundits, and the public for lacking amenities and inspiration. On the other hand, SMART has been defended by other elected officials and commentators for its frugality.

So which side is right? Both.

SMART has made some sound decisions with its stations, but it may also be blowing an important opportunity.

SMART’s good moves

Those who expected SMART to build new depot buildings or to occupy existing historic ones haven’t been paying attention.   The rail agency never promised to do those things. Depot buildings are nice but aren’t needed for contemporary rail services.

The same goes for bathrooms at stations. They were never promised by SMART, and the rail agency wisely opted to put them on the trains where they are more practical and won’t become a maintenance and security nightmare. Any attempt to bring bathroom back to the stations would be an expensive mistake.

SMART has also been unfairly knocked for its four-foot-high concrete platforms, mostly notably by Dick Spotswood, who called them “boneheaded” and blamed a previous SMART director. The concern about platform bulkiness is justified. However, to imply that there was an easy or cheap way around them is misguided.

The platform height was driven by SMART’s choice of a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) train that meets federal regulatory requirements, but had four foot high floors. The Japanese vehicle was reportedly $20 million cheaper than the next closest competitor, which had roughly two foot high floors. Spending millions more on a different type of train just to have platforms that were two feet shorter might have been tough to justify, which is why the SMART Board didn’t do that. It’s unlikely that the current SMART chief would have recommended any differently.

SMART’s weaknesses

Still, despite making reasonable calls on depots, bathrooms and platform heights, SMART’s current station designs are a functional and aesthetic disappointment. As a defense, SMART staff recently gave its directors a PowerPoint show complete with dull and bare rail station platforms. The message? Others have uninspiring stations too. By comparison, we are not so bad!

In reality, many rail agencies in the United States give serious consideration to passenger amenities and station design. They view bike parking in both racks and lockers as essential features, as seen here, here and here. Or, they have architectural appeal, as seen here, here, and here. Or, they have landscaping, real-time information, good signage, or clever lighting plans.

In 2011, SMART developed station concepts with input from the public. That process was not a boundless invitation to imagine “dream stations” as some revisionists have recently implied. In fact, the designers at the time conservatively suggested that platforms use the same elements across all stations for brand identity and ease of maintenance. Moreover, the original designs were not radically different from the current ones, in that they envisioned simple platforms with a few key elements. However, they did pay attention to some important details.

The 2011 SMART station design

The 2011 SMART station design

Fist, they attempted to soften the stark visual impact of the four-foot concrete box platforms for better aesthetics, to minimize a large and blank graffiti canvas, and to improve safety in case of a passenger fall. This was done with planters and broad staircases on the backside of platforms. The current design ditches those things, and for safety will rely on a guardrail on the backside of platforms. It’s not clear what that guardrail will look like since it’s absent from simulated image of the 65% design. The simulation also gives a poor indication of just how high and bunker-like the platforms are going to be.

The original designs had shelters with better dimensions for weather protection. At roughly 7 feet high instead of 9 feet high, they were better equipped to keep the rain out, and were longer to protect more people. They were designed with power connections and mounts on the underside for lighting, speakers, security cameras, or other elements that SMART might need in the future. The new shelters merely shift those considerations and costs to the jerry-rigged future.

The original designs included both bicycle racks and lockers, real-time information, a more thorough signage and lighting plan for safety and security, and more attractive aesthetic.

In the face of arguments that better options exist, including those already developed by SMART itself, some SMART staff have responded that they simply can’t afford it. To make up for perceived short-comings, however, SMART is allowing local jurisdictions to pay for improvements themselves.

This approach is short-sighted.

Better design can be worth it

Passenger amenities probably represent around 1% of total project costs. Reducing the quality of these elements produces a tiny fraction of savings. Moreover, to create new generic designs, SMART had to pay consultants AECOM and FMG Architects, reducing savings further. A very small amount is being gained the short term by giving up attention to detail and a lot could be lost in the long run.

Having quality elements at stations should be thought of as a revenue booster. While SMART’s operations will be subsidized, the rail agency is still expecting few million dollars from passenger fares each year. Over twenty years, that expected money totals well over a hundred million dollars. To capture those dollars, SMART will need riders and to capture riders it will help to create a positive impression. A very small amount of money invested in quality stations now, combined with a better approach to design quality, will buoy revenues later on.

If trains can be nice, why not stations?

Some have suggested that SMART should strive for “bare bones” minimalism. However, this philosophy stands in stark contrast to SMART’s decisions about its trains. The rail agency is spending hundreds of thousands, or perhaps in the low millions of dollars, to make the noses of its trains swooped instead of flat and to paint its trains green. Is this a waste? No. The trains will define SMART for a generation. It is common sense (and de rigueur in the private sector) to put at least some portion of a product’s budget into to making that product appealing to consumers. This principle being applied to SMART trains should also apply to its stations.

Beyond the imperative of attracting riders, SMART also needs to keep the general public supportive of its project, including those who will never ride. At some point in the future, SMART will need to re-authorize its quarter cent sales tax to continue running its service. If station are a source of community pride, instead of a sore spot, it will make that task considerably easier.

Cities pay more, but for what?

For local elected officials who understand the importance of good stations and want something better the road ahead is blurry. SMART has offered to allow cities to pay for upgrades, but it’s not clear what that means in practice.

It would be wildly inefficient for multiple cities to hire their own consultants to re-design stations. It could also result in a crazy hodge-podge that detracts from a consistent SMART identity. Allowing cities lots of freedom to customize platforms could force SMART to assume maintenance responsibility and liability for a host of elements that it didn’t choose or design. It also might also force SMART to incorporate station features at a very late date, which would add cost.

To cut down on these risks, SMART could control the process by developing station upgrades itself and then offering them to cities for a price. This would certainly be more coherent and cost-effective, even though it would ironically involve SMART paying money to consultants to do station design work for yet a third time.

Either way, the decision to let cities customize stations is raising expectations far more than the first round of station design work in 2011. That process focused on coming up with a quality template that all jurisdictions could live with while keeping designs fairly consistent for SMART’s long term benefit. The new process offer a weak design but implies that anything might be possible for cities, as long as they pay. In the end, either SMART could end up with long-term station headaches or cities could end up with frustratingly limited choices.

Re-thinking the approach

All of this highlights the wisdom of doing stations right in the first place. In retrospect, developing a design with input from the public and local jurisdictions a few years ago was a prudent way of avoiding today’s disappointment, political grief, and extra consultant work. At the moment, however, SMART seems to view discussions of its station designs as a hassle rather than an opportunity.

While financial contributions from cities would be helpful, SMART has a political and financial incentive (and a small window) to do stations right. Consequently, it should take the lead in developing better designs, whether it involves dusting off the older ones or coming up with new ones. That effort should involve transparency, input from cities, a rabid attention to details, and a design that’s focused on SMART’s balance sheet over the long run.

Missing buses continue on GGT

Despite promises to the contrary, Golden Gate Transit’s personnel woes have continued. Despite yet another opportunity to make their schedule match their personnel for a second time, GGT cancelled a run of Route 54 on Friday and another this morning. What started as a headache is fast becoming a glaring indictment of GGT’s scheduling and personnel management.

In June, GGT’s drivers announced that, thanks to scheduling changes, the agency would not have enough drivers to meet its scheduling obligations. Soon, riders who went through the hoops to get text and email alerts started receiving cancellation notices the morning of their ride. For people who catch the same bus every day, this was frustrating. Questions mushroomed: if GGT knew it couldn’t meet its new scheduling obligations, why did it bother to write an unrealistic schedule?

Not to worry, said GGT. We’re hiring more drivers, so in September cancellations will be a thing of the past. In the interim, the agency permanently cancelled four morning and four evening runs on the 4, 24, and 54.

Still, the unscheduled cancellations mounted, so that up to 7 runs would be cancelled in a single morning.

With the release of its fall schedule and the graduation of its new class of drivers, GGT had a chance to put its terrible summer behind it. Yet, both the scheduled cancelations as well as the unscheduled cancellations continue.

That they continue raises some troubling questions about GGT’s approach to customer service, scheduling, and personnel. Were schedulers informed of how many drivers to expect on a given day? Were they instructed to exceed standard personnel schedule padding? Or, did personnel managers not know how many drivers to expect? No answer to these questions would shine well on the agency.

GGT needs to get its house in order, and fast. Transit riders need consistency to plan their morning. With constant cancellations despite promises to the contrary, GGT is simply driving away the riders it is supposed to serve.

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