Mid-Week Links: Transportation Fantastic

image copyright Brian Stokle

A unified transit map of the Bay Area is an elusive thing, though others have tried.  Building such a map should be the job of MTC, but just diagramming major routes over such a massive region as the Bay Area is a noble and necessary undertaking.  Brian Stokle, for SPUR, did just such a thing, and the result highlights the disconnected nature of our systems as well as the centrality of San Francisco to the region.  It’s starting to make waves elsewhere, and I’ll be addressing his fantasy map’s vision for Marin later this week.

Marin County

  • West Marin’s farmworkers will have a chance to live where they work under a new program by the county to build and rehabilitate homes, showing that good urban policy is good rural policy. (IJ)
  • Opponents to regionalism get organized with the founding of the Marin County Communities for Local Control.  Involved politicians are a who’s-who of Marin’s conservatives – relatively speaking, of course. (IJ)
  • Hopefully these opponents know that Plan Bay Area does not supersede local planning or land use law. (Spotswood)
  • Larkspur’s SMART station is held up by Anderson Drive.  San Rafael paved over the tracks to extend the road in 1997 and now doesn’t have the money to make the crossing safe. (IJ)
  • The Ritter Center needs more space for its clinic, and it shouldn’t have to wait for a downtown San Rafael strategic plan before it expands into temporary space. (IJ)
  • After last year’s successful launch, food trucking will be expanded at Larkspur Landing to a week-long presence.  This shows the strong desire for something more than just a parking lot at the ferry terminal. (Patch)
  • Mark your calendar: On April 4, Supervisor Kinsey will talk about transit in Northwest Marin and the possibilities of linking Petaluma to Tomales via Dillon Beach. (IJ)
  • NIMBYism rules in Mill Valley, where the Blithedale Terrace development hit a snag on Monday when the planning commission decided not to forward the EIR to the council for approval.  A special study session will be planned instead to address concerns about size, density, and traffic. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • While Marin considers its own bikeshare system, DC’s system shows it does far more than just provide bikes: it boosts transit ridership, bike ridership, and provides for a significantly healthier region. (Wash Cycle)
  • …and more bikers means a healthier economy, with more window-shopping and better engagement with the street than one gets out of just driving. (Streetsblog)
  • High-occupancy toll lanes are opening around the Bay Area, but not Marin. (SF Chronicle)
  • Napa challenged its preliminary draft RHNA numbers and uncovered problems with ABAG’s data analysis.  The next draft numbers will likely show significantly fewer housing numbers.  I wonder if this will alter Marin’s allocation. (Napa Valley Register)
  • The World Health Organization has a new tool to evaluate the economic and health benefits of better cycling and walking infrastructure, facilitating cost/benefit analyses for planners and advocates alike. (Streetsblog)

Leverage the Golden Gate Transportation Monopoly

Golden Gate toll plaza // San Francisco // California // USA

photo by d4yw41k3r

You may not realize it, but the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transit District has an effective monopoly* on travel to San Francisco from Marin.  If you take transit, of course, you’re using GGT, but if even if you drive you have a toll to pay.  This gives the district enormous market power to influence the travel decisions made by Marinites, power that it should use for good.

The Marin-San Francisco transportation market has three principal products – driving, bus travel, and ferry travel.  Directly, the car has a $5 round trip toll, the bus has a $6.80 to $16.40 round trip fare, and the ferry has a $9.70 to $11.40 $17.50 round trip fare.  The car also has fuel, insurance, parking, and depreciation costs as well, but none of these are controlled (save parking costs at park-and-ride lots) by the district.

What strikes me about this situation is that the district charges the least for the most high-impact transportation mode, the car.  The negative externalities of car ownership go far, far beyond simply tailpipe pollution: the cost of car storage that get dumped into housing costs through mandatory minimums; the cost of parking lots on the pedestrian environment; the cost to our mental and physical health driving everywhere; the ongoing slaughter of drivers and pedestrians on the roads; and the sheer cost of maintaining the physical infrastructure needed to carry all these cars around.  By charging significantly less for driving than other modes, the district promotes this kind of unsustainable mode choice.

If the toll were increased to $7, making the cheapest bus fare competitive against driving, one would see a significant boost in bus trips from southern Marin.  If the toll money were plowed back into service improvements, the district would create a positive feedback loop, allowing the district to simultaneously discourage driving and provide a better transit product.  Even better, it would allow the district to move towards its goal of 50% farebox recovery, as the increased ridership would bring in more money and the right transit improvements would decrease costs.

The district did explore a congestion pricing scheme a few years ago that would have bumped the toll to $8 during peak hours.  Though I’m sure San Franciscans would have been happy to have fewer suburban drivers on their roads, the plan was dropped because it was seen as an unnecessary tax on drivers.  Hopefully the plan will be revived to help pay for the district’s $87 million Doyle Drive deficit, though given the district’s belief that ferry riders should pay it through a fare increase I don’t hold out hope.

Though this does sound like a plan to sop the driver for the rider, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, the driver can always become a rider, and doing so would likely be better for everyone involved, especially if the bus can become competitive with the car in speed as well as cost.  Second, the drivers that don’t switch will see benefits in traffic and, if enough drivers switch to buses, see a significant decrease in travel time.  Though it would cost more for them to drive, they would get a better product than they had before.

In short, the district needs to examine its pricing schemes as a singular system, not as a set of disconnected fares and tolls, and establish a better balance between driving and riding costs.  Doing so would reap benefits for drivers in the form of less congestion, riders in the form of better transit, Marin in the form of more livable and walkable communities, and San Francisco in the form of less suburbanite traffic.

*Yes, I realize Blue & Gold Fleet operates a ferry, but its round-trip fare is double that of Golden Gate’s and so isn’t terribly important to this discussion.  If we were talking about the transit market in Tiburon, of course, they’d play on center stage.

Mid-Week Links: Afternoon on the Bay

late afternoon above Richardson Bay, Sausalito, CA

by Stephen Hill

Marin County

  • Neighbors to the proposed Grady Ranch development have appealed the county’s approval of the project. The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association alleges Grady Ranch would cause too much noise, light pollution, and be a general nuisance. (News Pointer)
  • The San Rafael Airport Rec Center project could run afoul of new California regulations on development near airports.  Though the project fit the old standards, a consultant has been hired to ensure it meets the new ones as well. (IJ)
  • Now that nobody is running for Ross Town Council, it’s up to potential candidates to file for a write-in candidacy.  If there’s an insufficient number of write-in candidates, the three positions will be appointees. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Sausalito wants to ease the problem of bike tourists getting stuck in town by setting up a ferry reservation system for cyclists, a far more efficient method than the current first-come-first-served method.  Expanding San Francisco’s bikeshare system to town may also help the more casual riders that don’t want to cross the bridge. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo’s moribund nightlife will get a boost this summer, as two wine bars are slated to open downtown – a near-first for the town. (Patch)
  • Novato’s revenues are better than expected, to the tune of $600,000.  Though the city is still in austerity mode, an expected transfer of $300,000 from the rainy day fund has been canceled. (Advance)
  • Southern Marin’s bikepaths got a $118,000 infusion of maintenance money from TAM.  Though chump change compared to road maintenance, the grant is a welcome recognition of the paths’ importance. (Marinscope)

The Greater Marin

  • San Francisco’s performance parking experiment is finally yielding positive results, with spots opening up around high-priced areas and filling up in cheaper areas. (New York Times)
  • Meanwhile, New York City is suffering thanks to its onerous parking minimums, which drive up the cost of housing in an already expensive city.  Though the practice of banishing parking minimums in favor of parking maximums is recommended in the draft Plan Bay Area, Marin’s transit districts would be wise to take heed. (Streetsblog)
  • Then again, pushing for strictly infill development and densification by loosening regulation won’t solve our housing problem given the pace of infill development, the extraordinary costs of consolidating properties, and political wrangling necessary to actually build the thing.  (Old Urbanist)
  • A 2001 study argues that transit-oriented development is not a traffic cure-all, as much of the benefits of TOD comes from densification and better location than simply better travel modes. (Half-Mile Circles)
  • If we want biking to take off, we must take it seriously as a form of transportation first and recreation second, something Americans typically don’t do. (RPUS)

Charge to Park, Not Ride

Sausalito
Tomorrow, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD) officials will debate whether to hike the cost of ferry rides for Clipper Card holders, which would raise $2 million to help close an $87 million deficit caused in part by costs associated with the Doyle Drive reconstruction.  As long as the parking lot is free, this is the wrong move for the District.  Charging for parking would discourage driving to the ferry terminal and encourage people to bus or carpool, freeing some of the parking lot for mid-day ferry drivers, putting more people on buses and bikes, and perhaps even boosting, rather than suppressing, ferry ridership.

Marin Transit or GGT should ensure there is a convenient bus transfer in Larkspur, however.  The 15 minute, freeway-bound walk from the nearest bus pad is sometimes called the Walk of Shame, and the 29 bus from either Ross Valley or the Transit Center is about as fast as molasses on a cold day.  Sausalito, also in the plan, doesn’t fare much better with the bus route but at least its connections aren’t equated with shame and embarrassment.

Transit-oriented redevelopment

Long-term, the GGBHTD should partner with the City of Larkspur to redevelop its Larkspur Landing parking lot as a transit-oriented village.  As it stands, it’s about as far from Market Street, time-wise, as San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood, and with the coming reconstruction of the Greenbrae Interchange and SMART station it stands to become the most transit-rich point in the County outside downtown San Rafael.

My very rough calculation, based on the findings of county-wide land values in the Tiburon Housing Element, places the parking lot’s market value at between $48 million and $55 million, assuming 45-unit-per-acre housing.  If the land were leased from GGBHTD, it would add around $1 million to $2 million per year of direct income, and around $1.3 million in new fare revenue, assuming transit is the primary mode of transportation for the residents.  In all, it would equate to around 8% of the ferry’s cost.

For Larkspur, it would provide a boon in sales tax revenue from tourists and residents alike.  Indeed, if density limits were lifted, the units would likely be studios or one bedrooms, too small to put a strain on the school system and the income would be a huge boon to town coffers.

But for the moment…

Parking lot development long-term conceptual thinking.  Tomorrow’s vote is just about whether to raise the fares of ferry riders, and the answer should be a firm no.  Raising the price of parking would have a number of positive knock-on effects to commuting and parking patterns at both Sausalito and Larkspur by improving parking turnover availability for mid-day riders, while encouraging carpooling, biking, and busing, making more efficient use of the lots and the travel systems in place.

A Greater Marin

What’s your favorite place in Marin?  For some, it’s the top of a nearby hill – one can see for miles, in sync with the nature of the place: dry grass, an oak grove to one side, and the smell of the open space.  For others, it’s their downtown, where one can park once and stroll along the main street, eying what’s for sale, meeting neighbors and friends by happenstance.  These two places, nature and the town, are the two pillars that make Marin great.  I love the above video because it captures both.  Yet, though we can safely lock nature away from development, we cannot do the same for our town centers.  Every decision of how we grow, and where we grow, makes our county better or worse.  Here is where we can make a greater Marin, or not, and that is why I started The Greater Marin.

Marin itself was raised on rail, with tiny bits of transit-oriented development blossoming into the towns we have today.  Though downtown San Anselmo is probably the best example, growing as it did from nothing, you can see pockets of it along Center, as you go towards Fairfax.  At the two old platforms that used to be Yolanda and Landsdale station, you can see little bits of commercial zoning amidst the housing.  Odds are, you live in transit-oriented development.

After the Golden Gate Bridge was built with the car, rather than the train, in mind, development in Marin exploded.  The freeway was built, bisecting San Rafael and pushing development north to Terra Linda and beyond.  Though we won out against any more freeways, one can best see the effects of car-oriented design in Terra Linda and Smith Ranch: large parking lots, wide streets, fast cars, and nowhere to walk to.  How many of us have walked from the Civic Center to Northgate, or the Century Theater in Smith Ranch to the strip mall down the street?  They’re not far from one another, but the design is antithetical to the kind of wonderful places that warm our hearts when we think of what makes Marin what it is.

I was born and raised in San Anselmo, and though I moved away to pursue school and a career after high school, my heart, not to mention my family, stayed behind.  One idiosyncrasy Marinites share with New Yorkers is the firmly held belief that our home is the greatest place to live in the country, if not the world.  Though I feel the truth in that, my exposure to other places like Vancouver and Washington, DC, showed me the pride and sense of place other cities feel.  They try to replicate the patterns of growth that created Marin’s centralized structure of small towns clustered around commercial centers, and it works.  The lessons learned by Vancouver and Washington when they try to become Marin can be applied back to Marin.

Yet when I went exploring for thinkers working to make Marin a better place, I found none.  The strongest movement that dealt with transit was RepealSMART, and the only debate of urban affairs was over affordable housing in Novato.

So I dove in, figuring that even my voice, however distant, was better than none at all.  This blog has a vision of Marin with strong, unique towns at its core.  The vision has three elements:

  1. Move away from the car.  Though the car will always be a large part of our low-density county, it needn’t be the principal means of transportation.  Marin’s geography lays our towns in thin strips, and good transit service can serve most of a town without much problem.  In addition, our towns are small enough and weather mild enough that bicycling for most of our trips is a real possibility, provided the infrastructure is there to make it as safe and inviting as hopping in the car.
  2. Focus development around town and transit centers.  What growth does occur, including affordable housing, should be put where it will strengthen town centers, or build new town centers, and strengthen local character.  Our downtowns are often marketed as on the brink of disaster.  Growing downtown means growing the customer base, and that means healthier retail and stronger communities.
  3. Keep Marin, Marin.  The explosive, sprawling growth of San Mateo and Contra Costa are antithetical to what Marin ought to be.  They built density with the car in mind, with large 20 story buildings, wide streets, massive parking lots, and little streetlife.  If we build with the person in mind, our two- or three-story height limits will keep the village character intact, and invite us to walk along what are now pedestrian the wastelands beyond our town centers.  Every new building, every zoning change, should be done with the person, and the streetscape, in mind.  European villages ooze character, and every part of Marin can do the same.

In short, I write with a vision for Marin that is person-oriented, not merely transit-oriented, and one that sees rampant car use as a threat to our county’s character.  I want Marin’s character to grow and strengthen.  We can rest on our necessary victories in the Great Freeway Rebellion and fight all change as an evil, or we can keep exploring how to make a great county greater.  I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Mid-Week Links: Plans from On High

image from NASA

Plan Bay Area

  • Pacific Sun has a wonderful rundown, as they so often do, of the issues surrounding One Bay Area and Plan Bay Area – from the workshops disrupted by tea party agitators to historical context to just what the plan actually hopes to achieve.
  • One Bay Area has cut job and housing growth projections for Marin, with significant housing cuts in some towns and dramatic increases in others.  Town planners will be consulted for the next draft figures, to be released in May. (IJ)
  • However, Supervisor Judy Arnold, Marin’s alternate representative to ABAG,  called Plan Bay Area’s projected job increase in Marin unrealistic, citing a shrinking, rather than growing, job pool in the county. County staff will examine the numbers, and a decision will then be made whether to proceed with an appeal. (IJ)

Marin County

  • The Downtown San Rafael BID will get a $250,000 cash infusion for advertising and events after Keep It Local San Rafael settled their lawsuit against Target and Cal-Pox. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo is still tied in knots as it tries to tighten design review ordinances.  Neighbors are still upset over the addition to Councilmember Kroot’s home. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Joe Casalnuevo, who successfully challenged county ordinances over whether split lots needed to pay in-lieu affordable housing fees, has taken Marin to court over the fight, alleging $60,000 in damages and time lost fighting the fee. (IJ)
  • MCBC is taking volunteers for its annual Bike Locally Challenge, though at six months it may be a bit long for a promotion.  Arlington County, VA, does a month-long Car Free Diet that involves bikes and transit – perhaps Marin Transit could cross-promote? (Pacific Sun, County of Arlington)
  • Copyright law overrode local preference in Tiburon, where the council approved CVS’s red sign, overturning the Design Review Board’s ruling that it should be a gray and white sign. (IJ)
  • And…: Fairfax will at last install cameras for town council meetings. (IJ) … Ross Valley School District residents will vote on a $149 parcel tax in June to help stave off a budget crisis in the district. (Patch) … Marin Transit tweaks Novato and Terra Linda bus routes. (IJ) … Joseph Eichler designed more than just tract homes. (Bay Citizen)

The Greater Marin

  • While the focus of California High Speed Rail has been on just about everything but its utility, Central Valley cities are clamoring for the infrastructure. (LA Times, Fresno Bee)
  • Midcoast San Mateo is struggling with Plan Bay Area, which is including a county-designated Priority Development Area in the rural region.  Regional officials insist the rural development area is about improving infrastructure, not housing development. (San Mateo County Times)
  • Transit signage in the Bay Area are poor, and that’s actually no surprise at all.  Though MTC is on it, it’s unlikely Marin will see much of the fruit of their labor given our county’s current transit state of affairs. (Transportation Nation)
  • More people took public transit in 2011 than in 2010, the most since 1957, and that bodes well for the future of transportation and our cities. (New York Times)

ABAG Options that Work

Cutting our ties

Corte Madera’s departure from ABAG won’t solve any of their problems – indeed, it will compound them.  Despite the town’s protestations that housing mandates are imposed upon them by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats that don’t understand the town, the fact remains that by quitting ABAG they have simply gone from an organization where they had a say to a state housing department where they have no say.

If Corte Madera were serious about regaining local control over whether it will build any housing or not, it would look for ways to work within the system while seeking its reform.  In their ill-informed haste, Corte Madera left behind two important tools in the ABAG toolbox: forming a subregion, and allocation trades.

Shrink the fish pond

A subregion is a group of governments assigned their state housing needs as a block, and the subregion may then divvy up the allocations between members as they see fit.  This gives local governments significantly more control over planning decisions as staff is necessarily closer to the ground and even the smallest minnow of a town has a greater voice in a smaller fish pond.

An effective Marin subregion would need to involve the whole of the county’s towns and cities.  Policy decisions, such as factors for the allocation methodology, would be decided by either the county’s ABAG delegation or the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers, consisting of all 60 of Marin’s elected councilmembers and supervisors.  Either way gives the process legitimacy, something ABAG is sorely lacking, and allows the public to be more involved decisionmaking.

Napa took advantage of the subregional option this RHNA cycle, forming a subregion for precisely the reasons of local control and to address local concerns.  Their draft methodology will likely include factors such as water availability and traffic, both serious concerns in Marin as well, and will involve significant negotiations between individual jurisdictions.

Alas, the time to form a subregion has passed.  Protests against this last RHNA cycle focused on the state’s supposed usurpation of local control and the deleterious effects thereof and so never got around to more productive lines of thought like forming a subregion.  Even if Marin were to establish a subregion tomorrow, the upcoming RHNA cycle would not take the subregion into account.  This process requires patience, and the blinkered opponents of RHNA are motivated by righteous anger, not calculated political moves.

Trading spaces

Luckily, ABAG allows localities who find their allocations particularly onerous to trade away some of their housing allocations, so long as a jurisdiction doesn’t entirely abdicate its responsibility for new housing, compensates the receiving jurisdiction for the burden, and maintains the overall mix of affordable housing. ABAG must approve the transfer, but is not required to under state law – the Southern California Area Governments, ABAG’s SoCal counterpart, does not require review, for example, though it does require the jurisdictions to be contiguous.

While there weren’t any trades based on taste last cycle, as there would be if Corte Madera involved, Mountain View did transfer some of its allocation to Santa Clara County for practical reasons.  Moffett Field was projected to add jobs, but the town had no jurisdiction over the facility, which was in unincorporated county land, and protested that it was responsible for what amounted to federal workforce housing.  Santa Clara, as the proper jurisdiction over Moffett Field, agreed to take over responsibility for the allocated units.

It’s unclear whether Corte Madera could be part of such trades while outside ABAG, as it would be the only jurisdiction in the Bay Area not part of the association.  Rather, as a jurisdiction receiving its allocation directly from the state it would likely be obligated to zone for the whole batch.  Town staff are preparing a report on what happens now that Corte Madera has left ABAG, which should shine more light on that issue.

Either option – forming a subregion, or initiating trades – requires political leadership that can reach across jurisdictional lines and convince those who want to work within the system.  It requires patience, and faith in the system, to lead reform, yet by acting so recklessly and counterproductively Corte Madera has shown it cannot be that leader.  Unless Marin finds such a leader, opponents of regionalism will continue to burn the only bridges they have back to local control.

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