Make your own streets in Abu Dhabi

If you’re like me, you’ve often looked at a street and thought, If only I could make a lane diagram that didn’t look terrible. Though I don’t think many people are like me, I have some friends at heart in the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council. The ADUPC has made an online tool so you can make your own street cross-sections, and I am a fan. Expect to see a lot more of these diagrams from here on.

The key to building a good cross-section is flexibility. A planner needs to show sidewalks, street furniture spaces, bike lanes of all classes, curbs, medians, transit-only lanes and, of course, regular traffic lanes. These need to be adjustable to any width, and we need to be able to show accessories. The ADUPC tool lets you adjust down to a tenth of a meter and add trees, grass, light poles, coloration, and patterns.

I don’t like that I can’t show the results in feet. American planners of the professional and armchair variety know their lanes in terms of feet: 12 feet for a freeway lane, 10 feet for a surface street lane, etc. It’s an adjustment to go metric, and it adds an unfortunate barrier to what is otherwise straightforward.

Yesterday I posted about a short stretch of Second Street. While it was easy see from Google Streetview how small a space we’d reserved for pedestrians, I didn’t describe the width of the lanes. Even if I had, the point can be lost in a cloud of numbers. A diagram presents all that information in a much more concise fashion.

Second Street as it is now, with widths in meters. The lanes vary a bit through this block, but not much. Image from ADUPC.

Second Street as it is now, with widths in meters. The lane widths vary a bit through this block, but not much. Image from ADUPC.

At the top is the total width of the right-of-way, 16.9 meters. Below each element is its width in meters: the three lanes, the dirt path on the south side of the street and the grassy filler space in the north side. The widths are approximations from the tools on Google Maps.

Now we can easily see that this bit of road is actually quite wide. Since lane widths on a surface street are usually only 10 feet (3 meters), we have quite a bit to work with.

Using the same tool, I can reconfigure how much space is dedicated to what. I came up with the cheapest solution: add a 6.5 foot (well, 2 meter) sidewalk to the existing road. To accommodate, I narrowed the lanes to 3.5 meters apiece. It’s above average, but it’s a difficult curve and drivers might need a bit more wiggle room as they come off Miracle Mile.

It's really easy to add a sidewalk.

It’s really easy to add a sidewalk. Also, because this is an Emirati tool, pedestrians are dressed for Abu Dhabi.

But maybe you’d like to do something else with this stretch. Perhaps you want to move the planter to be a space between the road and the sidewalk. Perhaps you’d like to narrow all the lanes to 3 meters and widen the sidewalk. Or perhaps you’d like to widen the lanes a bit more, maybe squeeze in another travel lane through there. That’s the wonderful thing: you can easily show us what you’d like to build on this roadway, or any roadway.

So go to it.

The case of the missing sidewalk

No sidewalk. Click for Google Maps.

No sidewalk. Click for Google Maps.

Recently, I was driving down Second Street on my way to Pacifica and I noticed something I’d never noticed before: a block without a sidewalk, in downtown San Rafael.

Of course, this isn’t really new, simply unnoticed. It’s a blindness, really, to the needs of pedestrians on a street that has gone from a place to stroll down to a long onramp, but those needs are quite real.

On Second, between Hayes and Shaver, neither side of the block has a sidewalk. It’s a very built-up area, and there are sidewalks on the blocks before and after on Second. It’s a bit like paving the whole length of a road except for one isolated block that stays gravel.

It looks as though this block was an oversight. The transit line ran through here from San Anselmo, and buildings were built to turn away from that line. There wouldn’t be a sidewalk here anymore than there would be one along a BART line. Once the tracks were torn up and it became a road, sidewalks were installed on a lot of the right of way, but not this bit.

Not that people don’t use it. You can see a dirt track where people walk. The only other option is a detour onto First but, as any driver would know, not many people will take a five minute detour to get around a 15 second bit of gravel. If you have a stroller or are in a wheelchair, however, forget it. It’s not just that the dirt track is dirt, it’s also really narrow. There’s a power pole right in the middle of it, which cuts the space down to about a foot or so. Nobody except an able-bodied person would be able to get around it.

We wouldn’t accept this kind of treatment to drivers, so why is it acceptable to pedestrians? This is the most basic infrastructure for the most basic form of transportation available in a place where we want people to walk in the first place: downtown. Nader Mansourian, as an engineer and as director of Public Works at San Rafael, should have fixed this a long time ago. Maybe Mayor Phillips can get the ball rolling.

Larkspur’s SMART station: Answering the critiques

Last time, we examined how the station got to be placed where it is. The gap in building the first and second segments gives activists a window to try to change the mind of SMART staff and board members, and by the looks of things they’ll need the extra time.

After seven years, the planned site of the Larkspur station is pretty well set in stone, at least if you ask the agency. Whenever asked to move it, SMART has taken the position that the location is final.

This, to put it mildly, is frustrating.

How can the concerns raised by Larkspur years ago and those raised by SMART be addressed?

Larkspur

When Larkspur first voiced opposition to a ferry terminal station, the city council was opposed to the project entirely and objected on three grounds: glare, aesthetics, and a desire to avoid renegotiating Marin Country Mart’s planning documents.

The concern over glare is so odd it hardly deserves mention. Sun glints off parked cars in the ferry terminal and all over the neighborhood. Adding a train would not increase glare.

A train viaduct in Berlin. Image by Jarrett Walker.

A train viaduct in Berlin. Image by Jarrett Walker.

Aesthetic concerns deserve more of a mention. Larkspur argued that views of the Bay would be blocked by an elevated structure and the neighborhood would be marred by a rail viaduct.

Though the vista is dominated by the ferry parking lot, viaducts are very rarely attractive things, at least in the United States. Since the train would run through the parking lot of a major shopping center and across the field of view of some of the stores, SMART should take a page from Germany and incorporate the shopping center into the viaduct itself.

A huge number of trains in Berlin run on elevated tracks, often running right through the city. Unlike the loud and grungy viaducts in Chicago or New York City, these have been integrated into the city by becoming buildings in themselves. Cafes, shops, and restaurants have taken up residence beneath the rails. In essence, the viaducts are very long buildings with trains running on the rooftop.

Marin Country Mart wants to emulate a maritime village, something vaguely European. By using the viaduct as buildings, Marin Country Mart could emulate something actually European. Though it would require cooperation from the SMART board, it would ameliorate the aesthetic concerns of the neighbors and add value to the shopping center’s owners.

Marin Country Mart brings us to the third objection: planning. Larkspur officials in 2006 did not want to revise the Planned Unit Development plan that governs the shopping center, something that would need to happen if SMART extends a viaduct through their property, as two buildings would have to come down on the edge of the property.

But if both parties are willing to renegotiate, there’s no reason why Larkspur couldn’t amend the plan. Extending SMART through the shopping center makes a more direct connection between the train and shopping. That means value added to the center, especially if the viaduct can be made up as nice as the ones in Berlin.

SMART

Now that opposition in Larkspur has passed, SMART itself stands opposed to an in-terminal station. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly intransigence. It’s not in The Plan, so therefore shouldn’t be added to The Plan. But publicly, SMART will likely say that it’s an issue of cost (too high) and ridership (won’t change much). These are things we can assess, though intransigence might go a bit deeper.

For cost, elevated rail structures like this one typically cost about $70 million per mile to build, including stations. SMART would need to build a viaduct 2,200 feet long, or about 0.4 miles. Multiply that against the average cost per mile and one arrives at $30 million. Let’s add in $150,000 for building demolition, $100,000 for EIR amendments, and a generous $1 million for land acquisition, for a total cost of $31.3 million. That brings the cost of the whole system from $724 million to $755 million.

This is a bargain, especially for a project of regional significance. If SMART extends to the Larkspur terminal, it could transport a significant number of ferry riders. If it transports even a tenth of them (540 per weekday), the project will cost about $96,000 per trip, not counting the people who will occupy the now-freed spaces in the parking lot. The Greenbrae Interchange Project, in contrast, will add meaningful capacity for about 825 trips* in the peak hour at a cost of about $173,000 each.

Intransigence

SMART staff have dug in their heels on this project, but that’s not to say they can’t be persuaded or forced to come up with a good plan. However, will will take time.

The first thing you can do is understand the costs involved, as above. While the numbers in this post are estimates, SMART has not studied the issue in depth; they know just a hair more than I do about potential costs and ridership. Until there is a proper study, we cannot know for certain how much it will cost, nor how much benefit those monies will buy us.

The second thing you can do is start to lobby boards, commissions, and SMART staff. Since a ferry/train connection is a project of regional importance, TAM, SCTA, and MTC should rank it high on their list of congestion mitigation projects. $31.3 million is a pittance compared to what is doled out in a given year, and this is a critical link in the North Bay’s transportation infrastructure. Residents of San Francisco and Sonoma have leverage as well, as the station will effect the usefulness of their own transportation systems.

Golden Gate Transit needs to push SMART to improve access, too. This will directly benefit GGT’s ferry business and increase the value of their park and ride lot, should they ever decide to lease it to developers.

Find your SMART, SCTA, MTC, TAM, and GGBHTD representatives and tell them you want SMART in Larkspur.

*This is the number of new northbound cars that will be accommodated on the freeway. The project won’t add any southbound or HOV capacity that will be used.

Marin: The original smart growth county

San Anselmo from Red Hill. Photo by the author.

San Anselmo from Red Hill. Photo by the author.

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend the annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City. Mayors, activists, councilmembers, and the odd blogger came out to share successes and failures in their communities in the hopes that others could learn from their examples. And after it all, one thing is clear: Marin has it pretty good.

Smart growth came about in the early 90s as the response to auto-oriented sprawl. Though it can mean many things, the basic purpose is improving access for walking and bicycling. Within a 15 minute drive is a certain number of residences and businesses. Within a 15 minute walk there is less. In a place with high access for walkers, however, there is too much density for everyone to move around in cars, leading to congestion if that demand isn’t well-managed. Similarly, in a place with high access for cars, there is too little density for people to be able to walk with any efficiency.

While there have always been low-density places for the people who want peace and quiet away from the town center, the last 60 years has seen a great proliferation of such places. In cities like Tulsa or Houston, the city centers themselves were transformed to improve automobile access at the expense of walking access. What activists term sprawl was the outward growth of this style.

In Marin, we rebelled in the 1960s after we saw what freeways were doing to the rest of the Bay Area. Though our beloved trains and ferries were long gone, destroyed by the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway 101, we refused to allow West Marin to be built over. We developed our landmark Corridors plan, ensuring sprawl would not rule our day.

A centerpiece of smart growth is a commercially strong and walkable town, and almost every city and community in Marin has one. These are spaces where you can walk from a nearby neighborhood or park your car once and stroll the strip. They are places with a high density of destinations. They define their community. After all, what would Mill Valley be without Miller Avenue? Or San Rafael without Fourth Street?  Other cities aren’t so lucky.

But a place where you can walk isn’t much good if you can’t walk anywhere else, or if it’s unsafe to bike around town. On this, too, Marin has a leg up on its peers.

Surprising though it is, the fact that we have sidewalks on nearly all but the most rural streets and arterial roads is a rarity, and it shows in the pedestrian fatality rates. Across the US, there are 1.38 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people. In California, it’s 1.6 per 100,000, but in Marin it’s less than half that. In 2008, Marin only had 0.6 pedestrians die per 100,000 people. Though every death is a tragedy, Marin is doing far better than the country at large.

Our focus on smart growth – not to mention the transit-oriented bones left by that rail system – has paid off in how we commute. Our county has the second lowest rate of car commuters in the state, surpassed only by San Francisco. If we add carpools, we are tied with San Mateo County for third. One in three Marin commuters travel by a means other than a single-occupant vehicle. One in ten take transit, third best in the state.

That’s not to say Marin doesn’t have its shortcomings. Our bicycle infrastructure is good but not complete. Our zoning codes needlessly inhibit small units and drive up housing costs. And between those walkable town centers are drivable strips, meant more to be sped through than lingered in.

But Marin has a lot to teach the rest of the country. I was raised on the Marin sense of pride, the understanding that if only the United States would be more like Marin we’d have a more sustainable, prosperous world. Marinites should smile that the movement towards smart growth around the world is in essence an attempt to take the path Marin took 40 years ago. We should smile, that is, and roll up our sleeves.

Larkspur has a second chance to do SMART right

Elevated Ferry Station

The original plan for an elevated station. Image from SMART.

While Sonoma gets to reap the benefits of SMART, including a $15 million expansion of the IOS to the Santa Rosa Airport, Marin’s commuting public rightly grouses that it doesn’t serve their needs. Yet by ignoring Larkspur Landing for now, SMART has a chance to do what it should have done from the start and plan for a station in the ferry terminal.

A core principal of transit planning is connectivity. Any network is only as good as the strength of its connections, and transit is not excluded. The strongest sort of transit connection is the cross-platform connection, which allows you to hop off your train or bus, cross the platform to your transfer and be on your way. It’s like switching planes in an airport by walking one gate over.

In contrast, a weak transit connection forces riders to leave one station, walk a couple of blocks, and enter another station. Rather than boarding a connecting flight at the gate next to yours, we need to hike across the airport to another terminal entirely. Though this may be tolerable once in a while, as a daily commute it can crush even the hardiest transit enthusiast.

Sadly, SMART has opted against convenience and in favor of soul-crushing. Current plans call for locating the ferry station a half mile from the ferry terminal, requiring transferring riders to either walk along parking lots and unfriendly streets or wait around for a shuttle. A commute that might already involve 2 transfers will become one involving 3.

Larkspur residents, most of whom who won’t even get direct SMART access, rightly complain that this makes little sense. The Station Area Plan for the Larkspur Landing neighborhood calls for relocating the station into the terminal and decries the poor site chosen by the SMART board.

SMART’s draft environmental impact report contained a draft plan (very large PDF) to put the station in the ferry terminal. Back when station sites were being planned, staff created four alternate proposals for Larkspur, including two with better access to the ferry. The best one placed the station adjacent to the current terminal entrance at the end of a half-mile of elevated track. Given the current going rate for elevated rail, this option would cost about $30 million plus land acquisition costs. That’s about one-fifth the cost of the Greenbrae Interchange Project next door.

Yet at the request of the Larkspur City Council (PDF), SMART went for the station plan staff explicitly recommended against. The city complained that the removal of two buildings would require modifying the plan that governs Marin Country Mart, and that an elevated rail line would obstruct views of the Bay. They also were concerned about cost, though Larkspur wouldn’t need to pay for the extension. Another concern raised earlier by staff is that a station in the ferry terminal would make extensions to Corte Madera or San Quentin more difficult.

Though these concerns are well-intentioned and should be addressed in any plan to relocate the station, it’s foolish to scuttle a dramatic service improvement over parking lots and fantasy expansions that are decades from reality.

And here is where we have a new opportunity. By splitting construction of the line in two, SMART has given Larkspur residents a chance to change that seven-year-old bad decision. Nobody likes to run across an airport to catch a plane, and no commuter likes to walk across a half-mile of parking lots and traffic to make a transfer. Larkspur needs reverse its earlier request and demand a world-class transit connection, and residents should ask for the same. And SMART should listen.

Next time, I’ll examine the city council’s original concerns and how they might be addressed.

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