Community Marin Plan is at odds with itself

Wrong Way

by jonathan_moreau, on Flickr

Marin’s environmentalists recently released the 2013 version of Community Marin (PDF), an outline of priorities for how to conserve Marin County’s character and environment while still addressing the challenges of commuting and growth.

Though the plan makes bold recommendations for development and transportation – most prominently restrictions on greenfield development and a maximum house size – the plan’s recommendations are contradictory. It talks about infill development but demands onerous environmental and affordability requirements that make it even less likely to appear than now. And, while it talks about better transit, the plan maintains the status quo of car dominance: parking minimums, weighing transportation projects based on congestion relief, and HOV lanes on Highway 101.

Ultimately, the plan boils down to the old environmentalism that believes open space should be preserved, driving should be accommodated, tall buildings are bad for the environment, and housing markets are a myth. This has been the dominant strain of belief in Marin for at least 30 years, and Community Marin thinks that’s just fine.

The good

A fundamental environmental problem in Marin County today is the possibility of greenfield development, or development where there has never been development before. This kind of zoning is held out from Marin’s years of sprawl, especially the 1980s. That hundreds of homes could be built on Grady Ranch is indicative of this problem. Community Marin is right to call for a harder growth boundary to prevent this kind of sprawl from continuing.

In its place, Community Marin wants more infill housing, especially around downtown San Rafael but also around the Civic Center and Novato North stations.

The transportation chapter of the plan calls for all transportation projects to take climate change into account. Aggressive transportation demand management policies, like subsidized bus passes, car sharing, and Class I bicycle lanes (cycletracks), would tackle congestion.

The bad

Despite the call for more infill development, Community Marin goes out of its way to ensure any development will only be possible with considerable government largesse. Among the restrictions for housing development are 20 percent of most developed units be affordable housing; mandated use of green materials; examination of environmental impacts of development; no homes above 3,500 square feet; no development in the 100-year floodplain; full environmental review; full design review; parking minimums; and a hard 3-story height limit on most buildings. Though some of these restrictions could be mitigated by lifting restrictions on density or unit size, Community Marin is silent on these issues.

Commercial development, on top of those building and environmental restrictions, would need to pay a commercial impact fee, which compensates the county in full for the cost to build enough homes to house their employees. That means that for, say, every 600 square feet of retail space built, a commercial developer would need to provide enough money to the county to build a new affordable housing unit.

These restrictions are tantamount to a moratorium on for-profit development in Marin and would drive the cost of housing ever higher. Problems of affordable housing and senior housing would not be resolved. Even senior housing, if there were staff, would need to pay that commercial impact fee.

The only way to solve the problem of affordable housing is to allow the market to correct itself and to focus regulations on form rather than density. The recommendations from Community Marin for tighter zoning will push development into other counties even further from jobs. If Community Marin wants infill development, they need make it easier, not harder, for private entities to build.

The ugly

There aren’t new ideas in this plan to reshape how Marinites get around. Quite the opposite: biking, walking, and transit are seen as tools to address concerns of traffic congestion (as measured by the flawed level-of-service metric) and sufficient parking, not necessarily as transportation modes in themselves. Despite good suggestions – traffic calming, prioritizing Class I bicycle lanes – the overall push is to relieve congestion and improve safety, is often an excuse to remove pedestrians and bikes from ever-faster roads.

Take recommendation 8.14, which wants safer highway interchanges for all modes by improving traffic flow. That means higher speeds at interchanges, which means capacity improvements that will induce more driving, the least safe mode of transportation. Though the interchange will be safer, the population will be more exposed to crashes and death by automobile.

Most glaring are recommendations that encourage parking minimums, the steroids of automobility. Parking minimums externalize the cost of parking to the community at large, allowing the actual users of parking to get away with it for free or nearly for free. When combined with recommendations that level-of-service not be harmed by development, it’s a recipe for widened roads and intersections, which in turn makes them less safe or welcoming for pedestrians and bicyclists.

When it comes to transit, a necessary prerequisite to improved service is a moratorium on capacity improvements. Transit and cars are in competition with one another. Investments in roads and parking mean lower ridership on transit and more traffic on roads. Yet the plan seems ignorant of this well-understood law of transportation planning and calls for more road investment under the guise of “congestion relief”. A recommendation for a more extensive bus network rings hollow when another recommendation will suck ridership from the network that already exists.

If we want to decrease the mode share of cars and decrease how many miles we travel, we need to make a strategic investment in transit and bicycling alone, with roads restricted to maintenance funding.

There are other recommendations that betray a belief that Marin cannot be anything other than car-oriented. Recommendation 8.5 calls for more parking and more park & rides. Recommendation 8.11 supports the ludicrously expensive Novato Narrows project and a new interchange to service the Redwood Landfill, which will eventually close. Perhaps the framers of Community Marin don’t want to rock the boat too much, but it is bizarre to see environmentalists arguing for more cars. Given the strength of their lobby in Marin, they should throw their weight behind MCBC and urbanists to fight for fewer cars and less driving.

In all, Community Marin does well when discussing preservation concerns but falls flat when entering the realms of transportation and development. I suspect the framers of Community Marin share much in common with urbanists – the desire for strong towns and town character, a desire for affordable housing, a desire for open spaces and clean air – but they have gone about their recommendations in a way that does not reflect the proven best practices to achieve those ends. Indeed, their recommendations are often at odds with their stated ends.

Marin’s governments need to study these recommendations carefully before jumping onboard. If they’re serious about reducing CO2 emissions, about creating a more equitable housing market, about moving beyond the automobile, about investing in transit and bicycling and downtowns, this is not the blueprint to use.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

18 Responses to Community Marin Plan is at odds with itself

  1. Richard Hall says:

    “while it talks about better transit, the plan maintains the status quo of car dominance”.

    Dave – the train is going to completely cripple all transit spending in Marin for decades diverting money from far more efficient roads and buses and the train will need (has already obtained) massive subsidies. Once built for $1.2bn including bond interest (most rail projects costs are underestimated by 80%) a similar amount will be needed to be spent in 30 years to replace the network just to maintain it.

    Cars are becoming more efficient, less polluting. Freeways and HOV lanes are actually very efficient. Also we don’t all commute down the train route.

    There’s barely evidence that if you put up high density housing near transit the residents will take the [massively subsidized] train. If the train carries the predicted low ridership which barely 1/4 fills those big diesel carriages most of the time wouldn’t riders still be more environmentally friendly being single SUV drivers?

    Based on the current [inflated] ridership numbers, what would the true cost of an unsubsidized ticket be – covering building, operation, and maintenance – I’d have to guess it’s at least $80? The train is going to suck money out much more efficient, and more needed bus services.

  2. Richard Hall says:

    The train is going to suck immense amounts out of both buses and freeway projects, yet transport a tiny number of people. The added congestion this causes will create traffic congestion, and guess what – more pollution! Pollution that was the goal of the train to reduce.

    What evidence do you have that putting people in high density housing near transit means that they will mostly take that transit?

    Based on each dollar spent how efficient is:
    a) The train (taking into consideration the low ridership and massive cost)
    b) The car (taking into consideration future government mandated reductions in emissions)
    c) A bus

    • I’m not arguing for or against SMART in this post, and I point you to the many, many, many discussions on this topic we’ve had for my views. But whether you think SMART should burn in the deep fires of Hell or is a railroad to Heaven is irrelevant here. The way to more transit ridership on any mode is by investing in transit, not in roads.

      And please use the reply functionality when it’s available.

      • Richard Hall says:

        [Apologies for not using the reply function, thanks for pointing this out]
        Transit for it’s own sake is not a valid goal – you would seem to propose that it is. Let’s agree on goals:
        – we should strive to reduce greenhouse gases and pollution which have adverse impacts such as climate change and poor health
        – we should reduce the amount of time it takes people to commute
        – we should spend taxpayer’s dollars wisely, and only then in the most efficient manner possible to achieve these goals
        – we should ensure that people with low incomes are able to commute, and that they can commute the distances they need in reasonable time so that they can access a broad pool of jobs
        – we should allow people to live in the places they want to live, in the manner they want to live, within reason (we’re on the same side in terms of there’s no need for more mansions in Marin)
        – we should preserve the environment
        – we should preserve the quality of life and architectural character of Marin

        Do you agree with these goals, and that building or getting more people to transit in itself is *not* a goal? (they are tactics to be considered to achieve these goals)

        • Thanks for using reply. I was going along with their stated goal – increase transit – and assumed they also wanted to increase ridership. I could be wrong, but I’d hate to be so unkind.

          My (draft) goals are pretty close to your own:

          – Create a developed environment conducive to the health of the inhabitants
          – Maximize the number of jobs and destinations within a 30-minute travel time
          – Minimize the amount of energy needed to travel and live
          – Maximize the pleasantness of travel
          – Minimize the cost to government to create the above conditions

          Pollution and travel mode is rolled into the first goal, density and speed are rolled into the second, mode and efficiency are influenced by the third, character is rolled into the fourth, and efficiency and cost are in the fifth. These can be summed up as creating a healthy and enjoyable living environment.

          So you are correct: transit ridership is not an end or even a means to an end. Rather, transit ridership is indicative of a certain interpretation of the above goals.

          • Richard Hall says:

            Good constructive thread… Comments:

            David: Create a developed environment conducive to the health of the inhabitants
            Richard: This presumes we don’t already have such an environment, I’d say “ensure” and not “create”. The word “developed” possibly seems redundant (or again implies a need for creation and change, which is a presumption).

            – Maximize the number of jobs and destinations within a 30-minute travel time
            Richard: I;d suggest 60 minutes, for most this is a maximum commute, 30 minutes is a nice to have and should naturally result by focusing on 60 minutes.

            – Minimize the amount of energy needed to travel and live
            Richard: I’m not convinced this is valid, or it needs further work. There’s all different kinds of energy – renewable, polluting (coal fired generators), clean… I think minimizing energy may be a byproduct of more underlying goals (minimizing pollution, GHG emissions…).

            – Maximize the pleasantness of travel
            Richard: Great addition. I really like this one! Not sure how you measure it. Perhaps allowing people to take their preferred modes.

            – Minimize the cost to government to create the above conditions
            Richard: Sounds like different words, same goal. I’m on the same page. Ultimately the ROI of each government dollar spent should go towards making the biggest impact on the stated goals.

            Some of the omissions we might discuss:
            – meeting housing needs
            – making travel affordable
            – protecting the environment, minimizing man’s adverse impact on it
            – protecting people’s right to enjoy their homes (E.g. not stuffing a large out of place building next to them, putting them next to a loud railway crossing…)
            – keeping taxes reasonable (this needs better definition)

          • Richard Hall says:

            Loving this thread. Great intellectual exchange. At first I found your version vague where it’s difficult to measure success, but I think once you attach clear metrics to the notions that you state we start to have something really quite good.

            David1 Create a developed environment conducive to the health of the inhabitants [pollution and travel mode]. Metrics:
            – greenhouse gas emission reduction (E.g. more efficient use of vehicles, avoidance of needlessly sitting in traffic)
            – pollution reduction (E.g. diesel particulates…)
            – noise levels in residential areas (E.g. traffic noise, train horns, railroad crossings…)
            – use of non-replaceable fuels/finite natural resources (?)

            David2 Maximize the number of jobs and destinations within a 30-minute travel time [density and speed]
            – suggest jobs within a 60 minute travel time
            – destinations within a 60 minute travel time (lesser weighting than jobs. Define “destinations” – a hamlet, a small pond?… city by population, tourist attraction)
            [Note: I disagree that density contributes to this objective. There may be a distant correlation, but there may be much more cost effective solutions than building more densely which might need a bottomless pit of money spent to move the needle even slightly]

            David3 Minimize the amount of energy needed to travel and live [mode and efficiency]
            – Move to strike covered by D1

            David4 Maximize the pleasantness of travel [character]
            – comfort: not standing up, not being hot or cold (how to measure – surveys?)
            – minimize frustration (sitting in traffic, waiting at a bus stop/station, traffic congestion)
            – being entertained (listen to music, a radio show, a TV show, a movie – via speakers/headphones)
            – perhaps preferred mode (e.g. some prefer trains , some cars)

            David5 Minimize the cost to government to create the above conditions [efficiency and cost]
            – ROI for $1 to achieve any of the other goals

            David6: Ensure that people can travel at a reasonable cost
            – seek to minimize the cost (as a % income) of travel to households, especially low income households.

            Richard: NEW We missed a big one – maximize safety (minimize deaths per ???)

            Other: I don’t know if we have any obligation to cause economic booms, mass immigration to our area… thoughts?

          • Oh yeah, the goals are purposefully vague – they are meant to capture a broad range of factors, from lifespan to noise to pollution to walkability to the car-not car continuum of urban design.

            Some thoughts on specific metrics – I do think travel energy efficiency is important, as it is an important shorthand for user cost and the burden moving has on society as a whole, but I’d be okay rolling it into the broader schema.

            I also think density is important. Take a 60 minute bike ride through New York City and a 60 minute drive through Wyoming. You won’t be able to get as far in New York, but you’ll pass many more destinations (defined as retailers, services, homes, and jobs) than you would if you drove for 60 minutes in Wyoming. While this doesn’t require much public investment, it does require attention to zoning rules.

            Regarding safety – I’d measure that in health, which itself is measured in lifespan and whether the transportation system results in an inordinate number of deaths directly, through crashes, and indirectly, through pollution and stress.

            Regarding pleasantness of travel – this also includes walk appeal, which is how pleasant a stroll it is to go those 60 minutes. That’s measured in intersection density; percentage of the walk fronted by buildings; permeability of the buildings that front the sidewalk (accessible doors/gates per linear foot as well as the ability to peer into or out of retail and office windows); speed of the adjacent roadway; and proximity to vehicles. It’s also bike appeal, which is how safe it feels to travel along the roadway. Noise and traffic levels play a roll in both.

            Rather than use “frustration” and “standing”, I think a better term is “pursue optimum crowding”, which is Service Level E (and maaaybe D) if we’re going to use Level of Service for roads, and 90% capacity loads for transit.

            Beyond that, I like the metrics you’ve outlined. Still in draft form, though. This still feels incomplete.

          • Richard Hall says:

            Dave >>Oh yeah, the goals are purposefully vague –
            If they’re vague then they shouldn’t be used as goals. You can’t define success and money gets wasted. Hence the metrics.

            Dave >> I do think travel energy efficiency is important, as it is an important shorthand for user cost and the burden moving has on society as a whole, but I’d be okay rolling it into the broader schema.

            As I mentioned I think we’re mixing renewable and finite energy sources. Also if the real issue is cost then that’s covered (taxpayer expense, pollution…).

            Dave >> I also think density is important.
            I still think density is a tactic, not a goal. You may have this addressed already by “passing through many more destinations(defined as retailers, services, homes and jobs). We need to be careful as the wrong goal might artificially create many small retailers, or unprofitable services. So i think we have a little more to go on defining destinations. For instance do I care how many grocery stores I have access to within an hour? No I really care that I can get to one near me in a reasonable time like say 15 minutes. Density goals may force lots of small inefficient destinations to pop-up.

            Dave >> Regarding safety – I’d measure that in health, which itself is measured in lifespan and whether the transportation system results in an inordinate number of deaths directly, through crashes, and indirectly, through pollution and stress.

            Sure, remember we see lots of car deaths because many more people use cars than transit (like at least 30 fold).

            Dave >> Regarding pleasantness of travel – this also includes walk appeal, which is how pleasant a stroll it is to go those 60 minutes. That’s measured in intersection density; percentage of the walk fronted by buildings; permeability of the buildings that front the sidewalk (accessible doors/gates per linear foot as well as the ability to peer into or out of retail and office windows); speed of the adjacent roadway; and proximity to vehicles. It’s also bike appeal, which is how safe it feels to travel along the roadway. Noise and traffic levels play a roll in both.

            Why is it measured by intersection density? Here in Marin I like walking past paths, trees, landscapes… Not convinced. Bike appeal – what’s that? Not convinced. This is a very subjective area. I might find flying really safe and pleasant, you might prefer a bike on nice road. We need to consider though that cycling is not a practical option for many.

            Dave >> Rather than use “frustration” and “standing”, I think a better term is “pursue optimum crowding”, which is Service Level E (and maaaybe D) if we’re going to use Level of Service for roads, and 90% capacity loads for transit.

            Lets throw in D, San Rafael planners try to be better than that. Again we need to consider waiting times at bus stops, train stations, walking with baggage long distances…

            Dave >> Beyond that, I like the metrics you’ve outlined. Still in draft form, though. This still feels incomplete.

            Agreed.

          • Perhaps energy efficiency and density should be set aside.

            Safety: Deaths per 100,000 person miles traveled is a good, mode-neutral way to measure this. An alternative is per 1,000 trips.

            Walk appeal: This is a well-documented area of research in urban planning. Walkable City by Jeff Speck is a book on the subject, but there is a host of publicly available literature and research on why walking in downtown San Rafael is so nice but walking along San Pedro Road is not.

            While intersection density on its own is not a proxy sufficient measure of walk appeal, it is part of the interrelated and quantifiable properties that make a walk through an urbanized area pleasant or not. An analysis of why this is is on Ped Shed, but in short, intersection density allows the person who has chosen to walk greater freedom of movement. If it takes 10 minutes to go from one intersection to the next, that’s 10 minutes to cross the street, turn right or left, etc. That sucks when you’re driving, and it does when walking, too. There are quantifiable measures of this, which I outlined above. Walkscore has been at the forefront of boiling it down to a single number.

            Bike-appeal. This is less well-documented, but if we’re going for mode-neutral pleasantness of travel, this needs to be examined and quantified. Measures are speed of adjacent traffic and accessibility of adjacent buildings (quantified as, What percentage of adjacent buildings are accessible from the bicycle lane?). Bicycle lane class is mitigates higher speed adjacent traffic.

            On waiting for transit vehicles: yes, headways need to be considered.

          • Richard Hall says:

            Dave >> Perhaps energy efficiency and density should be set aside.
            I think so. We deal with pollution and GHG already which relate to energy efficiency. Density – I’m glad we can look at that not as a goal but as one of many tactics that may or may not apply.

            Dave >> Safety: Deaths per 100,000 person miles traveled is a good, mode-neutral way to measure this. An alternative is per 1,000 trips.

            Richard >> Not sure if trips or miles traveled is best. But don’t have enough insight (yet). We share the same sentiments,

            Dave >> Walk appeal: This is a well-documented area of research in urban planning. Walkable City by Jeff Speck is a book on the subject, but there is a host of publicly available literature and research on why walking in downtown San Rafael is so nice but walking along San Pedro Road is not….walksore…

            Richard >> Need to find time to read that (which I don’t have much of). There may some presumption here and maybe a shortcoming of my own (self) education. Again we’re getting away from being transport mode agnostic.

            Dave >> Bike-appeal. This is less well-documented, but if we’re going for mode-neutral pleasantness of travel, this needs to be examined and quantified. Measures are speed of adjacent traffic and accessibility of adjacent buildings (quantified as, What percentage of adjacent buildings are accessible from the bicycle lane?). Bicycle lane class is mitigates higher speed adjacent traffic.

            Richard >> we need to be careful not to overemphasize bikes. For many trips / users they may not be practical. Sure it’s nice for some, and it’s great for personal fitness/health. Any government spending should go to where it makes the biggest impact on goals. If that’s bikes then all well and good. But I think we’re in agreement the goals should be mode neutral.

            Dave >> On waiting for transit vehicles: yes, headways need to be considered.

            Richard >>And have I worked out where to take this discussion yet? nope – but I’m thinking on it. But I feel like we have some kind of a goals framework / definition of success – and you and I will both agree it’s incomplete, but it’s a start.

          • Richard Hall says:

            OK, so glad we agree on lowering emissions is a major goal. SMART claims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I’m totally confused by this and I think this claim is utterly invalid based on data and we are flushing $1.2bn down the toilet on the back of “sounds like it’s good” science, dogma helped by a lot of PR spin (funded by taxpayer dollars).

            CO2 EMISSIONS – CARS VS. THE “SMART” TRAIN
            A Toyota Prius emits 0.26 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile (assuming 1.57 occupants). A light truck or SUV emits 0.63 pounds (1.57 occupants). You can imagine a regular sedan is somewhere between the two and most importantly these average car emissions are lowering every year. Now these are 2006 figures so they are higher than now in 2013.

            HOW DO TRAINS COMPARE: HIGH USAGE US COMMUTER TRAINS
            Taking the most used commuter rail in the country where each carriages has 20 to 30 (call it 25 average) occupants you get emissions of Chicago 0.4 pounds; New York (Metro North) 0.28 pounds.

            Those trains go to major employment centers – monocentric cities where employment is concentrated in the downtown hub. SMART does not. So we can assume carriages are far less full than 20 to 30 occupants on average, so let’s say 10.

            So with 10 instead of 25 riders per carriage emissions for SMART are now increased from 0.28 to 0.70.

            So now we have emissions per passenger mile that look like this:
            “SMART” Train 0.70 *
            Light truck or SUV 0.63
            New York Metro North 0.28
            Average car goes here (0.4?)
            Toyota Prius 0.26
            Source: Federal Transit Administration 2006, Energy Consumption figures

            http://tinyurl.com/3cdn6k

            Note: SMART figure based on average ridership assumption 10 passengers per carriage. The train goes to barely any polycentric (distributed) employment centers, where NY Metro gets 25 passengers per carriage and goes to the most major monocentric employment center in the US – downtown Manhattan.

            E.g. getting people to take SMART is far worse than getting people to drive SUVs!

            Why are we spending $1.2bn to *increase* greenhouse gas emissions? Discuss.

            — LETS CANCEL SMART RIGHT AWAY —

            Source: Federal Transit Administration, Energy Consumption 2006
            tinyurl.com/3cdn6k

          • Richard Hall says:

            FYI I’m still checking these figures. The critical piece to get to is the CO2 emissions per passenger mile. I saw you post previously that SMART will carry 540 passengers per day.

            What we need to work out is:

            1) Average number of passengers on any given train (over the entire line length, not just busy sections, over the entire day, not just peak) in 2015 and 2035.

            2) CO2 emissions of this specific train

            3) Compare it to the projected emissions per passenger mile of a car in 2035 (unless you figure we’re replacing these locomotives anytime sooner)

  3. Stephen Nestel says:

    David, I am always pleased when I can be in agreement with you. You see, many of opposing the housing mandates also agree with the concept of walkable, bikeable communities and recognize the need for some affordable housing.

    You correctly point out the problem with the Community Marin Plan is it’s harsh building mandates will actually push the cost of housing even higher by limiting supply and increasing regulations that are an obstacle to affordability.

    I think your thoughtful analysis can help bridge the misunderstanding between the two camps on affordable housing.

    • Glad to read! Nice change from “fascist Disneylandia”.

      I do hope I can be a bridge between the camps. Keep up the dialogue.

      • Stephen Nestel says:

        Well fascist Disneylandia is what I think of the “cute” styled Smart Growth developments ala Duany/Calthorpe. I much prefer authentic creativity, variety and individuality that has been a mark of the Marin landscape since the beginning. It’s a matter of taste I suppose. There is room for condos/developments with mock turrets, mission architecture, etc. When taste/style becomes a government mandate, however, as they have just done today with the multifamily architectural guidelines, it will quickly become tiresome.

        Creativity will reign again in California, soon I hope. I wanta build a yurt.

  4. Pingback: Ever wanted to be a patron of the arts? | The Greater Marin

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