Unplanned cancellations continue to plague GGT

Well that was fast.

Not even one day after permanently eliminating four morning commuter bus departures to prevent unplanned cancellations, Golden Gate Transit (GGT) had three unplanned cancellations, all on Novato’s Route 54. It amounted to a 30 percent reduction in service on a popular and necessary route, forcing some riders to stand for the almost 90 minute trip.

Wait, catch me up – what’s going on?

Ever since releasing their newest schedule, GGT has been cancelling departures on a number of commuter routes. It claims this is because of higher-than-expected driver attrition, but the agency’s drivers were apparently aware of the problem even before the new schedule was released. Rather than create a schedule that fits the driver pool available, GGT planned for the unscheduled cancellations.

The next driver class, which will graduate in September, are supposed to alleviate the pain. In the interim, GGT created scheduled cancellations on routes 4, 24, and 54. These scheduled cancellations, which went into effect today, were meant to put a stop to the uncertainty by right-sizing the number of departures to the number of typically available drivers.

Despite scheduling cancellations, the GGT’s online schedules haven’t changed. One presumes they’re also still on Google Maps. I don’t doubt this is confusing and frustrating new riders.

But it didn’t work?

Apparently not. With four scheduled cancellations and three unscheduled cancellations, GGT was apparently down seven drivers – far more than normal. Before this, GGT would only cancel up to three departures per day. This is unprecedented.

Consistent commuter bus schedules are vital to maintaining a one- or no-car household. By cancelling routes, GGT is forcing hundreds of families to reevaluate whether this service is reliable enough to use for a regular commute. It must, must staunch the bleeding now, before it does even more damage to itself. GGT worked hard for decades to build a reputation for reliability, and now it’s burning it down for no reason other than its own negligence.

Where does our affordable housing go?

Often, people complain that there isn’t enough affordable housing being built in Marin and blame the developer. Often, however, it’s neighbor concerns – often quite reasonable – that drive up the cost of development.

Two years ago, a developer filed to build 10 townhomes on G Street in San Rafael’s West End neighborhood. That’s the maximum allowed density, and it included 2 affordable units to meet the 20 percent affordability requirement.

However, neighbors had some quite justifiable concerns. The street is a cut-through for drivers heading to or from Second and so is extremely busy and more homes would mean more cars and so more traffic. It’s a neighborhood of detached homes, and townhomes would be a departure from that. The lack of side yards will disrupt the feel of the neighborhood. The building architecture looked too tall in the area. There were also concerns about a heritage oak tree.

Each of these concerns were addressed in turn. The architecture was modified a number of times and utilities were reconfigured “at considerable expense,” according to testimony at a recent city meeting. Two units were cut to address density concerns, which eliminated one affordable unit. The developer will spend $250,000 to save the heritage oak.

Each of these changes makes sense to neighbors and so helps preserve the feel of the neighborhood. Even the oak tree, worth the price of a new home, was worth it. However, these changes cost San Rafael that affordable housing unit and the added expenses will likely inflate the cost of the market-rate homes.

It’s often believed developers are made of money, but they are businesses that aim to make a profit. Large developers can throw their net wide and absorb this sort of unforeseen cost on a few projects. Small ones, however, need consistency and a sure return on the time and money it takes to shepherd a proposal through the bureaucracy. This developer is right to work with neighbors to ensure the project doesn’t have adverse effects on West End, but it is also a lesson in why building for-profit affordable housing in Marin is so tough and rare.

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GGT permanently cancels runs to save face

The GGT service meltdown might be over

The GGT service meltdown might be over

In answer to their ongoing driver shortage and attendant bus run cancellations, Golden Gate Transit (GGT) declared it would cancel 4 runs in the morning and 4 in the evening until the shortage is resolved. It’s welcome, but not enough to restore faith in the agency.

The 4 cancelled southbound runs are:

  • Route 4 – 7:16 am
  • Route 24 – 6:46 am
  • Route 24 – 7:17 am
  • Route 54 – 6:40 am

The 4 cancelled northbound runs are:

  • Route 4 – 4:56 pm
  • Route 24 – 4:25 pm
  • Route 24 – 4:57 pm
  • Route 54 – 4:43 pm

GGT took this step because it had “higher than expected attrition rates” and so had to frequently cancel commuter trips throughout Marin. By permanently cancelling runs, it hopes they won’t have to cancel them without prior notification.

There were substantial problems with how GGT handled the problem. Email and text notifications were only available by emailing contact@goldengate.org and weren’t published through GGT’s Twitter feed or the general route alerts. This was a dramatic disservice to riders. Indeed, the first word this problem was coming was from bus drivers giving voice announcements to full buses, and the story was broken online only by Daniel Skarka in a Google+ post. The on-bus announcements should have been supplemented by announcements on every social media and outreach channel GGT has.

More damning is the fact that GGT had knowledge of this problem before the quarterly schedule adjustment: Skarka’s 54 driver announced it well before the release of the new schedule. Had GGT structured the new schedule to fit expected staffing levels, they would never have had to cancel runs in the first place. The wounds to GGT’s reputation as a reliable service, which will likely last for a very long time, were entirely self-inflicted.

We’ve seen some good signs lately with GGT’s ferry system – new docks at Sausalito, more consistent and numerous ferry runs at Larkspur – but the bus system continues to struggle with mismanagement. Even the inauguration of all-day Route 27 service doesn’t work well, with arrival times at San Rafael nearly identical to Route 70.

GGT is moving towards becoming a more thoughtful and creative organization, but this #missingbus scandal shows it’s still an agency struggling with its own ineptitude.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention: the cancelled runs will stop beginning July 29.

GGT considers replacing Route 80 with expanded 70 and 101 service

What I propose should come of Golden Gate Transit's changes.

What I propose should come of Golden Gate Transit’s changes. The left two lines – 101 and 70 – are the target of GGT’s proposals.

For Santa Rosans who’ve stayed too late in San Francisco, they know the slog once the 101 stops running: 3 hours on Route 80 up to downtown, likely arriving well after midnight.

Ridership on the 80 has been steadily declining, with most of the trips on the service actually being intra-Marin trips – that is, from those who would be just as happy on a 70 or 71 as on an 80 – while ridership on the 101 has been steadily increasing. Simplifying the system by folding the revenue hours of the 80 into the 70 and 101 seems like a no-brainer.

Currently, there are 9 routes plying Highway 101, but GGT is looking at just its 3 Basic routes: 70, 80, and 101. The 70 offers local service from Novato to San Francisco, stopping at every bus pad in between. The 80 offers local service from Santa Rosa to San Francisco. The 101 offers local service in Sonoma and skip-stop service through Marin, stopping only at Novato, San Rafael, and the Spencer Avenue bus pad.

GGT wants to eliminate Route 80 and hand over its runs – typically in the morning and evening – to the two remaining services. Route 70 would cover its local service in Marin, while Route 101 would cover its local service in Sonoma, so that there would be no loss of service span or service frequency. In other words, the system will work better. SF-to-Sonoma riders won’t need to slog through all Marin’s local stops, and Marin riders will just see a number change.

To optimize the usefulness of the new service pattern, a timed transfer will be important at Novato to the 70 and local routes. This will give travelers between Sonoma and Marin access to all of the other county’s bus pads with a simple and short transfer. A timed transfer with Mendocino County’s Route 68 at Santa Rosa, too, will allow GGT travelers access to points far to the north of GGT’s service range.

The total net cost of this switch will be about $100,000 per year. While well worth the cost, it’s odd this isn’t a free change. The service hours and span of the 80 are simply being divvied up, not added to.

This is a similar plan to one Clem Tillier proposed for Caltrain: a local San Mateo train and a Santa Clara local that skips most of San Mateo’s stops on its way to San Francisco. Given the quasi-rail nature of GGT’s highway service, it’s not surprising that what would work well in for a rail line would also work well for a bus system.

Ideally, GGT wouldn’t stop there, and would partner with Marin Transit reexamine all their all-day highway routes. Route 71 duplicates Route 70 within Marin but doesn’t go into San Francisco. Route 36 duplicates it between San Rafael and Marin City, as does Route 17. Routes 4, 24 27, and 92 also operate all day along Highway 101 to San Francisco, but they run on different routes once they enter the City.

Perhaps some or all of these service hours would do better in the basic 70 and 101 lines, allowing greater frequency and reliability outside of just the interlining areas.

This is an all-too-rare positive step by GGT to streamline its operations and run a better service, and they deserve applause. The next step is a Title VI examination, required by federal law, to ensure the change doesn’t adversely affect minority populations, followed by as public hearings. Here’s hoping everything goes well.

Marin bike share attracts sponsors without a station in the ground

Bay Area Bike Share. Image by Andrew Nash, on Flickr

Bay Area Bike Share. Image by Andrew Nash, on Flickr

Over a year ago I reported that Marin was pondering a bike share program of its own, whether as a branch of Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) or as its own independent system. Though the initial study (performed by Alta) had some problems with stop location, overall TAM was optimistic and continued to press forward.

As it turns out, at least when it came to sponsorship, they weren’t optimistic enough.

The 2013 study predicted that the initial system, a pilot area between Larkspur Ferry Terminal and downtown San Rafael, would raise just $10,000 worth of private sponsorships, enough to express support but not enough to add serious funding to the system. As of June, the system – without a station in existence – has $247,000 worth of sponsorship pledges.

The sponsors aren’t just the typical bike shops or downtown businesses either. Bon Air Center, the huge Greenbrae strip mall, pledged $20,000, enough for a station of its own. Marin General Hospital pledged $40,000, enough for two stations. United Markets and Woodlands Markets both pledged another $20,000, and Emeryville’s Clif Bar pledged $40,000. Others pledged, too, but this gives a picture of the kind of support received.

This level of enthusiasm is a great sign for the proposed system. While Marin County Bike Share likely won’t ever get the level of daily trips per bike as Minneapolis or DC, it lends hope that bike-hungry Marin will outperform Alta’s fairly low use estimates. Such a concrete show of local support, too, will likely be helpful now that TAM has grant applications in for regional, state, and federal funding for the system.

Update: If you’re really curious about what’s going on with bike share, you can read from PDF-page 199 of the last TAM Board agenda packet.

San Rafael must get a handle on pedestrian deaths

A New York City intersection before and after treatment. Image from NYCDOT

A New York City intersection before and after treatment. Image from NYCDOT

Four people have suffered violent, brutal deaths in San Rafael in the past nine months. Each one was entirely preventable, each one caused by what should have been a simple mistake that happened to have been made in traffic.

Traffic is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, and San Rafael’s wave of pedestrian deaths shows the city is not immune.

Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, San Rafael should take a page from cities that have adopted Vision Zero, a plan to cut annual pedestrian and bicycling deaths to zero, returning what is a too-routine fact of life into the shock that it really is.

If it does, it will follow the far-more congested cities of Chicago, and San Francisco, but especially New York.

New York’s pioneering transportation director, Jeanette Sadik-Khan, laid the groundwork during the last mayoral administration. Many of New York’s roads had overly complicated intersections or simple dead spaces of asphalt, which confused drivers and pedestrians alike, and she adopted a Keep It Simple approach to make these notorious streets safer.

Sadik-Khan directed her staff to clearly define pedestrian space, driver space, bicycle space and the areas where they need to share.

She expanded the use of the Leading Pedestrian Interval, which gives pedestrians a head-start on walk signs, and reconfigured intersections to allow for more direct pedestrian crossings.

Though the city’s drivers at first complained about a so-called “War on Cars,” the result was actually smoother-flowing traffic and — shockingly — faster drive times through Manhattan.

Safety, too, went up dramatically, with some intersections posting a 45 percent drop in injury crashes.

A report from her office summarizes the approach: “The fundamental characteristic of the successful projects is that they create the opportunity for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to move through the street network simply and easily, minimizing the unexpected, the confusing, and the potential for surprises.”

In other words, make the street easy to use by minimizing complexity and allowing people to go where they want to go.

Continue reading on Marin IJ.

Fairfax’s progressive zoning under threat

Downtown Fairfax. By Ryan, on Flickr.

Downtown Fairfax. By Ryan, on Flickr.

About 16 years ago, I was excited to be a newly-minted Drake High freshman and Fairfax was excited to start on a major update to its General Plan. Three months ago I celebrated my 30th and Fairfax celebrated the passage of the final piece of its general plan update. But last month, the town started to undo its work, and the most substantive part of the General Plan – its zoning and housing elements – are under threat.

These elements are separate but connected pieces. The zoning element is something I neglected to praise when it was first revealed in 2012. It rezones all highway commercial zones as downtown commercial, a dramatic step away from the auto-centric design that defines Sir Francis Drake and Center. It also adds scatters in three Planned Development Districts to accommodate specialized developments: one at Christ Lutheran Church for 40 units of senior housing; one at 10 Olema Road for 22 small, single-family homes; and one at School Street Plaza for 9 homes mixed with commercial space.

Built atop the zoning element is the first state-approved housing element in over a decade. It puts Fairfax in compliance with state law regarding affordable housing, allowing it to avoid writing another housing element for 8 years. The element also allows second units (a major goal of anti-development activists), home sharing, and other non-traditional affordable home formats.

Unfortunately, the zoning element suffered from typos and inconsistencies between its tables and the actual policy text and maps. Though Fairfax’s legal counsel and planning staff assured the public and the council that the typos were not a problem, project opponents alleged the typos opened up dozens of other properties for development. Led by former councilmember Frank Egger, the opponents drew up a ballot initiative to withdraw zoning. That would have the housing element out of compliance with state law and put the town back to Square One.

Opponents relied upon this falsehood to sell their initiative and gathered 1,000 signatures, which they submitted the afternoon before the town council was scheduled to vote on addressing the typos the initiative was intended to address. That locked the zoning from any changes and prevented the council from fixing the problems opponents complained about.

While opponents claim they had no idea this would lock the zoning, it strains credulity that a former mayor and a coterie of old political hands wouldn’t know that legislation that’s the subject of a ballot initiative is locked down.

Yet rather than face a ballot fight and further divide the town, the council decided in a 3-2 vote in May to start the process to rescind the zoning themselves. Mayor David Weinsoff, one of the votes to keep the zoning, said the town was capitulating to bullies.

The vote to rescind is bad policy, an attempt to find a compromise with opponents who refuse to work with the council. If they were concerned about typos, they would have submitted their signatures after the council had a chance to change them, not before. If they were concerned about the content of the General Plan, they had 16 years of public process to voice them.

The rezoning is the most progressive step by any town in Marin

As I’ve said before, the guiding light of this blog’s view that the beauty and livability of its town centers are at the heart of what makes Marin’s towns great. The policy under threat, to allow Fairfax’s downtown to grow into areas where it has not been, fits hand in hand with that understanding.

While other towns have decided to innovate and create standalone developments in driving strips, or to create driving-oriented developments on their fringes, Fairfax decided to invest in its downtown. It’s a recognition that what makes Fairfax great isn’t its parking lots on Center; it’s the shops and homes Bolinas.

Pursuing affordable housing in a way that doesn’t just fit with Fairfax’s character but is inspired by the physical and spiritual heart of town is the only way to turn the lemons of affordable housing mandates into lemonade.

Coalition for a Livable Marin has launched a petition asking the council to stop the process of rescinding the zoning. The coalition’s steering committee, of which I am a member, believes the decision to rescind the zoning is bad for the town. Not only does it spit in the face of downtown, essentially saying it’s an aberration that shouldn’t be replicated, but it puts in jeopardy 71 affordable housing units.

It puts Fairfax on a path toward legal confrontation with California, as the zoning underpins the already-certified Housing Element. And it undoes possibly the most promising reform of second unit policy in the county, setting back a key goal of both affordable housing proponents and the anti-development party.

What the council is doing runs counter to its history as the funky, progressive place we know it as. Fairfax should keep its zoning.

Golden Gate Transit disses Novato commuters

Service meltdown.

Service meltdown.

Last month, Novato transit rider Danny Skarka reported on a bus driver’s claim that, due to a lack of drivers, commute Route 54 would often have cancelled buses under the new schedule. I never heard back from Golden Gate Transit (GGT) about the claim, but it seems Skarka’s driver was right.

For a number of days since the start of the new schedule, Route 54 has cancelled runs without prior notice, apparently on both the southbound and northbound trips. Another rider, Andrew Fox, reports:

[T]he last two 54s I’ve been on have been absolutely jam-packed. Last Wednesday there were numerous standees due to a canceled bus (I took Thursday and Friday off, so I don’t know about those days), and then of course you know about the situation this morning. We had 9 standees, all of whom got on at the busy Alameda del Prado bus pad/park-and-ride.

In my experience the 54 is a very busy bus. Commuters in Novato like me really rely upon it, especially given how miserable traffic has become in the last few years. I for one refuse to drive into the city anymore. Novato commuters have the choice of two different commute bus routes: the 56 or the 54, but the majority of them use the 54 due to the fact that it stops in more locations than the 56. This is a pretty lousy way to encourage transit use.

It’s irksome to see these buses canceled, especially when we hear news of new routes in Southern Marin (“the Wave Bus”) and see buses to Mill Valley (the 4) fly by every 5 minutes or so.

It also seems as though the problem is not isolated to the 54. Sonoma commuter Kathryn Hecht, who rides the 74, reported a cancelled evening run that meant an hour-long delay in San Francisco, as well as a cancelled morning run:

In any other industry, spotty quality is a sign of either a collapsing business model or inept management. The customer service experience is paramount to building a strong brand and strong customer base. For a scheduled service, like transit, this is even more important. People expect consistency, and they expect the schedule to be a promise, not a maybe.

We’ve discussed GGT’s failures in the past, but this is far worse than avoiding real-time arrival systems or not allowing rear-door exits. Simply put, GGT is making a stealth cut to Northern Marin and Sonoma service to expand Central and Southern Marin service. This is bad business and a further sign of GGT’s lack of managerial skill. If it continues, it will lose customers and turn what should be a premium transit product into a product of last resort.

GGT is burning its brand, and for no reason. It should immediately hire new drivers to staunch the bleeding and issue a very public apology to its Northern Marin and Sonoma commuters, perhaps with free rides for a month on the effected routes.

There are deeper structural problems to GGT’s service model, of which this is just a symptom. GGT needs to staunch this bleeding and change its operating model to ensure problems like this never happen again.

Marin’s cities are growing fast, too

Last month, we reported that Marin’s population grew much faster in 2013 than it had historically, up 1 percent rather than the historical average of 0.2 percent. Last week, the US Census released numbers for cities and towns, and the numbers show an equally sunny trend.

Cities and town populations grew an average of 1.1 percent in 2013 led by 1.8 percent growth in Novato, 1.2 percent in Mill Valley, and 1.1 percent in Tiburon.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

This is on the heels of a very slow growth decade. Between 2000 and 2010, a number of towns shrank: Sausalito, Belvedere, San Anselmo, and Larkspur, along with unincorporated Marin. As you can see from the chart above, not one part of Marin shrank in the past 3 years, a marked change. Of those towns that did grow from 2000-2010, Mill Valley and Corte Madera grew faster in the past 3 years than they did that whole decade. So did Marin County as a whole.

Other towns reversed shrinking trends. Belvedere, Larkspur, San Anselmo, Sausalito, and unincoporated Marin all shrank between 2000 and 2010, and all grew over the past 3 years.

Novato stands apart from the data as by far the fastest-growing city in the county, and it is accelerating along with the rest of the county. Between 2000 and 2010, it grew an average of 0.9 percent per year, while this past year it more than doubled that rate, to 1.8 percent. It is known as the city with the cheapest housing, but much of that cost is offset by driving. The H+T affordability index puts the city as just as unaffordable as the rest of the county, and it’s not surprising. Novatoans have longer commutes than other Marinites, while its high rate of retail leakage means plenty of them are also driving far for errands.

We don’t yet know who these new residents are by city, but we do know that they aren’t births. Most of the new residents to the county at large moved here; were it not for them, we’d be shrinking rapidly.

We also know they aren’t occupying new housing. Over the past 3 years, Marin’s housing stock has been essentially stable, growing by just 0.25 percent.

This throws a wrench into the slow-growth argument against housing. Every city is growing faster than it did from 2000-2010, and this past year every city grew more than 0.8 percent. It’s not just Novato carrying the county.

It also means that, even with essentially nothing in the way of new housing, Marin is growing. Critics are right that Marin can’t solve the region’s housing crisis on its own, but it also can’t ignore the fast-brewing problems within its own borders. Rapid population growth without housing only tightens the screws.

While anti-development activists in other suburbs have proven to be reticent to allow second units, those in Marin have been veritable boosters of the idea. That opens up the potential for another 66,000 homes without altering the feel or character of host neighborhoods. We can’t ignore that potential, or the potential for proper infill housing, any longer.

Talk to your kids about cabs and transit

It’s high school graduation season, and that means the annual deluge of columns about how you should talk to your kids about drinking and driving. It’s a valuable reminder for parents – driving is the top cause of death for teenagers 16-19, after all – but inevitably the columns stop there. Keep your kids from drinking and, therefore, driving.

But there’s no better way to get home after a raucous night than to have someone else drive. Even if there is no drinking involved, drowsy driving is just as dangerous. Talk to your kids about transit and talk to them about cabs.

Transit

Kids and transit go together like peanut butter and jelly. Transit can be a tool for freedom for your kids long before they’re of a driving age, and you’ll rest easier knowing they are far safer on a bus or train – even with the creepers that sometimes share a ride with them – than on the road.

Get them a transit card. Though Clipper is the standard for much of the Bay Area’s transit, it might not be in your area. Fill whatever your local system takes with $50 and give it to your kid.

Go over the schedule. Every transit system is different. BART closes at midnight, but Muni has all-night service. Some systems’ routes end at 9, others after midnight. Make sure your graduate knows how to read a schedule, how to reschedule, how to use NextBus for the systems that use it, and how to use the 511.org phone app and website. (If you don’t know, 511.org has transit directions for every transit system in the Bay Area. It’s not as slick as Google Maps, but it’s more comprehensive.)

Go over the map. Reading transit maps is a skill, just like reading road maps. Plan out a route with them from their graduation party to home on the map and on their smart phone (if they have one).

Start them on transit now. If your high schooler is graduating this year, you don’t have a whole lot of time. Go do something cool with them by transit or send them out to a cool part of your area, like Fairfax in Marin, one Saturday. If they aren’t graduating yet, try to make transit part of their everyday life. A first ride on an unfamiliar transit system can be a bit disorienting, and it’s even worse when you’re intoxicated or exhausted.

The last thing you want your graduate to say to themselves is that it’s too much of a pain and just drive themselves. Get them over the hump in a good way.

Cabs

Whether or not your graduate wants to take transit or can’t get home from late parties, teach them how to use a cab.

Make it easy. If you’re in the suburbs, program a local cab company phone number into your graduate’s phone. If you’re in the city, install Uber or Lyft. You want to make this a simple and normal process. If you’re really out there, they’ll need to call ahead. If your teen has a curfew, you can even call a cab company to have someone come so they’ll get home on time.

Make it free. Just like the no-questions-asked policy driving parents often have, make the cab free. If you have Uber or Lyft in your city, link the account to your credit card. If you don’t, tell them to get a cab receipt and you’ll reimburse the fare.

Talk to them, too, about splitting the fare with other people who are going in their direction. Cabs can be very reasonable if the fare is split 3 ways.

Make it familiar. Just like transit, cabs can be disorienting if you’ve never used one before. Take a trip in one with your graduate and make him or her make the payment for the trip back (though with you paying, of course).

It’s about empowerment

It’s extremely important to let your kids know it’s not safe to drink and drive, but that’s not enough. Give them the tools and know-how to get them home safe every time, even if they do something stupid. When you’ve just had a fight just before a party, they may not want to call you. When their designated driver suddenly isn’t available, they might not be able to get home without driving themselves. When they get to college, they won’t have you there to give them a ride.

Even if transit or cabs are just lifelines in your area, you’ll empower them to make their own choices. For now, if they don’t have their own car, this will give them the opportunity to be able to get around without a family car.

Finally, though they might love to drive, teaching them options will allow them to understand that that is a choice, not a requirement, of living in a place.

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