Missing buses continue on GGT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New service comes to GGT today, but nothing restored

The latest schedule adjustment to GGT’s buses goes into effect today, and it offers mixed news for commuters. While GGT did expand service between San Francisco and Sonoma on the 101X, service cuts from earlier this summer remain in effect. In short, this adjustment is somewhat of a wash.

­The cut runs

To deal with ongoing personnel shortages, GGT cut eight commuter runs: one in the morning and evening on Route 4, two in the morning and evening on the 24, and one in the morning and evening on the 54. People weren’t too pleased, but it was better than unplanned cancellations the morning of. (These continued, but at least they became more rare.)

The new schedule doesn’t restore any of these runs. Though the latest crop of drivers, who start today, were supposed to have alleviated the service cuts, apparently GGT thought they should assign drivers elsewhere.

Elsewhere in the schedule, Route 2’s first run (5:15am) was folded into Route 4’s first (5:10am, which is rescheduled to 4:58am). Both runs used to arrive at San Francisco at the same time, so consolidating saves a bit of money and manpower. Route 70’s 4:30am run, which left from the San Rafael Transit Center, was also cancelled, as the first 27 duplicates the run just five minutes later.

The new runs

Route 92, the only real commuter bus from San Francisco to Marin, added two northbound morning runs to Marin City. Route 93, the San Francisco shuttle route, added two new evening runs to its schedule. Route 23 has a few new school service runs to White Hill Middle School, too.

The bigger deal is the new 101X evening trip. The 101X uses a different route than the other commuters and functions as a solid express bus for Sonoma residents. By added a new trip at 5:35pm, the 101X is a much better, and faster, bus for commuters and San Francisco daytrippers from Sonoma.

Bottom line

GGT is tweaking its schedule in smart ways around the edges, as it does every quarter. From the standpoint of customer service, I’m not keen on inconsistent service patterns, like running Route 4 through Marin City and Sausalito just once in the morning. While they do make operational sense, customers crave consistency. Signage, maps, and other wayfinding devices all must show the inconsistent routing, which could easily lead to more confusion.

(Someone might recall seeing the Route 4 symbol on their stop in Sausalito and take a more regular 4 up to Mill Valley, completely bypassing their home and get pissed at GGT.)

The 101X is a savvy move by GGT, which is trying to improve connectivity between Sonoma and San Francisco.

But none of that balances out the insult to riders that are the supposedly temporarily cancelled runs on 4, 24, and 54. Now that there are more drivers, GGT should return to the brand of high-quality and reliable service it has built over the past 40 years. No matter how clever the adjustments to other routes are, the loss of service on these three popular routes is deeply felt by riders.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the new route guide on the bus today, and tweet your impressions with the new service to @theGreaterMarin, @GoldenGateBus, or both.

Delay tactics plague the county housing element

by Lotus Carroll, on Flickr

by Lotus Carroll, on Flickr

As the county comes down the home stretch of approving its housing element (HE), opponents of the element, led by Marin Against Density (MAD) and Community Venture Partners (CVP) have taken up a tactic of delay. Calling the effectively two-year process a fast-track giveaway to developers, they have called for extending the process out from the end of January to the end of next May.The delay is simple political posturing. Opponents should return to debate over substance, not timetables.

The current HE finds its roots in the 2013 County Housing Element, passed before Plan Bay Area and its raft of tweaks to affordable housing policy in the region. In essence, the county copied the list of affordable housing sites from the 2013 element, developed after an intense yearlong debate, into the 2014 element.

This has opponents crying foul. The 2013 element was based on an old housing needs assessment, when the region required the county to find room for affordable 781 units. The 2014 element needs to only find space for about 185 units. By copying over the last element’s list to the current list, opponents argue the county is accommodating many more homes than the state requires.

This position glosses over the effect of the 2013 element: the Housing Element simply identifies sites already zoned for housing.   The affordable housing sites declared to the state through that element are in the general plan today. Whether the county lists these sites or not, these sites’ legal status will remain unchanged.  The opponents’ argument, that this increases housing opportunities in Marin, is flat wrong.

To fight this, opponents are apparently planning on delay tactics.

Led by Community Venture Partners (CVP), an anti-Smart Growth nonprofit run by Bob Silvestri, opponents are arguing the county timetable is a “fast-track.” First, they were upset that the county was submitting the element to HCD for review without apparently realizing the review was non-binding. CVP declared on their website:

On Monday, August 25th, the Draft of the Marin County “Housing Element” (HE) for the 2015-2023 planning cycle will have its final review by the Planning Commission before being sent to the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in Sacramento.

The Planning Commission will actually hold their last hearing on November 17 to review feedback from HCD, followed by at least two hearings by the Board of Supervisors that have yet to be scheduled. CVP goes on:

The County is fast-tracking the review, submittal and approval of the HE unnecessarily. The County has until May 31st of 2015 to gain final certification of the HE from HCD, without risk of penalty of any kind.

CVP is mistaken here, too. While Marin would not be subject to state penalties, MTC has declared it will prioritize regional transportation funding for cities and counties that submit their HE by January 31, 2015. CVP is gambling the county can challenge MTC’s rulemaking, but that’s hardly “without risk of penalty of any kind.”

Testimony from MAD supporters at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting indicate the aim isn’t to allow more time for public comment but to give opponents a chance to organize. They begged the supervisors to do what the Larkspur City Council did with their Station Area Plan: accede to opponents’ demands. If the county does not, CVP has issued a fundraising appeal for a $15,000 legal team to sue the county over the HE.

From a political standpoint, MAD and CVP are working with a shrewd strategy. A delay that allows them to organize hands them a victory and momentum, which will make the extra four months of organizing that much more effective. As well, a delay keeps housing in the news. The unusual back-to-back Housing Element processes has served as kindling to their cause. Keeping the news cycle on housing will help them maintain the angry fires for a bit longer, which will bleed into the next election cycle.

Unfortunately for the county, this strategy is terribly unproductive. Rather than focus on solutions to the regional housing shortage, CVP and MAD have chosen to set themselves up as populist outsiders. CVP’s policy proposals, such as they are, are buried beneath cries of an unjust fast-track bureaucracy. And, by using a strategy of delay, both CVP and MAD are placing their own political needs above the county’s policy needs. They are putting millions of dollars in regional, state, and federal transportation funds at risk for political gain; whatever legal mess comes from it will be left to taxpayer-funded county lawyers.

There are sites within the Housing Element that deserve scrutiny because of their location. However, this is not a reason to delay the HE or to put county transportation funds at risk. Democracy must be about compromise, not threats of lawsuit.

—–

Coalition for a Livable Marin (CALM) has a new petition out that asks the Board of Supervisors to respect the original timetable for approving the HE and support the housing element more broadly. Emails from CALM have asked supporters to make their concerns known in a way that doesn’t put the county’s future at risk. I and other steering committee members of CALM have pushed to include more about the organization’s stances against greenfield development and auto-oriented density.

What you can do today is sign up for CALM’s newsletter and sign the petition to the Board of Supervisors.

High-speed SMART

"Unit 395008 at Ebbsfleet International" by Sunil060902 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Javelin.

The trains SMART will use are relatively slow. While they have a top speed of 79 miles per hour, their federally-mandated tank-like structure means a very long acceleration and long deceleration. Each stop will be a significant time suck.

In 20-30 years, when SMART replaces its trains, it may have a chance to do things differently. How much speed could we realistically wring out of the SMART system? Quite a bit.

The fastest commuter trains on the market are the British Rail Class 395, nicknamed the Javelin. They operate around London and – for the nerds – have a maximum operating speed of 140mph, compared to 79mph for SMART’s trains.

With these trains, which would involve electrifying the tracks and upgrading them to 140mph for the low, low cost of $978 million or so, SMART will be able to make the trip from Cloverdale to Larkspur Landing in about 49 minutes, down from 93 minutes. Novato to Larkspur would be, of course, quite a bit less – just 11 minutes, down from 27 minutes. Exact times might vary based on dwell – how long the trains wait for people to get on and off.

Fast SMART

High-speed SMART travel times

For Sonoma commuters, the Santa Rosa-Petaluma trip would be cut to 12 minutes.

If SMART soars over the Golden Gate, down Geary, and to the Transbay Terminal (for just $5-10 billion more!), travel times will be significantly cut there, too. From Transbay, it would be 6 minutes to Sausalito, 18 minutes to San Rafael, 26 minutes from Novato, and 68 minutes from Cloverdale. This includes local subway stops along Geary. Depending on how

A super-fast SMART, in other words, would fully integrate the North Bay into the rest of the Bay Area. That it would beat drive times along the entire 101 corridor would provide a powerful incentive to leave cars at home. It would transform the whole North Bay.

Despite that, as my statements about the high cost of this upgrade may betray, I’m not keen for this. The Bay Area has significant transit needs, such as BRT on El Camino Real, the evolution of Caltrain into a mass transit line, Dumbarton Rail, a second Transbay Tube, and, of course, the Geary Subway. Each one of these is huge and expensive, and each of them serve more people than SMART.

But it is interesting to imagine how transformative SMART could be with the right equipment, and the right rails.

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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.

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