High attrition the cause of GGT’s cancellations

This morning, no fewer than 5 Golden Gate Transit buses were cancelled: 2 runs of Route 24, 2 runs of Route 54, and 1 run of Route 27. Other routes don’t have email alerts, so it’s unknown whether any of those were cancelled. It’s also unknown whether any northbound trips will be cancelled this evening.

At least we know there’s a solution under way. Under the post on Golden Gate Transit’s (GGT’s) high cancellation rate on Route 54 and elsewhere in the system, customer service responded with an answer:

Golden Gate Transit’s goal is to never cancel trips on our routes, and we do everything possible to prevent cancellations. Unfortunately, we have fewer drivers right now due to a much higher attrition rate than expected. Because of this shortage of drivers, we have had more cancellations than we have experienced for some time. Employees are volunteering to work extra hours to minimize these disruptions in service. When Golden Gate Transit is forced to make a cancellation, we rotate routes so that one route is not harder hit than any other. We try to distribute cancellations as evenly as possible throughout our system. We encourage our customers to sign up for our rider alerts so they may get notification via email or text when there are cancellations or other service disruptions. Visit our website at http://www.goldengate.org to sign up for these alerts.

The current bus operator class graduates later this summer, with another class expected to graduate by the end of the year. Both of these classes are larger than most training classes, and will hopefully provide Golden Gate Transit the manpower it needs to prevent cancellations. We appreciate your patience while we work hard to alleviate this problem and want our riders to know that we are dedicated to bringing you reliable service.

While knowledge of the cause of the disruptions certainly doesn’t make them any better or tolerable, it’s good to know there is a solution in sight. Without dates we won’t know when this solution is coming, of course, but I suspect that by September things will look better.

Once the situation improves, GGT must go out of its way to repair its tarnished image. A week of free trips on the effected lines would certainly help, as would some old-fashioned PR outreach. Implementing real-time arrivals would help, too.

Alas, until then, GGT commuters should keep an ear out for cancellations. Follow and report missing buses on Twitter with the #missingbus tag. Email contact@goldengate.org to sign up for text alerts for select routes – 24, 27, 54, and 76 (other routes aren’t available). Keep your fellow commuter apprised.

Bus commuter schedules no longer reflect demand

Though by all accounts Golden Gate Transit’s commuter bus system is quite popular, it is increasingly out of touch with the commute times of Marin’s modern workforce. Marinites leave for work later, but GGT continues to operate with early-morning service.

FiveThirtyEight recently took Census data and determined which metropolitan areas get to work the latest. The San Francisco metro area, of which Marin is a part, got fifth on the list, with a median arrival time of 8:17am but a 75th percentile arrival time of about 9:30am. The bottom of the range is about 7:45am.

Just after reading this, reader John Browne, a frequent rider of the last Route 18 from Kentfield, tweeted:

It turns out John Browne is right.

Using the same Census data FiveThirtyEight used (though without the math to convert it into the ranges author Nate Silver did), I plotted out the average departure times for Marin commuters taking all modes to work. Transit commuters leave work at roughly the same rate as others up until 9am:

Yellow is transit.

Yellow is transit.

The proportion of transit riders leaving home between 9 and 10 stays down after the drop from 8:30 to 8:59 while other modes pop back up.

A glance at the span of service for Marin’s commute buses makes it easy to see why that might be. On average, the last Marin stop for a Marin commuter line is about 8:27, while the average last departure is a bit earlier at 8am. In other words, if you want to get out of Marin by bus, you’re probably going to have to leave home before 8 or 8:30, and that’s exactly what shows up in the Census data.

GGT should reexamine the county’s travel demand and which final buses are the most crowded and aim to add service to those lines later in the morning. Adding to service span will scoop up riders that want to leave later, and can also give earlier riders the peace of mind that they can leave later if needed, helping shore up ridership earlier in the morning, too.

It’s not just tech workers that are leaving later in the day, it’s Marinites in general. Our transit system should start scheduling for that.

Optical illusions on Fourth Street

While working on a piece about bike lanes, I stumbled across something odd that says a lot about how the built environment influences perceptions.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

A pet peeve of mine for years has been Fourth Street through West End in San Rafael. The neighborhood has struggled for years under the shadow of downtown, hidden just over a short hill, and street width is part of the reason I rarely spend time there. It just doesn’t feel cozy like downtown. Downtown is above this paragraph, West End is below.

San Rafael's West End

San Rafael’s West End

So when I got back street width data from city hall, I made a double take. Fourth Street through West End, which runs from H to E streets, was actually narrower than the rest of Fourth all the way to its end at Union, by up to 10 feet: 40 feet vs. 50 feet.

So why does it feel so much wider? Look again at the two pictures and you’ll see some stark differences. In downtown, the trees are older, the street parking is a bit fuller, and the buildings on both sides of the street cozy right up to the sidewalk. In West End, the buildings only cozy up to the sidewalk on one side of the street, with parking lots and show leading way back to squat buildings on the other side.

Those parking lots make the street appear significantly wider than it actually is, creating an optical illusion. I can’t think of a better example of how walkable development influences our sense of place better than this.

Substandard bus stops drench, humiliate riders

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

During Marin’s big Pineapple Express a few of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking the bus all over Marin. Stepping off a bus without worrying about parking or gas or finding the car always feels liberating to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect. But thanks to bad stop design, I and my fellow riders got soaked.

After chatting up some of protestors of WinCup, I walked along the narrow sidewalk to the closest southbound bus pad, not just to see what the walk was like but also because I had to get to Mill Valley. Aside from protestors using up the entire sidewalk width, forcing me to walk in the street, it wasn’t so bad. The bus pad, though, was another story.

The bus pad shelter allowed the wind to whip rain right in the face of me and my fellow travelers. The bench was so soaked that sitting would have made for a cold and soggy experience. Someone else waiting spoke very little English but pointed at the rain and the bench and laughed. “Very wet,” she said, and it was quite clear she thought the situation was ridiculous. Though she was heading to Mill Valley, too, she hopped on the next bus that came (Route 36) just to get out of the wet. I decided to stick it out, though, and my Route 17 bus arrived soon enough.

Alas, the Mill Valley Depot, central bus station of this most wealthy of towns, was in even worse shape. The roof dripped everywhere, soaking not just the benches but anyone who risked standing under it without an umbrella. Water trickled in from every slat in the roof and positively poured in through the light fixture.

The state of repair on the Depot and the quality of the bus pad stops tells riders, You don’t really matter. For one of the wealthiest counties in the country and one that prides itself on being green and supporting the less fortunate, that’s unacceptable.

If buses are a travel mode of equal stature to the car or ferry, bus stops – especially signature stops like the Depot – need to be treated like it. They should be comfortable, or at least bearable. The people who ride the bus for work or out of necessity do matter.

Kickstarter to document the world’s changing streets

Our streets are changing. There are more bike lanes for more bikers, better sidewalks, better streetscapes. You can see it in Fairfax near the Good Earth or any time you’re in San Francisco.

But how are they changing, and why? How are cities learning to finally deal with congestion and accommodate other modes of travel? Todd Drezner wants to take a look, but he needs a little help to move beyond New York City. He wants to film across the United States and even take it international.

You can watch the trailer here.

The Kickstarter fundraiser ends tomorrow at 5pm and, as of this writing, he still needs about $2,000 to make his goal of $25,000. If he doesn’t make it, he gets nothing. If he does, he gets the full amount. If you’re as interested in the intersection between travel and urban design, maybe you’ll want to give to make sure it happens.

A counter-petition starts in Strawberry

A new petition – still small – is trying to inject some sense into the Strawberry priority development area (PDA) debate. It’s about time.

The core contention of the petition is simple: the PDA is not about housing, it’s about transportation funding. To cut out the transportation funding just eliminates transportation funding, leaving any housing plans intact.

The success of Marinwood activists has been the removal of the PDA but intact housing plans. The success of North San Rafael activists was the removal of the PDA but an intact station area plan. What did they accomplish? Political victories that do nothing to advance their stated goal of downsizing housing plans.

What’s a PDA again?

As I’ve written before, a PDA, or priority development area, is a funding mechanism for a part of the region. It’s entirely voluntary and entirely without strings attached. Half of Marin’s transportation dollars must go to a PDA.

At the moment, the regional funds dedicated to PDAs are for planning, so shovels can’t go in the ground, but that just means we can start the process of building real improvements to the county’s transportation infrastructure.

What is the PDA not?

Critics, including frequent commentor on this blog Richard Hall, will point to the application process, which requires an area to have plans for more housing before it can become a PDA, to say that a PDA by definition is a housing plan.

But that’s like saying a credit card, by requiring a certain income level on the application, is income. Of course that’s ridiculous. You had your income before the card. In the same way, any housing zone or plan must be before and, therefore, separate from the PDA.

That’s why anti-housing activists have seen such failure in their stated aim of stopping housing plans.

Conflict roils Strawberry

There are two housing plans that are causing discord in Strawberry: the Seminary housing plan and the county’s housing element. Of these, the Seminary housing plan is what qualified Strawberry to become a PDA first place.

The arguments against housing are diverse but familiar – it would destroy the character of the area, add to traffic congestion and school crowding, cause crime and bring in the wrong kind of people.

Added to the mix are long-running concerns over the existing traffic. The roads in Strawberry are unsafe for anyone who isn’t in a car, especially Belvedere Drive and Tiburon Boulevard. If there are more people, the thinking goes, the problems will get even worse.

Simply put, every one of these arguments is not germane to the discussion of a PDA. Even if housing did do all these things – and, if they did, Strawberry’s high rate of rental housing would surely correlate it to having the worst crime in the county – housing plans are separate from the PDA.

Indeed, remaining within the PDA would provide money to start fixing the problems Strawberry has. Starting grants totaling $210,000 would pay for a comprehensive study of bike and pedestrian infrastructure needs in the area as well as designs for a new Tiburon Boulevard interchange.

Exceptional needs

There are serious gaps in the walking and biking infrastructure throughout Strawberry, and some of it has been the target of quite a bit of ire from local families.

Redwood Highway, Seminary Drive, Belvedere Drive and Reed Boulevard all have no consistent bike or pedestrian infrastructure. Belvedere Drive especially is a fast and dangerous road. Some segments lack sidewalks and all of it is bereft of bike lanes.

Considering that it is the principal route for kids walking from the park to the shopping center, it is an accident waiting to happen. Calming the road with more and better sidewalks and shallower turns has been on the agenda of the neighborhood for years. The PDA is the best chance to make that happen.

Tiburon Boulevard: why it matters to the rest of Marin

The interchange is the biggest project in the area. Caltrans wants to install metering lights at most interchanges up and down the 101 corridor to smooth traffic flow, especially during the evening commute. Tiburon is the start of the nightly Greenbrae corridor mess as service workers leave jobs on the peninsula and head home to Contra Costa.

With a PDA, the Tiburon interchange will be eligible for regional funding, ensuring the project will finally go forward. It would also give leverage to local needs, such as a safe bike path and sidewalk across the bridge and bus pads that don’t require riders to walk across a freeway off ramp. Caltrans has historically been quite hostile to these concerns, so any advantage in negotiating with them could go a long way.

Improving the Tiburon interchange is a project of countywide importance, as it’s key to breaking the Greenbrae Corridor jam. As well, improving that bridge would allow students to finally bike or walk to school in safety, helping ease school traffic through lower Mill Valley. Remember that traffic flow tends to drop off rapidly beyond a certain point; a drop in car travel of even a few percentage points can have enormous impact.

Time to stop fighting shadows

Citizen Marin and the (newly formed) Strawberry Community Association have done Strawberry a grave disservice by spreading myths and fear about their local PDA. Their petition is full of the patently absurd, arguing that the PDA would be a tax giveaway to developers and threaten endangered species.

It’s a glimmer of hope in this never-ending, fearful, angry debate that some people have stood up to say enough. Perhaps you’d like to sign up and join them.

An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

Someone lost a daughter last week. Olga Rodriguez was killed by a driver while crossing the street in downtown San Rafael. Though her unnamed walking companion survived, he’s in the hospital with serious injuries. The driver, who stayed on the scene and is cooperating fully with police, only stopped after he heard them being hit. According to him, he never saw them.

The driver was turning left from Third Street to Heatherton. From photos, it appears that he was in the inner left-turn lane where it would be harder to see anyone in the crosswalk. The truck is also quite tall, so it’s entirely possible he never did see either Olga or her companion. That’s a sign the intersection is broken, and the crash was likely preventable.

The fix is fairly straightforward: give pedestrians a head start when crossing (something known as a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI). After the light on Heatherton turns red to southbound traffic, pedestrians crossing Heatherton would get a walk sign but Third Street would stay red. Three or four seconds later, Third Street would turn green.

Whether or not the truck driver could have seen Olga or her companion before he hit them, they would have been much harder to miss had they had a short head start. As well, rather than trust drivers to give pedestrians priority, the structure of the intersection gives priority to pedestrians instead.

The LPI isn’t just window dressing. A study by Michael King in New York City found that a pedestrian head start leads to a 12 percent reduction in crashes over the baseline or 28 percent reduction compared to unmodified intersections, which saw crashes increase by 17 percent over the course of the study. While crashes did still occur, their severity occurred declined 55 percent overall and 68 percent in comparison to unmodified intersections.*

A flashing yellow arrow would make things even more apparent. Research on yellow arrows in this situation is scant, but in situations with two-way traffic they make drivers exceptionally aware of oncoming traffic. This is precisely the kind of awareness drivers need while navigating an awkward and busy intersection like Third and Heatherton. A zebra-striped crosswalk would further raise the visibility of people crossing.

Though these kinds of changes require advanced signal hardware, it needs to be purchased anyway to tie SMART in to area’s traffic signals. It would simply be part of that purchase.

The ubiquitous pedestrian barrier is often the tool of choice for San Rafael’s public works department, but deploying it here would just give up on the intersection. It’s a vital connection to the Transit Center for commuters at the park and ride and anyone coming from east San Rafael. The area can get sketchy at night, and discouraging legitimate foot traffic will only make it sketchier. Nobody should ever fear for their lives while crossing the street, especially not in an area that’s supposed to be the heart of the county’s transit system.

We cannot erase the physical scars of Olga’s companion. We cannot bring back Olga or wash her blood from the conscience of the driver who killed her. But we can honor the companion’s wounds and Olga’s death and make sure this never happens again.

* New York State assigns numerical values to crashes based on cost to society. Collisions with fatalities were multiplied by 2729, those whose victims were hospitalized and seriously injured were multiplied by 1214, those whose victims were hospitalized but not seriously injured were multiplied by 303, and those whose victims were injured but walked away were multiplied by 76. The total was then divided by the number of crashes.

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