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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Ever wanted to be a patron of the arts?

kaGh5_patreon_name_and_messageFor the past three years, I’ve written about affordable housing, transportation, zoning, and the harmful effects of a car-only transportation system. I’ve criticized allies for their mistakes, praised critics for the times they’ve made sense, and tried to start a conversation on issues that had too long been the domain of a few professional wonks.

This job is tough. Often, I need to dig through arcane reports, watch those marathon town council sessions, keeping up with the latest research, and more so I can understand the forces at work in Marin. It has been a labor of love for my home, but it is significantly tougher than I thought it would be when I first launched.

Today, I opened up a way for you to help make The Greater Marin even better. I’m inviting you to become a patron.

Patreon is a platform that allows you to set a monthly gift amount that entitles you to certain rewards, my way of saying thank you. Patrons will get access to patron-only happy hours, customized maps, and posters of the most popular transit diagrams to come out of The Greater Marin. And I’ll buy a drink for anyone who pledges at least $10/mo. If we got 20 people doing that, that would make for one awesomely free happy hour.

I hope you’ll consider becoming a patron of The Greater Marin. There is so much work to do in the county, so many cool issues to cover, and I can’t do it without your help.

Pledge today!

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.

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.

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