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.

Walking is key to smart planning

The concept of transit-oriented development (TOD) has been thrown around Marin for years, and for good reason. The idea is that by putting new homes near transit, fewer people will drive and more people will take transit to work.

This, coincidentally, is Marin’s experience.

Marin’s towns were built with the understanding that most people would take the old light rail and ferry to work, and so we did. Though the light rail is long gone, our homes, businesses and transit hubs stayed put. As a result, Marin is one of the most transit-happy counties in California, trailing only San Francisco and Alameda in the percentage of its people commuting by transit. One in four people heading across the Golden Gate Bridge in the morning are on a bus.

Perhaps, though, it is understandable that IJ columnist Dick Spotswood would overlook the ongoing success of TOD in Marin. This transit-friendliness doesn’t seem to extend to the daily lives of Marinites, which often revolve around driving for all our errands. It’s so obvious to him, in fact, that he calls TOD “greenwashing.”

But Spotswood missed the secret power of transit-oriented development. It’s not the transit. What is it?

Continue reading on Marin IJ.

Options floated for toll hikes on the Bridge

by Stephen Woods, on Flickr

by Stephen Woods, on Flickr

At long last, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) will be hiking tolls. While this is a good thing for the North Bay’s transportation system, the rationale shows that GGBHTD still doesn’t understand its opportunities or how to plan for a better transportation system.

The toll hikes are designed to boost revenue to GGBHTD’s coffers to offset the massive debt incurred by rebuilding Doyle Drive. In a sense, this is exactly what the toll was designed to do: offset construction and maintenance expenses associated with the Golden Gate Bridge. In another sense, though, the district is giving up on an opportunity to cut traffic along with raising toll revenue. Nowhere is a demand-based toll in the works, and that means a huge missed opportunity.

Demand-based tolling

A demand-based toll, more commonly known as a congestion charge, sets a price to cross into a particularly congested area with the aim to keep traffic free-flowing within the cordoned area.

San Francisco has explored a few options. Five years ago it tried to work with GGBHTD to establish a demand toll on the Golden Gate Bridge, but it was shot down by then-San Rafael mayor Al Boro, who called it a “Marin commuter tax.” (I don’t recall him being so upset about the annual 5 percent transit fare hikes that took its place.)

San Francisco shifted to examine its southern border with San Mateo County but faced pushback there, too. It was clear San Mateo saw this as a punitive measure against its citizens and promised countermeasures, including its own demand toll for San Franciscans commuting to San Mateo. (Given the congestion on 101, however that might have actually been a good thing.)

Since then, The City has studied the usefulness of a cordon just around its downtown, but no action has been taken to implement it.

Market position

As I described almost two years ago, GGBHTD has a transportation monopoly in Transbay travel between San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma, and strong market presence for intra-county travel in Marin and Sonoma. Yet rather than use its position to reduce traffic, as is its secondary mandate, it has chosen to punish transit users for years with 5 percent annual fare hikes and reduced service.

Implementing a demand-based toll would go much further to promote transit usage than marketing studies and start to reduce some of the intractable traffic problems in Marin.

As well, the toll would ease Marin’s traffic-caused CO2 emissions, both by reducing stop-and-go traffic, which is high-emitting, but also raising money to modernize the GGT fleet with more fuel efficient buses.

Ideally, GGBHTD would set out for itself an aim of managing the traffic along the 101 corridor and set its tolls and fares accordingly. Long term, it should start to charge tolls in both directions, in coordination with MTC (which manages the other bridges) with the express aim of reducing traffic congestion in and out of San Francisco. Though MTC has shown an inability to invest in transit wisely, the mere adjustment to tolling would surely boost transit ridership as congestion declines.

But for now…

But for now, GGBHTD isn’t pushing for such a tolling scheme. Instead, it wants to raise tolls across the board for all travel times, not simply the highest-demand times. To that end, it’s laid out four scenarios of how to graduate its toll hikes, 3 of which end with a cash toll of $8, or $7 for FasTrak, and one of which would end in a cash toll of $8, or $6.50 for FasTrak.

For now, with the GGBHTD we have, we should push for Option 4, which will raise $138 million and cover almost all of the district’s $142 million five-year deficit. GGBHTD has tried to balance their books on the backs of transit riders in the past, which is a sure way to depress ridership and push people back onto Highway 101. If we must balance the books, it makes the most sense to balance them with drivers’ toll revenue, as their vehicles do nearly all the wear-and-tear to the Bridge’s infrastructure and who haven’t faced a price hike in years.

GGBHTD must start thinking strategically about its transportation portfolio if it’s going to make any progress on its long-term capital needs and its mandate to reduce congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge through transit. We shouldn’t be pushing to “balance the books” on any of GGBHTD’s customers. It’s not fair to burden drivers or transit riders with the district’s haphazard approach to planning.

The best we can do now is aim for some measure of equity, which is certainly a better plan than none at all.

If you want a comment: The next public meeting is next Wednesday, February 12, 7 pm, at the San Rafael City Council Chambers, 1400 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA. Given the time, a wide range of commuter lines will serve it from the City as well as every line that stops at the Transit Center.

More details are under “How to Comment” on GGBHTD’s toll hike project page.

Originally posted to Vibrant Bay Area.

Requiring transit officials to take transit makes sense

In light of some criticism regarding a $300,000 transit marketing study, Dick Spotswood makes a good recommendation: require Marin’s elected officials take transit to their meetings at least once per week. Though it won’t take the place of a marketing study, the observations of actual use are irreplaceable.

Spotswood writes:

If transit directors ride their own buses they’ll have a splendid opportunity to fully understand the system they govern. They’ll gain direct input from bus passengers and drivers without consultants in the way.

This isn’t about Golden Gate’s excellent commuter buses serving San Francisco’s central business district. Sears understands that, as she once commuted by bus when she worked in the city.

It’s about buses that start and end in Marin, funded by Marin taxpayers and governed by county supervisors and two council members, Novato’s Madeline Kellner and Stephanie Moulton-Peters of Mill Valley.

A theoretical understanding of a transit system doesn’t always comport with some of the day-to-day inconveniences. Golden Gate Transit (GGT) and Marin Transit (MT) both have some pretty glaring theoretical issues – lack of real-time arrival data, lack of fare coordination, three-transfer trips, poor quality bus pads – there are some things you just need to experience to have them in the top of your mind. When a bus is late and you miss your timed transfer, that’s a huge inconvenience. When a bus stops running just before your event is over, that’s a major problem. When you arrive to your stop on time but the bus passed by early, that might mean an hour wait.

What’s big to someone on the ground might only appear as an obscure metric on a report, or not appear on a report at all. As an infrequent rider, I’m surprised when I ride at how fantastic the system is, on one hand, and how much room for improvement there is on the other. [If you want to report on some of these day-to-day inconveniences, drop me a line on Facebook, Twitter, or email. -ed]

Putting this understanding and frustration into the hands of elected officials can be a powerful tool to push back against staff when they’re dragging their feet. An applicant of GGT’s citizens’ advisory committee recently told me about staff brushing off a question about real-time arrival data, which was promised to be available “in six months” for over a year now. Though this advisory committee can’t do much, a county supervisor would be able to do quite a bit.

We do need marketing studies and we do need a marketing campaign for GGT and MT, as there are issues that might apply to an area elected officials just don’t encounter, but that’s just one part of an integrated whole. We need our elected officials riding the bus around Marin. Perhaps then they’ll find not just why Marinites don’t ride the bus, but also some easy ways it could be so much better.

Better streets in New York instructive for Marin

Nobody wants Marin to turn into a New York City – it’s a great city but we like our quiet just fine thankyouverymuch – but that most pedestrian of places has become a laboratory for how to redesign streets with people in mind. From Redwood Boulevard to Alexander Avenue, there are myriad ways to actually improve the flow of traffic while giving space to those on foot or bike.

Janette Sadik-Khan, chief of NYC’s Department of Transportation, was the architect of so much of of this change and enshrined it in a planning guide for the rest of the country. At its most basic, her concern was for simplicity: simple intersections, simple crosswalks, simple interchanges, and so on. The Department of Transportation released a report, Making Streets Safer (PDF), detailing how to apply the principals it has pursued for 6 years.

Formed in the concrete canyons, these are principals we can apply to our much quieter county. Downtown Mill Valley, for example, is a tangle of streets, intersections, and crosswalks. You’re never quite sure who can go next at the stop signs or where pedestrians are going to come from next or even where the parking actually is. The San Anselmo Hub, too, is a bit of a mess, with long delays at rush hour and a bus turn that relies on the goodness of drivers to navigate.

Streetfilms profiled the dramatic transformation New York underwent during Sadik-Khan’s tenure. It is worth a few minutes of your day.

NYC Streets Metamorphosis from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Sketching out a better Muir Woods Shuttle

Residents of Tam Valley are up in arms about Muir Woods, and it’s no wonder. Their community and its two-lane road is the gateway to the popular site, as well as all the beauty and recreation of southern West Marin.

In response to the cry, the Board of Supervisors wrote to the National Park Service and asked them to explore improving shuttle service and to limit visitors.

While limiting visitors is an awfully stingy solution to the traffic problems in Tam Valley, tackling the traffic problem with transit alone is likely to be tough. How to restructure the shuttle to improve service to provide that much travel is an important question.

So, to get planners’ creative juices flowing, here’s my own sketch of a new shuttle, lifted from some brainstorming on Twitter.

Guiding questions: What is the purpose of the program? To ease traffic to West Marin through Tam Valley. To do that without limiting visitors, we need to create a shuttle that takes enough cars off the road to make traffic run more smoothly. What’s the purpose of that shuttle? To provide a car-free way for people to visit Muir Woods.

How do we make this shuttle attractive to tourists who might have rented a car and might be from areas where transit is not part of their daily lives?

Basically, like any good transit, we need to run it from a logical origin point to our logical endpoint while hitting other possible origin/destinations in the process. For tourists in San Francisco and Southern Marin, the primary destinations are Union Square, Coit Tower, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason, Lombard Street, and the cable cars in San Francisco, and Sausalito, the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, and Stinson Beach in Marin.

Muir Woods sits on a dead-end, so it’s probably not a good idea to go on to Stinson Beach. The time going in and out again is just too much of an inconvenience for something going on to West Marin. Hitting Sausalito makes easy sense for a shuttle. Route 66F does this now and doesn’t get enough riders, so we’ll need to press on.

The Golden Gate Bridge makes a lot of sense. Not everyone wants to take a ferry to Sausalito, but everyone wants to see the Bridge if they’re touring San Francisco. It would be a good way to make the shuttle highly visible to tourists and catch those who want Muir Woods but not the ferry ride.

What about Fisherman’s Wharf? It would certainly put the shuttle into the heart of tourist San Francisco, lending it ease of use and ease of access. The problem is how far Fisherman’s Wharf is from the ultimate destination – Muir Woods – and how much it would cost to run a shuttle with appreciable frequency that deep into The City.

Not to say it isn’t impossible, only expensive. At a typical $89 per revenue hour (the number of collective hours the shuttle vehicles operate for passengers), it would likely cost above $1 million annually to operate, less fare revenues. It may also do more to boost tourism to Muir Woods than offset driving, which isn’t something the National Parks Service wants.

So, unless there is a compelling reason for the shuttle to run all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf, I propose the shuttle run from the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza to Muir Woods, passing through Sausalito (timed with the ferry), Marin City, and park & ride lots on the way. It should run consistently and frequently, with on- and off-season schedules. Every 15 minutes allows people to just show up and go. And the average wait of 7.5 minutes at the Golden Gate Bridge could easily be filled by reading plaques with facts about Southern Marin and the redwoods, not to mention fabulous views of The City and the Bridge. Shuttle should start so they can arrive at Muir Woods at its opening and end at closing.

The current Muir Woods shuttle, Route 66, typically runs to Marin City. It’s much more a parking shuttle than a tourist shuttle, as the only destinations tourists might want to be at are park & ride lots to wait for the shuttle. Infrequently, it runs to the Sausalito Ferry as Route 66F. This is the route that makes more sense from a tourist’s perspective, as it allows the tourist to chain their Marin trips together. Adding the Golden Gate Bridge would add significant value to the shuttle.

Short of that, it would add value to run all shuttles as 66F. We don’t want to ask shuttle riders to drive or transfer, but running most shuttles to park & rides forces tourists either to take Golden Gate Transit or drive.

A non-route concept might have just as much impact as good transit design: limit access to the park for people driving. If you plan to arrive by car, you’d need to reserve a timeslot for your car ahead of time. People arriving by shuttle wouldn’t face that kind of limitation, dramatically incentivizing people to take transit or at least use the park & rides.

A free transfer from the ferry, too, would help overcome the feeling that we’re just gouging the tourists: tickets for everyone for the ferry, tickets for everyone on the shuttle, then back…

Total cost to operate this shuttle? Somewhere around $1 million per year, though with fares it will probably cost the taxpayers around $750,000. With the parking limit, taxpayer cost would be significantly less.

We don’t want to limit access to Muir Woods unless we must, and right now there’s no need to do so. The alternative – a well-designed shuttle program paired with the right incentives – needs a chance to work. To say we need to limit access and solve traffic before boosting the shuttle is to display incomprehension about the purpose and power of good transit. It is not an add-on; it is a solution.

In doing so, we can keep our national heritage open for all Americans, not just the ones who got there first.

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