Marin’s transit ridership in step with national trends

Public transit ridership in the United States is higher than it’s been since 1956: 10.7 billion trips, up 1 percent from last year. While this indicates an overall trend toward transit, it’s been driven largely by high-quality transit: heavy rail like BART, commuter rail like Caltrain, and light rail like Muni Metro.

Marin County’s transit picture largely echoes the national trend, though this is not a new story for our county. High-quality transit, namely trains elsewhere but ferries here, continues a ridership boom, as has commuter bus service, but local bus ridership continues to slowly slide. Overall, Marinites are taking more transit.

Local bus

Golden Gate Transit’s Marin-only service has been bleeding passengers for the past five years, from about 4.1 million to roughly 3.3 million today. Including Marin Transit’s independent operations, such as West Marin Stagecoach and school service, local ridership ticked down by 0.7 percent over last year, to 3.4 million trips.

Regional bus

Golden Gate Transit’s commuter and basic routes to San Francisco, however, are doing quite well. For the past 32 months ridership has grown and, year on year, grew by 1.3 percent over January, 2013, to about 2.5 million trips. This, however, is still down from 2004’s 3 million trips.

Ferry service

All that changes when you include the ferries. Despite a steep price hike in 2003, ferry ridership has been growing like gangbusters. Even excluding Sausalito, whose figures are skewed by tourists, Larkspur’s ridership growth has been more than enough to offset the long-term decline in regional bus ridership.

Larkspur ridership grew by 7.3 percent in the past year, from approximately 1.5 million trips last year to about 1.6 million this year. Sausalito ridership grew twice as fast, 14.9 percent, though at around 750,000 annual trips it’s still a small share of total ridership.

The rapid growth in the ferry system continues a now-32 month growth streak begun in 2011. It shot through its all-time record, set in 1978, in 2012, and shows no sign of slowing down.

What it all means

The national trend toward transit is really a national trend toward quality transit. Buses that come every hour and take 4 times as long to get around as a car just don’t cut it.

Indeed, even as MTC has focused a huge amount of attention and money on moving people faster in cars, it has spent almost no time focused on moving people faster on transit. BART is the only major investment in the past half-century that has dramatically improved mobility through the Bay Area, but has now been expanded to areas that do little to boost ridership. Other booming systems are those that feel higher-class or that run as fast or faster than driving, such as Caltrain.

In that light, it’s no surprise Marin’s high-class transit service, the ferry, is doing so well. So too is it no surprise that commuter buses, which generally offer a nicer ride than local buses, are steadily growing as well. Combined, the two systems grew by 3.5 percent this past year, quite a bit faster than Golden Gate Bridge traffic, which is up 2.4 percent.

These and national trends should guide GGBHTD and Marin Transit as they choose their capital investments. Big investments in the bus system should focus on speed, for both the locals and commuters, and comfort, for the commuters. Signal priority, for example, which allows approaching buses to turn red lights green, would help make schedules more reliable and make the bus more competitive against the car.

Small investments should focus on usability and connectivity. Open-source real-time arrival data for all buses, for example, would be a huge boon for riders, dispelling the anxiety one gets waiting for an infrequent bus to come.

For ferries, their extremely fast growth rate means capacity problems are on the horizon. GGT needs to start laying the groundwork for more crossings from Larkspur. Ongoing problems with midday ridership will continue to be a roadblock to better service as well. Even faster-growing ridership at Sausalito may require more ferries to meet the demand.

Marin’s experience shows national trends are indeed applicable to our county. Investments in usability, in connectivity, and in higher-quality trips would capitalize on overall demand for transbay travel, while investments in frequency and speed could stop the slide of local service. Transit planners here would do well to learn from the successes of others.

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.

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.

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.

Wider 101 onramps could be a boon for bus riders, too

Metering lights could be coming to Highway 101 in Marin as soon as 2015 and with them wider onramps. Though one wouldn’t expect this to be a boon to transit riders, this is an ideal chance for TAM to improve the county’s bus pads. It should not pass it up.

I wrote about the bus pad on Greater Greater Washington, an urbanist blog in Washington, DC, and commenters quickly panned it. “This falls into the ‘better than nothing’ category,” said one. Another: “If we’re calling these pads an improvement, it really should be an indictment of how low we’ve set the bar.” Ben Ross posted a link to the piece on Twitter with his commentary:

Though most bus riders appreciate the speed of freeway-running buses, they do have a point. Crossing a freeway onramp without a crosswalk is dangerous and frightening. Transferring from a pad to a street stop can be a pain (and a trek). While the southbound bus pad might be right next to your destination, the northbound bus pad might be a half-mile slog away. And, of course, waiting at the edge of a freeway with nothing around but parking lots or low-maintenance landscaping can be exceedingly unpleasant.

We can change all that.

There are three areas where bus pads need to improve: access, comfort, and speed.

Access means improving the connections between the surface streets and the bus pads, as well as moving the two pads closer together so both directions are accessible to development near the ramps.

Caltrans redesigned the Tiburon Wye’s interchange – a “parclo” (partial cloverleaf) interchange common around Marin – to better facilitate bus pad access and transfers. The redesign, which is still on the drawing board, puts surface street and freeway bus stops as close together as possible and allows buses entering the freeway to use the pads. It is a good example of what is possible.

New Tiburon Wye

The Tiburon Wye after its redesign. Click to enlarge, or click here for the full Marin Transit report (PDF). Image from Marin Transit.

Where a redesign like Tiburon’s isn’t possible, the metering lights themselves present an opportunity to make bus pad access safer. If the metering light signal were linked to a pedestrian button, like a regular street crosswalk, a rider could simply press it and wait for a walk sign. That sounds much better than a running through a break in traffic.

For comfort, the bus pads need shade and some greenery. Landscaping, especially shade trees, would go a long way. Approaching paths need similar treatment.

Some bus pads, like the ones at Smith Ranch Road/Lucas Valley, have clear paths worn away by commuters approaching by more rational paths than the ones provided by freeway engineers. These should be formalized and upgraded with lighting, pavement, and shade.

For speed, the proposed HOV onramp lanes would help at the places where trunk line and commuter buses enter the freeway, especially downtown Novato, downtown San Rafael, Larkspur Landing, Strawberry, Manzanita and Marin City. Shaving 30 seconds off each ramp for a bus with 40 people onboard will amount to a lot of time saved.

Transit-friendly designs need to be baked in from the beginning of this process. That will allow staff to fully vet them before presentations to the governing boards and the state. The further plans get without these designs, the more difficult and expensive it will be to add them in.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally alter how Marin’s transit moves along the 101 corridor. Let’s prove Ben Ross and the other East Coast naysayers wrong. We can do so much better than what we have, and now we have a chance to do so.

The incredible efficiency of Golden Gate Transit

The space efficiency of a regular bus is apparent.

The space efficiency of a regular bus is apparent.

Mass transit an incredibly efficient way to move large numbers of people from two fixed locations or along a constrained space, like a bridge. Buried in a recent Marin IJ article we found out just how efficient they were: at rush hour, buses make up less than 1 percent of all vehicles on the Golden Gate Bridge but, along with ferries, carry 27 percent of the people. In other words, GGT adds a full lane and a half of capacity to the bridge and 101.

That is astounding, and a testament to the value of transit. The toll fees paid to support the transit system are well-spent, as they keep the freeway running smoothly for all users.

Well, somewhat smoothly. The HOV lanes through San Rafael and the Twin Cities are jammed, and without the old reversible lanes from Marin City to San Francisco, buses are prone to get stuck in bridge traffic. Finding ways to fix that problem would go a long way to improving bus traffic flow. Extending the planned Van Ness bus-only lanes along Lombard to the Bridge would go even further, and help ease a commute for thousands of Marinites and Sonomans.

More frequency or bigger buses for long-haul commuters?

Route 72X and other commuter buses are packed, and their ridership is rising. With tolls set to rise on the Golden Gate Bridge, the problem could get even worse. While a good thing, Golden Gate Transit (GGT) needs to figure out how to deal with the rising tide.

GGT has two ways to accommodate excess ridership: increase the bus frequency or increase the bus size.

Increase frequency

A new Golden Gate Transit MCI D4500CT commuter...

A new GGT MCI D4500CT commuter bus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Frequency is freedom. Rather than spacing buses to come every 30 minutes, GGT might space them every 15, or 7, or 3. This reduces the penalty for missing your bus, as there will be another one coming soon.

The upside is that this can induce demand, especially if development and transportation policies at either end of the line encourage transit use. More trips are viable by this bus, as riders have more flexibility to schedule their trips. Casual riders, if the bus comes frequently enough, won’t need to check a schedule at all. For a commuter line, the rider just needs to know that buses leave between, say, 5am and 9:30am. Any more detail is unnecessary.

The downside is that frequency, especially on commuter lines, is expensive. GGT pays its drivers full-time, and a number of the buses deadhead (run Not In Service) up to Santa Rosa or San Rafael after their commute runs. Improved frequency will mean more drivers and likely more deadheading.

This added burden may be beyond GGT’s capability to deliver. Increasing frequency on round-trip Basic services, such as the 101, or turning deadhead runs into northbound commuter service would allow fares to recoup the costs.

Bigger buses

Interior of the Astromega. Image from Van Hool.

Interior of the Astromega. Image from Van Hool.

While it doesn’t induce demand in the same way a more-frequent route may, a larger bus will accommodate the extra ridership without adding significantly to operating costs. Other bus systems use extra-long buses to meet demand, but these would be difficult to navigate around downtown San Francisco and tend to be too utilitarian for commuters’ taste.

A better method would be to use double-decker buses similar to those used by Megabus and Google (like the Van Hool TDX27 Astromega). They have rear storage capacity for 8 bicycles (Google runs with rack space for another 4 on the rear), enough seating for 91 passengers, and aren’t significantly taller or longer than the MCI buses currently in use by GGT. And, unlike the MCI buses, these have rear doors.

Currently, all GGT buses offload and load at the front door, reducing the rear doors to vestigial afterthoughts. The delay of boarding passengers waiting others getting off adds to operating expenses and trip time. With larger buses, this effect is exaggerated. If GGT got its act together and allowed passengers to get off the bus at the rear doors, a rear door on large-capacity GGT commuter buses would save the agency quite a bit on already expensive routes. Allowing commuters to board at the rear would save even more time and money.

Double-deckers wouldn’t be unprecedented in the Bay Area. The Google Shuttle is a great success. They navigate San Francisco’s streets with relative ease and provide a comfortable way for their workers to get to Silicon Valley.

Whether with bigger buses, or with greater frequency, GGT will need to address its crowding. At least internally, it start to consider the costs and trade-offs to each approach.

Where do the PDA funds go now?

The future downtown station area will need some work. Image from City of San Rafael.

The future downtown station area will need some work. Image from City of San Rafael.

Now that the Civic Center Priority Development Area (PDA) has been rescinded, TAM is left with a bucket of PDA-designated cash and even fewer places put it. While Mayor Gary Phillips says downtown San Rafael’s PDA is a logical place to put it, none of the proposed projects in the area are at a stage where they need funding.

Part of the delay is due to San Rafael Public Works (DPW) Director Nader Mansourian’s reported insistence that any road alterations wait until after SMART starts service in 2016. As a result, anything that might disrupt a road’s or intersection’s capacity, or level of service (LOS) will have to wait until the needed capacity is known. That includes bike lanes, traffic lights, crosswalks, bus lanes, etc.

PDA funds must be dedicated to improving the transportation infrastructure within a PDA. While they can target projects outside of a PDA, the project must have a direct positive effect on transportation service within the PDA.

It’s up to the Council and staff to get a slate of needed improvements to the area, from the small to the large. Some possible proposals:

Study which projects in the Downtown Station Area Plan would and would not impact traffic. This is probably the most basic study that would need to be conducted, given that it will be three years before SMART runs and likely another year beyond that before traffic patterns start to emerge. This would give a slate of small projects that could be priced, studied, and built before the train.

Link traffic lights to the rail crossings, done in concert with SMART’s work on the rail crossings themselves. When trains start moving through downtown, they will need to coordinate with traffic flow By linking traffic lights to the crossings, San Rafael could prepare for the trains’ arrival today. The linkage will need to happen on Day One of train operations, and so cannot wait for traffic studies to even begin.

While they’re at it, link traffic lights to bus service. Buses currently crawl through downtown San Rafael, especially northbound trunk service like routes 71 and 101. By allowing traffic lights to sense approaching buses and turn green, a system called signal priority, San Rafael could improve speeds for all bus travelers and improve transit access to and through the downtown station area. While DPW will no doubt want a traffic study to find out precisely how the system should work after SMART, the study will only show how to tweak the system once SMART runs. Benefits could flow long before then.

Fix the Andersen Drive/SMART crossing. One of the principal barriers to getting SMART down to Larkspur is not the station or track but the at-grade intersection of SMART tracks and Andersen Drive. The angle of approach for the train is too shallow for state regulators and so will need to be fixed before the train can proceed south to the ferry terminal. Given that the problem was caused by San Rafael when they extended Andersen, it’s on San Rafael’s head to fix the $6 million problem.

Begin a comparison study of how people move through and shop in downtown. How do shoppers get to downtown? How many people move through downtown? This will give San Rafael planners a snapshot of how SMART and the Station Area Plan changes San Rafael and how to target improvements in the future.

The other pressing projects, even under-freeway parking garages (proposed by the Station Area Plan), will change traffic flow and so won’t pass Mansourian’s muster without a Council mandate. However, staff should draw up a decision tree and timetable for implementation of bike, parking, transit, and other traffic-impacting roadway improvements before SMART begins,

What else would be a good fit for TAM’s PDA-dedicated funds?

Note: I reached out to TAM to determine which of these projects are fundable with PDA money and which are not, but staff have been in a crunch time and haven’t been able to answer. I’ll post an update when they reply.

Proposed Marin Transit signage a step forward

Bus stop signage is an important part of the transit landscape. It can offer a window into the often-opaque routes and numbers that can mislead or confuse inexperienced riders. To help make Marin Transit stops more accessible to the casual rider, MT has proposed a new set of signs for its shuttle stops, and the results are decent.

What’s proposed

Proposed signage (left) and existing signage (right). From Marin Transit.

Proposed signage (left) and existing signage (right). From Marin Transit. Click to enlarge.

At the moment, the bus stop signage is limited to route numbers and some branding. There’s a little bit of extra information, but for the most part it’s assumed riders will use the map that’s often on the flag to determine where buses go.

The proposed signage adds data and makes the route numbers more clear. Below the route is the destination, and below that are the service days. Though not frequency data – a valuable part of any bus map – it does allow a traveler to at least know that they shouldn’t bother waiting for a route if it doesn’t run that day.

Most importantly, the sign adds the stop ID and how to get real-time arrival information. Though GGT isn’t there yet, MT already has real-time arrival data for the bus fleet it operates.

These are all excellent ideas, but there are problems when incorporating GGT’s regional routes in the signage.

GGT’s regional routes, however, do not get destination or service information. On the sample image, routes 40 and 42 are just big numbers without any indication that they’re bound for BART. As well, the route number’s box isn’t colored blue, the color of Basic routes maps, which is out-of-step with coloration for the MT shuttles and GGT-operated local routes. While possibly a conscious decision, it is nevertheless the wrong one.

What have other bus systems done to aid riders with signage?

Practices elsewhere

KCM Flag

Seattle’s flag. Image from King County.

Seattle’s bus system underwent a similar redesign for its stop signage, and the result was similar, though there are differences. (See Seattle’s design manual here.)

Most significantly, the Seattle stop signs use tiles, which allows the system to easily take out or edit route information as needed. If a bus used to be routed to the airport and isn’t, Metro can just remove that tile from the route’s signs rather than order entirely new signs. And, at the stops the route no longer serves, Metro can just remove the line’s number. While more expensive than a typical sign, the tiles would save money over the long-term if service changes effect a large number of the metal signs.

Something else of note is the use of icons to show what services this particular route intersects. Marin’s transit system includes ferries and airport shuttles and will soon include a train. Designating transfers to alternative modes may be of use. Designating routes that intersect the 101 trunk lines may also be useful, though that would involve a unified brand for such service. A black highway shield may do the trick.

London’s bus stops use a similar design, but its bus stations do something a bit more horizontal, with more potential points of interest. If applied to Marin, Route 49 might list Civic Center, Lucas Valley, Hamilton, and Novato instead of just Novato. (You can find their design manual here.)

How’s the sign?

My principal concern with the MT signage as proposed is that it does not visually integrate with either the GGT system or the MTC regional hub signage standards. This is problematic, as a unified brand for the transit system is important to rider literacy, especially for the casual rider. It makes little sense for them to proceed, as they did yesterday, without first developing a unified standard.

Given the prominence of the San Rafael Transit Center to the transit system, it would make sense to take inspiration from the signage there, which will meet MTC standards, rather than to invent a new visual language from scratch.

From a physical design perspective, it may make sense to design these signs to be modular. That would decrease the cost of route changes, as new signs wouldn’t need to be stamped along with new route books.

Nevertheless, the new sign is still a step forward from what exists today. But it would be nice if MT would start thinking a bit more regionally.

If you want to offer input into the newly-approved signs, you can take the survey here.

GGT’s bus ridership is sagging, but how to fix it?

Transit 005There’s no question about it: Golden Gate Transit ridership is in decline. But, as we cap off a year with two crazy days for transit (America’s Cup and the Giants parade), we should take a step back and look at where our ridership is going and, perhaps, how the situation might be improved.

A word about data

GGBHTD uses a July-June fiscal year, so we’ll be discussing projections for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year (last July to next June) as well as what has happened historically for the last few fiscal years. This confounds analysis. Federal data uses the federal fiscal year (October-September) while Census data uses the calendar year. If I switch into a different year, I’ll be sure to mention that in the text.

As well, it takes about one month for GGT to audit bus ridership numbers, so December’s numbers haven’t been released. Nevertheless, today seems like as good a day as any to discuss ridership.

The numbers

GGT’s ridership has been dominated by bus services for a long, long time, but its share has shrunk significantly since 2002.

In FY 2012, GGT carried 8.7 million passengers, roughly one quarter by ferry. Total ridership is down significantly from 2002, when GGT carried 10.8 million passengers – only one-sixth by ferry. All the losses have been borne by the bus segment of the system, which has seen annual declines in seven of the last ten years. In contrast, ferries have seen declines in only four of the last ten years, led by sometimes double-digit growth rates at Sausalito.

These trends look set to continue in the current fiscal year. Bus ridership for the first half of FY 2013 is down 1.6 percent over the same period in 2012, while ferry ridership is up 8 percent. Intriguingly, this could be the first fiscal year that total ridership increases entirely on the strength of the ferries.

Below is a normalized chart of ridership trends, with 2002 set as the baseline.

Transit ridership normalized to the 2002 fiscal year. Ridership for the current fiscal year is a projection.

Transit ridership normalized to the 2002 fiscal year. Ridership for the current fiscal year is a projection. Click to enlarge.

Causes

The most obvious trend is the decline from FY 2002 to FY 2004. In that time, San Francisco was still suffering the aftershocks of the tech bubble pop, which was compounded by the 2001-2002 recession. According to the Federal Transit Administration, ridership peaked in federal year 2001 at 11.6 million transit trips – 9.7 million by bus, 1.9 million by ferry. That’s also around when bridge crossings peaked, implying overall travel demand fell.

This is borne out by census data. Since calendar year 2000, commutes by Marinites have fallen by about 6 percent. But this isn’t enough to account for the shift away from buses, which are down 32 percent. There must be structural reasons as well.

Sure enough, that’s what we find. From 2002 to 2004, GGT dramatically restructured and cut its routing to cut costs, reducing its vehicle revenue miles (how far its buses travelled collecting fares over the year) by 32 percent. Over subsequent years, revenue miles increased only 1 percent. Though GGT projected only a 15 percent passenger decline, fare increases, competition from other non-car modes of transportation like bikes and ferries, and declines in commutes, overall took a toll.

Turning the situation around

If bus ridership is going to increase again, GGBHTD needs to see itself as a single transportation agency. At the moment, bus schedules don’t link well with ferry departures, bridge tolls are too low to push people to bus usage, and timing-point schedules are hindering the development of high-frequency corridors. Most of these are actually revenue-raising measures, which could be pumped back into the bus system.

1.      Loosen restrictions on bus riders

Anyone riding Muni or AC Transit knows it is used for every errand under the sun, from commutes to groceries to getting to the airport. The front of the buses have center-facing seats reserved for seniors and the disabled, and passengers can exit out the rear door. In Muni’s case, they can enter that way, too.

Yet, for whatever reason, GGT has chosen to keep its rear-door Clipper readers deactivated, forcing everyone to exit out the front. Navigating the system with anything that can’t fit on a lap is against bus policy. As well, the lack of level-boarding buses hinders the ability of seniors from using the buses.

While the current bus configurations do keep the buses comfortable, it makes them less useful. Reforming these would make the bus more useful for everyday travel and speed boarding and alighting. Low-floor buses that provide level boarding could be the priority for all future bus acquisitions, rolling them into the regular capital replacement budget.

Cost: Marginal

2.      Coordinate ferry departures and bus arrivals

While GGT does a fantastic job timing different bus lines, it does a miserable job coordinating with ferries. Route 29 to Larkspur Landing, for example, arrives 40 minutes before the next ferry departure. Part of this is Marin Transit’s fault, which times Route 29, but GGT could easily fix the problem, too. A shuttle between the Transit Center and Larkspur Ferry, say, would encourage people to take the bus to the ferry rather than drive.

The total round trip, including layovers, would take about 25 minutes.

This leaves 20 minutes of dead time between cycles, so this service could be added on to certain Route 23 or 35 buses, rebranded as 23F or 35F, which would save costs.

Cost: $660,000 per year for new service, $340,000 for route extensions.

3.      Charge for parking at park & ride lots

I explored this concept in a previous post for ferry terminal parking, but it should apply to all park-and-ride lots that get full over the course of a typical day. This would accomplish two goals: to increase reliance on transit to get to transit, and free up spaces for midday travelers. Though some riders might abandon transit altogether, GGT would very likely see a net gain in ridership. As well, the parking fees collected could be pumped back into service, either for collector buses or for better frequency on selected corridors.

The principal barrier to implementation is Caltrans, which controls the park & ride lots along the 101 corridor. Sacramento would probably need to intervene to force them to charge and to pass the money along to GGT. The ferry terminal lots, however, are controlled by GGT and could be priced now. Ideally this would paired with the ferry shuttles described above.

Income: Variable, but likely in the low hundreds of thousands per year. Implementation would require a one-time capital investment for parking meters, ticket dispensers, etc.

4.      Increase tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge

I discussed this concept in the past as well. A driver should pay just as much to cross the bridge as a bus rider. If we raise the base FasTrak toll to $7.20 and the congestion toll to $8.80 – the cost of going to San Francisco and back from Southern and Central Marin, respectively – the bus becomes a much more attractive alternative. A commuter would pay the same no matter which mode she chooses, so why not choose a bus?

Cost: Political. Former San Rafael mayor Al Boro scuttled the last attempt at congestion pricing at the Golden Gate Bridge, and that was for a much more modest increase.

Income: Significant. When congestion pricing on the Bridge was last analyzed it was part of a broader pricing scheme that saw a 12 percent drop in traffic coming in to San Francisco from all sources. If this holds true for the Bridge on its own, toll revenues would still go up, to the tune of about $50 million per year. If any of those drivers convert to busing, the income would be even higher.

5.      Provide in-city pickup and drop-off for all-day routes in San Francisco and Richmond

It’s a bit of cheating to get numbers up, as it opens up an entirely different market, but it could provide a good source of income. In San Francisco especially, GGT provides great redundant express service. The all-day lines (basic and Route 92) could pick up riders in-city, making that part of their journey more profitable.

To do this, the boards of SFMTA and AC Transit would need to grant GGT permission to run routes through their territories.

Given how much this may slow the San Francisco routes, especially Route 92, GGT may want to wait until the Van Ness and Geary BRT corridors are completed.

Income: Unknown, but the alteration should only be made if the result would be revenue-positive.

In short, GGT should make the bus convenient (suggestion 1), easy (suggestions 2 and 5), and financially attractive (suggestions 3 and 4). It should reinvest new revenues into increased service and better infrastructure, part of a virtuous circle of rising ridership and declining congestion.

If Marin wants to be a green, environmentally-sustainable place, the bus must be part of the equation. Falling ridership isn’t a given, but it will take conscious steps to bring it back in step with ferry ridership.

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