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.

Mid-week links: Marin Transit

Marin County

by jay d, on Flickr

The latest Marin Transit board meeting was one full of change and surprise. Amid increasing ridership (though it fell in June), MT posted a $1.5 million surplus, which will go into a rainy day fund. To keep ridership on the up and up, the agency hired a new communications and advertising consultant, who will manage MT’s branding, website, social media, and communications strategy. IJ reporter Nels Johnson, however, seemed to think the $300,000 consultant was taking the agency “for a spin.” And, in the name of efficiency, the MT board cut Route 222, which got less than 3 riders per hour in June. Elsewhere:

  • There was so much public comment about Marin’s new housing element that the Board of Supervisors had to postpone its debate until next week. (Patch) On a side note, whoever’s idea it was to bring in a saxophonist to lead the potentially rancorous crowd in singing, “There’s still a lot of love in Marin!” is brilliant. (IJ)
  • The Civic Center Drive upgrades look fabulous, but now that they aren’t in a PDA TAM may need to rescind its funding. (Patch)
  • A driver hit a bicyclist in Fairfax yesterday by turning left through a bike lane, sending the bicyclist to the hospital with a broken collar bone. Though the circumstances seem like they warranted an investigation or a failure-to-yield citation, the driver was not cited by police. (IJ)
  • The costs of demand-responsive bus service, promoted by Bob Silvestri as the ideal transit, make it an ineffective replacement for traditional bus service. (Listen Marin)
  • The lack of BART in Marin is apparently because we’re classist and racist and always have been. (The Grid) Except, y’know, that’s not at all why we don’t have BART.
  • TAM should take on all the causes of congestion on Highway 101, not just cars, according to Corte Madera Mayor Diane Furst. She sat on a working group to draft an alternative plan to flyovers on the freeway. (Marin Voice)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge will close for a full weekend next year for the installation of a new movable barrier. This will be the first time in the bridge’s history it will be closed for more than a few hours. (IJ)
  • Parking minimums can severely constrain construction, either driving up rents in the building or preventing new construction altogether and contributing to a housing shortage. Affordable housing advocates take note. (Sightline)

Politics

  • San Rafael council candidate Randy Warren hits rival Maribeth Bushey-Lang hard, saying her need to recuse herself over issues like SMART make her unfit for service. (IJ)
  • The move to recall Supervisor Susan Adams failed to attract enough signatures, and Save Marinwood is not happy. Interestingly, no signatures were submitted to the county, so we’ll never know how far short the recall came. (IJ, Save Marinwood)
  • Paul Mamalakis examines the race for Novato City Council. (Advance)

New Visual of Highway 101 Service

Marin’s bus service is centered around Highway 101 and its “trunk” routes. From commuter lines to the basic San Francisco regional lines to the supplementary local routes, getting from one place to another on Highway 101 should be an easy task. Alas, it is not.

Not every bus pad is labeled on the freeway bus map with which buses stop where. Since not all buses stop at all bus pads, you don’t always know whether to take the bus or not. The first time I went by bus to the Lucas Valley pad on a Sunday morning, I tried to figure out which buses stopped there and would pick me up at the Transit Center. Not knowing that it was all printed in the front of my transit guide, I took the 49K and went on a long, 35-minute ride around Terra Linda. Had all the information been in front of me at once on a simple map, I would’ve known that the 70 and 80 would’ve taken me, no problem, but that I should avoid the 101.

The full map. Click for a larger image, and click here for PDF.

The bus map here is a strip map, a simplified diagram showing all stops and which buses stop and which stop when. Though it’s a design that could be improved upon, the map does show all routes and all stops along the 101 corridor. Ideally, the map would be paired with a Highway 101 timetable showing all bus departures. It and the schedule would be posted at every bus pad and major transit hub on the corridor, allowing every passenger to know which bus goes where.

At 41 inches long but only 10 inches wide, it could also be posted inside buses that run along the 101 corridor, allowing passengers to look at it and internalize it while riding, like how subway cars have a map of the subway posted.

Since this is a rather complicated trunk line, be sure to post corrections and comments for me. How, too, could this design be improved upon? What might make this a less confusing or more useful diagram?

On another topic, be sure to come out this Wednesday to the Flatiron, 724 B Street, San Rafael, CA, at 6pm for our third happy hour. It’ll be good times, I guarantee it.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention that Anthony Nachor of My Bay Area Ideas was instrumental in proofing things. He knows the 101 system like the back of his hand, so a hat tip to him for his help.

Street Greenery is Better than Thought

As it turns out, street greenery is even better at reducing pollution than thought. The research that I had found for last week’s post showed greenery can filter out some of the worst particles but only up to 8% of the total pollutant plume. New research just released shows that green walls, when employed in an “urban canyon” environment, can filter out up to 60% of the particulate matter in diesel pollution. That, coincidentally, will include the SMART train.

The urban canyon environment is when buildings go up on either side of the street and form single walls interrupted only by cross-streets. San Rafael’s Fourth Street is a good example of this in Marin, and San Francisco’s Market Street is a superb example in any context. These canyons create their own wind environments, circulating air up and then down and then up again in a vertical circulatory pattern.

Green walls are either plants growing out of the wall, like vertical gardens, or plants growing down walls, like ivy from planter boxes or wisteria from the ground. If these walls line a part of the urban canyon, the wind patterns will run polluted air through leaves multiple times, allowing the air to be filtered again and again.

Cities should actively encourage green walls to capture this effect, and SMART should plan for it where trains will run through residential areas. In places where buildings may rise above the freeway, as in the Downtown San Rafael Station Area Plan, green walls could be especially helpful in filtering the worst part of the air. Any investment in greenery for health reasons will be best put here. Similarly, where the freeway runs at ground level, ivy should be encouraged to grow on the sound walls.

As an added bonus, greenery cuts down on urban noise. Given how loud both the freeway is and the SMART train will be, encouraging leafy walls will be able to make our city streets that much more livable.

Investing in greenery is the single most cost-effective way to reduce pollutants and keep our cities healthy. With the new construction and higher-density zoning slated for areas up and down the 101 corridor, city councils and planning agencies need to take it seriously as more than just environmental greenwashing.

Freeways Don’t Need to be a Housing Show-Stopper

It’s common sense that living near a freeway isn’t healthy. The pollution from the cars and grit from the roadway make for what most would term a wholly unpleasant experience. Unfortunately, the only places for infill development, not to mention quite a few SMART stations, are near Highway 101. Before any post-SMART buildings are built, communities in Marin and Sonoma need to take measures to mitigate these negative health effects, or we’ll simply be building health problems for the future.

Roadway pollution is almost entirely from tailpipe emissions, and most of the health effects are from particulate material, that brown smoke most recognizably seen coming out of large truck exhaust pipes.  It’s nasty stuff (PDF), not only because the shape of the particles increases the risk of asthma and lung cancer but because they carry heavy metals, which can contribute to diminished brain formation in children.  Gases, such as carbon monoxide, are less hazardous to the health of nearby residents.

These particulates, at least when they come from a freeway, are concentrated within 200 feet of the road, though they are measurable up to half a mile away during the day and 1.5 miles away during the early morning hours.  In Marin, that means a huge portion of the county lives with 101’s pollution: all of San Rafael, most of Novato, Greenbrae, Mill Valley, Corte Madera and Larkspur, Marin City, and Sausalito lives within the freeway’s pollution plume. Only Ross Valley and West Marin don’t need to deal with the problem, though arterial roads generate their own plumes.

Within that 200 foot buffer, though, is the most danger, and the most opportunity to cut pollution.  Solid barriers, such as sound walls, send the pollution upward, dispersing it but still leaving high concentrations near the freeway.  Plant barriers (PDF) also send a plume upward, but much less pollution reaches the areas near the freeway. Instead, they collect the particulates on leaves and act as natural filters.  Using both solid barriers and plant barriers, of course, yields better results than using only one.

Practically, this means that, wherever pollution is a concern, local government and Caltrans should try to plant trees and build walls to contain and filter out the pollutants.

Another tool in our air pollution mitigation toolbox is building design. Most people spend most of their time inside. When discussing pollutants, it’s ultimately about how the pollution gets into apartments or offices. Most obviously, plants can be grown on rooftops and on the sides of buildings to filter pollutants in concert with whatever is next to the freeway. Inside the building, the county can require air filters.

Air filters for freeway pollution are effective. Most particulates can be filtered with specialized HVAC systems that, though they run upwards of $700 per apartment unit per year to operate, though yield an estimated $2,100 in health care savings annually.  These systems are required in San Francisco for developments near freeways and are a logical step for Marin to take. The county might go the extra step to subsidize the filters for affordable units included in market-rate developments.  However, these don’t filter out ultrafine particles, which constitute most of the particulates in freeway pollution. Laboratory-quality HEPA filters are even more expensive than San Francisco’s standard, but not much more, and could be encouraged through subsidy or required by law.

Exposure could be further limited by encouraging office development closest to the freeway.  The buildings, along with rooftop gardens, would act as a pollution wall for residences further back.

In short, while air pollution is a major concern for building new residences along the freeway, it should not be a show-stopper. Building higher up the valleys or sprawling outward in other parts of the region will only make traffic and pollution worse. The North Bay’s governments need to make mitigation part of their building codes before any more major developments are built if they want to get ahead of the curve. It will save them money in the long-run and will make their new communities far more livable than they would be otherwise.

Mid-Week Links: Plaid

Now that Fairfax and Sausalito are cracking down on cyclists violating stop-signs, perhaps it’s important to ask whether current law is the best law. A bicycle, after all, is absolutely not a car – it can stop faster, gives a better field of view, and is much more efficient when moving than when stopped. Idaho allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, to great effect. California ought to pass the same.

Marin County

  • Marin and Sonoma both dropped state parks from their park taxes after $54 million was found in the state parks department’s coffers. While Sonoma’s plan is dead, Marin’s tax plan would go to county open space instead. (Planetizen, IJ, Press Democrat)
  • Larkspur and Tiburon are both pondering library expansions, though residents in both communities wonder if the proposed buildings will be too large for the demand. (IJ)
  • HOV lanes in Novato are now open to the driving public, ensuring easy driving for a little bit until traffic catches up with capacity. (IJ)
  • A permanent farmer’s market, a roundabout, and other improvements will come to the Civic Center under a plan recently approved by the Board. Unfortunately, it’s at odds with the SMART Station Area Plan for the Christmas Tree Lot just south of the station, which calls for 4-5 story residential and retail. Planning and design for the improvements will cost about $2 million. (IJ)
  • And…: Construction has begun on SMART’s railcars. Delivery is expected in about a year. (Patch) … Novato will convert a city-owned building into art studios for around $100,000. (IJ) … A West Marin ecotopia could be shut down for running afoul building regulations, but its builders pledge to carry on. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Projections of growth are so often wrong, but they always inform whether we build new freeway lanes or rail lines or whatever. There must be a better way. (Strong Towns)
  • Activists accuse Veolia Transportation, which operates Sonoma County Transit, of human rights violations and want the county to investigate. Veolia’s parent company operates bus service between Israel and West Bank settlements. (Press Democrat)
  • MTC will study a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax on Bay Area drivers to raise money for roads and transit. The tax hasn’t gone anywhere in other jurisdictions, but boosters are optimistic a VMT would be an answer to the Bay Area’s financial woes. (Mercury News)
  • Some Chicago designers want you to help create the perfect transit app. Not only would it tell you how to get where you’re going with the schedule, it would give you real-time arrival information, allow stopovers for coffee or errands, interface with your calendar, remind you to bring an umbrella, and more. (Co.Design)

The Toll

  • You’ll notice I have this new section for the death and injury toll on the roads in Marin and Sonoma as reported by local news outlets. Why? Because in the first three months of this year, 7,280 people were killed on the road in the US, doing nothing more than living their lives. It’s the least we can do to report on the human cost of our road-centered policies in this little corner of the country. (Atlantic Cities)
  • A Tiburon man drove onto a sidewalk to hit a pedestrian whose plaid jacket he didn’t like. The suspected driver, Eugene Thomas Anderson, has been arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. (IJ)
  • Three cyclists were struck by drivers in Santa Rosa this week, though one driver claims to have lost control of her vehicle. None suffered more than moderate injuries. Separately, a driver suffered moderate injuries after running his car off the road. (Press Democrat)
  • In Marin, two people were slightly injured in a bizarre two-crash incident in Novato. Another driver drove off the road in San Rafael, giving herself minor injuries. A driver couldn’t negotiate a turn and so rolled his van about 150 feet down a West Marin hill, resulting in minor injuries to himself and one of his four passengers. Lastly, a driver lost control of his truck in Larkspur, crashing it into a nearby townhouse. The driver and passenger sufferend moderate injuries. (IJ, Twin Cities Times)

Frequency 101

Transit Center

Keeping time. Photo by Egan Snow.

Though Marin has done a really fine job with what bus resources it has – indeed, its service puts Washington, DC’s suburban service to shame – it doesn’t do justice to its geographic blessings, or the transit-oriented towns it serves. To get Marin on the move, GGT should reconsider the basic structure of its service.

The ideal transit system is a grid of high-frequency corridors. Though it requires transfers, if the bus or train comes every five minutes it’s not that much of a problem. San Francisco, Vancouver, and even Tallahassee , Florida, have designed highly successful transit grids.

Alas, Marin’s valleys preclude development of a high-frequency grid. Instead, our geography is in a trunk and feeder system. Just like the streams that made our valleys all fed into the Bay, our feeder roads all lead to the Highway 101 trunk. Only two town centers, those of Novato and San Rafael, fall along the trunk, and the rest are at least half a mile up the valleys from the freeway. Though not ideal, this system gives us a number of advantages.

Foremost among these is that our trunk is a freeway. From an urban design perspective 101 is atrocious, but from a speed perspective this is wonderful. Unlike surface streets that require constant stopping and going and cars parallel parking and red lights and pedestrians and all the other nonsense that makes buses drive slowly and a city worth living in, a freeway is empty of all but cars, freeing drivers to push their buses far beyond their normal surface speed. As well, bus stops are relatively infrequent, only as often as an on- or off-ramp, so they don’t slow down the bus much.

Secondly, our branches aren’t twisty little things that look great only on a drafting board. There’s not enough room for that. Instead, we have fairly linear arterials along valley floors with towns positioned right along them. Even sprawling Novato has only a couple of real arterial roads. Most anywhere you want to be is within a half-mile of these roads.

Lastly, nearly all our local buses intersect the trunk. There are very few valleys coming off of valleys like Sleepy Hollow and Sun Valley to muddle things. This means that one could run a bus along the branch from one end to the other and always, either at the endpoint or the midpoint, there will be a transfer to a fast north-south line, which where the real distance is in the system.

A simplified Marin road map

Sonoma, also part of the GGT system, doesn’t have quite the same linear structure as Marin, but the county’s principal town centers lie along 101 and so are similarly well-served (in a manner of speaking) by the freeway.

As an added bonus, our towns are compact. Walkable destinations are easy to find, and office parks are clustered. San Francisco isn’t too far away, sitting at the base of our trunk, and the East Bay is easily accessible from Central Marin.

While our bus lines generally follow this system, the trunk lacks true high frequency. A common complaint among commuters to Marin from San Francisco is the awful northbound frequencies. All three all-day routes – 70, 80, and 101 – leave at the same time from the City, and each is a different level of express. Within Marin, wait times are inconsistent, fluctuating between 6 minutes and 30 minutes for most of the weekday. In Sonoma, GGT runs consistent, though infrequent, one hour headways.

The Frequent Trunk

Golden Gate Transit and Marin Transit should set a goal of no more than 30 minutes between San Francisco and Santa Rosa, and 15 minutes between San Francisco and Novato. This minimum level of service should go from 6am to 9pm weekdays and 9am to 9pm on weekends, roughly when service levels drop off in the existing service. The weekday service works out to about 268 revenue hours – 97 hours for the Novato-SF route, 171 hours for the Santa Rosa-SF – about 83 hours more than GGT currently runs. Weekend service would need 214 hours, about 62 more than currently available.

According to GGT’s latest operating reports, our weekday service increase would cost about $3.3 million per year, and the weekend would cost $1 million, increasing annual operating costs by 6%. It may be possible to roll some commuter bus service into the morning schedule to decrease costs as well, which may go into an express service like what the 101 and 101X do now. Revenue from congestion pricing on the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as general toll hikes to bring them in line with transit fares, could easily cover the cost.

The Frequent and Accessible Feeder

This is a bus network, not simply a bus line, and we ought not forget about the feeder lines.

Of the feeders, the most prominent are those centered around San Rafael’s Bettini Transit Center. Not only do they have cross-platform connections (to borrow a rail term) to 101 bus service, but they serve the most densely populated areas of Marin – Ross Valley, Central San Rafael, and the Canal – and the East Bay. These should be high priorities, with a minimum combined headway of 20 minutes on each axis. The Canal, which already has 15 minute headways, should maintain them.

(Though under the current system reliability and speed should come before frequency, I do agree with last week’s commenter Jarrett Walker that frequency is more important overall. If paired with an improved 101 bus system, my concept for Route 580 should absolutely put frequency ahead of style.)

Other valleys should seek minimum headways of 30 minutes between their town centers and the freeway. North San Rafael and Hamilton have uniquely transit-unfriendly designs but the bulk of Marin’s population could be well-served by semi-frequent service along valley-floor arterials.

Just as important as frequency are the connections between 101 and the local feeders. Bus pads are typically awful things, and some routes – such as Tiburon’s Route 19 – don’t even connect well with the bus pads that are available. GGT and Marin Transit must push for stairs, better shelters, paved paths, clear signage, and onramp underpasses to facilitate transfers between local feeders and the 101 trunk as well as to surface streets. They should design each interchange as a single transfer area and provide maps for each, similar to the Larkspur Ferry map (PDF). Improvements like this are sometimes provided already, but should be standard. Though luxury isn’t necessary, customers should be comfortable when transferring and when waiting. That is the glue that makes the network really hum.

You’ll notice I haven’t touched on density, signal priority, BRT, SMART, or the speculative Fairfax-San Rafael streetcar. While each of these things could dramatically improve service along the 101 corridor, they aren’t necessary to make a successful system. Using the infrastructure we have today it’s possible to make a high-class transit system for the North Bay. GGT should focus on network-wide improvements, and the key to a better bus system lies along Highway 101.

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