Optical illusions on Fourth Street

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

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

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

San Rafael's West End

San Rafael’s West End

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

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

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

Red light cameras are good policy gone wrong

Red light cameras have been deployed around the country to great effect, reducing crashes dramatically in New York City and Washington, DC. Given these successes in the East, it was natural for San Rafael to give them a try. But police said they were ineffective at reducing crashes, and that they cost more than they took in, so the city recently ditched them. Given state law in California, the results in San Rafael start to make some sense.

Best practice: red light cameras

Traditional traffic enforcement is meant to be punitive. Police can’t be everywhere, so, to change behavior, any violation caught needs to be punishing and painful. As a result, California has extremely high fines for red light violations: a minimum of $489.

When a city switches on red light cameras, they generally try to limit them to key intersections. This ensures that most dangerous violations are caught, even if other violations at less important or less dangerous intersections are missed.

Psychologically, this is not effective, as it does not create a culture where traffic violations are simply not done. Serial red light runners will continue to do so wherever they like, just avoiding the two or three intersections where they know they’ll get caught. Research finds dummy cameras, which flash a light but take no picture, are effective at stopping red light running, a strong indicator that running lights is often a conscious decision.

To change behavior, one must apply a little force consistently, not a lot of force inconsistently. Red light cameras, when seen in this light, don’t do a very good job. They should be ubiquitous and cheap, with a relatively low-dollar ticket – maybe just $150 – that hits a driver for every red light run.

California’s red light ticket minimum means ubiquitous tickets would add up rapidly. As it is, just one $489 ticket can be half of someone’s take-home pay for the month, or worse. It’s unjust to use such a painful instrument to change behavior city-wide, even if the end of crashes prevented is noble.

As well, the high ticket fine opens cities up to criticism that traffic enforcement is simply a money grab, a politically toxic accusation that could kill any such comprehensive enforcement.

San Rafael’s experience

Without the flexibility to catch red light runners every time, San Rafael’s experience with cameras was a poor one. Though a 2012 grand jury report found crashes declined by 12 percent up to that point, a police spokeswoman told me crashes increased by 1 fatality.

The managing company, Redflex, was also a political headache. The IJ’s Megan Hansen reported, “Redflex has been losing contracts ever since it came under fire early last year when news broke the company was being investigated for corrupt business practices, including bribery and secret meetings.” Red light cameras are never politically easy, and paying a potentially corrupt company hundreds of thousands in taxpayer funds and ticket fines just makes things worse.

Though traffic enforcement is vital to creating a safe environment for all road users, San Rafael should focus its efforts on street design rather than automated enforcement. Though the impulse among some may be to keep fines high, road safety advocates should advocate for laws that do the most good, not just the ones that feel right.

To that end, California should create a two-tier system of ticket enforcement: one with dramatically lower fines for comprehensive automated enforcement schemes, and one with the existing fines for the spot-checking enforcement schemes cities rely on today.

Though it’s unfortunate San Rafael did not get a good deal for its cameras, removing them was ultimately a response to bad state law. Perhaps one day the city will be able to install a system that changes how we think about traffic laws, but until then it’s probably best to just go without cameras altogether.

An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steps toward, and away, from performance parking in San Rafael

Similar parking meters will be installed in January in San Rafael. Image from IPS Group.

Similar parking meters will be installed in January in San Rafael. Image from IPS Group.

Parking is always a sticky problem: there never seems to be enough. The solution, as discovered by San Francisco and described by parking academic Donald Shoup, is demand-responsive pricing, also known as performance parking: charge more for the most in-demand spots and less for ones that are out of the way. With a vote last week, San Rafael will put in place the technology to determine where to do just that in downtown.

But with the same vote, the city moves away from a range of prices based on location – the core of performance parking – to a flat rate across downtown. It’s one step forward, one step back.

Performance parking theory and practice

Like any scarce resource, the easiest way to manage it is through pricing. The more valuable a parking space – like one at Courthouse Square – the more the city should charge for it. The less valuable a space, the less the city should charge. People would self-select: if they really want to park on the street at Courthouse Square, they may. If not, they might choose to park in the cheaper spaces or the nearby garage.

Most cities today, however, don’t use this approach to parking. They charge a flat rate for all parking spaces, so there’s no self-selection. The result? Insufferable circling for a space, going ‘round and ‘round the block to see if something opens up.

It’s like Saturday at the mall: there are plenty of spaces around the lot, but people still circle around, trying to find somewhere closer to the door, often taking longer to park than they would take to just walk from a slightly further-away spot.

In addition to being annoying to drivers, all this circling causes traffic congestion. In particularly high-traffic areas, a sizable percentage of congestion is attributable to people circling for a spot.

San Francisco took this research to heart and created SFPark, which tries to keep 20 percent of parking spaces free on each block within a number of pilot areas. The city embedded sensors to detect whether a space is occupied. Staff take that data to adjust the price of parking incrementally up or down each month. The result has been a decline in traffic congestion, parking tickets, and even the average price to park, as price reductions have been more common than price hikes.

San Rafael gets sensors and a flat rate

In San Rafael, the city’s parking program is facing a budgetary shortfall. The program runs on the parking charges, but those weren’t enough to cover the various renovations needed as well as operations. The city, in response, decided to pass a moderate reform of how it does parking in downtown.

On the technology side, the city will purchase about 1,000 new parking meters with credit-card readers and parking space sensors. The sensors will tell the meters when the space is vacated so it can reset, tell parking staff when someone has run out of time, and tell drivers where parking is available via a phone app.

The sensors could also be used by parking staff to do a running survey of how people use the city’s spaces, but, at this point, there’s no sign they will.

And, rather than implement a performance parking program, the city has raised the rate on all on-street parking spaces to $1.50 per hour, up from $1.00 on Fourth Street and $0.75 on side streets.

It was on this hike Kate Colin raised concerns, and why she was the lone dissenting vote. The former planning commissioner wondered why side street parking should double in price. Those areas aren’t in demand now, and raising their price relative to Fourth could put more pressure on Fourth Street’s spaces.

One reason for such a dramatic hike, however, was to encourage people to use the garages and parking lots, whose prices won’t be changed. Lots will remain at $0.75 per hour, and garages at $1.00 per hour. While a good idea, it does make one wonder how much spare capacity the garages and parking lots have that they can absorb much of the on-street demand.

Going forward

Despite the rate hike, the technology is the real win. It’s a $750,000 investment – about $750 per meter – that will last for a very long time. It would have been difficult to get the sensors and meters under a performance parking program. The parking charge, while misguided, is on paper. If the city wants to start a performance parking program now, it would be extremely cheap, without any extra capital investment. It would simply be a matter of legislation and organization, not money.

This would be a good project for the Downtown BID and Kate Colin to spearhead, perhaps with TAM PDA funding.

A concern for those interested in performance parking is that revenue seems to be an overriding concern for the Parking Services. It has outstanding capital costs now, along with two parking structures that are apparently at the end of their lifespan. Performance parking can actually mean less revenue for the city than the traditional flat-rate charge, which runs counter to revenue needs. If some of these capital projects are found to be unnecessary, or if another revenue stream can be found, then that would take some pressure off.

For the city planning department, the sensors could mean a real-time survey of parking conditions around the city, a fabulous tool. It would let planners know how new office tenants or apartments change parking demand. It would let them know whether there was spare capacity in the parking system to shape changes to parking policy, such as eliminating parking minimums or residential use of downtown the garages. Someone has to make the data available to other city departments, however, for this to happen.

The changes to parking in San Rafael are promising, and it’s encouraging to see Councilmember Colin taking a stand for the essence of performance parking: varying the price based on location.

Marin Elections: Endorsements all around

The Marin County election cycle is coming to a close in two weeks. Though there is not much on the ballot that deals specifically with urbanism, there are plenty of candidates who have some strong opinions on the subject.

For the most part, I’m in agreement with the endorsements of the Pacific Sun. Progressive, thoughtful political reporting has always been their specialty, and their endorsements show how much they weighed the issues.

That said, the IJ makes some compelling cases as well. While their reporting can stir the pot at times, their editorial board has always been a bastion of calm. For endorsements, they go out of their way to interview each of the candidates and make a well-balanced decision.

Or, you may want to figure it out yourself.

Below you’ll find all the council races with Pacific Sun and IJ endorsements, links to candidate websites, video debates, and, for some races, a nugget that might have been overlooked.

Corte Madera Town Council

Three seats, three incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Carla Condon (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
Writing: “Investing in Kids Pays Off”; “We Need a Local ‘Council of Governments’ “; “Challenging Push to ‘Urbanize’ Our County”

Michael Lappert (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Diane Furst (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
Writing: “TAM Should Support Working Group’s Freeway Plan”

David Kunhardt (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Though the Pacific Sun endorsed Carla Condon over Michael Lappert, as they seem to consider him arrogant, I think he is marginally less anti-urbanist than Condon. Condon has come out with fire against Plan Bay Area. Her Marin Voice pieces regarding development have, to paraphrase the Sun, bordered on the conspiratorial, which can be worse for governing than bombastics.

Fairfax Town Council

Three seats, three incumbents, four candidates.

Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Barbara Coler (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Chris Lang (challenger)
Campaign website

John Reed (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

David Weinsoff (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Larkspur Town Council

Three seats, one incumbent, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

Kevin Haroff (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Dan Hillmer (incumbent)
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Daniel Kunstler (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Catherine Way (challenger)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Mill Valley Town Council

Two seats, no incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

George Gordon

Jessica Jackson
Campaign website

Dan Kelly
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

John McCauley
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Though neither the IJ nor the Pacific Sun endorsed Jessica Jackson, given her inexperience, Jackson is the most progressive of the four on transportation issues. She has called for greater investment in bicycle lanes and sidewalks, and an expansion of Bay Area Bike Share to Marin.

Jackson would be a strong voice for progressive transportation in Mill Valley, and she would bring that voice to county and regional agencies, too. TAM and GGBHTD both could use another progressive. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she would be the first millennial elected to a municipal council in Marin.

Novato City Council

Two seats, two incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Denise Athas (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Pat Eklund (incumbent)
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun

Steve Jordon (challenger)

Eleanor Sluis (challenger)
Campaign website
Writing: Extensive Patch comments; “Entrance to Novato versus New Bus Transit Hub’s Location versus Mission Lodge, a Park, and Parking”

San Anselmo Town Council

One seat, no incumbents, three candidates.

Marin IJ Endorsement | Pacific Sun Endorsement

Matt Brown
Campaign website

Steve Burdo
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Doug Kelly
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Something to keep in mind about Doug Kelly, from the Pacific Sun: “Kelly has the most to say about Plan Bay Area and ABAG—he’s not a fan—but understands that if he’s elected he’ll ‘need to work with them in a positive manner regardless of [his] views.’ “

San Rafael Town Council

Two seats, two incumbents, four candidates.

LWV debate | Sustainable San Rafael debate | Marin IJ EndorsementPacific Sun Endorsement

Greg Brockbank
Campaign website
Endorsed by Pacific Sun

Maribeth Bushey-Lang
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ

Kate Colin
Campaign website
Endorsed by Marin IJ, Pacific Sun
“Making San Rafael a Sustainable City”

Randy Warren
Campaign website

Lots to keep in mind in San Rafael’s race:

Maribeth Bushey-Lang’s deep technical experience with railroad issues, especially railroad crossings could prove valuable for the city, county, and region. The city of San Rafael has seats on the boards of SMART, TAM, and MTC, all of which will deal with rail issues. And, while she can’t vote on the SMART-Andersen Drive crossing because she ruled on it as a judge, she believes she will be able to deal with all other SMART issues.

Kate Colin brings a wealth of experience about planning matters. Having someone from this background, who deeply understands these issues, would be of value to the city.

Randy Warren reneged on his blanket opposition to all PDAs by cautiously half-endorsing the one in downtown San Rafael, or at least promising not to oppose it if the mayor thinks it’s a good idea in three years. He did this in the Sustainable San Rafael debate so you can see it yourself, and it signals some flexibility to his heretofore inflexible anti-urban rhetoric.

Greg Brockbank is an unabashed urbanist and environmentalist, two hats that are difficult to find together in Marin. That, paired with his long history of public service, would make him a good fit to return to the Council.

A reality check for Randy Warren’s climate change plan

A candidate for San Rafael City Council has a bold plan to cut transportation CO2 emissions: subsidize electric cars. While at surface it sounds reasonable enough, the plan would be expensive for little gain.

Take a look at candidate Randy Warren’s platform and you’ll find, under the climate change header, a description for Operation New Leaf.

For all the theories about what we can do to reduce greenhouse gasses from cars and light trucks, the reality is that the plans are speculation and hope.  Let’s aim instead for guaranteed results.  I propose Operation New Leaf, a plan to provide incentives for our out-of-county workforce to purchase zero emission cars for their commute to San Rafael. This plan targets workers who have held a San Rafael job for at least one year and live at least 20 miles away. The city would negotiate special rates with San Rafael car dealers, from whom the cars would have to be purchased or leased.  Participating workers would have to make a good faith pledge to do their workday shopping in San Rafael, so we improve our local economy and recover some operating costs via related sales tax.  We would target up to a 50% subsidy to the workers, with proper safeguards.  We then need to line up sponsors, whether from MTC or the private sector (including the car manufacturers themselves as a pilot program).  This is a complex proposal that requires a city study group, and I will encourage such study take place.  But until our legislature has the guts to set a date for banning the registration of new gas-powered cars, Operation New Leaf would produce instant and certain results in reducing greenhouse gasses.

The Census doesn’t estimate the source of in-commuting jobs by city, but we can estimate. There are roughly 43,000 jobs in the city. Of Marin jobs, a quarter are held by workers in counties at least 20 miles away from San Rafael (i.e., all but San Francisco and Contra Costa). Proportionally, that means about 7,760 San Rafael workers live about 20 miles away or more. With that in mind, I estimate the cost of Operation New Leaf at around $97 million, not including the cost to move an additional 1,000 cars to the city’s job centers and store them once they get there.

Would MTC help? Likely not, given their pursuit of multi-modal solutions to transportation problems. Would Nissan help so they could promote their electric Leaf? Probably not enough to make the project affordable. Would a change in drivers’ shopping habits offset the cost? Again, probably not enough to make it affordable to the city. Leasing the vehicles instead of buying them outright might put the cost into a more-affordable area around $10 million per year, but that’s still far more than San Rafael could carry.

Equally as unaffordable are the consequences.

The cost to congestion would be enormous, given that this would be like closing a traffic lane on Highway 101. And the cost to our built environment would be high, too. San Rafael would suddenly need to find parking for at least another 1,000 cars per day [see update below], not to mention charging stations for not just these 1,000 vehicles but the 10,000 others bought by people who already drive to the city.

This might be net-negative in greenhouse gas emissions, provided increased congestion doesn’t make the situation worse, but it wouldn’t be a panacea. Electric cars in California emit the equivalent CO2 of a 70mpg gasoline car. BART, in contrast, emits the equivalent of around 940mpg. It would also put those currently taking transit to work into harm’s way (driving kills 35,000 people per year), and fight downtown San Rafael’s efforts to expand its walkable downtown east of Highway 101.

To reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions, San Rafael ought to try to segment the travel market for trips under 2 miles, where most car trips are made. Some of those really are best done by car, but others are best done on foot or bike. How we build our roads and grow San Rafael should allow each mode to function best in balance with the others.

For walking, that means maintaining sidewalks and slowing down the perceived speed of cars, which can drive away foot traffic. For biking, it means building quality bike infrastructure that is safe for anyone age 8 to 80. For driving, it means encouraging people who don’t need to drive to leave the car at home and out of the way of other drivers. Even if a few percent of trips shift from car to another mode, that’s often enough to unlock traffic flow.

Or, if San Rafael really wants to spend millions of its own dollars on transportation, it could build a comprehensive Class I bicycle lane network for the whole city and Ross Valley with money to spare. It could provide free transit passes to in-commuters, cleaning up traffic while also cleaning the air. It could buy 48 hydrogen fuel-cell buses for Golden Gate Transit, or (for less money) retrofit Marin’s entire bus fleet to run on compressed natural gas.

Operation New Leaf doesn’t solve any problems faced by San Rafael; quite the opposite, it spends millions to exacerbate its existing problems. And, far from providing “guaranteed results,” it could add to congestion-related CO2 emissions, possibly even enough to offset the gains.

Electric cars are touted as the solution to our transportation emissions, but it ignores the other costs of pushing car-only infrastructure: parking, traffic, public safety, and car maintenance. The way to reduce Marin’s greenhouse gas emissions is to diversify away from an automobile monoculture, not to deepen it. And, in the meantime, we’d solve our transportation problems, too.

UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: Some questions have arisen as to why more cars would be on the road under this scheme. Roughly 11 percent of Marin’s in-commuters take transit to work, and it’s reasonable to suspect slightly more take transit to San Rafael given the presence of the transit center. By subsidizing car ownership, it’s reasonable to assume a good chunk of them would choose to drive instead and add more vehicles to the city and Highway 101.

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.

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)

Story update: San Rafael rescinds Civic Center PDA

As everyone no doubt heard, the San Rafael City Council voted last night to rescind the North San Rafael Priority Development Area (PDA) on a 3-2 vote. Mayor Gary Phillips and councilmembers Kate Colin and Damon Connolly voted to rescind. Councilmembers Andrew McCullough and Barbara Heller voted to keep the PDA.

Slow-growth activists decried the PDA as a high-density housing plan that would burden the city’s schools and water supply while destroying the drivable suburban character in the neighborhood. Urbanists and environmentalists said the PDA carries no strings whatsoever, that the housing guidelines were nonbinding suggestions, and was a way to fund improvements for the San Rafael that exists today.

At a county level, eyes now turn to the Strawberry PDA, which has come under attack by critics for much the same reasons other PDAs have. The argument will likely take much the same shape as it did last night, though it remains to be seen whether Supervisor Kate Sears will propose to remove the PDA or not. Given that she has not come under the same withering criticism Supervisor Susan Adams did over the Marinwood PDA, it may remain intact for the foreseeable future.

At a city level, the downtown San Rafael PDA also remains intact. Mayor Phillips and others who opposed the Civic Center PDA have said the housing suggestions make much more sense downtown and that regional money would do more good in that area anyway. Still, slow-growth advocates, convinced that the PDAs constitute a mandate for housing, are likely to attack this PDA, too. Council candidate Randy Warren, for one, has argued this designation should be rescinded, too.

A future post will look at how San Rafael and TAM could make lemonade out of the situation and the barriers to getting PDA-designated funds from TAM’s account into projects on the ground.

 

Politics threatens good policy in North San Rafael

There seems to be a majority forming on the San Rafael City Council to rescind the Civic Center Planned Development Area (PDA). At last week’s special session on the subject, three of the city’s five councilmembers (Mayor Gary Phillips, Councilmember Damon Connolly, and Councilmember Kate Colin) expressed opposition to the PDA.

While each expressed their own reasons for opposition, most swirled around the idea that, if we keep the PDA, San Rafael will be obligated to build massive quantities of affordable housing in an area that cannot support it. Fortunately, this is simply untrue.

What would the PDA actually do?

PDAs are an investment vehicle originally created by MTC. Cities tell regional agencies where they plan to focus population and job growth, and the region earmarks regional transportation money for those areas. In Marin, MTC requires that half of those regional transportation funds go the county’s PDAs. The other half can go to transportation projects anywhere in the county. While there is some talk in Sacramento to channel climate change transportation funds exclusively to PDAs, that proposal has not been finalized.

To help guide local planners, each PDA has a different “place-type” designation, which provides nonbinding guidelines about residential density and the quality of transit service. North San Rafael is a Transit Town Center, which MTC recommends should have or plan for between 3,000 and 7,500 housing units.

But, as a nonbinding recommendation, there is no obligation on San Rafael to actually zone for or build the recommended number of housing units. Rather, the recommendation is there to help San Rafael planners craft a local plan, which was done with the Station Area and General Plans.

There is concern about CEQA streamlining for affordable housing projects within PDAs, but the state doesn’t obligate the city or county to loosen its own environmental review processes. If the city decides a project shouldn’t receive CEQA streamlining, it won’t. This, as the only non-funding legal aspect of a PDA, is still well within the control of the city.

So what is the fear?

Anti-development (“slow growth”) activists in North San Rafael are concerned that the PDA creates an obligation to the city to zone for thousands more housing units than it could actually support, clogging streets, stuffing classrooms, and putting people in harm’s way along busy, high-speed arterial streets. We don’t have the water, don’t have the class space, don’t have the road space, and don’t have the tax revenue to take in so many new people.

But the PDA doesn’t obligate a thing. Mayor Phillips Councilmember Colin had another answer to that. They said it would be dishonest to use a place-type with a higher housing guideline than could realistically be put into the area without adverse impacts to existing residents.

As a nonbinding guideline, then, it would make sense for the city to simply downgrade the PDA to a level that falls in line with the existing level of housing development.  In fact, this is precisely what Councilmember Andrew McCullough proposed, and is one of the optional resolutions for Monday’s council meeting.

Why would we want a PDA?

Because North San Rafael has over $25 million in transportation needs, and the city is considering raising a sales tax because it can’t fund its existing obligations. It needs some extra funds if it wants to improve the neighborhood’s roads.

In fact, one project is very likely to be funded with PDA money: the proposed improvements to the Civic Center campus. Without the PDA, the $3 million project will be ineligible for regional money, and TAM will be forced to shift those funds to another PDA in the county.

But beyond that, a theme of those who spoke in favor of the PDA was that the neighborhood was unfriendly and unsafe for people walking or biking. Given the relative lack of bike lanes, bad connections to regional and local transit, and missing or crumbling sidewalks, it’s a wonder people haven’t been killed. Drivers, too, need to battle with congestion. They have been patiently waiting for a new freeway interchange for years.

All this could be funded by regional transportation dollars, or would need to compete with projects in the rest of the county. The PDA, as a funding tool, would put these projects on a fast track for approval and funding. Removing the PDA would likely cut the neighborhood off for years.

Politics, not policy, is at work

So the PDA doesn’t obligate any development, doesn’t obligate any zoning, and provides a way to make North San Rafael safer for kids to walk to school and commuters to get to the bus. If the PDA does start to obligate the city to do things it does not want to do, or even if it’s threatened, the city could rescind the PDA with no problem at that point. So why is the council voting on Monday? Alas, it’s about politics, not policy.

It’s an election year. Councilmember Damon Connolly is running against Susan Adams and Councilmember Kate Colin is fighting for her seat against slow-growth candidate Randy Warren. The county’s slow growth movement has fought against PDAs as a proxy for their fight against Plan Bay Area.

By setting themselves up against the North San Rafael PDA, Connolly and Colin are betting they can inoculate themselves against attacks from that camp. At first glance, that seems like a safe bet. Polling from One Bay Area shows that those with anti-development sentiment are more passionate about the issue and are more likely to vote than their counterparts.

Yet they are forgetting that Marinites want choices in how they travel and how they live. It’s not as easy a sell on the campaign trail, but it would be the way for Mayor Phillips and Councilmember Colin to knock the wind out of the slow-growth lobby.

The best compromise is to vote for downgrading the PDA. While it won’t satisfy those who lead the movement, it will show that the council is concerned about density and height while balancing it against transportation improvements North San Rafael desperately needs.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 876 other followers