Mid-Week Links: Building the Future

Photo from pumpkincat210

Marin County

  • Roadwork is coming to the County, which will lead to delays but also better roads.  Total cost is more than $1.1 million
  • Mill Valley took a giant step forward with its new plan for Miller Avenue, one of two arteries through town.  It’s not perfect, of course, but it will emphasize bus and bicycle access.  Hopefully the city will work with Golden Gate Transit to improve travel times and headways, too.
  • Want to join a planning board?  TAM and Fairfax are both looking for citizen volunteers.
  • Two amazing things, parks and beer, are coming together.  Lagunitas Brewing Company is looking to operate and maintain Samuel P. Taylor State Park, which is threatened with closure due to state budget cuts.


  • Napa County will receive some CalTrans money to study traffic flow for Highway 29, which runs from the city of Napa to American Canyon.
  • San Francisco’s cable car fleet has entered the digital age, as they now accept Clipper Cards for payment.  Won’t make them any cheaper, though.
  • Also in The City, Muni is trying to speed its abysmally slow transit fleet through all-door boarding, letting people pay at the back or front or middle of the vehicle.
  • California’s High-speed rail will be more expensive thanks to changes sought by Central Valley communities, including a 42-mile stretch of elevated rail, leading lawmakers to question whether the state can afford the project.  CA HSR Blog fires back at the criticism, saying, “If we want to build high speed rail and provide the basis of sustainable 21st century prosperity, we need to figure out how to get this built, and not make excuses for doing nothing.”  They also have a list of the new documents that detail the added costs.
  • The Central Valley is known for its Midwestern flair for sprawling communities, and UC Berkeley examined why in a working paper examined by Half-Mile Circles.  Its conclusion?  Despite a desire for high-end transit, “Unless considerably higher densities are embraced and politically accepted, high-end transit services will remain a pipedream in settings like Stockton.”  Reminds me of a streetcar project a few years back.

The Greater Marin

  • Lastly, we have a good example of how a building’s perceived size can be altered substatially by modifications to the façade.  DCMud, Washington, DC’s local real-estate blog, looked at an impending project in the popular and developing 14th Street Corridor.  The local community thought the original design was too over-bearing on local streets of rowhouses, so developer Eric Colbert reworked the design and, without losing much square footage, created a very different building.

Walkability, Thy Name Is Crosswalk

What now?

Walkability seems to be all the rage these days, and for good reason.  Any merchant will tell you that foot traffic is good for business, and any public health expert will tell you walking is good for your health.  It gets people out of cars for trips of less than a mile and puts people where they can see each other, generating the vibrant sort of street life where friends and acquaintances run into each.  It’s a win for residents, a win for businesses, and a win for the city’s health.

Crosswalks are key to ensuring good walkability.  A road system isn’t much of a road system if you need to drive 15 minutes out of your way to turn, and a sidewalk system isn’t much good if one needs to walk 15 minutes to cross the street.  A good crosswalk will enhance an entire streetscape, making it more inviting to pedestrians and more lively for all users.  In contrast, a streetscape without crosswalks can be dangerous.  If crosswalks are far enough apart, the two halves of the street will be cut off from each other, dramatically reducing the walkability of the area.

San Anselmo serves as a good example of good and bad crosswalk planning.  There are certain stretches where crosswalks are commonplace, mostly along San Anselmo Avenue downtown and Sir Francis Drake from Tamal Avenue to Fairfax.  Outside of these areas, walkability seems to be an afterthought, especially along Redhill and Center, where crosswalks can be almost half a mile apart.

Dense in the core, sparse on the periphery

The map at right shows the disconnect.  I’ve highlighted all crosswalks over or next to arterial roads in red.  The longest stretch without a crosswalk is on Center, where two crossings are nearly a half-mile apart from one another.  A sidewalk ends without a crossing, and cars tend to speed along that stretch of road.  On Redhill, there’s a commercial strip in the median that has no crosswalks except at the beginning and end.  For the 18 years I lived on Forbes, which forms a T intersection with that strip, I only saw a parade of rotating businesses occupying the buildings.

Especially within a half-mile of the Hub, San Anselmo’s principal bus terminal, pedestrian traffic should be encouraged as much as possible.  With its arterials forming barriers, businesses become isolated from one another, diminishing the appeal of downtown as a destination, and businesses cannot easily draw from its own population base.  San Anselmo, Fairfax and Ross should do a pedestrian traffic survey, identifying areas of possible improvement.  I suspect that adding crosswalks and calming traffic would be among the recommendations.

San Anselmo has the potential to become a walkable town with vibrant streetlife in its core and a healthy, walking population, but it needs to invest in the infrastructure to make it happen.

Mid-Week Links: Delay Delay

  • In SMART news, Farhad Mansourian released new numbers this last week showing an increase in costs, causing the MTC to delay and reevaluate the critical bailout that was contingent on costs remaining steady.  According to Mansourian’s analysis, the budget remains balanced, but overall construction costs increase.  The IJ keeps up its support, but it’s right that the system needs to get its act together.  Opponents say the numbers still aren’t right and begin gathering signatures for repeal while Mansourian blasted RepealSMART for arguing that the whole train project should be built at once or not at all, but made no comment on the numbers critique.  Also unknown is why the critical system continues to shoot itself in the foot.
  • In affordable housing, a new study out of the DC Office of Planning (for the municipality, not the feds) attempts to take transportation costs into account when analyzing housing affordability.  As intuition would have it, the further you travel from work the more expensive it is to get there, decreasing affordability.  Forbes’ Joel Kotkin declares that ABAG is conducting a war on the single-family home (nevermind the fact that rowhouses are single-family homes), saying people want to live in such homes but will pay a premium to live in urban areas, citing an old Chronicle article of how the middle class are priced out of San Francisco.  Nope, no contradiction there.  Oh, and he takes a few potshots at Marinites just for kicks.
  • By the way, Novato’s awesome.
  • Elsewhere in California, Jerry Brown vetoed a bill allowing local planning authorities to require businesses help cover transit costs of its employees’ commute; Larkspur will be timing its traffic signals to help car flow around, well, everywhere, although its pedestrian facilities could use some help; bike lanes are added to the Golden Gate Bridge’s Eastern walkway, although it’s still too crowded; the MTC’s impending move to San Francisco may not be so impending; San Diego gets a new growth plan; and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs wants to find new space near transit, causing East Bay councilmembers to salivate simultaneously.
  • In other news, Frank Gruber asks why Americans implemented policies that destroyed our cities, and Grist relays a grisly reminder of what happens when drivers don’t realize that bikers are vehicles, too.  San Francisco does its own cyclists well by prosecuting the alleged driver in a hit-and-run that killed a German tourist on a bicycle.

Looking at SMART after Larkspur

SMART works well as a Marin-Sonoma train, but it has a lot of shortcomings, too.  Once it’s up and running, it needs to look beyond Cloverdale-Larkspur.

It’s 2030, and SMART is a smashing success.  Despite the best efforts of rail opponents throughout the construction of both Phase One and Phase Two, SMART has far surpassed ridership expectations and is the backbone of Marin and Sonoma’s transportation systems.

That, at least, is what I hope I’ll get to write about in my late 40s.  Despite its flaws, and they are manifold, SMART is a good project.  This is especially true for the commuters from Sonoma to Marin who constitute 39% of Sonoma’s commuting workforce.  Yet for Marinites, SMART is only a partial solution.  Far more Marin commuters work in San Francisco than in Sonoma, and this will be just as true when SMART is fully built as it is now.  So how might SMART expand to serve areas outside Marin?  Here are a few of the options I’ve seen floated around.

  1. Run BART along SMART tracks, or vice versa.  This plan sounds good, but it is technically impossible.  BART runs on a different track width than SMART – Indian Gauge for BART, Standard Gauge for SMART.  BART tracks would need to be constructed from scratch along 101, and SMART could not operate on them.  If people are complaining how expensive SMART is, they’d surely balk at a project with more than 10 times the cost.  Back of the envelope cost: $500 million/mile, or $6-35 billion, depending on how far north BART goes.
  2. Run SMART across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Transbay Terminal.  This plan would be a partial resurrection of the original BART plan, which called for the train system to run north to Ignacio.  In its place, SMART would have to reconstruct tracks south of Larkspur, reconfigure the bottom deck of the Golden Gate Bridge, and build new tracks out from the Bridge.  Once the system reached San Francisco, the system would get far trickier and far more expensive.  SMART’s trains couldn’t run on the streetcar tracks along the Embarcadero for a number of reasons, such as incompatible stations and the safety of mixing streetcars and regular trains, so new tracks would need to be built through a dense, urban area already well-served by transit.  In total, 16.5 miles of new track would need to be reconstructed or built.  Back of the envelope cost: $8 billion+.
  3. Run SMART across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to the nearest BART station.  This concept makes sense on paper: little new rail would be required, as the lines already exist on the Richmond side.  SMART would principally run through an industrial area, so this alignment would enhance the value of the line for freight.  Doing this would require reconstructing the bridge’s third lanes to handle train traffic.  CalTrans is resistant to the idea of bicycles using that lane and would surely oppose running tracks along the bridge as well.  As well, it would not help Marinites get to work so much as it would help others get to their jobs in Marin: by 2030, only 11,000 Marinites will commute to the East Bay while 32,000 East Bay residents will commute to Marin.  Back of the envelope cost: $2 billion.  (Compultense has a fantasy map with this alignment.)

All these plans have some heavy drawbacks.  The isolation that makes Marin so fantastic hampers exercises such as this.  So is there a way to improve connectivity without doing something with such high barriers?  To some degree, yes.

As it currently stands, the Larkspur SMART station will be built 0.4 miles away from the Terminal, forcing a 15 minute walk through extremely pedestrian-unfriendly territory: a bus depot, two parking lots, a barren pedestrian bridge over an overbuilt Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, and another parking lot.  This makes the total trip from SMART to San Francisco at least 55 minutes long – the maximum most people are willing to travel.  Improving the space between the SMART station and the Ferry to be more pedestrian-friendly would ease the walk, and operating a shuttle would cut down on walking time.

There are no good, inexpensive ways to utilize SMART outside of its already described corridors unless Marin is willing to foot a much, much larger bill.  Given the opposition SMART has received already, I cannot imagine support building for a further expansion without a major shift in thinking about transit in the County.