Maximizing Golden Gate Transit: Wayfinding from A to B

So which route serves the parking lot? Image from Golden Gate Transit

Marin isn’t known as a transit-oriented place, despite its deep green ideology.  While fewer than 45% of San Franciscans drive alone to work, a full 74% of Marinites do.  In other places, low transit ridership is due in part to the opaque nature of bus routes and schedules, and GGT is certainly opaque.  What might it do to become more transparent?

The first problem is one of bus routes.  Many riders, if they don’t know a bus route, don’t know where they’ll end up if they board the bus.  Unlike a rail-based system, riders can’t look at the rails and see where they go.  Only specialized knowledge, gleaned from studying the bus map or utilizing wayfinding tools like, would allow an inexperienced user to utilize the bus system by feel.

Transit centers present a special difficulty because of the plethora of options.  If I want to go from Sausalito to the Seminary Drive bus pad, I first need to check to see what bus numbers depart from Sausalito, then what routes look like they might serve Seminary Drive.  The 70 and 80 have asterisks next to them so I don’t know if they’ll come by Sausalito.  The 10 might, too, but it also has an asterisk that says it might not serve Seminary.  The 22 probably does, but getting back I might need to get on someplace else because it looks as though it veers off someplace near… Forget it, I’m taking the cab.

This should not be so hard!  I look at maps like this every day in a much more complicated bus network and this confused me.  Any route that hits Seminary Drive from Sausalito doesn’t even always make it to Sausalito or Seminary Drive.  I only know this because of side notes that say, “Check timetables.”  On top of that, there isn’t an easy way to say that every X minutes a bus departs Sausalito for Seminary Drive.

What if I don’t want to go to Seminary Drive but want to see where I can go from Sausalito?  I’d know the end points but not the stops in between without studying the map to find the small numbers and make sure the tiny color lines match up with the numbers’ coloring.  Knowing where to go has turned from easy to highly technical, and this is only a small transit center; San Rafael would be significantly worse.

The Liverpool Street spider map from Transport for London. Click to enlarge (PDF)

Without dramatically altering the routes to be more consistent, good graphic design can help lower the barriers to bus usage significantly.  One of the best ways to address wayfinding is what is known as a “spider map”, a concept widely used in London’s bus system.  It takes the jumbled mess of bus lines near a Tube station and charts them out to their ends, with major stops marked.

It does this in a cartogram, rather than a geographic map.  By removing the geographic data and showing only the most important stops, the map can most effectively highlight the most useful service data.  Differing line colors or patterns show visually the various exceptions to the rules, such as partial or peak-only service, and general trends of service, such as which “trunk” the line goes along or bus headway.  This grants the bus system the same clarity as a subway system and visually associates the lowly bus with the ease and comfort of rapid transit.

A neighborhood spider map, showing which buses intersect an area. Click for full article. Image by Peter Dunn.

Making buses work for casual riders is a perennial problem.  Even here in Washington, DC, I know many people that live here months or years without ever boarding a bus.  Understanding the bus system is seen as Deep Knowledge of the system’s otherwise impenetrable black box.  Yet in Marin, the bus is our only mass transit option.  It is imperfect, but it is comprehensive, and converting a driver to the bus will require it to be much more than the confusing map of seemingly random lines it currently is.

This addresses casually knowing how to get someplace, but knowing when to show up for your bus is still a problem, one we’ll address next week.

Mid-Week Links

Could you imagine something like this at Marin’s transit centers? With GGT’s long, long headways, it would make sense to have screens in local shops as well as more detailed information screens at the stops themselves, perhaps with an interactive map of the routes. Chicago’s Bus Tracker: Taking the Guesswork Out of Waiting for the Bus from Streetfilms on Vimeo.


This week, SMART went totally braindead and decided to play the villain.  The district, in defiance of the Secretary of State, passed an election ordinance requiring that RepealSMART include an unbiased statement with the repeal effort’s signature petition, the first step to getting its initiative on the ballot.  RepealSMART has chosen to ignore the directive.  In other news:

  • The County Board of Supervisors passed a fairly gentle plan to ease some of the barriers to affordable housing.  Brad Breithaupt thinks it’s going to be yet another target for anti-development rage.
  • Residents in Larkspur want to build a farm where the already-approved New Home Co. housing development is scheduled to be built.  They have little chance of success.
  • Another week, another total road closure: a flaming tractor-trailer crash closed southbound Highway 101, closing all southbound lanes for over two hours.  A shame there wasn’t some sort of rail-based mass transit alternative…
  • IJ endorsements are in for the Ross Valley School Board, College of Marin Board, Novato School Board, Reed School Board, and Mill Valley School Board.
  • Consolidation of emergency services in the Ross Valley continues, with Ross beginning to consider integrating its fire department with one of its neighbors.
  • Children and parents got outside and got some exercise this past week in Mill Valley, participating in International Walk (and Roll) to School Day.  The Feds noticed, too, and recently awarded San Anselmo and San Rafael $1.8 million to improve its sidewalks around three local schools as part of the Safe Routes to School program.
  • Homestead Valley will get a very, very narrow sidewalk on a very, very slow street.
  • The architecturally lazy Novato city offices move forward.
  • The San Anselmo Andronico’s will remain open after Renovo Capital completes its acquisition of the ill-fated company.
  • Patch’s Kelly Dunleavy goes over the Fairfax town budget with the city and opponents to its half-cent sales tax proposal and finds that numbers can be more than they seem to be.
  • San Rafael’s Corporate Center will likely be rezoned to allow for medical and research uses, eliminating 77 parking spaces in its gargantuan 1,323 space lot and allowing for a greater diversity of uses for the downtown office complex.

The Greater Marin

  • While Marin debates the value of SMART, Santa Rosa continues to move forward with renewal plans.
  • Washington, DC – the city, not the feds – has come a long, long way since the days of Marion Barry, with foreign investors flocking to sock their money away in a stable regional economy. Part of the reason: a strong Metro system.
  • Apparently, the only way to combat congestion is through congestion pricing.
  • If you’re going to build massive rail projects like BART, the best way to go is subterranean.
  • While I looked at the cost of driving alone on Marin and found it to be hideously expensive, it’s only one part of the whole economic puzzle, which apparently costs trillions to operate and maintain.  To save that money, we’ll need to spend trillions more on a total infrastructure overhaul.  Could be fun.
  • But in the meantime, the poorest places of the world are finding hope in good urban design.

The Theory: SMART to San Francisco

San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District Route Location & Structure Plans: Marin Line General Route Plan & Profile (1961)

1961 BART Marin Line Plans. Click to enlarge.

Building a rail line to San Francisco is the Holy Grail for many in the commuting public.  By 2035, there will be an estimated 80,000 commute trips across the Golden Gate Bridge every day, and both San Francisco and the SMART district counties could be well-served by a rail line going across the Golden Gate Bridge.  It sounds like a fabulous idea, but would it actually be worth the expense?  Let’s pencil this out.

SMART, presumably, would run along the old NWP railroad tracks to Sausalito, duplicating the old rail route.  From there, would proceed as the old BART plan did, tunneling through the Marin Headlands to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, becoming a subway thereafter to run under Geary Boulevard before finally terminating at either the San Francisco Caltrain station or the Transbay Transit Center.

The Marin section would cut through Larkspur and Corte Madera, running at surface, bypass downtown Mill Valley and most of Sausalito before diving beneath the hills.  Larkspur to Sausalito costs would likely be higher than the rest of the rail line, as the old rails have been torn up for trails.  Given the cost of renovating the Alto Tunnel as well, a cost of $174 million – $20 million per mile – is not unreasonable.  The fact that this would run through some very low-density residential neighborhoods, however, would likely mean significant neighborhood opposition.  Running along Highway 101 would be significantly more expensive, as there is no single right-of-way for SMART to operate with, and there is no freeway median for the train to run down.

Sausalito to San Francisco would be a major undertaking.  The Marin Headlands present a major tunnel project, and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge would be a huge engineering endeavor.  Since all construction would be new and involve a tunneling project, from this point on the project would cost around $150,000 between $500 million and $1 billion per mile.  The line would continue on the BART alignment once it reached the city, hitting its first station at the Presidio, serving Industrial Light and Magic, before tunneling to Geary.  Total cost for this segment would be between $3 billion and $6 billion.

San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District Route Location & Structure Plans: San Francisco and Vicinity General Routes Plan (1961)

1961 BART San Francisco Plans. Click to enlarge.

The Geary Boulevard alignment is important for this plan.  Muni bus service along the Geary route is over capacity and is the busiest bus route in the Bay Area.  The neighborhood has begged Muni for a subway but to no avail, as costs are extremely prohibitive, but from a transit perspective the project would be worthwhile.  Here, SMART has a choice.  It could stop at a Geary Boulevard transfer station, probably on Arguello or Masonic and allow passengers to transfer to Muni, or it could continue onward in the Muni tunnel.

There are costs to either choice.  Forcing passengers to transfer to Muni far from the Financial District would make the route less attractive to potential riders, but partnering with Muni to build the subway would be extremely expensive.  Despite this, the odds of actually building the subway would increase if Muni were to shoulder the cost with another transit agency, and the intra-San Francisco passengers would help to offset some of the cost to SMART.  If SMART chooses to go on, it would proceed along Geary with stops along the way until Market Street.  The cost for this segment would be around $330 million between $1.1 and $2.2 billion.

At Market, SMART again faces a decision.  It could proceed along the Central Subway to the Caltrain terminal, requiring express rails to be put in at considerable cost.  It could proceed forward to the Transbay Transit Center at an even more considerable cost, or it could stop at Union Square, allowing passengers to transfer to the Central Subway or BART and finish their trips.  The cost of the crossing under Market would likely be at least $1 billion but would provide a significant improvement in service to passengers, allowing a single rail ride from Santa Rosa to California’s High Speed Rail network, Caltrain, and a number of regional buses.

The total cost of a San Rafael to Transbay Transit Center line, using these numbers, is $2.5 billion between $5.3 and $9.6 billion.

The problem for this line is that ridership just is not there.  Already, 28% of commutes to San Francisco from Marin are made by transit.  If SMART’s numbers hold out through a whole system, only another 10% of ridership – about 8,000 – would shift to the train.  This would bring Marin in line with the mode share for San Mateo-San Francisco commuting at a total cost of $147,000 $400,000 per new rider, minimum.  To make it as cost-effective as SMART’s initial operating segment, 40,000 new riders per day would have to switch, an unrealistically high number without a significant change to growth patterns in the Bay Area an astronomically high number for Marin.

Building SMART to San Francisco would be nice, but in a world of limited resources it would be a massive waste of funds.  For that money, Golden Gate Transit could improve its bus system such that the towns it serves could begin to focus on transit-oriented development, SMART could extend to Sausalito, and there would be plenty of money left over for bike lanes, sidewalks, and a second track and electrification of the SMART route, and that only gets us through half the money.  Unless costs come down, a San Francisco SMART should stay strictly theoretical.

EDIT: After some off-line comments, I realized I had grossly underestimated the cost of subway construction without tearing up Geary, and updated the costs to reflect that.

Transit Commuting Saves Marin Millions

Some have wondered why I made the previous post in isolation to the cost of a transit commute.  Although I did point out that a transit commute saves at least the San Francisco-bound Novato commuter a ridiculous amount of money, I did not examine the county-wide costs because I wanted to emphasize the benefits to living where you can walk or bike to work.  Transit, both in my post and Mr. Money Moustache’s, is sloppy seconds: it still costs more than walking or biking.

Another reason I left out transit is the lack of work-trip fare data.  Golden Gate Transit (GGT), the local bus and ferry agency, aggregates all fares for each mode into a single average fare.  In addition, GGT operates outside of Marin as a regional bus service in Sonoma and is just about the only way to get into Marin by transit.  Finally, the Blue and Gold Ferry, separate from GGT,  doesn’t even share its data, so its fares are left out.  Each of these factors pollutes the data and makes any analysis less accurate.

But what the hell, right?  Let’s call this a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the kind you make when proving a point at a party.  Don’t take this as accurate, but take it as a rough idea of something approximating the actual amount Marin residents spend on transit and how much they could save by relying more on transit.

Golden Gate Transit’s average fare for all riders on its ferries and buses was $3.02 in fiscal year 2010.  Taking this as our base, we find that the average transit commuter spends about $1,500 per year on commuting and $19,500 over a decade.  Good deal, a savings of $29,600 over the average car commuter per decade.

Transit makes up only 7% of work trips by Marin residents despite the cost savings.  Playing out our $3.02 average fare means commuters spend about $9.6 million per year on transit, or $124.8 million over a decade.  This is in comparison to the $7 billion we spend to commute alone.  If 1% of our car commuters switched to transit, that would be a savings of $6.8 million per year and $88.6 million per decade.  If our transit riders switched to single-passenger car commuting, they’d spend $88 million more per year and lose $1.1 billion in wealth over a decade.

Mind you, this is for the average commuter.  While a car commuter from Novato to San Francisco saves $11,000 per year by switching to transit, a car commuter going to Solano County probably won’t find transit a feasible option at any price.  But if changing homes to be closer to work or changing jobs to be closer to home isn’t an option, you should reexamine the long-term costs of that car commute and see how much taking the bus might save.  You might be surprised by what you find.

Mid-Week Links: The Price is Right


The IJ made more endorsements this week, siding with the Pacific Sun on Damon Connolly and Andrew McCullough for San Rafael City Council, Bob Ravasio and Alexandra Cock for Corte Madera Town Council.  On the Larkspur City Council they chose PacSun endorsement Larry Chu but chose Ann Morrison over Brad Marsh and disagreed in the San Rafael Mayoral race, endorsing Gary Phillips over Greg Brockbank.  The IJ and PacSun agree that Novato should retain Novato City Councilmembers Jeanne MacLeamy and Madeline Kellner, but the IJ chooses Eric Lucan over PacSun’s Eleanor Sluis.

College of Marin board candidates discussed the possibility of retail development along its campus in Kentfield.

Marin County

Marin County was the big news-getter this week, as we found out just how expensive living here can be, how much our economy loses because of it, and just how terrible it is to rely almost exclusively on freeways to move us around.  We’re still relying on it, though, as a new County emergency operations center will be relocated to the soon-to-be-acquired Marin Commons 1600 Los Gamos.  It’s a terribly unwalkable and remote location, but at least the unpleasant bus pads are nearby.  In other news:

  • In an attempt to attract workers, Larkspur Landing-based software company mFoundry is expanding into San Francisco.  The company expects the ferry to be the primary mode of transportation between the two offices.
  • Golden Gate Transit will offer ferry service to upcoming Cal football games.
  • West Marin Route 62 has been canceled due to extremely low ridership.
  • SMART has shown once again that it really likes the taste of its own foot, bizarrely insisting that it has jurisdiction over repeal efforts by RepealSMART.  The California Secretary of State disagrees.  Meanwhile, General Manager Farhad Mansourian is taking to the editorial pages to tout job creation.  But what happens if the job-talk doesn’t win the day and RepealSMART succeeds?  The Press-Democrat finds out.
  • A wine bar?  On San Anselmo Avenue?  Yes, Hell has frozen over and San Anselmo should soon get a little bit of night life.
  • In a step towards a more livable town, Corte Madera is set to debate proposed rules on keeping chickens and bees in back yards.
  • Novato’s planned downtown city offices have a new design and it’s far, far better than the old.

The Greater Marin

Car Commuting Costs Marin Billions

The Novato Narrows. Photo by Gerry Geronimo

Marin’s commuting workforce travels quite a distance for work, 11.5 miles each way on average, thanks in part to its relatively suburban character.  Although most would say such a commute isn’t terrible, commuting even that far is a massive financial loss to everyone involved, and Marin’s economy suffers for it.

Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache recently penned a fantastic piece on the true cost of commuting (which I truly recommend) and found that an 18 mile commute, roughly from downtown San Rafael to Market Street, costs around $75,000 over the course of a decade and wastes roughly 1.3 working years of time.  He factors in the IRS cost of $0.51 per mile in car depreciation, gas, and the like and assumes that it could be reinvested at about 5% interest.  This is crazy, and that’s just for one person.

How much time and money is lost to commuting alone in Marin?  The average drive-alone Marinite travels 11.46 miles to work, the distance from Petaluma to Novato.  After taking into account a bit of tolling and parking, this average joe spends $3,800 and 24 working days on his commute each year.  If he valued his time as much as his employer, that lost time is worth another $6,500.  This works out to almost $50,000 in lost wealth and 7 wasted months over a decade.  As a county, we spend $565 million every year to commute alone, and every decade we lose an astounding $7.3 billion in wealth and $9.5 billion worth of time.

Hearing these numbers, you’re probably thinking of abandoning your place in Sleepy Hollow and finding someplace nice in Russian Hill, or you’re worried I’ll want to make Grant Avenue a satellite Financial District.  Don’t worry.  I’m not advocating emptying out Marin, or turning Novato into Oakland, but I want to point out the immense, direct costs of investing so heavily in car-centered infrastructure.  Each 1% of the commuting populace that drives alone rather than paying down a mortgage costs Marin’s economy $106.4 million every decade.

Infill development is one way out of this mess.  By bringing workers and jobs closer together, Marinites will be able to save time and money if they want to drive, to the tune of $255 per mile closer to work, and will be more likely to bike or walk to work.  These don’t need to be monstrous apartment buildings or affordable housing, but there are enough redundant parking garages and vacant lots to provide a healthy amount of space without damaging the fabric and culture of our towns.

The other way out is through improved transit investments.  Although travel by transit is often no faster, and sometimes slower, than driving, that time can be put to more productive use than simply driving through stop-and-go traffic on 101, and transit is almost always cheaper than driving.  Switching from driving to taking the wifi-equipped 101 bus to San Francisco, for example, can save a Novato commuter up to $11,000 per year in parking fees, tolls and vehicle wear-and-tear.

These are the discussions Marin should have about its future.  How can we boost alternative transportation?  How can we intelligently promote infill development?  These are also the discussions we should have with our families.  Personally I’d rather have $11,000 at the end of the year than the convenience of being totally flexible with when I can leave the office.

We often simply accept the commutes we’re given as foregone conclusions and don’t count the ways they hurt our wallets and our time; if we do reexamine our commute, it’s often with the time horizon of a month or a year.  It’s high time we started to look at things a little more broadly.


Commuting statistics used for the above information is from Change in Motion from December, 2008, by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  Mode share and commuter numbers are the 2006 observed base.  If you would like to see my work, you can download the spreadsheet I made here.  If I made any particularly egregious mathematical errors, do let me know in the comments.

Mid-Week Links: Properly Pricing Parking

The head of Strong Towns describes the difference between a road and a street, and how bad design is sucking the life out of our cities.  Marin is blessed with strong towns, but unless we are good stewards of our forebears’ investments, we risk slowly becoming less a destination and more just suburbia.


The biggest news for Marin was the health-related resignation of County Supervisor Hal Brown, who represented Ross Valley on the Board since Barbara Boxer left for the House of Representatives in 1982.  The scramble for appointment has already begun, with a number of politicos, old and new, vying to be appointed by the Governor.  The IJ has a glowing retrospective.

  • Importing 60% of our workforce has its costs, namely $22,950 per year in local spending and 0.16 jobs per imported worker.  That’s according to a new report from Live Local Marin.
  • One way to get more workers to live in Marin is to build more housing.  Marin has taken a step towards this by adopting a plan to lower barriers to affordable housing development.  You can read the plan here. (PDF)
  • Governor Jerry Brown signed AB42 into law last week, allowing state parks to enter into operating agreements with private entities.  This applies most particularly to Samuel P. Taylor Park.
  • Riding the bus saves money, even in the ‘burbs.
  • Major media endorsements are in.  IJ has endorsed candidates for the councils of San Anselmo and Fairfax.  The Pacific Sun has endorsements for everything on the ballot.  So far, the two outlets agree.
  • Four election debates (San Anselmo, San Rafael, Corte Madera and Larkspur) are now online – you can check them out on our Election Coverage page.  Another Novato debate is up for October 17.

South Marin

  • A Tam Valley crossing guard injured himself saving a child from an inattentive SUV driver.  The community is taking a collection on his behalf.
  • Also in that busy burg, construction began on the Tennessee Valley Pathway, linking Tam Valley with existing multi-use paths.
  • Mill Valley will alter how it issues event permits for its downtown plaza, making them more lenient to encourage the plaza’s use as a vital space for the town.
  • Sausalito follows San Francisco in the parking app field, adopting a new smart phone application that allows users to see where spaces are open in real-time.
  • Marin City’s Gateway Shopping Center has been sold.
  • Off the Grid had a great start last Sunday in Larkspur, creating sufficient buzz to draw San Franciscans to dust off their cars and ferry passes to visit.
  • Tiburon’s library needs to expand, and in the process it could make the downtown a bit better, especially if it removes parking for an outdoor plaza between it and City Hall.

Central and Northern Marin

  • San Anselmo’s principal and beloved strip mall, Red Hill Shopping Center, is undergoing renovations, and tenants are uneasy.
  • Walk to School Day meant a healthy, happy “walking bus” in Novato.
  • Want to name San Rafael’s new baseball team?
  • The IJ profiles the races in Lagunitas and Nicasio, which bring a bit more politicking to West Marin.
  • The San Rafael Canal will be dredged in November for $1.4 million.
  • Someone wants to make part of Fourth Street a pedestrian mall.
  • San Rafael shot down a proposal for nine new townhomes in West End and sent a 67-unit development near the downtown Elk’s Lodge back to the drawing board. Neither were terribly transit-accessible.

The Greater Marin

  • Ongoing widening of 101 has yielded its first new lanes in Sonoma County.
  • Sadly, this probably won’t alleviate traffic for long.
  • One wonders how we might shift the funding priorities from roads to transit.
  • The City of Sonoma is installing new bike lanes, to much fanfare and controversy.
  • But bikes aren’t just for the civilian.  They’re also for war.
  • Los Angeles has released a manual on how to redesign roads to be livable streets again.
  • Affordable housing advocates want to keep parking minimums so cities can trade them for more affordable housing.  This, by the way, is a bad thing.
  • Governor Jerry Brown may have approved AB42, but he vetoed SB910, which would have instated a three-foot passing rule for cars passing bicyclists.

Public Access and Openness Is a Win-Win-Win

Lights in the Darkness. Photo by Jim Collier

This November, Marin County residents will be asked to vote in six council elections, three district elections, and one mayoral election on top of eight ballot initiatives. There are 40 people running for 22 positions and there have been debates in most of the races. Not one is available online on-demand, and at least one wasn’t even recorded. This, in the most tech-savvy part of the country, is unacceptable.

Most debates happen during the work day, when a typical voter is at work with their nose to the grindstone. The first Novato council debate, for example, took place on a Friday morning, as did the first San Rafael mayoral debate. Night time debates often aren’t much better, scheduled early in the evening when most are still coming home.

The Community Media Center of Marin (CMCM) and Novato Public Access typically record events, but rather than put them on YouTube or their own sites, they keep them for pre-scheduled reruns online. If it’s already in a digital format, why lock it up?

Not only does this throw up an unnecessary barrier to voters but it makes life significantly more difficult for news outlets, especially blogs. As a blogger, I cannot embed, reference, cut up, sample or refer to specific bits of the debate without first creating my own recordings of their recordings, and the IJ and Patch can’t either. Instead, we reference the parts that we think are interesting in pieces about the debates, leaving readers’ interests by the wayside. If we want to quote someone’s debate answer after the reruns have stopped, we’re out of luck.

If debates were online, they could be used on any website at any time. Candidates could post video of their success and their opponent’s gaffe, TV and radio reporters could use the video on their shows without the expense of sending a news team, hosts get their logo everywhere the video is referenced, and voters get exposed to the voices and faces of people they wouldn’t otherwise think about. This could be a win for everyone.

Candidate debates are a vital part of the democratic process. They enable us to contrast competing perspectives, allow us to get a read on candidates’ knowledge, and serve as a proxy forum for the major issues of the day. In Marin, we are grappling major and contentious issues that will shape the county for decades: SMART, affordable housing, pension reform, and downtown revitalization. Knowing where our candidates stand informs the debate and informs the voter, so that everyone better knows where our County is going.

Mid-Week Links: Portly Passengers

Pardon my geekery, but this was the first I’d seen of Marin’s old commuter trains in action.  They’re EMUs, the electrical version of SMART’s DMUs.  Strange also to see so much empty space in West End, and interesting to see how the buildings along the rails still treat the roads as something to be shunned.

Marin County Elections

  • San Anselmo, Larkspur and Corte Madera all had council debates this week, none of which are available online.  At least you can read about the races; that’s good enough, right?  If you can time it right, you can watch them on the Community Media Center of Marin’s live stream.
  • There is a highly edited video of the San Rafael Council Candidate’s forum available on Patch with a pre-event questionnaire.  Candidates are all in favor of leveraging SMART to improve downtown, with incumbent Damon Connolly giving the strongest answers.
  • Last month’s San Rafael mayoral debate may not have been recorded (the host speculated that it “would’ve been a good idea”), but that doesn’t mean there’s no news.
  • Tiburon’s school board race wouldn’t come up but for a renewed focus on making Tiburon Boulevard, the principal artery on the peninsula, a safer, better street for all users but especially schoolchildren.
  • Mill Valley’s vacancies were uncontested, so the town cancelled their elections.  Not everyone is happy.

Marin County

  • SMART has secured authorization from the MTC to use $33.1 million in Larkspur station funds on the IOS.
  • “We believe in working toward making [SMART] better, ensuring that it spends its money wisely and makes sound decisions. Opponents just want to kill it.” – Press-Democrat Editorial Board
  • Marin Transit contracts with Golden Gate Transit to provide local bus service within Marin, and it wants to renegotiate.  In the comments Kevin Moore and I get into the details of GGT’s farebox recovery rate.
  • Food Truck Crush is over for now.  Long live Off the Grid!
  • A driver accidentally killed herself and seriously injured a passenger in a crash on 101.
  • San Rafael’s West End is a bit of a drive-through part of the city, and a vacant Big Box doesn’t help.
  • Two new developments are up for review in San Rafael: a 67-unit apartment building at 1380 Mission and a 9 unit townhome building at 21 G.  The meeting and documents are available on San Rafael’s website.
  • Biking is certainly for road mobility, but MCBC is shifting focus to the slopes and trails in Marin’s open space.
  • Getting women interested in biking, one class at a time.
  • Believe it or not, it’s more expensive to live in Marin than it is to live in San Francisco.  Being forced to rely on the car doesn’t help.
  • Novato debated its housing element last night.  No word on decisions as of press time.
  • Mill Valley did the same, and also debated an amendment to the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan.
  • San Anselmo is getting a bunch of slurry seal work done on its roads, although it was delayed by rain.

The Greater Marin

  • Santa Rosa is getting progressive, what with plans for a pedestrian bridge, bicycle parking and shower requirements.  It could use an overhaul of its use-based zoning restrictions, though.
  • San Francisco’s F-Line – those historic streetcars running along the Embarcadero – is expanding West.
  • The US Department of Transportation is pushing high-speed rail loans out the door before Congress shuts down the whole intercity rail project.
  • Greater Greater Washington posits that music venues should engage with the streetscape but often don’t, and I’m inclined to agree.  Fenix Live in San Rafael will do well on this metric.

SMART Money Part II: The Myth and Allure of Caltrain North

Dick Spotswood is a supporter of SMART and an optimist regarding its success, but his insistence that it could function with the same form as Caltrain shows a lack of understanding of how either system must work.

Back in July, Spotswood argued:

When in Oceanside, [former general manager Lillian] Hames’ crew should have walked across the depot to ride Coaster, the excellent passenger rail line linking the San Diego County coast. There, they’d find an off-the-shelf commuter railroad using high-capacity cars that are America’s standard.

They would work perfectly in the North Bay hauled by environment-friendly Tier Four locomotives… It’s all proven technology. Think Caltrain on San Francisco’s Peninsula.

This, he says, would result in $120 million in savings and provide twice the capacity over the Sharryo DMUs SMART ended up buying.  The savings would come from:

  • Using non-customized trains
  • Cutting specialized track work
  • Cutting specialized signaling systems
  • Cutting high loading platforms

This is simply bonkers.  The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has rules of crashworthiness that come into force when freight trains run with passenger trains, rules that Caltrain doesn’t meet.  The Sharryo trains cost $6.3 million apiece.  A comparable FRA-compliant and Caltrain-style train costs $11.7 million*, almost double the original cost.  Not only that, but the locomotive makes the train too long to fit within a normal city block, meaning streets would be blocked while the train is at a station.  Caltrain is elevated Caltrain’s stations are grade-separated and so does not have that issue.

FRA rules regarding freight/passenger interaction also dictate the specialized track work and signaling systems, which total only $36 million.  ADA and FRA regulations conspire to require level boarding at stations, but the stations cost less than $3 million apiece.  Even cutting them all entirely would only save $27 million.  I cannot understand how one finds cost savings of $120 million by purchasing more expensive trains and cutting legally required capital expenditures.

The point is that train type doesn’t dictate much with regards to SMART’s capital costs.  Specialization does come with a price, and there may be one to pay in maintenance later, but SMART’s cost overruns are not the result of purchasing DMUs and so cannot be fixed by replicating the Caltrain model in the North Bay.  Indeed, Caltrain’s model is unsuited to the SMART corridor because those corridors are different.  Caltrain cannot run with freight, its trains are too long to run at street level, and it is more expensive than the custom-built DMUs SMART already has.  Making them fit SMART’s constraints would only cost more.

If someone wants to build a boondoggle, running Caltrain on SMART’s tracks would be a good place to start.

UPDATE: Multiple commentators have pointed out that Caltrain is already FRA-compliant, and that the waiver is for future, rather than current, service.  This was an oversight on my part, but the point still stands: traditional trainsets are too long and too expensive for SMART.


* Assuming 1 Amtrak locomotive at $6.7 million and 2 Bombardier Bi-Level cars, to accommodate the 312 seats Spotswood argues are necessary, at $2.5 million apiece.