Mid-Week Links: Crashworthy

One of the reasons for SMART’s higher-than-expected cost is Federal crashworthiness standards that forced the agency to look for custom-built heavy DMUs.  Yet, as explained by Market Urbanism, the regulations were made for a time before intelligent, lightweight materials were available and force the US to forego the engineering standards used everywhere else in the world.  As shown above, the new materials are perfectly capable of keeping vehicles safe.  It’s too late for SMART to change their order, but this regulatory regime can and should be changed for all the other transit agencies looking to hold down costs.

Marin County

In case you missed it, there were off-year elections this past Tuesday.  Urbanism won the day for the most part, fending off avowed anti-city challengers in Novato and San Anselmo.  Many disagreed with San Rafael’s new mayor, Gary Phillips, on Target but he has a firmly pro-business stance and will serve downtown San Rafael well.  Across the country, Greater Greater Washington looks at what makes a candidate electable, the Center for Transportation Excellence has posted the status of transit measures nationwide and Half-Mile Circles looks at a few of the big-ticket items.

  • The County is considering regulations on smoking within multi-unit dwellings, I guess because a home is only private space when it’s got a half-acre of land around it.
  • There will be no Terrapin Crossroads, says Phil Lesh.  Fairfaxians are heartbroken.
  • A driver struck a teen in Novato last week along pedestrian-unfriendly Novato Boulevard.  He’s doing okay, although he’s also lucky to be alive.
  • SMART plans to spend up to $200,000 to polish its image and push back against opponents.
  • Novato’s Hanna Ranch development would be built without affordable housing while creating low-income jobs.  This is suspiciously inconsistent.  Deciding on final approval, meanwhile, has been punted by the Council to November 29.
  • California may have  a massive infrastructure maintenance deficit, but at least Mill Valley is behaving responsibly.
  • Mill Valley’s Chamber of Commerce plots a comeback.
  • A proposal has surfaced to create dedicated, separated bus lanes on Van Ness Avenue, speeding buses along the corridor with significantly more efficiency than currently allowed.  Since Golden Gate Transit uses Van Ness for a number of its lines, this change would benefit Marinites as well as San Franciscans.
  • Want to save a state park otherwise slated for closure? Stop by the Parks Coalition brainstorming session on November 15.
  • If there’s one thing Marin does well, it’s loving local businesses.

The Greater Marin

Using open, real-time location data, Eric Fischer mapped the speeds for the transit system. Click to enlarge.

  • Cotati is considering revamping a short stretch of Old Redwood Highway near their hexagonal downtown to make it more pedestrian-friendly and less of the car thoroughfare it currently is.  Local businesses want to entrench the 40 MPH status quo.
  • The City of Napa is considering something similar: a $38 million redesign of their downtown.
  • San Francisco apparently boasts three of the best bars in the world, and there’s no better way to enjoy a bar than to take transit.  Don’t stay out too late, of course: your last bus to Marin leaves at 12:30am.
  • Oakland residents are dedicated to historic preservation, going so far as to wield shotguns to defend their heritage.
  • Shockwaves from the $98 billion (nominal) price tag for California High-Speed Rail continue to ripple through the blogosphere.  On one side are engineers, who say it is far, far too overbuilt, and on the other are those who look at the big picture to argue it’s still a good deal.  I say, if you can save money by foregoing massive viaducts through San Jose, forego the viaducts.
  • Sacramento might not get its rail line for a while yet, but where to locate a station is still troublesome for officials.
  • We love our green initiatives.  Unfortunately one of the most popular, Cash for Clunkers, was a bust.
  • Congress did something bipartisan today and unanimously passed out of committee a two year extension of the federal transportation bill, MAP-21.
  • Bad traffic designs that create gridlock create exhaust which seems to hurt our neurological health.
  • Lastly, in a testament to how budget cuts can even cut efficient programs, the General Services Administration no longer will have the money to make their headquarters an example of solid office design and will instead remain in the big, bureaucratic office building that looks just like you expect.

Maximizing Golden Gate Transit: Headways Schmeadways

I remember reading about a Fairfax woman that decided to go car-free in Marin.  To do it, she sat down each night, mapped out her route and carefully wrote down the times, transfers, and locations for each of the buses.  When she borrowed a friend’s car because of a particularly hectic day, she felt “like a bird flying over her homeland” as she was finally free of the bus schedule.

Call me naïve, but I think this means Golden Gate Transit has a problem.

Mapping Frequency

A frequency and rail map of San Francisco from SF Cityscape. Click for larger image.

Buses lack the walk-up quality inherent in a car or subway system if headways are longer than about 15 minutes.  Headways longer than that force passengers to memorize the schedule and adapt their lives to the bus, rendering the bus a significantly less attractive mode.

Not all bus corridors are like this, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at a bus map.  While a street map indicates the priority of its roadways through different line colors and weights – highways as thick and red, arterials as less thick and yellow, and local streets as thin and gray – bus maps typically show all lines and all corridors as equal.  While there is a hierarchy in the bus system of which corridors are more or less important, that information is hidden from the rider.  There is nothing to distinguish the tangle of lines from one another.

Human Transit has strongly advocated for frequency maps for larger cities, which highlight routes or corridors with headways that meet or exceed a certain threshold, typically 12 minutes.  Examples are SF Cityscape’s frequency map of San Francisco, Washington, DC’s draft 15-minute bus map, and Los Angeles’ published 15-minute bus map.  GGT’s bus lines rarely see consistent headways better than 30 minutes, but even showing which corridors combine for 30 minute intervals would be a fabulous improvement.  Another possibility is to emulate Vancouver, which publishes a frequent bus map highlighting peak hour routes.  This is where the bulk of GGT’s transit ridership lies, and would be useful to capture more of that share.

Either map type would be an improvement over the current map, which shows transit operator.  Riders don’t need to know who operates the bus, only that it takes them where they need to go.

When’s the NextBus?

Unlike other regional agencies, GGT doesn’t share its real-time data with 511.org and doesn’t use NextBus despite the fact that it uses GPS to track where its buses are.  This is odd, to say the least, as opening up its location data and utilizing NextBus would be incredibly fruitful for the agency.  Its buses have such long headways that missing the bus could mean an hour’s delay.  If the bus is a little early and the rider is a little late, it’s a missed connection that could mean a blown appointment or a missed pickup at school.

Showing when the next bus will come and not just when it’s scheduled to come frees the business man or the parent from that worry.  Applications and devices utilizing similar data are common elsewhere.  The typical use is directly feeding the data to the rider through websites, smartphone apps and a call-in service, and some systems use them at high-traffic transit centers.  There are more innovative uses as well.  In Chicago, the open data is used for displays in shops and cafes near bus stops, allowing riders to shop, relax or keep out of the rain while keeping an eye on the arrivals.

This last use would be especially helpful for the long headways.  Little is more frustrating or annoying than feeling trapped at a bus stop waiting for your ride.  Shop displays capture the rider for business and allow the rider to do more than just sit around and wait.

Publicizing the bus arrival times opens up the bus system to casual users.  If I need to get to Fourth Street later that day and I see that a bus is going there in 7 minutes, I know I can hop a ride and be there without dealing with parking.  It embeds the fact that buses are a viable transportation option into the collective mind and bypasses scheduling entirely.

Frequency maps accomplish the same thing in a system-wide way, giving riders an idea of the priority given to bus corridors and routes far from where they normally travel or currently are.  It widens the mental map from two points (home bus stop to San Francisco bus stop) to the whole network, demystifying the system and rendering it useful for casual use.

Longer-term, shorter headways facilitated by and facilitating denser infill development around the various transit centers would provide a much more seamless experience with the bus.  As it stands, headways of an hour makes GGT a system of last resort.  There’s only so much marketing can do to help counter the inherent structural flaws of the system, but maximizing what we have requires it.  Lifting the black veil that covers GGT would be a boon to the system and, by extension, to Marin’s sustainability and livability.

Open Data Delay

I just got back from a trip to West Virginia that involved lots of fabulous people and no Internet access, so today’s post on communicating bus timing will be delayed for a day or two.  What I can give you, however, is something someone else made.  Streetfilms has a fabulous video on sharing transit data in an open and standardized way and the wonderful things that can come of it.  Golden Gate Transit doesn’t have open data, at least not that I could see, and that dramatically hinders the capability of the entrepreneurial and tech-savvy to create customer-centered applications the agency may not even think of.  This deserves more rumination, but the mini-documentary can speak for itself.

Mid-Week Links: Divide and Conquer

We intuit it, but we don’t always realize it: a busy street is a pedestrian-dead street.  That’s why you never walk down lower Miller Avenue, or Third Street, or, if you can avoid it, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

Marin

  • A Marin City woman is facing eviction from her public housing for hosting her dying mother without prior approval.
  • Food Truck Crush might be a permanent after-work fixture at the Larkspur Ferry.
  • The split-lot fee saga continues, which County Supervisors continue to adjudicate on a case-by-case basis.
  • Golden Gate Bridge workers are engaged in a rather heated renegotiation of their contract with the District.
  • If SMART is repealed, the sales tax that funds the project will remain in place until all outstanding contracts and bonds are paid off.  Dick Spotswood doesn’t think this is such a great deal.
  • SMART supporters are reviving to fight the repeal effort.
  • There’s a fight afoot to prevent the San Rafael Airport from also hosting a recreation center.
  • Plans to expand Ross Valley’s White Hill Middle School have been approved.
  • Redhill Shopping Center merchants are taking it in the gut as the beloved San Anselmo strip mall undergoes renovation and beautification.
  • Larkspur’s low-density infill development at Niven Nursery near the city’s downtown is proceeding apace.
  • Mill Valley loses a hardware store and a bit of its past.
  • The Hanna Ranch sprawl project is set to go before the Novato City Council without affordable housing.  At least it has that going for it.
  • Novato approved the design of its new city offices, with some caveats.

The Greater Marin

  • Local transit agencies are urged to work together more closely ahead of an MTC-led push for a transit gas tax.
  • If you commute by bus to the City, no doubt you know that the Transbay Terminal is gone.  What you may not know is that in its place will be a 61-story tower atop the new transit center along with a number of other fine projects.  Have some opinions?  Stop by San Francisco City Hall at 5:30 Thursday evening.
  • Highway 101 widening around Rohnert Park will be completed this month, part of a $172 million widening scheme along the thoroughfare’s Sonoma reaches.
  • Looks like California High-Speed Rail will cost a helluva lot more than planned.  Atlantic Cities waxes sanguine on the subject, and Alon Levy looks at the cause of the cost overruns: cantankerous residents officials at either end of the line.
  • Why do Congressional Republicans hate bikes?