A Lesson in Overreaction

There’s an old saying: “Think local, act global.”  It’s a pithy reminder that everything we do, from our brand of toilet paper to how we structure our cities, effects everyone else.

I think someone forgot to tell Corte Madera that.

This past Tuesday, Corte Madera voted to quit ABAG, effective July, 2013.  The Council voted out of frustration at housing mandates it says are killing the town’s character, out of anger at Plan Bay Area, and out of a belief that Corte Madera is perfect.  Yet its actions will have no effect on any of the issues at stake in this debate and will hinder the town’s capacity to shape those issues.

Corte Madera will still need to zone for more housing.  Although ABAG is the administrator of housing requirements for this region, the mandate to zone comes from the state government.  By leaving ABAG, Corte Madera will receive its mandates directly from Sacramento, exposing it to the whim of a truly unelected and unaccountable body.  Within ABAG, Corte Madera had a voice in the association’s General Assembly.  It could contest mandates, allocation formulae, assumptions, and more.  Although staff has a major role to play in governments across the region, at least ABAG staff worked for local elected officials and were answerable to them.

Beyond ABAG, Corte Madera is still a part of the other three regional organizations – Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the Bay Coastal Development Commission – which are all working on Plan Bay Area.  Indeed, Corte Madera will be materially affected by decisions made by these agencies but will lack any voice at the proceedings, as it has no representative on any of their boards.

If Corte Madera is subject to SB375, it will need to work directly with staff at each of those regional agencies to formulate its greenhouse gas reduction plans, using up valuable regional and town staff time simply to duplicate efforts and wasting taxpayer money to do so.

Not that any of this will matter for a while.  Although details are a bit sketchy, it seems as though Corte Madera will still be subject to ABAG mandates for the upcoming housing needs allocation.  If you listened to media reports you’d never know it, but there will be no material difference to Corte Madera as a result of these actions.  The town will still be subject to Plan Bay Area and will still receive housing allocations from ABAG until the following allocation in 2020.

The straw that broke this camel’s back were preliminary draft growth projections being used in Plan Bay Area’s discussion phase.  They were too high, a problem brought up with force at Tuesday’s council meeting, but ABAG heard the voice of the town and others and will revise its numbers significantly downward in the next draft.  Those original numbers were released with no methodology, another complaint of Corte Maderans, but ABAG will release its second draft methodology this month.  Housing allocation numbers for the next cycle haven’t even been drafted yet, but they were brought up time and again as though the town already knew it would need to zone for hundreds of new units.  These are fake problems ginned up by Corte Madera’s ABAG representative, Councilmember Carla Condon, who should be fighting within the system rather than railing against it.

So what did Corte Madera get with its resolution on Tuesday?  Headlines, extra costs, and a muted voice.  Corte Madera will still receive housing allocations from ABAG in 2013 and the state in 2020, it will still be subject to Plan Bay Area, it will still be under regional organizations, but it has forfeited its voice in any of these decisions and has thrust upon its staff state-mandated planning requirements currently performed by ABAG.  The council gets to look like a hero to the county’s paper progressives, but its petulant overreaction to nonexistent problems will only compound the town’s woes.

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Mid-Week Links: This Part Hurts

This is a rather long presentation, but it lays out the essence of how car traffic hurts culture, hurts neighborhoods, and what to do about it.  I’ve been to talks like this in DC but this is the first time I can really share one with you.  And if you work in transportation or the planner’s office, this ought to count as continuing education, so bust out the earphones and popcorn.

Marin County

  • Former Supervisor Hal Brown died this week of cancer, and the respect Ross Valley and Marin had for him was evident in editorials and memoria. (Pacific Sun)
  • Mill Valley urbanists, attention!  Have a say in the direction of your town and join one of the Mill Valley 2040 committees charged with drafting the new general plan.  Applications are due March 14, so get on it. (IJ, Town of Mill Valley)
  • San Anselmo urbanists can have a bit of their own fun, too, as this Saturday the town council will weigh resident priorities for the next 2-5 years at a special meeting from 10am-12pm.  After the meeting, a survey will be put online for people who could not make it. (Patch)
  • SPAWN, a nonprofit whose goal is to restrict construction near creeks had its own San Geronimo demonstration home red-tagged by the county for building without a permit next to a creek. Neighbors that had run afoul of the group in the past were furious at the hypocrisy. (IJ)
  • There may still be some useful Q&A to be had with Fairfax Councilmember David Weinsoff, who happens to be Fairfax’s delegate to ABAG, though the discussion may have descended into Agenda 21/CittaSlow madness. (Patch)
  • Untangling the affordable housing mess caused by redevelopment agencies’ abrupt closure on February 1 will take quite a while to untangle, but surely the State Legislature can handle it, right? (Pacific Sun)
  • Marin is the least affordable place to live in the Bay Area, if one adds the cost of transportation to the cost of housing.  A new study shows that Marinites spend an average of 56.3% of their income on housing and transportation, compared to the 39.5% San Franciscans spend. (Chronicle)

And…: Sausalito repaves a street that hasn’t seen work in 70 years. (IJ) … San Rafael’s plastic bag ban chugs along despite a threatened lawsuit by plastics makers. (Patch) … Stand Up for Neighborly Novato will merge with Novato Housing Coalition so as to better focus their efforts to promote affordable housing in the city. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Arlington County, Virginia, has a number of bikes in its vehicle fleet, saving them money on gas, car maintenance, and also on employee health benefits and sick days.  How might Marin’s communities utilize bicycles in their vehicle fleets?  (Patch)
  • SimCity 5 announced, and the shouts of urbanists around the world rose as one. (Stop and Move)
  • Amtrak wants to restrict the number of bikes allowed on Capital Corridor trains, as around 10% of riders now bring their own bicycle and it’s becoming a nuisance to non-bikers.  Amtrak ought to strongly encourage bicycling, however, as active living and bicycling culture tends to go hand-in-hand with rail ridership. (Sacramento Bee)
  • Since the ban on cell phones while driving went into effect in California, traffic deaths have dropped an astounding 22%, the largest drop since CHP started keeping records. (Mercury News via IJ)

Bikeshare Could Roll in Marin

This week TAM released a Request for Proposal allocating $25,000 to study whether Marin is suitable for a bikeshare system, and where it should go. If Marin eventually does develop its own system, it will join Montreal, London, Paris, New York, Minneapolis, and many other cities in implementing such a system.  

The RFP itself is not terribly interesting, though you can read it if you like.  It’s also not terribly intriguing that TAM is investigating bikeshare, as the authority has a history of investigating a wide variety of projects, no matter the project’s feasibility.  What is intriguing is that this comes as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) is preparing to launch a bikeshare system with San Francisco, San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Redwood City; as SMART is under construction; as the Plan Bay Area gets into full swing; and as a bikemaggeddon is preparing to land in Sausalito with the America’s Cup.  Each of these could push bikeshare to the front of Marin’s mind and make it likely the system will actually be built.

What the devil is bikeshare?

DC Capital Bikeshare - CaBi

By James D. Schwartz

The first successful system in the United States was Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare, or CaBi for short, and it’s been replicated across the country since its rollout in 2010.  Subscriptions are fairly cheap: $7 for a day, $15 for a week, $25 for a month, and $75 for a year.  A subscriber takes a bike out of a station and can dock the bike at any other station.  The trip is free for the first 30 minutes but there’s a fee if the bike is out for longer.  Although it starts fairly nominal, the fee increases quite a bit once a trip goes longer than an hour.  The point is to get the bikes circulating, to replace single trips that might be too short for transit or too long on foot.  DC’s tourists use the system all the time, and it’s quite common to see families riding along the National Mall atop the striking red bikes.

DC’s residents, including me, use the system all the time.  Riding a bike in the city is just as fast as using a car and, for short trips, faster than taking the subway.  It keeps me active, pays for itself after a month’s use, is flexible and efficient.  It reintroduced me to bicycling and opened the city in a way the bus and metro never had.  Now neighboring cities are clamoring to join the CaBi system, while neighborhoods in DC are constantly fighting for new stations.

Not to say that CaBi doesn’t have problems.  Bikeshare depends on users circulating the bikes around from station to station.  Nothing’s worse than finding an empty bikeshare station when you want a bike or a full station when you need to park (you can get your time extended if the station is full).  Stations, therefore, need to be tightly packed so that if one station is empty or full, the next one isn’t too distant.  In Paris, the stations are sometimes no more than a block apart and don’t dissipate into the suburbs – there’s a hard boundary.  In DC, the stations are rather further spaced apart, which works reasonably well though being “dock-blocked”, as its known, still happens with maddening frequency.  The city contracts with a company to manually move bikes from full stations to empty ones, but it’s not quite enough.  A more decentralized city would mean less strain on certain stations as people commute, but barring that more stations, bikes, and members would go a long way to improving circulation around the system.

The Bay Area’s plan

System overview. Click for PDF.

BAAQMD is spearheading the San Francisco plan to establish a bikeshare system in the northeastern quadrant of the city and in isolated pockets along the Caltrain corridor.  Its centerpiece is the downtown San Francisco segment, centered around Market Street, which will include 500 bikes at 50 stations spaced 300 yards apart.  It’s set to open this summer, just in time for the America’s Cup, which will bring a flood of tourists to the city – tourists that will undoubtedly flock to bikeshare.

The San Francisco pilot area. Click for PDF.

The District argues that bicycles can function as an extension of the transit network, but transporting them on regional transit agencies is discouraged.  Bicycles are not allowed on BART during commute hours, and are limited on Caltrain.  The Warm Planet bike shop at Caltrain’s Fourth & King depot is over capacity, and transit is largely maxed out around Market during the commute.  Marinites face similar problems on GGT’s commuter buses and ferries.  Having a bike ready for anyone in the commercial heart of the city (not to mention the other commercial hubs along Caltrain) will give commuters a solution, allowing them to easily transfer to bicycles in the city without the need to fret over getting a bike to and from work.  A bikeshare system would also free a commuter to bike to work but not from it, or vice versa, if they don’t want to arrive at either end a little sweaty.  This encourages more bicycle use, more transit use, and, therefore, less driving.

Eyeballing Marin’s Bikeshare Suitability

Marin’s central and southern cities are ideally suited to the bicycle.  Commercial districts are close to one another and housing, meaning most residents are well within biking distance of at least one downtown.  Bikes are also better suited than the bus to traverse sprawling Novato or Terra Linda and can be a car replacement for most trips elsewhere.

Yet Marin is not terribly dense and has fairly mediocre bicycle infrastructure.  More than almost any other place, Marin is linear, with valleys branching off the 101 corridor.  The ideal grid, with its redundancies and infinite rerouting, is impossible over Marin’s ridges.  This isolates communities to their benefit and detriment, and makes cycling more difficult than it is in DC’s suburbs – it’s fairly difficult to ride from Fairfax to Lucas Valley despite the fact that it’s only as far as downtown San Rafael, as the crow flies.  Marin is also incredibly car-centric, rendering some of the county’s major thoroughfares entirely inhospitable to bikes or pedestrians.

Marin’s employment corridor is Highway 101.  Though office and retail exist in the downtowns tucked away from the freeway, the highest density of employment is along that central spine.  Those that don’t work along the corridor probably work in San Francisco, also down the corridor.

Bikeshare needs strong bicycling infrastructure, to ensure there is a good way to ride from place to place; population density to keep the system running throughout the day; and decentralized commute patterns to ensure certain areas don’t get overloaded as everyone goes to them, or denuded as everyone leaves them.  At first blush, Marin misses all three of these criteria, but it’s not enough to convince me Marin is unsuitable to bikeshare.  Those well-spread downtowns lend themselves to bicycling, and other systems, like CaBi, have had success in areas similar to ours.

I also want bikeshare to succeed in Marin.  Beyond the health, environmental, cost, and traffic benefits, bikeshare would reap political benefits for the county’s urban cycling infrastructure.  Transportation debates in the county are dominated by the driver’s voice, as most Marinites are drivers first and cyclists second.  Bicycle improvements, then, play second fiddle to parking, roads, and other projects that maintain or strengthen our reliance on the automobile.  When bicycling does enter the debate, focus is often on its recreational aspects rather than its functionality as everyday transportation.  Since bikeshare is unabashedly functional, growing its membership means growing the political base advocating for cycling improvements.

I’m excited to see what TAM’s study will show – Marin could reap so many rewards with the system.  With luck, the study will recommend the system.