The Centrality of Housing

In the 1970s, the progressive view was to get people out of the city and back to the land, to grow your own food, make your own power, and retreat from the devastation wreaked by cities on the environment.  The idyllic life waited where the pavement ended, and many of those who embraced that lifestyle moved to Marin.  We didn’t realize then what we know now: cities are our best hope for the future, and that where we live is intimately connected with the health of our planet and our communities.  As Marin engages in a great and necessary debate over regionalism and housing, it is important that we not choose self-destructive conservatism over conservation.

The conservative line is that Marin cannot accommodate anyone else, and that growth must remain slow or stagnant for the good of the county and the planet.   Bob Silvestri, a Mill Valley community activist, has said that density and transit-oriented development are bad for the environment and increase, rather than reduce, greenhouse gas emissions.  Greenhouse gases, he says, should be limited in industry and power but not in our personal lives.  Accommodating more people in Marin would ultimately increase our carbon footprint per capita and reduce our overall quality of life.

The conservationist line is that people will move somewhere, and Marin is better placed that elsewhere to limit sprawl at the outskirts of the region.  Density brings more efficient use of infrastructure and energy, happier and healthier people, and a more dynamic city.  The Natural Resources Defense Council actively advocates for more compact towns and cities through infill development, arguing that they reduce overall energy usage and keep open space safe from development.

Everything I have seen since leaving Marin has shown me that the conservationist’s view conforms more closely with reality than the conservative’s. From walkable city centers to small towns in Vermont, the best places, the areas where I felt most at home, were the ones that were more compact, where housing is within walking distance of stores, offices, parks, schools, and mass transit.

Having amenities and housing within walking distance of each other is itself a good.  Though you could ask a patron of Sun Valley Market or a resident of downtown Mill Valley, or think back on that European trip, you could also look at a 2011 research review from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.  It says, in part, that promoting walking as part of everyday life, such as in a daily commute, has measurable health benefits.  A study from New Zealand showed that for every mile walked rather than driven the country saves 48¢, and for every mile biked the country saves 19¢.  Given the higher health costs in the US, that could be significantly higher.

Walkers also spend more.  A study from the United Kingdom, also cited by the Victoria review, shows those who primarily walk to shop spend £91 per week while those who principally drive spend only £64 per week.  Given that the shoppers are walking, they will necessarily support whatever retail is nearby.  Infill development near town centers, then, will bring shops their best customers.  Others have described that bicyclists also spend more than drivers.  Encouraging walking and biking to and around a downtown, then, will be a local economic stimulus.  Providing housing in or near downtown will install permanent, well-paying, healthier customers for retailers.

Environmentally, housing location and housing density matters as well.  If we avoid greenhouse gasses and transportation for a moment, we find that denser and more walkable housing decreases the amount of runoff per-capita and decreases the amount of lawn fertilizers and such that get washed into waterways.  A single paved acre will cause just as much runoff whether it has 1 family or 30 living on it.  Spreading those 30 families out to 30 different houses that need roads connecting all of them and parking lots to store their cars (an average of three are built for every car added to the road) will result in far more than a single acre of impervious surface.

Greenhouse gases are trickier to tease out.  While studies (PDF) show (PDF) that transportation-related greenhouse gases drop precipitously once people move away from car usage, Silvestri recently cited a study of New York City that finds higher rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita than lower-density developments.  This directly contradicts studies done by the United Nations, New York City itself, and many others.  I couldn’t find the New York City study, but similar research done on Australia finds essentially the same point.  In such instances, it is the common energy consumption – common areas, parking garages, and the like – that sucks up the excess energy, as well as increased overall consumption.  A broader study (PDF) examining the United States find an opposite relationship, so it may be that Australian development patterns are not translatable to the American urban reality.

Parsing the two opposite conclusions is not the thrust of this piece.  Suffice it to say that the bulk of research shows that the location and type of housing influences greenhouse gas emissions.  In addition, the densities Marin is contemplating are nowhere approaching Manhattan or Melbourne, and so would fall into the bottom of any conceivable greenhouse gas U curve.  Building more densely would decrease greenhouse gas emissions in transportation – the research on that is essentially unanimous – and any additional costs can be made up in green building strategies that ought to be standard in Marin to begin with.

Lastly, housing location determines how much open space is preserved.  Though our region could go sprawling through the hills of the East Bay and into the Central Valley, it is concomitant upon the already existing towns and cities to build where infrastructure already exists, even if in relatively low densities.  It saves money for the cities out on the edge (just ask Stockton how its sprawl is paying for itself) and preserves open space in areas where land trusts do not tread.  Pushing a slow-growth agenda in Marin just means pushing a faster-growth agenda everywhere else.  The Bay Area will grow, and I’d rather see it happening along Miller Avenue than on Central Valley farmland.

Where conservatives and conservationists ought to agree is that local control is a good thing.  We shouldn’t need regional agencies telling us what to do.  Affordable housing mandates do little to increase affordable housing, and inclusionary zoning decreases the amount of housing built, driving up the market price. Sacramento should stop raiding our housing budgets and allow localities to actually build.

But we cannot be so blinded by the important pursuit of local control that we lose sight of the connections that tie Marin to the rest of the region and country and world.  How and where we build our housing is intimately connected to the health of our residents, the health of our planet, and the health of our communities, and for every resident we turn away another home must be built elsewhere, and there’s no guarantee that other place will be as socially conscious as we are.

Keeping the drive through that was always there just because it was always there is not a recipe for sustainability; it’s a recipe for stagnation.  That’s exactly what we’ll get if the county’s conservatives have their way, and we’ll become environmentalists concerned more about preserving our parking lots than preserving the Delta, or coastal San Mateo, or rural Napa, or the Great Plains, health nuts unconcerned by active living, and citizens unmoved by the hardship of downtown merchants.  That’s not a Marin I would recognize.

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Mid-Week Links: Colombian Roast

Medellín has a transit system unlike any other.  For the steep mountainsides there are gondolas and escalators; for the center city, there are metro trains and BRT, and for everywhere else there’s a burgeoning bikeshare system. Whenever I see movies like this, I imagine what kind of place Marin might have been if the trains had never stopped running, if BART had made it across the bridge, if we didn’t value mall parking above people and the planet.  What kind of a country would we be if, rather than putting cars before people, we put people before cars?

Marin County

  • The Ritter Center will expand into a temporary medical space, thanks to approval by the San Rafael council Monday night, but will be limited to only 60 clients per day rather than the 65 requested. (Pacific Sun)
  • Opponents of the Albert Park minor league plan have filed suit, arguing that professional baseball violates the park’s deed restriction against commercial activity. (Patch)
  • If you want to influence your town, show up to public meetings, if only to counterbalance the protestors that tend to show up instead. (Herald)
  • The Board of Supervisors delayed a vote on Lucas Valley’s Grady Ranch, pending review of environmental concerns raised by the Corps of Engineers and others. (IJ)
  • And…: Corte Madera started work on a new public plaza and cafe at its town-owned shopping center. (IJ) … San Anselmo approved a new parking lot across from downtown. (IJ) … Novato will install six electric car charging stations. (IJ) … San Anselmo is considering major improvements to Greenfield Avenue. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Congress approved a 90 day extension of federal transportation legislation, ensuring the gas tax and road construction funds did not end last weekend. The House never took up the Senate transportation bill, and the result is all kinds of bad. (The Hill)
  • Cost estimates for California High Speed Rail plummeted $30 billion under a new business plan released this week. (SFist)
  • Golden Gate/Marin Transit may not be the best transit system in the world, but at least it’s typically on time – something Muni can’t really boast. (SFist)
  • In the City often?  Need a break from the bustle?  You may want to investigate the privately owned public spaces that dot the landscape. (SFist)

How Fantastical Is the Fantasy?

Copyright Brian Stokle

The plans for Marin: 80R, 29R, and, of course, SMART

The fantasy transit map of the Bay Area I brought up on Wednesday had me thinking a fair amount about Marin’s transit options.  Though we are typically the odd county out when it comes to fantasy transit improvements – though Napa certainly gets the short end of this particular map’s stick – Brian Stokle’s map adds two thoughtful improvements to the county’s transit system, and I think we’d do well to explore them, as well as a third.

I should mention that I appreciate the value of bus-only lanes to a degree, but in suburban settings it is sometimes better to mix them with three-person carpools as well.  In Northern Virginia, the casual carpool system functions as another transit system, vastly improving the efficiency of private cars and, therefore, the existing car-based infrastructure.  Mixing buses and cars isn’t always the best idea, but I think for Marin it makes perfect sense, both for political and practical reasons.

The 29R Rapid Bus

The 29R rapid bus line runs in a kind of loop between Fairfax, San Anselmo, Greenbrae, Larkspur Landing, the Canal, downtown San Rafael, Miracle Mile and finally back to the Hub, where I assume it would turn around.

Rapid bus isn’t the bus rapid transit (BRT) system that we’re used to hearing about – it doesn’t have its own lanes or stations.  Rather, the rapid bus concept functions as an express, limited stop bus with some structural changes beneath the surface, mostly to how the bus handles intersections.  These, along with high frequency (every 15 minutes, maximum), makes the bus a viable alternative against the car.  Even without the frequency improvements, adding speed to a bus line makes it less expensive to run and more attractive to potential riders.

The 29R route makes sense.  The Fairfax-San Rafael corridor is the county’s densest, and the narrow valley makes it well suited to a rapid bus line.  The Greenbrae stretch, though not nearly as dense, is an important transportation corridor, and building a rapid bus line here would serve populations that are otherwise left behind by SMART.  Greenbrae is also the kind of suburban strip that is easily converted to higher, more urbanist uses.

The drawback to a rapid bus line that it doesn’t have its own corridor.  Sir Francis Drake gets backed up during the morning rush between Fairfax and the Hub, as well as though Ross and near the Greenbrae Interchange, and a rapid bus shouldn’t be allowed to get stuck in that mire.  The same goes for Second Street in San Rafael.

To compensate, the 29R should be complemented with limited dedicated lanes.  Center, the old rail right-of-way between San Anselmo and Fairfax, might be re-purposed as a rush-hour bus and carpool lane.  It’s odd to imagine a surface street being carpool and bus only, but it would take a great deal of pressure off Sir Francis Drake and speed service along the corridor.  Yolanda and Landsdale Stations, the old light-rail stops, could be reactivated as bus stops.

Though we can’t do much about the Sir Francis Drake through Ross, the boulevard widens enough at College of Marin for dedicated lanes, though an initial segment of lanes should be built from El Portal Drive to the interchange.

The Canal’s traffic patterns are less familiar to me, but it is imperative the bus not travel the narrow streets in the neighborhood, sticking instead to the much wider and straighter roads closer to the freeway.  It’s close enough to the Canal that it will be accessible, but it will keep the bus moving fast enough to justify its “rapid” moniker.

The ultimate cost would likely be in the tens of millions, and building such a system will require more forward-thinking on development issues, but the ultimate reward would be much improved Central Marin circulation.

The 80R Bus Rapid Transit

Much more ambitious is the 80R Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, running from Santa Rosa to the Transbay Terminal.  Presumably, the line would have limited stop service on its own dedicated lanes for the whole trip, and would share the BRT lanes with other buses running along the corridor.  It would duplicate SMART’s service between Santa Rosa and Larkspur Landing, so I wouldn’t recommend building the line north of San Rafael.

A small portion of this line is already being built by SFMTA on Van Ness, which is getting its own dedicated lanes.  Presumably other streets will be similarly improved, but that’s just for San Francisco.  The Marin and Sonoma stretch will be extraordinarily expensive, involving rebuilt or widened freeway overpasses at minimum and possibly even new tunneling in the Marin Headlands.

The first portion of a BRT system is its dedicated lanes.  Ideally, these lanes will be permanently off-limits to private cars, and would certainly be off-limits to single-passenger only vehicles, and they would stretch along the entire length of the line.  This includes the stretch of freeway south of Marin City, which could mean some extremely expensive tunneling projects or a narrower freeway.  The Golden Gate Bridge itself would need dedicated bus lanes, which in theory would double the capacity of the bridge but would be politically challenging to build.

The other portion of a BRT system is its stops.  Like a train system, the stops would be located along the right-of-way; for the 80R, that would mean building new ramps directly between its lanes and freeway overpasses, where the BRT stations would be constructed.  Alternatively, passengers might board the bus at the freeway level in an enclosed station, and access would be provided from the street level.  These would be expensive as well, and the 80R would likely rival SMART in its costs.

Once finished, though, the system would be a transit lifeline for San Franciscans working north and North Bay residents working south.  As it stands,San Francisco’s Marin-bound buses leave only every hour or so in the morning, making transit commutes rather inconvenient.  BRT would need to run every 5-15 minutes to make the investment worthwhile, tying the City to the county in a way it has never been.

What’s Missing? BART

The missing piece is a strong connection from the Transit Center to the Richmond BART station and its Amtrak connections.  Though today the 40 and 42 buses don’t get a lot of ridership, building a rapid bus or BRT line with direct connections between San Rafael and Richmond would be a boon to Contra Costa County, one of the largest sources of Marin’s in-commuters.

A rapid bus line would start at the Transit Center and proceed along Francisco Boulevard, entering 580 at the bridge.  It would make a straight shot to the Richmond station and turn around, altogether taking 30-40 minutes.  A BRT line would run exclusively on the freeway, with its only stops being at Richmond, the Marin side of the bridge, and San Rafael.  Such a run would take about 20-30 minutes.

Though it would face the same challenges as the 29R and 80R, I like this route because it would provide easy transit between the Delta, the East Bay, and Marin while connecting Marinites with existing rail options the county doesn’t have.  Given that the balance of commuting is East Bay to Marin, it might make more sense to build it as an AC Transit system, freeing Golden Gate Transit from making such a huge investment for residents outside its district.

In Sum

In sum, the two improvements, plus mine, are strong service improvements for Marin.  Other parts of Marin could use a rapid bus system similar to the 29R, especially the Mill Valley to Sausalito corridor.  Less plausible is a SMART service improvement, providing 30 minute headways all day, and even less would see the system double-tracked and electrified with 5-15 minute headways, which would likely require another ballot initiative.

Fantasy maps like Stokle’s aren’t meant to be entirely practical, of course – they’re meant to make us imagine what our cities can be like, and what they might be like if we ever get around to it transit improvements.  I’d like to see more of this – how about you?