San Rafael tries to draw workers away from solo commuting

A new commuter program from the City of San Rafael aims to draw municipal workers away from driving alone to work. Though it needs work to encourage active commute options, namely bicycling and walking, it will do wonders to promote transit and vanpool commutes.

The pilot program, designed by city officials with help from city analyst Rebecca Woodbury, puts a monetary incentive behind commuting by vanpool, carpool, and transit:

Vanpools and carpools:

  • After two months of carpooling, participants will receive a one-time stipend of $50 and be eligible for quarterly raffles.
  • Those who lease a van for a vanpool get $600 in help on top of TAM’s $3,600 vanpool subsidy. After six months participation, vanpoolers get a one-time stipend of $200.
  • Prime parking spaces for carpools and vanpools.


  • Public transit riders get a $20 “try it” transit voucher. A free Clipper card with $20 pre-loaded or a one month SCT pass might be a better way to encourage use.


  • Use up to $240 per month in your pre-tax paycheck dollars for vanpool and public transit. It’s unclear if the $75 state transit benefit is included in the package.
  • For each trip made using an alternative mode of transportation, get a raffle entry. This includes bicycling and walking.

Drivers also get a $100 subsidy towards the purchase of an electric vehicle. You can read more about all the programs on San Rafael’s website.

At first glance, there’s a fair amount of emphasis on encouraging these modes without a lot of emphasis on subsidizing them after the fact. This makes some sense, as people tend to stick with the transportation mode they’re used to rather than switch to another one. After six months of vanpooling, I suspect the routine will be established well enough that it just won’t occur to people to switch.

The focus on start-up costs could be applied to biking as well. I’ll bet a number of employees live within biking distance, but their bikes sit gathering dust and rust in the garage. There are also safety issues, like bicycle lights, that might not be available to the casual daylight biker. The city could offer to pay for the cost of a bike tune-up and lights or sponsor bike clinics at City Hall and Courthouse Square. Though not part of the formal program as it should be, this kind of bicycle benefit might end up as part of Bike to Work Day events, so bikes won’t be entirely sidelined.

Walkers are harder to subsidize, as shoes don’t typically wear out so quickly. However, a one-time financial reward or a $50  gift card to a local shoe shop could be enough to get some people out on the sidewalks.

Given how intransigent San Rafael can be when it comes to biking and walking issues, especially through downtown, getting staff on their feet and in bicycle seats could subtly shift the overall stance of the city.

Woodbury told me that they have a limited budget for this pilot program, and money could shift if people don’t embrace a particular mode. Biking, she said, might end up as one of the beneficiaries if the interest is there.

So far, unfortunately, interest in general has been fairly slow. Two weeks in, Woodbury is the only one to use the transit benefit, for example. She told me the group who devised the plan will be meeting soon to discuss marketing and outreach, so it may be a few months before things start to really roll.

Programs like this one helps move people towards the diversity of transportation options available to them. It benefits the health of employees, boosts transit ridership, and helps the environment all at once. Here’s hoping the city as employer will lead the city as government to do a better job promoting its position as the relatively transit-rich center of the county that it is.


About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

29 Responses to San Rafael tries to draw workers away from solo commuting

  1. Richard Hall says:

    This program is a laudable achievement, but at the same time this article demonstrates the significant effort (and cost) involved in forcing a change in commuting behaviors. It’s just like putting capacity into a train system and dreaming the capacity will somehow be filled. In reality the train may add commute inconvenience (add waiting times to your commute, the train is prone to flooding, train speed through the segments between Civic Center and downtown San Rafael will be slow) – and as we know people’s lives are already very busy so convenience and time saving is at a premium.

    It’s like sticking a website out there and hoping “people will come”. People don’t and won’t come – to make things work, a train like a website first must have a critical mass of people in the catchment area. (OK – I make that a FAIL on that front with Marin and Sonoma’s widely dispersed 700k rural and suburban population). Then you need to be thinking about and actively investing in programs like these – but potentially to a point that’s simply not economic. These programs need to avoid regressionary taxes that hit those with the lowest income the hardest (e.g. increasing gas tax).

    The “raffle” element seems too random for me as a commute to budget and attract me. Sounds like a windfall, but perhaps it’s a nice marketing attractor.

    When you plan a train or efforts to reduce 101 like this you need to figure out the real psychology and cost of effective programs to make such a program work and build this into the cost of your entire program. And if it’s not cost effective – just walk away (and publicize the economics if a vote is taking place).

    Let’s also not forget that electric vehicles don’t come free of environmental impact. Historically more fuel efficient cars like the regular gasoline powered Honda Civic can be better environmentally and in terms of cost of ownership than hybrids and electric cars with complex technology that isn’t environmentally friendly when manufactured or disposed of.

    • John Murphy says:

      Richard – the biggest problem San Rafael is probably facing is parking. A Honda Civic and a Tesla have the same exact impact for that.

      The obvious and very simple response – just start charging for parking.

      • V_Taylor says:

        The very large parking garage at Third and …E, I think? is underutilized. San Rafael does not have a parking shortage. They do charge for both on-street and structured parking, with parking structures costing less, so they seem to have a pretty good parking policy in place. This commuter program is for the City of San Rafael, and those employees may have free parking. Hard to tell if they are allowed to park in the lot by City Hall.

      • Richard Hall says:

        Interestingly I’m starting to see ads from electric vehicles now more accurately stating “zero local emissions” instead of “zero emissions” correctly noting that electricity. Here in California that electricity often comes from coal or gas power stations:

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  4. Richard Hall says:

    Charging for parking is regressive taxation – it affects the lowest paid the most, the highest paid the least.

    So would you increase parking prices until you exclude lower paid workers and there are only a fleet of expensive European cars parked in San Rafael with owners with incomes allowing them to pay for the privilege?

    • Please use the “reply” functionality whenever possible. It helps people keep track of comment threads, especially if they get long.

    • Ian Turner says:

      The poorest don’t have cars.

    • John Murphy says:

      Obvious and very simple answer – parking lottery.

    • John Murphy says:

      And I don’t buy the charging for parking is regressive taxation argument. Is going out to lunch is regressive taxation? You can pack in your lunch and pay less, even though you might find eating out more pleasant and less complicated. There are alternatives to driving in solo.

      I won’t dare to posit as to your political bent, but this is similar to the hypocrisy from the Republicans in congress, who insist we need to increase taxes on the poorest so that they have some skin in the game, then hit a hot button issue and decide to seize on the concept of regressive taxation because on that issue it fits their narrative.

      So much simpler to just let the vaunted invisible hand of the free market work, and price in externalities. Give everyone a raise and charge for parking, let them decide what they want to allocate their dollars toward. The net will be positive as the City saves money on the creation of parking.

      • Richard Hall says:

        Wow – I never thought that view would be compared to the Republican stance. (I almost have to ask – are you trolling?).

        Raising parking prices really hits everyone, especially the poorest – this approach strikes me as Republican. And I don’t see things in black and white (it has been suggested that poor people don’t have cars). There are a lot of people making ends meet working two jobs, and need a car to get between the two. Pricing them out of using their car through higher parking either makes them late for work (so they lose their job) or working in Downtown San Rafael not an economic choice.

        Whenever I’m in London where there’s a very high congestion charge to enter central London my recollection of the cars going by is… taxi, taxi, bus, taxi, mercedes, volvo, taxi, bus, mercedes, range rover… I recall radio shows when the charge was first threatened where London night shift nurses who previously could cross London at night in a car (after public transport had shut down) faced having to forcibly move house because their commute was uneconomic, uprooting the entire family – and potentially not being viable if they had another working spouse working nearby.

        That said, Europe seems to have a much better socially conscious approach – and housing is better set up to make use of public transport – but as in London this has gaps in terms of charging fairness.

        I have to again congratulate the City of San Rafael and Rebecca Woodbury for this program – more employers need to do this.

        • Alai says:

          If charging everyone the same for the same service is regressive, then so is selling tomatoes in the supermarket. If the price of tomatoes rises, like everything else, it’s going to hit the poorest hardest.

          The difference is that it’s customary for the government to suppress the price of parking, at any cost, while food can cost whatever it costs.

          Of course housing ‘in Europe’ is better set up to make use of public transport– there’s demand for it. Here, we have the government minimize costs for autos at any price (such as using expensive city-owned land for free parking). Well, if someone pays for your parking, one of the major reasons for the existence of transit is out the window– and then we wonder why it never seems to attract many passengers.

          Do night shift nurses find it inconvenient to cross London? Probably– that’s one reason why night shifts generally pay more. By the way, those buses in your list of vehicles– those may well be full of people who could not afford to drive either before or after the charge– but who may well enjoy the lack of congestion, and the additional funding provided to the system. I’m pretty sure most passengers would.

          Put it another way: drive down a street in many neighborhoods in Marin, and you’ll see nice, well-kept houses. One after the other. No apartments, no double-wides, no “accessory dwellings”. The law strictly limits the residents to those who can afford a couple thousand square feet of land for themselves– no subdividing allowed. Classic congestion charge– and yet, perfectly acceptable– as long as you don’t apply it to automobiles.

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            The “government” suppressing the price of parking? Excuse me. We are the governent. It’s our tax dollars that paid for the parking in the first place. You corrupt the notion of “government of the people” for the “government of the elite” and attempting to replace your values with the values of the people (aka free market). You want others to conform to YOUR values so you are using a corrupt, illegimate idea of governing for your determined “public good”. The problem with you approach to government, is that it always hits the “little guy” the hardest. Who the heck are you to “charge” for our collective resource !?

            I can assure you that most people prefer congestion to starvation. Most people prefer to feed their children than pay for your idea of “common good”.

          • @Stephen

            Because it’s not a collective resource, it’s a public good. It’s like saying, “Who the heck are you to charge for gas? It’s a collective resource extracted from public land for public use!” Or the bridges: “Who the heck are you to charge a toll? This was built for public use!” Or the roads: “Who the heck are you to charge a gas tax? This road width is a collective resource!”

            A free market would allow businesses to determine how much parking to build without being forced to build X spaces by the diktat from city hall. They could charge what they want for those spaces, and the government would stay out of the business of parking altogether. You’d be banned from leaving your private property in the public right-of-way while you go run your errands, unless someone had purchased that bit of the right-of-way for that purpose. Of course, they could also build a little shop there and sell magazines, or add some seating, but that would be their choice.

            Back in San Rafael, it’s not just your tax dollars that paid for that garage. Everybody chipped in, and we agreed to recoup some of that investment through a usage fee to take some of the burden off those who never or rarely use it and put it on those who use it a lot.

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            You are divorcing the parking space concept from the reality that it was paid for over decades by all of us in taxes and bonds. Oddly, cyclists and pedestrians paid virtually nothing for the resource. One of the primary roles of government beyond security and policing is the maintenance and upkeep of roads, bridges and highways. When a minority of elites, demands excessive fees for a public good like parking, it is an unauthorized abuse of power. The “parking tax” not only harms the poor commuter, it also effects the small businesses of downtown whose revenue will be impacted by fewer sales. If you really love big box stores, then by all means, jack up downtown parking rates.

            What bothers me most is the moral imperative that such “Smart Growth” arguments are delivered. “Ride a bike, or you will be contributing to global warming” What about the handicapped, the sick and the elderly who cannot through lack of mobility? These questions are answered by either a “let them eat cake” response or “we will create a public transit system just for them”” Pretty soon you will be micromanaging everyone’s lives for the worse. They will waste countless hours for public transit and will be stuck out in nasty weather all because you feel they should be forced to pay a usury fee for private transportation. All central planning schemes, ultimately end up cruelly punishing those who’s needs planners have not considered.

            I do not love cars. I love being home early enough to put my children to bed. I love being able to reach a remote hiking spot. I love going to the beach.

            We can learn alot from Eastern Europe whose central planning schemes have failed miserably.

            I do not want to judge your choice of urban lifestyle. I simply want you to respect my lifestyle in the suburbs..

            I know you are thoughtful. I ask you consider others freedoms as much as your own.

          • Alai says:

            I find it incredible that you should say things like “We can learn alot from Eastern Europe whose central planning schemes have failed miserably” in defense of mandatory parking, which is the most far-reaching central planning scheme in force today.

            What about the handicapped, the sick and the elderly who cannot through lack of mobility? It’s amazing what a focused concern you have, on those who are too frail to walk a few blocks but not too frail to pilot a car, who can afford the costs of owning and maintaining a vehicle but can’t afford to put a few bucks in the meter (not to mention the existence of handicapped permits which negate the issue anyway!). The fact is that many would be far better served by the existence of places where you can live and shop and socialize without having to drive or wait half an hour for mediocre bus service.

            I should note that charging for parking is not my goal. My goal is to allow people to live and run businesses and generally go about their lives without paying the parking tax of setting aside a big chunk of land for the exclusive use of autos. Forbidding someone from running a 500 square foot taqueria unless they provide 900 square feet of parking area is not the way to do it.

            Charging for parking is just a way to deal with the fact that when you have a limited supply of valuable public property, it’s kind of dumb to just give it to the first people to show up and tell everyone else they’re out of luck.

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            All commerce for essential goods and services requires a physical presence. You must be at a supermarket to exchange money for food. You must be at a doctors office to receive his services. Of course digital service commerce works differently but even Amazon need trucking and highways to keep its business alive. By taxing the right of access to a business or office via parking fees, you in turn are increases the financial and physical burden someone must pay to receive that good or service. When you force inefficient modes of transportation you are choking economic activity and hurting the poor.the most.

            I don’t buy your arguments about mandating parking for business is bad . It is mandating access so that commerce can flourish.

            We can disagree on these points. [Removed for violating comment policy.]

          • Richard Hall says:

            The most reprehensible thing in the UK is that hospitals have privatized their car parks. Now when you’re sick or visiting a sick family member or friend you can expect to pay a 20 dollar a day minimum charge – right at the time when you’re in a crisis. So much for the NHS being free. This is one example of where the government should have maintained control of parking rather than giving free market forces complete control.

          • Alai says:

            By taxing the right of access to a business or office via parking fees, you in turn are increases the financial and physical burden someone must pay to receive that good or service. When you force inefficient modes of transportation you are choking economic activity and hurting the poor.the most.

            Well, there’s the crux of the matter– you believe that there is only one means of transportation that matters. As a result, rolling the cost of that means into the cost of the goods and services is just fine– everyone (who matters) would pay it anyway.

            But this leaves anyone who doesn’t drive absolutely screwed. They’re screwed, first, because the cost of parking– typically doubling the square footage of most establishments they patronize, which tend to be in higher-rent areas to begin with– is rolled into the cost of the goods and services they need, even though they never benefit from it. Then they’re screwed again because, instead of a town center where everything they need is in convenient walking distance, the shops are all spread out to make room for all the parking lots they’re required to have. And if they even consider living nearby, as would be convenient for someone who doesn’t drive, they’re required to pay for a parking spot (or two) that they don’t need.

            Really — “hurting the poor the most”? I don’t think I have to tell you that people who don’t have access to a private car are often not swimming in cash. Yet these are the people who are most hurt by your policies. And there are a lot more who have cars and are just scraping by who would probably appreciate being able to avoid the annual $8946 cost of owning and running a car (AAA estimate), if only your policies didn’t go to such lengths to make it difficult.

  5. Stephen Nestel says:

    Richard is correct to point out the real world implications of charging more for parking. While the “theory” of charging higher parking fees for everyone will force people to make other choices than drive, it is the people who have the fewest choices, the poor, that are hit the hardest. Not everyone can physically walk or bike to work. For these people, you are making their lives harder and more misirable.

    • Richard Hall says:

      I think what they’re saying are higher parking charges are for the greater good [of the rich]. The extremely poor don’t drive. I think this must be some kind of Republican or 1 percenter hangout. Roads and public parking will become the private preserve of the wealthy while all others are taxed and parking ticketed onto trains and buses using a stick, not a carrot approach (like Rebecca’s excellent plan for city employees).

    • Groshkin says:

      You’d rather force the poor to live in a place where car ownership is a requirement of living a normal life? That is a much, much more heavy burden than charging $1 an hour to park. It exposes them to the vagaries of gas price fluctuations, binds them to a fallible machine, puts them in danger from car crashes (and they may not have health insurance to cover medical costs!), and adds thousands of dollars per year of insurance and maintenance costs.

      It outsources the cost of parking to everything else. Taxes need to be higher to pay for more widely-spread services, so everything is a bit more expensive to pay the increase.

      It forces the city to increase the parking supply, deadening the landscape, or create shortages of what is, in essence, a good. Those shortages mean more drivers circle looking for parking, which means more traffic, which means more pollution.

      I’d encourage you to take a look at Donald Shoup’s work on the subject (PDF). Parking pricing isn’t a tax, it’s a usage fee for a scarce resource that allows better outcomes for everyone except the guy that demands a free parking space right in front of his destination.

      • Stephen Nestel says:

        Poor People now choose to live based on numerous factors including transportation costs. You are advocating increasing cost for YOUR values to force YOUR lifestyle on others. Like a environmental Carrie Nation, you wish to extinguish the evil car out of existance.

        There is no greater mooch of current government spending than cyclists and public transit riders who essentially pay no taxes for the improvement or maintainace of transportation infrastructure.

        I love bikes and prefer to travel by bike whenever possible. I love people more. I want a society that is free where people can determine their own choices and not have a nanny state forcing behaviors..

        • Groshkin says:

          Overreacting? I didn’t call the car evil. I called it expensive. There’s a difference.

          And bikers and transit riders aren’t mooches, especially not in California. User fees only pay for only 34% of road costs in the state:

          What do I get for my contribution if I’m not driving? Usually a sidewalk, sometimes a bike lane. While roads get widened with general fund money, transit expansions are funded through bonding, inflating costs far beyond what they should be.

          But if charging a marginal fee for parking means I’m forcing my lifestyle on you, what’s the difference between us? Forcing businesses to build more parking than they need just so it can be “free”, or forcing San Rafael to build massive parking structures that sit half-full for 90% of the year, is you forcing your lifestyle on me. That’s more dead street frontage I have to walk by to get where I’m going, or blacktop desert I need to slog through, or faster roads that wind through acres of nothing and put my life in danger, and I get to pay for it whether I use it or not.

          So charging a marginal fee on parking and giving people equal option to use transit or their bike or their wheelchair or their feet or their car to get where they’re going seems only fair to me. Maybe we can send everybody with income below a certain threshold a share of the fees collected. But I get the feeling that won’t actually solve your problem with parking fees.

        • Richard Hall says:

          And you forget another issue with cyclists – they believe they are above the law. In the UK we had very good cycling public information videos explaining how to turn across traffic.

          Here you can almost assume any cyclist will roll through stop lights or red lights, and / or cycle the wrong way down the road. It seems like they can selectively elect which laws that want to adhere to and worse the Police don’t seem to do any enforcement.

          Also Stephen you are quite correct. Imposing stick rather than carrot approaches is brutal on the poor. Many choose not to live in a small apartment in Marin, but instead commute long distance (via car) from places where they can afford a house near Sacramento.

          In the UK travel is for the elite. I’d like to say car transport is for the elite, but train prices are insane – over $200 for a 2 hour return trip from Bristol to London, or $15 for a short 30 minute return commute. Trains are overcrowded and frequently delayed. (Meanwhile you can fly across Europe on a cheap airline for $60 return). This reduction in quality of life was one of the reasons I chose to return to the US where travel is not taxed out of existence, and even the middle class feel “trapped” in their homes by exorbitant rail, bus or gas prices. I sincerely hope the US does not follow this path.

          Again – Rebecca’s carrot approach is the right way. Encourage the right behaviors, don’t tax the wrong behaviors out of existence.

          • Dan Lyke says:

            So I’m sympathetic to the “assume almost any cyclist will roll through…” argument, but that’s the same for cars. Sit at a stop sign and watch how many cars actually stop. Last time I did, it was on the order of 1 in 5.

            I am particularly sensitive to this because I used to be a cyclist who stopped at stop signs, until I got rear-ended and knocked over by a car that rolled through behind me. If a cyclist stops, they cease being a cyclist and become a target. The only defense I have when I’m on two wheels (or on foot) is the ability to outmaneuver the people who, so far as I can tell, are actively trying to kill me.

          • John Murphy says:

            And Godwin’s law of cyclists is satisfied. Forced with losing the argument on the merits, go with “cyclists don’t follow the rules of the road”. Nicely played.

          • John Murphy says:

            Simpler example. We must provide free parking because the poor need it. Why are we not also providing free housing?

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