Larkspur has a second chance to do SMART right

Elevated Ferry Station

The original plan for an elevated station. Image from SMART.

While Sonoma gets to reap the benefits of SMART, including a $15 million expansion of the IOS to the Santa Rosa Airport, Marin’s commuting public rightly grouses that it doesn’t serve their needs. Yet by ignoring Larkspur Landing for now, SMART has a chance to do what it should have done from the start and plan for a station in the ferry terminal.

A core principal of transit planning is connectivity. Any network is only as good as the strength of its connections, and transit is not excluded. The strongest sort of transit connection is the cross-platform connection, which allows you to hop off your train or bus, cross the platform to your transfer and be on your way. It’s like switching planes in an airport by walking one gate over.

In contrast, a weak transit connection forces riders to leave one station, walk a couple of blocks, and enter another station. Rather than boarding a connecting flight at the gate next to yours, we need to hike across the airport to another terminal entirely. Though this may be tolerable once in a while, as a daily commute it can crush even the hardiest transit enthusiast.

Sadly, SMART has opted against convenience and in favor of soul-crushing. Current plans call for locating the ferry station a half mile from the ferry terminal, requiring transferring riders to either walk along parking lots and unfriendly streets or wait around for a shuttle. A commute that might already involve 2 transfers will become one involving 3.

Larkspur residents, most of whom who won’t even get direct SMART access, rightly complain that this makes little sense. The Station Area Plan for the Larkspur Landing neighborhood calls for relocating the station into the terminal and decries the poor site chosen by the SMART board.

SMART’s draft environmental impact report contained a draft plan (very large PDF) to put the station in the ferry terminal. Back when station sites were being planned, staff created four alternate proposals for Larkspur, including two with better access to the ferry. The best one placed the station adjacent to the current terminal entrance at the end of a half-mile of elevated track. Given the current going rate for elevated rail, this option would cost about $30 million plus land acquisition costs. That’s about one-fifth the cost of the Greenbrae Interchange Project next door.

Yet at the request of the Larkspur City Council (PDF), SMART went for the station plan staff explicitly recommended against. The city complained that the removal of two buildings would require modifying the plan that governs Marin Country Mart, and that an elevated rail line would obstruct views of the Bay. They also were concerned about cost, though Larkspur wouldn’t need to pay for the extension. Another concern raised earlier by staff is that a station in the ferry terminal would make extensions to Corte Madera or San Quentin more difficult.

Though these concerns are well-intentioned and should be addressed in any plan to relocate the station, it’s foolish to scuttle a dramatic service improvement over parking lots and fantasy expansions that are decades from reality.

And here is where we have a new opportunity. By splitting construction of the line in two, SMART has given Larkspur residents a chance to change that seven-year-old bad decision. Nobody likes to run across an airport to catch a plane, and no commuter likes to walk across a half-mile of parking lots and traffic to make a transfer. Larkspur needs reverse its earlier request and demand a world-class transit connection, and residents should ask for the same. And SMART should listen.

Next time, I’ll examine the city council’s original concerns and how they might be addressed.

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.

30 Responses to Larkspur has a second chance to do SMART right

  1. Richard Hall says:

    I agree that transit lives and dies by being part of a true network, and in Larkspur the network is truly broken. Ridership is going to meagre either way and the entire project uneconomic and a very bad use of resources.

    SMART has near burned through all their money building just half the line they committed to. Perhaps they will use this as one of the excuses when they return cap in hand asking for more money for this immense, superlative boondoggle.

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  3. voltairesmistress says:

    Half my family lives in Santa Rosa; the other half, in Larkspur, while I and my spouse live in San Francisco. None in my family has any sense of making commuting, bicycling, driving, or taking transit better for others. They all have short commutes, and they drive (everywhere!) locally, avoiding both the major highway (101) and transit altogether. They mostly don’t give a fig what other people go through. When I wish to visit them, I often have to wait until our shared family car is available to make the trip. Sometimes I wait 45 minutes in traffic on 101 to make it to Santa Rosa, longer on holidays. I would see my nieces a lot more often if I or they could take a Smart Train/ferry to or from San Francisco. I would do so, gladly. Still, my family doesn’t mind, because it’s not their ox being gored most of the time. The elderly parents don’t know how much they miss by having lousy late night transit non-options to San Francisco. The youngsters don’t know how much independence they miss out on by visiting their San Francisco relatives on their own. Marin and Sonoma residents, my elderly parents included, continue to accommodate the lack of transit in the mistaken belief that their quality of life will be threatened by denser development and good transit. Sad, and frustrating to behold.

    • hello kitty says:

      “Marin and Sonoma residents, my elderly parents included, continue to accommodate the lack of transit in the mistaken belief that their quality of life will be threatened by denser development and good transit. Sad, and frustrating to behold.” I couldn’t agree more. BART could have come here as well if it were not for that misplaced belief.

  4. Cam Bam says:

    Yes, agreed that a seamless transition to GG Ferry would be much better than the current location in the short run; long term (20+ years realistically) SMART needs to plan to connect either to SF directly (unlikely) or across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to BART in the East Bay.

    But back to David’s point about connectivity. One key issue that is not addressed is the added cost of using two forms of transit. Simply getting on a second form of transit adds significant cost, since riders pay a premium to travel that first mile or stop! The additional cost will be a deterrent from using SMART to get to GG Ferry.

    For example, comparing a commute from Hamilton in Novato to downtown SF vs. a commute from Walnut Creek to downtown SF or Redwood City to 4th & King; all three are suburbs about 23-24 miles from San Francisco.

    BART costs $4.85 (one-way) from WC to the Embarcadero and takes 35 min. CalTrain $4.75 for 2 zones with Clipper and takes 32 min on the Baby Bullet. Both of those seem reasonable and will encourage public transit use.

    GG Ferry costs $6 (one-way with a Clipper Card), plus the cost of SMART; I haven’t seen proposed fares from SMART, but let’s say its $3.00 for argument’s sake from Hamilton to Larkspur (same as 1 zone on Caltrain); that is $9.00 one-way for the commute. And travel time will also be significantly higher: 30 min for the ferry (which in reality is usually closer to 35-40 min after debarkation) and say 20 min for SMART, plus 5-10 min wait/transfer time for a total of 35+20+5= 60 min (for reference, Hamilton to Larkspur is about 8 miles, as is RWC to San Mateo; when Caltrain makes every stop between RWC and San Mateo it takes 20 min). So, we are looking almost double the cost for a trip that takes twice as long… sorry, that isn’t going to encourage people to use transit.

    Also, I’d be curious what is the geographic breakdown of GG Ferry passengers. How many people are coming from the Civic Center and north? I get the impression that a majority of GG ferry riders are from central San Rafael, the Twin Cities, San Anselmo or Fairfaix (i.e. not likely to use SMART), but I’d be curious to see the actual data.

    Finally, GG Ferry at peak times (710a and 750a) is at/near capacity and sell outs are not uncommon. Many commuters regularly arrive 8-10 before the ferry departs to ensure a seat on the ferry (which adds to travel time).

    I just don’t see many Marinites opting to take a $6 r/t SMART trip over a 12-18 min drive to the ferry regardless of station connectivity; the value just isn’t there. Now, if SMART provided direct service to SF and/or the East Bay that would be very different…

    • Richard Hall says:

      I think what Cam is saying, verbosely, is that in these circumstances most people will simply drive (or take the bus). I have to agree with him. People won’t bother…
      – buying a train ticket
      – waiting for a train
      – taking a train
      – getting off the train and walking a ways to the ferry
      – lining up and buying a ferry ticket
      – waiting for the ferry
      – taking the ferry
      – getting off the ferry
      – walking across Embarcadero to BART, MUNI…
      – buying a BART or MUNI ticket
      – waiting for BART or MUNI
      – taking BART or MUNI
      – walking to their final destination

      ….when they can get in their car and drive.

      I saw some talk recently of unifying the Bay Area transit agencies so one might buy a single ticket avoiding multiple ticket lines.

      I agree with Cam that late rush hour arrivals at the ferry terminal don’t get seats.

      • Richard, I think you are against the Smart Train’s construction, regardless of how connected it would or would not be to the Larkspur ferry terminal. I find your argument disingenuous.

        • Richard Hall says:

          I am for a train’s construction *when* it is economically justified and truly benefits society. Typically this needs qualifying:
          – it is a better solution than alternatives (e.g. improving bus services)
          – does not add to the traffic congestion it claims to reduce (through associated pressure to build high density housing where residents will drive, and through 4x hour closing of all streets into downtown San Rafael)
          – avoids inefficient use of public or taxpayer money or divert money away from better uses
          – connects to a true transit network to popular destinations (employment centers, major airports)
          – is priced so that it will be used
          – reduces transit time so that it will be used
          – has a suitably large population catchment area
          – has defensible ridership projections backed by substantiated and articulated facts
          – has a reasonable chance of attaining a decent fare-box recovery ratio (doesn’t have to be 100% but let’s at least be shooting >50%)
          – meets stated commitments (e.g. doesn’t halve line length committed to voters)

          Many train systems do meet these criteria. Sadly… to your point the (so-called) SMART train fails on almost all of the above.

        • Alai says:

          – it is a better solution than alternatives (e.g. improving bus services)

          or expanding freeways, redesigning streets for additional vehicles, and building additional parking garages in the most expensive locations.

      • David Baker says:

        Wouldn’t you just use your Clipper card for this and not buy all these tickets?

      • John Murphy says:

        Richard – I take the bus from Santa Rosa to downtown SF. I get on a bus at 4:30 AM because even by 5:30 AM the bus gets stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. What I would like to do is leave at 7 AM. On a train, no traffic, on a ferry, no traffic. The 6:15 AM express bus from Santa Rosa often takes 3 hours.

        • Alai says:

          This could be solved, today, for a trivial amount of money: congestion tolling. Not only would the county collect money from the toll, but the costs of providing bus service would go down (because you need fewer buses and drivers if they’re not sitting in traffic for hours a day) while ridership would go up (because people wouldn’t want to pay the toll).

          Eventually, I expect we’ll lose the ability to spend billions on dubious projects (and I include both SMART-as-currently-planned and freeway widening in this), and we’ll reluctantly have to turn to measures that actually work at a reasonable cost.

          • Richard Hall says:

            There’s some good reasoning in your response. I’m personally dubious of tolls as they hit the poorest the hardest (they are a regressive form of taxation). You ultimately price the poorest people off the roads.

            Not everyone in the US has a commute well suited to public transport.

        • Richard Hall says:

          @John Murphy: I can sympathize, sounds like a lousy commute. But you also bring up an interesting point – why choose to live in Santa Rosa and expect to be able to commute to San Francisco? Sounds like you made a choice. I’m often surprised by how many elect to live in Fairfield (for example) and face long commutes but satisfy the dream of living in a reasonable size house rather than smaller accommodations in Marin or SF.

          Many prefer to bring up a family in a house where each child can have their own room, and there’s a yard and a family neighborhood, even at the cost of a long commute.

          Reducing your 3 hour commute however is still not justification for 700k taxpayers to subsidize a 3,000 riders (at best) with a $1.2bn train.

          • Alai says:

            Responding to your comment above (as it doesn’t have a reply button):

            You write: “Not everyone in the US has a commute well suited to public transport.”

            You also write: “why choose to live in Santa Rosa and expect to be able to commute to San Francisco?”

            Which is part and parcel of the same issue: if you live in a location where there’s no public transport, you have to accept the consequences of that. That may mean paying a toll for the traffic your single-occupant vehicle creates, and it may mean paying for the parking you use.

            Is this a regressive form of taxation? Perhaps. But the current system is incredibly regressive, in that anyone without a car, certainly including the poorest members of society, can spend several wasted hours every day due to the crummy public transit system, and the traffic it’s mired in. (The AAA estimates a car costs $9000 a year–a big part of anyone’s budget, never mind if you need two.) If congestion tolls were instituted, anyone who didn’t drive would be helped immeasurably. First, because the traffic would flow, which would save them a great deal of time. Second, because the transit agencies would see their staffing and equipment costs reduced, allowing them to improve service, and make it more reliable. Third, because the dramatic increase in demand for public transit (to avoid tolls) would lead to more frequent service, and service which runs later in the night and earlier in the morning– all of which is a godsend to those who rely on it. And–crucially–none of this relies on massive new taxpayer subsidies at all.

            Now, you’d like to focus on those who are poor, but who do currently drive. Those are the “poorest people” who are “priced off the roads” (of course, the actual poorest don’t drive, but I’ve already written about them).

            But they will benefit as much as anyone from improved transit service– in fact, they will be the ones who drive the demand that makes it happen. Even where there is no official service, where people have to rely on self-created solutions, such as carpools, they benefit from the reduction of congestion and parking issues.

            Finally, the existence of a significant number of people who use transit creates demand for a very important change: the existence of businesses and housing which cater specifically to them– for example, by concentrating around transit hubs. This is incredibly important for anyone who does not drive: it’s one thing to say that there’s a reliable bus to some particular store, but it’s far better when there’s a reliable bus to a location where you can do all your errands for the week.

            That’s what we used to have– that’s the “traditional town center”. That’s what was destroyed when it was decided that parking was more important than an active business. And that’s what we need to recover if we want to maintain a good quality of life without pouring billions of dollars into “transportation projects”.

          • Richard Hall says:

            While you mention that it costs $9k/year to run a car creating a barrier to the poorest – much more innovative solutions are emerging overcoming this. Even here as I write from Paris in the last year the French capital has seen dozens of car rental stations appear across the city (like ZipCar) where there are branded booths where you can rent an immediately adjacent (electric, zero local emissions) car for something like $10 an hour – even in a city with such a great public transit system as Paris.

            Also there is great emerging technology such as chaining cars together reducing spacing making much better use of freeway resources. The Google self driving car has lots of promise.

            These all offer carrot rather than stick (regressive tolls) solutions, they don’t slam the poor even harder.

            As for your traditional town center – even in my native UK where we have very high gas prices and reasonable, if not good public transport (but priced exorbitantly!) – town center shops are in decline while out of town malls (Cribbs Causeway near Bristol) rapidly expand.

            Ultimately we agree on quite a bit – lets get a better transit system, and for low density Marin this means investing in buses. Imagine what could have been done had the same money diverted to SMART been put into buses. Meanwhile I’m hearing SMART is diverting money away from cost effective buses.

          • I’ve limited how many comments can nest together so we don’t end up with overly squished text. If you need to reply to a comment that doesn’t have a “reply” button, reply to the last comment that does have the button in that thread and use @Name.

          • Alai says:

            @Richard Hall:
            I’m a fan of car-sharing systems. They’re great when you need a car once a month, or even once a week, and they complement transit excellently. But they’re useless if you need one every day. There’s a reason why carshare is popular in SF and nonexistent in Marin.

            It’s also a real stretch to say that policies which reduce car costs at the expense of other modes benefit the poorest because the poorest might occasionally use a carshare car. Great– so when they use a car it costs them $30 instead of $40, because they avoid tolls and parking fees. Meanwhile, every other day, they suffer from crummy alternatives.

            Indeed, car share would benefit enormously from congestion tolling and parking fees, because one of the biggest problems is having to reserve extra time–hours even–because you don’t know how much you’ll be delayed by congestion (and the penalties for being late are severe if someone else had reserved that car).

            Emerging technologies aren’t an argument against it either– if anything, they’re an argument against spending billions on road widening and parking structures, which will become totally pointless if the technologies succeed.

            If and when Google cars become common, either they’ll solve congestion–in which case, great, and the congestion toll goes to zero– or some congestion remains, in which case the congestion toll is still the perfect tool to mitigate it.

            Spending half a billion on SMART is not a great investment, but if we’re going to spend half a billion, we may as well spend it on SMART. It, at least, has potential. The problem with buses is not funding, but policy, and that’s something money won’t fix.

          • John Murphy says:

            Richard – the alternative to people having long commutes is more dense housing. Please tell us which you would choose, more housing in San Rafael or a quicker commute for those coming from less dense housing further away.

            FYI – I work in my house 4 days a week, and SF one day a week. Amortized my net commute time is smaller than most.

          • hello kitty says:

            Richard [removed to comply with comment policy]. You make it sound as if he made this choice not out of necessity, but because he’s a glutton for punishment. Have you looked at the cost of housing in Marin and San Francisco lately? It’s outrageously expensive. Renting and/or buying are unattainable for most in both counties. We have a six figure income and cannot afford to live in Marin or San Francisco which makes the commute a necessary evil. I certainly would live closer to work if I could afford to. The jobs in the areas we live don’t pay enough to make ends meet either. In general, we have a poor excuse for public transit and although you clearly do not approve of the train, a lot of voters do and I am one who welcomes this opportunity even if it’s flawed – it’s a step in the right direction. It’s quite eye opening to go to Europe and see how seamless transport is, even in rural areas. We have a lot to learn.

    • All excellent points. People already vote with their wheels. Most of the time I drive solo from SF to Larkspur (1X/week) rather than use a combination of walking, biking, Muni bus, Ferry, or Golden Gate Transit bus. Whatever transit mode I choose, there’s never less than a combination of at least two, usually three. The connectivity is tough and the cost much higher (3 hrs, $12) than the bridge toll + gasoline (56 min, $8.50). Doubling the bridge toll would not change my choices much, since that 2 hours of connectivity time would still be there. Raising drivers’ costs only works if there’s a coterminous investment in making transit work seamlessly for those getting out of their cars.

      • Alai says:

        It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. If there were more people, transit could run more frequently (and cost-effectively), which would make it more convenient, which would draw more people.

        But there aren’t going to be more people unless it’s competitive, and it’s not going to be competitive unless local governments stop pouring money into its competition.

        Yeah, it might be possible to make it competitive by boosting spending to unheard-of levels, but frankly that’s unrealistic.

        • Richard Hall says:

          You seem to presume that you want a lot more people in order to justify improving transit; this is not a valid assumption. Population growth in Marin has been meagre (<1% per year over the last 10 years).


          A bus service is optimal to justify the small population of Marin, and there's lots of room to improve that. To justify a train service would require/need boosting population to East Bay like numbers – Is that what you want?

          Many moved to Marin not just because of it's natural beauty, preserved by planners through strong laws that have prevented greenfield building, and precisely because we did not want to live in the characterless, strip-mall world seen in parts of the South and East Bay.

          So let's put silly chicken and egg references aside, let's support the population we have, and it's slow growth. Sure put in alternatives; but I suspect the push for a train, which is economically unjustified to the extreme, may set back your goals immensely.

          This train is going to dramatically add to 101 congestion when 4x an hour it cuts off Downtown San Rafael. Maybe that's good in your eyes as a strong disincentive to rush hour drivers, but to the majority of the 170k+ 101 commuters this concession to a train carrying less than a few hundred passengers is going to cause a major outcry and is likely to backfire.

          Let's get some buses and dispense with this train fiasco.

  5. Eric M says:

    Of course Richard Hall is against the project. Just look at his recent comments from the article concerning the cutting down of trees in the railroad right-of-way:

  6. Emmanuel Salinas says:

    I know have had an array of ideas regarding the final terminal of SMART (like over the GG Bridge, over a new SR-RM bridge, ect) but I have now changed my mind and have realized that no train should cross one of the major bridges, it just wouldn’t look good. But I did come up with a bold idea; a ferry train. I mean, the SMART trains will not be long, so a new type of boat would be needed, but not a huge one. What do you guys think?

    • Alai says:

      Actually, this doesn’t seem entirely crazy. Pier 43, recently rebuilt as a pleasure promenade, used to be used to put rail cars on ferries (of course, that was before the bridges were built). You could imagine, perhaps, SMART rolling off near the Ferry Building, and continuing up Market St alongside the F-line, maybe, or Van Ness from Fisherman’s Wharf (as long as we’re indulging in fantasies…)

      The platforms and widths and so on would all have to be compatible. It would be a bit odd to run a diesel train in SF since the electric infrastructure would be present.

      Finally, I’m don’t know of any commuter trains that go on ferries, and there’s probably reasons for that. How long does the loading/unloading take? If it’s more than a few minutes it would probably make it not worthwhile, versus simply allowing people to board on foot. Certainly you’d need better reasons to do it apart from “it wouldn’t look good” to have them on the bridge.

  7. Train says:

    When the new smart train connect to Larkspur, I predict a ton of people will travel the full distance of the train. It will be easy for “Northerners” to travel to the city for baseball games and shopping and more!

  8. Evelyn Adams says:

    Annnnnddd they left it across the street at the old Marin Airporter lot. What a surprise…not.

  9. kkossenko says:

    у моего папы куча радости! )))

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