The Larkspur ferry crunch, part 2: Bring back the shuttle

Larkspur Ferry Terminal

Larkspur Ferry Terminal by Matt The Ogre, on Flickr

It’s impossible to discuss the access crunch at Larkspur Ferry Terminal without the subject of shuttle buses. It seems like an easy solution to the seemingly intractable problem of how to get people to the ferry, but history shows it’s not so straightforward.

As mentioned Monday, the shuttle was a monumental failure with riders, principally thanks to free parking. Though ridership would spike to 10 percent of ferry patrons during promotional periods, it would drop back down after the promotion was over. It’s tough to compete with free and convenient.

Pay parking eliminates this concern. Thanks to a quirk in Clipper, riders will get a free transfer while drivers will not, replicating the situation during promotions. It is not unreasonable to assume that 10 percent of riders, the same number who used it during promotions, would use the shuttle. At that rate, the shuttle would actually make a profit, but not like a normal bus may.

Normally, fares paid directly for the bus service goes towards the route’s bottom line. Greyhound makes a profit on its buses, while GGT wants to recover no less than 20 percent of its operating costs with fares. A ferry shuttle, however, would be a loss leader. The real money isn’t in the fare paid for the shuttle ride; it’s in the much higher fare paid for the ferry ride.

Since demand for the ferry already outstrips the ability of people to get to it, every ferry rider who switches from car to shuttle frees a parking spot available for someone new. If 10 percent of ferry riders switch to the shuttle, another 275 people can drive to the ferry. Our drivers would take round-trips, so GGT would earn $12 per day in fares from them. And, since they’re driving, they’d pay out another $2 per day as a parking charge. Add it up and GGT gets nearly $3,000 per new passenger per year, a total of $785,000 in new revenue.

A simpler shuttle program

The shuttle program used in the past was a complicated and vast thing, with shuttle routes overlapping existing routes inefficiently while running long distances.

There’s no need for that. While most ferry riders come from Central Marin, nearly all bus traffic runs through the San Rafael Transit Center. It’s impractical for a shuttle to replicate all these routes, and why should it? If it wants to pick up more passengers up 101 or down Miracle Mile or out in the Canal, it has ceased to be a ferry shuttle and has become part of the wider bus system.

As well, running the shuttle outside of a very restricted 6-minute Transit Center-Ferry Terminal circuit opens the route up to delays from traffic or crash. Given the often long waits between ferry departures, a delay could force a long wait on riders. If ferries are held to wait for the bus, it would add delays for the rest of the commute hour.

Unfortunately, a dedicated shuttle would be rather expensive. At $660,000 per year, it would make a $125,000 annual profit, but there’s a lot of waste. When ferry headways are long – up to 95 minutes – the shuttle wouldn’t have anything to do. GGT could realize significant cost savings by extending an existing route to the ferry terminal instead.

By extending a short, frequent route, like Route 35, GGT would be able to operate a shuttle for only $340,000 per year. When ferry headways are long, the bus would be able to continue on its normal route and head to the ferry terminal for shuttle runs. When ferry headways are short, every run would hit the ferry terminal.

It’s important to point out that, since GGT will charge for parking no matter the outcome of its parking expansion, it must implement a shuttle to take up the slack of those who don’t want to pay the charge. If GGT rejects the shuttle but institutes the parking charge it will face a decline in ferry ridership rather than an expansion.

This kind of shuttle is not on the radar of GGT officials. They cite the old system’s high cost, poor response, and ferry riders who said they want a shuttle for other people but not themselves. Though they want to time Route 29 to the ferries – a fantastic idea – they may miss an opportunity to add revenue to the system. Staff should draw up some shuttle options with projected ridership and combined ferry/bus revenue. The Board needs to see its options.

If reorganizing neighborhood parking is the “organization” side of ferry access, the parking charge is the “electronics” side of ferry access. The modest investment would add efficiency by segmenting the access market into those who really want or need to drive and those who would prefer to leave their car at home.

As we discussed Monday, there is no reason to invest in parking garages for Larkspur Ferry. Not only can GGT provide 520 more parking spaces for free but it can free up 275 parking spaces with a profitable shuttle service.

So we can accommodate plenty of Marin commuters, but GGT’s ferry faces other problems, namely severely underused afternoon and reverse-commute capacity. And if the aim is to boost ridership, there’s no more efficient way than increasing the number of people who walk. The next installment will tackle these issues with transit-oriented development.


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.

7 Responses to The Larkspur ferry crunch, part 2: Bring back the shuttle

  1. Pingback: The Larkspur Ferry crunch, part 3: Development | The Greater Marin

  2. Pingback: The ferry’s capacity | The Greater Marin

  3. Pingback: Tell the Bridge District No to Larkspur parking garages | The Greater Marin

  4. Luke Evans says:

    SMART is actually working aggresively to secure funding to include the Downtown San Rafael to Larkspur segment as part of the project’s Initial Operating Segment, rather than pushing it to the future as is currently conceived. This work remains ongoing, and is reliant on securing federal funds and other revenue sources. If they could pull it off, SMART service could be available at Larkspur Landing as early as 2016. That would at least solve the problem of getting people from the Transit Center down to the ferry, or at least reasonably close to the ferry since the Larkspur station will be located across Sir Francis Drake behind the movie theater. There’s much work to be done with respect to making it easier for people to get from the future station over to the ferry. As currently conceived, its a real obstacle course and a bit of a walk. Not real safe, either.

    One of my questions is how the ferry is going to handle the additional ridership that should result once SMART is completed. As a regular rider, I can say that morning departures regularly sell out, and that the terminal appears to be operating at near capacity under its current configuration. Are more boats and more frequent trips planned? Could use be made of the additional boat slip to conduct dual boat operations during peak periods? I have not seen any discussion of how that will be handled or how it will be paid for.

    • Good to know! Given Mansourian’s temperament, I figured SMART might be working on that, but I’m still concerned about the station placement. It should be closer to the terminal

      As for capacity, a follow-up post addressed exactly that. In short: yes, they’re considering running an additional ferry, but legal and logistical barriers mean prevent GGT from boosting capacity more than that. GGT would need to change the EIR governing use of the catamarans, possibly purchase a new vessel, and shape development patterns at Larkspur to even out demand through the day. It may even be in their interest to pay SMART to put their station in the Marin Country Mart parking lot or within the ferry terminal itself, but that could cost upwards of $30 million.

      • Luke Evans says:

        Yes, I saw your followup post after I had already posted mine. Like most everything aorund here, the potential solutions are complicated and costly. Nevertheless, that’s not an excuse to do nothing.

  5. Pingback: GGBHTD responds to my series on ferry parking | The Greater Marin

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