Tell the Bridge District No to Larkspur parking garages

Larkspur Landing at dawn

Larkspur Landing at dawn by udpslp, on Flickr

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) could approve a parking garage at Larkspur Ferry Terminal in the next few months. Such a concession to a single mode would be bad news for transit-oriented development around Larkspur Landing and for ridership and would be a waste of money by the District.

Today I sent letters to all 19 members of GGBHTD’s Board of Directors asking them to reject the garage in favor of other solutions, such as a Transit Center shuttle or a parking district. I also sent letters to General Manager Denis Mulligan and Deputy General Manager of the Ferry Division James Swindler, asking them to recommend against a garage.

If you want to do the same, sign this letter and let your GGBHTD Board members know. Feel free to use the letter below, either to email or snail-mail your response or as talking points for a phone call. You can find members’ contact information on the Board website. Click on their portrait for more info.

Together, I’m confident we can defeat the money-wasting garages in favor of a solution that is more financially sustainable and better for our county and the region.

Dear Member of the Board,

I’m writing to you to express my concerns about the construction of parking garages at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. In short, I feel this is an expensive solution to the problem of getting passengers to the ferry terminal. There are two less expensive ways to achieve the same ends:

Utilize unused parking stalls in Larkspur Landing.

  1. According to the parking survey conducted in the Larkspur Station Area Plan, there are 520 surplus parking stalls in the Larkspur Landing neighborhood. The survey found that these stalls will never be used by the buildings that own them.
  2. The larger garage under consideration by GGBHTD would add a net 569 new spaces, barely more than are available in Larkspur Landing at present.
  3. A shared parking arrangement would allow GGBHTD to use those 520 spaces.
  4. A shared parking arrangement would be beneficial to building owners, who would be able to charge the same parking fee as GGBHTD would on its parking lot.
  5. A shared parking arrangement would be beneficial to the owners of Marin Country Mart, whose parking lot is also at 100% capacity on weekends.

Implement a shuttle from the Transit Center to the Ferry Terminal.

  1. This replicates the promotional periods of the previous shuttle program, the only successful periods of that shuttle’s existence.
  2. Since this replicates the promotional periods, ridership estimates should reflect those of the promotional period. This is approximately 550 trips per day.
  3. Even if the shuttle has low ridership, the fare collected from each shuttle passenger remains $6 each way.
  4. Every passenger who takes the shuttle will open a parking spaces for a new passenger, which means another $2 parking fee and two $6 ferry fares.
  5. Therefore, each passenger on the shuttle will result in gross income of $26: two $6 fares from the shuttle passenger, two $6 fares from the driver who takes the shuttle passenger’s parking spot, and one $2 parking fee from the driver.
  6. If ridership reflects the promotional periods, GGBHTD would receive $785,000 in new revenue per year. Less the cost of a dedicated shuttle, this means GGBHTD would receive a $125,000 profit from the shuttle.

Option 1 is free except for staff time to make the arrangements with the City of Larkspur and neighbors. Option 2 is free to implement and would be profitable. In contrast, both the small and large garage will require subsidies to operate, on the order of $14,000 and $30,000 per year apiece, assuming the cost of replacement is included in budgeting plans.

I urge you to reject the garage proposals in favor of one or both of these alternatives. A chart of costs is included below. Detailed proposals can be found at:

http://theGreaterMarin.wordpress.org/tag/golden-gate-transit/

Thank you for your time.

Community Marin Plan is at odds with itself

Wrong Way

by jonathan_moreau, on Flickr

Marin’s environmentalists recently released the 2013 version of Community Marin (PDF), an outline of priorities for how to conserve Marin County’s character and environment while still addressing the challenges of commuting and growth.

Though the plan makes bold recommendations for development and transportation – most prominently restrictions on greenfield development and a maximum house size – the plan’s recommendations are contradictory. It talks about infill development but demands onerous environmental and affordability requirements that make it even less likely to appear than now. And, while it talks about better transit, the plan maintains the status quo of car dominance: parking minimums, weighing transportation projects based on congestion relief, and HOV lanes on Highway 101.

Ultimately, the plan boils down to the old environmentalism that believes open space should be preserved, driving should be accommodated, tall buildings are bad for the environment, and housing markets are a myth. This has been the dominant strain of belief in Marin for at least 30 years, and Community Marin thinks that’s just fine.

The good

A fundamental environmental problem in Marin County today is the possibility of greenfield development, or development where there has never been development before. This kind of zoning is held out from Marin’s years of sprawl, especially the 1980s. That hundreds of homes could be built on Grady Ranch is indicative of this problem. Community Marin is right to call for a harder growth boundary to prevent this kind of sprawl from continuing.

In its place, Community Marin wants more infill housing, especially around downtown San Rafael but also around the Civic Center and Novato North stations.

The transportation chapter of the plan calls for all transportation projects to take climate change into account. Aggressive transportation demand management policies, like subsidized bus passes, car sharing, and Class I bicycle lanes (cycletracks), would tackle congestion.

The bad

Despite the call for more infill development, Community Marin goes out of its way to ensure any development will only be possible with considerable government largesse. Among the restrictions for housing development are 20 percent of most developed units be affordable housing; mandated use of green materials; examination of environmental impacts of development; no homes above 3,500 square feet; no development in the 100-year floodplain; full environmental review; full design review; parking minimums; and a hard 3-story height limit on most buildings. Though some of these restrictions could be mitigated by lifting restrictions on density or unit size, Community Marin is silent on these issues.

Commercial development, on top of those building and environmental restrictions, would need to pay a commercial impact fee, which compensates the county in full for the cost to build enough homes to house their employees. That means that for, say, every 600 square feet of retail space built, a commercial developer would need to provide enough money to the county to build a new affordable housing unit.

These restrictions are tantamount to a moratorium on for-profit development in Marin and would drive the cost of housing ever higher. Problems of affordable housing and senior housing would not be resolved. Even senior housing, if there were staff, would need to pay that commercial impact fee.

The only way to solve the problem of affordable housing is to allow the market to correct itself and to focus regulations on form rather than density. The recommendations from Community Marin for tighter zoning will push development into other counties even further from jobs. If Community Marin wants infill development, they need make it easier, not harder, for private entities to build.

The ugly

There aren’t new ideas in this plan to reshape how Marinites get around. Quite the opposite: biking, walking, and transit are seen as tools to address concerns of traffic congestion (as measured by the flawed level-of-service metric) and sufficient parking, not necessarily as transportation modes in themselves. Despite good suggestions – traffic calming, prioritizing Class I bicycle lanes – the overall push is to relieve congestion and improve safety, is often an excuse to remove pedestrians and bikes from ever-faster roads.

Take recommendation 8.14, which wants safer highway interchanges for all modes by improving traffic flow. That means higher speeds at interchanges, which means capacity improvements that will induce more driving, the least safe mode of transportation. Though the interchange will be safer, the population will be more exposed to crashes and death by automobile.

Most glaring are recommendations that encourage parking minimums, the steroids of automobility. Parking minimums externalize the cost of parking to the community at large, allowing the actual users of parking to get away with it for free or nearly for free. When combined with recommendations that level-of-service not be harmed by development, it’s a recipe for widened roads and intersections, which in turn makes them less safe or welcoming for pedestrians and bicyclists.

When it comes to transit, a necessary prerequisite to improved service is a moratorium on capacity improvements. Transit and cars are in competition with one another. Investments in roads and parking mean lower ridership on transit and more traffic on roads. Yet the plan seems ignorant of this well-understood law of transportation planning and calls for more road investment under the guise of “congestion relief”. A recommendation for a more extensive bus network rings hollow when another recommendation will suck ridership from the network that already exists.

If we want to decrease the mode share of cars and decrease how many miles we travel, we need to make a strategic investment in transit and bicycling alone, with roads restricted to maintenance funding.

There are other recommendations that betray a belief that Marin cannot be anything other than car-oriented. Recommendation 8.5 calls for more parking and more park & rides. Recommendation 8.11 supports the ludicrously expensive Novato Narrows project and a new interchange to service the Redwood Landfill, which will eventually close. Perhaps the framers of Community Marin don’t want to rock the boat too much, but it is bizarre to see environmentalists arguing for more cars. Given the strength of their lobby in Marin, they should throw their weight behind MCBC and urbanists to fight for fewer cars and less driving.

In all, Community Marin does well when discussing preservation concerns but falls flat when entering the realms of transportation and development. I suspect the framers of Community Marin share much in common with urbanists – the desire for strong towns and town character, a desire for affordable housing, a desire for open spaces and clean air – but they have gone about their recommendations in a way that does not reflect the proven best practices to achieve those ends. Indeed, their recommendations are often at odds with their stated ends.

Marin’s governments need to study these recommendations carefully before jumping onboard. If they’re serious about reducing CO2 emissions, about creating a more equitable housing market, about moving beyond the automobile, about investing in transit and bicycling and downtowns, this is not the blueprint to use.

Urbanism isn’t Pruitt-Igoe

from Wikimedia by USGS

Pruitt-Igoe: a 50-unit per acre scar. From Wikimedia by USGS

It’s likely that Pruitt-Igoe, the public housing project in St. Louis, is the most famous and maligned image in architectural history. Its slab-like blocks rose from a scar in the urban fabric, the Corbusian ideal and an American dystopia. Yet at only 50 housing units per acre, this towering symbol of all things bad in urban design wasn’t all that dense. If we want to talk about density, we need to set Pruitt Igoe aside.

I mention Pruitt-Igoe because the image has emerged in Marin’s affordable housing debate. Bob Silvestri recently used it as an example of what he says the state and regional governments will force the Bay Area to build in a recent forum on affordable housing. Density mandates for 30 housing units per acre, he argued, would lead us to the worst kind of affordable housing and away from best practices.

Though there are plenty of reasons to oppose the regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) process, density and the specter of Pruitt-Igoe-like towers from Napa to San Jose is not one of them.

Rowhouses, when built right, come in around 50 units per acre, with older neighborhoods going a bit higher. Boston’s North End is over 50 units per acre. Washington, DC’s fabled Georgetown comes in at over 50 units per acre. In San Francisco, Russian Hill has 50, North Beach has 90, and the area west of Union Square goes as high as 536 units per acre. If density were the downfall of Pruitt Igoe, you’d think Union Square would be the center of a particularly wretched hive of humanity, not a trendy shopping district.

Urbanism means more places like this. Image from Google Maps

Urbanism means more places like this. Image from Google Maps

The causes of Pruitt-Igoe’s monumental failure could (and has) filled reports and books, but the failure can be boiled down to a deliberate denial of urban form. Stacking 50 units per acre atop one another while leaving empty grassy space around each tower for generic community gathering is a discredited idea that should have never earned such credence in the first place.

But to use this particular packaging of this particular density as an argument against density itself is disingenuous. It ignores common sense and the facts at hand. Good urban form can be low density and it can be high density, just as poor urban form can be either one.

And good urban form is based on the needs of the human as a creature. We walk, so a good city tries to maximize the pleasure of that activity. We are social, so a good city tries to maximize the incidence of casual socializing. That requires a certain level of compactness of buildings so that we can walk to the store and we can walk to the neighbor’s home, but that look like Midtown Manhattan and it can look like downtown Mill Valley.

Let’s have a debate about height and character that is really about how to build new development than enhances character, how to grow in that uniquely Marin way and make our county better. Let’s leave behind the straw men and phantoms.

The Larkspur ferry crunch, part 4: The ferry’s capacity

Larkspur Landing

Larkspur Landing by cucchiaio, on Flickr

Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) has an access problem: not enough people can get to the ferry. This shouldn’t be solved with parking garages, but rather with a shuttle and parking district in the short-term and transit-oriented development in the medium to long-term. But the terminal itself can only take so much ridership. In our fourth and final installment, we’ll examine the existing need, potential need, and the real and legal constraints on ferry service from LFT.

Need

At the moment, LFT is about 45 passengers over capacity on the morning rush hour departures. These benighted folks need to take an overflow shuttle bus into the city rather than the much more luxurious ferryboat. If GGT adds access for 500 more people to take the ferry, as seems to be desired, that would aggravate the overcrowding.

Adding capacity isn’t trivial. Though there are enough vessels to take people, there aren’t enough crew. Each vessel needs a captain and a crew, but these folks need to be paid for a full day, and there isn’t any need for a third full-time crew because of very low mid-day demand. While GGT is considering using one of their licensed office staff members as a captain for one morning departure as a cost-saving measure, there will be too much demand if ridership continues to increase and access is boosted as planned.

Rush hour, under the intense TOD scenario I outlined or from the SMART Station Area Plan, would probably bring about 350 extra riders, along with 120 or so from SMART and another 450 from parking expansion. If 70 percent of them use the ferry at the peak of the peak, that means another 600-650 ferry riders in the morning, or enough for one more peak hour ferry departure, which means yet another crew.

To make this make financial sense for GGT, the agency needs to figure out how to boost reverse-commute ridership and mid-day travel, which will mean more intense, or at least more interesting, development at Larkspur Landing. That, in turn, will probably require more trips. How far can GGT go?

Constraints

Corte Madera Channel. Image from NOAA. Click for much larger map.

Corte Madera Channel. Image from NOAA.

Like all transit, ferry capacity is measured in how many vehicles of what size can be accommodated per hour. Physically, LFT is constrained by the size of the 2-mile long Corte Madera Channel, which provides an outlet for the ferries. It’s wide enough (about 265 feet) that two ferries can pass, but with a depth of only 9 feet it’s relatively shallow, so boats with even a moderate draft (how deep the boat’s hull goes under water) won’t be able to use it.

Logistically, LFT is constrained by its need for high-speed catamarans, which have a lower passenger capacity than slower monohull vessels. The largest catamarans in GGT’s fleet can fit 450 people, while its slower Spaulding monohull vessels can fit 715. Passenger demand for fast service to the Embarcadero wins out over capacity here.

Environmentally, LFT is further constrained by the need to protect the marshland around the Corte Madera Channel. Too many departures and the wakes will erode what is very rich habitat. To help combat this problem, GGT has limited the number of crossings between LFT and San Francisco to 42 per day. Each crossing, whether from or to San Francisco, uses one of those slots.

GGT is further constrained by the number of high-speed vessels in its fleet. With only 4 vessels, it can only run 3 departures per hour.

A theoretical maximum

But if we leave aside the environmental and fleet concerns and focus solely on the physical and logistical ones, we find that GGT could probably get 6 departures per hour from LFT. The highest-capacity catamarans that can sail the channel can hold about 500 passengers, so we can get 3,000 peak passengers per hour from LFT to San Francisco and vice versa. This is approximately 1.5 highway lanes worth of capacity in each direction. The Ferry Building should be able to handle that kind of intensity from LFT, but GGT may need to find or build a new berth in San Francisco.

To achieve this level of service, GGT would need eight vessels total – seven running and one in reserve.* The MV Del Norte, runt of the fleet, would need to be retired and the other catamarans would need to be retrofitted to fit 500 passengers. Five new vessels and three refurbishments should add out to about $56 million. Operating cost per hour of this maximum service is $12,420, so if GGT ran this for four hours per weekday, it would be about $13.2 million annually, less passenger fares, of course. Anything above this level of service would require a deeper channel, which would be more expensive to build and maintain.

The real maximum

As mentioned above, not only does GGT not have the fleet to run its maximum service but it’s limited to only 42 crossings per day. Using up 24 of those on rush-hour service isn’t going to cut it. Instead, we can reasonably assume a capacity of three departures per hour, or about 1,350 passengers per hour. It’s not fantastic, but that’s how much capacity the system is considering.

If GGT adds more service than this, and they very likely will need to, it will need to carefully manage its fleet, perhaps by running an asynchronous schedule. Two vessels would run between San Francisco and LFT all day, while three would only run during peak hours and remain in reserve in San Francisco during the day. This should allow it to stay within its needed 42 crossings without allowing headways to get too high or sacrificing late-night and early-morning service.

Alternatively, GGT could request more crossings from neighbors and the state. This would require a new environmental impact report that would identify mitigating measures to lessen the damage on the nearby wetlands. Under this route there’s a chance their request would be denied.

GGT must smooth its ridership profile through TOD. There is no other way for it to achieve continued ridership growth in a sustainable way. Ever-higher peak demand will be burden the system with high crew costs and wasted capacity. GGT can do this by shaping the development at Larkspur Landing and inviting SMART to build closer to the terminal (and therefore draw San Francisco commuters heading north). But GGT must also be careful not to overload its southbound capacity. Even at its theoretical maximum, GGT’s Larkspur ferry cannot move as many people as a rail line, and it cannot just pack the ferries ever-tighter as BART does.

A better Larkspur Landing will have new development, new parking capacity, a reinstated shuttle, and enough ferry capacity going in both directions. It will be a net positive to the transit agency’s bottom line and to its mission to take people off the bridge. It will boost the profile and financial situation of Larkspur and Marin County. New parking garages are the easiest but least effective way to boost access to LFT and improve the financial situation of GGT. It’s vital the agency look beyond those garages and to a better, stronger future.

*The total minimum round-trip is 70 minutes: 5 minutes loading/unloading at LFT, 30 minutes transit to SF, 5 minutes loading/unloading at SF, and 30 minutes transit back to LFT. Longer headways that don’t evenly divide into 70 would need to add time to the layovers.

The Larkspur Ferry crunch, part 3: Development

by flyron on Panoramio

by flyron on Panoramio

Larkspur has a parking problem. More accurately, it has an access problem, one that can be solved by harnessing extant parking and by running a shuttle service. These are ultimately stop-gap measures. If Golden Gate Transit is serious about turning its ferry service into the workhorse it could be, it needs to start thinking beyond the park and ride model to ferry-oriented development.

The financial case

Transit-oriented development could make GGT a mountain of money. Though as a public agency GGT isn’t necessarily supposed to make money, profits mean more stable finances and stronger service.

From a strictly real estate perspective, GGT could earn $2-4 million per year by leasing its parking lot to development, assuming fairly low-rise (four story) development to match the height of existing buildings around the neighborhood. If GGT wants to build on the land itself rather than lease to a developer, it could reap the full value of its land. If developed like the draft Larkspur Station Area Plan, that means roughly $7.8 million in gross revenue from residences and retail. If GGT adds 50,000 square feet of office space, it could quadruple its income to $33.8 million.*

Because GGT land isn’t taxable thanks to its status as a government agency, Larkspur should encourage any residential development on the terminal parking lot to have small units like efficiencies, studios, and one-bedrooms. Childless households attracted to small units are less of a burden on city services, so the lack of parcel and property taxes won’t be as great a problem. Sales taxes would still come in from these households, though, so Larkspur would get some boost from GGT land use changes.

If private property owners follow through on the SMART Station Area Plan, of course, the City of Larkspur would be able to reap the full benefits of more intense use.

The access case

What prompts this analysis, of course, is the current lack of access to the ferry, not simple financial concerns. GGT thinks Larkspur ferry ridership is limited by the ability of people to get to and from the terminal and wants to break through that barrier.

Transit-oriented development of the whole neighborhood of the sort called for in the draft Station Area Plan will provide a way to break through this barrier. More people will be able to walk to the ferry terminal, and that’s a good thing. The existing residents of Larkspur Landing seem to be heavy users of the ferry, with 0.6 weekday trips per person.** We don’t know how many people may eventually live where the parking lot now stands, but there’s every reason to believe they will be just as apt to use the ferry.

Residential TOD is a good way to build in riders who won’t be deterred by the lack of parking. With SMART or a bus shuttle, there’s a good chance GGT could attract car-free or car-light residents, which would boost other transit ridership.

Office TOD could be even more valuable and attract the reverse-commuter. There’s a glut of counter-commute capacity from San Francisco. Attracting San Franciscans to the ferry would allow it to make the most of its existing resources and are an easy way to boost farebox recovery.

Getting these reverse-commuters will require some skill on the part of developers. Only 2 percent of Marin’s jobs are held by transit-commuting San Franciscans. There aren’t many San Francisco commuters to begin with, and most of them are driving, not taking transit. A combination of marketing office space to San Francisco businesses, free transfers to Muni and BART, and discounted fares for employees of Larkspur Landing businesses could help boost the number of reverse commuters.

Any redevelopment plans need to be carefully evaluated. The Larkspur parking lot is on old marshland that will be very expensive to redevelop. GGT land isn’t taxable, so developments’ strain on city and county services needs to be weighed carefully. Neighbors and businesses need buy-in to improve the area. And traffic, surface transit, and parking are all thorny problems that need to be addressed (and are bigger issues than can be addressed here).

Then again, Larkspur Ferry Terminal may not have the capacity for more ridership. There’s already an overflow bus for morning commuters, and GGT is considering adding another morning ferry to cope with demand. In our fourth and final installment, we’ll examine the ferry terminal’s capacity constraints and what to do about them.

*Larkspur offices lease for about $43 per square foot, and apartments in Marin rent for about $2,000 per month. Retail rents for about $20 per square foot.

**At the moment, 25 percent of ferry riders walk to the ferry. It’s very likely that most of these riders live in the nearby homes north of Larkspur Landing Circle, as those are the only homes within walking distance.