Personalized mapping

Transit maps in Marin are, well, not very good. Especially for the uninitiated, they can be confusing spaghetti.

About a year ago, I was contacted by a young man in Novato who had his drivers’ license suspended for some reason and wanted to know how to get around to his destinations. He went to school in College of Marin, worked in Petaluma, and hung out with his friends in the East Bay. How was he supposed to get out of Novato without a car?

After an abortive attempt at a Novato spider map, I realized all I needed were the various connections between the destinations so he could know exactly how he could get from A to B without all the mess of geography. The map below is the result.

GGT Novato-2

Click to enlarge.

It’s simple, so it doesn’t include things like frequency or span of service. Instead, I wanted to show how to get from place to place, major stops, and where those routes went after transfer points and destinations, without all the fuss of a more detailed map. Were I to make this again, I would probably place 49/49K to the west of the 101 corridor north of Ignacio and east of it to the south to reflect actual geography, but as it stands I think there’s enough hints for the user to see where the bus goes.

I’ve never followed up with him to see how it went, though he seemed pretty excited to see it. Perhaps it will be of some use to you as well, as it’s now up in the Map Room.

GGBHTD responds to my series on ferry parking

A couple of months ago, I wrote a four-part series on Larkspur Landing’s parking and access problems. I discussed the possibility of a parking district, a shuttle, transit-oriented development, as well as the constraints on the terminal’s passenger capacity. When the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) called for comment on access to the ferry terminal, I summarized the first two into a two-page letter, complete with cost/benefit table, and sent it to the Board and staff.

Last week, I got a response from GGBHTD responding to some of my proposals. Here’s what they sent me:

Dear Mr. Edmonson [sic]:

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (District) is in receipt of your letter, dated April 23, 2013, addressed to the members of the Board of Directors, expressing your concerns relative to the “Strategic Vision for the Golden Gate Ferry Larkspur Service (Strategic Vision.” Staff has researched the issues you raise din your letter regarding your assessment of unused parking in the vicinity of the larkspur Ferry Terminal, and your interest in a shuttle from San Rafael Transit Center (SRTC) to the ferry terminal.

With regard to parking in the vicinity of the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, the Larkspur Station Area Plan did identify a large amount of surface parking at the various parcels within a radius. However, the examination of that parking was looking in the context of increasing the density of the existing surface spaces. These surface parking spaces were identified for future opportunities to provide for mixed use development and structured parking opportunities. Presently, these parking spaces are needed by the various commercial tenants on these properties. Staff has communicated with various property managers in the area who indicated that their office occupancies are in the low ninety percent range and rising. Although the District did lease some surface spaces many years ago, property managers indicated that they could not consider that possibility at this time, due to their rising demand.

With regard to the shuttle form the SRTC to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, limited parking in the vicinity of the SRTC would be a barrier to its use. The District operated a midday ferry shuttle from the SRTC to and from the Larkspur Ferry Terminal during 2007 as a demonstration project that, unfortunately, was not successful. Among the reasons cited for passengers not using this service were lack of parking in the vicinity of the SRTC and the inconvenience of using other Golden Gate Transit routes to access this shuttle, due to the need to transfer twice to reach the ferry.

As you may be aware, the Board of directors (Board) approved adoption of the Strategic Vision at its meeting of May 10, 2013, with the understanding that staff would bring individual projects forward to determine cost, feasibility and implementation on a case-by-case basis. The Strategic Vision includes both near-term strategies to address current increasing demand, as well as longer-term strategies to allow for the capacity for ridership to continue to increase. Both parking considerations and a possible demonstration project to test the reinstatement of a ferry shuttle route in the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard corridor will be brought back to the Board for review and possible action this summer.

Thank you for taking the time to express your concerns and for your interest in the District’s Strategic Vision.

Sincerely,

James C. Eddie
President, Board of Directors

I’m glad they took the time to talk with local parking owners, as that would be the easiest way to address the parking crunch, but it’s a disappointment that they were asked whether they’d be willing to lease spaces to the District instead of participate in a parking district. A parking district gives owners control over how many spaces to have available on a daily basis, whereas a lease locks up spaces for years. Though the SMART parking survey showed there would be enough space even with 100 percent occupancy, it’s understandable that parking owners wouldn’t want to risk their parking spaces with a lease.

The 2007 shuttle from SRTC failed not because of little parking, though that would be a problem for some, but because it competed with free parking at the ferry terminal. But no matter. Marin Transit will service the Ferry Terminal via SRTC come next year, and the ferry shuttle along Sir Francis Drake will be accompanied by paid parking at Larkspur Ferry Terminal.

Overall, I’m happy the staff took the time to look into the issues I raised, or at the very least to draft a coherent response. It means they are taking public input seriously, and it validates citizen technical activism. That’s a pattern other agencies, especially SMART, should take note of.

 

Quiet and Safe San Rafael gets it wrong on density

A few weeks ago, Quiet and Safe San Rafael (QSSR) published the claim that 79 units per acre, zoned for potentially proposed for in Terra Linda*, is more dense than Manhattan or Hong Kong. Though they are technically correct, QSSR wildly misinterprets the concept, the data, and ignores the density already in our midst.

Density limits

A density limit in Marin restricts how many units can fit on the parcel as measured in acres. 2 units on a quarter-acre parcel works out to 8 units per acre (2 divided by 0.25 equals 8). This doesn’t include the street, parks, commercial development, or anything else beyond the building’s parcel.

I don’t know how Hong Kong does their density limits, but Manhattan doesn’t usually have per-unit density limits. Instead, New York limits how much floor area a building can have (a measure called floor-area ratio, or FAR, if you’re wondering). Again, this is based on the parcel, not the supporting infrastructure or all the other buildings.

The danger with measuring densities at a municipal level, as QSSR has done with Manhattan and Hong Kong, is that it does include all the rest of the city. It’s like measuring the size of a house and calling it all a bedroom. It is disingenuous to compare that to the parcel-based densities used by San Rafael.

So while it’s true that Manhattan averages 58 units per acre, higher than Terra Linda’s allowed 79, that includes Central Park, Times Square, the avenues and streets, the docks, ferry terminals, office buildings, plazas, schools, police stations, City Hall, the UN, the New York Stock Exchange, and all the other things that aren’t housing on that island.

Rafael Commons

Midtown Manhattan? Or senior housing in San Rafael? Image from Google Maps.

That’s ridiculous. Using San Rafael’s measuring system, a 20-story tower in Manhattan would average to 800 units per acre, far and away higher than Terra Linda’s 79. There’s a three-story senior home, San Rafael Commons, that hits 90 units per acre. Is it “more dense than Manhattan”? Not in any meaningful sense.

This exposes the danger of using density as a proxy for character, as it doesn’t measure anything about that. Character comes from a building’s form: how tall it is, how far back it’s set from other buildings or the street, etc. A single-family home can fit a second unit in the back, which doubles the parcel’s density. A three-story building could be filled with two-bedroom apartments and be low density, or be filled with studio apartments and be high density. It wouldn’t change the building’s visual impact.

Whether QSSR tried to be deliberately misleading or not, it is clear they are trying to stir up fear of tower blocks along 101. There are legitimate things to worry about in Plan Bay Area and legitimate things to critique. It’s truly unfortunate this activist group has chosen to focus on the ridiculous instead.

*Update and Correction: The intro misstated the current zoning and planned zoning and density around the Civic Center SMART station. Current zoning tops out at 43 units per acre, depending on where one looks. San Rafael’s Station Area Plan calls for densities “above 44 units per acre”, while the proposed Transit Town Center PDA calls for zoning to accommodate 20-75 units per acre. QSSR’s number comes from the average of all PDAs in the Bay Area, which is not applicable to any individual PDA like the Civic Center area in Terra Linda.

Report: the FRA makes trains less safe, more expensive

A new report out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and I suspect you’ll recognize half the byline), says the FRA’s safety regulations, enforced in the name of safety, perversely make us less safe. Rather than use the best practices of Europe or encourage train manufacturers to innovate, the FRA’s rules prescribe antiquated crash management technology from the 1910s. Dangerous and more expensive trains are the result.

To find out why, you’ll need to read the report for yourself. It’s an easy read, just six pages, and it details how SMART, in the West, and Acela, in the East, have been dramatically affected by the FRA’s regulations, though they aren’t the only victims. You can see the stark difference between the two regimes in a crash test video that went into the FRA’s report on its own safety measures. The top train is FRA-compliant, while the bottom is compliant with European regulations from the International Union of Railways (UIC):

The top train experiences something called an “override”, which you’ll find mentioned in the report. It’s what FRA-compliant trains too-often do in a crash. And, on the bottom train, you can even watch how, for a split second during the crash, the oncoming train pauses to absorb the crash energy. That’s UIC crash safety in action.

Something I realized after the report had been written, too, was that the FRA’s rules hurt domestic train manufacturers. FRA-compliant trains are illegal overseas, as they don’t meet UIC standards, just as European trains don’t meet American safety standards. This forces domestic manufacturers to choose between serving the tiny US market or the much larger global market.

Though bashing the FRA is a favored pastime among more technically-minded bloggers, desperately needed regulatory reform seems to have gained little traction where it matters most. Here’s hoping CEI’s white paper can change that.

Loving the city we can’t stand

Sometimes, I wonder at my fellow urbanists, especially those who can live wherever they like. They have chosen, for whatever reason, to live in certain places and write sometimes deeply critical things about those places. It seems incongruous. Why would someone choose to live somewhere frustrating? Why live under bad leaders with bad judgment? Or, to paraphrase something often heard from an opponent, if we dislike our home so much, why don’t we leave it?

Anthony Cardenas, who was arrested for painting a crosswalk in Vallejo last Thursday, reminded me that often it’s not a rational decision but a fundamentally, gloriously irrational decision. He and urbanists in other deeply dysfunctional cities love their places. And when you love a place, just as when you love a person, there’s nothing you won’t do to fight for their well-being.

G. K. Chesterton, a wonderful British author from the turn of the 20th Century, believed this love was vital to the health of a city. In Heretics, a collection of essays skewering the thinkers and authors of his day, Chesterton devotes a chapter to Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s practical, rational love of England, he writes, is no love at all. It is appreciation. Kipling flirts with England, just as he flirts with China and Venice, but he has never married her.

In Orthodoxy, the follow-up to Heretics, Chesterton expands the value of loving a place and a city to which you belong.

My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing—say Pimlico. [In Chesterton’s day, the London neighborhood of Pimlico had fallen far from the glory of its construction and was in a state much like many of America’s urban cores.] If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

The activist in the place where they are constantly stymied, where the newspaper is nothing but bad news for their cause, remains because of love. The activist works and cries and paints crosswalks because she love her place. We’d all move to London or Rome if we just wanted a more comfortable place to live. Even I, in Washington, cannot help but love that marvelous county. Marin is in my bones, as much a part of me as my family. How could I not write?

Chesterton goes on to write about the nature of conflict over a place. There are the jingoists, who say everything’s fine in order to save their city’s honor; there are the pessimists, who love to criticize because they get a thrill out of it; and there are the rational optimists, who love a place for a specific reason, never letting go of that reason despite all facts.

And there are those opponents of ours who are no less irrationally in love with the place. We should not fight with any less conviction, but we should give respect. We are lovers of the same place; there ought to be a kinship that colors our fights.

Anthony Cardenas, I’m sure, is disheartened and angry at Vallejo and Caltrans for how he’s been treated. But he will probably stay because he loves his neighborhood and city. Perhaps, one day, West Vallejo will rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles because of people like him. Maybe, too, will Cleveland, and Detroit, and Stockton, and Fresno, and…

 

Marin’s towns are destinations

Population is a statistic everyone knows about a town. It’s an important stat, as it tells us how many residents there are, roughly how many taxpayers there are, how many voters, etc. However, especially for large cities, it’s extremely important to know how many people are in the city during the day. Commuters swell San Francisco’s daytime population to over 950,000, a fifth more than actually live there.

Daytime Population-County Chart

Breakdown of daytime population by county. Population on the left is what’s lost to out-commuting. Population on the right is daytime population.

For smaller cities and towns, the daytime population numbers tell us how mobile people are and how much of a destination a place is. If there are a lot of workers coming in, it’s an employment center. If there are a lot going out, it’s a bedroom community. And if there are both a lot coming in and a lot going out, there is a mismatch between a city’s jobs and its people.

The US Census Bureau ran the numbers on cities and places with a population of 2,500 or more, and the Atlantic Cities covered what the data means for big cities and regions. I’m curious about what it means for Marin.

Daytime Population-City Chart

Marin’s cities by daytime population.

Marin has been undergoing a transformation for the last 30 years, moving away from being a bedroom community for San Francisco and more toward being a jobs destination in its own right. Though the shift has been slow, Marin now has more jobs than workers, owing in part to a decline in the workforce and in part to an increase in jobs. The number of people commuting in has grown 3 percent; the number of people commuting out has shrunk 12 percent; and daily change in population has swung from -1.6 percent to +1.2 percent.

Data from other sources says most of Marin’s 45,000 in-commuting workers live in Sonoma and Contra Costa, but we get some from San Francisco and Alameda as well. All told, these folks hold 37 percent of Marin’s jobs.

There is a sense, however, that Marin is a collection of bedroom communities. While this isn’t true in aggregate, every town and place in Marin sends a large portion of their workforce off to work elsewhere.

Daytime Population-Employment Ratios

Just worker numbers. Blue are local workers; red are in-commuters. As before, population on the right is in-city, while population on the left is out-commuting.

Most interesting in this regard are towns like Corte Madera, which actually grow during the day but whose local workforce overwhelming leaves the city during the day. While the place itself is a destination, the voting constituency sees its town as principally an origin rather than a destination. When asked to choose which transportation investments to make, they will probably choose the ones that will facilitate their own commute out of town rather than the investments that will facilitate the commute to their town.

Also emerging from this data is San Rafael’s place as Marin’s downtown. Its population grows by almost a quarter, more than San Francisco, from 57,000 to over 70,000. Novato, with a similar number of residents, doesn’t change at all during the day, sending out as many workers as it takes in.

So what?

These data imply that most Marin commutes are between towns rather than between counties, as every town in Marin has more of their workforce leaving than staying while the county has a whole has more of its workforce staying than leaving. This has implications for Marin’s transportation and housing planners.

First, it means transportation infrastructure investments should principally focus on short-hop transportation: bike lanes, better intra-county transit, and walk-appeal improvements. Each of these will encourage short-haul commuters to bike, take transit, walk, or any mix of those. This would leave roads and parking lots open for those who really need or want to drive.

Second, it means transportation officials should examine how to facilitate long-haul transit commutes. Morning transit from San Francisco to Marin is pitifully bad. Hour-long bus headways make sure someone is always either late or early, while Larkspur Ferry drops commuters off in the middle of a parking lot with minimal transit service. From Contra Costa, 28-minute headways are better but the travel time is longer than it needs to be. Midday headways get as high as 60 minutes.

And third, it means the linkage between housing and jobs growth is best done on a county-wide, rather than city-wide, basis. Municipal boundaries are arbitrary, and it’s clear Marinites ignore them when it comes to jobs and homes. A Marin County subregion for RHNA allocations would make far more sense than the city-by-city allocations ABAG is now forced to make.

This new dataset from the Census will be extremely useful to the big cities, but it can also open a window into the behavior of our little corner of the country. Marin is maturing into a proper inner-ring suburb, drawing commuters all its own. Planners and residents need to shift their thinking, and their projects, to match that reality.

UPDATE: If you want to examine the data yourself, you can find full tables on the Census website. I’ve also isolated the Bay Area county data and the Marin town, city, and place data into a single spreadsheet. There have been some significant shifts since 2000 at the place level, but considering  margins of error on the 2010 data I hesitate to read too much into them for the smaller places.