Odd words from one of San Rafael’s council candidates

The campaign for San Rafael city council is starting to ramp up, with four candidates vying for two open seats. One of them, Randy Warren, has chosen to run on a platform of being a development conservative. Though not necessarily news on its own, his words on why he opposes affordable housing development shows that he doesn’t understand the politics and issues at hand. He still has a chance to catch up, but conservatives need a knowledgeable voice on the council, and right now he still has a way to go.

From his announcement press release:

[Randy Warren] believes the city’s Housing Element is gravely flawed.  The proposed affordable housing could end up not going to needy Marin residents but instead to people relocating from other areas around the Bay whose vast numbers could shut out San Rafael’s poor. “We need good quality jobs to support a growing population, and there is no viable plan at present to do that. Wishful thinking is not enough. We need to avoid related increases to unemployment and homelessness, and the risk they present in wage deflation.”

Affordable housing

The purpose of affordable housing is to do what he says it will: help those who work in Marin but can’t afford to live here find a home. I’m not a fan of the methods used by the state to promote affordable housing, namely the regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) process, but my problem with it has to do with its viability, not that it will do what it’s advertised to do. Warren implies there will be a bait-and-switch, where we build housing for Marinites only to find them filled by folks from elsewhere.

There is a huge amount of demand to live in Marin. This is seen not only in recent price spikes in housing and rent costs, but in our massive in-commuting population. Marin gets 45,000 in-commuters every day, mostly from Contra Costa and Sonoma but also from San Francisco and Alameda. Studies have shown that they typically take lower-paying jobs, either as service workers (housekeepers, shop clerks) or other professions (teachers, low-level office workers). They simply can’t afford a home in the county, especially if they’re trying to move here now, and so they in-commute.

Affordable housing is designed to reduce that amount of in-commuting, decreasing their cost of commuting and reducing the pressure on our roadways, not just to support Marin’s existing low-income residents who presumably already have homes.


Even stranger, however, is that Warren, while insisting we don’t build affordable housing for non-Marinites, expresses concern that we aren’t creating enough jobs for a “growing population.” If we don’t, he warns, we’ll get increasing unemployment, homelessness, and wage deflation. I’m curious where this population growth would come from if not from beyond Marin, and why they’d come here if they didn’t have a job. Perhaps he’s talking about Marin’s children, but surely he understands that Marin’s demographics are such that it won’t grow without immigration. But let’s set this statement aside for a moment and focus on the jobs themselves.

First of all, Marin already has more jobs than it has workers. While 45,000 people commute to Marin every day, only 42,000 commute from Marin. In San Rafael itself, which is where Warren should concern himself, nearly 70 percent of jobs are held by out-of-towners. Marin, and especially his city, have more than enough jobs to support their own.

The problem, at least in the county at large, is that a great many of these jobs are not ones that many Marinites want or can afford to take. If we wanted to grow our jobs base, we would need to boost the number of high-paying professional jobs. That would mean drawing on the economic strength of San Francisco, developing places that are conducive to start-ups and innovation. Better transit connections for the predominantly car-free San Franciscans, as well as small housing units to keep Marin’s young singles in-county, are needed to attract those high-paying businesses to San Rafael.

Alas, Warren, according to the IJ, wants to remove the Downtown San Rafael Planned Development Area (PDA), the place that would be most conducive to creating such an urban job center. By removing the PDA he would put at risk the targeted transportation investments the area desperately needs: a new bus terminal, better bike lanes, better connectivity from the rest of Marin, San Francisco, and the East Bay. At the same stroke, he would make the area less attractive to new businesses that may want to come.

But Marin doesn’t have an unemployment problem. In fact, it has one of the strongest job markets in the state. Homelessness, while a problem, is not due to a lack of jobs. It’s due to a complicated web of issues ranging from a lack of mental health services to the inherent instability of homelessness itself. A strong progressive shift in the zoning code in larger cities to allow more single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) as well as for-profit, sanitary bunking situations (think something like a more permanent hostel) would go a long way to fighting the “homeless” aspect of homelessness, while better investments in city services would help alleviate the underlying instability and poverty.

As for his last statement, that a lack of jobs in a single city of 56,000 would result in wage deflation, it is such a leap that it is beyond me. San Rafael is part of a much broader region and county, and its job market is deeply integrated with theirs. As we already established, it is so integrated that barely more than 30 percent of its jobs are held by locals. It would take forces far beyond the scope of the San Rafael City Council to depress the city’s wages.

Not a promising start

These are odd and troubling statements from a serious candidate for city council. Development conservatives deserve a strong and articulate voice to represent their interests, someone who knows how cities operate in the region’s context. Warren misunderstands the purpose of affordable housing, does not grasp the connection between land use and transportation, and does not understand San Rafael’s job market.

Though I disagree with the development conservative position on a number of fronts, a knowledgeable councilmember could provide a needed skeptical eye to staff reports. He or she would be a valuable force and help shift the power of San Rafael from its departments to the council. I’m concerned, however, that Warren would be less of a check and more of a contrarian and populist, asking questions for their own sake and grandstanding instead of leading. At worst, he would isolate himself and bring discord to what is currently a collegial and effective body. I’d hate to see the problems of Sausalito replicated in Marin’s largest city.

But the race is still young, and perhaps Warren is just getting his campaign legs. Over time, I’m sure he’ll release more statements and say other things that will help refine our understanding of his views. But this is not a promising start.

When transit affordability and convenience are at odds

Last week, an IJ editorial on pricing ferry parking took a cautious note. “The bridge board needs to maintain a focus on keeping the ferry affordable to all and a convenient and dependable way to get to and from work.” The IJ is concerned that charging for parking will make the ferry unaffordable. But the aim shouldn’t be more affordability; it should be for efficiency. And, the best way to manage a scarce resource efficiently, including ferry parking, is to put a price on it.

It’s a basic principal of economics. Supply can meet demand only when the resource has the right price. Higher prices discourage consumers from using the resource and encourage producers from making more of it. When it comes to a relatively fixed resource (inelastic supply), like parking, the price just regulates demand.

In the real world, a price forces someone to consider whether that resource is actually worth paying for. Is a parking space worth $2? Those who answer no will either get to the ferry another way or take another mode of transportation to the City. This leaves room for others who are willing to pay but who couldn’t find a space before.

Here’s the neat thing. By putting a price on parking, suddenly accessing the resource, while more expensive, is actually more convenient and dependable. Today we have a shortage of spaces, and someone who doesn’t show up by 7:30am is probably not going to get a parking space. If the price is such that, say, 5 percent of parking spaces are free each day, that means there will always be parking available, even in the middle of the day.

The IJ should concern itself not with how cheap we can make a ferry trip but how efficiently we can manage the ferry’s infrastructure. Thankfully, GGT is concerned about this. So rather than spend tens of millions to boost the parking supply, GGT wants to regulate it with a fee. People can still get to the ferry for free if they want to, with a shuttle, foot, or bike, but there is room to spare there. If GGT wants to operate with efficiency, this is where people need to go.

Demographically-mixed housing plans still draw opposition

Monday’s post on sister blog Vibrant Bay Area addressed the politics of affordable housing, especially in Marin. Author Dave Alden’s thesis, in short, was that the wealthy are happy to welcome those of lower incomes into their neighborhood as long as they only work there. To actually allow them to live there raises the heckles of the wealthy whether it’s in Marin, or Portland, or LA.

Pundits and activists in Marin have struggled to come up with reasons why that aren’t inherently offensive. Development liberals often blame their opponents of racism or classism. While there may be some strains of this in the debate (a recent comment about how Strawberry “already looks like the UN” implied, perhaps inadvertently, that more affordable housing would mean more minorities, for example), prejudice is too simplistic to be an adequate explanation for Marin’s opposition. Development conservatives claim they are the vanguard against rapacious developers and out-of-touch bureaucrats, who will end up destroying Marin’s small-town character in pursuit of profit, social experimentation, or political power. This, too, is overly simplistic, again painting opponents as devils, though with a different set of horns.

Marin’s debate has suffered from this mutual vilification. Our shields and swords are out when we should be learning and listening. It’s tough, even for me, to swallow my pride and listen to those who have called me a utopian fascist (right) or naive (left). But I need to listen if I’m going to fulfill the role I set out to do in this blog: to educate people on best practices found elsewhere and advocate for their implementation. There is always common ground, provided I am more interested in finding it than kicking my opponent in the teeth.

Alden’s point, in this light, is that wealthy areas don’t know how to have this debate and never have. He’s worth reading.

Bay Area Bike Share is for the suburbanite, too

Annual memberships for Bay Area Bike Share (which will probably end up being known as BABS) went on sale this week for $88. The bike-sharing service, which will launch in San Francisco and along the Peninsula this year, could dramatically change how the western Bay Area moves around. For those in the North and East Bay commuting to San Francisco, you might want to take notice. Even without stations of your own, a membership could still be worth the price.

During rush hour in downtown San Francisco, getting around by transit can be… difficult. BART and Muni Metro run well but trains are beyond crowded. Buses and cars get stuck in gridlock, and so biking is really the only way to move through the City with any speed. But getting your bike to San Francisco can be exceptionally difficult, too. That’s where BABS comes in.

BABS will let a commuter move easily from bus or ferry to someplace far from their stop. If you need to get to anywhere in downtown, you won’t be by what’s within walking distance of the Transbay Terminal or the Ferry Building. Ferry commuters and East Bay bus riders could benefit immensely from membership, as their transit choice doesn’t cover much of the City’s core.

A potential weakness, of course, will be that the central commuter hubs in San Francisco (namely the Ferry Building, the Transbay Terminal, and 4th & King Caltrain) will experience demand that outstrips the available BABS bikes and docks. Encouraging counter-commuters to use those hubs to leave the city would help balance the load. BABS should advertise heavily on the north side of ferry stations and look at expanding into ferry origins, like Vallejo, Jack London Square, and Central Marin, to encourage in-commuter membership and counter-commuting.

During your term of membership, you get unlimited free 30-minute rides. The next half-hour will cost you $4, and each subsequent 30 minutes will cost you $7. The point is to get you to dock your bike at a BABS station, not keep it all day. You’d be surprised how far you can get in 30 minutes.

An annual membership will set you back $88 (which will eventually pay for itself if you usually transfer to Muni), but if you just want to try, a 3-day membership is $22 and a one-day membership is $9. You can sign up today. Are you going to take the plunge?

Zipcar will be a boon to San Rafael


by akseabird, on Flickr

Zipcar has made it to San Rafael, and that is absolutely wonderful news. It will make car-free living easier and opens up opportunities for the City of San Rafael to save money on its municipal fleet. It’s only three cars so far, but for downtown residents that may be all they need.

Zipcar works on a subscription model. Light users pay an annual membership fee as well as rental cost per hour or per day, which are different depending on which car the user rents. Heavier users pay a monthly fee, no annual fee, and have lower hourly fees. Organizations, including universities, can also sign up, which is especially useful for businesses whose employees tend to travel a lot during a workday, though with only three cars available it wouldn’t be the most reliable service just yet.

For this, Zipcar subscribers don’t just get access to a car. It covers the cost of gas, insurance, maintenance, replacement, and the home parking space. So while the up-front costs seem steep at first, the end result is that users often end up paying less than they would by relying on their own car.

Yet despite that, these up-front costs do change the behavior of members (PDF). Zipcar subscribers have a barrier, albeit a short one, to using a car. Rather than simply hopping in the family sedan to drive to get a haircut, Zipcar members need to reserve their car for a selected amount of time, and they immediately see how much that trip will cost them. Maybe the trip would be worth it by car, but it turns driving into a conscious choice rather than a default alternative. As a result, use of modes other than driving increases among members.

For planners and developers, this means drivers don’t need as much car space. Not only will they not be on the road as much, but they also won’t need to park in as many places and they won’t need their own personal parking spot. Zipcar’s spot, shared with others, will be enough. So a new housing development with a lot of Zipcar members won’t need as much parking, and a city with a lot of members won’t need its roads to be quite as wide.

This behavioral shift isn’t unique to Zipcar, of course. Car-sharing services from Avis and Budget, as well as standalone services like Car2Go, are just as likely to change how people drive.

If San Rafael wants Zipcar to expand, the city should allow developers to cut parking requirements from their projects if they host car-sharing cars or subsidize membership for their residents. This would build a client base for Zipcar or its competitors while also reducing the number of cars in our parking lots and on our roads.

In short, Zipcar’s entrance into the San Rafael market is a Very Good Thing. Here’s hoping they’re here to stay.

A fare hike, a toll freeze

Five years ago, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) considered varying bridge tolls based on demand, with higher prices during peak demand times. The concept, called congestion management or congestion pricing, didn’t go anywhere. Then-San Rafael mayor Al Boro torpedoed it, labeling the proposal an unfair “Marin commuter tax.” San Francisco was outraged, but at least they got a pioneering new parking system that varies the price of on-street parking by demand instead.

Meanwhile, GGT’s often-high fares have gone up by 5% every year on July 1. If congestion management is a “Marin commuter tax”, surely annual fare hikes well above inflation are the same thing. While the purpose is to try to keep fares in line with costs, the hikes aren’t targeted well enough to either manage congestion or improve the agency’s financial standing.

Better than blanket hikes would be targeted hikes to ferry fares and bridge tolls paired with bus service improvements. GGBHTD should use its monopoly power to maximize the infrastructure it has at its disposal.

Ferry ridership has proven to be extremely robust and can likely absorb the hikes, increasing its farebox recovery. For bridge tolls, the stretch of Highway 101 between Sir Francis Drake and Tiburon boulevards is about 800 cars over-capacity in the evenings, or roughly 2/5ths of a freeway lane. Adjusting tolls and bus service to shift some of demand to buses would open up the northbound direction. Trunk line bus service would be more reliable and less expensive to operate, and drivers would save 20 minutes of time every night.

Yet with a blanket 5% hike on regional and commute buses, GGBHTD is actually exacerbating its bus ridership problems. It shifts demand from a mode with excess capacity to one that is already over-capacity. This is not smart management but political management, and the outcome is worse service and worse traffic.

The kids want Marin but not the car

Star-spangled banner

by Luiza, on Flickr

The media was abuzz last month with news that the country is driving less than we have since 1996 and a report find that this trend will likely continue for at least another 30 years. Simultaneously, reports of housing preference finds that Americans increasingly want walkable, bike-friendly places to live. Both trends are most pronounced in Millennial and Boomers, the two largest cohorts working their way through our demography.

While most of the country’s suburbs grapple with some seriously car-centered places that are rapidly losing value, Marin is a special case. Our network of walkable town centers is precisely what people are looking for. They provide independence the sprawl of other places can’t. Even our arterial roads (mostly) have sidewalks, an amenity other cities dream of.

But we do need reform to capture this market, or Marin risks losing its children.

The push against driving

For the last 8 years, travel patterns have been shifting dramatically in the United States.

Since 2005, vehicle miles traveled – how many miles Americans drive – has been in decline. According to USPIRG, Americans now drive about as much per capita as we did in 1995 and as much overall as we did in 2004, while Californians have returned to 2005 and 1995 levels, respectively. Nationally, 16 to 34-year-olds drove a whopping 23 percent less in 2009 than they did in 2001.

Taking its place have been bicycling and transit, the use of which has climbed to record levels. Bicycling rates are tough to measure, thanks to very low starting numbers, but at least in San Francisco it grew 71 percent from 2006-2011. Easier to measure is the growth in transit usage, which is up 12 percent since 2002 and is now at a level similar to the 1950s. Young people, meanwhile, are taking transit for 40 percent more miles than their age group was 8 years ago.

USPIRG thinks this trend will continue, as the number of teenagers and young adults with drivers’ licenses has declined significantly – to levels not seen since the 1970s – and shows no sign of abating. Consumer surveys show little interest in driving or cars among the young, with most viewing car ownership as a burden instead of a freedom. Instead, mobile devices have become symbols of freedom and status. Even AAA admits that any operation of these devices in a car, even by voice, is incredibly unsafe.

This shift in preference marks a significant difference of opinion from their parents’ generation, which saw cars as signs of adulthood, freedom, and status. However, even those Boomers are starting to drive less. As they retire, they’ll be able to cut the daily commute. And, over the next 20 years, more and more will age out of driving. This will further depress our VMT.

The push for walkability

Though many have gone through an urban phase before decamping to the suburbs, no modern generation has so embraced the city as the Millennials.

Across the country, this preference has shown up in price spikes around downtown cores, some of which have been in decline for decades. And it’s not just the big name cities, either. While Detroit, Washington, and New York get headlines, places like Kansas City, MO, and Charlotte, NC, are seeing their downtowns’ fortunes revive.

Driving the demand for city living is demand for high access by foot and bike to jobs, shops, and services. Though some love the bustle of the city, others just want the pleasant walk to the store, whether in a city or a suburb. Marin’s town cores offer the balance of city and suburb that is all too rare outside New England.

Yet the continued focus on drivability over biking, walking, and transit puts a damper on Marin’s ability to capitalize on this natural advantage. Rather than expand our town centers, we allow them to be islands of walkable living in a sea of pedestrian-unfriendly arterial roads. We value them, true, but we keep them in a box.

Instead of just preserving them, we ought to allow them to expand. Why should downtown Mill Valley be contained north of Sunnyside? Or downtown San Anselmo remain a 6-block strip along San Anselmo Avenue? Only Fairfax has expanded its downtown zone, replacing all its parking-heavy Highway Commercial zone with Downtown zoning.

Yet even within town cores, housing for singles – one bedrooms and studios – are strongly discouraged by a potent mix of parking minimums and density limits. Between town cores, the bicycling infrastructure needed for the most utilitarian trips – with cargo bikes or small children – is practically nonexistent.

Does this mean the end of the single-family detached home in Marin? Hardly. Though the more strident opponents of change in Marin claim any change means wholesale demolition of car-centric neighborhoods in Marinwood and Novato, there is still absolutely a place for them in the housing mix. Rather, what Marin needs is more diversity of transportation and housing options, not less, as has lately been the case.

If Marin wants to keep the residents that made the county a counter-culture mecca while attracting a new generation to a quieter alternative to San Francisco and Oakland, it will need to address this shifting reality. Eventually the Boomers will be unable to or unsafe to drive (asking them to purchase a self-driving car is simply outsourcing the problem), and the Millennials that should take their place will want better bike lanes and better transit options.

If we don’t adapt, Marin risks becoming an exclusive enclave for the rich and retired, hardly a fitting end to the hippies who put Marin on the map.

GGT offers a thin lifeline in the BART strike

BART is on strike. I’ll spare you the gory details of why, as they’re covered much more extensively in other news media. However, now’s a good time to refresh minds about bus service through Marin. Though not ideal, it could be better than nothing for those who can get to Richmond or Del Norte BART stations.

GGT routes 40 and 42 head to San Rafael, where a commuter can transfer to San Francisco-bound 27, 44, 70, 80, and 101. If you don’t want to wait, or if you think you’ll get lost in the crowd, you can head down the freeway on routes 17, 36, or 71 to one of the other commuter lines. As usual, pack the 101 service pocket guide.

The thing you probably won’t want to do is head to the Larkspur ferry. Parking is cramped as it is, and direct bus access is minimal. If you insist on a ferry, get on almost any bus heading south (17, 27, 36, 70, 71, 80) and hop off at the next stop. You have a ¾ mile walk from there. That, or drive to the ferry before 7am.

GGT has a much more extensive listing of how to get to SF. The fastest way may be to take a commuter bus from north of San Rafael so as to avoid the general traffic lanes through as much of Marin as you can. However, south of Marin City, the HOV lanes end and you’ll get stuck in traffic. At least you can sleep through the stop-and-go.

Good luck out there. It’s brutal.