Better streets in New York instructive for Marin

Nobody wants Marin to turn into a New York City – it’s a great city but we like our quiet just fine thankyouverymuch – but that most pedestrian of places has become a laboratory for how to redesign streets with people in mind. From Redwood Boulevard to Alexander Avenue, there are myriad ways to actually improve the flow of traffic while giving space to those on foot or bike.

Janette Sadik-Khan, chief of NYC’s Department of Transportation, was the architect of so much of of this change and enshrined it in a planning guide for the rest of the country. At its most basic, her concern was for simplicity: simple intersections, simple crosswalks, simple interchanges, and so on. The Department of Transportation released a report, Making Streets Safer (PDF), detailing how to apply the principals it has pursued for 6 years.

Formed in the concrete canyons, these are principals we can apply to our much quieter county. Downtown Mill Valley, for example, is a tangle of streets, intersections, and crosswalks. You’re never quite sure who can go next at the stop signs or where pedestrians are going to come from next or even where the parking actually is. The San Anselmo Hub, too, is a bit of a mess, with long delays at rush hour and a bus turn that relies on the goodness of drivers to navigate.

Streetfilms profiled the dramatic transformation New York underwent during Sadik-Khan’s tenure. It is worth a few minutes of your day.

NYC Streets Metamorphosis from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Sketching out a better Muir Woods Shuttle

Residents of Tam Valley are up in arms about Muir Woods, and it’s no wonder. Their community and its two-lane road is the gateway to the popular site, as well as all the beauty and recreation of southern West Marin.

In response to the cry, the Board of Supervisors wrote to the National Park Service and asked them to explore improving shuttle service and to limit visitors.

While limiting visitors is an awfully stingy solution to the traffic problems in Tam Valley, tackling the traffic problem with transit alone is likely to be tough. How to restructure the shuttle to improve service to provide that much travel is an important question.

So, to get planners’ creative juices flowing, here’s my own sketch of a new shuttle, lifted from some brainstorming on Twitter.

Guiding questions: What is the purpose of the program? To ease traffic to West Marin through Tam Valley. To do that without limiting visitors, we need to create a shuttle that takes enough cars off the road to make traffic run more smoothly. What’s the purpose of that shuttle? To provide a car-free way for people to visit Muir Woods.

How do we make this shuttle attractive to tourists who might have rented a car and might be from areas where transit is not part of their daily lives?

Basically, like any good transit, we need to run it from a logical origin point to our logical endpoint while hitting other possible origin/destinations in the process. For tourists in San Francisco and Southern Marin, the primary destinations are Union Square, Coit Tower, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason, Lombard Street, and the cable cars in San Francisco, and Sausalito, the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, and Stinson Beach in Marin.

Muir Woods sits on a dead-end, so it’s probably not a good idea to go on to Stinson Beach. The time going in and out again is just too much of an inconvenience for something going on to West Marin. Hitting Sausalito makes easy sense for a shuttle. Route 66F does this now and doesn’t get enough riders, so we’ll need to press on.

The Golden Gate Bridge makes a lot of sense. Not everyone wants to take a ferry to Sausalito, but everyone wants to see the Bridge if they’re touring San Francisco. It would be a good way to make the shuttle highly visible to tourists and catch those who want Muir Woods but not the ferry ride.

What about Fisherman’s Wharf? It would certainly put the shuttle into the heart of tourist San Francisco, lending it ease of use and ease of access. The problem is how far Fisherman’s Wharf is from the ultimate destination – Muir Woods – and how much it would cost to run a shuttle with appreciable frequency that deep into The City.

Not to say it isn’t impossible, only expensive. At a typical $89 per revenue hour (the number of collective hours the shuttle vehicles operate for passengers), it would likely cost above $1 million annually to operate, less fare revenues. It may also do more to boost tourism to Muir Woods than offset driving, which isn’t something the National Parks Service wants.

So, unless there is a compelling reason for the shuttle to run all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf, I propose the shuttle run from the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza to Muir Woods, passing through Sausalito (timed with the ferry), Marin City, and park & ride lots on the way. It should run consistently and frequently, with on- and off-season schedules. Every 15 minutes allows people to just show up and go. And the average wait of 7.5 minutes at the Golden Gate Bridge could easily be filled by reading plaques with facts about Southern Marin and the redwoods, not to mention fabulous views of The City and the Bridge. Shuttle should start so they can arrive at Muir Woods at its opening and end at closing.

The current Muir Woods shuttle, Route 66, typically runs to Marin City. It’s much more a parking shuttle than a tourist shuttle, as the only destinations tourists might want to be at are park & ride lots to wait for the shuttle. Infrequently, it runs to the Sausalito Ferry as Route 66F. This is the route that makes more sense from a tourist’s perspective, as it allows the tourist to chain their Marin trips together. Adding the Golden Gate Bridge would add significant value to the shuttle.

Short of that, it would add value to run all shuttles as 66F. We don’t want to ask shuttle riders to drive or transfer, but running most shuttles to park & rides forces tourists either to take Golden Gate Transit or drive.

A non-route concept might have just as much impact as good transit design: limit access to the park for people driving. If you plan to arrive by car, you’d need to reserve a timeslot for your car ahead of time. People arriving by shuttle wouldn’t face that kind of limitation, dramatically incentivizing people to take transit or at least use the park & rides.

A free transfer from the ferry, too, would help overcome the feeling that we’re just gouging the tourists: tickets for everyone for the ferry, tickets for everyone on the shuttle, then back…

Total cost to operate this shuttle? Somewhere around $1 million per year, though with fares it will probably cost the taxpayers around $750,000. With the parking limit, taxpayer cost would be significantly less.

We don’t want to limit access to Muir Woods unless we must, and right now there’s no need to do so. The alternative – a well-designed shuttle program paired with the right incentives – needs a chance to work. To say we need to limit access and solve traffic before boosting the shuttle is to display incomprehension about the purpose and power of good transit. It is not an add-on; it is a solution.

In doing so, we can keep our national heritage open for all Americans, not just the ones who got there first.

An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

Someone lost a daughter last week. Olga Rodriguez was killed by a driver while crossing the street in downtown San Rafael. Though her unnamed walking companion survived, he’s in the hospital with serious injuries. The driver, who stayed on the scene and is cooperating fully with police, only stopped after he heard them being hit. According to him, he never saw them.

The driver was turning left from Third Street to Heatherton. From photos, it appears that he was in the inner left-turn lane where it would be harder to see anyone in the crosswalk. The truck is also quite tall, so it’s entirely possible he never did see either Olga or her companion. That’s a sign the intersection is broken, and the crash was likely preventable.

The fix is fairly straightforward: give pedestrians a head start when crossing (something known as a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI). After the light on Heatherton turns red to southbound traffic, pedestrians crossing Heatherton would get a walk sign but Third Street would stay red. Three or four seconds later, Third Street would turn green.

Whether or not the truck driver could have seen Olga or her companion before he hit them, they would have been much harder to miss had they had a short head start. As well, rather than trust drivers to give pedestrians priority, the structure of the intersection gives priority to pedestrians instead.

The LPI isn’t just window dressing. A study by Michael King in New York City found that a pedestrian head start leads to a 12 percent reduction in crashes over the baseline or 28 percent reduction compared to unmodified intersections, which saw crashes increase by 17 percent over the course of the study. While crashes did still occur, their severity occurred declined 55 percent overall and 68 percent in comparison to unmodified intersections.*

A flashing yellow arrow would make things even more apparent. Research on yellow arrows in this situation is scant, but in situations with two-way traffic they make drivers exceptionally aware of oncoming traffic. This is precisely the kind of awareness drivers need while navigating an awkward and busy intersection like Third and Heatherton. A zebra-striped crosswalk would further raise the visibility of people crossing.

Though these kinds of changes require advanced signal hardware, it needs to be purchased anyway to tie SMART in to area’s traffic signals. It would simply be part of that purchase.

The ubiquitous pedestrian barrier is often the tool of choice for San Rafael’s public works department, but deploying it here would just give up on the intersection. It’s a vital connection to the Transit Center for commuters at the park and ride and anyone coming from east San Rafael. The area can get sketchy at night, and discouraging legitimate foot traffic will only make it sketchier. Nobody should ever fear for their lives while crossing the street, especially not in an area that’s supposed to be the heart of the county’s transit system.

We cannot erase the physical scars of Olga’s companion. We cannot bring back Olga or wash her blood from the conscience of the driver who killed her. But we can honor the companion’s wounds and Olga’s death and make sure this never happens again.

* New York State assigns numerical values to crashes based on cost to society. Collisions with fatalities were multiplied by 2729, those whose victims were hospitalized and seriously injured were multiplied by 1214, those whose victims were hospitalized but not seriously injured were multiplied by 303, and those whose victims were injured but walked away were multiplied by 76. The total was then divided by the number of crashes.

Wider 101 onramps could be a boon for bus riders, too

Metering lights could be coming to Highway 101 in Marin as soon as 2015 and with them wider onramps. Though one wouldn’t expect this to be a boon to transit riders, this is an ideal chance for TAM to improve the county’s bus pads. It should not pass it up.

I wrote about the bus pad on Greater Greater Washington, an urbanist blog in Washington, DC, and commenters quickly panned it. “This falls into the ‘better than nothing’ category,” said one. Another: “If we’re calling these pads an improvement, it really should be an indictment of how low we’ve set the bar.” Ben Ross posted a link to the piece on Twitter with his commentary:

Though most bus riders appreciate the speed of freeway-running buses, they do have a point. Crossing a freeway onramp without a crosswalk is dangerous and frightening. Transferring from a pad to a street stop can be a pain (and a trek). While the southbound bus pad might be right next to your destination, the northbound bus pad might be a half-mile slog away. And, of course, waiting at the edge of a freeway with nothing around but parking lots or low-maintenance landscaping can be exceedingly unpleasant.

We can change all that.

There are three areas where bus pads need to improve: access, comfort, and speed.

Access means improving the connections between the surface streets and the bus pads, as well as moving the two pads closer together so both directions are accessible to development near the ramps.

Caltrans redesigned the Tiburon Wye’s interchange – a “parclo” (partial cloverleaf) interchange common around Marin – to better facilitate bus pad access and transfers. The redesign, which is still on the drawing board, puts surface street and freeway bus stops as close together as possible and allows buses entering the freeway to use the pads. It is a good example of what is possible.

New Tiburon Wye

The Tiburon Wye after its redesign. Click to enlarge, or click here for the full Marin Transit report (PDF). Image from Marin Transit.

Where a redesign like Tiburon’s isn’t possible, the metering lights themselves present an opportunity to make bus pad access safer. If the metering light signal were linked to a pedestrian button, like a regular street crosswalk, a rider could simply press it and wait for a walk sign. That sounds much better than a running through a break in traffic.

For comfort, the bus pads need shade and some greenery. Landscaping, especially shade trees, would go a long way. Approaching paths need similar treatment.

Some bus pads, like the ones at Smith Ranch Road/Lucas Valley, have clear paths worn away by commuters approaching by more rational paths than the ones provided by freeway engineers. These should be formalized and upgraded with lighting, pavement, and shade.

For speed, the proposed HOV onramp lanes would help at the places where trunk line and commuter buses enter the freeway, especially downtown Novato, downtown San Rafael, Larkspur Landing, Strawberry, Manzanita and Marin City. Shaving 30 seconds off each ramp for a bus with 40 people onboard will amount to a lot of time saved.

Transit-friendly designs need to be baked in from the beginning of this process. That will allow staff to fully vet them before presentations to the governing boards and the state. The further plans get without these designs, the more difficult and expensive it will be to add them in.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally alter how Marin’s transit moves along the 101 corridor. Let’s prove Ben Ross and the other East Coast naysayers wrong. We can do so much better than what we have, and now we have a chance to do so.