Mill Valley tries free parking downtown

Free parking spaces in Mill Valley. Image from the city of Mill Valley.

Free parking spaces in Mill Valley. Image from the city of Mill Valley.

Free parking has, over the last decade, been identified as a major cause of sprawl, tax wastage, and traffic. San Francisco’s pioneering SFPark program, which attempts to price parking according to demand, has found that a well-managed parking supply can decrease traffic, increase retail sales, and even increase the availability of spaces.

Downtown Mill Valley is running an opposite experiment of sorts with 30 of its downtown parking spaces. PG&E will be replacing a significant amount of pipe downtown for weeks, taking 8 spaces out of commission and causing major disruptions to the usually bucolic town center. To counteract that, Mill Valley has made 30 spaces – a hefty fraction of its on-street parking – free from April 14 to May 2.

The research

I’m sure you’ve had the misfortune of circling endlessly for a parking space, only to have the one you spotted snatched up by someone in front of you. Research from UCLA’s Donald Shoup has found that such circling accounts for up to 30 percent of traffic (PDF) in dense areas.

This is a problem. The more time people spend hunting for a parking space (average is around 3 minutes), the less time they’ll want to spend at local shops. And, the more painful the search for a space, the less likely people will want to come back.

The culprit is underpriced parking.

When SFPark started operating, the aim was to leave at least one space available on every block by adjusting the price of parking. SFPark measured occupancy by each block and raised or lowered prices incrementally one space was free per block.

After three years, SFPark has decreased traffic, increased turnover, and – for the most part – accomplished its aims. The number of parking tickets has dropped and even the average price to park fell. This validates Shoup’s theories in a major real-world setting.

The plan

The 30 spaces Mill Valley has made free are funded by PG&E and the local Chamber of Commerce, as the city relies on the income from parking meters for its general operations.

Though there was apparently some talk about reducing bus fare to downtown, Chamber officials told The Greater Marin that PG&E didn’t give them enough of a heads-up to coordinate with another agency, and they’d rather do half of something – give free parking – rather than do nothing at all.

Unfortunately, Mill Valley isn’t using this as an opportunity for research. Because only a few of the parking spaces will be free, those will be at a premium. Will it cause more circling in the free area? Will it decrease turnover?

While the Christmas seasons’ free parking offers a great experiment for the whole downtown, it would be incredibly useful to understand how setting the price of parking at $0 for only a few spaces would affect downtown demand. It would also show whether this sort of program is a useful incentive to shop downtown or if it’s just going to muck things up more.

Given the research on parking policy, it seems unlikely the two-week program will lead to anything like the efficiency downtown Mill Valley will need with PG&E’s construction. I suspect there will be people circling around for the free parking spaces and lower turnover than normal, though without data we’ll have no idea whether that’s true or not.

It seems rather more likely that the program’s advertising aims – to let potential customers know that yes, indeed, Mill Valley is still open for business – will be the big win. The Chamber of Commerce will gather anecdotal evidence from its member merchants about what worked and what didn’t, and we’ll have to see what can be gleaned from that when the program ends.

In the meantime, be sure to take Route 17 downtown. They could use the business, and I suspect they’ll also need the parking spaces.

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Bus commuter schedules no longer reflect demand

Though by all accounts Golden Gate Transit’s commuter bus system is quite popular, it is increasingly out of touch with the commute times of Marin’s modern workforce. Marinites leave for work later, but GGT continues to operate with early-morning service.

FiveThirtyEight recently took Census data and determined which metropolitan areas get to work the latest. The San Francisco metro area, of which Marin is a part, got fifth on the list, with a median arrival time of 8:17am but a 75th percentile arrival time of about 9:30am. The bottom of the range is about 7:45am.

Just after reading this, reader John Browne, a frequent rider of the last Route 18 from Kentfield, tweeted:

It turns out John Browne is right.

Using the same Census data FiveThirtyEight used (though without the math to convert it into the ranges author Nate Silver did), I plotted out the average departure times for Marin commuters taking all modes to work. Transit commuters leave work at roughly the same rate as others up until 9am:

Yellow is transit.

Yellow is transit.

The proportion of transit riders leaving home between 9 and 10 stays down after the drop from 8:30 to 8:59 while other modes pop back up.

A glance at the span of service for Marin’s commute buses makes it easy to see why that might be. On average, the last Marin stop for a Marin commuter line is about 8:27, while the average last departure is a bit earlier at 8am. In other words, if you want to get out of Marin by bus, you’re probably going to have to leave home before 8 or 8:30, and that’s exactly what shows up in the Census data.

GGT should reexamine the county’s travel demand and which final buses are the most crowded and aim to add service to those lines later in the morning. Adding to service span will scoop up riders that want to leave later, and can also give earlier riders the peace of mind that they can leave later if needed, helping shore up ridership earlier in the morning, too.

It’s not just tech workers that are leaving later in the day, it’s Marinites in general. Our transit system should start scheduling for that.

Even as bridge tolls increase, gap with fares widens

This week, tolls increased on the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in 6 years, to $6 with FasTrak. Though there was some grumbling and a bit of consternation from drivers who now need to deal with a more expensive commute, these cost hikes are no stranger to transit riders, who have faced annual fare increases for over a decade.

A quick look at the discount toll and average discount fare (adjusted for inflation) starts to get at the picture:

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare's increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare’s increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Though it’s obvious from above, the point is best expressed from the ratio of fares-to-toll:

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases despite annual toll hikes.

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases from 2014 through 2018 despite annual toll hikes. That’s because, as fares increase by 5 percent per year, tolls increase $0.25 per year, a percentage increase that gets less each year.

In 1992, the average round-trip bus fare was 1.62 times the discount toll. That ratio reached a high of 2.44 last July 1, when the latest fare increase was made. Now that the tolls have gone up, the ratio has dropped to 2.03, the lowest it’s been in 5 years, but that will be transitory. On July 1, when fares increase another 5 percent, the ratio will head back up again, to 2.14.

If fares continue to increase 5 percent every year, that ratio will continue to widen, even with annual $0.25 toll hikes, to 2.22 in 2018.

Strictly from an equity perspective, this is unjust. Bus riders tend to be lower-income, and so have a more difficult time taking fare hikes, while the opposite tends to be true of drivers. Not only that, but others who can’t drive – those who are blind, albino, elderly, and others – are disproportionately hit by fare hikes.

By pushing away those who have access to the driving alternative, too, the fare hikes render transit more and more into a second-class social welfare service rather than the first-class transportation service it could be.

From a technical perspective, those new drivers adds to congestion at the rush hours, forcing everyone, rider and driver alike, into a slog every morning and night. It’s a terribly inefficient transit system, destroying any advantage of having a freeway. San Francisco, Sonoma, and Marin all suffer.

Narrow goals lead to bad outcomes

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) has as its explicit goal that fares should cover at least 25 percent of bus operations and 40 percent of ferry operations. By raising fares regularly, GGBHTD is trying to hit that moving target. Bus ridership has dropped dramatically since 2000 and with it has fallen transportation income, while operating costs have jacked up the price of providing service.

To compensate, GGBHTD has hiked fares every year since 1998, boosting inflation-adjusted fares 82 percent.

The problem is that GGBHTD isn’t thinking like a business, where income is more than just a function of price, and it’s not thinking like a government agency, with broader societal concerns than mere income. The end result is a nonsensical and unjust policy of never-ending fare hikes far beyond inflation and ever-slower commutes.

Broaden the goals, reformulate the prices

The core technical mission of GGBHTD should be to help prevent congestion in the areas most immediately effected by its policies, namely Central and Southern Marin, and work with the transit and congestion management agencies in San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma to prevent or mitigate it in the rest of its commute shed. This would fit with the original founding purpose of Golden Gate Transit, which was to resolve congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge.

To ensure its historic, technical mission is fulfilled, GGBHTD needs to rework its pricing scheme with congestion in mind. This will mean tolls will rise, but not necessarily too much. If fares stay flat or even decrease, that daily congestion toll may not need to rise nearly so much to ensure congestion is alleviated. Physical changes, such as creating carpool lanes on 101 as far as Lombard in San Francisco, will also help mitigate congestion and, therefore, that toll hike.

The core social justice mission for GGBHTD should be to ensure transit is a tool of freedom for the poor and car-free, rather than make this one more way they can’t succeed. This would fit with the original purpose of having Greyhound take up the transit slack once our light rail system was put out of business by GGBHTD.

Yet progress is made in this equally historic social justice mission simply when GGBHTD meets its technical mission, which by necessity will decrease the fare/toll gap. If the district invests the new toll revenue in more frequent bus service and better bus infrastructure, it will elevate raise the prestige and enjoyment of using the bus system.

Finally, GGBHTD’s efforts will increase ridership (and therefore fares), to meet its new mission of keeping fare revenue in sync with operating costs.

The ever-rising gap between fares and tolls is symptomatic of deep dysfunction in the heart of GGBHTD. An obsession with a single metric – revenue – has led to an incredibly inefficient transportation system and caused the district to fail in the missions it was founded to accomplish. Drivers, riders, the poor, the rich – all suffer under this scheme.

*As Golden Gate Transit doesn’t keep historic bus and ferry fares available online, rather just fare increases, this is backwards-calculated from the average cost to travel from the North Bay to San Francisco on bus and ferry. GGT also doesn’t keep historic fare increases available from before 1993.

Marin is growing, and not slowly

Marin County’s population grew by 1 percent from 2012 to 2013, slightly faster than the state and much faster than the country at large. The new numbers challenge the concept of Marin as a naturally slow-growth county.

In total, Marin added about 2,500 people in 2013, bringing our population up to over 258,000 for the first time. If we keep up the pace, we’ll break 260,000 in 2014.

Our growth rate is 0.1 percentage points faster than California, which grew by 0.9 percent between 2012 and 2013, and 0.3 percentage points faster than the United States as a whole. It’s 0.3 points slower than the Bay Area at large, however, which was driven by swift growth in Alameda and Santa Clara (1.6 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively). Instead, rather than tracking with San Francisco, Marin grew at a rate typical of North Bay counties: 0.9 percent in Sonoma, 1.1 percent in Solano, and 1 percent in Napa.

This is far faster than our historic growth rate.

Between 2000 and 2010, Marin only added about 5,000 people in total, an annual growth rate of just 0.2 percent. In just 3 years, from 2010 to 2013, however, we added almost 6,000 people, an average annual growth rate of 0.7 percent.

Most of our newcomers were not new births but migrants. Natural increase – births minus deaths – accounted for less than 20 percent of the new population. Net migration accounted for the rest, showing that we aren’t a county of young, growing families.

While full demographic information for 2013 won’t be out until later this year*, results from 2012 showed that Marin has been steadily aging, with a new median age of 45.2, up from 44.5 in 2010. Marin is already the oldest county in the Bay Area with the most bedrooms per person, and this is likely not to decrease.

It will be interesting to see if these trends continue. If so, it will provide strong evidence that Marin is leaving behind its traditional role as a family-centered suburb and instead is entering a prolonged period as the Bay Area’s retirement community. If this year bucks the trend, then perhaps a future of rich retirees is not quite written in stone.

Either way, the slow-growth narrative is challenged by this past year’s growth. We are growing far faster than we did in the past decade, much more in line with the region and even faster than the state. It will be interesting to see how county leaders and activists respond.

*Once 2013 demographic data is released, we will revisit the analysis published in 2012: age, household size, household growth, units, bedrooms, rents, and household income.

Update: The source of the population growth figures is the United States Census, which estimates population each year for every county in the country.

Optical illusions on Fourth Street

While working on a piece about bike lanes, I stumbled across something odd that says a lot about how the built environment influences perceptions.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

A pet peeve of mine for years has been Fourth Street through West End in San Rafael. The neighborhood has struggled for years under the shadow of downtown, hidden just over a short hill, and street width is part of the reason I rarely spend time there. It just doesn’t feel cozy like downtown. Downtown is above this paragraph, West End is below.

San Rafael's West End

San Rafael’s West End

So when I got back street width data from city hall, I made a double take. Fourth Street through West End, which runs from H to E streets, was actually narrower than the rest of Fourth all the way to its end at Union, by up to 10 feet: 40 feet vs. 50 feet.

So why does it feel so much wider? Look again at the two pictures and you’ll see some stark differences. In downtown, the trees are older, the street parking is a bit fuller, and the buildings on both sides of the street cozy right up to the sidewalk. In West End, the buildings only cozy up to the sidewalk on one side of the street, with parking lots and show leading way back to squat buildings on the other side.

Those parking lots make the street appear significantly wider than it actually is, creating an optical illusion. I can’t think of a better example of how walkable development influences our sense of place better than this.