San Rafael must get a handle on pedestrian deaths

A New York City intersection before and after treatment. Image from NYCDOT

A New York City intersection before and after treatment. Image from NYCDOT

Four people have suffered violent, brutal deaths in San Rafael in the past nine months. Each one was entirely preventable, each one caused by what should have been a simple mistake that happened to have been made in traffic.

Traffic is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, and San Rafael’s wave of pedestrian deaths shows the city is not immune.

Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, San Rafael should take a page from cities that have adopted Vision Zero, a plan to cut annual pedestrian and bicycling deaths to zero, returning what is a too-routine fact of life into the shock that it really is.

If it does, it will follow the far-more congested cities of Chicago, and San Francisco, but especially New York.

New York’s pioneering transportation director, Jeanette Sadik-Khan, laid the groundwork during the last mayoral administration. Many of New York’s roads had overly complicated intersections or simple dead spaces of asphalt, which confused drivers and pedestrians alike, and she adopted a Keep It Simple approach to make these notorious streets safer.

Sadik-Khan directed her staff to clearly define pedestrian space, driver space, bicycle space and the areas where they need to share.

She expanded the use of the Leading Pedestrian Interval, which gives pedestrians a head-start on walk signs, and reconfigured intersections to allow for more direct pedestrian crossings.

Though the city’s drivers at first complained about a so-called “War on Cars,” the result was actually smoother-flowing traffic and — shockingly — faster drive times through Manhattan.

Safety, too, went up dramatically, with some intersections posting a 45 percent drop in injury crashes.

A report from her office summarizes the approach: “The fundamental characteristic of the successful projects is that they create the opportunity for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to move through the street network simply and easily, minimizing the unexpected, the confusing, and the potential for surprises.”

In other words, make the street easy to use by minimizing complexity and allowing people to go where they want to go.

Continue reading on Marin IJ.

Fairfax’s progressive zoning under threat

Downtown Fairfax. By Ryan, on Flickr.

Downtown Fairfax. By Ryan, on Flickr.

About 16 years ago, I was excited to be a newly-minted Drake High freshman and Fairfax was excited to start on a major update to its General Plan. Three months ago I celebrated my 30th and Fairfax celebrated the passage of the final piece of its general plan update. But last month, the town started to undo its work, and the most substantive part of the General Plan – its zoning and housing elements – are under threat.

These elements are separate but connected pieces. The zoning element is something I neglected to praise when it was first revealed in 2012. It rezones all highway commercial zones as downtown commercial, a dramatic step away from the auto-centric design that defines Sir Francis Drake and Center. It also adds scatters in three Planned Development Districts to accommodate specialized developments: one at Christ Lutheran Church for 40 units of senior housing; one at 10 Olema Road for 22 small, single-family homes; and one at School Street Plaza for 9 homes mixed with commercial space.

Built atop the zoning element is the first state-approved housing element in over a decade. It puts Fairfax in compliance with state law regarding affordable housing, allowing it to avoid writing another housing element for 8 years. The element also allows second units (a major goal of anti-development activists), home sharing, and other non-traditional affordable home formats.

Unfortunately, the zoning element suffered from typos and inconsistencies between its tables and the actual policy text and maps. Though Fairfax’s legal counsel and planning staff assured the public and the council that the typos were not a problem, project opponents alleged the typos opened up dozens of other properties for development. Led by former councilmember Frank Egger, the opponents drew up a ballot initiative to withdraw zoning. That would have the housing element out of compliance with state law and put the town back to Square One.

Opponents relied upon this falsehood to sell their initiative and gathered 1,000 signatures, which they submitted the afternoon before the town council was scheduled to vote on addressing the typos the initiative was intended to address. That locked the zoning from any changes and prevented the council from fixing the problems opponents complained about.

While opponents claim they had no idea this would lock the zoning, it strains credulity that a former mayor and a coterie of old political hands wouldn’t know that legislation that’s the subject of a ballot initiative is locked down.

Yet rather than face a ballot fight and further divide the town, the council decided in a 3-2 vote in May to start the process to rescind the zoning themselves. Mayor David Weinsoff, one of the votes to keep the zoning, said the town was capitulating to bullies.

The vote to rescind is bad policy, an attempt to find a compromise with opponents who refuse to work with the council. If they were concerned about typos, they would have submitted their signatures after the council had a chance to change them, not before. If they were concerned about the content of the General Plan, they had 16 years of public process to voice them.

The rezoning is the most progressive step by any town in Marin

As I’ve said before, the guiding light of this blog’s view that the beauty and livability of its town centers are at the heart of what makes Marin’s towns great. The policy under threat, to allow Fairfax’s downtown to grow into areas where it has not been, fits hand in hand with that understanding.

While other towns have decided to innovate and create standalone developments in driving strips, or to create driving-oriented developments on their fringes, Fairfax decided to invest in its downtown. It’s a recognition that what makes Fairfax great isn’t its parking lots on Center; it’s the shops and homes Bolinas.

Pursuing affordable housing in a way that doesn’t just fit with Fairfax’s character but is inspired by the physical and spiritual heart of town is the only way to turn the lemons of affordable housing mandates into lemonade.

Coalition for a Livable Marin has launched a petition asking the council to stop the process of rescinding the zoning. The coalition’s steering committee, of which I am a member, believes the decision to rescind the zoning is bad for the town. Not only does it spit in the face of downtown, essentially saying it’s an aberration that shouldn’t be replicated, but it puts in jeopardy 71 affordable housing units.

It puts Fairfax on a path toward legal confrontation with California, as the zoning underpins the already-certified Housing Element. And it undoes possibly the most promising reform of second unit policy in the county, setting back a key goal of both affordable housing proponents and the anti-development party.

What the council is doing runs counter to its history as the funky, progressive place we know it as. Fairfax should keep its zoning.

Golden Gate Transit disses Novato commuters

Service meltdown.

Service meltdown.

Last month, Novato transit rider Danny Skarka reported on a bus driver’s claim that, due to a lack of drivers, commute Route 54 would often have cancelled buses under the new schedule. I never heard back from Golden Gate Transit (GGT) about the claim, but it seems Skarka’s driver was right.

For a number of days since the start of the new schedule, Route 54 has cancelled runs without prior notice, apparently on both the southbound and northbound trips. Another rider, Andrew Fox, reports:

[T]he last two 54s I’ve been on have been absolutely jam-packed. Last Wednesday there were numerous standees due to a canceled bus (I took Thursday and Friday off, so I don’t know about those days), and then of course you know about the situation this morning. We had 9 standees, all of whom got on at the busy Alameda del Prado bus pad/park-and-ride.

In my experience the 54 is a very busy bus. Commuters in Novato like me really rely upon it, especially given how miserable traffic has become in the last few years. I for one refuse to drive into the city anymore. Novato commuters have the choice of two different commute bus routes: the 56 or the 54, but the majority of them use the 54 due to the fact that it stops in more locations than the 56. This is a pretty lousy way to encourage transit use.

It’s irksome to see these buses canceled, especially when we hear news of new routes in Southern Marin (“the Wave Bus”) and see buses to Mill Valley (the 4) fly by every 5 minutes or so.

It also seems as though the problem is not isolated to the 54. Sonoma commuter Kathryn Hecht, who rides the 74, reported a cancelled evening run that meant an hour-long delay in San Francisco, as well as a cancelled morning run:

In any other industry, spotty quality is a sign of either a collapsing business model or inept management. The customer service experience is paramount to building a strong brand and strong customer base. For a scheduled service, like transit, this is even more important. People expect consistency, and they expect the schedule to be a promise, not a maybe.

We’ve discussed GGT’s failures in the past, but this is far worse than avoiding real-time arrival systems or not allowing rear-door exits. Simply put, GGT is making a stealth cut to Northern Marin and Sonoma service to expand Central and Southern Marin service. This is bad business and a further sign of GGT’s lack of managerial skill. If it continues, it will lose customers and turn what should be a premium transit product into a product of last resort.

GGT is burning its brand, and for no reason. It should immediately hire new drivers to staunch the bleeding and issue a very public apology to its Northern Marin and Sonoma commuters, perhaps with free rides for a month on the effected routes.

There are deeper structural problems to GGT’s service model, of which this is just a symptom. GGT needs to staunch this bleeding and change its operating model to ensure problems like this never happen again.

Marin’s cities are growing fast, too

Last month, we reported that Marin’s population grew much faster in 2013 than it had historically, up 1 percent rather than the historical average of 0.2 percent. Last week, the US Census released numbers for cities and towns, and the numbers show an equally sunny trend.

Cities and town populations grew an average of 1.1 percent in 2013 led by 1.8 percent growth in Novato, 1.2 percent in Mill Valley, and 1.1 percent in Tiburon.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

2013 Population growth. Only unincoporated Marin grew slowly.

This is on the heels of a very slow growth decade. Between 2000 and 2010, a number of towns shrank: Sausalito, Belvedere, San Anselmo, and Larkspur, along with unincorporated Marin. As you can see from the chart above, not one part of Marin shrank in the past 3 years, a marked change. Of those towns that did grow from 2000-2010, Mill Valley and Corte Madera grew faster in the past 3 years than they did that whole decade. So did Marin County as a whole.

Other towns reversed shrinking trends. Belvedere, Larkspur, San Anselmo, Sausalito, and unincoporated Marin all shrank between 2000 and 2010, and all grew over the past 3 years.

Novato stands apart from the data as by far the fastest-growing city in the county, and it is accelerating along with the rest of the county. Between 2000 and 2010, it grew an average of 0.9 percent per year, while this past year it more than doubled that rate, to 1.8 percent. It is known as the city with the cheapest housing, but much of that cost is offset by driving. The H+T affordability index puts the city as just as unaffordable as the rest of the county, and it’s not surprising. Novatoans have longer commutes than other Marinites, while its high rate of retail leakage means plenty of them are also driving far for errands.

We don’t yet know who these new residents are by city, but we do know that they aren’t births. Most of the new residents to the county at large moved here; were it not for them, we’d be shrinking rapidly.

We also know they aren’t occupying new housing. Over the past 3 years, Marin’s housing stock has been essentially stable, growing by just 0.25 percent.

This throws a wrench into the slow-growth argument against housing. Every city is growing faster than it did from 2000-2010, and this past year every city grew more than 0.8 percent. It’s not just Novato carrying the county.

It also means that, even with essentially nothing in the way of new housing, Marin is growing. Critics are right that Marin can’t solve the region’s housing crisis on its own, but it also can’t ignore the fast-brewing problems within its own borders. Rapid population growth without housing only tightens the screws.

While anti-development activists in other suburbs have proven to be reticent to allow second units, those in Marin have been veritable boosters of the idea. That opens up the potential for another 66,000 homes without altering the feel or character of host neighborhoods. We can’t ignore that potential, or the potential for proper infill housing, any longer.

Talk to your kids about cabs and transit

It’s high school graduation season, and that means the annual deluge of columns about how you should talk to your kids about drinking and driving. It’s a valuable reminder for parents – driving is the top cause of death for teenagers 16-19, after all – but inevitably the columns stop there. Keep your kids from drinking and, therefore, driving.

But there’s no better way to get home after a raucous night than to have someone else drive. Even if there is no drinking involved, drowsy driving is just as dangerous. Talk to your kids about transit and talk to them about cabs.


Kids and transit go together like peanut butter and jelly. Transit can be a tool for freedom for your kids long before they’re of a driving age, and you’ll rest easier knowing they are far safer on a bus or train – even with the creepers that sometimes share a ride with them – than on the road.

Get them a transit card. Though Clipper is the standard for much of the Bay Area’s transit, it might not be in your area. Fill whatever your local system takes with $50 and give it to your kid.

Go over the schedule. Every transit system is different. BART closes at midnight, but Muni has all-night service. Some systems’ routes end at 9, others after midnight. Make sure your graduate knows how to read a schedule, how to reschedule, how to use NextBus for the systems that use it, and how to use the phone app and website. (If you don’t know, has transit directions for every transit system in the Bay Area. It’s not as slick as Google Maps, but it’s more comprehensive.)

Go over the map. Reading transit maps is a skill, just like reading road maps. Plan out a route with them from their graduation party to home on the map and on their smart phone (if they have one).

Start them on transit now. If your high schooler is graduating this year, you don’t have a whole lot of time. Go do something cool with them by transit or send them out to a cool part of your area, like Fairfax in Marin, one Saturday. If they aren’t graduating yet, try to make transit part of their everyday life. A first ride on an unfamiliar transit system can be a bit disorienting, and it’s even worse when you’re intoxicated or exhausted.

The last thing you want your graduate to say to themselves is that it’s too much of a pain and just drive themselves. Get them over the hump in a good way.


Whether or not your graduate wants to take transit or can’t get home from late parties, teach them how to use a cab.

Make it easy. If you’re in the suburbs, program a local cab company phone number into your graduate’s phone. If you’re in the city, install Uber or Lyft. You want to make this a simple and normal process. If you’re really out there, they’ll need to call ahead. If your teen has a curfew, you can even call a cab company to have someone come so they’ll get home on time.

Make it free. Just like the no-questions-asked policy driving parents often have, make the cab free. If you have Uber or Lyft in your city, link the account to your credit card. If you don’t, tell them to get a cab receipt and you’ll reimburse the fare.

Talk to them, too, about splitting the fare with other people who are going in their direction. Cabs can be very reasonable if the fare is split 3 ways.

Make it familiar. Just like transit, cabs can be disorienting if you’ve never used one before. Take a trip in one with your graduate and make him or her make the payment for the trip back (though with you paying, of course).

It’s about empowerment

It’s extremely important to let your kids know it’s not safe to drink and drive, but that’s not enough. Give them the tools and know-how to get them home safe every time, even if they do something stupid. When you’ve just had a fight just before a party, they may not want to call you. When their designated driver suddenly isn’t available, they might not be able to get home without driving themselves. When they get to college, they won’t have you there to give them a ride.

Even if transit or cabs are just lifelines in your area, you’ll empower them to make their own choices. For now, if they don’t have their own car, this will give them the opportunity to be able to get around without a family car.

Finally, though they might love to drive, teaching them options will allow them to understand that that is a choice, not a requirement, of living in a place.