San Rafael needs a progressive after Nader Mansourian

First up: if you’re interested in becoming a new Director of Public Works for a small city, apply by the end of today.

Downtown San Rafael, Image from  the Business Improvement District.

Downtown San Rafael, Image from the Business Improvement District.

For years, San Rafael has been something of a mixed bag to Marin’s suburbanists. On the one hand, its downtown is the most transit-accessible places in the county. On the other, the network of one-way streets and pedestrian barriers – especially on Second and Third – have rendered large swathes of the city no-go zones for pedestrians.

With Nader Mansourian’s retirement as Director of Public Works in March, San Rafael has a chance to hire someone who makes moving people a greater priority. If I were a member of the city council, I would ask candidates the following questions:

1.       What do you believe the role of a city’s streets should be? The answer I’m looking for: for moving people, and for building the community’s wealth. The answer I’m not looking for: to move vehicular traffic. The first answer indicates the candidate understands that traffic and street problems are more than just engineering issues around traffic flow. There are competing priorities for city streets.

The second answer indicates the opposite, that moving cars, regardless of the occupancy, is more important than pedestrian safety or encouraging more efficient use of the street network.

2.       What do you think of the NACTO standards? NACTO design guides have become one of the most important parts of building complete streets. They include scientifically evaluated standards for safe bike lanes of all types; for transit-only lanes; for arterial roads; and others.

Caltrans has endorsed NACTO’s guides. Having a new director that embraces this shift is vital for the city.

3.       What do you feel the city can do to improve pedestrian safety? Roadways and pedestrian safety are more than simply a compact between people in cars and people on foot. Design can have a subtle and subconscious effect on driver and pedestrian behavior.

The most obvious results of Mansourian’s safety efforts are scores of Do Not Cross pedestrian barriers and the removal of the crosswalk at Third and Cijos. He largely didn’t make use of the other, more subtle and effective tools in the toolbox.

San Rafael desperately needs a progressive in charge of its infrastructure, especially its streets. Mansourian was a highly effective engineer, but he was hidebound to outdated standards that run against the grain of modern best practices. San Rafael needs change. You should apply – applications are due at the end of the day.

New site, new store, same stuff

With the successful completion of my Kickstarter, I’ve bought a new domain, opened a map store, and started cross-posting. This blog will stay open but I’ll stop updating the site after next week.

If you subscribe by email, you’ll need to sign up again. If you subscribe by RSS you’ll want to update your link, too.

While I am excited about the new format and domain – this one is showing its age, and I really hate the ads at the bottom of some posts – what I’m really excited about is the Map Store. While I’ve threatened to print my maps before, this time I’m actually doing it. While I’m mostly focusing on subway-style maps of historical rail networks, I have a few maps for the Marinites, notably the Interurban.

My mapping queue is full for the next few months (DC/Baltimore, then Saint Louis, then Toronto), but I’m starting to think about what comes next. Check the maps you might want to buy for yourself or someone else:

All of these, except for Highway 101, are for the 1921 versions. The Highway 101 strip map will include all service that runs on the freeway from Cloverdale to San Francisco. It would likely be a fold-out pocket map, a nice addition to your GGT transit guide.

It’s been nice getting to know everyone on WordPress, but Squarespace gives me much better commercial integration. See you over there.

Sausalito in a backwards fight against ferries

For years, Sausalito had struggled with its success. Tourists on rental bikes flood the town every summer, creating a logistical and transportation nightmare for the small city.

Recently, attempts by the city council to cope with the challenge have been less about addressing the issue and more about resentment against tourists, cyclists, and the ferries they rely upon. The City Council looks set to vote its opposition to an expanded Golden Gate Ferry facility and has already expressed opposition to a National Park Service ferry to Fort Baker.

Background

Sausalito is part of the natural loop of bike-riding tourists to San Francisco: rent a bike, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, head down to Sausalito, hang out, then take a ferry back. Simple, easy. But downtown Sausalito is a tightly constrained place. Bridgeway, the only road running the full length through downtown, doesn’t have the facilities to handle its bike traffic, and so it spills over onto sidewalks, rankling locals. According to Marinscope, some ferries have to leave for San Francisco half full because of the sheer number of people with bikes.

As far back as 2009 at least, the more colorful described these bike-riding tourists as “locusts.” In 2015, conservative councilmember Linda Pfeifer proposed limiting the number of people on bikes from entering the city.

Sausalito isn’t the only place with tourist problems. Tam Valley has been groaning under the weight of tourist traffic heading to Muir Woods along Shoreline Highway. Sharon Rushton, a political ally of Councilmember Pfeifer, has been fighting the National Park Service’s proposals around the national monument for years, whether it has meant fighting shuttles, parking, or parking management.

Back to Sausalito

To help address the number of people taking the Sausalito Ferry with bicycles, GGBHTD has proposed expanding its Sausalito terminal.

The proposed ferry terminal redesign from the air.

The proposed ferry terminal redesign from the air.

According to planning documents (large PDF) the new terminal would allow a fully-loaded Spaulding ferry, which can accommodate up to 750 passengers with up to 100 bikes, to unload in 3 minutes and load in 6. This is a dramatic improvement over existing conditions, where ferries are reported to sometimes leave half-full.

As well, the new design would allow passengers with bikes to load simultaneously and separately from those without bikes, reducing some of the friction that causes delays in off-loading at San Francisco.

But the proposal has raised hackles with the council. Those opposed to the redesign aren’t happy with the final pier’s distance from shore and the amount of water covered. They’d like GGBHTD to begin regular dredging of the area so ferries could come closer to shore.

The existing ferry terminal.

The existing ferry terminal, as seen from the Yacht Club.

The proposed ferry terminal, as seen from the nearby Yacht Club.

The proposed ferry terminal, as seen from the same angle.

To my eyes, the new design looks only slightly more intrusive than the old; it’s unclear to me why adding an additional and ongoing expense of dredging would be necessary. Perhaps a commenter could enlighten me as to the downside of the new design’s size.

This is not the only ferry project that may happen around Sausalito.

A National Park ferry at Fort Baker?

Two miles south, the National Park Service (NPS) is interested in building a new ferry terminal at Fort Baker. While details are sketchy, the NPS has said the ferry would be operated by the same company that currently operates Alcatraz service. According to Marinscope, the terminal would only be used for “special events” and would not include a parking lot.

According to Brian Aviles, planner for the NPS:

The intent is to complement the programs at Fort Baker and perhaps allow people to visit Fort Baker without having to drive. We felt it prudent to investigate installing a gangway and float. It would function to link the main Alcatraz embarkation point to Fort Baker. (quoted by Marinscope)

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, this is part of a larger project to add ferry service to water-adjacent NPS sites around the Bay, including Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond. It would allow NPS to focus tourist traffic towards ferry service rather than the current collection of ferries, shuttles, and parking lots.

While not part of the project’s scope, Sausalito City Manager Adam Politzer finds the idea of NPS shuttles on Sausalito streets frightening:

Having a ferry terminal at Fort Baker, even just for special events, would create traffic on both Alexander Avenue and Highway 101, exacerbating an already intolerable traffic situation… The increased traffic would place strains of vehicle movement and parking. Adding shuttle buses to the mix would also increase congestion on busy Sausalito streets.

Councilmember Pfeifer adds:

It is pretty obvious what the strategic goal is… I can see over time they will be directing the overflow [from Alcatraz] to Fort Baker and shifting those folks to downtown Sausalito.

The concerns expressed by Politzer and Pfeifer echo Rushton’s complaints about the NPS and Muir Woods. Through her organization, Sustainable TamAlmonte, Rushton and others have advocated to limit the absolute number of visitors to Muir Woods per year and has opposed efforts to expand local shuttle service, saying that such ideas amount to commercialization of the monument.

Yet this ferry concept seems to fit perfectly with Sustainable TamAlmonte’s proposed alternative, which is point-of-origin shuttle service. In a 2013 letter to the Board of Supervisors, Rushton writes:

If an Independent Scientific Carrying Capacity Study on visitor load for Muir Woods and related parking & traffic proves the need for a more robust shuttle system, establish a Muir Woods Shuttle System (using small shuttle buses) that picks up and drops off Muir Woods’ visitors at regional points of origin (E.g. San Francisco, East Bay, and North Bay) and NOT within the Tamalpais Area Community Plan area.

Without a parking lot, the Fort Baker ferry terminal could only be a shuttle for tourists from San Francisco and never add to traffic congestion on Sausalito streets. Even under the most intense use of a ferry – the implementation of shuttle service – would likely only add 2 vehicles per hour per direction to Bridgeway, hardly a tipping point. And, by encouraging tourists to forego car rentals entirely, it might actually cut down on the amount of vehicular traffic within Sausalito.

Sausalito’s city council is standing in opposition to transit from two providers that could be vital to reducing congestion in their city and Southern Marin at large. The professed reasons to oppose either project – the scale of the GGBHTD proposal, traffic at the parking-free NPS proposal – don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Thankfully, neither proposal is likely to be seriously affected. GGBHTD may modify their ferry terminal design, but the project will go ahead when the council majority – with which Pfeifer generally does not vote – is satisfied with any changes. And the EIR commissioned by Sausalito on the NPS proposal may shed valuable light on the terminal’s impact and reiterate the baselessness of traffic concerns.

Sausalito and Southern Marin does have a serious tourist traffic problem, but opposing ferries and shuttles won’t help mitigate the problem.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Over the past month, I’ve been working hard on my historic railroad mapping project, which is doing well over on Kickstarter. For sale are also 12×12 to 24×24 prints of the Northwestern Interurban map. If there’s enough demand, when the store opens up in May I’ll also include prints of the Highway 101 Strip Map and, if the project ever finishes, the North Bay Bus Map.

That’s not all I’ve been up to. I married a beautiful linguist, been accepted to graduate school, scrambled to find the money to fund said graduate school, and become involved to some degree in developing world urban policies. (Kinshasa and the Democratic Republic of Congo is an especially fascinating story.)

Of course, this has used up a great deal of time, and so I haven’t been able to update this blog as much as I ought to have. There is no shortage of issues to discuss, from the gorgeous new renderings of Whistlestop’s development proposal to Sausalito’s battle with transit, ferries, and tourists.

On top of all that, there is research out about the multiplier effects of transit-oriented design that I’ve been sitting on since February, a proposal for an on-street bike path from San Rafael to The Hub I’ve been sitting on since last year, and more. There’s so much to cover and so little time.

Marin County is fascinating not simply because of its place as my family home but also because its challenges are the challenges of suburbs around the country writ small. We avoided many of the problems plaguing many of America’s new suburbs but are reticent to tackle our own.

Next month, The Greater Marin will reopen on a new site, theGreaterMarin.org, advertisement-free and integrated with a store to purchase prints of the various mapping projects (the good ones) I’ve done over the years.

TGM has been on an unplanned hiatus, but I’m not going anywhere.

Mapping the derelict lines of the Bay Area

The old railroads that once defined the Bay Area and the country at large are typically just hinted at. Some lines only operate freight; others, overgrown rails, but many are just sinewy lines on a parcel map. While we do have old maps showing where the rails were, these are rail maps, not service maps.

Some years ago, I used old timetables to create a service map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban, which brought to life a system that has been gone for over 70 years. This year, I decided to do the same thing for the whole of the Bay Area, and I’m launching a Kickstarter to fund prints and maps of other regions of the country.

The first map, for the Bay Area, shows every train published in the 1937 Official Guide to the Railways that began within the 9-county Bay Area. After lines leave the Bay Area, the map shows their last convergence points before major hubs like Los Angeles. If you want a print, head on over to the Kickstarter page.

Historic Railways of the Bay Area

Historic Railways of the Bay Area. Click to enlarge.

The maps makes clear how much of a legacy these old rail companies left to the region. BART’s southern East Bay lines largely follow the Western Pacific right-of-way, while Amtrak still follows the Southern Pacific, including the A5/A6 route to San Jose. The map also shows some of the oddities leftover from competition, like the parallel Amtrak and BART lines, sometimes just a few blocks from one another.

To the north, BART’s Bay Point line follows the Sacramento North, while its route to Richmond blends ATSF and Southern Pacific rights-of-way. Caltrain still runs on Southern Pacific track, as does ACE.

I don’t think anything runs on the dinky little Bay Point & Clayton right-of-way, which itself is a fun story.

If you like railroads, and you like cool maps, then you really will want to sponsor. Seriously, $40 is pretty good for a 24×24 poster.

I also have prints of my map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban. Next up is the Washington-Baltimore region. I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m really excited to see what comes out of the mist.

Manipulate the housing market with this one neat trick

Regulations often result in unintended consequences. Money flows to find any crack in the system, after all, and often those cracks are in very odd places. Zoning and building codes are no different, and they can manipulate not just how people do business but how we built our cities.

In Marin, towns regulate density through a few different rules. Most prominent is units per acre, sometimes around 20 to 30 units per acre, but Marin’s various codes use other measures: floor-area ratio, parking minimums, minimum lot sizes, height limits, and minimum amount of open space.

Last month, the blog Urban Kchoze looked at this panoply of regulatory systems to illustrate how they alter the built environment, and found that they often don’t do a very good job of limiting traffic or population density. About Marin’s favorite regulation, units per acre, the author writes:

An interesting point to consider is what happens to the single individuals in North America that seek cheap housing options, since they are largely deprived of the small 1-Bedroom apartments due to regulations restricting the number of units that can be built per area? Well, they share apartments with roommates. Indeed, becoming roommates is the way consumers have devised to go around the excessive parking and density limitations imposed by North American planners. It is not a desirable situation, but when in a pinch, people will do it.

So North American regulations that limit the density of units but are less restrictive on FAR will result in bigger housing units as developers will build big units to maximize profits.

Policies that do the opposite, meaning limit FAR but are favorable to subdividing buildings in many units thanks to a lack of minimum lot size and low or no minimum parking regulation will have the opposite effect: tend to increase housing density but reduce the size of units.

Our current system doesn’t work very well. Rents are spiking, people are aging, traffic is growing, and the poor are crowding into tiny spaces, especially in The Canal.

As Marin continues to wrestle with the future of its town centers, especially in downtown San Rafael, leaders should figure out what exactly they want to limit. If it’s traffic, they should limit parking. If it’s kids for the school system, they should limit height but lift density caps. (Small homes don’t accommodate families well, after all.)

Marin needs to chart a way forward, but the only way to do that is to understand where we want to go, and what tools we need to get there.

What do driverless cars mean for suburban planning?

Self-driving cars are coming, and boosters of drivable suburbia are hoping they will be a potent weapon against mass transit and cities. But what they mean for towns and suburbs isn’t quite so clear.

For the past 80 years, the US has transformed nearly every place in the country into one that is acceptable and welcoming to the personal automobile. It needs places to park (some estimates have that there are 6 parking spaces for every car), needs enough road space to be able to drive unimpeded, needs sole control over the roads, and so on.

In places built in the past 30 years, this has meant sidewalk-free eight-lane boulevards and massive malls at freeway interchanges. In places built before the car, this has often meant their wholesale destruction. (Santa Clara and Fremont, for example, are now undertaking efforts to “rebuild” their town centers.)

This has not been in service to the car as a vehicle, however, but to the car as a personal mobility tool. Very often, the only seat used in a car is the driver’s, massively enhancing the person’s footprint and leading to all kinds of horrific traffic.

With the advent of the driverless car, the belief is that we will no longer need personal vehicles, and this excess footprint will become unnecessary. Open up an app on a phone, order a car, and a vehicle (possibly with others in it going to roughly where you’re going) will drive by, pick you up, and drop you off near your destination. Along the way it’ll pick up other people going in roughly the same direction as you, bolstering capacity of the personal car to a grand total of five.

Five trips, one car. As one Twitter follower called it, it becomes mini-mass transit, but at the beck and call of an app and as flexible as it needs to be. If this method of travel becomes ubiquitous – and that’s a big if – then the personal automobile might become a thing of the past.

What, then, of the places we’ve outfitted at great expense to fit the personal automobile? These would need to be retrofitted to fit this new dominant mode, and we can do away with some of design choices that favored the personal automobile.

Probably the biggest change is the demise of the large parking lot. These huge slabs of asphalt dominate suburban commercial landscapes, often taking up 80 percent of commercial parcels. They dominate the streetscape, and arterial suburban roads are lined with them. Without personal vehicles to park, there’s no need for a parking lot. That land could be put to productive use.

All this will be wasted space.

All this will be wasted space.

With a transportation system that’s five times as efficient, too, there’s little need for wide arterial roads packed with single-occupant vehicles. As well, without human drivers, there’s no need for “forgiving engineering” focused on driver psychology and driver needs. We can narrow lanes from 12 feet (freeway width) down to 10 feet or even 9.5 feet and have the same vehicle capacity and speed. There would rarely be a need for roads wider than 2 lanes in the suburbs.

So, we can wave goodbye to parking lots and wide arterial roads. What could we do to optimize the suburbs to fit this new reality?

First, trip origins and destinations would be best served if they are along the same axis of travel, and they should be relatively evenly spaced and close together. Street grids lined with origins and destinations make sense, so as to maximize the directness of the travel. That means either a commercial street with homes behind or above.

With the loss of parking lots, it makes no sense to place storefronts far back from the street. They should be placed against the street to ease access for passengers.

Finally, there will likely be a need for a short walk to or from a vehicle, especially when returning home. It makes sense to make that walk a pleasant one, and to put amenities there, too.

corridor-capacity1

Relative capacities of modes

It’s important our density not get too high. Although boosting car capacity fivefold is a huge step forward, trains have eight to forty times the capacity. For the highest-density areas, where trains are already at capacity, driverless mini-mass transit won’t be enough to solve congestion or to adequately meet residents’ travel needs.

So in the retrofitted suburbs, there should be a balance between the need for a dense line of origins and destinations and the need to not overload the system. Perhaps just six stories, at most, in the most dense places of the suburbs.

For this kind of system to work and not devolve into that kind of nightmare, it needs to have simple and easy lines of operations, just like the streetcars did, with origins and destinations located near stops. Unlike streetcars, the whole street is a possible stop. Rather than a series of one-dimensional stops surrounded by a station area, there is a two-dimensional transportation corridor surrounded by a transportation area. The station neighborhoods currently in existence could easily be integrated into suburban corridor fabric.

At this point, this does not sound much like the suburbia we often consider “suburbia”. With no parking lots, no wide roads, a street grid, and shops and homes clustered up against the sidewalk, it sounds more like a town center. That’s because this transportation cloud functions much more like the streetcars of the old days than personal cars of today. The urban landscape described is precisely the kind of bus-transit-oriented development that suburbs could be investing in today. This article could have painted just the picture: “Imagine standing at almost any street corner, where every five minutes an electric train bus vehicle comes by…”

Indeed, if this system ever does overcome myriad regulatory hurdles, it will work best in places where buses and light rail work best. If this is our dream future, then we can start planning for it today. There’s no need to wait for driverless cars.*

Of course, this system will likely be decades away, if it ever happens. There are huge regulatory hurdles to any driverless car, and any area where this system operates could be seriously disrupted by even one person driving their own car. As well, there are still questions of who owns and maintains the vehicles. In the interim, personally owned automated vehicles will likely start to ply the roads. (While they will reform how we use parking, they won’t do much about traffic.)

But if this system does come, it’s not something for champions of small towns, walkable living, and transit to fear.

*As people start to buy personal driverless cars, the need for vast parking lots will diminish. If we really want to start planning for that reality, too, then we should reform or abolish parking standards today. 

AN ASIDE: This system has been speculated upon for decades as Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, though generally it was theorized on rails. In fact, it already exists, in a sense, in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Much of the time, Morgantown’s system works like an elevator (push a button to summon a vehicle, push a destination button and you’re on your way). During rush hour, it operates like standard-issue fixed-route transit during peak hours, and in off-hours each car runs the whole track as a circulator.

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