Slugging: Bringing Casual Carpooling to the North Bay

Casual carpooling, wherein strangers carpool with one another to and from job centers, could be viable in the North Bay, but it will take coordination from citizens and government to make it really take off.

When examining the modes of commuting, typically absent from the conversation is carpooling. Either it happens or it doesn’t, but governments and citizens will fixate on accommodating more traditional modes of transportation: single-occupant vehicles (SOVs, i.e., cars), buses, and trains, rather than actively trying to encourage carpooling.

There are a number of reasons for this, but I suspect a big one is that there is no ribbon to cut, no new lane or train to inaugurate. Another big one is the perception that carpooling only rests on social networks outside the reach of government intervention, where coworkers discover by happenstance that they live near enough to one another that carpooling becomes an option. Besides, interfering in carpooling takes attention away from the big capital projects that make headlines.

In spite of apathy from officialdom, the phenomenon of casual carpooling does arise in certain locales. Known in the Washington, DC, region as “slugging”, casual carpooling entails passengers forming lines at pickup areas, usually commuter lots or bus stops. A driver will approach the line, shout their destination (“Pentagon!” “Civic Center!”) and those bound for the area will hop in. It works both ways, and situating near bus stops gives passengers the option of a commuter bus if they’d prefer.

Casual carpooling gives drivers and passengers certain advantages over SOV driving. It allows them to use HOV lanes, saving time, and it allows passengers to save on driving costs such as gas and maintenance. For those who aren’t in a carpool, carpooling means there’s more for them: every passenger is one less car on the road and one less parking space taken. It’s a win for everyone. So why does it pop up in some locations but not others?

East Coastin’

The Washington, DC, region makes an interesting test case. Straddling as it does three states (DC, Maryland, and Virginia), we can see how different policies effect the outcome. Virginia has an active and large slugging community dating back to the 1970s, while Maryland’s community is relatively small. The principal difference, according to David LeBlanc, author of Slugging: The Commuting Alternative For Washington DC, is that Maryland uses HOV-2 lanes, where having only one passenger qualifies, while Virginia uses HOV-3 lanes, where two passengers are necessary to use the lane. He argues that HOV-3 lanes give passengers a sense of safety when getting into a car with a stranger, and spurs drivers to more actively pursuit warm bodies to fill their vehicles.

Dampers on casual carpooling include high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes, as Virginia will soon discover when its primary HOV corridor into DC is partially converted to HOT. If a driver can simply pay a toll to qualify, they will be less likely to detour to a slug line for passengers and clog the lanes with SOVs. The lack of HOV lanes, of course, will remove the incentive for the driver to pick up passengers as well.

North Bay Slugs

In other words, the North Bay, with its HOV-2 lanes that stop after Sausalito, is not ideally suited to casual carpooling. While Northern Virginia has an entire reversible highway dedicated to HOV-3 that extend all the way from suburbs to job centers in Arlington and the District, complete with their own exits and with limited access, the North Bay has only a single HOV lane in either direction that requires drivers to slow from top speed to the speed of traffic in order to merge over to the exit, and which stops before reaching either the East Bay or San Francisco. Although it’s conceivable that a small, Maryland-style community could spring up in the North Bay with the right tools – an app, say, allowing potential carpoolers to mark off their home and destination – true casual carpooling will require a bit more intervention at the governmental level. As with everything, there are cheap and expensive solutions.

On the cheap side, just switching our HOV lanes to HOV-3 would be a boon, giving drivers a greater incentive to pick people up. Following up the switch with congestion pricing on both bridges applicable only to SOVs would prove a high-profile shot in the arm for any casual carpooling system. Given the hubbub over the last attempt to institute congestion pricing on the Golden Gate Bridge, the press would be wonderful. Instituting a peak-only HOV lane on the southbound side of the bridge would be another major reward for carpoolers: no more waiting in line at the toll plaza. Instituting congestion pricing at the Sonoma/Marin border or just north of Marinwood* would stimulate casual carpooling among Sonomans coming to Marin – our largest in-commuting population – and would raise millions for transit projects between the two counties.

On the expensive side, CalTrans might consider combining Highway 101’s two carpool lanes into a single, reversible HOV freeway, complete with limited access and dedicated on/off ramps. This would make carpooling significantly safer and faster, and would have the added bonus of improving bus access along the freeway. The cost, however, would likely be upwards of $1 billion given the technical challenges of HOV exits and the cost so far just to extend regular HOV lanes.

It has been suggested that the app described above would help drive a casual carpooling renaissance, but the truth is that these networks typically form in response to everyday commute pressures – heavy traffic, centralized job centers – that ultimately come from structures either put in place by government or arising out of commuting physics. That’s not to say technology does not have a role to play – casual carpool networks often have websites to guide potential participants and there are a number of apps already in existence – but a truly robust system will be one that arises organically. Drivers will only take the time to pick up passengers when they can clearly see that it is worth their time or money to do so.

Casual carpooling in Virginia has been described as another transit system by the Virginia Department of Transportation, complementary to the existing Metrorail and bus systems. It certainly has a place in the highway-centered transportation systems of the US, but it will take work to implement in the North Bay.

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*Most freeway traffic in Marin actually comes from Novato, not from Sonoma; although instituting congestion pricing there would be a political nonstarter, it would make the most sense from a practical standpoint.

For information on casual carpooling in the Bay Area, RideNow.org has a website dedicated to the local network. For information on ridesharing in the Bay Area, you might want to look into eRideshare.com. For information on how the slugging system works in Virginia, local NPR affiliate WAMU aired an hour-long segment on the subject, while local transit blog Greater Greater Washington has a number of posts on the subject.

End-Week Links: Fantastical Connections

Photo from Novato Advance/Marinscope Newspapers. Click for Google Streetview.

Ordinarily, not much happens in the great wide world of Marin’s urban affairs, but sometimes a lot happens.  When that happens, you get an overdose of linkage.  One article deserves special attention, though. Novato city planners are celebrating the soon-to-open Chipotle burrito shop in a downtown strip mall, saying that anything that happens in downtown is an improvement.  This is the opposite of true, and I would hope that professional planners would have an understanding of what makes a vibrant downtown.

Does the building engage the sidewalk?  Nope, it puts the trash next to the corner it abuts.  Does the business promote local vitality?  Nope, it’s a fairly bland national chain.  What’s most infuriating, to me, is that the building was gutted and rebuilt like some sort of historic landmark rather than being rebuilt as something that could really improve downtown.  What’s suffocating downtown are businesses and structures like this and the planners that enable them to continue.

Marin

A small, $10 billion bit of the plan. By Jack Coolidge, 2011

  • A recently approved home in Sausalito was originally supposed to include a second unit made of two shipping containers but owners were forced by the Planning Commission to cut it from plans due to neighbor concerns. Simultaneously, Sausalito is emulating Novato’s push to legalize second units as a way to meet affordable housing mandates. (Marinscope)
  • Sausalito Councilwoman Carolyn Ford – famous for getting her hand smacked by Councilman Mark Kelly and pressing battery charges – wants a parliamentarian to keep order at the Sausalito Council’s contentious meetings. Given an almost unheard-of split vote on mayor, this might be wise. (IJ)
  • Environmental activists celebrated the death of a planned renewable energy project in West Marin, proving cognitive dissonance knows no ideology. (IJ)
  • Corte Madera’s WinCup apartment complex will go back before the planning commission on the 13th. (Twin Cities Times)
  • Brad Marsh, who won third place in the recent Larkspur City Council election, has been appointed to fill the seat vacated by Joan Lundstrom retirement. (IJ)
  • SMART was debated for the umpteenth time last Wednesday. (IJ)
  • An 11-year-old bicyclist was struck by a driver (or maybe the cyclist struck a car?) on a residential street in Mill Valley and hospitalized with possible spinal injuries. (Bay City News via Marinscope)
  • Novato’s school board contemplates school enrollment boundary changes, taking it as an opportunity to rebalance the socioeconomic makeup of the schools. One unexpected item: school trustees expect enrollment to shrink over the next five years. (IJ)
  • One more step forward for aspiring suburban bee-keepers and chickenherds in Corte Madera. (IJ)
  • Expanding Gnoss Field makes sense, says the IJ Editorial Board. (IJ)
  • San Rafael’s Ritter Center gets grant, makes good: the community wellness center is expanding its services and has become a Federal Qualified Healthcare Provider thanks to the Affordable Care Act. (Pacific Sun)
  • Gerstle Park residents defend their decision to take legal action over Albert Park. (IJ)
  • Ever wonder what used to be where 101 is now in San Rafael? Salt baths and a freight port. (Patch)
  • Everybody loves a fantasy map: imagining BART to Marin and beyond. (Muni Diaries)
  • You might not to be able to tell, but a $10 million water project was just finished in Kentfield. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Might SMART avoid some of the mistakes other transit agencies have made? It’s unlikely, but not impossible. (Forbes)

The Greater Marin

  • Smart growth is about more than livability, walkability and emissions. It’s about keeping that parking lot out of paradise.
  • Rather further south on Highway 101, Facebook is posing a major problem to Menlo Park commuters as it tries to squeeze 6,600 employees onto its transit-inaccessible campus every day. (SFist)
  • Retail and transit fit together so well, urban retailers are saying more transit less parking. (GlobalST)
  • One of my favorite transit experts and blogger at Human Transit, Jarrett Walker, talks buses vs. trains, mobility, and more. (Willamette Week)
  • Opponents to Cotati’s plan to humanize its main street are threatening the city with a ballot measure to ban roundabouts within city limits. Merchants claim the redesign would hinder drivers and, therefore, decrease business. (Press Democrat)
  • What to do with Santa Rosa’s downtown mall? (Press Democrat)

Not Just Bedrooms Anymore

Slowly, Marin County has transformed from a bedroom community to a working destination, yet residents still view their county otherwise.  It’s time to change.

The old stereotype for a Marinite is easy to trace.  Looking for a new life, someone moves to San Francisco.  She’s young and vivacious, she enjoys the city and all its grit.  When she finally makes it big, though, it’s time to settle down, and there’s no better place to settle down than Marin County.  She keeps commuting to the City but lives in Mill Valley with the family.  Her friends and neighbors have similar stories, and so southbound 101 is a mess every day.

True though narrative is for thousands, it neglects a key fact: more people commute to Marin than commute from it every day.  We have become a destination, and that has implications for how we approach the form and development of our cities.

The Destination

In digging through the commuting numbers, there are some surprising finds.  Marin residents were estimated to make 60,051 commute trips to other counties every day in 2010, while residents of other counties were estimated to make 87,573 work trips to Marin every day.  That means that 45% more people commute to Marin than from Marin every day.  The only counties that had a net in-commute from Marin were San Francisco and San Mateo; all others gave more commuters than they got.

This shows up in Highway 101 load numbers.  Through Sonoma, the load peaks through Santa Rosa but declines sharply until leveling off near the Sonoma/Marin county line.  The sharpest increase is at Novato, which adds 79,000 cars per day, and peaks at San Pedro Road.  After that, 101 shows a sharp decline in load to the bridge, from this point shedding 82,000 southbound vehicles per day.  If we include Novato and Terra Linda, 101 is only 25,000 vehicles heavier when it leaves the county than when it enters from Sonoma.

(When we try to include 580, things get a bit trickier because of the lack of temporal granularity in the available Caltrans numbers, but this quick-and-dirty analysis shows where the principal destinations in Marin are: San Rafael, Highway 131, and Bridge/Donahue.)

The Response

So what?  Marin is a destination; what does that have to do with form and transit?  It starts when county leaders and residents change how they think about their home.  Golden Gate Transit, for example, has strong commuter links to San Francisco, but doesn’t coordinate morning departures from the City, and its links to the East Bay are woefully inefficient.  As well, SMART is denigrated as a “train to nowhere” because it stops in San Rafael, which should be seen for the insult it is.  Altering this perspective would lead to three big changes in urban form and transit.

First, we would encourage our downtowns as places to work, not just play and live, and we would find new places to build them.  At the moment, office development focuses on suburban office parks, such as Marin Commons.  Downtowns, meanwhile, are left as alternatives to the mall, quaint places that serve residents’ shopping needs rather than rich and active working destinations.  Building up downtowns as working destinations by building offices – government, as in Novato, or otherwise – would give retailers and restaurants all-day clientele.  Even small town centers, like Fairfax, have space for appropriately-sized office development.

Second, we would improve our inward transit links to serve the transit-oriented and carless residents of the rest of the Bay Area.  Currently, only 2.4% of in-commuters use transit.  Although much of this is likely due to perception rather than actual service, the long headways and lack of inbound commuter coordination is a needless barrier.  We already boast 20-50 minute travel times from the City and 30 minute travel times from BART, but the atrocious state of inbound routes shows that GGT hasn’t even thought about accommodating inbound commuters.

Third, we would start to redesign our cities as places to stay rather than simply pass through.  The most egregious symbol of the pass-through mentality is the Second-Third Street corridor.  The timed lights, speeding one-way traffic, and narrow sidewalks implicitly tell pedestrians that they aren’t wanted there, deadening the streetscape and what developments could come.  Almost as bad are Novato Boulevard, Tam Junction and South Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

Marin will never supplant San Francisco, but its cities can capitalize on their role as satellites of that regional anchor.  Strong towns would decrease commute times and encourage transit use; strengthen government coffers; and bolster the small businesses that call downtown their home.  Marin has already moved in this direction; it’s just a matter of whether it can capitalize on its success.

Transit Commuting Saves Marin Millions

Some have wondered why I made the previous post in isolation to the cost of a transit commute.  Although I did point out that a transit commute saves at least the San Francisco-bound Novato commuter a ridiculous amount of money, I did not examine the county-wide costs because I wanted to emphasize the benefits to living where you can walk or bike to work.  Transit, both in my post and Mr. Money Moustache’s, is sloppy seconds: it still costs more than walking or biking.

Another reason I left out transit is the lack of work-trip fare data.  Golden Gate Transit (GGT), the local bus and ferry agency, aggregates all fares for each mode into a single average fare.  In addition, GGT operates outside of Marin as a regional bus service in Sonoma and is just about the only way to get into Marin by transit.  Finally, the Blue and Gold Ferry, separate from GGT,  doesn’t even share its data, so its fares are left out.  Each of these factors pollutes the data and makes any analysis less accurate.

But what the hell, right?  Let’s call this a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the kind you make when proving a point at a party.  Don’t take this as accurate, but take it as a rough idea of something approximating the actual amount Marin residents spend on transit and how much they could save by relying more on transit.

Golden Gate Transit’s average fare for all riders on its ferries and buses was $3.02 in fiscal year 2010.  Taking this as our base, we find that the average transit commuter spends about $1,500 per year on commuting and $19,500 over a decade.  Good deal, a savings of $29,600 over the average car commuter per decade.

Transit makes up only 7% of work trips by Marin residents despite the cost savings.  Playing out our $3.02 average fare means commuters spend about $9.6 million per year on transit, or $124.8 million over a decade.  This is in comparison to the $7 billion we spend to commute alone.  If 1% of our car commuters switched to transit, that would be a savings of $6.8 million per year and $88.6 million per decade.  If our transit riders switched to single-passenger car commuting, they’d spend $88 million more per year and lose $1.1 billion in wealth over a decade.

Mind you, this is for the average commuter.  While a car commuter from Novato to San Francisco saves $11,000 per year by switching to transit, a car commuter going to Solano County probably won’t find transit a feasible option at any price.  But if changing homes to be closer to work or changing jobs to be closer to home isn’t an option, you should reexamine the long-term costs of that car commute and see how much taking the bus might save.  You might be surprised by what you find.

Car Commuting Costs Marin Billions

The Novato Narrows. Photo by Gerry Geronimo

Marin’s commuting workforce travels quite a distance for work, 11.5 miles each way on average, thanks in part to its relatively suburban character.  Although most would say such a commute isn’t terrible, commuting even that far is a massive financial loss to everyone involved, and Marin’s economy suffers for it.

Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache recently penned a fantastic piece on the true cost of commuting (which I truly recommend) and found that an 18 mile commute, roughly from downtown San Rafael to Market Street, costs around $75,000 over the course of a decade and wastes roughly 1.3 working years of time.  He factors in the IRS cost of $0.51 per mile in car depreciation, gas, and the like and assumes that it could be reinvested at about 5% interest.  This is crazy, and that’s just for one person.

How much time and money is lost to commuting alone in Marin?  The average drive-alone Marinite travels 11.46 miles to work, the distance from Petaluma to Novato.  After taking into account a bit of tolling and parking, this average joe spends $3,800 and 24 working days on his commute each year.  If he valued his time as much as his employer, that lost time is worth another $6,500.  This works out to almost $50,000 in lost wealth and 7 wasted months over a decade.  As a county, we spend $565 million every year to commute alone, and every decade we lose an astounding $7.3 billion in wealth and $9.5 billion worth of time.

Hearing these numbers, you’re probably thinking of abandoning your place in Sleepy Hollow and finding someplace nice in Russian Hill, or you’re worried I’ll want to make Grant Avenue a satellite Financial District.  Don’t worry.  I’m not advocating emptying out Marin, or turning Novato into Oakland, but I want to point out the immense, direct costs of investing so heavily in car-centered infrastructure.  Each 1% of the commuting populace that drives alone rather than paying down a mortgage costs Marin’s economy $106.4 million every decade.

Infill development is one way out of this mess.  By bringing workers and jobs closer together, Marinites will be able to save time and money if they want to drive, to the tune of $255 per mile closer to work, and will be more likely to bike or walk to work.  These don’t need to be monstrous apartment buildings or affordable housing, but there are enough redundant parking garages and vacant lots to provide a healthy amount of space without damaging the fabric and culture of our towns.

The other way out is through improved transit investments.  Although travel by transit is often no faster, and sometimes slower, than driving, that time can be put to more productive use than simply driving through stop-and-go traffic on 101, and transit is almost always cheaper than driving.  Switching from driving to taking the wifi-equipped 101 bus to San Francisco, for example, can save a Novato commuter up to $11,000 per year in parking fees, tolls and vehicle wear-and-tear.

These are the discussions Marin should have about its future.  How can we boost alternative transportation?  How can we intelligently promote infill development?  These are also the discussions we should have with our families.  Personally I’d rather have $11,000 at the end of the year than the convenience of being totally flexible with when I can leave the office.

We often simply accept the commutes we’re given as foregone conclusions and don’t count the ways they hurt our wallets and our time; if we do reexamine our commute, it’s often with the time horizon of a month or a year.  It’s high time we started to look at things a little more broadly.

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Commuting statistics used for the above information is from Change in Motion from December, 2008, by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  Mode share and commuter numbers are the 2006 observed base.  If you would like to see my work, you can download the spreadsheet I made here.  If I made any particularly egregious mathematical errors, do let me know in the comments.

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