Marin’s transit ridership in step with national trends

Public transit ridership in the United States is higher than it’s been since 1956: 10.7 billion trips, up 1 percent from last year. While this indicates an overall trend toward transit, it’s been driven largely by high-quality transit: heavy rail like BART, commuter rail like Caltrain, and light rail like Muni Metro.

Marin County’s transit picture largely echoes the national trend, though this is not a new story for our county. High-quality transit, namely trains elsewhere but ferries here, continues a ridership boom, as has commuter bus service, but local bus ridership continues to slowly slide. Overall, Marinites are taking more transit.

Local bus

Golden Gate Transit’s Marin-only service has been bleeding passengers for the past five years, from about 4.1 million to roughly 3.3 million today. Including Marin Transit’s independent operations, such as West Marin Stagecoach and school service, local ridership ticked down by 0.7 percent over last year, to 3.4 million trips.

Regional bus

Golden Gate Transit’s commuter and basic routes to San Francisco, however, are doing quite well. For the past 32 months ridership has grown and, year on year, grew by 1.3 percent over January, 2013, to about 2.5 million trips. This, however, is still down from 2004’s 3 million trips.

Ferry service

All that changes when you include the ferries. Despite a steep price hike in 2003, ferry ridership has been growing like gangbusters. Even excluding Sausalito, whose figures are skewed by tourists, Larkspur’s ridership growth has been more than enough to offset the long-term decline in regional bus ridership.

Larkspur ridership grew by 7.3 percent in the past year, from approximately 1.5 million trips last year to about 1.6 million this year. Sausalito ridership grew twice as fast, 14.9 percent, though at around 750,000 annual trips it’s still a small share of total ridership.

The rapid growth in the ferry system continues a now-32 month growth streak begun in 2011. It shot through its all-time record, set in 1978, in 2012, and shows no sign of slowing down.

What it all means

The national trend toward transit is really a national trend toward quality transit. Buses that come every hour and take 4 times as long to get around as a car just don’t cut it.

Indeed, even as MTC has focused a huge amount of attention and money on moving people faster in cars, it has spent almost no time focused on moving people faster on transit. BART is the only major investment in the past half-century that has dramatically improved mobility through the Bay Area, but has now been expanded to areas that do little to boost ridership. Other booming systems are those that feel higher-class or that run as fast or faster than driving, such as Caltrain.

In that light, it’s no surprise Marin’s high-class transit service, the ferry, is doing so well. So too is it no surprise that commuter buses, which generally offer a nicer ride than local buses, are steadily growing as well. Combined, the two systems grew by 3.5 percent this past year, quite a bit faster than Golden Gate Bridge traffic, which is up 2.4 percent.

These and national trends should guide GGBHTD and Marin Transit as they choose their capital investments. Big investments in the bus system should focus on speed, for both the locals and commuters, and comfort, for the commuters. Signal priority, for example, which allows approaching buses to turn red lights green, would help make schedules more reliable and make the bus more competitive against the car.

Small investments should focus on usability and connectivity. Open-source real-time arrival data for all buses, for example, would be a huge boon for riders, dispelling the anxiety one gets waiting for an infrequent bus to come.

For ferries, their extremely fast growth rate means capacity problems are on the horizon. GGT needs to start laying the groundwork for more crossings from Larkspur. Ongoing problems with midday ridership will continue to be a roadblock to better service as well. Even faster-growing ridership at Sausalito may require more ferries to meet the demand.

Marin’s experience shows national trends are indeed applicable to our county. Investments in usability, in connectivity, and in higher-quality trips would capitalize on overall demand for transbay travel, while investments in frequency and speed could stop the slide of local service. Transit planners here would do well to learn from the successes of others.

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The incredible efficiency of Golden Gate Transit

The space efficiency of a regular bus is apparent.

The space efficiency of a regular bus is apparent.

Mass transit an incredibly efficient way to move large numbers of people from two fixed locations or along a constrained space, like a bridge. Buried in a recent Marin IJ article we found out just how efficient they were: at rush hour, buses make up less than 1 percent of all vehicles on the Golden Gate Bridge but, along with ferries, carry 27 percent of the people. In other words, GGT adds a full lane and a half of capacity to the bridge and 101.

That is astounding, and a testament to the value of transit. The toll fees paid to support the transit system are well-spent, as they keep the freeway running smoothly for all users.

Well, somewhat smoothly. The HOV lanes through San Rafael and the Twin Cities are jammed, and without the old reversible lanes from Marin City to San Francisco, buses are prone to get stuck in bridge traffic. Finding ways to fix that problem would go a long way to improving bus traffic flow. Extending the planned Van Ness bus-only lanes along Lombard to the Bridge would go even further, and help ease a commute for thousands of Marinites and Sonomans.

Parking charge coming to Larkspur Ferry Terminal

In a stroke of good news, GGT will begin charging $2 for parking at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) on January 6.

The charge is part of a progressive plan to manage access at LFT. Last year, there were few ways to get o LFT without a car, but the parking lot filled up after 8:30am, leaving mid-day travelers stranded and depressing ridership.

GGT tackled this high demand by implementing a shuttle bus in Ross Valley, called the Wave, to give people an alternative to driving. With the $2 charge, GGT is also trying to encourage people to use the shuttle or bike. In short, rather than try to boost parking supply by building garages, GGT is trying to reduce parking demand.

It’s a smart plan. Travel from LFT is highly “peaked,” with a lot of people taking the ferry for commutes to and from San Francisco but hardly anyone taking it in the middle of the day. Boosting the parking supply would further overwhelm those morning ferries.

It’s cheaper to encourage people to take the bus to and from the ferry or to and from the city with a parking charge. The result is a parking lot with space for afternoon riders and essentially the same number of commute riders.

GGT staff should monitor the situation carefully and establish a goal of a certain percentage of spaces available after the morning rush. With such a goal in mind, the Board could raise or lower the parking charge as needed to attain that goal.

The next big thing for Marin-San Francisco LFT riders are new bus pads under the 101 overpass at Sir Francis Drake. Approved as part of the Greenbrae Interchange Project, the pads will mean travelers on the 101 trunk line routes (17, 36, 70, 71, 80, and possibly 101) will be able to easily transfer to the ferry, unlike the current trek from Paradise Drive. SMART will likely come soon after that.

Combined with the parking charge, LFT will be able to accommodate more years of booming ridership growth and allow it to become the all-day service the Sausalito ferry is. Though it will bump up against the limits of its ferry infrastructure eventually, that is a far better problem than being limited by a parking lot.

Bike share for the ferry terminals

Last week, Bay area Bike Share (BABS) launched to some fanfare. Caltrain commuters and residents in a few neighborhoods along the Peninsula and in San Francisco can now bike to or from transit, making the first and last mile a bit easier.

Calls for a broader bike share program to serve the East Bay, more Peninsula neighborhoods, and the whole of San Francisco have risen ever since the limited scope of the project was announced.

Advocates should add Vallejo and Larkspur-San Rafael to their list. As the outer ends of the Bay Area’s ferry service, they desperately need some way to bridge that last mile. Bike share is how to do it.

Why ferries?

A chronic problem with ferry service in the Bay Area is the lack of bi-directional demand. Though many San Franciscans work in Marin and Solano, it’s tough to get reliable transit service to their employment centers. Golden Gate Transit buses depart hourly heading north, even in the morning commute hour. SolTrans buses don’t even offer reverse-commute service.

While there is ferry service to Larkspur and Vallejo, there aren’t many jobs within walking distance of the terminals. Driving, then, is often the only viable mode, closing off those jobs available from car-less San Franciscans.

BABS stations could change that.

In Vallejo, the principal would be similar to the Caltrain satellite systems, like in Palo Alto. Scatter a few stations around the downtown, with a large one at the ferry terminal, and you’ve created is an easy way for commuters to head to or from the ferry terminal without the need to drive or to bring their own bike.

In Larkspur, the ferry terminal’s distance from downtown San Rafael, the county’s employment hub, means a more creative solution is needed.

A large BABS station at the ferry terminal, another in Greenbrae, and a few scattered around downtown San Rafael would allow reverse-commuters to use it as their last mile and draw San Rafael into the mindset of San Franciscans as a place to go.

As a bonus, both the Vallejo and Larkspur-San Rafael systems would boost ferry access. In Marin especially, it would boost access to the ferry for SF-bound riders and overcome the terminal’s poor transit service.

And, for both systems, it would improve access to biking in areas that could use some alternative transportation.

Tiburon’s Transit Gets Wind in its Sails

“Coming About”, photo by Roy Tenant

Bus service in Tiburon is the worst-performing part of the Marin Transit (MT) system. Fares cover about 12% of the operating costs (the target rate is 20%), and a paltry 12 riders per hour take the bus. To address the situation, MT has begun the Tiburon Transit Needs Assessment, a process that will end with changed routes, better service, and more. The listed alternatives for improvement are a step in the right direction. Pursuing a blend of route changes, structural changes, and better transfers to 101 and the ferry will give residents and workers on the Tiburon Peninsula a better bus and attract more ridership.

What’s There Now

Tiburon is served by two bus lines, the commuter Route 8 and local Route 19, the Blue & Gold Ferry, and paratransit. Route 8 goes from Belvedere to San Francisco via 101 and carries about 57 passengers per weekday on its very few runs south. Other than school runs to Redwood High, Route 19 runs from Belvedere to Marin City via Strawberry and carries about 345 passengers per weekday and about 280 passengers per weekend.

Blue & Gold Ferry operates between Tiburon and San Francisco, a run that takes about 25 minutes. Though about double the price of Route 8, it takes half as long to reach the City which suits its well-heeled travelers fine.  Unfortunately, the ferry doesn’t accept Clipper Cards and doesn’t have timed transfers with buses in the middle of the day.

To address the problems of low ridership, MT has developed a whopping 15 proposed service changes ranging from a shorter, more frequent line to improving bicycle access. You can see all the proposals here.

There are three types of alternatives: the first deals with bus route length and frequency, the second with paratransit like dial-a-ride and taxis, and the third with non-bus transportation.  When presented with such a plethora of options, it’s good to keep in mind some core transit rules (most of which I unabashedly take from Jarrett Walker):

  1. Well-spaced high-frequency corridors that intersect in a grid and anchored at walkable destinations.
  2. Easy connections between transit modes and lines.
  3. People tend to stick with transit once they’re used to it.
  4. Pedestrian-friendly areas around stops and stations.

These fit well with some of the comments from ferry riders who were asked what would get them on the bus:

  1. Increase service frequency, especially around peak hours
  2. Closer bus stops
  3. Faster travel time (mutually exclusive with closer stops)

As of press time, the online survey wasn’t closed, so we don’t know for certain what their preferences are. However, Robert Betts, the Marin Transit planner charged with the changes, said preliminary feedback at workshops showed a strong desire for better service frequency, connectivity to schools, and improving Blue & Gold Ferry’s role in the peninsula’s transit network.

Let’s see how the alternatives stack up against the recommendations.

Fixed Route: Alternatives 1a-1e and 3a-3b

Draft alternatives. Click for full PDF.

Of the fixed route plans, none meet all the recommendations, though 1a comes closest. With 30 minute headways all day, the shuttle service (I hope they call it something that doesn’t connote the wretchedness of getting around an airport) between downtown Tiburon and Strawberry should be the backbone of Tiburon service. I’m not so enthusiastic about 1b (downtown to Marin City via Mill Valley) or 1c (downtown to Manzanita Park & Ride) mostly because of frequency and cost. Well-timed transfers could do it better.

Adding the school route of alternative 1e to Marin Catholic High School would complete the transit picture, giving kids an alternative to car ownership and taking a helluva lot of cars and their novice drivers off the road. I’m less enthusiastic about alternative 1d, which adds two rather roundabout school routes. I’d rather see them branded as school supplementary service rather than proper bus lines, and, given what they serve, I’d rather the cost come from an agency other than Marin Transit.

Unfortunately, 1a misses the connection to Highway 101. The freeway is the north-south artery of our transportation system. While some routes connect at Strawberry, Routes 18, 24, 36, 70, 71, and 80 all bypass the shopping center for the Tiburon Wye bus pads. This wouldn’t be a big deal if transfers were easy between 19 and the bus pads, but interchange’s horrid cloverleaf layout means anyone who needs to transfer between southbound 101 and the 17 must walk half a mile to make the connection. Transfers to northbound 101 aren’t bad at all, though the bus stops are just signs on poles in some ugly parking lots.

Such a poor connection dramatically reduces the route’s effectiveness.  This is a bus network after all, and network effects are powerful.

Redesigning the interchange isn’t in the scope of work, so routing has to be the solution. Alternative 1a should be modified to run buses across the overpass and turn them around just after the offramp’s intersection with E. Blithedale. There’s a parking lot there that would work well as a turnaround. Though the extra routing would add two to three minutes to the total round trip, it would dramatically improve the connection to southbound 101 and therefore the bus line’s usefulness.

Blue & Gold Ferry is the best way for residents to get to the city, bar none. It’s classy, it’s fast, it’s comfortable, and it drops people off in the heart of the financial district. It’s hindered by low frequency, high cost, and poor transfer to buses.

Alternative 3b addresses the frequency concerns. Tiburon is undergoing a downtown improvement project, which would address the car-oriented nature of most of its downtown, but adding more people to the tip of the peninsula would mean traffic hell further up Tiburon Boulevard. MT should push Blue & Gold to do more and cheaper runs to the City to support a more people-friendly downtown.

The other part of 3b would establish ferry links with Sausalito. While I appreciate the thought, the beauty of Blue & Gold’s routing is the effective express route to the City. The point of an intermediate link to Sausalito would be strictly for tourists, hindering the livability of Tiburon and therefore it’s attractiveness to tourists in the first place. If the route would function as a water taxi, I’d be concerned about profitability. Still, Blue & Gold is a for-profit company; they wouldn’t initiate a loss-making run.

Alternative 3a pushes Blue & Gold to adopt the Clipper Card, partially addressing the transfer issues between the two systems. I can’t see anything wrong with unifying fare media.

Demand-Response Service: Alternatives 2a-2e

No matter how Route 19 is changed, a good chunk of the Tiburon Peninsula will go without transit. The twisting, disconnected streets and cul-de-sacs make effective transit service impossible beyond Tiburon Boulevard, but there is still a need for transit in those areas. People with disabilities, the elderly, and others need to have a way to get around.

Demand-response service allows people to order transit so they don’t need to walk to a bus stop. The alternatives presented range from taxi vouchers to semi-fixed route service.  In honesty, I don’t know nearly enough about Demand-Response Service to assess these options in depth, but I do have some more surface-level thoughts.

Taxi vouchers (alternative 2d) may be the best way to get people out of their homes. Most of the households are the peninsula are relatively wealthy. Though sharing a ride with a number of people may be okay, I suspect taxi service would be more familiar and comfortable to elderly people from that background.

Advertising services that are already or will soon be in place makes sense no matter how you slice it, so I’m surprised alternative 2e is presented as just another option. The rest I have no meaningful way to evaluate, and none of them are part of the feedback I’ve heard from Marin Transit or the existing conditions report.

Non-Transit Solutions: Alternatives 3c-3e

These alternatives present options that don’t involve Marin Transit actually putting vehicles on the road or vouchers in peoples’ hands, and they’re all good.

Once tourists get to Tiburon, a bike would be the best way for them to get around. Alternative 3d proposes a bike share system, which would presumably be part of the San Francisco/BAAQMD system opening this fall. Such a system would be used by residents that don’t want to drive up Tiburon Boulevard and by daytrippers from San Francisco and the Peninsula, where the BAAQMD system will be implemented first. What it should not be is a single station in downtown. If sprinkled up the peninsula along Linear Park they could be used for regular trips. Adding a single station would be useless to residents.

Tourists like long, leisurely rides that don’t fit with the strictly utilitarian role of a bike share system. Bike rental kiosks (alternative 3c) would make more sense for them. Visitors could get up the peninsula to see the views across Richardson Bay or head to Tiburon Uplands.

For either type of bike system, it would reduce bicycle crowding on ferries and improve circulation around town for drivers (who wouldn’t have to deal with more cars on the road), residents, and visitors. We’ll have to wait for TAM’s report on bike share this fall, but there’s no reason Tiburon or MT couldn’t start marketing the town to bike rental shops.

Build a Better Route

Bus stops along the Tiburon Peninsula, not including Strawberry or Belvedere. Click for interactive map; click on the stop to find its characteristics.

The alternatives presented will only go so far in promoting transit use. The urban environment along the route is extremely unfriendly to bus travel. Sidewalks, crosswalks, and bus shelters along the route appear only every so often, rendering the pedestrian – as all bus riders are at some point – feeling like an interloper in a car-dominated landscape.

Improving the rider experience, no matter which mode, will make the bus feel less like a second-class form of transportation. At its least expensive, Tiburon should improve connections to frontage streets and paths where they’re lacking. Often the only safe way to bike or walk is on the frontage road, so it’s important they be connected to the stops.

Bus shelters, though more expensive than straight pavement, are important to keeping riders out of the elements. Tiburon Boulevard isn’t the most meteorologically friendly location for waiting at a bus stop, after all, and the combination of rain and the Richardson Bay winds can make umbrellas useless.

Crosswalks and sidewalks are more heavy-duty interventions but would give people better access to bus stops that may not be immediately in front of their street. If it did undertake the improvements, Tiburon would also improve access to Tiburon Linear Park and other services on the south side of Tiburon Boulevard.

The improvements to Route 19 are commendable, and integrating Blue & Gold Ferry into the public transit network will do wonders for the town. If Marin Transit pursues a short but (relatively) high-frequency bus line and creates a strong connection with 101 corridor, they’ll give Tiburon, its residents and workers, the kind of transit they want and deserve.

Expect another few public outreach sessions before the draft report is presented to the MT board at the end of the summer. Whatever the recommendations, implementation likely won’t start until the end of the year. In the mean time, take the survey, read the reports, and show up to those public meetings. You can sign up for a newsletter at the bottom of the reports page.

Mid-Week Links: The Subdivisions

by xspindoc

Marin County

  • LucasFilm has pulled its Grady Ranch proposal and will sell the land as affordable housing thanks to NIMBY opposition, stating, “Marin is a bedroom community and is committed to building subdivisions, not businesses.” Ouch. (Pacific Sun)
  • The Town of Fairfax has a new General Plan.  Among other things, the plan gives downtown businesses the opportunity to build second-story apartment units by right, rather than seeking special approval. (Town Manager)
  • Supervisor Arnold wants to know why growth projections for Marin have fluctuated so wildly in the Plan Bay Area draft SCS, and also why they are so out of line with historic norms. If the assumptions for Marin are flawed, she writes, then the whole process for the Bay Area is flawed. (IJ)
  • The March 28 MCCMC meeting offered opponents of housing quotas and ABAG to vent their frustrations against the regional agency. In the end, they also got leftover cookies. (Twin Cities Times)
  • Staying within ABAG is not just good for Marin – it’s good for the region, because what worries us ought to worry the rest of the Bay Area. (IJ)
  • Marin’s Local Coastal Program has gone through a four year epic journey of Coastal Commission and West Marin politics, public comments, criticism that it does too much (or too little), and even a splash of dominion theology as the county has worked to update the decades-old document. If you need some catching up, you may want to start here. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: The AT&T Park ferry ride is getting too complicated, and too expensive, what with online reservations and a new convenience fee. (IJ) … A sidewalkless street in Homestead Valley is getting some sidewalks. (IJ) … What sort of light should a bicycle have? (Mercury News)

The Greater Marin

  • The finances and projections of California High Speed Rail are under scrutiny by noted rail opponent Representative Darryl Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee. (Politico)
  • San Francisco’s Transit Effectiveness Project SFMTA will give Muni buses signal priority by next year. I’m hoping GGT gets in on that. (Streetsblog) [edit – contrary to Streetsblog’s summary, signal priority is a related but separate program from TEP.]
  • Someone in San Francisco wants to park a tiny, 130 square foot house in a driveway. The plans are actually quite nice and would make a lovely second unit, though I thought the minimum dwelling size under California state law was 160 square feet. (SFist)
  • Little City Gardens will be San Francisco’s first real urban farm now that the city has approved a zoning change for the market. It will sell and grow its produce on the same property. (SPUR)
  • Cotati’s downtown revitalization plan will move forward, but because it uses redevelopment funds the vote is up for state approval. (Press-Democrat)
  • The Southern California Association of Governments – ABAG and MTC’s Los Angelino cousin – approved its version of Plan Bay Area.  The sustainable communities strategy will spend half its transportation funding on mass transit rather than cars over the next 25 years, though a number of communities said it didn’t go far enough. Streetsblog has details. (SF Chronicle, Streetsblog)