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.

New GGT schedule cuts Route 80, but more could be done

In GGT’s quarterly schedule adjustment, the agency will do as it planned this past summer and cut the long-suffering Route 80, a plodding local bus route that stopped at every bus stop from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. However, Highway 101 service could use more tweaks to better integrate Route 71 and other lines south of San Rafael.

New 101 bus service will look like so. Image by the author.

New 101 bus service will look like this. Image by the author. Routes 4, 10, 27, and 101X excluded for clarity.

The new basic San Francisco-Santa Rosa service will operate like the image to the right. Timed transfers between the 101 and 71 at Novato will ensure easy access to any stop between Santa Rosa and Marin City, while the express/local service pattern will better serve the larger long-distance market to San Francisco.

This is similar to Clem Tillier’s proposed Caltrain schedule, with a Silicon Valley Express and San Mateo Local.

Unfortunately, the timed transfers aren’t ideal. Before 8:55am, transfers between the 71 and 101 are 6 minutes. After 8:55, they extend to 9 minutes, a hefty chunk of time for riders.

As well, the 70 often follows the 71 too closely, once as close as 3 minutes behind. Though GGT is providing four local buses in a given hour, or one on average every 15 minutes, it instead has a 3 minute wait, followed by a 30 minute wait, another 30 minute wait, then another 3 minute wait. Though GGT is running enough buses to provide show-up-and-go service, the agency effectively continuing its two-bus-per-hour baseline schedule. It is, quite honestly, a waste of money.

Other tweaks to the schedule are quite good.

  • A new ferry shuttle, the 37, will run between Smith Ranch Road/Lucas Valley to Larkspur Ferry Terminal in the morning and evening. Though the parking situation is still horrid, it’s good to see the agency is continuing to expand its successful shuttle program.
  • Rerouting the 56 to the Broadway Tunnel instead of North Beach will save time – about 8 minutes per run – which will let commuters sleep in just a little bit longer, get home a little bit sooner, and save the agency about $50,000 in annual operating cost.
  • The popular routes 4 and 54 will receive more runs in both directions.
  • The 35 and 36 will become more consistent, with no service to Andersen Drive. Before, some runs would start on Andersen.

The largest concern is whether this new adjustment will lead to personnel shortages, which have plagued GGT for the past two quarters. Schedules should meet, not exceed, the agency’s capacity, and adjustments are when any personnel shortages can be smoothed out.

While the adjusted Highway 101 service isn’t as smooth as it ought to be, with long transfers and weirdly inconsistent headways between the 70 and 71, the new schedule is overall positive and uncharacteristically bold. As long as this doesn’t lead to more personnel shortages, the new schedule will be a success.

UPDATE: To clarify, the updates to the 35 and 36 are at the direction of Marin Transit, which contracts out their operation to GGT. Any change to the 71, which is under the same contract, would need to first start with Marin Transit. A fuller post on that mess is forthcoming.

Golden Gate Bridge bike/ped toll moves forward

As the Marin IJ reported, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) has decided to push forward with studying the cycling and walking toll on the bridge.

The vote was very close, 10-9 in favor. All but one of San Francisco’s representatives, John Moylan (who represents San Francisco’s mayor), voted against studying the toll. All but one of the northern representatives, Marin supervisor Kate Sears, voted for studying the toll. This includes Marin supervisor Judy Arnold and Tiburon mayor Alice Fredericks.

Most of the arguments for the toll, as relayed by people covering the meeting on Twitter, were more that it was important to examine it regardless of whether it’s a good idea, not that the toll itself would yield any non-financial benefits.

One observer on Twitter, John Murphy of Healdsburg, made the point that the toll could have a number of unintended consequences, mostly around trailheads. By email, he argued that recreational cyclists consider the ride from San Francisco to West Marin “junk miles.” A toll would be just one more reason to drive to Marin on weekends, exacerbating tourist traffic on Shoreline Highway and parking around trailheads.

He further made the point that tourist cyclists already often pay into GGBHTD’s pot by taking the Sausalito Ferry back to the City after riding across the bridge. Without Clipper cards, these riders pay the full cash price.

What the old studies said

According to commentary from MCBC on the 2005 proposal (the report itself isn’t available online), the proposed toll would raise somewhere between $600,000 and $1.8 million in 2014 dollars, or roughly between 9 and 27 percent of the five-year shortfall.

Unfortunately, the 1998 report indicated there would be no way to charge the toll except with in-person toll-takers, which would cut significantly into the revenue and cause huge lines to enter the bridge. Murphy, the Healdsburg commentator, pointed out that this would force people to spend more time parked, exacerbating the significant parking crunch.

One more alternative

There is another way to target tourist traffic, of course, one that would target tourists exclusively. Rather than charge people for the opportunity to walk across the bridge, GGBHTD should charge for the opportunity to park at either parking lot, and allow tour bus companies to reserve bus parking spaces for a flat fee. This is part of the strategic financial plan, under item 21.

Already, tourist traffic at the lots can cause backups onto the bridge; charging an appropriate amount for parking would reduce that congestion problem and raise money simultaneously. It would target tourists exclusively and wouldn’t require much more infrastructure than parking meters. It’s an idea that deserves study, rather than one more look at a bike/ped toll.

For now, the toll is not a done deal; it is only being studied. To ensure it doesn’t, write to your representatives who voted for the toll. Let them know there are better ways to raise money.

Yay

Del Norte

Board of Supervisors appointee Gerald D. Cochran

Marin

Supervisor Judy Arnold
Marin cities’ appointee Tiburon Mayor Alice Fredericks
Board of Supervisors appointee J. Dietrich Stroeh, GGBHTD Second Vice President

Mendocino

Board of Supervisors appointee James C. Eddie, GGBHTD Board President

Napa

Board of Supervisors appointee Barbara L. Pahre

San Francisco

Mayor’s appointee John J. Moylan

Sonoma

Sonoma cities’ appointee Rohnert Park Councilmember Gina Belforte
Supervisor David A. Rabbitt
Board of Supervisors appointee Brian M. Sobel

Nay

Marin

Supervisor Kate Sears

San Francisco

Supervisor London Breed
Supervisor David Campos
Board of Supervisors appointee Dick Grosboll
Board of Supervisors appointee Janet Reilly
Board of Supervisors appointee Dave Snyder
Board of Supervisors appointee Michael Therieault
Supervisor Scott Weiner
Supervisor Norman Yee

Missing buses continue on GGT

Despite promises to the contrary, Golden Gate Transit’s personnel woes have continued. Despite yet another opportunity to make their schedule match their personnel for a second time, GGT cancelled a run of Route 54 on Friday and another this morning. What started as a headache is fast becoming a glaring indictment of GGT’s scheduling and personnel management.

In June, GGT’s drivers announced that, thanks to scheduling changes, the agency would not have enough drivers to meet its scheduling obligations. Soon, riders who went through the hoops to get text and email alerts started receiving cancellation notices the morning of their ride. For people who catch the same bus every day, this was frustrating. Questions mushroomed: if GGT knew it couldn’t meet its new scheduling obligations, why did it bother to write an unrealistic schedule?

Not to worry, said GGT. We’re hiring more drivers, so in September cancellations will be a thing of the past. In the interim, the agency permanently cancelled four morning and four evening runs on the 4, 24, and 54.

Still, the unscheduled cancellations mounted, so that up to 7 runs would be cancelled in a single morning.

With the release of its fall schedule and the graduation of its new class of drivers, GGT had a chance to put its terrible summer behind it. Yet, both the scheduled cancelations as well as the unscheduled cancellations continue.

That they continue raises some troubling questions about GGT’s approach to customer service, scheduling, and personnel. Were schedulers informed of how many drivers to expect on a given day? Were they instructed to exceed standard personnel schedule padding? Or, did personnel managers not know how many drivers to expect? No answer to these questions would shine well on the agency.

GGT needs to get its house in order, and fast. Transit riders need consistency to plan their morning. With constant cancellations despite promises to the contrary, GGT is simply driving away the riders it is supposed to serve.

New service comes to GGT today, but nothing restored

The latest schedule adjustment to GGT’s buses goes into effect today, and it offers mixed news for commuters. While GGT did expand service between San Francisco and Sonoma on the 101X, service cuts from earlier this summer remain in effect. In short, this adjustment is somewhat of a wash.

­The cut runs

To deal with ongoing personnel shortages, GGT cut eight commuter runs: one in the morning and evening on Route 4, two in the morning and evening on the 24, and one in the morning and evening on the 54. People weren’t too pleased, but it was better than unplanned cancellations the morning of. (These continued, but at least they became more rare.)

The new schedule doesn’t restore any of these runs. Though the latest crop of drivers, who start today, were supposed to have alleviated the service cuts, apparently GGT thought they should assign drivers elsewhere.

Elsewhere in the schedule, Route 2’s first run (5:15am) was folded into Route 4’s first (5:10am, which is rescheduled to 4:58am). Both runs used to arrive at San Francisco at the same time, so consolidating saves a bit of money and manpower. Route 70’s 4:30am run, which left from the San Rafael Transit Center, was also cancelled, as the first 27 duplicates the run just five minutes later.

The new runs

Route 92, the only real commuter bus from San Francisco to Marin, added two northbound morning runs to Marin City. Route 93, the San Francisco shuttle route, added two new evening runs to its schedule. Route 23 has a few new school service runs to White Hill Middle School, too.

The bigger deal is the new 101X evening trip. The 101X uses a different route than the other commuters and functions as a solid express bus for Sonoma residents. By added a new trip at 5:35pm, the 101X is a much better, and faster, bus for commuters and San Francisco daytrippers from Sonoma.

Bottom line

GGT is tweaking its schedule in smart ways around the edges, as it does every quarter. From the standpoint of customer service, I’m not keen on inconsistent service patterns, like running Route 4 through Marin City and Sausalito just once in the morning. While they do make operational sense, customers crave consistency. Signage, maps, and other wayfinding devices all must show the inconsistent routing, which could easily lead to more confusion.

(Someone might recall seeing the Route 4 symbol on their stop in Sausalito and take a more regular 4 up to Mill Valley, completely bypassing their home and get pissed at GGT.)

The 101X is a savvy move by GGT, which is trying to improve connectivity between Sonoma and San Francisco.

But none of that balances out the insult to riders that are the supposedly temporarily cancelled runs on 4, 24, and 54. Now that there are more drivers, GGT should return to the brand of high-quality and reliable service it has built over the past 40 years. No matter how clever the adjustments to other routes are, the loss of service on these three popular routes is deeply felt by riders.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the new route guide on the bus today, and tweet your impressions with the new service to @theGreaterMarin, @GoldenGateBus, or both.

Even as bridge tolls increase, gap with fares widens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrow goals lead to bad outcomes

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

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

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

Broaden the goals, reformulate the prices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fare hike, a toll freeze

Five years ago, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) considered varying bridge tolls based on demand, with higher prices during peak demand times. The concept, called congestion management or congestion pricing, didn’t go anywhere. Then-San Rafael mayor Al Boro torpedoed it, labeling the proposal an unfair “Marin commuter tax.” San Francisco was outraged, but at least they got a pioneering new parking system that varies the price of on-street parking by demand instead.

Meanwhile, GGT’s often-high fares have gone up by 5% every year on July 1. If congestion management is a “Marin commuter tax”, surely annual fare hikes well above inflation are the same thing. While the purpose is to try to keep fares in line with costs, the hikes aren’t targeted well enough to either manage congestion or improve the agency’s financial standing.

Better than blanket hikes would be targeted hikes to ferry fares and bridge tolls paired with bus service improvements. GGBHTD should use its monopoly power to maximize the infrastructure it has at its disposal.

Ferry ridership has proven to be extremely robust and can likely absorb the hikes, increasing its farebox recovery. For bridge tolls, the stretch of Highway 101 between Sir Francis Drake and Tiburon boulevards is about 800 cars over-capacity in the evenings, or roughly 2/5ths of a freeway lane. Adjusting tolls and bus service to shift some of demand to buses would open up the northbound direction. Trunk line bus service would be more reliable and less expensive to operate, and drivers would save 20 minutes of time every night.

Yet with a blanket 5% hike on regional and commute buses, GGBHTD is actually exacerbating its bus ridership problems. It shifts demand from a mode with excess capacity to one that is already over-capacity. This is not smart management but political management, and the outcome is worse service and worse traffic.