A third lane on the Richmond Bridge is just a bandage

from MTC

from MTC

The push for a third lane to Richmond has sucked a lot of the air out of the conversation over Central Marin traffic. Cut-through drivers from San Francisco to Richmond are taking up all the space in Larkspur and causing horrific traffic. Thanks to induced demand, however, the third lane will likely fill up soon after it opens and we’ll be back to the same old story.

The most common way to think of traffic is as a gas that fills the space it’s given. No matter how much you build, there will always be traffic to fill it. This couldn’t be more apt for the situation faced by the Richmond Bridge.

Right now, for cut-through San Francisco-to-East Bay commuters, the Marin route is the fastest and cheapest way to get home. These drivers may have to deal with congestion and delays on Sir Francis Drake and 580, but it’s less than what they’d have to deal with on 80 and the Bay Bridge.

If we solve the problem and open a new lane on the Bridge, we’d reduce congestion in Marin enough that we could declare victory… until more people saw that it was a less-congested route than 80 and the Bay Bridge and switched. Either this area will return to its present levels of congestion, or the congestion will migrate to another bottleneck further south in the system, or some measure of both.

This is a much larger version of a problem faced by Los Angeles suburbs, where cut-through drivers, guided by their GPS, take surface streets to escape congestion on freeways. Delays become as bad on surface streets as on the freeway.

If congestion returns to Larkspur Landing, then the widening will simply buy us a few years of peace. If it causes another bottleneck, we’ll have bought some peace to Larkspur Landing at the cost of congestion elsewhere. If it’s both, then nobody wins.

Longer-term solutions depend on which outcome occurs; let’s look at each in turn.

Congestion comes back to Larkspur Landing only

If this occurs, the only real solution is to keep traffic on the freeway as long as possible by installing a proper 101-580 interchange in San Rafael. This interchange has been proposed before, but community opposition to a towering flyover connecting westbound 580 with southbound 101 scuttled the project. If the same opposition arises again, it might be worthwhile to simply remove that aspect and only do the eastbound 580 to northbound 101 aspect.

For now, at least, Caltrans ought to remove signs at the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard exit indicating that that is the way to 580.

Congestion occurs elsewhere in the system

The most likely location for congestion to occur is south of Marin City: on the Waldo Grade, Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard, or Van Ness, all of which are good targets for transit. Both Marin commute trips and local San Francisco trips are relatively easily served by transit. The upcoming Van Ness BRT line will make a big difference to that corridor, and an extension onto Lombard would help both GGT and Muni riders. Extending the HOV lanes onto the Waldo Grade by converting one of the through-lanes would speed transit and encourage carpooling, also helping alleviate congestion.

Alas, transit sometimes functions like adding more lanes: the amount of congestion stays constant even while the transportation capacity of a road to move people increases. At least we can comfort ourselves that fewer people will experience congestion from behind the wheel.

Congestion occurs both at Larkspur Landing and elsewhere

If this occurs, then planners will need to employ both solutions: add the interchange and improve transit.

The only permanent solution

The rub, of course, is that congestion is ultimately not a solvable problem without an economic downturn. Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles – all have tried to fix congestion by increasing roadway capacity, and none have succeeded. Anthony Downs, in his 1992 book Stuck in Traffic, said that widening a freeway doesn’t work thanks to what he called a “triple convergence”:

In response, three types of convergence occur on the improved expressway: (1) many drivers who formerly used alternative routes during peak hours switch to the improved expressway (spatial convergence); (2) many drivers who formerly traveled just before or after the peak hours start traveling during those hours (time convergence); and (3) some commuters who used to take public transportation during peak hours now switch to driving, since it has become faster (modal convergence).

The only way out is to view road space like a resource, and to price it as such. Jarrett Walker describes it thus:

Fundamentally, congestion is the result of underpricing.  If you give away 500 free concert tickets to the first 500 people in line, you’ll get 500 people standing in line, some of them overnight.  These people are paying time to save money.  Current prevailing road pricing policy requires all motorists to act like these frugal concertgoers.  Motorists are required to pay for road use in time, rather than in money, even though some would rather do the opposite and our cities would be safer and more efficient if they could.  Current road pricing policy requires motorists to save money, a renewable resource, by expending time, the least renewable resource of all.

For the Bay Area, this would mean varying bridge tolls during the day so that congestion never builds up. Downs’ triple convergence would work in reverse.

With a rush hour 80 and Bay Bridge free of congestion, cut-through travel would be much less attractive for Contra Costa commuters. Those that still made the journey would likely not be enough to congest 101 at all.

But before then, we have a third lane and an interchange to try.

Wider 101 onramps could be a boon for bus riders, too

Metering lights could be coming to Highway 101 in Marin as soon as 2015 and with them wider onramps. Though one wouldn’t expect this to be a boon to transit riders, this is an ideal chance for TAM to improve the county’s bus pads. It should not pass it up.

I wrote about the bus pad on Greater Greater Washington, an urbanist blog in Washington, DC, and commenters quickly panned it. “This falls into the ‘better than nothing’ category,” said one. Another: “If we’re calling these pads an improvement, it really should be an indictment of how low we’ve set the bar.” Ben Ross posted a link to the piece on Twitter with his commentary:

Though most bus riders appreciate the speed of freeway-running buses, they do have a point. Crossing a freeway onramp without a crosswalk is dangerous and frightening. Transferring from a pad to a street stop can be a pain (and a trek). While the southbound bus pad might be right next to your destination, the northbound bus pad might be a half-mile slog away. And, of course, waiting at the edge of a freeway with nothing around but parking lots or low-maintenance landscaping can be exceedingly unpleasant.

We can change all that.

There are three areas where bus pads need to improve: access, comfort, and speed.

Access means improving the connections between the surface streets and the bus pads, as well as moving the two pads closer together so both directions are accessible to development near the ramps.

Caltrans redesigned the Tiburon Wye’s interchange – a “parclo” (partial cloverleaf) interchange common around Marin – to better facilitate bus pad access and transfers. The redesign, which is still on the drawing board, puts surface street and freeway bus stops as close together as possible and allows buses entering the freeway to use the pads. It is a good example of what is possible.

New Tiburon Wye

The Tiburon Wye after its redesign. Click to enlarge, or click here for the full Marin Transit report (PDF). Image from Marin Transit.

Where a redesign like Tiburon’s isn’t possible, the metering lights themselves present an opportunity to make bus pad access safer. If the metering light signal were linked to a pedestrian button, like a regular street crosswalk, a rider could simply press it and wait for a walk sign. That sounds much better than a running through a break in traffic.

For comfort, the bus pads need shade and some greenery. Landscaping, especially shade trees, would go a long way. Approaching paths need similar treatment.

Some bus pads, like the ones at Smith Ranch Road/Lucas Valley, have clear paths worn away by commuters approaching by more rational paths than the ones provided by freeway engineers. These should be formalized and upgraded with lighting, pavement, and shade.

For speed, the proposed HOV onramp lanes would help at the places where trunk line and commuter buses enter the freeway, especially downtown Novato, downtown San Rafael, Larkspur Landing, Strawberry, Manzanita and Marin City. Shaving 30 seconds off each ramp for a bus with 40 people onboard will amount to a lot of time saved.

Transit-friendly designs need to be baked in from the beginning of this process. That will allow staff to fully vet them before presentations to the governing boards and the state. The further plans get without these designs, the more difficult and expensive it will be to add them in.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally alter how Marin’s transit moves along the 101 corridor. Let’s prove Ben Ross and the other East Coast naysayers wrong. We can do so much better than what we have, and now we have a chance to do so.

Mid-week links: Marin Transit

Marin County

by jay d, on Flickr

The latest Marin Transit board meeting was one full of change and surprise. Amid increasing ridership (though it fell in June), MT posted a $1.5 million surplus, which will go into a rainy day fund. To keep ridership on the up and up, the agency hired a new communications and advertising consultant, who will manage MT’s branding, website, social media, and communications strategy. IJ reporter Nels Johnson, however, seemed to think the $300,000 consultant was taking the agency “for a spin.” And, in the name of efficiency, the MT board cut Route 222, which got less than 3 riders per hour in June. Elsewhere:

  • There was so much public comment about Marin’s new housing element that the Board of Supervisors had to postpone its debate until next week. (Patch) On a side note, whoever’s idea it was to bring in a saxophonist to lead the potentially rancorous crowd in singing, “There’s still a lot of love in Marin!” is brilliant. (IJ)
  • The Civic Center Drive upgrades look fabulous, but now that they aren’t in a PDA TAM may need to rescind its funding. (Patch)
  • A driver hit a bicyclist in Fairfax yesterday by turning left through a bike lane, sending the bicyclist to the hospital with a broken collar bone. Though the circumstances seem like they warranted an investigation or a failure-to-yield citation, the driver was not cited by police. (IJ)
  • The costs of demand-responsive bus service, promoted by Bob Silvestri as the ideal transit, make it an ineffective replacement for traditional bus service. (Listen Marin)
  • The lack of BART in Marin is apparently because we’re classist and racist and always have been. (The Grid) Except, y’know, that’s not at all why we don’t have BART.
  • TAM should take on all the causes of congestion on Highway 101, not just cars, according to Corte Madera Mayor Diane Furst. She sat on a working group to draft an alternative plan to flyovers on the freeway. (Marin Voice)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge will close for a full weekend next year for the installation of a new movable barrier. This will be the first time in the bridge’s history it will be closed for more than a few hours. (IJ)
  • Parking minimums can severely constrain construction, either driving up rents in the building or preventing new construction altogether and contributing to a housing shortage. Affordable housing advocates take note. (Sightline)

Politics

  • San Rafael council candidate Randy Warren hits rival Maribeth Bushey-Lang hard, saying her need to recuse herself over issues like SMART make her unfit for service. (IJ)
  • The move to recall Supervisor Susan Adams failed to attract enough signatures, and Save Marinwood is not happy. Interestingly, no signatures were submitted to the county, so we’ll never know how far short the recall came. (IJ, Save Marinwood)
  • Paul Mamalakis examines the race for Novato City Council. (Advance)

New Visual of Highway 101 Service

Marin’s bus service is centered around Highway 101 and its “trunk” routes. From commuter lines to the basic San Francisco regional lines to the supplementary local routes, getting from one place to another on Highway 101 should be an easy task. Alas, it is not.

Not every bus pad is labeled on the freeway bus map with which buses stop where. Since not all buses stop at all bus pads, you don’t always know whether to take the bus or not. The first time I went by bus to the Lucas Valley pad on a Sunday morning, I tried to figure out which buses stopped there and would pick me up at the Transit Center. Not knowing that it was all printed in the front of my transit guide, I took the 49K and went on a long, 35-minute ride around Terra Linda. Had all the information been in front of me at once on a simple map, I would’ve known that the 70 and 80 would’ve taken me, no problem, but that I should avoid the 101.

The full map. Click for a larger image, and click here for PDF.

The bus map here is a strip map, a simplified diagram showing all stops and which buses stop and which stop when. Though it’s a design that could be improved upon, the map does show all routes and all stops along the 101 corridor. Ideally, the map would be paired with a Highway 101 timetable showing all bus departures. It and the schedule would be posted at every bus pad and major transit hub on the corridor, allowing every passenger to know which bus goes where.

At 41 inches long but only 10 inches wide, it could also be posted inside buses that run along the 101 corridor, allowing passengers to look at it and internalize it while riding, like how subway cars have a map of the subway posted.

Since this is a rather complicated trunk line, be sure to post corrections and comments for me. How, too, could this design be improved upon? What might make this a less confusing or more useful diagram?

On another topic, be sure to come out this Wednesday to the Flatiron, 724 B Street, San Rafael, CA, at 6pm for our third happy hour. It’ll be good times, I guarantee it.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention that Anthony Nachor of My Bay Area Ideas was instrumental in proofing things. He knows the 101 system like the back of his hand, so a hat tip to him for his help.

Street Greenery is Better than Thought

As it turns out, street greenery is even better at reducing pollution than thought. The research that I had found for last week’s post showed greenery can filter out some of the worst particles but only up to 8% of the total pollutant plume. New research just released shows that green walls, when employed in an “urban canyon” environment, can filter out up to 60% of the particulate matter in diesel pollution. That, coincidentally, will include the SMART train.

The urban canyon environment is when buildings go up on either side of the street and form single walls interrupted only by cross-streets. San Rafael’s Fourth Street is a good example of this in Marin, and San Francisco’s Market Street is a superb example in any context. These canyons create their own wind environments, circulating air up and then down and then up again in a vertical circulatory pattern.

Green walls are either plants growing out of the wall, like vertical gardens, or plants growing down walls, like ivy from planter boxes or wisteria from the ground. If these walls line a part of the urban canyon, the wind patterns will run polluted air through leaves multiple times, allowing the air to be filtered again and again.

Cities should actively encourage green walls to capture this effect, and SMART should plan for it where trains will run through residential areas. In places where buildings may rise above the freeway, as in the Downtown San Rafael Station Area Plan, green walls could be especially helpful in filtering the worst part of the air. Any investment in greenery for health reasons will be best put here. Similarly, where the freeway runs at ground level, ivy should be encouraged to grow on the sound walls.

As an added bonus, greenery cuts down on urban noise. Given how loud both the freeway is and the SMART train will be, encouraging leafy walls will be able to make our city streets that much more livable.

Investing in greenery is the single most cost-effective way to reduce pollutants and keep our cities healthy. With the new construction and higher-density zoning slated for areas up and down the 101 corridor, city councils and planning agencies need to take it seriously as more than just environmental greenwashing.

Freeways Don’t Need to be a Housing Show-Stopper

It’s common sense that living near a freeway isn’t healthy. The pollution from the cars and grit from the roadway make for what most would term a wholly unpleasant experience. Unfortunately, the only places for infill development, not to mention quite a few SMART stations, are near Highway 101. Before any post-SMART buildings are built, communities in Marin and Sonoma need to take measures to mitigate these negative health effects, or we’ll simply be building health problems for the future.

Roadway pollution is almost entirely from tailpipe emissions, and most of the health effects are from particulate material, that brown smoke most recognizably seen coming out of large truck exhaust pipes.  It’s nasty stuff (PDF), not only because the shape of the particles increases the risk of asthma and lung cancer but because they carry heavy metals, which can contribute to diminished brain formation in children.  Gases, such as carbon monoxide, are less hazardous to the health of nearby residents.

These particulates, at least when they come from a freeway, are concentrated within 200 feet of the road, though they are measurable up to half a mile away during the day and 1.5 miles away during the early morning hours.  In Marin, that means a huge portion of the county lives with 101’s pollution: all of San Rafael, most of Novato, Greenbrae, Mill Valley, Corte Madera and Larkspur, Marin City, and Sausalito lives within the freeway’s pollution plume. Only Ross Valley and West Marin don’t need to deal with the problem, though arterial roads generate their own plumes.

Within that 200 foot buffer, though, is the most danger, and the most opportunity to cut pollution.  Solid barriers, such as sound walls, send the pollution upward, dispersing it but still leaving high concentrations near the freeway.  Plant barriers (PDF) also send a plume upward, but much less pollution reaches the areas near the freeway. Instead, they collect the particulates on leaves and act as natural filters.  Using both solid barriers and plant barriers, of course, yields better results than using only one.

Practically, this means that, wherever pollution is a concern, local government and Caltrans should try to plant trees and build walls to contain and filter out the pollutants.

Another tool in our air pollution mitigation toolbox is building design. Most people spend most of their time inside. When discussing pollutants, it’s ultimately about how the pollution gets into apartments or offices. Most obviously, plants can be grown on rooftops and on the sides of buildings to filter pollutants in concert with whatever is next to the freeway. Inside the building, the county can require air filters.

Air filters for freeway pollution are effective. Most particulates can be filtered with specialized HVAC systems that, though they run upwards of $700 per apartment unit per year to operate, though yield an estimated $2,100 in health care savings annually.  These systems are required in San Francisco for developments near freeways and are a logical step for Marin to take. The county might go the extra step to subsidize the filters for affordable units included in market-rate developments.  However, these don’t filter out ultrafine particles, which constitute most of the particulates in freeway pollution. Laboratory-quality HEPA filters are even more expensive than San Francisco’s standard, but not much more, and could be encouraged through subsidy or required by law.

Exposure could be further limited by encouraging office development closest to the freeway.  The buildings, along with rooftop gardens, would act as a pollution wall for residences further back.

In short, while air pollution is a major concern for building new residences along the freeway, it should not be a show-stopper. Building higher up the valleys or sprawling outward in other parts of the region will only make traffic and pollution worse. The North Bay’s governments need to make mitigation part of their building codes before any more major developments are built if they want to get ahead of the curve. It will save them money in the long-run and will make their new communities far more livable than they would be otherwise.

Mid-Week Links: Plaid

Now that Fairfax and Sausalito are cracking down on cyclists violating stop-signs, perhaps it’s important to ask whether current law is the best law. A bicycle, after all, is absolutely not a car – it can stop faster, gives a better field of view, and is much more efficient when moving than when stopped. Idaho allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, to great effect. California ought to pass the same.

Marin County

  • Marin and Sonoma both dropped state parks from their park taxes after $54 million was found in the state parks department’s coffers. While Sonoma’s plan is dead, Marin’s tax plan would go to county open space instead. (Planetizen, IJ, Press Democrat)
  • Larkspur and Tiburon are both pondering library expansions, though residents in both communities wonder if the proposed buildings will be too large for the demand. (IJ)
  • HOV lanes in Novato are now open to the driving public, ensuring easy driving for a little bit until traffic catches up with capacity. (IJ)
  • A permanent farmer’s market, a roundabout, and other improvements will come to the Civic Center under a plan recently approved by the Board. Unfortunately, it’s at odds with the SMART Station Area Plan for the Christmas Tree Lot just south of the station, which calls for 4-5 story residential and retail. Planning and design for the improvements will cost about $2 million. (IJ)
  • And…: Construction has begun on SMART’s railcars. Delivery is expected in about a year. (Patch) … Novato will convert a city-owned building into art studios for around $100,000. (IJ) … A West Marin ecotopia could be shut down for running afoul building regulations, but its builders pledge to carry on. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Projections of growth are so often wrong, but they always inform whether we build new freeway lanes or rail lines or whatever. There must be a better way. (Strong Towns)
  • Activists accuse Veolia Transportation, which operates Sonoma County Transit, of human rights violations and want the county to investigate. Veolia’s parent company operates bus service between Israel and West Bank settlements. (Press Democrat)
  • MTC will study a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax on Bay Area drivers to raise money for roads and transit. The tax hasn’t gone anywhere in other jurisdictions, but boosters are optimistic a VMT would be an answer to the Bay Area’s financial woes. (Mercury News)
  • Some Chicago designers want you to help create the perfect transit app. Not only would it tell you how to get where you’re going with the schedule, it would give you real-time arrival information, allow stopovers for coffee or errands, interface with your calendar, remind you to bring an umbrella, and more. (Co.Design)

The Toll

  • You’ll notice I have this new section for the death and injury toll on the roads in Marin and Sonoma as reported by local news outlets. Why? Because in the first three months of this year, 7,280 people were killed on the road in the US, doing nothing more than living their lives. It’s the least we can do to report on the human cost of our road-centered policies in this little corner of the country. (Atlantic Cities)
  • A Tiburon man drove onto a sidewalk to hit a pedestrian whose plaid jacket he didn’t like. The suspected driver, Eugene Thomas Anderson, has been arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. (IJ)
  • Three cyclists were struck by drivers in Santa Rosa this week, though one driver claims to have lost control of her vehicle. None suffered more than moderate injuries. Separately, a driver suffered moderate injuries after running his car off the road. (Press Democrat)
  • In Marin, two people were slightly injured in a bizarre two-crash incident in Novato. Another driver drove off the road in San Rafael, giving herself minor injuries. A driver couldn’t negotiate a turn and so rolled his van about 150 feet down a West Marin hill, resulting in minor injuries to himself and one of his four passengers. Lastly, a driver lost control of his truck in Larkspur, crashing it into a nearby townhouse. The driver and passenger sufferend moderate injuries. (IJ, Twin Cities Times)
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