SMART’s new shelter designs are even worse than before

SMART may be on the verge of making a serious mistake.

Back in August, 2014, the rail agency released its “65%” plans for stations to decidedly mixed reviews. Stung by the criticism, particularly from San Rafael mayor Gary Phillips who called the designs “ridiculous”, SMART went into a long internal huddle.

Shelter Option 1, from SMART’s “65%” station design

Shelter Option 1, from SMART’s “65%” station design

Last Wednesday, at its Board meeting, SMART offered something new. Focusing mainly on platform shelters, it proposed an alternative to the forest green “Option 1” design included in the 65% station drawings.

The new shelters, inspired by bus stops, use a “standing seam hip roof design” and are being referred to as “Option 2”. They are proposed to be painted black, although SMART staff seems willing to allow cities to paint them any color in the rainbow. Cities will have until March 31st to tell SMART whether they want this new shelter or prefer to stick with Option 1. Based on the feedback from SMART Board members, it appears that cities will be lining up for Option 2.

An inspiration for “Option 2” – Bus shelter in Duluth, MN

An inspiration for “Option 2” – Bus shelter in Duluth, MN

That’s unfortunate. The new Option 2 design has many serious downsides and will likely be viewed with regret once SMART begins its operations. Moreover, switching them out for something totally different later on may not be easy.

SMART is waiting until the shelters are chosen to lay a top slab of concrete on its station platforms. That implies that the details of the top slab (for things like utilities or drainage) are tailored to a specific shelter type. A switch to a different shelter in the future might require demolishing the tops of platforms, which would be costly and time-consuming. Given that, it’s far more critical for SMART get this decision right than it would be for a typical bus operator.

So what’s wrong with Option 2? Several things. A good rail platform shelter should have the following characteristics:

  • A very narrow footprint and open design to avoid getting in the way of customers circulating on the platform.
  • A broad canopy with an appropriate height to maximize weather protection; and
  • A nice aesthetic that is compatible with its surroundings.

Option 2 misses the mark on all of these.

Shelter Footprint

Space on SMART’s platforms will be very limited. It’s “side” platforms will be 15 feet wide, while its “center” platforms (set between two tracks) will be 18 feet wide. Let’s consider the larger of these two.

Center platforms will have two, 24 inch wide, nubby, tactile warning strips; one along each platform edge. That leaves about 14 ft. of room for patrons, or about 7 ft. on each side of the platform. With shelter Option 1, the footprint will extend about 2 ft. out from the platform center line on each side, leaving two, 5 ft. “travel lanes” on each side of the shelter. That’s manageable.

By contrast, the Option 2 shelter is much, much wider. It will extend a full 4½ ft. out on each side of the platform center line, leaving a very narrow 2½ ft. on each side of the shelter. That’s untenable.

A visual simulation on a PowerPoint slide from SMART’s recent Board meeting shows the full horror of this future condition (1:04:47 mark).

Screen capture from SMART PowerPoint – Feb 18, 2015 Board Meeting

Screen capture from SMART PowerPoint – Feb 18, 2015 Board Meeting

To make matters worse, the narrow 2½ ft. width between shelter and warning strip isn’t just a single choke point that customers will have to navigate around. The Option 2 shelters are only open one side, meaning that the “closed” side will present a long, continuous, 2½ ft. channel between platform edge and the solid glass wall of the shelter. SMART is proposing to ultimately add two or three of these monster shelters to each platform.

Suspended four feet in the air, SMART platform’s will be narrow islands, sometimes crowded with people, and far more populated with bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and luggage than a typical bus stop. The Option 2 shelters are going to pose great difficulties to circulating customers when SMART is in operation. While they may not violate the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they certainly violates the spirit of it. Amazingly, only one SMART Director (Russell) raised any concern about space constraints.

The green Option 1 shelters will allow for far more space on the platforms. However, SMART’s 30% station design shelters had a key advantage over both Option 1 and Option 2. They were porous. They did not have a continuous wall of windscreens separating one side of the platform from the other. This openness would allow for more platform space and for customers to freely move from one side of the platform without having to go all the way around a bulky and long shelter.

SMART 30% Station Design

SMART 30% Station Design

Weather Protection

At Wednesday’s meeting, SMART Director Kellner speculated that the Option 2 shelter would offer better weather protection than Option 1. In fact, the opposite is true. The canopies of the Option 1 shelter span 12 ft., while the heavier canopies of the Option 2 shelter only span 10 ft. and provide less coverage.

Moreover, the Option 2 canopies only offer weather protection on one side, according to SMART’s drawings. On the “closed” side of the shelter, the roof only extends a few inches over the wall of long glass, which will offer no weather protection at all.

The one-sided and enclosed nature of these bus stop shelters prevents customers from easily and casually ducking under the canopy on a rainy or hot sunny day. They have to deliberately and consciously move into the enclosure on one side, squeezing through the 2½ ft. wide choke point.

Aesthetics

Much of the politicians’ comfort with Option 2 seems to stem from the look, which avoids garish green paint and offers a more familiar shape. In the words of SMART Director Mouton-Peters, it “fits the cultural ethos” of Marin. The new shelter design was reportedly partly inspired by the shelters at the San Rafael Transit Center.

While beauty is subjective, I doubt most Marinites cherish the Bettini Transit Center’s shelters. Without a doubt, the most beautiful things in Marin County are inherent in the place itself: the green and gold rolling hills, the oak trees, and the historic town centers.

The best thing that a transit shelter can do in this environment is to stay simple and clean and get out of the way. SMART Director Rabbit offered some of this perspective when he wondered if these big, black, bus shelters might end up blocking views of more cherished places and structures near the stations. They will.

Little House on the Platform

A misguided approach on shelter design can begin easily enough. When most people think of a “shelter”, the most comforting image that comes to mind is a house. Then, when people think of an iconic shape for a house, the most classic vernacular is a triangular pitched roof. In fact, SMART staff noted that the new Cotati Depot building also partly served as an inspiration for the Option 2 shelters.

Unfortunately, a triangular roof that drains water into gutters on either side tends to be very heavy. It’s not structurally possible to cantilever the canopy very far. Moreover, the weighty triangular roof can’t be supported easily by narrow support columns in the center. It requires a much wider base, just like a house. That leads to bulk. The problem is that rail platforms are not spacious enough to accommodate a bulky “house” while also serving the increasingly complex function of patron circulation and access.

Lessons from Utah

In the 1990’s, Salt Lake City was part of a wave of light rail development in the United States. Some of the TRAX light rail stations, however, were designed with wide, black, bulky shelters that look remarkably like what SMART is now proposing. The result was difficulties with customer circulation and safety on the platforms. Trolley Station in Downtown Salt Lake City, pictured below, is a textbook example of excessive platform clutter.

Trolley Station – Salt Lake City, UT

Trolley Station – Salt Lake City, UT

Perhaps trying to moving past this mistake, the new shelters proposed for the 2013 North Temple Bridge/Guadalupe Station (which serves both light rail and commuter rail) in Salt Lake City are decidedly different. The design by Hatch, Mott MacDonald, offers some excellent characteristics.

SLC Trolley 2

First, the shelters are narrow at the base to avoid clutter and to allow for easy circulation and safety. They are porous to allow movement from side to side. They have wide spanning canopies for good weather protection. They drain to the center, so that water doesn’t land on passengers’ heads. They allow for some natural light to come through, are simple, and basically get out of the way to allow for views of mountains and cityscape. And lastly, the name of the station is positioned below the canopy where it can be read easily by people on the platform and in the train.

SMART’s Option 2 shelters literally offer none of these important features.

Where to Go Now

For SMART, it’s been a continuous climb down on stations. They began with a professional design led by an architecture/engineering firm with transit experience, not unlike Hatch, Mott, MacDonald.

Then, SMART turned the design of stations over to its construction contractor, Shimmick. Now, they spear to be doing something even worse, taking hail-mary design advice from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority (SCTA), a funding agency with no transit operations, railroading, or architectural experience. It’s the SCTA who suggested the Option 2 bus shelters.

Cities along the rail line should not take the SCTA’s recommendation and should rally around shelter Option 1 for the good of the SMART’s system. While imperfect, it at least avoids the serious problems presented by shelter Option 2. If painted a more neutral color than the proposed forest green, it could be a respectable piece of station furniture.

Of course, while it may be too late, the best long-term outcome for both the riding public and taxpayers would be for SMART to implement a truly professional shelter design that considers the myriad details of the customer experience.

The SMART station debate: who’s right?

2014's 65% design

2014’s 65% design

SMART’s “65%” designs for stations were recently unveiled and promptly criticized by some politicians, pundits, and the public for lacking amenities and inspiration. On the other hand, SMART has been defended by other elected officials and commentators for its frugality.

So which side is right? Both.

SMART has made some sound decisions with its stations, but it may also be blowing an important opportunity.

SMART’s good moves

Those who expected SMART to build new depot buildings or to occupy existing historic ones haven’t been paying attention.   The rail agency never promised to do those things. Depot buildings are nice but aren’t needed for contemporary rail services.

The same goes for bathrooms at stations. They were never promised by SMART, and the rail agency wisely opted to put them on the trains where they are more practical and won’t become a maintenance and security nightmare. Any attempt to bring bathroom back to the stations would be an expensive mistake.

SMART has also been unfairly knocked for its four-foot-high concrete platforms, mostly notably by Dick Spotswood, who called them “boneheaded” and blamed a previous SMART director. The concern about platform bulkiness is justified. However, to imply that there was an easy or cheap way around them is misguided.

The platform height was driven by SMART’s choice of a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) train that meets federal regulatory requirements, but had four foot high floors. The Japanese vehicle was reportedly $20 million cheaper than the next closest competitor, which had roughly two foot high floors. Spending millions more on a different type of train just to have platforms that were two feet shorter might have been tough to justify, which is why the SMART Board didn’t do that. It’s unlikely that the current SMART chief would have recommended any differently.

SMART’s weaknesses

Still, despite making reasonable calls on depots, bathrooms and platform heights, SMART’s current station designs are a functional and aesthetic disappointment. As a defense, SMART staff recently gave its directors a PowerPoint show complete with dull and bare rail station platforms. The message? Others have uninspiring stations too. By comparison, we are not so bad!

In reality, many rail agencies in the United States give serious consideration to passenger amenities and station design. They view bike parking in both racks and lockers as essential features, as seen here, here and here. Or, they have architectural appeal, as seen here, here, and here. Or, they have landscaping, real-time information, good signage, or clever lighting plans.

In 2011, SMART developed station concepts with input from the public. That process was not a boundless invitation to imagine “dream stations” as some revisionists have recently implied. In fact, the designers at the time conservatively suggested that platforms use the same elements across all stations for brand identity and ease of maintenance. Moreover, the original designs were not radically different from the current ones, in that they envisioned simple platforms with a few key elements. However, they did pay attention to some important details.

The 2011 SMART station design

The 2011 SMART station design

Fist, they attempted to soften the stark visual impact of the four-foot concrete box platforms for better aesthetics, to minimize a large and blank graffiti canvas, and to improve safety in case of a passenger fall. This was done with planters and broad staircases on the backside of platforms. The current design ditches those things, and for safety will rely on a guardrail on the backside of platforms. It’s not clear what that guardrail will look like since it’s absent from simulated image of the 65% design. The simulation also gives a poor indication of just how high and bunker-like the platforms are going to be.

The original designs had shelters with better dimensions for weather protection. At roughly 7 feet high instead of 9 feet high, they were better equipped to keep the rain out, and were longer to protect more people. They were designed with power connections and mounts on the underside for lighting, speakers, security cameras, or other elements that SMART might need in the future. The new shelters merely shift those considerations and costs to the jerry-rigged future.

The original designs included both bicycle racks and lockers, real-time information, a more thorough signage and lighting plan for safety and security, and more attractive aesthetic.

In the face of arguments that better options exist, including those already developed by SMART itself, some SMART staff have responded that they simply can’t afford it. To make up for perceived short-comings, however, SMART is allowing local jurisdictions to pay for improvements themselves.

This approach is short-sighted.

Better design can be worth it

Passenger amenities probably represent around 1% of total project costs. Reducing the quality of these elements produces a tiny fraction of savings. Moreover, to create new generic designs, SMART had to pay consultants AECOM and FMG Architects, reducing savings further. A very small amount is being gained the short term by giving up attention to detail and a lot could be lost in the long run.

Having quality elements at stations should be thought of as a revenue booster. While SMART’s operations will be subsidized, the rail agency is still expecting few million dollars from passenger fares each year. Over twenty years, that expected money totals well over a hundred million dollars. To capture those dollars, SMART will need riders and to capture riders it will help to create a positive impression. A very small amount of money invested in quality stations now, combined with a better approach to design quality, will buoy revenues later on.

If trains can be nice, why not stations?

Some have suggested that SMART should strive for “bare bones” minimalism. However, this philosophy stands in stark contrast to SMART’s decisions about its trains. The rail agency is spending hundreds of thousands, or perhaps in the low millions of dollars, to make the noses of its trains swooped instead of flat and to paint its trains green. Is this a waste? No. The trains will define SMART for a generation. It is common sense (and de rigueur in the private sector) to put at least some portion of a product’s budget into to making that product appealing to consumers. This principle being applied to SMART trains should also apply to its stations.

Beyond the imperative of attracting riders, SMART also needs to keep the general public supportive of its project, including those who will never ride. At some point in the future, SMART will need to re-authorize its quarter cent sales tax to continue running its service. If station are a source of community pride, instead of a sore spot, it will make that task considerably easier.

Cities pay more, but for what?

For local elected officials who understand the importance of good stations and want something better the road ahead is blurry. SMART has offered to allow cities to pay for upgrades, but it’s not clear what that means in practice.

It would be wildly inefficient for multiple cities to hire their own consultants to re-design stations. It could also result in a crazy hodge-podge that detracts from a consistent SMART identity. Allowing cities lots of freedom to customize platforms could force SMART to assume maintenance responsibility and liability for a host of elements that it didn’t choose or design. It also might also force SMART to incorporate station features at a very late date, which would add cost.

To cut down on these risks, SMART could control the process by developing station upgrades itself and then offering them to cities for a price. This would certainly be more coherent and cost-effective, even though it would ironically involve SMART paying money to consultants to do station design work for yet a third time.

Either way, the decision to let cities customize stations is raising expectations far more than the first round of station design work in 2011. That process focused on coming up with a quality template that all jurisdictions could live with while keeping designs fairly consistent for SMART’s long term benefit. The new process offer a weak design but implies that anything might be possible for cities, as long as they pay. In the end, either SMART could end up with long-term station headaches or cities could end up with frustratingly limited choices.

Re-thinking the approach

All of this highlights the wisdom of doing stations right in the first place. In retrospect, developing a design with input from the public and local jurisdictions a few years ago was a prudent way of avoiding today’s disappointment, political grief, and extra consultant work. At the moment, however, SMART seems to view discussions of its station designs as a hassle rather than an opportunity.

While financial contributions from cities would be helpful, SMART has a political and financial incentive (and a small window) to do stations right. Consequently, it should take the lead in developing better designs, whether it involves dusting off the older ones or coming up with new ones. That effort should involve transparency, input from cities, a rabid attention to details, and a design that’s focused on SMART’s balance sheet over the long run.

SMART will be a net negative on greenhouse gas emissions

The SMART train, now under construction, was marketed to voters as a climate change solution, and a rough analysis of the initial operating segment seems to substantiate that claim. Unfortunately, the advantage evaporates with the inefficient second operating segment to Cloverdale.

Critics have decried everything about SMART, but one of the most pernicious ones that has remained unexamined was the critique of SMART’s fuel efficiency. At only 1.1 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, the cars seem like the height of inefficiency. How could SMART claim its operations would reduce transportation greenhouse gases when it’s so clear it won’t?

SMART’s initial operating segment, from San Rafael to Santa Rosa, will serve 28.5 million weekday passenger miles every year and travel about 332,000 miles doing it.* At 1.1 gallons of diesel per mile, that means it will get about 42.8 passenger miles per gallon (pmpg). Since diesel emits more CO2 per gallon than gasoline, we’ll need to revise it down to the equivalent of 37.4 passenger miles per gallon (pmpg-e), roughly the same as a hybrid. Not bad.

According to MTC, cars’ fuel efficiency will get up to 32.2 mpg over the next 20 years. But this is the sticker value. Realistically, cars get about 13 percent less mileage than that (according to Consumer Reports), and in stop-and-go traffic it can be cut down another 40%. With 1.2 passengers per mile, that adds out to 26.9 pmpg during commute hours.

In other words, SMART will very likely emit fewer greenhouse gases than the cars its trips will replace, at least for the initial operating segment (IOS). The full line, however, won’t be quite so great.

The IOS is actually the most efficient part of the SMART line, at least according to official ridership figures. Adding extensions to Cloverdale and Larkspur will lower the train’s efficiency by quite a bit, to 26.3 pmpg-e. This is only as good as a car. We can cross off the full system for greenhouse gas emission reductions, at least if CAFE standards have anything to say about it.

Had SMART not been so financially constrained, it might have pursued electrification from the beginning, a $70 million investment that would have provided cleaner (and faster) service to the corridor.

This is not an indictment of the SMART system. It does not measure how the system will encourage people to swap car trips for walking trips, which happens when people use transit. It also does not take into account the annual mobility benefits for users, which will likely be worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Indeed, individual transit lines are not meant to be climate change solutions on their own. They are like fax machines, enhanced by and enhancing other lines nearby. The accrued benefit of the network, as a whole, is enough to change how people live and travel. And that is what the SMART effort is about: not a final solution to our carbon footprint, but another link in the chain.

*People have complained that the Dowling ridership estimate was overoptimistic, and was not “accepted” by the SMART Board. Given that the latest numbers are used in financial planning and therefore underpin much of the financial structure of the system, I’m more confident in them than speculation from critics. However, if you wish to reduce ridership by some percentage, the precise weekday passenger miles estimate is 28,457,926 per year, assuming 265 working days.

Report: the FRA makes trains less safe, more expensive

A new report out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and I suspect you’ll recognize half the byline), says the FRA’s safety regulations, enforced in the name of safety, perversely make us less safe. Rather than use the best practices of Europe or encourage train manufacturers to innovate, the FRA’s rules prescribe antiquated crash management technology from the 1910s. Dangerous and more expensive trains are the result.

To find out why, you’ll need to read the report for yourself. It’s an easy read, just six pages, and it details how SMART, in the West, and Acela, in the East, have been dramatically affected by the FRA’s regulations, though they aren’t the only victims. You can see the stark difference between the two regimes in a crash test video that went into the FRA’s report on its own safety measures. The top train is FRA-compliant, while the bottom is compliant with European regulations from the International Union of Railways (UIC):

The top train experiences something called an “override”, which you’ll find mentioned in the report. It’s what FRA-compliant trains too-often do in a crash. And, on the bottom train, you can even watch how, for a split second during the crash, the oncoming train pauses to absorb the crash energy. That’s UIC crash safety in action.

Something I realized after the report had been written, too, was that the FRA’s rules hurt domestic train manufacturers. FRA-compliant trains are illegal overseas, as they don’t meet UIC standards, just as European trains don’t meet American safety standards. This forces domestic manufacturers to choose between serving the tiny US market or the much larger global market.

Though bashing the FRA is a favored pastime among more technically-minded bloggers, desperately needed regulatory reform seems to have gained little traction where it matters most. Here’s hoping CEI’s white paper can change that.

Larkspur’s SMART station: Answering the critiques

Last time, we examined how the station got to be placed where it is. The gap in building the first and second segments gives activists a window to try to change the mind of SMART staff and board members, and by the looks of things they’ll need the extra time.

After seven years, the planned site of the Larkspur station is pretty well set in stone, at least if you ask the agency. Whenever asked to move it, SMART has taken the position that the location is final.

This, to put it mildly, is frustrating.

How can the concerns raised by Larkspur years ago and those raised by SMART be addressed?

Larkspur

When Larkspur first voiced opposition to a ferry terminal station, the city council was opposed to the project entirely and objected on three grounds: glare, aesthetics, and a desire to avoid renegotiating Marin Country Mart’s planning documents.

The concern over glare is so odd it hardly deserves mention. Sun glints off parked cars in the ferry terminal and all over the neighborhood. Adding a train would not increase glare.

A train viaduct in Berlin. Image by Jarrett Walker.

A train viaduct in Berlin. Image by Jarrett Walker.

Aesthetic concerns deserve more of a mention. Larkspur argued that views of the Bay would be blocked by an elevated structure and the neighborhood would be marred by a rail viaduct.

Though the vista is dominated by the ferry parking lot, viaducts are very rarely attractive things, at least in the United States. Since the train would run through the parking lot of a major shopping center and across the field of view of some of the stores, SMART should take a page from Germany and incorporate the shopping center into the viaduct itself.

A huge number of trains in Berlin run on elevated tracks, often running right through the city. Unlike the loud and grungy viaducts in Chicago or New York City, these have been integrated into the city by becoming buildings in themselves. Cafes, shops, and restaurants have taken up residence beneath the rails. In essence, the viaducts are very long buildings with trains running on the rooftop.

Marin Country Mart wants to emulate a maritime village, something vaguely European. By using the viaduct as buildings, Marin Country Mart could emulate something actually European. Though it would require cooperation from the SMART board, it would ameliorate the aesthetic concerns of the neighbors and add value to the shopping center’s owners.

Marin Country Mart brings us to the third objection: planning. Larkspur officials in 2006 did not want to revise the Planned Unit Development plan that governs the shopping center, something that would need to happen if SMART extends a viaduct through their property, as two buildings would have to come down on the edge of the property.

But if both parties are willing to renegotiate, there’s no reason why Larkspur couldn’t amend the plan. Extending SMART through the shopping center makes a more direct connection between the train and shopping. That means value added to the center, especially if the viaduct can be made up as nice as the ones in Berlin.

SMART

Now that opposition in Larkspur has passed, SMART itself stands opposed to an in-terminal station. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly intransigence. It’s not in The Plan, so therefore shouldn’t be added to The Plan. But publicly, SMART will likely say that it’s an issue of cost (too high) and ridership (won’t change much). These are things we can assess, though intransigence might go a bit deeper.

For cost, elevated rail structures like this one typically cost about $70 million per mile to build, including stations. SMART would need to build a viaduct 2,200 feet long, or about 0.4 miles. Multiply that against the average cost per mile and one arrives at $30 million. Let’s add in $150,000 for building demolition, $100,000 for EIR amendments, and a generous $1 million for land acquisition, for a total cost of $31.3 million. That brings the cost of the whole system from $724 million to $755 million.

This is a bargain, especially for a project of regional significance. If SMART extends to the Larkspur terminal, it could transport a significant number of ferry riders. If it transports even a tenth of them (540 per weekday), the project will cost about $96,000 per trip, not counting the people who will occupy the now-freed spaces in the parking lot. The Greenbrae Interchange Project, in contrast, will add meaningful capacity for about 825 trips* in the peak hour at a cost of about $173,000 each.

Intransigence

SMART staff have dug in their heels on this project, but that’s not to say they can’t be persuaded or forced to come up with a good plan. However, will will take time.

The first thing you can do is understand the costs involved, as above. While the numbers in this post are estimates, SMART has not studied the issue in depth; they know just a hair more than I do about potential costs and ridership. Until there is a proper study, we cannot know for certain how much it will cost, nor how much benefit those monies will buy us.

The second thing you can do is start to lobby boards, commissions, and SMART staff. Since a ferry/train connection is a project of regional importance, TAM, SCTA, and MTC should rank it high on their list of congestion mitigation projects. $31.3 million is a pittance compared to what is doled out in a given year, and this is a critical link in the North Bay’s transportation infrastructure. Residents of San Francisco and Sonoma have leverage as well, as the station will effect the usefulness of their own transportation systems.

Golden Gate Transit needs to push SMART to improve access, too. This will directly benefit GGT’s ferry business and increase the value of their park and ride lot, should they ever decide to lease it to developers.

Find your SMART, SCTA, MTC, TAM, and GGBHTD representatives and tell them you want SMART in Larkspur.

*This is the number of new northbound cars that will be accommodated on the freeway. The project won’t add any southbound or HOV capacity that will be used.

Larkspur has a second chance to do SMART right

Elevated Ferry Station

The original plan for an elevated station. Image from SMART.

While Sonoma gets to reap the benefits of SMART, including a $15 million expansion of the IOS to the Santa Rosa Airport, Marin’s commuting public rightly grouses that it doesn’t serve their needs. Yet by ignoring Larkspur Landing for now, SMART has a chance to do what it should have done from the start and plan for a station in the ferry terminal.

A core principal of transit planning is connectivity. Any network is only as good as the strength of its connections, and transit is not excluded. The strongest sort of transit connection is the cross-platform connection, which allows you to hop off your train or bus, cross the platform to your transfer and be on your way. It’s like switching planes in an airport by walking one gate over.

In contrast, a weak transit connection forces riders to leave one station, walk a couple of blocks, and enter another station. Rather than boarding a connecting flight at the gate next to yours, we need to hike across the airport to another terminal entirely. Though this may be tolerable once in a while, as a daily commute it can crush even the hardiest transit enthusiast.

Sadly, SMART has opted against convenience and in favor of soul-crushing. Current plans call for locating the ferry station a half mile from the ferry terminal, requiring transferring riders to either walk along parking lots and unfriendly streets or wait around for a shuttle. A commute that might already involve 2 transfers will become one involving 3.

Larkspur residents, most of whom who won’t even get direct SMART access, rightly complain that this makes little sense. The Station Area Plan for the Larkspur Landing neighborhood calls for relocating the station into the terminal and decries the poor site chosen by the SMART board.

SMART’s draft environmental impact report contained a draft plan (very large PDF) to put the station in the ferry terminal. Back when station sites were being planned, staff created four alternate proposals for Larkspur, including two with better access to the ferry. The best one placed the station adjacent to the current terminal entrance at the end of a half-mile of elevated track. Given the current going rate for elevated rail, this option would cost about $30 million plus land acquisition costs. That’s about one-fifth the cost of the Greenbrae Interchange Project next door.

Yet at the request of the Larkspur City Council (PDF), SMART went for the station plan staff explicitly recommended against. The city complained that the removal of two buildings would require modifying the plan that governs Marin Country Mart, and that an elevated rail line would obstruct views of the Bay. They also were concerned about cost, though Larkspur wouldn’t need to pay for the extension. Another concern raised earlier by staff is that a station in the ferry terminal would make extensions to Corte Madera or San Quentin more difficult.

Though these concerns are well-intentioned and should be addressed in any plan to relocate the station, it’s foolish to scuttle a dramatic service improvement over parking lots and fantasy expansions that are decades from reality.

And here is where we have a new opportunity. By splitting construction of the line in two, SMART has given Larkspur residents a chance to change that seven-year-old bad decision. Nobody likes to run across an airport to catch a plane, and no commuter likes to walk across a half-mile of parking lots and traffic to make a transfer. Larkspur needs reverse its earlier request and demand a world-class transit connection, and residents should ask for the same. And SMART should listen.

Next time, I’ll examine the city council’s original concerns and how they might be addressed.

SMART grade crossings and congestion

CSX Railroad Crossing Lights

by lakelandlocal, on Flickr

Some SMART opponents have been arguing that the SMART train will cause massive traffic congestion along its route whenever it closes the crossing gates.

The idea is that SMART will run most often at rush hour, when our roads are busiest, and that it would cross over some fairly busy roads at grade. The crossing gates would close for a time, backups would result, and rush hour would be ruined for everyone. This analysis deserves examination.

Federal guidelines on the subject require crossing arms to close at least 20 seconds before a train passes, and open no more than 12 seconds after the train has passed. Though most crossing arms I’ve seen open almost immediately after the train has passed, let’s say the gate will be closed at least 32 seconds.

If a 170-foot SMART train is moving at 25 miles per hour, or 37 feet per second, it will clear a 35-foot wide intersection in less than 6 seconds. If it’s slowing to a stop, such as around Fourth Street in San Rafael, it might travel at about a fifth that speed, and will cross the same intersection in 28 seconds. SMART’s design documents say it will run at the same speed as parallel streets, so these are reasonable speeds to assume. Added these times to the minimum closure time and we find a maximum an approximate wait delay of 60 seconds, roughly the same amount of time as a normal traffic light. Thanks to long headways, each grade crossing will have to endure, at most, 60 seconds of delay twice four times per hour.

In the populated areas SMART will cross through, the crossing arms will communicate with with the rest of the traffic light system. That will further minimize the effect of the train’s activities on local traffic flow.

It seems, then, that the concern is overheated. While freight trains extending thousands of feet in length would cause major congestion, the relatively short SMART trains will be speedy enough so as not to cause a problem. With intelligent traffic engineering, they won’t be any more of a pain than traffic lights are now.

This post has been updated for clarity.

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