Sketching out a better Muir Woods Shuttle

Residents of Tam Valley are up in arms about Muir Woods, and it’s no wonder. Their community and its two-lane road is the gateway to the popular site, as well as all the beauty and recreation of southern West Marin.

In response to the cry, the Board of Supervisors wrote to the National Park Service and asked them to explore improving shuttle service and to limit visitors.

While limiting visitors is an awfully stingy solution to the traffic problems in Tam Valley, tackling the traffic problem with transit alone is likely to be tough. How to restructure the shuttle to improve service to provide that much travel is an important question.

So, to get planners’ creative juices flowing, here’s my own sketch of a new shuttle, lifted from some brainstorming on Twitter.

Guiding questions: What is the purpose of the program? To ease traffic to West Marin through Tam Valley. To do that without limiting visitors, we need to create a shuttle that takes enough cars off the road to make traffic run more smoothly. What’s the purpose of that shuttle? To provide a car-free way for people to visit Muir Woods.

How do we make this shuttle attractive to tourists who might have rented a car and might be from areas where transit is not part of their daily lives?

Basically, like any good transit, we need to run it from a logical origin point to our logical endpoint while hitting other possible origin/destinations in the process. For tourists in San Francisco and Southern Marin, the primary destinations are Union Square, Coit Tower, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason, Lombard Street, and the cable cars in San Francisco, and Sausalito, the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, and Stinson Beach in Marin.

Muir Woods sits on a dead-end, so it’s probably not a good idea to go on to Stinson Beach. The time going in and out again is just too much of an inconvenience for something going on to West Marin. Hitting Sausalito makes easy sense for a shuttle. Route 66F does this now and doesn’t get enough riders, so we’ll need to press on.

The Golden Gate Bridge makes a lot of sense. Not everyone wants to take a ferry to Sausalito, but everyone wants to see the Bridge if they’re touring San Francisco. It would be a good way to make the shuttle highly visible to tourists and catch those who want Muir Woods but not the ferry ride.

What about Fisherman’s Wharf? It would certainly put the shuttle into the heart of tourist San Francisco, lending it ease of use and ease of access. The problem is how far Fisherman’s Wharf is from the ultimate destination – Muir Woods – and how much it would cost to run a shuttle with appreciable frequency that deep into The City.

Not to say it isn’t impossible, only expensive. At a typical $89 per revenue hour (the number of collective hours the shuttle vehicles operate for passengers), it would likely cost above $1 million annually to operate, less fare revenues. It may also do more to boost tourism to Muir Woods than offset driving, which isn’t something the National Parks Service wants.

So, unless there is a compelling reason for the shuttle to run all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf, I propose the shuttle run from the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza to Muir Woods, passing through Sausalito (timed with the ferry), Marin City, and park & ride lots on the way. It should run consistently and frequently, with on- and off-season schedules. Every 15 minutes allows people to just show up and go. And the average wait of 7.5 minutes at the Golden Gate Bridge could easily be filled by reading plaques with facts about Southern Marin and the redwoods, not to mention fabulous views of The City and the Bridge. Shuttle should start so they can arrive at Muir Woods at its opening and end at closing.

The current Muir Woods shuttle, Route 66, typically runs to Marin City. It’s much more a parking shuttle than a tourist shuttle, as the only destinations tourists might want to be at are park & ride lots to wait for the shuttle. Infrequently, it runs to the Sausalito Ferry as Route 66F. This is the route that makes more sense from a tourist’s perspective, as it allows the tourist to chain their Marin trips together. Adding the Golden Gate Bridge would add significant value to the shuttle.

Short of that, it would add value to run all shuttles as 66F. We don’t want to ask shuttle riders to drive or transfer, but running most shuttles to park & rides forces tourists either to take Golden Gate Transit or drive.

A non-route concept might have just as much impact as good transit design: limit access to the park for people driving. If you plan to arrive by car, you’d need to reserve a timeslot for your car ahead of time. People arriving by shuttle wouldn’t face that kind of limitation, dramatically incentivizing people to take transit or at least use the park & rides.

A free transfer from the ferry, too, would help overcome the feeling that we’re just gouging the tourists: tickets for everyone for the ferry, tickets for everyone on the shuttle, then back…

Total cost to operate this shuttle? Somewhere around $1 million per year, though with fares it will probably cost the taxpayers around $750,000. With the parking limit, taxpayer cost would be significantly less.

We don’t want to limit access to Muir Woods unless we must, and right now there’s no need to do so. The alternative – a well-designed shuttle program paired with the right incentives – needs a chance to work. To say we need to limit access and solve traffic before boosting the shuttle is to display incomprehension about the purpose and power of good transit. It is not an add-on; it is a solution.

In doing so, we can keep our national heritage open for all Americans, not just the ones who got there first.

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Tam Junction Isn’t Going Anywhere

There is a lot of heartburn around Tam Junction. Development, they say, is coming, development that will be ruinous to the neighborhood and anyone who moves into new homes. What’s actually going on? As it turns out, a whole lot less than imagined.

Background

Tam Junction. Click for Google Maps

Tam Junction. Click for Google Maps

Tam Junction is a 20-acre commercial strip wedged between Tam Valley and Almonte. It used to be the junction of the Interurban’s Mill Valley Line and their main lines to Central Marin, hence the name. Now, it’s the intersection of Highway 1 (aka Shoreline Highway) and Almonte Boulevard, and getting through there is suitably difficult.

Though I haven’t been able to corroborate the grade, Sustainable TamAlmonte says the intersection has a Level of Service grade of F, meaning it’s over-capacity. There’s a push in Caltrans and among neighbors to make the whole area more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, which should take some pressure off the roads, but overall it is just a difficult intersection to traverse.

Tam Junction itself is built on flat, muddy soil, the kind that’s prone to liquefaction during an earthquake. Safe building standards, then, requires some serious reinforcement to bedrock. It’s a dusty, ugly, and semi-industrial bit of the county surrounded by some absolutely stunning scenery and some fairly charming homes.

The zoning for the strip is commercial, but it allows an FAR of 0.4, at most, and has a height limit of 30 feet. This means that it can only have 40 percent the square footage as the size of the lot – a 1000-square-foot lot could have only a 400-square-foot building, which itself can only be 30 feet tall. The northeast bit is part of the Baylands Corridor, a special protected area in the county’s General Plan that can’t be easily built upon.

What’s going on?

Tam Junction has been marked as a Project/Priority Development Area, also known as a PDA. This designation allows it to get additional funds for transportation infrastructure improvements, which it definitely needs. One Bay Area established the PDAs to help focus funding to areas that counties or cities deemed to be particularly worthwhile investments.

A common understanding is that a PDA designation is actually to focus housing development, but that’s not always the case. In essence, the purpose of a PDA is to align the transportation infrastructure with housing. That means either investing in housing development if the infrastructure is underutilized, or investing in infrastructure if what’s already there is over-capacity. Tam Junction falls mostly into the latter category.

I say “mostly” because the Marin’s state-mandated housing element points out six sites in Tam Junction that could be used for affordable housing development. These sites will in all likelihood never be developed: the high cost of construction in Tam Junction’s mud, not to mention the incredibly constrained building envelope, would scare away for-profit and non-profit developers alike. They’d be much more likely to invest in Sausalito, Miller Avenue, or San Rafael than in Tam Junction. The six sites point out the possibility of rezoning those areas to moderate densities but do not guarantee any development.

It’s important to point out that any development that would occur would not be out of character for area – 268-274 Shoreline Drive is a small strip of 30 unit-per-acre density, and Tam Junction already plays host to 30-foot-tall buildings.

Oppositional dissonance

In one sense, it’s a bit of a shame nothing would be built in the area. Sustainable TamAlmonte, a local group, strenuously opposes any residential development in the area while supporting any commercial development. Yet residents now can’t support more retail than is already there. If they could, someone would have taken over the psychic’s shop and opened something with a bit more pizzazz. The strip would need more residents to become a viable retail center. It can’t just become downtown Mill Valley because residents want it to be; it needs actual shoppers with actual money, and housing development would provide a way to do that without generating much traffic, as most new shoppers would be able to walk to their store of choice.

The other option would be to attract more shoppers from elsewhere in Marin, poaching some business from Sausalito and Mill Valley. Yet this option would attract even more traffic to the congested area, rendering it even more dangerous for residents walking, biking, driving, or simply living in the area. I hope Sustainable TamAlmonte isn’t suggesting this sort of development.

In sum, Tam Junction isn’t likely to change much more over the next decade than it has in the last decade. The barriers to development – namely mud and zoning – will make it difficult to do anything other than improve the existing infrastructure for existing residents and businesses. Given the harrowing testimonies of advocates at the last TAM meeting, that should be change enough.