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Highway 101 Should be a High-Frequency Bus Line

Key to a successful transit system is show up and go service, but Golden Gate Transit hasn't developed that trunk. It's time they develop it.

Though Marin has done a really fine job with what bus resources it has – indeed, its service puts Washington, DC’s suburban service to shame – it doesn’t do justice to its geographic blessings, or the transit-oriented towns it serves. To get Marin on the move, GGT should reconsider the basic structure of its service.

The ideal transit system is a grid of high-frequency corridors. Though it requires transfers, if the bus or train comes every five minutes it’s not that much of a problem. San Francisco, Vancouver, and even Broward County, Florida, have designed highly successful transit grids.

Alas, Marin’s valleys preclude development of a high-frequency grid. Instead, our geography is in a trunk and feeder system. Just like the streams that made our valleys all fed into the Bay, our feeder roads all lead to the Highway 101 trunk. Only two town centers, those of Novato and San Rafael, fall along the trunk, and the rest are at least half a mile up the valleys from the freeway. Though not ideal, this system gives us a number of advantages.

Foremost among these is that our trunk is a freeway. From an urban design perspective 101 is atrocious, but from a speed perspective this is wonderful. Unlike surface streets that require constant stopping and going and cars parallel parking and red lights and pedestrians and all the other nonsense that makes buses drive slowly and a city worth living in, a freeway is empty of all but cars, freeing drivers to push their buses far beyond their normal surface speed. As well, bus stops are relatively infrequent, only as often as an on- or off-ramp, so they don’t slow down the bus much.

Secondly, our branches aren’t twisty little things that look great only on a drafting board. There’s not enough room for that. Instead, we have fairly linear arterials along valley floors with towns positioned right along them. Even sprawling Novato has only a couple of real arterial roads. Most anywhere you want to be is within a half-mile of these roads.

Lastly, nearly all our local buses intersect the trunk. There are very few valleys coming off of valleys like Sleepy Hollow and Sun Valley to muddle things. This means that one could run a bus along the branch from one end to the other and always, either at the endpoint or the midpoint, there will be a transfer to a fast north-south line, which where the real distance is in the system.

Sonoma, also part of the GGT system, doesn’t have quite the same linear structure as Marin, but the county’s principal town centers lie along 101 and so are similarly well-served (in a manner of speaking) by the freeway.

As an added bonus, our towns are compact. Walkable destinations are easy to find, and office parks are clustered. San Francisco isn’t too far away, sitting at the base of our trunk, and the East Bay is easily accessible from Central Marin.

While our bus lines generally follow this system, the trunk lacks true high frequency. A common complaint among commuters to Marin from San Francisco is the awful northbound frequencies. All three all-day routes – 70, 80, and 101 – leave at the same time from the City, and each is a different level of express. Within Marin, wait times are inconsistent, fluctuating between 6 minutes and 30 minutes for most of the weekday, though Marin Transit runs Route 71 to make the gap only 15 minutes between Marin City and Novato. In Sonoma, GGT runs a consistent, though infrequent, one hour gap between buses, known as a headway.

The Frequent Trunk

Golden Gate Transit and Marin Transit should set a goal of no more than 30 minute waits for buses going between San Francisco and Santa Rosa, and 15 minute waits for buses going between San Francisco and Novato. That headway, while not great, is the largest we could go and still consider it a frequent bus service. This minimum level of service should go from 6am to 9pm weekdays and 9am to 9pm on weekends, roughly when service levels drop off in the existing service. Earlier and later buses would operate, of course, but only at the current levels of service. The weekday service works out to about 268 revenue hours – 97 hours for the Novato-SF route, 171 hours for the Santa Rosa-SF – which is 83 hours more than GGT currently runs. Weekend service would need 214 hours, about 62 more than currently available.

According to GGT’s latest operating reports, our weekday service increase would cost about $3.3 million per year, and the weekend would cost $1 million, increasing annual operating costs by 6%.* It may be possible to roll some commuter bus service into the morning schedule to decrease costs as well, which may go into an express service like what the 101 and 101X do now. Revenue from congestion pricing on the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as general toll hikes to , could easily cover the cost.

The Frequent and Accessible Feeder

This is a bus network, not simply a bus line, and we ought not forget about the feeder lines.

Of the feeders, the most prominent are those centered around San Rafael’s Bettini Transit Center. Not only do they have cross-platform connections (to borrow a rail term) to 101 bus service, but they serve the most densely populated areas of Marin – Ross Valley, Central San Rafael, and the Canal – and the East Bay. These should be high priorities, with a minimum combined headway of 20 minutes on each axis. The Canal, which already has 15 minute headways, should maintain them.

Other valleys should seek minimum headways of 30 minutes between their town centers and the freeway with a goal of 15 minute headways. North San Rafael and Hamilton have uniquely transit-unfriendly designs but the bulk of Marin’s population could be well-served by semi-frequent service along valley-floor arterials.

Just as important as frequency are the connections between 101 and the local feeders. Bus pads are typically awful things, and some routes – such as Tiburon’s Route 19 – don’t even connect well with the bus pads that are available. GGT and Marin Transit must push for stairs, better shelters, paved paths, clear signage, and onramp underpasses to facilitate transfers between local feeders and the 101 trunk as well as to surface streets. They should design each interchange as a single transfer area and provide maps for each, similar to the Larkspur Ferry map (PDF). Improvements like this are sometimes provided already, but should be standard. Though luxury isn’t necessary, customers should be comfortable when transferring and when waiting. That is the glue that makes the network really hum.

You’ll notice I haven’t touched on density, signal priority, BRT, SMART, or the speculative Fairfax-San Rafael streetcar. While each of these things could dramatically improve service in Marin and Sonoma, not to mention decrease the cost to run this proposed system, they aren’t necessary to make it a successful system. Using the infrastructure we have today it’s possible to make a high-class transit system for the North Bay. GGT should focus on network-wide improvements, and the key to a better bus system lies along Highway 101.

*GGT and Marin Transit put different values on that number. GGT's latest financial report shows a cost of $204/hour, while Marin Transit uses $139/hour when calculating costs. The lower number would give this system a total annual cost of $2.9 million rather than $4.3 million.

A version of this piece appeared in The Greater Marin.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kevin Moore August 11, 2012 at 04:49 PM
o We committed to spend over $800 million to install and run the SMART train system. One of SMART's claims is the number of commuters to SF is small compared to the number of Sonoma / Marin commuters. Many RepealSMART advocates said the alternative was to build out the bus system. The choice was to build SMART instead. The money supply is not endless and at some point you start hurting the same people you want to help. Higher taxes? If you make over six figures, it won't hurt that much. The middle income person with a family that pays more to commute, more for property taxes, more for sales taxes; it all adds up. It can't be "and this. and this. and this." o I disagree with the Robin Hood attitude of taking from the car drivers to give to those who choose other modes of transportation. One reason I commuted on my motorcycle was the flexibility to leave early or more often work very late. Some people don't commute to downtown SF or need to carry equipment in their cars. I don't think it's fair to penalize them as "evil or selfish car drivers".
Kevin Moore August 11, 2012 at 04:51 PM
o One complaint was seeing empty buses. Maybe we need to rethink buses and purchase smaller buses that run on a more frequent basis. We have a lot of elderly people that will not be able to drive. But they will need service that is not far from their homes. It takes money to run a program that will run at a loss and we just dedicated money to SMART. o Some like riding the bus to downtown SF. I'd rather take the ferry. No stops, right to downtown. A co-worker from Rhonert Park prefers the bus due to not having to transfer. o Marin has always been a suburban area. Want to live in a carless city, San Francisco is excellent for that lifestyle. Is living in Marin expensive? Yes, it always has been expensive. I pay more to live in a nicer area. o Marin lost 9% of all jobs between 2000 and 2009. Marin's population growth is nearly zero. I think "building for the next wave of Marin residents" is just a way to continue building in Marin. Jobs are not coming to Marin in large numbers. The SFD lots are gone. YOu think there will be more government jobs in Marin? Not with the pension mess we are in.
Kevin Moore August 11, 2012 at 06:37 PM
Hi Ricardo, You don't have to give Facebook your real name. You can make one up, then attach it to any email account. It isn't that I can't setup another account, I chose not to do it. We will see if I ever pay a price for that. In Debating class we were taught to never attack the person. Never attack the statement. Attack the supporting proof. So often, there is no proof, or support, which makes the statement an opinion.
Kevin Moore August 11, 2012 at 06:41 PM
And I am still researching electric bikes. I've done a lot of research on hub drives and batteries. Check out the "Commuter Booster". It is a very light weight design for boosting how far you can commute on a bicycle.
Rico August 11, 2012 at 07:21 PM
Hi Kevin, You are right about using smaller buses in Marin, especially since most intra-county bus lines are usually more of a percentage of empty or nearly empty buses. It is the commute routes that are well utilized and the buses are filled up. That is a more efficient use of tax dollars, fuel and resources. If you notice the public works trucks and fire trucks used in Marin municipalities are also smaller. They make many full service trucks that are smaller, use less fuel, cost less to operate and are more adaptive to the many hillside areas that have roads that some people call goat trails. Many of them are one lane in spots. Plus, smaller vehicles are safer for everyone. I remember the old Greyhound commute bus that used to leave Bolinas at 6:30 am and go through Stinson Beach, then over Panoramic straight to S.F. Then, the bus driver "Sam" would spend the day (with pay) in S.F. drinking and gambling and then make the return run in the evening back to Bo-Stin. Sam never missed a day of work in 40 years or had an accident. They had a special small Greyhound bus for the Bolinas run to S.F. No, I never used it, but my parents did, and it was always nearly full. It is mainly commuters that need the big buses to S.F., but is the many seniors that use the intra-county lines that smaller buses would make more sense. And I agree with you about the population decline and jobs decline in most of Marin. Building more apartments for new commuters is not sustainable.

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