What happened to Highway 101?

Image by Vivian Chen, on Flickr

Image by Vivian Chen, on Flickr

Sitting on Highway 101 during rush hour is an exercise in frustration. As traffic creeps along, one might ask: how can anyone think about adding any more housing here? Look at this traffic! How did this happen? What went wrong?

The answer is complex. There isn’t a straight line from housing development to traffic as many people assume. If that were true, Marin’s slow growth would have precluded any traffic problems. Even though Marin grew by only around 0.7% per year from 1970 to 2000, traffic congestion got worse much faster.

Housing costs went up

We have seen how Marin County was able to save its open space through the efforts of diligent citizens and collaboration between competing interests. Yet this protection had its cost. The anti-growth movement that spawned the protection of open space did not slow down after it won the war. On the contrary, the fight got even more intense.

Environmental and neighborhood groups, which had fought to protect open space from development, now opposed any and all development within the existing communities in the City-Centered corridor, abandoning principles that were at the heart of the Corridor Plan and its great compromise. As the supply of new housing in Marin diminished, costs skyrocketed, and the sprawl was only pushed out to other counties’ open space. Soon, Sonoma’s farmland and the East Bay foothills were filled with the tract homes Marin had largely avoided.

Even though new growth was supposed to be directed into existing communities, the efforts of environmentalists shut development out of existing communities as well as West Marin, forcing development to the farthest reaches of the county. Developers were glad to accept: since every development project was going to be a battle, developers had to go where the big money could be made.

As a result, homes were spread far from jobs, shops, schools and services, giving the residents no option but to drive everywhere.

Something nobody anticipated was that, as income rises, so does the number of miles people drive. With Marin’s housing prices so high, only the region’s elite could move in, and so the number of miles driven only climbed higher.

Low paying jobs increased

While everyone was busy fighting housing in the name of environmentalism, no one fought against commercial development. With the passage of Prop 13 in 1979, cities turned to sales taxes as a way to boost their revenues, and more retail development meant more income. In the 1980s, shopping malls sprang up everywhere along the 101 corridor. Corte Madera in particular did quite well financially with the opening of Town Center and The Village, but the influx of new low-paying retail jobs just made traffic congestion worse. With a dearth of affordable housing, the new employees had to commute in from the East Bay and Sonoma County. Today, a full 60% of Marin’s workforce comes from outside the county, not even counting the San Francisco workers who now live in Sonoma rather than Marin.

Transit options declined

The transit system promised by the Corridors Plan was never funded. Marin voters were asked for funding for transit systems four times, and four times they refused to support that funding. Finally in 2004, a modest transit tax was approved that was soon followed by approved funding for a train between Sonoma and Marin. But no sooner did these funding measures go through than Golden Gate Transit raised the rates it charges the county to operate its bus system. The new funding could only keep us even rather than boost the system. The SMART train was only passed with a dedicated sales tax four years later and is still two years away from operation.

The only bright spot was Marin’s federal pilot program for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, which led to significant growth in bike paths and pedestrian facilities. This has not been enough to offset our transit cuts and growing long-distance travel needs.

Who needs affordable housing?

When people hear “affordable housing” they think of “projects” with visions of crime-ridden ne’er-do-wells who prey on their communities. They don’t want “those kinds of people” moving into their neighborhoods. But when you look at the people who really move into the few affordable housing projects that have been built you actually find regular working folks: teachers, policemen, firefighters, retail and service workers. Most people who currently reside in Marin could not afford to buy the homes they live in if they had to pay current prices. Children who grow up in Marin are forced to move away when it’s time to raise their own families.

People who need affordable housing aren’t the ne’er-do-wells. They’re just like you.

The City-Centered Corridor

Back in 1972, Marin was a maverick in environmental stewardship. We wanted to protect our natural habitat by containing our human habitat. If we had kept up with the organic patterns of growth we were left with – our small, mixed-income and mixed-use towns – we might not be in the traffic nightmare of a situation we find ourselves in today.

Now, the only answer is to rediscover Marin's traditional development and reinvest in transit to realize the original premise of the city-centered corridor.