Marin Voice: We need to think differently about traffic

Marin IJ Voice - 11/11/15

By Wendi Kallins

Traffic is an enigma, not just in Marin but in metropolitan regions across the country.    To start out, we can’t solve a problem without knowing its cause. Unfortunately, investigation seems to be missing from most discussions.  Some say traffic is the fault of the regional agencies, lack of leadership, and/or massive development.  The truth is that Marin has been growing at a snail’s pace for decades.  

So why are we stuck in traffic? 

The reasons for this are complex.  

  • From 1970 to 2010 Marin’s population grew by only 20% (or less than 1% a year) , while the number of registered autos grew by a whopping 107%.Since 1970 there has been a tremendous increase in the number of employed women in Marin. More people are working (and driving) than 45 years ago. (census data)
  • Traffic is the result of a healthy economy. Marin saw years of decreased traffic on 101 during the recession. As employment has picked up throughout the Bay area, commute traffic has also increased. 
  • Marin cities encouraged economic development, but did not take into account the number of homes needed for the new jobs. There are simply not enough homes in Marin for the people who work here. With a tight supply of housing, housing costs rise out of reach of local services workers. Today, fully 60% of Marin’s workforce commutes in; according to their housing plans, 85% of San Rafael’s worker commute in and Mill Valley 90% of local workers drive in from out of town!
  • Over 20% of our local morning traffic is school-related. This is in part due to in-commuting teachers and staff who cannot find an affordable place to live in Marin. It’s also due to the loss of school bus services and neighborhood schools, causing parents to drive children to school.

What can be done?  There is no quick solution. Widening roads is a temporary fix.  According to research by the renowned Victoria Transport Policy Institute, “Traffic congestion tends to maintain equilibrium.   

If road capacity increases, the number of peak-period trips also increases until congestion again limits further traffic growth. The additional travel is called generated or induced traffic. “There are two aspects to transportation: mobility and accessibility. Mobility address how people move about (capacity and supply; Accessibility addresses destinations and how close places are to people. We need both ease of mobility and access to places in order to reduce traffic congestion.

The reality, Marin doesn’t have much capacity or desire to expand our roads for more cars without major dislocation of local businesses and impacts on wetlands.   

There are mechanisms to improve mobility and traffic flow.   Roundabouts increase efficiency without sacrificing safety.  Timing traffic signals increases efficiency through corridors, and getting on and off Highway 101. These will help eliminate some of the stop and go aspect of congestion but they won’t reduce the number of cars on the road.   

To reduce the number of cars on the roard, we need  to give people choices.   Those communities that have done this have seen marked improvements.  The Town of Tiburon in partnership with the City of Belvedere and the Reed Union School District decided to expand the local school bus system and encourage more children to ride the bus.  The result this year  according to observations from town officials is much less traffic on Tiburon Blvd. 

Improving our public transit system can reduce the number of commuters driving to jobs in Marin. For transit to be attractive it has to go where and when people want to go; it has be accessible and affordable. It has to be consistent so people can count on it to get to places on time.  And it has to be a pleasant and safe ride. Creating a seamless and convenient public transit system in Marin will help relieve traffic congestion and reduce pollution. We need funding and good planning to support more frequent service in high volume areas.   

Every day, thousands of Marin residents take transit to and from San Francisco because it is frequent and convenient.   Transit within Marin and to the East Bay is more challenging.  More routes to the East Bay, and more frequent buses timed to connect to BART would help the Richmond Bridge gridlock.  

Not every trip is for work.  According to the 2007 National Personal Transportation Survey, i40% of all trips are two miles or less.  These are trips that could easily be made by bike and by walking.   This is where accessibility comes into play.  Completing the bicycle network will make it safer for more people to bike to work and shopping. Providing safe pathways and improving the “walkability” in a community enables more people to walk for local trips.   When people live near transit and services, they are more likely to walk and take the bus. This lifestyle can be seen in downtown San Rafael and San Anselmo.  

We’re seeing a new generation of Marin residents who want to make a difference for the planet. They are taking transit and riding their bikes. They are living in places where they can walk to shop and have fun. And they are asking our governments to provide better transit, sidewalks and bike paths. They support new housing in the right places so that their friends who work here can live here. They have ridden their bikes in Europe and taken transit in Portland, and walked in neighborhoods – thanks to their experiences and voices, we are learning that traffic congestion can be improved.

Wendi Kallins is on the steering committee of the Coalition for a Livable Marin, or CALM. She is an independent consultant promoting green transportation programs.