Traffic is an enigma, not just in Marin but in every metropolitan region in the country. Whether on 101 or a major corridor, at any time of day you may find yourself staring at the tail lights of the car in front as you make your way toward your destination.
What can be done? Beware of those who say they have a quick solution. Increasing capacity on a roadway is a temporary fix. Within years or even months, that road will be congested again. When you expand capacity for cars you add more cars. In Marin, the truth is we don't have the capacity to expand our roads for more cars. We do, however, have room to provide for pedestrians and bicyclists and to expand public transit. These solutions actually take cars off the road.
EVERYONE IS A PEDESTRIAN
Even if you drive everywhere, at some point you’ll get out of your car and walk to your final destination. Pedestrian-friendly places are for everyone. There are three key ingredients to creating walkable communities: safety, comfort, and aesthetics.
Safety means safe from traffic and the ability to cross the street safely. Sidewalks separated from traffic with trees or parking give an added sense of security. Even with good sidewalks, people are more likely to walk if the surroundings are pleasant and attractive. When the City of San Rafael widened the sidewalks on Fourth Street and added street trees and sidewalk cafés, downtown became an inviting place to stroll. Shopping malls can create the same ‘freedom from cars’ in a pleasant environment.
I remember when the first shopping mall appeared in my home town. My European mother loved it because it reminded her of the small European towns of her youth which favored walking over driving.
All of the older Marin towns that grew along the rail lines have that feel – because they were built before cars. That safe, comfortable, and pleasant walking environment is one reason why Marin’s town centers are popular destinations to visit and to live. Mill Valley is a prime example of this, and of linking the neighborhoods to one of Marin’s greatest treasures: its access to natural environments. No matter where you live in Marin, there is a trail or park nearby.
Improving the “walkability” in a community is key to rebalancing pedestrian and auto traffic. As more sidewalks, pathways, and safe crossings are added, more people start walking to their destinations.
BICYCLING IS THE NEW RAGE
Bicycling has emerged as a major recreational activity as more people choose either road or mountain biking for weekend excursions. Bicycling has also become a favorite mode for short trips. According to the US Census, 40% of our trips are two miles or less, and it’s easy and enjoyable to bike for those short trips. In areas with good bike paths, families are out riding, commuters young and old are enjoying the morning air, and children are biking to school. Many of the millennial generation have chosen to live without cars and use bikes instead.
I once taught a group of women how to use their bikes for daily transportation. We took them through a four-part workshop series to get them ready for a ride from Fairfax to San Rafael. They were dreading it, worried about riding next to traffic and the long grueling ride up steep hills. When the day came they took a deep breath, and took off. Twenty minutes later we had arrived at our destination and our women were a bit surprised. “Is that it?” they asked. The ride had been so easy that they couldn’t believe they had viewed it with such trepidation. The moral of this story – biking is easier than you think.
Better Facilities = More Bicyclists and Pedestrians
Most of Marin County towns and cities have been improving their bike and pedestrian facilities for the last two decades and it shows. In some areas you can ride for miles before having to get on the road.
With $25 million in Federal funding for a non-motorized pilot project, Marin built major bikeways, like the Lincoln Hill pathway – a veritable bicycle freeway next to the highway, connecting downtown San Rafael to Terra Linda. A tunnel now connects San Rafael to Larkspur Landing, the ferry, and points south. And soon we’ll be able to use the 71-mile long separated multi-use path alongside the SMART tracks.
Connectivity is the key to increasing bicycling. Fairfax knew this when it created sidewalks and bikeways from one end of the town to the other. They’ve designated a “Bike Spine” through the residential streets, giving priority to students biking to school. As a result, Fairfax is a popular bicycling town, not just for recreational riders who visit every weekend, but for local residents who bike to town for errands, school, and other trips. Manor School in Fairfax has the highest percentage of elementary-age children who bike to school in the county. In Mill Valley, Kentfield and Hall Middle schools which all have bike paths leading right to their schools, half the students walk or bike!
New technologies make biking easier than the days of the three-speed Schwinn that we rode as children. The granny gear helps you roll up those hills with less effort, and now there are electric-assist bikes that glide up the hills, and cargo bikes which are mini-trucks on two wheels. You can carry your groceries, your instruments, even your kids.
Yep, biking is the most efficient way to get around, costing nothing beyond the purchase price of the bike and a little maintenance. You don’t have to be fit to ride your bike although riding your bike will help you get fit. You burn calories, stay healthy and have a lot more fun than being stuck in traffic.