Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Marin Transportation, Sprawl, Provincialism, NIMBYism

So you want more Marin-specific posts do you? Well, some of you do but most seem to be happy with the blog the way it is thank you very much. I'm not going to change based on the opinions of a minority, but here is one anyway just to make you happy. It is deliberately a bit inflammatory just to get the "thinking juices" flowing.

This is a letter I found in the Marin IJ today. It was written by a Mill Valley resident. I reproduce it below:
Beware of proponents who promote their own surveys. I have no doubt that the majority of Marin and Sonoma residents who were polled by SMART about a sales tax increase to fund a rail transit system did so because they think it will solve the Highway 101 traffic problems.

A mass transit system sounds nice and the zero-sum equation of 4,800 rail riders equals 4,800 fewer cars on the road is attractive.

Such thinking is an urban legend unsupported by history. No urban or suburban county in this country that has deployed a rail or bus system has ever experienced a reduction in traffic congestion.

Mass transit and other commute improvements, such as adding highway lanes, simply add capacity to the transportation system, which fuels additional residential development on the outer edge, which adds more cars. Many of the same environmentalists who support a mass transit system for a corridor that does not have the population density to support such a system will ironically oppose the infill residential and commercial development that is necessary to create the required density of conveniently located jobs and housing.

Many of us are hoping the "other guy" will get out of his car and take the train.

A final fact: No mass transit system has ever been self-supporting based on rider fees (and maintained a frequency schedule that is useful).

So when it comes time to vote whether or not to tax ourselves for a boutique transit system, understand that the initial tax rate is only a fraction of what will be eventually required.
The writer makes some good points. It is difficult for a public transportation system to be profitable, but not impossible. And, all things being equal, if all you do is increase the capacity of the transportation system then more houses will tend to be built thereby nulling the increased transportation capacity.

But what struck me as being just "so Marin" was the time-honored and unquestioned Marin provincial assumption that building housing is a Bad Thing. Why must that be a bad thing?

Marin has conducted this experiment (i.e., not improving transportation capacity) in tandem with draconian zoning rules (e.g., the Marin Agricultural Land Trust) for the last 30 years or so. It has resulted in the following highly visible consequences:
  • Pathetically unaffordable housing (and all the problems it spawns)
  • Crushing levels of traffic congestion (at least down the Hwy 101 corridor)
  • A shameful offloading of the responsibility of housing our workforce to neighboring counties
  • Tremendously long commute distances and times
And yet, people still move to Marin! New houses still get built in Marin and in neighboring counties although at a reduced (non-zero) rate. I submit that "the experiment" has only benefited long-time land owners and their real estate profits and has otherwise been an utter failure. In fact, I think profits are what it was really all about from the very beginning. I know for a fact that my Marin boomer parent who voted for MALT way-back-when admits that increasing real estate valuations was "definately a part of the equation". Flame away if you must but it's true all the same.

Some of the uglier and less tangible consequences of this failure is how Marinites have assumed an air of arrogance and superiority and a seemingly deliberate indifference towards the social consequences of unaffordable housing (of which much has been said on this blog and so I won't enumerate them here). We tend to turn a blind eye to the problems and claim it's someone else's responsibility.

I admit that this is a really gnarly and convoluted problem. But it has to be addressed. So what should be done? What do you suggest? Let's toss some ideas around in the comments section.

It seems to me that a part of the solution will have to involve an admission that people are still getting born and that they will need to live someplace near employment centers; some place other than their cars. This is especially true if you believe in Peak Oil.

Another part of the solution will have to involve taking responsibility for the mess that we find ourselves in and taking some real, meaningful action and not just lip-service. Exclusionary practices and NIMBYism are not the answer; we've tried that and it doesn't work.

Part of the fear Marinites have about building new houses is that they believe that it would result in urban sprawl akin to what can be seen in Southern California (which everyone in Marin loves to hate). I submit that there can be a happy medium between out of control sprawl on the one hand and no new building on the other. But to accomplish that will require revising MALT.

Well, have at it if you want.

34 Comments:

Blogger John Doe said...

Great points.

In the end, there is only one solution to California's problems with affordability; and it lies in fundamental economic concepts. The "Invisible Hand" will guide the choice of business locating in Cali. While the world is busily racing to the bottom in wages, California businesses need to spend more and more just to keep their people coming to work after paying their rent or mortgage. Very soon, if not already, companies are working on alternatives that will allow them to control costs. The big question is not whether the jobs will go away, but will they go out of America? The result is the same for the area; moderation of wages and prices. Skilled technology work is infinitely portable and extremely profitable; if it were cheap to work on the moon, we could go there and work via sattelite. Where creation of a nation's wealth was solely based on manufacturing, we now live in an economy increasingly built on rewarding intellectual property. Companies will either move their work to another area or hunker down and pay what they need to. Can it continue forever? No. Can it continue longer than we are willing to bear? Yes, that is where the invisible hand comes in and weeds out those not truly committed to living in an area. It's like natural selection for the local area. Only time will tell if those who stay will endure decreasing standards of living, or if they will equalize with other areas. (I guess it depends on the utility you get from weather, right?)

Apr 5, 2006, 12:36:00 PM  
Blogger Marinite said...

California businesses need to spend more and more just to keep their people coming to work after paying their rent or mortgage.

Add on the top of that the rising cost of gasoline and long commutes are no longer affordable.

Deal with it now or be crushed by it later.

Apr 5, 2006, 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger Robert Coté said...

Absolute rubbish. I would be stronger but let's keep this civil to start with at least. You say:
"It is difficult for a public transportation system to be profitable, but not impossible."

Read my lips; im-possible. It is impossible. No transit system anywhere in the US even comes close to covering operating costs alone. Rail is even worse where the users pay about a quarter of the operating costs. For rail operating costs are dwarfed by capital costs so my analysis of the Marin folley trolley indicates users will be paying less than 10% of costs.



"And, all things being equal, if all you do is increase the capacity of the transportation system then more houses will tend to be built thereby nulling the increased transportation capacity.

Rail transit REDUCES capacity AND induces both more housing AND higher densities. Transit, particularly rail transit CAUSES congestion. I've got thousands of lines waiting for someone to disagree. Fire away.

Apr 5, 2006, 12:55:00 PM  
Blogger Marinite said...

robert -

Fine. So public transportation is IMpossible. (And for the record, this post was about more than just public transportation.)

So what's the solution? Not the status quo I hope.

Apr 5, 2006, 1:27:00 PM  
Blogger Former Apt. Broker said...

Marinite wrote:
"It is difficult for a public transportation system to be profitable, but not impossible."

In the US it is "impossible" for a public transportation system to be profitable (not a single system has been even close to profitable)...

Apr 5, 2006, 1:36:00 PM  
Blogger Marinite said...

former apt. broker -

Fine. So public transportation is IMpossible. (And for the record, this post was about more than just public transportation.)

So what's the solution? Not the status quo I hope.

Apr 5, 2006, 1:37:00 PM  
Blogger Rob Dawg said...

The solution? Reduce subsidies and internalize costs. That means Marin starts to provide the roads road users are paying in advance to have built and maintained AND it stops spending precious taxpayer dollars on the would be socialism of public transit.

I understand that isn't what Marinites want. It is always a fight between the status quo and progress. Understand the nature of this conflict; comprimise means that progress always gets some of what it wants and status quo always loses some of what it has. Sounds fair to me. Say, that's a couple of nice cars there in your driveway...

Apr 5, 2006, 3:24:00 PM  
Blogger peterbob said...

Well said Marinite. Just about everything is well said.

Apr 5, 2006, 3:29:00 PM  
Blogger Marinite said...

That means Marin starts to provide the roads road users are paying in advance to have built and maintained

FWIW, I am ALL in favor of that. It's about time Marin started taking responsibility for its share in this mess.

Apr 5, 2006, 3:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crushing levels of traffic congestion (at least down the Hwy 101 corridor)...it's about time Marin started taking responsibility for its share in this mess.

Crushing levels of traffic congestion!!! Mess? What Mess? I've lived in and commuted from Marin on and off for 30 years. The actual TIME I spend commuting has not gone up that much. I often commute in prime time from central Marin (Kentfield) and my total time to or back from the Financial District is rarely more than 20 minutes longer than the 30 minutes it usually takes each way during non-traffic times. When I carpool it rarely takes 10 minutes longer than it would without traffic. I can spare a few minutes, five days a week. It doesn't even come close to bothering me. I do feel for people who actually commute to The City from places like Santa Rosa (and beyond!). I hear their stories of an hour to two hours each way!

Apr 5, 2006, 6:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duh! Try commuting from Novato to the Financial District then. It will take you 50 minutes to drive the few short miles just to Corte Madera. What rock have you been living undeer? oh right anything north of Greenbrae doesn't count as Marin.

Apr 5, 2006, 8:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, that is where the invisible hand comes in and weeds out those not truly committed to living in an area.

You're all over the place with your post, and I'm not really sure what your main point or points is/are. But I take it by "truly committed to living in an area" you mean "earning enough money (whether from salary, investment income, or inheritance) to afford ridiculously overpriced houses." One of the main themes of this blog, it would seem to me, is that the "Invisible Hand" (assuming one believes in such things) is being restrained by such artifical, noneconomic forces such as environmentalism (so-called), "agricultural preservation" (MALT) and NIMBY activism that is well-represented in local goverments. If the "Invisible Hand" were allowed free reign in Marin County, there would be enough housing build to meet the current demand. Deliberately restricting the supply of housing in order to squeeze out as many people as possible and artificially inflate the value of existing housing stock is not capitalism, unless by capitalism you mean "using whatever means necessary to crush the competition, including the power of the state."

Apr 5, 2006, 8:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anything north of Greenbrae doesn't count as Marin.

Actually, I've always sort of looked at it that way!

Apr 5, 2006, 8:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a great book that studies this type of power relations in Urban politics in called _Rationality and Power_. It studies Aalborg, Denmark.

Apr 5, 2006, 9:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's what TALC ( Transportation And Land Use Coalition) says about widening Highway 101:

"It is essential to avoid widening of Highway 101 between Novato and Petaluma, in order to limit long distance auto travel at peak hours and encourage use of alternative modes."

This is a powerful and influential group determining land use and transportation policy. For more info about them go here; http://tinyurl.com/nhzyh

Apr 5, 2006, 9:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is essential to avoid widening of Highway 101 between Novato and Petaluma, in order to limit long distance auto travel at peak hours and encourage use of alternative modes."

At least this group actually does advocate alternative modes like rail. The people who really piss me off are the ones who aggressively resist both freeway widening and alternatives to automobile travel, i.e. who want to maintain the status quo.

Whether or not one does advocate widening 101 between Novato and Petaluma, at the very least it does need to be converted to an actual freeway. The existing road, which is heavily traveled at almost all hours and has cross-traffic, is incredibly dangerous, and that situation needs to be remedied immediately, not after another ten or twenty years of political fights and penny-pinching.

Apr 5, 2006, 9:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fail to see how this is a "marin" thing. These editorials appear all the time in Mountain View, Palo Alto, and other places in the South Bay. "Building more houses will only degrade our quality of life and improve those in Pleasington" (seriously - something like that showed up once in the Mountain View voice)

Thinking that this is Marin-only is so... Marin!

The sad reality is that building more houses is bad for a city - it takes away resources and worsens schools.

Better off having 20 Targets, BestBuys, and PetCos.

Thanks to Prop 13. Save the seniors!!

-Burbed.com

Apr 6, 2006, 1:56:00 AM  
Anonymous by_palladium said...

Marinite could actually turn off the blog at this point since his writeup on this one articulately sums up all the problems and lack of solutions. Excellent piece of work.

The quote by TALC is precious...
"It is essential to avoid widening of Highway 101 between Novato and Petaluma, in order to limit long distance auto travel at peak hours and encourage use of alternative modes."

Alternative modes of what? How about alternative modes of habitation? Like living near where you work - revolutionary idea. Should TALC be supporting more building in the close in areas of marin? Seems like it. Are they? I doubt it.

Lets just make Marin and Sonoma a museum for aging boomers and be done with it.

Apr 6, 2006, 9:41:00 AM  
Blogger Marinite said...

Thinking that this is Marin-only is so... Marin!

For the record, I agree this is not just in Marin. Santa Barbara comes immediately to mind.

Actually, I've always sort of looked at it that way!

QED

Apr 6, 2006, 9:59:00 AM  
Blogger Marinite said...

No solutions? I doubt it. (And I have to say that the claim that it is IMpossible for public transportation to be profitable in the US is dubious. Just because it hasn't worked yet (assuming that is true; is the Boston underground profitable? Just curious.) doesn't mean it can't be profitable; should it be profitable or just break-even?. This is America/California after all where we are supposed to be uber-innovative and all, a flexible economy, and all that rot.)

I think one good start would be to bite the bullet and just discourage buying "investment" property (excepting those properties purchased just for renting as they serve a public need).

First off, remove the mortgage interest deduction for all properties other than the primary residence.

Next, eliminate the Proposition 13 assessment freeze on second+ homes.

Next, second+ homes should be subject to capital gains tax just like anything else.

That's just what comes immediately to mind. I am sure the real brainy types out there can think of better solutions.

All that is needed is for people to get off their fat lazy asses and take on the issues. But we are just too busy counting our coins to care and besides, "I have mine; it's their problem"...

Apr 6, 2006, 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger fredtobik said...

I guess some developers are starting to see the pinch of a declining housing market.

I can't wait for the next new subdivision in Marin "Redwood Hills" 200 homes built on 2 acres! Back yard? Who needs a backyard? Marin is your backyard (until we get those empty hills)!

So please just buy these 200 homes for an average price of 1.2 million, then sell your POS to a Marin native for 900k, and embrace the home of tomorrow in your own cement paradise.

Apr 6, 2006, 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks fredtobik for that bit of fallacious reasoning. you really know how to be a part of the solution don't you.

Apr 6, 2006, 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger fredtobik said...

"First off, remove the mortgage interest deduction for all properties other than the primary residence.

Next, eliminate the Proposition 13 assessment freeze on second+ homes.

Next, second+ homes should be subject to capital gains tax just like anything else."

YES to all of them. What do we have to do to get this started?

Apr 6, 2006, 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger fredtobik said...

Some ANON said:

"Thanks fredtobik for that bit of fallacious reasoning. you really know how to be a part of the solution don't you."

You bet, let me put it this way. I will not be a NIMBY if developments are affordable (for averge earners).

Apr 6, 2006, 10:24:00 AM  
Anonymous by_palladium said...

It isn't that we are entirely lazy, though that is true for many many of the locals here.

The things you describe, the tax changes, the zoning changes, etc. All run right up against the entrenched political bureaucracy. Since those problems are legislative in cause, politics are the way to address - presumably.

I am registered libertarian. Going D or R to try and sway the entrenched interests to my way of thinking looks hopeless.

Even though you see it the same as I see it (correctly), the non-landed marinites that suffer are a small minority when it comes to the landed (or endebted landed) residents that control the political system.

Should I dedicate x-number of years of my life to overturning these glaring injustices?

It would be nice. I am sure I would meet some interesting people. But it seems like my 2 and 4 year olds would rather get to know their dad. And then there is that business of earning enough coins to pay the rent. And finding a good paying job somewhere other than in marin.

Apr 6, 2006, 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Marinite said...

It isn't that we are entirely lazy

I know. I was too glib.

Should I dedicate x-number of years of my life to overturning these glaring injustices?

Years? No. Some time, maybe a letter or two to representatives, etc? Why not? Nothing can change unless we make it so.

Apr 6, 2006, 11:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm opposed to SMART becuase it will cost a too much and do too little to relieve congestionon 101. A far better solution is to convert the rail right-of-way to a toll road where buses and cars with 3 or more passengers travel for free, and cars with Fast Track can use for a steep price. On weekends, the toll road can be devoted exclusviely to bike and pedestrian recreation.

Apr 6, 2006, 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger marin_explorer said...

I often commute in prime time from central Marin (Kentfield) and my total time to or back from the Financial District is rarely more than 20 minutes longer than the 30 minutes it usually takes each way during non-traffic times.

This is our commute as well, and with similar times. However, we usually opt to use the ferry, and we're very glad for less stress on our mornings and less traffic for others who must drive over the bridge.

Regarding sprawl, transportation, etc: if we look at our present problems with time-worn solutions, it might seem "impossible." However, I think there are systemic problems to how we plan transportation and residential development. These will only get worse until we decide to embrace new ideas on transportation, urban centers, and how we design communities to interact with the environment. What good is fencing off land to "save" the environment if we create dense urban sprawl along 101? If we look at every problem without an overall cohesive plan, it looks "impossible". That's why we need a totally new approach. For anyone interested, check around what's being discussed out there in terms of sustainable civic planning and architecture for a clue to the future.

Apr 6, 2006, 12:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm opposed to SMART becuase it will cost a too much and do too little to relieve congestionon 101. A far better solution is to convert the rail right-of-way to a toll road where buses and cars with 3 or more passengers travel for free, and cars with Fast Track can use for a steep price. On weekends, the toll road can be devoted exclusviely to bike and pedestrian recreation.

I haven't yet made up my mind about SMART, but this "bus-way" idea just sounds like silly nonsense. How is this any better than just widening the existing freeway and adding more bus routes?

Apr 6, 2006, 2:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to discourage speculation, simply raise the margin requirements (i.e., the cash down payment).

IMHO Marin will never get a rail system until ALL rights of way for the old rail system have lapsed so the government has to pay top dollar for the land. It would then be in the economic interest of the scoundrels in Big Pink and their cronies to build the system.

Apr 7, 2006, 12:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SMART's coming, people, whether you want it or not. Trust me, they are going to ram this thing through. Look at all the work they have done in Petaluma - renovating the train station, reconfiguring the streets nearby. They're totally getting ready. Why would they have spent all that money on infrastructure repairs if they didn't have some inside info that this thing is going to be a slam-dunk?

Apr 7, 2006, 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't yet made up my mind about SMART, but this "bus-way" idea just sounds like silly nonsense. How is this any better than just widening the existing freeway and adding more bus routes?

Answer: The land for the "bus-way" is already bought and paid for. Widening Highway 101 would cost far more because of the associated land-acquisition costs.

We need alot more highway capacity in Marin. I'm for widening 101 and the "bus way."

Apr 7, 2006, 3:00:00 PM  
Blogger marinmaven said...

Sure. There are people in Marin who are anti-growth because they do not want the "riff-raff" out of some sense of classism. There are people who worry about protecting their investments and are anxious about any development that will effect their property values or the quality of life they have built for themselves.

Certainly, Marin's history of anti-growth had to do with keeping people out. I remember reading as much when I took an urban studies course in the early 90s.

There are other people who look at the beauty of the place and the fragility of its wetlands and coasts and question development on those grounds. Do you really want to pave over those wetlands and open spaces for high density?
They question high density without the means to provide adequate resources for that density.

Even if policies changed tomorrow that allowed for unlimited high density, I think prices would still remain prohibitive. What drives prices up is capitalism. There are people who are willing to spend 800k or more on a small cottage or condo. People are willing to go into enormous debt to live where they want.

People want local farms because you don't want your food to have to travel too far to get to you.

My reservation about SMART is whether this particular system and the people running it be able to put together a system that will work for our region. Apparently there are problems linking up with the Larkspur Ferry. When you talk about mass transit in the bay area (especially marin and the peninsula) you have all these transit fiefdoms doing their own thing and resisting regionalism. You need a regional system to make sure all resources are designed to feed the main line.

I have always wanted BART to run from Santa Rosa to San Jose to San Francisco to Sacramento. I have been excited by the IDEA of SMART -- to be able to move around Marin-Sonoma and go to San Francisco (with onboard wireless) is compelling. The more I look into the fine print, the less it seems it will be able to deliver for a lot more money than people are estimating.

The problem seems to be that employers can't come up to Marin because their employees can't afford to live here. They can't afford to live here because the market can bear far higher than what an average salary can afford. It is somewhat of a vicious circle.

BTW, The only profitable transit systems I have been able to find are in Japan where they have a society built upon and around public transit and where having a car is prohibitive. Personally, I have no problem subdizing a system that isn't profitable as long as the system is used and does something for the environment.

The bottom line is that problem is complex.

I am starting a marin/sonoma politics and living blog. I need help. Anyone interested in helping?
www.marinmaven.com

dc@webajaw.com

Apr 7, 2006, 9:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you talk about mass transit in the bay area (especially marin and the peninsula) you have all these transit fiefdoms doing their own thing and resisting regionalism. You need a regional system to make sure all resources are designed to feed the main line.

And that is exactly why the transportation system works so much better in SoCal than the BA. I'm not saying they don't have traffic (duh, they do in a big way). But it is why it took SoCal 10 months to rebuild their freeway overpass after their big earthquake and why it took the BA 10 YEARS to do the same thing after their earthquake (some people here found they suddenly had a view and had the perverse power to actually fight to preserve that new view).

Apr 8, 2006, 1:00:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Terms of Use: The purpose of the Marin Real Estate Bubble weblog (located at URL http://marinrealestatebubble.blogspot.com/ and henceforth referred to as “MREB” or “this site”) is to present and discuss information relating to real estate and the real estate industry in general (locally, state-wide, nationally, and internationally) as it pertains to the thesis that recent real estate related activity is properly characterized as a “speculative mania” or a “bubble”. MREB is a non-profit, community site that depends on community participation and feedback. While MREB administrators do strive to confirm all information presented here and qualify all doubtful items, the information presented at MREB is neither definitive nor should it be construed as professional advice. All information published on MREB is provided “as is” without warranty of any kind and the administrators of this site shall not be liable for any direct or indirect damages arising out of use of this site. This site is moderated by MREB administrators and the MREB administrators reserve the right to edit, remove, or refuse postings that are off-topic, defamatory, libelous, offensive, or otherwise deemed inappropriate by MREB administrators. You should consult a finance professional before making any decisions based on information found on this site.

The contributors to this site may, from time to time, hold short (or long) positions in mentioned and related companies.