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Underpants Gnomes Set to Strike Marin with Trolleys

If you’re not a fan of South Park you’re probably wondering “who the heck are the underpants gnomes”, and "what’s that got to do with trolleys in Marin?"

The trolley plan to save the planet
The trolley plan to save the planet

If you’re not a fan of South Park you’re probably wondering “who the heck are the underpants gnomes”, and "what’s that got to do with trolleys in Marin?"


Last night I attended a presentation called “Street Cars for Marin” by Allan Nichol - Nichol is an architect of “green” transit oriented developments - he also has a vision for Marin having a network of trolleys connecting high density developments in Corte Madera, Larkspur, San Rafael, St Vincents... that he architects.


The talk started out really well - outlining the crisis of climate change with great graphs and statistics, reminding us of the Philippine typhoon as an illustration of worsening disasters caused by man made climate change. No one in the room could oppose the evidence. The heads of the twenty or so attendees, including mine, were all nodding. The routine demonizing of cars was brought up, referencing how 2/3rds of Marin’s emissions come from vehicle tailpipes.


The Underpants Gnomes Strike with their Trolley


It was then that the “underpants gnome” moment struck. We were instantly switched over from the ominous climate change stats to appealing photographs of street cars ranging from San Francisco to the Dominican Republic. We learned that new street cars used Lithium Ion batteries and hydrogen (presumably fuel cells) to reduce and eliminate emissions. Trolleys cost just over a million dollars apiece, about the same as a zero-emissions bus (note that hybrid buses cost around $600,000, source).


This is when the talk started to break down. I asked the speaker how many dollars it would cost to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one ton using trolleys. This is a critical factor as I believe we should maximize the impact of tax dollars to achieve mobility and fight climate change. McKinsey has published their famous abatement curve which shows how we should be focusing on projects where we can reduce emissions at under 80 Euros, or $107 per metric ton, otherwise money is being spent inefficiently. If the trolley can only garner a handful of riders then the impact might be tiny, yet add a great deal to our taxes for building and operation. 

 If we throw money at cost-ineffective schemes we may as well be encouraging climate change, notwithstanding the disrespect we’re showing to how we’re using taxpayers hard earned money.


I was greeted by dismissal. Instead the speaker went back to his tale of how wonderful a Marin would be with nostalgic trolleys. Marin could emulate Berne, Switzerland, with its trolleys and mixed use walkable residential and commercial communities around trolley transit hubs. 


This time I pointed out, as someone who had spent some time living in Europe, that my recollection from West London was that transit hubs there are typically surrounded for at least ¼ mile by commercial property, not mixed use. Typically in Europe people don’t want to live in places right next to where crowds are leaving a station. This is perfect for commercial but not a great recipe for residential tranquility.


I was dismissed again. I was reminded that the US and the UK are entirely different. Instead we should emulate the Swiss - cities in Marin could be just like Berne in Switzerland. It would be nostalgic (which seemed justification enough for Nichol). If Marin was just like the Swiss we would never make bad transportation decisions. (I was left wondering why Marin is so much more similar to Switzerland than England).


I was left wondering and puzzled. Apparently the speaker was an expert on precisely which cities in Europe Marin could be like. As a person who lived 29 years in Europe and over a decade in the Bay Area any thoughts I had were to be dismissed.


Then the question arose why would people flock to these trolleys and why were they superior to the alternatives. Now the underpants gnome factor really started to kick in as we were told:


- in surveys only 30% of people said they’d ride a bus but 60% said they would take trolleys


- feasibility studies were being discussed with multiple cities in Marin to compare trolleys to buses running in dedicated bus lanes (the trolleys were not to use dedicated lanes)


The Theory Falls Apart


Here’s where I have major issues:


  • Ridership & response bias - it’s one thing to ask people “would you ride a bus or a trolley?” and for them to tell you. But reality frequently delivers markedly different results than research. The car has been so demonized that respondents can easily and unintentionally be led to follow subtle suggestions (e.g. the survey was framed around public transit, or referenced climate change).

  • Reality check - A better approach would be to look at an area where first there were buses and then trolleys were introduced - and see how ridership changed. If Nichol’s 30% would ride buses, but 60% would ride trolleys figures are to be believed then ridership surely doubled.

    The reality with transit is that people will try things, but if they become inconvenient they soon return to their cars. For Marin the majority of our traffic issues are people either driving through to San Francisco or Oakland, or originating in Marin and traveling to those locations.

  • Convenience factor - These journeys can be performed in a single trip in a car. By comparison using transit would require one or two changes of transit mode - requiring walking between locations (potentially in bad weather, with kids, with heavy bags…) and also waiting time.

  • Fair consideration of alternatives - why did Nichol present that trolleys would share traffic lanes, but the bus alternatives required dedicated lanes? Was he suggesting that roads such as the San Rafael San Anselmo 2 lane corridor be reduced to a single lane for cars? I could see the benefits for the buses driving in an uncongested dedicated lane, but why would this ony apply to buses and not trolleys.

    If I drove that route - an already congested road - I couldn’t conceive of reducing that to a single lane for cars. It would become nearly impossible to commute to and from San Anselmo and Ross. It would force people onto buses.

The Aesop’s Fable - the Wind and the Sun


As I consider all the ways we could fight climate change and increase mobility I continue to be reminded of an ancient Aesop fable. The Sun and the Wind bet that they could not make a traveller take off his cloak. The wind blows, forcefully imposing upon the traveller to, but the traveller clutches his cloak ever tighter to his cloak. Then the sun shines and through it’s kindness the traveller happily takes off his cloak.


How we spend taxpayers money on transportation should take heed of this fable. Forcing the middle classes out of their cars and into transit is going to be like the wind - imposing it’s will but ultimately ineffective.


The Three Approaches


After the presentation one lady came up to me and asked “I just can’t believe why people aren’t choosing to travel less - especially fly less”. This for me really highlighted the issue:


  1. Sustainability at all costs - We have one minority group with a strong view that we should all travel less, and take transit when we do. The need is so severe that the only thing left is to impose severe solutions on all of us. Any solution that even “sounds right” must be imposed - times are so desperate. Analysis of effectiveness is unnecessary, methods just need to pass a rudimentary “sniff test”.

  2. The majority. The middle-class if you will who have sufficient disposable income to choose transportation modes. They don’t think the same way as the sustainability crowd. They still want to visit relatives, take nice vacations, take their kids to sports events and natural wonders around us. They respond to market forces - they enjoy the convenience of cars, jet travel. They respond to market effects like increasing gas prices.

  3. The special interests - They latch onto the first group with their crisis, their “sounds right” ideas. Then they use this to market what they want to achieve - to make money through development, to achieve goals such as “social equity”, to employ people building large projects, to make money building trains, to create a larger, more inexpensive workforce. They learn the buzzwords, they take and amplify the attractiveness of the vision. They paint opponents as getting in the way of solving the crisis.

Nichol came up to me after his presentation. He said words to the effect “here’s something for you and your tea party” and slammed down a report from transit advocates claiming success in Portland. I was offended. I am not affiliated with the tea party. Like him and all in the room I want to see better mobility and to fight climate change. But pushing ideas that aren't cost effective is just as bad, if not worse than obstructionism. I simply want to see dialog and a rational process applied to ensure the best outcome.

The Underpants Gnomes & The Trolley


Ultimately I am reminded of the South Park episode - where the underpants gnomes explain their business.


  • Phase 1: Collect underpants - build trolleys

  • Phase 2: Silence, or change the subject

  • Phase 3: Profit - everyone will ride the trolley,  greenhouse gas emissions will be greatly reduced, the planet is saved

What we have in Nichol’s idea is the vision of an execution without strategy and validated  justification. We have a beautiful vision that the cities of Marin can become like Berne, Switzerland. We have an artist, an architect. We have a receptive audience that wants a solution, they want to be like the vision. But we’re skipping completely over the logic that verifies this will be the solution.


Will San Anselmo and Ross residents suddenly abandon their cars and flock to the trolley? I doubt it. Perhaps we might look at ridership of existing buses serving that route before we delude ourselves that trolleys (with more connections than express buses) will have unprecedented popularity.


What Should We Be Doing Instead?


Spending taxpayers money to get the middle classes out of their cars and single family homes is going to be an exercise in futility. It hasn’t worked in Europe quite the way Nichol would have us believe. My family, and extended family in the UK all live in single family homes and drive cars. My father commutes via the train as he works in a town center. But they still need to get to the grocery store, and out of town offices not near transit. They occasionally take the train, but the price is astronomical (think $140+  to travel 120 miles return) and the delays often frustrating and inconvenient with paltry compensation. They still drive cars (smaller, more efficient, typically turbo diesel models).


Instead we should be swimming with the flow. We should be focusing on:


  • Legislation to accelerate the adoption of computer-driven cars capable of chaining. Chained cars need smaller separation and increase freeway lane capacity three fold. Imagine just as you engage cruise today, you engage advanced cruise tomorrow and your car slips itself into the car pool lane and "chains up" behind another.

  • Apps and incentives to increase carpooling. Apps today like Match.com help people find partners. Why can’t apps help people find carpool buddies? Can we also incentivize and encourage more car pooling?

  • Subsidizing mobility for those with lower incomes. By lowering transit fares (the only proven way to increase per capita ridership), and subsidizing programs like Lyft and Zipcar. For very little expense San Rafael could subsidize Zip Cars in say the canal district. I’m informed that access to a car improves ones employment prospects better than a high school diploma.

Visions like Nichol’s can be good - it’s fine to dream big. The more ideas, the more chance we can find a more effective solution. But we need decision makers such as our elected officials and the Transportation Authority of Marin to avoid looking at these visions of nostalgia and European trolleys so that we can focus on real transportation solutions for 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.

Susan Kirsch November 13, 2013 at 09:10 PM
Richard - Thanks for your thoughtful article. Not only do you lay out the problem, you offer solutions worthy of investigation.
Bob Silvestri November 13, 2013 at 09:41 PM
Great article, Richard. Thorough and thoughtful. No wonder Nichols got so defensive. I've always felt that the sure way to get rich in the world is to sell a desperate gullible public something that's impossible: ageless beauty, instant popularity... whatever. Nichols is selling a nostalgic vision of a "simple lifestyle" from a past that never really existed... anywhere. If personal transportation vehicles (PTVs, known as "cars") are causing environmental damage, then the quickest and cheapest and most effective long term method to remedy that is to build better PTVs. That's something we definitely know how to do and its results are guaranteed, not guesswork. Hundreds of Teslas and Priuses, even considering their "lifecycle" environmental impacts (manufacturing and shipping and servicing), pound for pound produce only a fraction of the GHGs that one project like WinCup produces... whether you walk to it, ride a bike to it or live there like a shut in and never leave your apartment.
Richard Hall November 13, 2013 at 10:28 PM
Bob - couldn't have said it better myself. I should have linked to your article that talked about how many trips are simply never going to be converted to transit (heavy shopping, deliveries, multi-destination trips...). -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I was thrilled to see the unveiling of the fully electric BMW i3. The luxury car makers are climbing aboard and this is likely to be a much more positive signal (carrot) than imagining everyone can be forced onto transit (stick), if we divert enough money to transit. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The business plan for trolleys seems to be pure marketing - look at the nostalgic trolleys, we can be just like Europe. (and please don't ask about the economics). -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- No I'm not a member of the tea party, but I do hold a Bachelors in Economics from Manchester in England (where the birth of the industrial revolution began).
Pat Ravasio November 13, 2013 at 10:37 PM
I only disagree on one point. If Marin can create a "safe and separate" bike and pedestrian infrastructure (multimodal, which allows electric powered bikes and scooters) to connect shopping, schools and neighbourhoods, I do think we can reduce local car trips, especially during school rush hours, which are our busiest times. I keep waiting for someone to do a news story about the awesome recent victory of Marin Deseves Better to get a massive highway project rejected and replaced by truly sustainable transportation solutions inspired by places like Amsterdam... and our weather is much better.
Richard Hall November 14, 2013 at 12:11 AM
Pat - the article focuses on the trolleys being the solution. I think bike and ped can help to a degree for some shorter trips. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- And yes Marin Deserves Better is owed some decent coverage so far yet to be seen in the IJ. I for one want to clearly understand how the northbound congestion in the evenings at the 580 split will be resolved.-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I'm deeply concerned by the Larkspur Station Area Plan suggesting 900+ more high density housing units are located at the ferry terminal (some displacing ferry parking). This would seem to naively pour fuel on the fire by adding traffic to one of Marin's worst traffic issues (surely impacting Sonoma commuters also.-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Then there's Graton casino thrown into the mix, subtly getting away with adding thousands of cars a day - no doubt many also heading north the evening adding to that 101/580 northbound split congestion, but do we see one penny of mitigation in Marin? No but Sonoma gets $251m in mitigation!
Kevin Moore November 14, 2013 at 11:29 AM
Was he still talking about charging the trolleys along the route? I have been studying batteries for electric bicycles. The charge time is considerable. Tesla is the best in the business and it takes 5 hours to recharge their "S Car". Unless the stops are 1/2 hour or more, I don't see any gains in battery capacity.
Kevin Moore November 14, 2013 at 11:36 AM
People love what is different. People drive cars every day. Riding a trolley or train is something different, so they say yes, they would prefer it. Ask a daily BART commuter would they prefer riding on a train or a car if the travel times and cost were identical and see what the poll reveals. I recently went to San Jose, which has a mixture of rail systems. The freeways were jam packed. People were not abandoning their cars. Rather than investing huge amounts of money in a trolley line, I would prefer to invest in more shuttles to broaden the footprint of public transit. The advantage of cars are they go almost everywhere, while rail lines go station to station. Buses and shuttles, while not "door to door" can get people closer to their destinations.
Randy Warren November 14, 2013 at 11:40 AM
Pat - I am very familiar with transportation systems in Amsterdam and around Holland. The Amsterdam trolley system is fantastic! However, Amsterdam is also a major urban city with huge population. The smaller Dutch regions that would be comparable in scale to Marin County...Groningen comes to mind...do not use trolleys but use buses. I travel a lot and am a bit of a mass transit junkie. I like trolleys. No better way to see a new city, such as Prague. But the commonality to all successful trolley systems I have seen is population in excess of 1 million. We don't have that here in Marin. Further, without dedicated trolley lanes, the trolleys sit in the same slow traffic. Our major arteries, such as Sir Francis Drake, cannot be widened to add additional dedicated lanes. I do not see traveler buy-in for this concept here. Nor do I see how a trolley benefits a Marin rider in a way that bus service does not. This first roll-out of a Marin trolley proposal seems better described as "cool" rather than "pragmatic." I like cool. I just do not think tax dollars should be spent on cool alone.
Kevin Moore November 14, 2013 at 11:42 AM
@Pat, I agree that more needs to be done to create a good bicycle system. However, I am not in favor of costly spending, like the tunnel from Corte Madera to Mill Valley. $40 to 60 million is just too much. I have purchased and electric bicycle and they are awesome! While they won't replace the car, they can be good for short trips. The technology is improving rapidly. One thing that is needed is secure storage for eBikes. I am not going to leave an expensive eBike outside while on a long visit.
Randy Warren November 14, 2013 at 11:57 AM
...though having said that, I can see how this works in Bern, where the tram was in place before private cars were commonplace, and people grew up around a system of tram cars on dedicated tracks that were the fastest way through the urban area.
Clayton Smith November 14, 2013 at 02:51 PM
Trollies in Marin? How about Cows in Berkeley? A big moo to both of them. Thanks for going to the meeting Richard and keeping us up to date on the next grand plan for our community. Do these people ever take a vacation, or is this what pops out of their minds when they do? When the City Council of Mill Valley was looking at what to do with their share of the sales tax money from one of the previous initiatives, the idea of a trolley connecting downtown Mill Valley with the ferry terminal in Sausalito was conjured up. Numerous hours were wasted putting that idiocy out to pasture, but I am sure someone is still turning it around in their mind somewhere. I'm waiting for someone to propose a subway system. The one thing these "planner" types have no desire to look into is the plain fact that we are just about built out here in Marin and that more residential investment means more congestion. How much more congestion until the whole thing breaks down is the real question we should be asking ourselves. I would hope we would be asking it before it actually happens, but that is the optimist in me. I think that add another 100 - 150,000 people North of San Rafael, 10 - 15,000 to San Rafael/San Anselmo/Fairfax and say 5 - 6,000 to Southern Marin and you have it. We will all watch it unfold and when it finally arrives, all the apathetic unconscious folks will ask, as they always do, how did we get here. The answer will be the same, by not paying attention.
Bob Ratto November 14, 2013 at 07:28 PM
Trollies?...what is this, like, "SMART JR?" Having only lived in Marin for 47 years, I can pretty much unequivocally state that there is absolutely no current or foreseeable need for this. Want to do something better, and simpler?..drive a car that gets really good gas mileage, they work just great, and they go places you actually need to go, so you can actually have a life that involves being productive and getting things done, rather than one that is worried about whether the next trolley is going to show up. This whole idea is simply a red herring to densify, nothing more nothing less.
Clayton Smith November 14, 2013 at 08:47 PM
You got it Bob! It's just another excuse to densify. In the meantime, they can have us off exhausting ourselves fighting this dumb idea, while they are out working their agenda behind closed doors up at the Civic Center.
Franz Listen November 15, 2013 at 07:38 PM
If Groningen is being held up as a model over Bern, let me point out that over 50% of trips in Groningen are made by bike. This has everything to do with biking being safe. As Pat Ravasio said, we have tremendous room for improvement in Marin, and not all bike/ped projects are as pricey as the Alto Tunnel. Bike mode share is rising, so an improved bike infrastructure is "swimming with the flow" +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ While apps are hot, carpooling is not. Over the last 30 years, no mode of transportation has seen a bigger decline than carpooling. It's ironic to argue for the futility of getting people out of their own cars, while calling for more carpooling, no? And what new carpooling incentives, exactly? How much would that cost the taxpayers? For what benefit? Carpool incentives >>> ? >>>Save the Planet? ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Lower transit fares for the poor are a laudable goal, but it won't come cheap. Each year, transit in the Bay Area generates over $800M. If a discount for the poor (which is a big chunk of people who ride transit) resulted in a 10% revenue loss, it would leave an $80M hole for taxpayers to fill -or big cuts in transit service. Over 10 years, with escalation, the cost of a 10% discount would exceed a billion dollars. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Even if the liability issues are overcome, I think that we're a very long way from autonomous cars using communication systems to chain-up. If that ever happens, roads could become safer and more efficient. That would be good. However, I think there's a growing constituency that want more from transportation investments than just processing cars more efficiently. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ I don't favor Allan Nichols's trolley idea for a variety of reasons. However,if we're trying to keep up with Groningen we might want to reconsider. They're planning a trolley system.
Randy Warren November 15, 2013 at 08:19 PM
Franz, if I somehow conveyed I don't support bike transportation let me clear that up now! Two wheels, with or without motor, is the best answer. People should not be traveling solo in yachts. And I do believe your claim that 50% of Groningen trips are by bike. Holland is a bicyclist's paradise. Not sure, however, about your Bay Area transit numbers. I presume that $800M is gross income rather than profit. If the transit presently operates at a deficit, the discount you propose would be an ADDITIONAL $80M hole. Having said that, I think that is worth exploring because the discount only comes into play if people are truly using the transit. In contrast, unSMART is already designed to operate at a huge loss irrespective of ridership.

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