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:
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.