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Can Highway 101 Be A High-Frequency Corridor?

While the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is still being built — train deliveries and testings will not begin until Fall 2013 — is there a prospect that the main corridor through Marin and Sonoma Counties, Highway 101, become a high-frequency transit corridor? Chances are it could be possible, but with a debate on the pending “divorce” between Golden Gate Transit and Marin Transit, this high-frequency corridor plan could fall apart… unless both sides can renegotiate on a deal that would continue such a partnership that has been in place for the past 40 years.

The Importance of the Highway 101 Corridor to the North Bay

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San Francisco


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San Rafael


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Santa Rosa

US Highway 101 is the major corridor that connects Marin and Sonoma Counties with San Francisco, and it acts as a backbone to the Redwood Empire, a region comprising of Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte Counties. It also provides an alternative route to Interstate 5 in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys to provide a connection between the San Francisco Bay Area and other areas in California, from Los Angeles through Oregon to Washington state. Development-wise, it is an evolving corridor: what were once bedroom communities, cities like San Rafael, Novato, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa are evolving to become commercial towns, complete with shops, groceries, restaurants, hotels, and service stations, all of which provide economic growth to what were otherwise suburban towns with lots of housing.

Transit-wise, however, is a different story. While the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937, transit options at the time were limited to car ferries and a rail network (yes, there were rail lines in Marin) until the 1950s and 60s when Highway 101 was built in the county to provide a vital link between the Redwood Empire and San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge. With the new freeway, the rail and car ferry services disappeared until 1969 when the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District was given by the California State Legislature the authority to provide transit services in the Golden Gate Bridge corridor. That provided an opportunity for the District to start operating regional services between San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma Counties — which was taken over from Greyhound — and, in 1971, Marin County Transit District contracted the services of Golden Gate to provide bus services in Marin County. At the time, commercial development was limited to several areas in San Rafael, San Anselmo, Novato, and Mill Valley; a vast majority of the development at the time were houses, in which workers would travel through the Golden Gate Bridge to jobs in San Francisco.

As Marin and Sonoma Counties developed, so did the transit options along the corridor: more basic services — including Routes 20, 30, 50, 60, and 80 — were created to cope up with the growing demand for travel between the two counties and San Francisco. In addition, Golden Gate Transit developed more commuter services that served a lot more communities from both counties to San Francisco: at one point, Golden Gate served Sonoma, Penngrove, Sebastopol, and Healdsburg in Sonoma County with their own commuter lines. 

However, a major restructuring in 2003 resulted in reducing the basic services into three: the current Routes 10, 70, and 80. As a result of eliminating a large amount of basic services in Marin County, the Marin County Transit District created several routes that provided the framework for the local services provided today by Marin Transit, including Routes 22, 23, 35, 57, 59, and 71. Over time, Marin Transit has tweaked its routes and slowly expanded its reach throughout the county, with west Marin now served by West Marin Stagecoach, certain communities by Marin Transit’s community shuttles, and Novato with the Novato Dial-a-Ride.

The impacts for Sonoma County, though, were much more drastic as the cuts in 2003 resulted in a dramatic reduction in direct services for commuters to and from San Francisco. All services were scaled back to focus on the Highway 101 corridor instead, with limited commuter services provided to communities such as Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, and Santa Rosa. In addition, services to Sebastopol and Sonoma, in which Golden Gate Transit served for a long period of time, were eliminated; as a response, Sonoma County Transit took over such operations and focused instead on providing services to and from Santa Rosa. (As an aside, Sonoma County Transit still provides two peak-period services, once in the morning and another in the afternoon, between Sonoma and San Rafael, which was operated by Golden Gate as Route 90).

As you would observe, the Highway 101 corridor in Marin and Sonoma Counties provides a crucial link between the North Bay communities and San Francisco, and if not for the Golden Gate Bridge, these communities would have been left isolated by overall economic development in the Bay Area.

The Contention for a High-Frequency Corridor
To establish the premise for a high-frequency corridor along Highway 101 between San Francisco and Santa Rosa, several contentious matters have to be addressed, including:

  • How much of the ridership along Highway 101 travel within the county versus those traveling between county lines? (For example, if one boards a basic bus in Novato, he will get off in Marin City, which is within Marin County; if that same passenger boards the same basic bus but ends up in Santa Rosa, it is considered traveling between county lines) 
  • Is the current equipment enough to justify the requirements needed for such a high-frequency corridor? (To give you an idea what the current bus fleets look like between Golden Gate Transit and Marin Transit, head to the Golden Gate page under my galleries and click on the respective agencies)
  • Given that Golden Gate Transit will establish a new radio network next year — complete with a bus prediction system — what other improvements can both Golden Gate and Marin Transit implement on its shared bus pads so that more passengers can be enticed to use the system? (For example: better handicapped accessibility, more bike racks, improved lighting)
  • Most importantly, how will the high-frequency service impact the current operation of other routes that connect with them? (Example: with the current set up of schedules at San Rafael Transit Center, buses and shuttles leave at 15 to 30-minute intervals, but the schedules are infrequent wherein departures are once an hour)

To further demonstrate the current problems faced with establishing a high-frequency corridor, take a look at this comparison table:

Marin County: Routes 10, 70, and 71
Route 10 (Strawberry – San Francisco)

  • Operates between Strawberry (weekdays) or Marin City (weekends and holidays) and San Francisco via Sausalito, with peak-period services to Tam Valley. Hourly departures most of the day weekdays and all-day weekends and holidays.
  • Operates between 6:30am & 8:00pm weekdays and between 8:00am & 7:15pm weekends and holidays
  • Outside those hours, riders must either transfer in Marin City and wait for a Route 22 bus to and from Sausalito or wait until nighttime and take either Route 70 (northbound only) or Route 80
  • Between Marin City and San Francisco, Route 10 operates in tandem with Route 70 to provide an approximately half-hourly service.
Route 70 (Novato – San Francisco)

  • Operates via Highway 101 bus pads everyday, with 30-minute frequency during the peak periods (southbound AM, northbound PM) and hourly service all other hours. Additional trips provided as backup to Route 80 on weekends when needed.
  • Operates between 5:00am and 2:00am daily.
  • On weekdays, Routes 70 and 71 operate in tandem between Novato and Marin City to provide a half-hourly service. South of Marin City, 
Route 71 (Novato – Marin City)

  • Operates via Highway 101 bus pads everyday, with hourly service weekdays and inconsistent service weekends. Additional trips provided during peak trip times when more people wait for the buses along the US 101 corridor
  • Operates between 6:00am and 8:30pm weekdays and a total of seven trips northbound and southbound weekends and holidays. On weekdays, Routes 70 and 71 operate in tandem between Novato and Marin City to provide a half-hourly service.
  • On weekdays, passengers can transfer between Routes 10 and 71 in Marin City en route to either San Francisco or Novato. However, issues about missed transfers between these two routes have been noted on several occasions.
Sonoma County: Routes 80 and 101
Route 80 (Santa Rosa – San Francisco, local)

  • While it operates daily, it operates one early-morning and several evening trips (after 5pm) weekdays and all-day weekends and holidays. Most trips operate either via Sausalito and/or Lincoln Avenue in San Rafael.
  • Operates along Highway 101 bus pads, Copeland Street Transit Mall (Petaluma), Cotati, and Rohnert Park
  • Outside weekday hours, Route 101 operates between Santa Rosa and San Francisco; for stopping service between Novato and San Francisco via Highway 101 bus pads, use Route 70 or 71.
  • Route 80 operates in tandem with Route 101 weekends and holidays between Santa Rosa and San Francisco.
Route 101 (Santa Rosa – San Francisco, limited stop)

  • Operates daily between Santa Rosa and San Francisco, providing limited stops in Marin County along Highway 101 (Novato, San Rafael Transit Center, and Spencer Avenue/Monte Mar Drive bus pad in Sausalito)
  • For service to and from Highway 101 bus pads in Marin County, use Route 70 or 71 from Novato or San Rafael Transit Center.
  • Route 101 operates in tandem with Route 70 weekdays between Novato and San Francisco; on weekends and holidays, Route 101 operates in tandem with Route 80.
  • Select trips operate between Novato and San Francisco only.
Here’s a graphic of the services, including the commuter and local routes: (source)

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Credit: David Edmonson, The Greater Marin.

Analyzing the map, one could observe that on top of the five routes listed above, several commuter routes (2, 4, 8, 18, 24, 27, 44, 54, 56, 58, 72, 76) and Marin Transit local routes (17, 22, 36, 49/49K) also operate along the Highway 101 corridor, providing supplemental services to riders. The main issue with providing a high-frequency corridor is the frequency consistency of the schedules for Routes 10, 70, 71, 80, and 101.

Weekday Service
As you might observe, Route 80 only operates one trip in the morning on weekdays (leaving San Rafael at 5:30am) and no weekday departures until 6:30pm with hourly trips until 11:30pm. As a replacement to Route 80 service on weekdays, Route 71 operates local (stopping) service to and from all bus pads between Novato and Marin City, as well as more services on Route 70 during peak periods. With Routes 70 and 71 operating in tandem between Novato and Marin City, the frequency along the Highway 101 corridor improves to every 30 minutes (if the two routes are operated separately, those operate hourly). Also, Route 101 replaces Route 80 on services between Santa Rosa and San Francisco, with departures at 15 past every hour from 6am to 9pm, providing additional, limited-stop service.

Golden Gate Transit and Marin Transit also advertise that a “connection” exists between Routes 10 and 71 in Marin City for travelers between Highway 101 bus pads and San Francisco. However, many times, these connections are not guaranteed, and that many passengers are left behind by the connecting bus (especially northbound) either because of congestion in San Francisco or Sausalito, or longer-than-usual boarding and disembarking times at bus stops.

Weekend and Holiday Service
On weekends, Route 71 operates a very limited schedule (a handful of departures each day). With this case, Routes 70 and 80 replace Route 71. In addition, Route 101 operates hourly; however, it departs between 40 and 45 past every hour from San Rafael between 7:45am and 4:45pm southbound, and from 12:41pm to 8:41pm northbound. Routes 70 and 80, therefore, operate in tandem between San Francisco and Novato half-hourly, while Routes 80 and 101 operate in tandem between Novato and Santa Rosa roughly half-hourly.

Route 10, however, operates a truncated service on the weekends: instead of operating to and from Strawberry via Manzanita and Seminary Drive bus pad, it ends in Marin City. For service to and from Sausalito when Route 80 does not operate via Bridgeway in Sausalito, riders need to get off in Marin City southbound and board either a Route 10 or 22. Northbound from San Francisco, Route 80 operates through Sausalito one trip in the AM and all trips after 6pm.

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San Rafael Transit Center

What I would suggest transportation planners to make a Highway 101 a high-frequency corridor would be the following:

  • Improve scheduling on Routes 70, 71, and 101 on the weekdays, and Routes 70, 80, and 101 on the weekends, wherein buses operates approximately every 15 minutes weekdays (2 of Route 71, 1 each of Routes 70 and 101) and every 20 minutes weekends and holidays (1 each of Routes 70, 80, and 101)
  • Improve running times in San Rafael that these buses could have up to a 10-minute layover to wait for all connecting buses.

Long-term planning could involve the following:

  • Consolidating Routes 10 and 70 to operate as one route by revising the Route 70 to serve between San Francisco and Novato via Sausalito via Strawberry
  • Routes 71 and 80 will continue to operate in its current alignment.
  • Route 101 can be enhanced to serve Marin City on top of serving Spencer Avenue and Monte Mar Drive.
  • Running times through San Rafael could be improved to operate every 15 minutes weekdays (2 Routes 70, 1 each Route 71 and 101), with Routes 70 and 71 operating roughly every 20 minutes, and every 20 minutes weekends (1 each of Routes 70, 71, and 80. Route 101 on the weekends can leave around 40 minutes after Route 80 so that it can operate in half-hourly intervals between Novato and Santa Rosa.

A description of my ideas above will be posted on another entry.

As you would observe, scheduling an ideal high-frequency network can be difficult, especially with competing interests and budgetary constraints. But, with coordinated planning and intense studies, such high-frequency services can be achieved over time that more passengers can benefit from a better service along Highway 101.


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