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Tuning SMART For Success

Tuning SMART for Success By Michael D. Setty Editor, California Rail News

Long-time SMART-hater Mike Arnold’s “Marin Voice” on SMART in the September 2, 2018 edition of the Marin Independent Journal  had little to offer the reader, other than a mega-dose of sour grapes. It would be far more constructive to discuss how SMART can be optimized by applying rail best practices from Europe.

The current, increasingly crowded conditions on Golden Gate Transit’s San Francisco–Larkspur ferries show that there is strong and growing demand for express transit in the Highway 101 corridor. Once SMART has its full complement of operations personnel and vehicles, it could be serving many more passengers.

Plugging gaps in the schedule and increasing peak period capacity will make a big difference in ridership. Moving from commute service to all-day service typically increases ridership significantly, as many more people find the train fitting their travel needs.

SMART needs to apply best practices from Europe to the Highway 101 corridor. For example, in Switzerland and other European countries, trains and buses run on “clockface headways,” e.g., service arrives and leaves at the same time every hour on the hour 7 days per week, regardless of whether service runs every 15 minutes, every 30 minutes, or hourly. Even service as infrequent as every two hours or only a few times per day in remote rural areas are scheduled at the same times past the hour.

Clock headways are very easy for passengers to remember. They also make it easy to organize regional networks. One can travel hundreds of miles across Switzerland with minimal delays, even if several connections are required. The Swiss National Railways, along with its rail and bus partners, have perfected the concept of “timed transfers” based on clock headways. They provide cross-platform connections at key stations where trains and buses connect, usually with less than 5 minutes of delay at each transfer point. Train and bus travel times in Switzerland between these timed transfer points have been optimized to allow connections at the same times past each hour, facilitating transfers and minimizing connecting time delays. While the San Rafael Transit Center offers timed transfers between buses, SMART‘s schedule frustrates bus-train and train-bus transfers. SMART has chosen to not match the hourly and halfhourly departures of the buses. Instead, its departures are a minute earlier, causing some transferees to miss the train.

Preliminary research by TRAC has uncovered an apparent system design error by SMART. We call for studying a fix that would enable simultaneous SMART and bus departures, with arrivals 5 minutes earlier, to allow adequate transfer time. A well-integrated feeder bus network is essential in maximizing the convenience of the transit alternative. Improved bus facilities are needed at a number of SMART stations to allow cross-platform connections as close as possible, where such facilities either do not exist or are an unreasonable walking distance from train platforms.

In some cases, new stations may be needed. For example, a SMART station at River Road in Fulton including a bus loop adjacent to the train platform could dramatically reduce transit travel times to/from Russian River communities, with new timed connections with SMART trains. Similarly, a  ¼  mile elevated extension of SMART from its station in Larkspur to an elevated platform above Golden Gate Transit’s ferry dock would provide an attractive ferry feeder service. While potentially very expensive, it would appeal to ferry riders who generally shun buses, greatly relieving the current severe parking shortage.

A new ferry-SMART direct connection potentially could attract several hundred thousand new trips per year from San Francisco, with its new uncongested, non-highway access to the 101 corridor’s Wine Country. This tourism revenue could support additional service, stretching current operating subsidies much further. In conclusion, with sufficient investment over the long run, SMART ridership could increase by an order of magnitude, becoming a heavily-used, key transit service in the Highway 101 corridor, as originally envisioned.

Michael D. Setty is Editor of California Rail News. He has 40 years of transit industry experience, including as a member of the team that developed the successful Vallejo Ferry.