Traffic Update Presented to Council

At their September 2nd meeting, the Mill Valley City Council received an update on recent traffic issues in town. The Council acknowledged the strong leadership of the Mayor on her efforts surrounding the issue of traffic congestion and directed staff to continue their work through Caltrans to make additional modifications to their facilities at the Tennessee Valley Road/Shoreline Highway and the Highway 101/East Blithedale Avenue interchange to reduce traffic delays and improve traffic flow.

The City Council requested additional monitoring and analysis of the traffic flow benefits gained from the recent changes to the Tennessee Valley Road signal and an update on traffic conditions and further recommendations for action later this fall.

The full Staff Report can be found below, or you may download the following:
Traffic Conditions Staff Report
Traffic Conditions Staff Report Attachments
2001 Traffic Committee Report
Presentation Slides


                        To:   Mayor and Councilmembers

                        From:   Jim McCann, City Manager

                        Date:   September 2, 2014

                        Subject:   Traffic Conditions in Mill Valley

Issue: To receive a presentation regarding traffic conditions in Mill Valley and suggestions for actions to pursue for improvement.

Recommendation: That the City Council receive the presentation, discuss and provide direction to staff to pursue further analysis and discussion of options for future Council consideration and action.

Background: We have experienced unprecedented and sustained traffic congestion is the past nine months in Mill Valley. Our residents and visitors have identified traffic congestion as the number one concern and have expressed their frustration with the current conditions and have requested action by the City to take steps to improve the traffic conditions.

The City Council and staff very definitely recognizes the increased congestion and frequent traffic snarls and have taken steps to evaluate the causes and implement measures to reduce the conditions. The Council has established addressing traffic congestion as one of its top priorities for the current fiscal year and has directed me and City staff to focus our energies and resources on improving traffic conditions in the community.

Discussion: The City of Mill Valley has had traffic circulation and congestion problems for many years. Many aspects of our community and of our circulation system contribute to these problems and limitations. The issue has been studied and discussed many times over recent years. Attached is a copy of the 2001 report from a special City Council appointed Mill Valley Transportation Committee which evaluated traffic conditions more that ten years ago. This report provided a good snapshot of the traffic conditions at that time and presented numerous findings and recommendations. Many of the recommendations have been successfully implemented; many remain valid for refreshment and to be re-examined.

Our problem is relatively simple: We have a high volume of vehicle travel over a very limited circulatory system.

Our primary circulation routes are limited in number and in capacity. They are very directly and immediately affected by “outside” traffic conditions on Highway 101 and through neighboring Tennessee Valley. Our principal roadways, Miller Avenue, Camino Alto and Blithedale Avenue, are taxed regularly and have limited to no “extra” capacity. Level of service (LOS), the measurement for the efficient functioning of intersections, at our key intersections is poor and the potential to make substantive changes which might add capacity or make significant efficiency improvements are very limited. Additionally, community interest in maintaining a more pedestrian scale to our roadways and intersections (versus wider multi-lane streets or generous curb radii) is very strong. The Mobility Element of the recently adopted General Plan provides a thorough summary of traffic conditions and serves as the City’s policy which guides actions and programs relative to street improvements and traffic management efforts. We’ll present an overview of key policies and data from the General Plan during the presentation Tuesday evening.

Some facts and observations about Mill Valley traffic:

  • Mill Valley has an average of 2.3 vehicles per household.
  • Mill Valley has approximately 3,000 more cars than driving-aged residents.
  • On average, Mill Valley households make more than 11 trips per day, more than the national average. (This includes trips made from the house to work, school and the grocery store, as well as trips to the house by FedEx drivers, household help, plumbers and other service providers.)
  • Mill Valley’s roads were designed for six vehicle trips per day. We are putting two times as many car trips on our streets as they were designed to carry.
  • Between 1990-2000 Mill Valley’s traffic volumes grew by 15-20%; however population only increased by 2%.
  • Since 2000 traffic volumes in and out of Mill Valley have remained fairly constant.
  • School enrollment has increased regularly and sharply in recent years.
  • The times of greatest congestion in the City are:
    • 7:30 – 9:30 am, – weekdays with the peak between 8:00-8:30am, directly correlated with school start times.
    • 2:00 – 6:00 pm – weekdays, with the peak at 3:30pm, again, correlated with after-school pick up and travel to after-school activities.
    • 10:00am – 6:00pm -weekends, with a peak of 11:30 – 2:30; everyone is moving on the weekends.
  • We know that school-related traffic comprises 20-25% of morning and afternoon commute traffic. This is why the Safe Routes to Schools program targets school commutes, in an effort to reduce the overall volume of traffic.
  • For the past 10+ years, Mill Valley has had very high rates of participation in Safe Routes to School at all our schools. Our families like the health and environmental benefits. The Safe Routes program works and Mill Valley increases the number of kids walking and biking to school every year. The only problem is that the gains we’ve made over the years are being eclipsed by the ever-increasing number of new students.
  • Given the charm, natural beauty, attractive facilities and surroundings and proximity to regional attractions (Muir Woods, Mt. Tam, Stinson Beach, etc.), much visitor traffic joins with resident and business traffic over our main thoroughfares.

Many have asked since no significant land use or circulation changes have occurred in Mill Valley in recent months or years, why have traffic conditions worsened? Why does it take 20-45 minutes to get from the Downtown to the Highway? What is the City doing to address this problem?

What has Changed? 
Increased traffic congestion is not isolated to Mill Valley. Traffic congestion has increased throughout the Bay Area in recent years; a portion of the increase is attributable to the improving economy. Marin County has experienced such effects and congestion has worsened in many neighboring communities. Many recent article and editorials in local newspapers and in social media reflect these increases and offer thoughts about the causes. Traffic conditions in Mill Valley, are certainly influenced in part by a more robust economy—both a more active business environment (with greater patron activity in and out of town and employee traffic), and the traffic associated with substantially increased construction activity we’ve experienced in the past two years. However, the effects of a recovering economy are but a part of our traffic condition.

As noted above, the dominance of auto use for everyday activities, multiple “peak” traffic periods, the significant effect that school-related traffic has on our main and local streets as well as the increase in our local school population, and the heavy impact we receive from visitors (both those coming to Mill Valley and those passing through on their way west), are all significant elements in our traffic chemistry.

Additionally, two external conditions have significantly affected our circulation and have been dominant contributors to the increased congestion we’ve experienced in the past nine months. The first is the lack of properly synchronized timing of the signals Caltrans owns and manages at the Highway 101/Blithdale Avenue interchange. The second is the new signal installed by Caltrans at the Shoreline Highway (Highway 1/Tennessee Valley Road intersection. The attached July 7, 2014 staff report provided the Council with an overview on these two points. Additionally, the information item we posted to our website (attached) and shared with the public last week provides further detail about these two significant congestion contributors. These documents make clear our determination that the Tennessee Valley Road signal in unincorporated Mill Valley, has changed the traffic flows within Mill Valley: the traffic light has caused travel delays and as a result, 10-15% of motorists who used to take Miller/Almonte south to Hwy 101 are now re-routing to Camino Alto to E Blithedale to get to Hwy 101. The E Blithedale Camino Alto stoplight was already functioning at full capacity, and the additional traffic volume overwhelmed the corridor.

What is the City doing to address traffic congestion?

  • The dominant contributors: The good news regarding these two “external” complications is that:1) Caltrans has, in recent weeks, worked cooperatively with the City (and the County) to add separate signal timing programs to the Highway 101/Blithedale Avenue signals to better match and synchronize with City and County signals and to be responsive to the multiple traffic peaks which exist at these intersections and along the corridor (their signals previously had relatively “fixed” timing, were not reflecting changes in traffic peaks throughout the day or over weekends, and were not synchronized with adjacent City or County signals). 2) The more significant regional traffic congestion problem attributed to the Shoreline Highway/Tennessee Valley road signal, has also received important improvement in recent weeks. Caltrans, after many requests and much discussion and study, has modified the signal to reduce traffic interruptions and delays along Shoreline Highway. This modification will retain important safety features for pedestrians but will restore a portion of the roadway capacity and efficiency lost by the introduction of the signal last October.

    Both of the above two prime congestion contributors require further work and modification to achieve greater efficiency and to reduce traffic delay. We remain extremely engaged in this effort for further improvement with County staff and elected officials and the engineers at Caltrans. More to be reported in the near future on both scores.

  • Synchronization. We will continue our work with Caltrans and the County engineers to continuously revisit signal timing and synchronization to achieve efficiencies and address signal reliability. Good News: In Spring 2014 the City made improvements to signal timing on E Blithedale, Camino Alto and Miller to squeeze out the last bit of efficiency in our intersections. The changes make for longer green lights on these streets to move larger “platoons” of cars though the intersections. The trade off is that motorists stopped at cross streets such as Sycamore, have to wait a little longer for a green light.
  • Traffic enforcement. The Police Department has launched a shared services effort with Marin agencies to permit targeted and concentrated traffic enforcement around the County. This program is in its infancy pilot period. We enjoyed the first efforts of the Shared Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) in late August in conjunction with the first day of school at Tamalpais High School. Additional applications of STEP will occur in Mill Valley with the deployment of officers from agencies from throughout the County, bringing much greater presence to areas of particular circulation and/or safety concern.

    Additionally, the Police Department and the Department of Public Works continue to work with the School Districts around school-related circulation and traffic issues. Enforcement, street markings and signage and education are a part of this collaboration. This year’s start of school benefitted from this collaboration.

  • Collaboration with schools. Beyond enforcement, tremendous collaboration occurs with our school districts around traffic congestion and pedestrian and bicycle safety. We meet regularly with the school administration to discuss traffic issues and to coordinate education and management issues. Attached is an offshoot from these efforts in the form of an outreach letter from the Superintendent of Schools urging assistance from parents in enhancing safety and reducing congestion.

    The Safe Routes to Schools (SR2S) program is a critical (and highly effective) tool in educating parents, students, and faculty to the alternatives available to access school sites. Much good work has been done through the SR2S program; they play an essential role in safety and congestion reduction.

  • Visitor traffic. Staff has continued to work with the National Parks Service (NPS) to make clear the City of Mill Valley’s concerns and expectations regarding Muir Woods visitor traffic. This traffic directly affects circulation and congestion. The proposals presented by the NPS are carefully scrutinized by the City and our concerns and recommendations have been clearly expressed to the NPS staff. Continued monitoring and engagement will remain a priority.
  • Regional efforts. In addition to the work we have been doing outlined above with our colleagues at the County and with Caltrans, we are very engaged with the staff and efforts underway at the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM). This agency has significant regional influence and is a great help in both project conception and funding. TAM is pivotal in our efforts to not only pursue basic street improvement projects (they are the conduit for much State and Federal money) but also to realize significant improvements (long-term efforts) to the Highway 101 interchange. The Mayor is an active participant on the TAM Board.

    Marin Transit is another local agency involved in regional transportation services—their focus is transit. We actively participate with this agency regarding a variety of bus and shuttle services serving many user groups in the community. The Mayor also sits on this Board. The Transit Agency is just embarking on a “School Bus Feasibility Study”; this is of great interest to Mill Valley. We will be an active participant in this study.

  • Miller Avenue Streetscape Improvement. This project, which will begin this year, will improve conditions for all modes of circulation (pedestrian, bicyclists and vehicles) and will as a result move traffic more efficiently. The safer conditions will also encourage greater use of alternate modes of transportation and as such will reduce vehicle volumes and enhance overall efficiency.
  • Communication and outreach. Our recently enhanced communication efforts have been more substantial. Effective and regular outreach efforts and communication around current circulation issues (special events, accidents, road closures, construction, etc.), information about traffic-related policies or infrastructure improvements, and requests or suggestions for traffic and circulation assistance from the public. A traffic condition phone App has been developed by the City to provide current traffic conditions.

What more can be done?

There are many options to pursue. Some of which are “easy” and fully acceptable and some which would be sensitive, controversial and require significant discussion before being pursued. A summary of a few options follow below.
Marin Transit. Actively participate in the School Bus Study and coordinate efforts with our local School Districts in this effort. Additionally, work with the Transit Agency to explore the possibilities available through their agency for greater access to transit services including alternate or expanded bus routes/services and potential for local serving shuttle services.

  • Caltrans. Continue to work with Caltrans to realize further modifications and improvement of the Tennessee Valley Road signal and to enhance the efficiency of the signal timing and synchronization at the Highway 101/Blithedlae Avenue interchange.

    Additionally, pursue modification of the south bound Highway 101 on-ramp from Blithedale Avenue to improve capacity and ease of circulation.

  • Schools. Continue strong support for the work done through the SR2S program. Continue regular meetings, communication and collaboration with school administration to coordinate solutions to access and circulation issues and to encourage and facilitate increased and sustained carpooling and reduced use of vehicles. Explore other options which might reduce congestion such as alternate start times, additional “satellite” drop-off sites, etc.

    Multi-modal solutions. Work, through the update of the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Facilities Plan (being managed by the Department of Public Works through the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee-BPAC), to enhance our emphasis on alternate modes of transportation in and around town: sidewalks, SLP’s (Steps Lanes and Pathways), and bicycle facilities.

  • Increased capacity. Explore the potential for increased road capacity through the widening of Blithedale Avenue (across from the Whole Foods) and explore intersection improvements for greater efficiency. Consider modification of Hamilton Drive to two-way circulation (could be considered for use regularly, during peak conditions, during emergency conditions, etc.).
  • Traffic enforcement. Continued enforcement is necessary and continued creative ideas to allow existing resources to be utilized more effectively should be explored.
  • Land use actions. The City should scrutinize land use proposals to ensure that no exacerbation of traffic congestion or other significant impacts are caused and that appropriate mitigations are required and implemented.

What are recommended next steps?

  • City Council ad-hoc committee. It is recommended that the Council consider the establishment of an ad-hoc special committee to study/evaluate traffic conditions and return within 6 months with findings and recommendations for Council consideration. Possible membership is suggested to include: two Councilmembers, the Mill Valley School District Superintendent, and the Tam High Principal, a representative from the Chamber of Commerce, and staff and our traffic consultant.
  • Continue work with:
    • Caltrans and County around the issues identified above regarding short-term/immediate measures and begin efforts toward longer term Highway 101 interchange replacement study efforts.
    • Actively participate in the School Bus Study being prepared by Marin Transit and bring information items to City Council for information and action. Explore shuttle options and the potential for enhanced transit services.
    • SR2S. Continue the strong support for this program and coordinate efforts through the City’s Departments of Public Works and Police along with the School Districts.

It is evident that traffic and circulation conditions have worsened in the community. As noted, these conditions, while worse, are not new. There are options and tools we can use to improve the situation, but in the end, this effort requires all of us to cooperate and work together to pursue opportunities for improvement of our facilities and to reduce our contribution to area-wide traffic congestion.

The formation of an ad-hoc committee to explore this issue and to develop a framework with recommendations for future discussion and action would be very helpful.