On the Level

Improving regional transportation planning
September 1, 2003

The Bay Area will, over the next two decades, make enormous investments in the region's transportation infrastructure. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) estimates that the region will spend nearly $90 billion to build, maintain, and operate our transportation system. How will these investments affect the future of the region?


Describing the successes and failures of transportation planning in cities around the world, Dr. Vukan Vuchic, in Transportation for Livable Cities, writes that "most current problems are created by a failure to understand transportation as a system that interacts with most other activities in cities." He describes a useful four-level model for transportation planning:

  • Level IV: Individual facilities, such as a single highway, bridge, transit station, bike lane, or bus line
  • Level III: Single-mode network or system, such as a highway network or local street system, single transit network (e.g. BART or Muni Metro), or a bicycle network
  • Level II: Multi-modal coordinated system, which integrates various modes (streets and highways, public transit, bicycle and pedestrian networks) as an integrated transportation system
  • Level I: City-transport balance, which integrates the multimodal transportation system into the city, by factoring in the economy, urban design, housing and land use, social conditions, equity, and the environment

The most effective way to plan transportation for a livable region is to start with Level I, city-transport balance. What sort of place do we want to live in? From our definition of the livable city, it becomes easier to plan the optimal mix of transportation modes that helps us to create a livable city or region. Once we understand the desired physical form and growth pattern of the region, and the optimal balance among transport modes, we can more effectively plan the transportation networks and individual transportation facilities.


Based on the planning sequence outlined above, how are we doing as a region? The answer is--not great, but improving.


On the level of city-transport balance, our present situation is a bit like the parable of the blind men and the elephant; each of the five regional agencies--MTC; the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which plans housing, generates projections for economic and population growth, and assists local governments in infrastructure planning and financing; the Bay Area Air Quality Management District; the Regional Water Quality Control Board; and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission--attempt to address an aspect of regional livability, but are not working from a consensus on how the region should grow and change in the future. The closest thing to a consensus vision is ABAG's 20-year projections, which extrapolate current practices and trends into the future. The problem with the ABAG projections is that they describe a future region--more congested, more sprawling, with greater housing shortages and longer commutes--that almost no one wants to live in.


City and county governments have near-total authority over land use decisionmaking, and that is unlikely to change in the near future. For various reasons, local governments often fail to reconcile local interests with the regional interest. Incentivizing good land use practices is the best strategy for regional decision makers, and MTC, with its influence over billions of regional transportation dollars, has the most leverage. Merging the planning imperatives of these agencies, so that MTC criteria for allocating transportation dollars are informed by land use, housing, air and water quality, and Bay protection, is essential; it is time to merge the agencies as well.


Currently, regional transportation planning is a mixed bag. There are MTC programs that have Level I aims, like the Transportation for Livable Communities and Housing Incentive Program. There is a strong focus in MTC's Regional Transportation Plan to keep the existing transportation systems in a state of good repair, which addresses Level III needs more effectively than in the past. But much of the regional deal-brokering is really project by project: Level I, II, and III planning considerations often fall by the wayside as the political champions try to secure resources for their favored mega-projects.


This project-focused regional planning happens for several reasons. One is the extremely fragmented pattern of transit governance in the region; instead of multi-modal transit agencies with a regional scope, which are increasingly the norm for metropolitan regions around the world, the Bay Area has over two dozen specialized transit agencies competing for riders and for funding. Most are local bus agencies,operating bus service in a limited area, usually a county or a group of cities. Another group of agencies--BART, Caltrain, ACE, Capitol Corridor, and the Water Transit Authority--have a broader geographic reach, but operate a single transit mode, often a single line. Muni and VTA cover multiple modes, but only within a single county. These agencies each plan and implement their own services and projects, generally in isolation from other agencies. The planning horizon of these agencies is almost inevitably Level III, at best. MTC planning often involves selecting among projects as offered by the separate agencies, and the result is often a poorly integrated set of projects.


Another important reason we have project-centered transportation planning is because of politicians. This is not entirely a criticism; virtually every major project that has been built has had one or more powerful politicians shepherding it along. As I know from personal experience, in the balkanized world of Bay Area transportation, there are zillions of ways that projects can get bogged down; politicians have stepped into the vacuum, and presently play an important role. There are, of course, downsides to a politician-driven approach. Popular projects often get more attention than meritorious but unsexy projects. Many politicians tend to be interested in projects that are highly visible, so maintenance, replacement, and systemwide improvements often can't find patrons. Politicians tend to favor rail over buses, as most politicians can never imagine themselves ever riding the bus.


One solution to the problem of balkanized transit service in the region is to merge many of these agencies into a larger, multimodal agency. The service areas of BART, Caltrain, ACE, Capitol Corridor, the San Francisco-Oakland ferries, and specialized express bus partnerships like the Dumbarton Express overlap considerably, yet the services are poorly connected. A regional transit agency may be able to better integrate these separate services into an integrated system, as has been done in other cities: the New York Subway was once three separate companies, and London's underground system used to be several competing companies. An argument can be made for keeping local bus service as a local prerogative, as they generally serve mostly local trips, or feed regional transit stations, but consolidating the agencies which serve regional trips could help move the Bay Area toward true regionalplanning and transit-service integration.Spur logo

About the Authors: 

Tom Radulovich is a planner by training, an elected member of the BART board, and a SPUR
board member. He recently chaired the committee that developed Proposition K, the transportation sales tax renewal measure.