Smart Region, Smart Growth

A smart growth alternative to the 1998 Regional Transportation Plan

Urbanist Article September 1, 1999

$88 Billion for More Congestion

One of the most important Bay Area agencies that could help steer us in a new direction is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the region's nine-county transportation planning and funding agency. In 1998, MTC developed the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), the "blueprint" that guides $88 billion in transportation investments, or about $13,000 per person, over the next 20 years. This plan identifies five important goals to guide the region's transportation policy: improve mobility, promote equity, enhance sensitivity to the environment, support economic vitality, and support community vitality.

But will we be able to meet these goals after 20 years and $88 billion? Unfortunately, MTC has not adopted quantifiable performance measures attached to each goal, so observers must judge for themselves.

Even with $10 billion in freeway and expressway expansions, congestion in the region is anticipated to grow 249%, and some corridors (such as I-80 and I-580) are expecting increases of over 500%. At the same time, the share of all trips taken by alternative modes is expected to decrease: transit by 6%, walking by 10%, and bicycling by 9%.

Between 1990 and 2020, the vehicle miles of travel on Bay Area roads is expected to grow by 59 million miles per day, an increase of 55%. Additionally, over 200,000 acres of open space – an area more than six times larger than San Francisco and two hundred times larger than Golden Gate Park – is expected to be lost to development.

Which is the Best Alternative?

These dire predictions for the future do not have to come true. We can avoid them if we change direction, but only if we consider real alternatives. One of the problems with the 1998 RTP is that there were no true alternatives presented. For all the major indicators, the "alternatives" differ by no more than 1.9% from each other. Essentially, the RTP presented tiny variations on one plan.

1. 93% of the funds over the 20-year planning period were defined as "baseline investments"; Thus the "alternative" spending proposals varied by only 7%.

2. The alternatives do not consider any variation in future development patterns. MTC simply accepts ABAG projections assuming 211,000 acres of land will be developed over the next 20 years. Assuming sprawl means MTC plans for sprawl.

3. Pricing of facilities, including parking charges, does not vary between alternatives.

Of course, this would not be a problem if the RTP predicted a rosy future. But given the dire predictions, it would useful to prepare at least one "Smart Growth," non-sprawl alternative.

Regional Vision, Regional Action

Current development patterns do not have to be our destiny. Instead, the region can refocus public investment to serve and revitalize existing developed areas; design livable communities where residents of all ages can safely walk or bike; promote development that links housing, jobs, and services to transit; and create greenbelts that preserve remaining open space. To pursue this regional vision, furthering better connections between transportation and land use planning, a wide range of interests came together in 1997 to form the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition. In a short time, the Coalition has realized several large victories, including a successful campaign to guarantee $375 million for maintaining our public transit systems. The unanimous vote for the Coalition's proposal was the first time that commissioners of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission rejected a staff recommendation in favor of one from a community group.

Coalition members believe that to truly meet the five goals outlined in the Regional Transportation Plan we will need to reign-in sprawl development and design communities so that people have a choice in how they travel; fund cost-effective alternative transportation; and provide incentives to discourage solo driving. We have developed a policy platform, a broad range of principles and actions that can change the direction of the Bay Area, putting us on a path that enhances our quality of life and our environment. Some of the recommendations most relevant to San Francisco include:

1. Integrate regional transportation and land use planning. MTC, ABAG, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District have applied for federal funding to form a regional "Partnership for Smart Growth," which would include local governments and a broad range of private sector interests. San Francisco leaders can demonstrate their willingness to think and act regionally by leading other local governments to support this process.

2. Restrict parking. Parking generates automobile trips, trips the city's streets cannot hold. San Francisco should implement stronger parking cashout provisions (offering employees cash instead of free parking), reduce parking requirements for transit-oriented development projects, and consider changing the parking tax and permit systems to reduce free parking.

3. Revitalize the Transbay Terminal. Developing a world-class transit system for the Bay Area requires investment in key transit hubs such as the Transbay Terminal. The city and the region have suffered too long with inadequate connections among transit systems. Revamping the Transbay Terminal, combined with electrifying Caltrain and extending it into downtown, would provide a convenient transfer point, make the city more accessible to out-of-city commuters, and give San Franciscans better access to growing job centers along the Peninsula. (Note that San Franciscans will have a chance to vote to help make this happen by supporting Proposition H in November.)

4. Fund pedestrian and bicycle alternatives. San Francisco should provide full funding and administrative support for the city's bicycle plan, make sure that bicycle and pedestrian programs receive their fair share of funding from the MTC and Caltrans, and ensure that a regional bicycle and pedestrian needs assessment is undertaken.

5. Fund transit village and neighborhood improvement plans. Smart growth requires attractive and compact mixed-use development. San Francisco can encourage this through changes in the general plan, zoning, and design guidelines. The Transportation Authority can start a program similar to MTC's "Transportation for Livable Communities" program, which provides planning and construction funding for transit villages and neighborhood improvement plans. (At the urging of SPUR and our partners in the Housing Action Coalition, the new San Francisco budget has $1.25 million just for that.)

Implementing these recommendations and others in the platform will require a broad coalition that brings together urban and suburban voters, low-income communities, labor unions, business interests, environmentalists, and fiscal conservatives who understand the financial drain of poor planning. Together, this broad-based community effort can work with good planners in the cities, counties, and other agencies to realize a new vision for the Bay Area. We look forward to working together.Spur logo


About the Authors: 

Stuart Cohen is Executive Director and Jeff Hobson is Project Manager at the Bay Area Transportation Choices Forum

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