A New Vision for Oakland’s Streets: the OakDOT Strategic Plan

Image courtesy of Sergio Ruiz

Oakland’s streets will soon look very different than they did just a few years ago. Bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements have historically been ad hoc, the result of two factors: a culture that prioritized cars and, more importantly, the absence of a dedicated department overseeing the city’s transportation funds and projects. Earlier this year, Mayor Libby Schaaf established Oakland’s Department of Transportation (OakDOT) to bring much-needed structure and a vision that included bikes, pedestrians and transit to the city’s transportation efforts. SPUR has supported the creation of OakDOT because we feel that a well-run DOT is essential to the success of a 21st-century Oakland. The department’s newly released strategic plan confirms that Oakland is moving in the right direction.

OakDOT’s plan is structured around four key pillars: equitable jobs and housing; holistic community safety; vibrant, sustainable infrastructure; and responsive, trustworthy government. Strategies within each pillar are grounded in OakDOT’s values: streets are avenues for social justice, health and economic prosperity. In other words, the role of transportation goes well beyond moving people and goods.

(By way of comparison, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s strategic plan, Great Streets for Los Angeles, has as its center Vision Zero, the commitment to eliminate traffic-related fatalities; it positions safety as the first priority in transportation decision making. The strategic plan for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency is very straightforward. The plan lays out a series of goals, objectives and targets around four key areas: safety, increasing biking, walking and transit use, quality of life and customer service.)

The tenor of OakDOT’s strategic plan is as much a reflection of Oakland’s activist spirit as it is an indication that Oakland has entered a new chapter of transportation. OakDOT’s forbearer, Oakland Public Works, was not in a position to tackle big transportation issues nor have a strong voice when it came to planning for AC Transit or BART. In our 2015 report A Downtown for Everyone, we recommended that Oakland create a Department of Transportation to develop a unified transportation vision across disparate projects and infrastructure investments. The strategic plan demonstrates that OakDOT is striving to fulfill this larger role — and that the department is poised to succeed.

Passing Measure KK, Oakland’s infrastructure bond, will be critical to making the strategic plan a reality. In addition to encouraging Oakland voters to support Measure KK, we want to highlight five priorities in the plan that we think will make the biggest difference in Oakland’s transportation future. We also offer some suggestions for how to make sure this vision is realized.

1. Transit investments should be made where they’re needed the most.

Transportation is inextricably linked to health, housing, jobs and education. Lack of access to reliable, efficient and safe transportation options is a barrier to economic opportunity. For this reason, SPUR has identified Oakland’s big transportation opportunity as making it easier and safer for everyone, regardless of income, to walk, bike and take transit for most trips.

OakDOT’s strategic plan demonstrates a thoughtful understanding of the nexus between mobility and opportunity, prioritizing strategies to make sustainable modes of transportation available to everyone. Examples of these strategies include planning and distributing the city’s street paving resources based on need, supporting transit subsidies for the city’s youth and elderly populations, and increasing connections at the beginning or end of a transit trip to improve access to jobs and social service centers.

For decades many transportation decisions in Oakland were made based on the requests of "squeaky wheels," who were often more privileged residents; the strategic plan’s data-driven focus on equity is a giant leap in a better direction. However, the document does not define equity. To ensure that resources go to the communities that need them the most, OakDOT, in concert with Oakland's new Department of Race and Equity and input from the community, needs to define equity and develop its decision-making framework as soon as possible.

As OakDOT implements its vision for equitable transportation, the agency will need to be mindful of how this vision will impact, among other priorities, its corridor approach to planning. For example, OakDOT will need to decide, with community input, if its goal is to maximize transit ridership or broaden the reach of transit outside high-ridership zones. The later addresses social and geographic equity but has financial and environmental implications.

2. Transportation has a role in maintaining affordability.

Housing prices in Oakland have continued to rise, and displacement is a real threat. There are many levers a city can use to make its cost of living more affordable, and transportation — though often overlooked — is one of them. Transportation costs are typically a household’s second-largest expenditure after housing itself; in Oakland, they account for 14 percent of a household’s income.

OakDOT doesn’t just acknowledge the impact of transportation costs on affordability — the agency lays out a series of strategies to make it easy and affordable for all Oakland residents to get around without a car. These strategies include: encouraging unified fare payment among transit operators; improving access to bike, car and ridesharing options for residents of all income levels; and improving late-night transportation options.

3. Strong policies are needed to make it easy to bike, walk and take transit.

For our economy, environment and quality of life, reducing car use must be a priority. Oakland must be a place where anyone can get around easily without driving. This requires a significant rethinking of Oakland’s streets and roads. In the not-too-distant past, Oakland had a very extensive streetcar network. Reinventing and growing the transit network while also prioritizing biking and walking — that is, giving Oakland residents safe, effective and reliable transportation options — hinges on OakDOT’s policy decisions.

The city recently updated its California Environmental Quality Act guidelines, which means that OakDOT can use the number of vehicle miles traveled instead of the level of service provided to cars when determining the transportation-related environmental impacts of new development. The city also recently made significant changes to its parking guidelines, instituting parking maximums and separating parking costs from housing costs. These two significant policy changes will make it easier for OakDOT to prioritize transportation modes other than cars in its planning.

OakDOT’s plan includes additional policies that support biking, walking and transit use, such as Vision Zero, the strategy to eliminate traffic-related fatalities; timing traffic signals to give priority to transit vehicles; wayfinding signage to help people navigate the city; managing curb space to address competing needs like delivery and loading; and “complete streets,” a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned for all users, not just cars. The challenge for OakDOT will be to implement these policies in a timely fashion. Without sufficient resources or community support, OakDOT could flounder with overly ambitious goals or, worse, succumb to pressure to maintain the city’s historical orientation toward cars.

Not included in the strategic plan are mode-share goals —for example, setting a target that more than 50 percent of all trips be taken without a car. Adding such goals could provide OakDOT and its partners the impetus to pursue these and other policies.

4. Good transportation requires good government.

Many city governments struggle with accountability and transparency, and Oakland is no exception. But since OakDOT is a new agency, it has a unique opportunity to establish new systems and processes so it can be a responsible and responsive agency from day one. The six government-focused goals in the strategic plan — which tackle both internal and external expectations, from customer service to outreach to contracting to communications — outline the means through which OakDOT can become the agency Oakland residents deserve. Success is, of course, contingent on OakDOT having the capacity to follow through on these commitments.

When OakDOT was formed, SPUR called for the agency to reassess its core government functions and adopt new approaches to procurement, project delivery, information sharing and public process. We’re glad to see that the strategic plan outlines several strategies in line with SPUR’s recommendations, such as simplifying project management processes and contracting procedures; streamlining approval processes; making transportation data more available; and committing to robust outreach and engagement. These actions put OakDOT in a better position to deliver public projects on time and on budget.

5. The focus needs to be on the bigger picture.

OakDOT is but one agency in Oakland, and Oakland is but one city in an expansive region — the Bay Area is home to more than two dozen transit operators, as well as private transportation companies like Lyft and Uber. Issues like climate adaptation, regional transportation and the movement of goods are all pertinent to OakDOT but cannot be solved by the department alone. Getting transportation right in Oakland will require OakDOT to work across silos, incorporate emerging transportation services and technologies into its planning, and approach transportation planning from a regional perspective.

Several strategies in the plan demonstrate that OakDOT will address the bigger picture in which it operates. These include: partnering with Oakland Public Works to incorporate green infrastructure in underserved areas; partnering with the Alameda County Public Health Department to minimize harmful impacts associated with the movement of goods; identifying and developing a transit development team to shepherd a long-range transit vision and liaise with transit agencies; and coordinating land use planning with transportation planning.

Coordinating land use planning and transportation is one of the more important strategies in OakDOT’s plan. Land use policies (such as zoning) and transportation policies are two of the most important tools a city has to shape its growth. If OakDOT wants Oakland to have a thriving transit, biking and walking network, it needs land uses that support this goal, especially downtown. For this to happen, OakDOT and the Planning and Building Department must closely coordinate their work.

OakDOT’s strategic plan presents a unified transportation vision across transportation modes and seeks to overcome many of the issues that have hindered successful transportation in Oakland. But there are challenges ahead. As OakDOT implements the plan it will need to:

  • Develop clear criteria for which strategies to prioritize and how to phase project delivery
  • Collaborate effectively with Oakland Public Works, the Planning and Building Department and partner agencies such as AC Transit to complete transportation projects on time and on budget
  • Coordinate land use and transportation planning to make sure land uses support biking, walking and transit use
  • Consolidate transportation planning functions that are currently spread across the city within OakDOT
  • Exercise strong leadership
  • Thoughtfully direct investment of existing funds while working to identify new sources of funding

There are many uses for a strategic plan, but one of the key things a plan does is offer permission — both to city staff and to the public. It allows staff to start work on projects that were once just conceptual ideas, and it gives the public a mechanism for holding the department accountable. With this plan, OakDOT has provided an important tool for making Oakland a better place — for everyone. Let’s all work to make sure we use it well.