What 2016 Meant for Bay Area Cities
By Gabriel Metcalf, President and CEO
December 20, 2016

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

So much happened in 2016. It was a year that saw major progress, along with major setbacks. And the outcome of the national election raised the stakes even higher. Here’s a look at the highs and lows — and where SPUR will be focusing its energies in the new year.


What the national election means for us.

It’s pretty clear: we have to work even harder to make sure the Bay Area lives up to its potential. When we are at our best, we provide a model for the rest of the country for how to align economic prosperity, social inclusion and ecological balance. That’s a lens I use to put our work at SPUR into its larger context — a way to frame some of the big moves we need to undertake as cities in the Bay Area: investing in a transit system that really works; completing our transition to a clean energy economy; building a culture of opportunity that creates jobs for everyone and fixing our housing market so we can become a place that’s open to immigration.

The good news: our region made progress on ALL of these things in 2016. From massive transit funding to key neighborhood planning changes, from the extension of the state’s cap-and-trade carbon trading system to the continued expansion of hiring in the region, we saw tangible progress on every front.

Now more than ever, we have to fix our problems on our own — and if we do, we can lead the way for the rest of the country.

The housing shortage continues.

2016 saw lots of housing built, much of it in plan areas that SPUR proposed or worked on. But it was nowhere near enough. The fact is that housing costs remain the greatest threat to the values of the Bay Area, and the greatest failure of the model of progressivism that we are striving for. The system of hyper-local community control, which effectively gives veto power over new housing to incumbent homeowners, is failing us. We can do better.

On the bright side, we have seen the rise of an authentic grassroots YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement that is redefining the debate around development and standing up for the interests of young people, renters, immigrants and all those who believe we should allow more people the chance to have a decent place to live here. The YIMBY movement affects SPUR’s strategy in many ways, potentially providing a new audience for our policy work and a new avenue for our advocacy. We are proud to be a supporting organization for this movement.

We continue to believe that there is no need to choose between different kinds of housing — affordable or market rate, big or small, rental or ownership — because we need more housing of all kinds. We will continue to fight for more funding for affordable housing just as we fight for zoning changes to allow more capacity, working toward a region that is welcoming and affordable for people of all walks of life.

Transit makes progress.

Perhaps the region’s greatest successes of 2016 lie with public transit. Bay Area voters taxed themselves to provide more than $10 billion in transportation funding. We will see BART extend to San Jose and offer more trains between San Francisco and Oakland, Caltrain increase service and create safer crossings, and cities all over the region repave and redesign their streets.

There were also failures — especially Proposition K in San Francisco, which would have provided $150 million per year to transportation and homelessness services. The loss will be a setback for the important work of Muni Forward, an ongoing series of improvements that is already resulting in the highest Muni approval rating ever recorded.

Of course, we have a long way to go. This year, SPUR will release a major new plan for Caltrain, outlining steps to increase ridership to six times the current levels. We will move to the next level of planning for a third transbay crossing connecting the East Bay to San Francisco and the Peninsula, the lynchpin of a high-speed line that will ultimately run east to Sacramento and south to San Jose.

And most importantly, we will be working on lining up the funding to make these ideas a reality. The truth is, the voters of the Bay Area have not been given the chance to do something truly transformational for their transportation system since the BART vote in 1957. Seattle voters agreed to a $54 billion transit expansion proposal, and Los Angeles voters agreed to a $120 billion proposal. These are the kind of numbers we would need to see to build something significantly better than what we have today, and our West Coast neighbors are proving that the will of the people is there. We think it’s time to go big and actually give voters a chance to get a world-class transit system.

Cities have a critical role to play in the future of our country.

Cities are where new ideas and new companies are born, where people gather from around the world to collaborate and invent, where we develop tolerance and trust and learn to get along with those different from ourselves. Cities will power the future economy of our country, but it’s clear they’re going to have to self-fund for most of what they do. This has been a trend for a long time, and nothing about the national election changes that.

SPUR’s role is to bring the right people together to figure out what to do about urban problems. Over the next year we will be working hard on the most important issues in the Bay Area:

  • Developing a regional transportation funding measure
  • Undertaking careful neighborhood planning work in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland to enable well-designed infill development and enhance walkability
  • Fighting for housing wherever possible to address the region’s profound lack of affordable places to live
  • Launching an in-depth planning study for how to adapt to rising sea levels
  • Promoting actions to enhance social inclusion and equity, building on our Economic Prosperity Strategy

We will also be starting work on a longer-term, more visionary look at the large-scale problems the Bay Area faces. We look forward to sharing more details with you in 2017.


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