Issue 529 to

A New Plan for the Region

The region adopted Plan Bay Area, a major step forward that puts transportation money behind a clear land use vision.

Urbanist Article

What happened:

Two Bay Area regional planning agencies adopted Plan Bay Area, which combines a relatively compact land use vision for 2 million more people and 1 million jobs with $290 billion in transportation investments through 2040.

What it means:

Plan Bay Area is the Bay Area’s implementation of the land use portion of California’s climate change law, which projects a 15 percent reduction in perperson greenhouse gas emissions from driving less as required by CA Senate Bill 375 (2008).

The plan is a major step forward in that it puts transportation money behind a clear land use vision. But the process of producing Plan Bay Area also revealed weaknesses in regional planning. In particular, there is too little money for the region’s transportation needs and too few tools to enact the land use vision.

Plan Bay Area paints a picture of a Bay Area with more transit service and ridership, less auto dependency, broad-based job growth and new development around transit in many communities, such as cities like Oakland that have missed some of the recent real estate cycles. It plans for some growth in communities toward the edges of the Bay Area, but it assumes little greenfield development (long critiqued as producing sprawl) and funds no new highways (except additional HOT lanes, which are new carpool lanes that allow single-occupant vehicles to pay to use). It directs 90 percent of transportation funds into the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

The plan also offers an updated way to analyze transportation investments to see how they would perform (using a traditional cost-benefit approach as well as assessing whether they support or undermine important regional goals). As a result of this analysis, some transportation projects that would run counter to the plan’s goals (e.g, would result in more driving) were deliberately not funded.

Overall, it’s a great vision for the region, but there are several issues that reveal the weaknesses in regional planning:

1. The tools to implement the plan’s vision are limited. Successful implementation requires a robust economy and local governments that will zone and approve good development, but the regional agencies lack the authority or tools to do this.

2. There’s not enough money to do what’s needed. The plan acknowledged nearly $20 billion in unmet needs for transit capital projects alone — most of which is just to keep the system in a state of good repair, let alone ensure that BART, Caltrain, Muni and other systems can carry hundreds of thousands more daily riders. The only big sources of new funding are from an additional bridge toll and cap-and-trade revenues, which won’t be enough.

The plan also assumes that federal spending will remain at current levels (the federal portion of the bill is $33 billion over 28 years), and grow by 3 percent annually.  But the future of federal transportation spending will be different. The Feds are incapable of fixing the gas tax, which is declining in value as cars become more efficient. The sooner we acknowledge these realities, the sooner we can develop new local funding sources such as expanded road pricing or tolls that could be controlled regionally.

3. The growth may not happen in the places projected. The plan focuses growth in places with transit while making no changes to the underlying power of local governments to control every land use decision. 

4. The plan lacks any power to affect the real estate market. Some areas with lots of projected growth — like Oakland (projected to add over 51,000 housing units)– have seen major rent increases but have yet to see much housing or job growth since the Great Recession. San Francisco may easily reach its unambitious growth targets (its housing target of 92,000 units is almost equal to what the city has already planned for and thus does not push the city to plan for additional growth), but other cities may not. If growth remains elusive in the central, transit-served markets identified as “Priority Development Areas,” it will go elsewhere — either to greenfield environments at the region’s edge (undermining our region’s environmental goals) or to other regions altogether (undermining the job growth needs of our region).

5. The plan does not have a coherent vision for outlying areas like Santa Rosa and Solano County. Plan Bay Area leaves unresolved some difficult questions stemming from the Bay Area’s size and diversity. The essentially urban-coreoriented, anti-sprawl framework does not always fit the diverse geographies and socioeconomic conditions of the nine-county region where demand remains strong for low-density development.

6. Many residents do not feel as if they are actually part of the Bay Area and prefer to identify instead with their neighborhood or small town. As a result, communities are often not able to see how the impacts of climate change require that the region work cooperatively. Some also feel that their way of life is threatened if new development takes place as discussed in Plan Bay Area, despite the plan’s unstated goal of protecting single-family neighborhoods from intense development. It is hard to accept the logic of density along transit corridors and the need for affordable housing if you have no sense of shared responsibility.

What happens next

Plan Bay Area will be updated every four years. Simplifying the 2017 update could make it more easy to understand.  Some of the controversy around the plan (see p. 16) may have come from the complexity of following the three-yearlong planning process. Among the topics that should be further explored in the 2017 plan are:

  • How to better connect and unify the region’s 27 transit operators.
  • How to balance inefficient and costly transportation expansion projects with smaller-scale investments that may benefit more people.
  • How emerging systems (i.e., driverless cars) will change our transportation needs. 
  • How to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
  • How to manage the tension between housing development and goods movement in areas of poor air quality, and how to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the alternatives.
  • How to respond to concerns about a shrinking middle class.
  • How land use policies and transportation investments can connect workers — particularly the lowest-wage earners — to better jobs.

Ultimately, Plan Bay Area is only as good as its supporters. Since all land use power resides locally, the best measure of the plan’s success will be if local government staff and elected officials support and champion the regional approach to growth.

Egon Terplan is SPUR’s regional planning director.

Imron Bhatti is a research intern at SPUR.