Street Fight: Plan Bay Area falls short of a worthy goal

Plan Bay Area was the subject of a Guardian cover story on May 28 and public forum on June 12.

Last week’s adoption of Plan Bay Area by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission was a watershed moment in regional planning. The plan links regional planning to state policies mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and aims to limit future sprawl by accommodating 2.1 million people, 1 million jobs, and 660,000 housing units largely within the existing built-up areas of the nine-county region.

Newly designated priority development areas (PDAs) will enable modest-density, walkable development in city and suburb alike, while preserving both existing single-family neighborhoods and open space. In a time of urgent need to address global warming, the Bay Area has once again proved a leader by enabling compact housing around transit, and its supporting studies expect the per capita greenhouse gas emissions from driving to decline by 15 percent in 2040.

This will not save the world and it’s not without some challenging byproducts — such as preventing displacement of low-income residents from San Francisco and other urban centers — but it is a start. And in a nation hell-bent on denying the urgency of global warming, it is refreshing and inspiring that someone, somewhere, is trying to do something.   

Yet the transportation component – the lynchpin and impetus of Plan Bay Area, according to many local leaders –is mediocre, uninspiring, and inadequate.  Despite land use policies enabling compact development, 80 percent of all travel in the Bay Area will still be in cars in 2040, not much different from today, and far short of the real change that is needed in this time of urgency. With 2 million more people, this is a recipe for gridlock, inequity, and ecological disaster – not sound public policy. 

 It should be no surprise that a big part of the problem is funding. The MTC, charged with assessing future regional transit potential, identifies just $289 billion between now and 2040 for roads, bridges, and transit — far short of what’s needed.  At $10.3 billion a year that may seem like a lot, but upwards of 87 percent of this is already committed to maintenance of existing roads and transit– not transit capacity expansion.  New homes and jobs might be focused around BART and Caltrain stations, but because there’s no real capacity expansion, the current iteration of Plan Bay Area can’t even reach its own modest goal of 74 percent of trips by car in 2040. 

With 2 million more people, cumulative emissions from driving will actually increase by 18 percent because so few new residents will be able to squeeze onto our already crowded transit systems.  Today BART is breaking ridership records but it is crowded. Extensions to far flung suburbs might be worthwhile but they don’t expand capacity in the system’s core. What we need is a second BART line and/or Amtrak service between San Francisco and Oakland, but this is absent from the plan. Meanwhile, most mainline Muni buses and railcars are currently jam-packed, yet San Francisco is somehow expected to absorb 92,000 housing units in Plan Bay Area.

Supervisors David Campos and Scott Weiner, representing San Francisco in the Plan Bay Area process, are to be commended for drawing attention to the transit problem and for asking MTC staff to show how to meet future funding gaps. By broaching the subject, they show that San Francisco might be poised to lead on this critical issue. But Campos and Weiner, working within the “fiscally constrained envelope” as framed by MTC planners, were only seeking to cover deficits for existing service – not visionary expanded service.  In the end, there was no real vision for adequate transit capacity expansion.

This foretells a troubling transit future – and one that will likely be more and more private. While many San Franciscans decry the proliferation of Google buses and other private corporate shuttles hogging Muni stops, these buses do lay bare the transit conundrum in the Bay Area. Without well-funded, visionary capacity expansion of public transit, those with the means (and high wage jobs) will shift to private buses while everyone else is left to duke it out on crowded highways, buses, and trains.

This conundrum demands that progressives in the Bay Area ramp up their transit politics to lead locally and nationally. The debate about transit finance needs to be redirected – away from regressive local sales tax measures (which often include more roads) back towards more progressive measures, such as transit assessment districts – which could require developers who profit from Plan Bay Area’s growth incentives to adequately finance transit expansion.

The debate needs to move away from demonizing public transit employees to a discussion of the role and responsibility of corporate health care, banks, and the real estate industry in causing economic instability (which has harmed public transit finance more in the last decade than a bus driver expecting a living wage and healthcare). The debate needs to move away from creating new roadway capacity, such as exclusive toll lanes, and focus on how to convert existing highway lanes into transit-only lanes with fast, frequent, reliable regional bus service open to all.

Plan Bay Area is a living document, a work in progress. Within the next four-five years it will need to be revised and can be improved.  The current version of the plan, weak on transit funding, has been dominated by a loud, irrational mob of Tea Party cranks bent on sabotaging anything that hints of progressive ideas. They were successful in diluting Plan Bay Area. While a smattering of progressive transit activists showed up and attempted to shape the plan, next time the plan needs a broader progressive movement — including housing, social justice, and environmental activists — to demand a truly visionary transportation plan.


Jason Henderson is a geography professor at San Francisco State University and the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. We’ll be sharing his perspective regularly in the Bay Guardian.


By 2040, most of the Bay Area's budget will get sucked up paying out pension and healthcare benefits to public sector workers and retirees. There will be little left for grandiose transit projects.

If we get HSR and Central Subway working by then, we can probably consider ourselves lucky.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 22, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

Then just goes in with the usual boiler plate.

"Hazza I live in a vacuum."

Posted by matlock on Jul. 22, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

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Posted by on Jul. 23, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

While this article is still slightly critical of Plan Bay Area, where is the outrage I heard at the town hall meeting called by the Bay Guardian at the LGBT Center about the Plan glossing over the fact that it will displace 32% of current SFers while increasing its population by 38% and only increasing public transit use (significant impetus for Plan Bay Area) by 3%? And where is the guidance for future participation in shaping this now-adopted document? So much for SFBG keeping its activist edge without Tim Redmond.....

Posted by Guest Shannon on Jul. 23, 2013 @ 4:24 am

Outraged polemics have their place, particularly before a plan is approved, and so do reasoned critiques. And we want them all the pages of the Guardian. The goal is to provide information and stimulate discussions that promote a more informed and engaged citizenry, and we plan to offer a few different pathways to that goal. But don't worry, I've been known to pound on the outrage button before, and I'm sure I will find cause to do so again in the near future.

Posted by steven on Jul. 23, 2013 @ 9:44 am

if considered as an annual rate, is quite a normal rate of turnover and nothing to get outraged about.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 23, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

The problem is the co-op of local government towards private interests like the SFSU-CSU master plan and Parkmerced Vision projects where the real Tier 5 a sit impacts, routing and options for a direct daly city connection are ignored and glossed over.

There was a prior joint agreement with Csu which amounted to zero contribution when the largest impacts on the cities western side is traffic transit and parking concerns from Csu. The parkmerced developer gets to direct transit routing vs. the shortest most direct route. instead of looking at stonestowns empty parking lots and alternative routing like the L line up Sloat blvd by stern grove and though stonestown to link loop and provide new connectivity in transit hubs and intermodal methods, we get stuck with a dead end extension into parkmerced, awaiting for tier 5 level funding that may never come, and may ignore the best routing....

Posted by Goodmaab50 on Jul. 23, 2013 @ 9:14 am

Another 92,000 housing units in San Francisco? Any plan with that assumption is whacked. Never gonna happen. Not even if they eliminate up the Building Permit department.

Posted by Richmondman on Jul. 23, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

"The debate needs to move away from demonizing public transit employees to a discussion of the role and responsibility of corporate health care, banks, and the real estate industry in causing economic instability (which has harmed public transit finance more in the last decade than a bus driver expecting a living wage and healthcare)."

You may as well move the debate to the role and responsibility of angry gods in causing our woes

Posted by Guest on Jul. 23, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

$170,000 is the median compensation package for BART workers, including part-timers and people who worked less than one year. Bullshit. Go ahead and strike. If there is a long strike, there will be a no-strike clause in the next contract. Or replacement workers.

Posted by Richmondman on Jul. 24, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

The debate is over whether voters want to all in line with the plan our leaders just signed us up for, or vote them out of office and scrap it. Should we allow ourselves to be displaced and replaced with people who want to live in stack and pack housing? We are not against all development, just over development and imposed lifestyle changes. We came here because we like it the way it is, not because we want to change it.

A question for those who want to rid the city of cars - What is your exit plan when disaster strikes? Are you going to walk, swim or bike out of here or scramble for a shared vehicle? What will you be taking with you when you go? A car can hold a lot more food and supplies than a bike.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 23, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

uh yeah, cuz the voters ever have anything but their own selfish interests in mind. Especially in CA.
Prop 8?
If it was up to the voters in SF, and particularly the ones that wank to this paper, all construction that wasnt funneled into any one of several non profit development corps would be halted in SF.
The voters.. they are not smart people.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 25, 2013 @ 11:21 am

If we want to really succeed at moving the dial, we need better reporting of what happens in the halls of MTC and the local Congestion Management Agencies. That means local news and bloggers. Streetsblog is extremely SF-centric; Vibrant Bay Area is still struggling to get writers (hint hint); and local papers tend toward sensationalism instead of analysis.

Posted by David Edmondson on Jul. 26, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

The notion that if you build a bunch of teeny weeny condos and park a few hundred of them in front of a bus stop it will magically cause people to give up their automobiles is nuts. If anything, if you give somebody a low rent apartment, the first thing he or she will do is buy a car with the money they save.

SB 375 was nothing but a payoff offers to development and realty lobbies by a corrupt Sacramento legislature. What is it that the marriage of government power and corporate money is called. Oh, that's right. Fascism.

Posted by Guest Eric Maundry on Jul. 31, 2013 @ 6:09 am

People did vote for the people who appointed the people who made this plan.

So if you don't like it, it's your fault.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 31, 2013 @ 6:21 am

San Francisco is already zoned out to almost all of what is called for by Plan Bay Area thanks to Market Octavia, Eastern Neighborhoods and the redevelopment rezoning at Bayview and Hunters Point.

San Francisco has no intention of funding transit to handle existing loads much less hundreds of thousands of new residents.

I don't understand how proponents who urged passage of these ill-advised, developer-friendly plans can be taken seriously complaining about the lack of follow through on transit investment.

The only way to get the transit investment to bring the current system up to spec and to build it out to handle existing loads is to condition discretionary entitlements on fully identified transit funding. Otherwise, the boosters will crow that their housing is needed, the developers will take their profits and fly by night, and San Franciscans will be left holding the bag.

As an anarchist, I look forward to the Bay Area's economy melting down due to transit gridlock. Bring on the decline!

Posted by marcos on Jul. 31, 2013 @ 6:50 am

SOMA, the Market Street corridor or other close-in neighborhoods where people can walk, or bike, or take existing transit services perhaps at more staggered times, or use the new capacity being built out e.g. the Central Subway.

Also, household sizes have generally been getting smaller, and in fact there are relatively few kids in SF any more. So the net addition of new population could easily be less than that implied by the number of new homes.

Finally, many of these newcomers have jobs outside of SF, so the only SF transit resources they will be using are the south-facing freeways and, as we see with the google buses, that doesn't mean lots of extra car journeys.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 31, 2013 @ 7:25 am

The numbers do not lie, but you do.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 31, 2013 @ 7:34 am

Then I know I have won the debate.

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