What Should Come After Plan Bay Area?

What Should Come After Plan Bay Area?

Plan Bay Area hit really stiff resistance – the opposition is now mobilized and highly organized – and primed and ready for Plan Bay Area 2.0. Some might argue that some kind of revolution is needed; instead I strongly suggest ABAG and MTC incorporate new thinking into future regional transportation plans:

1) Build Bridges & Involve Opponents

bridge-buildingABAG and MTC need to build bridges and connections with opposition leaders – to commence genuine engagement that never occurred with Plan Bay Area 1.0.

Plan Bay Area 2.0 admits that this was a grave mistake.  It should not repeat this same error in the latest version of the Plan.

2) Amend Senate Bill 375 so it does not Selectively Reduce Emissions for Cars

Senate Bill 375, a Steinberg Bill, needs to either be thrown out or amended so that instead of solely focusing on reducing the emissions of cars and light trucks, it reduces emissions from all forms of transportation. Since 2010, market forces, aided by government regulations, have resulted in the sharp decline of car emissions. Car emissions in Marin are now far lower than ferries and lower than buses. Given that SMART train ridership will be low in suburban Marin and Sonoma the train will  have higher passenger emissions per mile than cars.

election3) Allow Residents to Vote for their ABAG Representatives

There is insufficient accountability for ABAG representatives. ABAG representatives are effectively distanced from their electorates. In Marin there are three seats on ABAG (of 110). More populous areas are better represented, so if Marin and other suburban and rural areas have different needs, representatives from more urban constituencies typically trump them.

Bay area residents should be able to vote for their ABAG representatives. The choices offered might still be limited to those already serving on city councils or county boards of supervisors, but all residents should have a say in this. ABAG should divide its decisions into three subgroups representing urban, suburban and rural areas. Otherwise the representatives of urban residents will dominate decisions.

However if such voting is instituted it is vital that district boundaries respect urban boundaries. For instance Marin should not be combined into a district like San Francisco with a system based on one representative for say every million residents.

Likewise Marin should not be combined with Sonoma which appears to have a massive appetite for growth (there are 24,010 new housing units in Sonoma County SMART Train station area plans) and that got us into the economically burdening, traffic congesting, greenhouse gas increasing mess that is the SMART train.

4) Review the Role of ABAG & MTC Committees


MTC and ABAG committees wield immense, disproportionate influence

ABAG General Assembly representatives have relatively little influence on the final product. Typically they attend an annual budget rubber-stamping exercise or endorsement of a near finalized plan, rejection of which by them would create challenges such as missing mandated deadlines or exceeding budgets. Beyond this, they have little influence. The real challenge is that members of ABAG and MTC committees, especially the executive committee, have disproportionately large influence – and this is where the representation of suburban counties and small towns can be squelched.

A good way to solve this would be for the ABAG General Assembly representatives to perform the work of the ABAG executive committee.

Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey is in a very safe seat.  He serves on highly influential MTC committees. His jurisdiction, Marin District 4 is perhaps one of the lowest electorate populations of any supervisor in the Bay Area.  It is a highly gerrymandered district with tentacles stretching into Corte Madera, Larkspur, San Quentin and small parts of San Rafael. He won his seat with just 4,739 votes in his most recent 2012 victory – equivalent to the votes needed for election to a mid-sized town council.

Kinsey’s jurisdiction is practically insulated from Plan Bay Area as it is almost entirely off limits for development. While his district is insulated from growth Kinsey serves on multiple MTC and ABAG boards that serve to set policy that directs where growth should occur. No one in Marin, bar the small number living in West Marin who are insulated from overdevelopment, can vote Kinsey out. In his district Kinsey can appear a saint – where existing land protection legislation prevent growth from even being considered.

5) Ensure Research Verifies Underlying Assumptions

Challenge-AssumptionsEnsure effective representation of market realities. Plan Bay Area suffered from planning based on “whims”. Instead research needs to be conducted that validates (or disputes):

– As people hit their 30s and have families they prefer to live in larger homes, with yards, more bedrooms for their children and that do not have shared walls. They are prepared to make longer commutes to achieve this.

– Whether residents who move to high density housing in suburban (not urban) areas switch to taking transit. Whether they were already taking transit.

– How effective lowering transit fares can be with respect to increasing transit ridership, reducing transportation costs and improving social equity.

– The impact of building rail systems on transit ridership (which in Los Angeles and New York experienced consistent reduction in ridership due to pressures to meet escalating rail expenses.

– If you build housing in a suburban area such as Marin, how much of the new housing will be taken by residents who reduce their commutes? Will new residents simply find new higher paying employment centers in reach and over time (re)extend their commutes.

bus-line– People will write on a survey that they want to take transit, yet they will continue to drive cars for reasons such as convenience, saving time and arguably dignity (someone who served on the Golden Gate Transit’s Bus Passenger Advisory Committee for many years commented in a letter to the Marin Independent Journal that many won’t take transit as it is beneath their dignity.  While this is puzzling, the letter speaks truth.

Good market research should avoid asking leading questions about what form of transportation people presume to use. “Transit guilt” should be acknowledged. Instead research should focus on understanding where people want to get to, what they are transporting (children, shopping), their propensity to try alternative forms of transport (getting beyond wishful allusions to realities), how prepared they are to sacrifice their time and how their trips need to be routed. Many trips are multi-point so they are not suited to transit.


This research needs to be performed not by advocacy groups (e.g. social equity) that have a bias and seek a plan with specific outcomes, but instead by an unbiased third party research company. Plan opponents should be involved to “debug” research to ensure questions are not leading or based on “whims”.

6) Scrutinize Baseline Facts & Causality Factors

There needs to be agreement on factual fundamentals, especially proven causality factors that lead to intended changes. Instead Plan Bay Area seemed to be carried away with solving a plethora of the regions challenges – from mobility, to sustainability to social equity with causality derived from presumptions and “sounds right” logic. It makes assumptions that people want to live near where they work – assumptions disputed in published, peer reviewed, academic papers.

Wishful thinking about how to solve these challenges is where things really went awry. These are the specific areas where factual foundations need to be established:

a) Transit vs. Car Emissions

Nissan LeafThere needs to be very careful analysis of the official California Air Resources Board EMFAC emissions figures for cars and transit.  The latest figures (available before Plan Bay Area was published so they should have been incorporated) demonstrate that cars now emit less CO2 than transit per passenger mile (covered in this Planning for Reality article).  And this is even before enacted Pavley II (CAFE) legislation is accounted for that would show cars are even cleaner.

We really need to unravel/disentangle the idea that switching people to use transit instead of cars will in any meaningful way reduce emissions. If we had taken Plan Bay Area’s $57 billion in discretionary expenditures we might have used in on methods that would be 100x or even 1000x more effective at reducing emissions. E.g.

– Promoting adoption of electronic vehicles through subsidies, increasing availability of charging stations, HOV lane use, preferential parking… – encouraging people to work from home – encouraging car-pooling

b) Increasing Transit Ridership – What Has Actually Worked?

There needs to be a careful evaluation of case studies to understand how prior transit projects and fare changes have affected ridership. The Planning for Reality article “Rail the Transportation Cannibal” provides near indisputable evidence around fixed guide-rail systems suppressing ridership down, and reduced fares increasing ridership. Plan Bay Area fixated on multiple fixed guiderail projects – notably in Marin and Sonoma incentivizing development along the SMART train corridor through Priority Development Area funds. What really should be done is instead of throwing billions at more fixed guide-rail projects that are ineffective (apart from a limited number of arterials that merit rail are already served by systems such as CalTrain) we should have reduced transit fares.

c) Consider Population Growth Constraints & Carrying Capacity

Drought Risk, Mar 2014

Click for larger image

I met with Stephen Levy who drove the Plan Bay Area population projections. He himself told me that he considered that the Bay Area would face equivalent and equal constraints to any other region. This flies in the face of drought maps that demonstrate how severe droughts are in the western US right now (whereas in the East things are much better). What’s more 82% of Marin’s land is protected from development.

We certainly should plan for population growth – but the ABAG figures are simply so far from other projections including the State of California’s Department of Finance that they have lost credibility and appear to serve the self-interests of a number of groups – from developers, to regional agencies swelling grants and influence.

d) Drop the Fixation on High Density Housing 

high-densityYes, high density housing maximizes profit margins for developers and provides jobs to unions wanting big construction projects (new sewers, roads, etc…) . And it may be a fit for existing urban locations.

For suburban locations we should instead be providing subsidies to encourage development of building conversions, second units and low-density infill.

e) Acknowledge TOD May Be Incompatible with Good Health

One of the most significant issues with the transit oriented development approach was the need to place housing immediately adjacent to transit hubs – which often meant placement near freeways or busy roads. The academic body of evidence demonstrating that this is unhealthy is very strong indeed.

The author believes it is time to move beyond transit oriented development and embrace housing locations that still give residents access to transit, but that are away from harmful pollution and noise (e.g. train horns sounding at 5:30am, noisy passengers leaving a station after returning from a night out on the town).

f) Plan for Housing Types that are Genuinely Needed
Instead of attempting new, social experiments to build housing for the local workforce, who for many reasons may choose to live elsewhere (want a larger home, a yard for kids to play in, multiple earners, family…) we should focus on more acute needs – in Marin that means senior housing (amongst other needs)

g) Expand Housing Types that Can Count Towards Quotas
Current Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) policy and quotas favor large-scale development benefiting developers and public unions. Second units and conversions should be counted towards meeting these quotas.

7) Optimize Approaches for Urban, Suburban and Rural Areas

While there certainly need to be consistencies across the entire region about linking up transportation, Plan Bay Area suffered from over fixation on one-size fits all housing solutions. In Marin (and arguably other locations) this was further distorted by mis-categorizing a suburban and rural area as urban.

In urban areas high density housing may be a good fit, but in suburban and rural areas housing needs should avoid causing a small town to lose its character. A balance can be struck using a variety of tools to subsidize and encourage second units, building conversions and low-density infill.

Instead of Sacramento working to streamline CEQA to abolish barriers to transit oriented high density development we should be working in suburban and rural areas to reduce red tape and fees preventing second units.

8) We Live in the Region Leading the World With Technology – So Embrace Technology


The Forthcoming Tesla Model X SUV

Finally every month a company in the Bay Area seems to deliver a new groundbreaking transportation technology – we should be considering technological change in the plan – change that is especially advancing the falsely maligned automobile:

– Google launched a prototype self driving car – the technology for self driving cars is approaching being market ready. Computers are far better at driving than humans. Self driving cars can help eliminate human created freeway slow downs – where people over-compensate when braking and accelerating, or switch between lanes. Self-driving can help eliminate human created freeway slowdowns where drivers over-compensate when brkaing, accelerating or switch between lanes. Experts foresee that this technology can increasing freeway lane capacity nearly threefold.

– Tesla is slated to launch the new Model-X SUV in 2015. This zero (direct) emission electric vehicle is rumored to be offered at a much more reasonable price than the Model-S – possibly sub $40,000 putting them in reach of the mass market. Whether these highly efficient vehicles are actually delivered by Tesla or other car manufacturers using Lithium-ion batteries produced from Tesla’s forthcoming plant is immaterial – Bay Area companies are helping produce cars with far lower emissions than transit.

– A plethora of apps are emerging that promote carpooling.

Most Important of All: An Open and Honest Process

Finally by far the most important thing is that if there is another regional plan the process will need to go out of its way to demonstrate that it is open, inclusive and honest. In this respect the process followed by Plan Bay Area has caused near irreversible damage such that there is a fundamental and growing loss of trust. There’s nothing wrong with regional planning – but it needs to be done right.