Traffic at the U.S. 101-Interstate 80 split south of downtown San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
As part of our series, Boomtown, we're answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. Our first one comes from Chris Tann, who lives in south San Jose and gets stuck in congestion when he commutes alone to his job in Cupertino on Highway 85.
"When will the city and county planners actually think more than a few years ahead, and put in place the necessary changes to bring Bay Area transportation, both roads and public transit, into the 21st century?"
Bay Area transportation planners are actually looking many decades into the future, but the changes, as an Orinda city official once put it, will be "evolutionary rather than revolutionary."
Moving more people around the Bay Area will require us to make better use of our current infrastructure, expand public transit, build dense housing around transit corridors and make the streets safer for people to bike and walk, according to three experts who study Bay Area transportation.
Express toll lanes, modern trains, buses that run faster and more frequently, protected bike lane networks and communities designed to give people more options to get around are the future. Getting there is going to take a long time, a ton of money and lots of political will.
"The Bay Area has the most robust transit system west of the Mississippi, and we need to build on that strength," says Jeff Hobson, deputy director of TransForm. "We need to use our existing infrastructure better because that’s the cheapest way of serving more people, that’s the most cost-effective way of serving more people."
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission confirms traffic congestion has gone up in the last six months, a sign the economy is booming. Traffic on the Bay Bridge is the highest it's ever been, while highway congestion across the region has remained relatively steady over the years. There's not going to be a quick fix to the Bay Area's traffic woes akin to the highway boom of the 1950s.
"We don’t want to build our way out of this crisis," says Randy Rentschler, the MTC's legislative and public affairs director. "We need some strategic investment, we do. We need to fix some highways, we do. We need to widen some, fix some interchanges, we do. But we don’t want it to be what we are only doing here in the Bay Area."
Express Lane Network
One way transportation planners want to help ease the commute for drivers is by building a 550-mile network of express toll lanes, not expected to be completed until 2035. In express lanes, solo drivers pay fluctuating FasTrak tolls based on traffic while carpools, vanpools, buses and other eligible vehicles use them for free.
It will take a few decades to complete the network, but work is underway. There are now express lanes on southbound Interstate 680 between Sunol and San Jose, and on State Route 237 between Milpitas and San Jose. Two new lanes are being constructed on Interstate 580 between Livermore and Dublin. Chris Tann can expect an express route on Highway 85 sometime in 2016.
Of course, express lanes don't benefit every solo driver. They benefit those who can pay. TransForm, which advocates giving people of all income levels more options to get around, has urged MTC to consider ways for low-income drivers to get discounts.
In a 2013 report, TransForm suggests toll money be used to expand bus service, instead of building more highway lanes. Existing lanes could be converted to express routes, the report says. The money could then be used to ramp up a network of public transit buses that would use the same express lanes, and move more people.
Building Housing By Transit
Chris Tann is like a lot of commuters in Silicon Valley who don't live close to work, and for whom a bus or train is not always an easy option. The built environment encourages people to drive. Private tech shuttles are one response to the lack of convenient, reliable transit.
Plan Bay Area, which provides a long-range transportation and housing vision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourages new housing along transit corridors so people have the option of taking a bus or train, instead of driving.
Two-thirds of new housing production will be focused on the 15 Bay Area cities expecting the most growth. Topping the list are San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, and cities mostly on the Peninsula and in the South Bay.
Whether the new housing will benefit people of all income levels remains to be seen. Bay Area cities are drastically behind on their affordable housing goals, and it will take many years to catch up, barring bold action.
Expanding Public Transit
A bullet train that whisks you from the new Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco to Los Angeles. A quiet, sleek BART train that runs 24 hours in a second Transbay Tube. A Muni bus that glides from Union Square to the Outer Richmond in a dedicated transit lane. An AC Transit bus that zips you from San Leandro to downtown Oakland. Transportation planners have got some big transit projects in the works, but some will take decades to complete. However, there is some relief on the horizon.
Bus rapid transit: By 2018, the first rapid bus lines in the Bay Area should be up and running in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco. Bus rapid transit works well because it frees buses from car traffic, allowing them to run faster in their own lanes. Level platforms and easy payment options allow seamless boarding for everyone.
BART: BART's $3 billion fleet of the future will come in installments over several years. The first cars should be running sometime in 2017, but all 775 cars won't be fully integrated into the system until 2021, when the average number of weekday fare-gate exits is expected to increase from 400,000 to 500,000. BART service to Silicon Valley should be partially complete by 2017, but it's not expected to extend all the way to downtown San Jose until 2025. Building a second Transbay Tube is gaining political support, but is still decades away. While 24-hour service isn't in the foreseeable future, BART has beefed up overnight transbay bus service.
Muni: The Bay Area's largest transit system is also updating its fleet of buses and trains, and planning a rapid system that carries up to 70 percent of passengers. That involves making its most popular lines more reliable and efficient, and street changes that allow buses and trains to run quicker. Big projects include bus rapid transit on Van Ness and Geary, and the Central Subway, now under construction and expected to start service in 2019.
Caltrain: Caltrain is planning to electrify its tracks to run smoother, faster, quieter service with a new fleet of electric trains by 2021 that will replace most of its current diesel fleet. That's not much consolation to Caltrain's growing number of riders, but in the meantime it is planning to run longer trains with cars it recently purchased from Metrolink in Southern California, which will also add more capacity for riders with bikes.
Smart: North Bay transportation officials are currently constructing the first phase of a 70-mile train and bicycle corridor from Larkspur to Cloverdale known as SMART. The first leg from Santa Rosa to San Rafael is expected to be complete by late 2016.
The Bay Area doesn't need another highway boom, but what it does need is a boom in bicycle infrastructure, says Bay Area bike advocate Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition.
Connectivity is key. Building low-stress protected bike lane networks around the Bay Area that connect to transit hubs is one way governments can get the best bang for their transportation buck: it's cheaper and healthier.
"Every dollar invested in bike infrastructure comes back to you many times, whereas every dollar invested in transit infrastructure compels further expense in operating. Every dollar invested in motor vehicle infrastructure compels further expense in environmental mitigation and health," says Snyder.
"There's no reason," he continues, "why any agency should be pinching pennies when it comes to bike infrastructure. That's the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish."
Some Bay Area transportation agencies do have new funding to improve street safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, thanks to voter-approved funding measures in Alameda County and San Francisco. That money will help fix potholes and redesign streets that are hostile to people biking and walking. Similar measures may eventually go before voters in other Bay Area counties, says Hobson.
However, no city or county except Alameda has the funding to actually build out a 21st century bike network over the next 10 years or more, says Snyder.
Getting transit and safe streets projects approved, funded and built in the Bay Area can be a big challenge. Projects face opposition and get watered down. Or sometimes they become mired in bureaucracy, and sit on shelves for years until transportation officials have the political capital to move them forward.
"Folks say they want things but then there’s a whole host of people who say they don’t, and the big challenge in the Bay Area is to try to find a consensus where people can reasonably agree, even though we’re always going to have lawsuits and difficulties," says Rentschler of the MTC.
So, the bottom line: Change will come in increments, but it will take many years to get our transportation system into the 21st century.
Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.