California Needs An Urban Transportation Agenda

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(Photo: A packed N Judah train. Urban transit systems are stressed, over capacity, and in need of state support.)

By Scott Wiener on September 14, 2016 at 7:00am

California is growing, and our urban centers — particularly the Bay Area and Los Angeles — are experiencing incredible growth. Our transportation systems have not kept pace, as exemplified by our packed transit systems and highly congested freeways, bridges, and roads. One has only to look at a BART, Caltrain, or Muni vehicle, the Bay Bridge, or Highway 101 during rush hour to understand this problem.

In addition to undermining our state’s economy and quality of life, our broken transportation system generates massive carbon emissions and undermines California’s aggressive carbon reduction goals. Transportation accounts for nearly 40% of carbon emissions in our state.

This challenge is statewide and regional, not just local, and it must be addressed at the state level. California must not continue down this environmentally and economically destructive path of growth accompanied by weak transit investment. Now is the time for California to adopt an urban transportation agenda — one that dramatically invests in sustainable transportation options, including public transportation, regional and state rail systems, biking, and walking, while reducing congestion on our roads and bridges and moving our vehicle fleet toward low- and no-emission.

The goal is simple and clear: reduce the number of cars on our roads, thus alleviating congestion and reducing carbon emissions. The method of getting there is equally clear: provide people with true alternatives to owning cars by making it easy to get around using other options. It’s not about eliminating cars. It’s about providing so many other great — and sustainable — options that a certain number of people will feel comfortable choosing them over a private auto.

The facts are pretty stark. Since 1980, California has grown by 16 million people (nearly doubling in size), the Bay Area has grown by 2 million, Los Angeles County has grown by 2.5 million, and San Diego County has grown by 1.5 million. Yet over the same time period, we have not even come close to keeping up in terms of transit investment. Growth isn’t about to lighten up. In the next quarter century, California is projected to grow by another 10 million. and the Bay Area by two million people. By 2025, Los Angeles is projected to be the most densely populated city in the United States.

California needs a progressive, sustainable approach to our future transportation system  —  one that provides people with options to get around easily and efficiently without owning a car or by simply driving cars less. It’s in no one’s interest  —  whether you drive, use transit, bike, or walk  —  to have another million cars on the roads of the Bay Area and millions more statewide.

Here’s what we need to have a great transportation future:

  • Creating a Statewide Rail System: No offense to Amtrak, but California lacks a true statewide rail system. It shouldn’t take more than ten hours to take a train from San Francisco to LA. We need high speed rail — a network ultimately extending from San Diego to Sacramento and connecting seamlessly to regional rail and local transit. Yes, there are many naysayers who claim it’s too expensive or difficult. Guess what: they said the same thing about BART. They also said the same thing about the Golden Gate Bridge, which had 2,300 lawsuits filed against it before it was built. Aren’t you glad we didn’t listen to the BART and bridge naysayers then? Yes, high speed rail is expensive and hard. Yes, hyperloop might be truly awesome and doable one day. But, we need true rail in California, we need it yesterday, and the state needs to remain firmly behind it.

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(Photo: A ridiculous 1966 headline in the San Francisco Chronicle lambasting the proposed BART project)

  • More State Support for Transit: The State doesn’t do nearly enough to support public transportation. Rather, state resources largely go to roads and freeways, with transit playing a distant second fiddle. The state must do more. In the Bay Area — the state’s economic engine — we have massive needs if we are going to remedy the unbearable road congestion and transit crowding we experience. We need a second transbay tube to deal with BART’s capacity issues, allow BART to run 24 hours, and connect Caltrain to Capitol Corridor to create true regional rail, and ultimately get high speed rail to the East Bay and Sacramento. We need more subways, including to western and southeastern San Francisco. We need more support for our aging systems’ capital needs. These projects aren’t optional. They are essential, and we can’t fund them just with local and regional dollars. We need state (and federal) support.
  • Better State/Regional/Local Transit and Rail Connectivity: We have 28 transit systems in the Bay Area, and they aren’t as seamlessly connected as they need to be. Some argue for mergers, but regardless of whether that happens — I’m skeptical that it ever will in a significant way— we need to integrate these systems and make it easier to transfer among them, to transfer from regional and statewide rail to local systems, and to transfer from transit to bike sharing, taxis, and ride shares. This endeavor is significant, and it is a statewide issue, since these easy and obvious transitions will allow us to have a true statewide non-freeway transportation system.
  • More Shared Vehicles and Shuttles: Key to a sustainable transportation future is reducing the number of people who own cars and allowing people who own cars to drive them less. Transit is essential, but people need access to cars even if they largely rely on transit. Widely available car sharing and scooter sharing — including on street vehicle sharing — has been proven to take cars off the roads and make it easier for people not to own cars. Easily available taxis and ride shares play a similarly critical role. And private employer shuttles supplement our transit systems (particularly now, with the over-crowding and poor connectivity we see) and reduce car ownership and thus congestion. We should encourage shuttles, not undermine them.
  • More Bike Infrastructure and More Walkable Communities: Biking and walking are key to a sustainable transportation future. More and more people are biking. Even more want to bike regularly — it’s cheaper, healthier, and at times faster than driving — but they aren’t doing so because they don’t view it as safe. We need to build out complete bike networks, with protected bike lanes, in areas throughout the state. State law needs to encourage the build out of this network — including modernizing outdated state vehicle and fire codes that obstruct safe street design and make it challenging for local communities to become more sustainable — and the state must help fund it. Moreover, our transit systems need to be bike-friendly so that people can ride on either end of their transit trip and seamlessly combine biking with transit. We also need to move aggressively toward more walkable communities. Throughout California, communities are designed purely around cars. Too many neighborhoods lack even sidewalks. Streets are excessively wide and fast, and pedestrian street crossings are an after-thought. In too many parts of California, it’s literally impossible to walk safely. The state needs to encourage good and safe street design and help communities pay for it.
  • More Low- and No-Carbon Vehicles: The goal is not to eliminate cars in California. There will always be many people who drive, whether cars or trucks. Having a portion of them choose transit will have huge benefits. For those who continue to drive, our goal must be for the vehicles to be as fuel efficient and low-carbon as possible. Moving toward an electric and hybrid fleet and dramatically reducing the amount of petroleum used in our transportation system will have immense climate and pollution benefits.
  • Paying for It: Moving toward a sustainable California transportation system won’t be cheap. Transit and rail improvements, in particular, are expensive. California has a history of shooting itself in the foot when it comes to transit funds. We must reverse course. For example, in 2003, Governor Schwarzenegger slashed the state vehicle license fee — which for 50 years had been calculated at 2% of the value of the car — by 2/3, thus depriving the state of $6 billion each and every year. That mistake must be reversed, with funds dedicated to transportation. California’s gas tax is also broken and recently was slashed due to a dysfunctional funding formula. The gas tax should go up, not down. California also needs to aggressively explore new ways of funding transportation needs, including a vehicle miles traveled fee, given that gas tax revenues will decrease over time as the fleet becomes more fuel efficient.

California is the state that built BART, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the University of California system. We know how to create visionary and transformational improvements to our state’s economy and quality of life. Let’s do it again and plan for a great and sustainable transportation future.


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