A note on Bay Area planning in an age of prosperity, population growth, and climate change
Working Draft 4/24/2016
How to build a better Bay Area
The regional planning season is underway
The Bay Area is now launched on the deliberations that come every four years on major investments in regional transportation for the next 25 years. How to raise and spend public money on roads and on transit are on the table. But in an evolutionary change from the last fifty years of regional planning, the present exercise, known as Plan Bay Area 2040, also tries to address “land use planning.” That means deciding what will be built, and where it will be put in the geographic spaces served by transportation. It is done mainly through cities’ zoning decisions about where destinations such as housing, businesses, and public institutions can be located.
Building any destination will generate movement in some form, whether by rail or bus transit, by bike or on foot, or by automobiles and freeways. Obscure planners locating transportation linkages and destinations in one place or another determine how billions of trips will be made by people like you and me over the next twenty years--and whether the movements of people will be long or short, free-flowing or congested.
At last It is being recognized that land use planning, on the one hand, and building transportation linkages, on the other hand, each control each other. They cannot be handled separately. When destinations and transportation are badly aligned, enormous losses of time, energy and money are the result. Year after year, that’s your time, your energy and your money being wasted.
If you and your family don’t worry very much about climate change, or don’t mind a long, traffic-jammed commute, and are not bothered by paying a very large part of your income for your housing, there is no reason to be aware of the regional planning season now getting underway. But if you’d like some relief on those scores for yourself or your growing-up children, smart planning could improve life a lot in the Bay Area.
Naturally, within the planning and investing process, many controversies lurk. But it’s not entirely chaos. The main positions can be grouped into two broad clusters. Let’s call them the “traditionalist” and the “modernizing” perspectives.
A gateway issue is whether, for purposes of public administration, a Bay Area region really exists. Maybe this transportation and zoning decision-making is best kept in the hands of the 101 cities and nine counties that govern the Bay Area’s growing population, now about 8 million people.
Traditionalists in general cling to the the cities and towns they are familiar with, the communities that built the region, that are close to them and where they feel that their voices are heard. People with this outlook stress preserving local character and very local control, particularly for land use decisions, which have been an intensely defended prerogative of local government in California since forever. Often living in suburbs, traditionalists usually are comfortable with the familiar predominance of cars and highways, although they don’t enjoy traffic congestion and hard-to-find parking any more than anyone else.
Many modernizers focus more on the nine county Bay Area region as a whole than they do on individual cities. They want to leave behind the classic American pattern since WWII of outward horizontal growth through pushing population into car-dependent suburbs. By building in a new way in the coming period, modernizers want to midwife a major historical change in the very dispersed, tri-centric Bay Area. They generally support intensified infill in existing neighborhoods, for example, multi-story construction in commercial districts, and allowing more mother-in-law units in houses and granny cabins in yards. The long-term forward-thinkers among the modernizing regionalists believe we should push with more purposefulness and urgency into a new era in which ongoing population growth predominantly settles into well-scaled family-owned apartments in mixed-use centers, built within comfortable and safe walking distance around stations on the region’s extensive existing transit system. Some, including this writer, think that the Bay Area could create its best future, by gradually becoming essentially a network of such well-connected nodes or Center communities.
The modernizers have three main sub-camps, often overlapping:
Environmentalists see that the now “traditional” layout of much of the Bay Area, that is to say automobile and highway dependent suburban sprawl, is expensive and also unsustainable. As part of fighting climate change, the State of California is now requires regions to plan for environmental sustainability much more explicitly than in the past. (A Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) must be prepared along with the quadrennial Regional Transportation Plan (RTP.)) Particularly, many environmentalists stress that our car-based culture and transportation system is a heavy user of fossil fuels, and therefore a profuse emitter of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas (GHG). These emissions are now recognized as pollution, and as a major cause of ominous man-made climate warming.
A socially conscious “left” group of reformers focuses on the economic inequality which deeply characterizes present society in the Bay Area, even as we have become one of the richest parts of the United States. These modernizers are anxiously aware of the continuing split in traditional society into the “Two Californias,” the well-off and the poor, respectively. Reformers in this vein are aware of the great contrasts between the lives of visible, active, well-off and middle class people, and those of a very large part of the population, often members of ethnic minorities, that is poor and outside prosperity, suffering chronically, and with no relief in sight, from economic insecurity, low education, social instability and its symptoms, including crime and violence. These lives in the invisible California are painful for those enmeshed in them and they belie our beliefs and hopes that we are moving toward greater equality.
A third modernizing and regionalizing group is the economic rationalists, who want a region efficiently designed to support a prosperous economy. It is led by the Bay Area Council (BAC), which speaks for the major corporations, like Chevron and the Bank of America. The BAC played a major part in getting BART built in the 1960s and 70s. Business-oriented regionalists are concerned by the economic irrationalities, such as long congested commutes, associated with the culture of suburban sprawl and protected by localism. They are particularly concerned by the local NIMBY regulatory obstacles to building enough new housing to keep up with population growth. City by city, anti-growth or anti-density attitudes and rules restrict housing supply, and consequently are causes of the sky high housing costs that are a big liability for firms hiring and for doing business in the Bay Area.
Many are responding worldwide to urbanization and climate change
The Bay Area’s planning challenges are part of a worldwide scene in which planners, economic leaders and politicians are trying to achieve good lives for their people under great pressure in an age of population growth and urbanization. Now city and metropolitan planning is also being drawn into the mega-issue of how to stop damaging climate change.
It is being recognized as a basic fact that moving into cities itself is positive factor in reducing per capita energy use by comparison with traditional rural or suburban settings. A second emerging foundational reality is that “going renewable,” or taking big steps to protect the climate by reducing energy, and specifically fossil energy use, can be a positive investment, in the sense of being a profit-earning part of long-term economic development, rather than a pure cost for an intangible “luxury” of environmental sustainability.
This perspective is being developed and advocated particularly by an eminent international group called New Climate Economy (NCE), led by the major British economist Nicholas Stern, and a former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon. In a new report, called Better Growth, Better Climate, NCE makes the point that, contrary to conventional thinking, policies against climate change can bring large scale economic benefits rather than just the feared heavy costs. An early NCE focus is on the intersection of the world-bestriding climate change issue with another great trend of our period, urbanization. The report says, “Cities (in our case meaning metropolitan regions) are engines of economic growth... How the world’s largest and fastest growing cities develop will be critical to the future path of the global economy and climate. But much urban growth today is unplanned and unstructured with significant economic, social and environmental costs.... More compact and connected urban development, built around mass public transport, can create cities that are economically dynamic and healthier, and that have lower emissions.”
NCE says that many American cities are very badly laid out with regard to using space and energy efficiently. That makes them unnecessarily expensive and burdensome to their own citizens and the country’s economy. What they are talking about is suburban sprawl. NCE goes on: “New modelling for this report shows that the incremental external costs of sprawl in the United States are about $400 billion per year, due to increased costs of providing public services, higher capital requirements for infrastructure, lower overall resource productivity, and accident and pollution damages.”
NCE has sharpened its argument on the urban front with a 2015 report led by Todd Litman (of the Victoria Transportation Institute in Canada), which details how most cities and metropolitan regions have grown by accretion in the last seventy five years and are now cast into very inefficient patterns. Here is a remarkable graphic from NCE showing how first world cities of comparable size, Atlanta, Georgia and Barcelona, Spain, can have very different spatial extensions, and a ten times difference in carbon emissions:
NCE and many others urge us “to make connected and compact cities the preferred form of urban development, by encouraging better-managed urban growth and prioritising investments in efficient and safe mass transit systems.”
Does this logic apply to the Bay Area?
Are there lessons here for the San Francisco Bay Area as it enters a new planning cycle for Plan Bay Area 2040’s publication in 2017? Certainly yes.
Like an ocean liner, a big metropolitan region like the Bay Area (3 major cities, 9 counties and 8 million people) changes course only slowly. We have some forward impetus toward a more modern and efficient region, but we also have contrary, backward pulls, from traditionalists and vested interests, perpetuating the Balkan struggling among the cities of the region rather than seeking regional cooperation and more centralized and sounder decision-making. Such voices urge us to change as slowly as possible away from our traditional auto-based, sprawling form, denying or ignoring not only the damage its emissions do to the climate, but also sprawl’s high costs in scarce housing and congested transportation, to which we are only too inured.
In the case of the Bay Area, we are pressed by incoming population and, unlike Barcelona, we are spatially dispersed over a wide area by being built around the large Bay and major lines of hills. But we also already have an important existing regional rail system in BART, Caltrain, VTA light rail and Muni Metro.
We saw an upward tick in a long-brewing evolution toward modernity with the achievement of the first Plan Bay Area in 2013. Under new state “sustainability” legislation, this is an agreement, so far mainly on paper, among the most important regional agencies to turn future growth away from sprawl and to support development concentrated in Priority Development Areas (PDAs) close to transit. Interestingly, the main push toward such modernization came not from inside the Bay Area, but from the state government in Sacramento. There was the drive by Governors Schwartzenegger and Brown to reduce carbon emissions, but then, more directly important for the metropolitan regions, came SB 375 of 2008 from then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. SB 375, now if force, requires metro regions throughout California to think in a longer time perspective and to plan actively for sustainability and to take care of the entire population, not just the upper half. Plan Bay Area in 2013 was a first step to be prepared under the influence of SB 375. Now for 2017 the second effort, known as Plan Bay Area 2040, or PBA II is in preparation.
The relevant regional agencies have now put it on paper that they aim to reduce not only GHG emissions, but vehicle miles traveled (VMT), rather than pump up growth in auto travel which was the mantra in the old road-building decades. That’s a major turn-around in attitude--and it is being supported by the state government in Caltrans’s emerging California Transportation Plan 2040.
Where would we want to go?
What does the Bay Area need from the next twenty years of its history? To give a brief response for this planning exercise: it needs 1) to bring its carbon emissions way down, as its part in meeting a worldwide imperative, and, 2) despite a growing population, it needs to bring down the high cost of housing which is silently choking our people and our economy.
At this level of strategic generalities, it’s a simple matter: the solution to our housing cost problem is from Economics 101 and from Edward Glaeser and other economists: allow lots more housing to be built. In a second step, the solution to our sprawl and greenhouse problems is to build that housing and the accompanying economic activity in denser communities on our existing rail transit system, within comfortable and safe walking distance of stations. Our transportation needs to be more collective and public, and less private and individual, that is to say more transit-based and less automobile-dependent. In sum, we need to build a lot of Transit Oriented Development (TOD), in which a very large amount of high quality housing will be provided, and at the same time that an upgraded transit system will be strengthened through increasing the numbers of its users
This article goes beyond that to set out the additional goal of building our large volume of transit-oriented housing into a regional network of TOD communities at a very high level of quality and amenity for everyone. “Everyone” means that transit-oriented communities will attract people of all income groups, while making sure, by providing public funding as needed, that they exclude no one through inordinately high cost levels like the prices we are experiencing now in the housing market.
Not in fact an easy goal. Once we get into detailed choices and specifications, not to speak of leaving behind our traditional customs and layouts, applying simple principles obviously gets difficult and complicated.
Achieving these “urbanizing” changes, which are large ones with cultural as well as environmental and economic ramifications, now falls to the regional agencies and their Plan Bay Area team. Of course the agencies, primarily the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) have no vacation from background housekeeping responsibilities that are always present for any region, such as maintaining ongoing life and services, keeping up infrastructure, and husbanding the economy.
The hard part is to keep the focus on the central strategic task essentials and not be distracted by a multitude of secondary considerations and interests that always flourish. Holding on to a sharp task focus is what MTC and ABAG are apparently not doing now. The production of vast amounts of verbiage, handsome graphic material and public relations language for the new planning season is beginning, but it seems likely that perhaps out of a form of deference to the status quo, the regional planners are obscuring the difference between the main points, the sequoias, which are lowering GHG emissions and building housing, and the shrubbery of a multitude of process issues and secondary purposes and pieties, notably the relationship between the agencies themselves. To judge from meetings of regional bodies and a visiting State Assembly committee, decision-makers have a poor grip on the relative importance of their issues.
Box: Transportation Basics
An urbanized territory has a million kinds of trips every day. Beyond walking/biking distances, we can distinguish two kinds: 1) Trunk trips (as in a “trunk line,” or the trunk of a tree contrasted with branches), and 2) non-trunk trips, meaning all the rest.
Trunk trips are common trips made by large numbers of people who can be grouped and handled collectively, and in a sense served “wholesale.” Although the capital costs of trunk infrastructure, such as a subway or bus line, are high, economies of scale can make the per-trip cost of moving on a trunk line low, since significant numbers of people are moving collectively on them and there are big economies of scale. Most home to work trips (commutes) are trunk trips, as are radial trips in a radially organized regional network, or trips between TOD housing nodes or trips on the network of nodes. Trunk trips can be the domain of collective transportation, where “mass transit” can be effective and efficient.
Non-trunk trips are all the other movements, in a certain sense a giant miscellany or residual category. Non-trunk, or low frequency trips are more diverse and individual, and are handled “retail,” making each person-trip convenient at the moment, but structurally and ultimately much more expensive. Although in aggregate there may be far more non-trunk trips than trunk trips (here in the Bay Area, and certainly, say, in a Los Angeles), each individual non-trunk trip is of low frequency, and they have little in common, which is why they cannot be grouped and served by trunk facilities. Sideways trips in a radially organized region, multi-destination trips (since mode choice for a trip is controlled by the lowest frequency segment), trips with origins or destinations, or both, outside walkable housing or work nodes, and significantly, trips, even on a trunk route, at a low-frequency time of travel, such as late at night, are generally non-trunk trips. This is the “retail” domain of the private automobile
The attraction of the automobile is its flexibility. Combined with the road system that has been built for the car and now exists as a fixed asset, the auto can go anywhere at any time. It is genuinely an agent of personal freedom, which is part of its very deep and great appeal. It is great for non-trunk trips, which are by definition retail and singular, and indeed it functions as the default, residual mode. The problem with the car comes when it exceeds that retail residual mode in relation to a trunk transit system. The car then becomes the universal mode, as it has in most of America, and in addition to handling “retail’ individual movement, the car also is employed for trunk travel, where it is maladapted, and defeats its own purpose.
In a metropolitan region which has transit, when the private car is used for trunk travel rather than as the back-up, utility infielder for non-trunk trips, the misfit presents itself as high expense, frustrating road congestion and in the onerous burden of providing and using parking spaces, where a car spends the overwhelming majority of its time, stationary. When it is the universal solution for transportation, the car is an unspecialized mode being used for a task that has grown large enough to be handled by a specialized instrument such as a trunk transit line, and there is an inevitable sacrifice of efficiency. This dysfunction is masked by the other roles that the car has come to play in our culture: status symbol, protective personal carapace, and so forth, but the bad economic fit in an urban or metropolitan setting between the car and its most basic function of going from A to B nonetheless takes a steady toll.
Low cost, wholesale oriented Costco is gradually outcompeting and capturing many of the functions of true-retail Macy’s. Similarly, the mass private car will be inexorably forced out of cities through its own inefficiency and the operations of the fundamental. efficiency-seeking “natural" economy. But we should look ahead, see the basic logics, and plan to accomplish the transition/replacement task faster and with less pain, rather than wait passively for economic forces blindly and slowly to work their course. If this modernizing change can be made quickly, the available gains, for the entire population in money, time and quality of life, are huge.
Getting it done: The need for dialogue and high level consensus -- a strategic framework
There are many cases of large scale social decision-making that were slow, laborious and came out wrong or late or badly for lack of an agreed strategic framework ahead of time about their destination -- and perhaps cases where such a framework was available, but never crystallized and was never able to help. If the Belgians in 1950 had been able to recognize and accept as a strategic framework that in time the Congo would be Independent, they could have given independence within that framework over 20 years of preparation, rather than abruptly in 1960, achieving readiness that would have avoided the chaos and disaster of the Mobutu years.
Similarly, if the Bay Area can agree on a strategic framework for the coming period now being planned, rather than fighting yard by yard on a messy array of red-herrings and sub-issues (such as merging MTC and ABAG, or moving the MTC’s headquarters San Francisco), modernization of this magnificent region could be achieved more smoothly, effectively and efficiently, and much anguish, uncertainty and delay, be spared.
Are there basic, strategic principles or targets which could be agreed upon now in the Bay Area to frame onward development? (Let’s say at the outset that our problems are not with the guidance from Sacramento, which has been good.)
All of these fit with the relevant state legislation, notably SB 375.
- Re climate change, the region will be “carbon neutral” or close to it, as soon as possible
- The growing region will have much more housing, and housing will be less expensive
- The region will be more socially and economically egalitarian than now, not “two regions”
- The Bay Area will plan and act more as a region; city/county independence will recede
- The post-sprawl pattern laid down in PBA 2013, of both densification in PDAs, and protection of open space in PCAs, will be maintained and continued
- The region’s transportation will rely less on cars, be less traffic congested, and rely more on transit, bicycles and walking.
Each point is subject to detailed parsing and discussion, but with the exception of No. 4, all could be recognized and accepted very broadly, at least in the abstract. Once that were done, a lot of contentious subsidiary issues could be fit into their proper places or even be left behind. The principles combine in interesting ways--for example, putting 5 and 6 together clearly leads toward transit oriented development.
The Bay Area took big maturation steps in the last decade. Until perhaps 2000, we had a tacit doctrine, almost a religion, not to have a substantive strategic consensus, but rather to muddle through at the regional level, project by project, because the cities always saw the regional level as a challenge to their local turf prerogatives. Maybe, it was said, the Bay Area can simply just grow, slogging through in the traditional way according to the impulses of our 100-some cities. Under our private enterprise economic system, each city based its action on the impulses of individual households and companies and on the private development market, heavily based on financial speculation.
But now we’ve at least begun to get beyond that, in the redesign of the ABAG’s Projections survey to give it a modernizing policy orientation, in absorbing AB 32 and SB 375, and doing the first Plan Bay Area in 2013. The institution of PDAs has been achieved. That’s a big thing. Now we’re talking about the future and the next steps for the coming twenty years.
We have before us the very general problem of absorbing new population, at the same time that we continue to live our life as a big metropolitan area, keeping the economy humming, maintaining services such as health care and education, and following federal and California legislation, of which the primary point now is reducing GHGs substantially.
We can continue piecemeal, or, if we found dynamic, farsighted leadership, we can take time for reflection, for thinking about what the challenge is and where it is we want to end up twenty years from now. We could work out some centralization and transparency of our analysis and our debate. As proposed in the 1990s by the Bay Vision 2020 exercise, we can try to act more purposefully and less randomly, pulling things together into real coherence. That could lead in turn to centralization of decision-making and investment authority, in a word, for planning as a region.
For such planning, we need plenty of debate and dialogue, and should be embarking on them now.
Narrowing down from the six consensus generalities mentioned above, it is proposed here that we innovate by methodically applying two transit-oriented principles of land and transportation investing in the coming couple of decades:
1) use land and space in such a way that, rather than relying so totally on the car, the shares of walking/biking and trunk travel are maximized (i.e., systematically build so as to pull people into walkable, transit oriented nodes), and,
2) to link the nodes, maximize the capacity, frequency, and quality of public transit service on trunks. Such trunk transit can be highly specialized, and can be highly capitalized since it serves large number of people and its costs are spread over many persons and trips.
A concept underlying these walking TOD-based proposals is that as we evolve from sprawl, the region would come to be constituted into a network of nodes, or quite dense Centers, linked by high quality trunk transit.
Box: Physical structuring and rationalization before electronification
A foundational region-wide physical pattern of communities and worksites organized into walkable transit nodes should be implemented before we embark on its electronification, with driverless vehicles, the computerized sharing economy and the like, as we are currently urged to do by the Federal Government’s “Smart Cities” challenge. When it comes, the computerized “smart city” now being fostered by the Federal government will have amazing and positive possibilities. It is important that it be developed as much as possible on the sharing/exchanging model, rather that the present “private ownership of personal vehicles” model. It is also important that when the new technology comes in, rather than rescuing the old layout, it be tightly integrated with the network of clustered communities, that is, Centers. We should follow the principle of bringing the new elements of the region’s physical layout which will be constructed in the coming twenty five years into the clustered and trunk-networked Centered pattern before we overlay it with a computerized net of self driven cars or other electronic/futuristic innovations. This means, for example, that self-drive vehicles, the “horizontal elevators” serve mainly for last miles, and deliver people to trunk transit nodes rather than take them the entire distance on longer trips.
At the project and program level, working from the more general principles above, the region’s agenda should include:
-- the electrification and modernization of Caltrain and its extension in downtown San Francisco to the Transbay terminal, perhaps serving Mission Bay under a new proposed route
-- building serious, high volume transit oriented communities (TOD) around Caltrain’s stations on the Peninsula and South Bay
-- bringing California High Speed rail through the South Bay and into downtown S.F Transbay Terminal alongside Caltrain in a well integrated way,
-- bringing BART (and Muni et al) toward a full state of good repair and beyond, including better service frequencies, seismic readiness, night-time security, and some new rolling stock
-- developing walkable TOD communities in the East Bay, notably Oakland, but also other parts of Alameda and Contra Costa on a very large scale to relieve the regional housing shortage
-- improving system connectivity and also probably administrative integration, among the regions 20+ transit operators for a serious yield of better performance, as recently detailed in a SPUR study
-- dropping the pretext of “old commitments” and canceling expensive plans to build new freeway lane miles under label “Express” or “High Occupancy Toll” lanes
-- in the North Bay, bringing heavy-duty long-distance bus rapid transit to the Santa Rosa-Transbay Terminal service, with associated TOD at a few points such as San Rafael
-- speeding the diffusion of electric vehicles and their replacement of gas vehicles, enlisting the active cooperation of PG&E on this agenda
-- improving security so that there is as much confidence and ease within Centers and using the trunk system at night as in the daytime.
Box: Let’s not get absurdly ahead of ourselves
We must also keep our dialogue sensible--showing respect for our own conversation and keeping it on a coherent track. For example, even before Caltrain and HSR have been brought into downtown SF, crazily premature talk about a second transbay BART tunnel, a project that will cost at least $15 to 20 billion, is a massive red herring that merely distracts from the genuine policy and design work that we have before us. A second tunnel would be an absurdly expensive solution to the single problem of BART’s exhaustion of peak rush hour capacity between the East Bay and San Francisco for two or three hours a day. There are several other solutions for that, notably more rush hour transbay bus and even ferry service -- for which even a permanent subsidy would be far less expensive than the annual interest on the staggering capital cost of a new tunnel.
One proposed WTOD plan: The Centered Bay Area
We are aiming for region that at reasonable costs offers an urban intensity of contacts and connections, that supports a strong economy, with good settings for the development of strong neighborhood communities, and that at the same time protects privacy and seclusion, and offers green open space with room to stroll, play, or run, especially for children.
Within a general agreement on the six broad targets that are proposed for a framework consensus, and the pair of working principles touched on above, let’s propose for debate one particular potential path of TOD design and investment: the region as a network of walkable Centers.
We start in a Bay Area of three anchor cities and a remarkably extensive and rich canvas. We say that the prescription for our next twenty years of building, to be superimposed on the existing map, should be a large set of intense communities preserving open space among and within themselves. They are linked into a network by high quality, fast, frequent “trunk” transit among themselves. Call such communities “Centers”, or walking transit oriented developments (WTODs). In the aggregate call them a region of networked clusters, or a Centered Bay Area. Think of such a network as a basic successor layout to sprawl for a metro region of eight million people set in hills around a large bay.
What is a Center?
A Center is a walkable community of about 10,000 people on transit. It holds housing, worksites, services, amenities, open space—and most importantly, is built around a station on the region’s network of trunk transit.
Walking distance’ from a centrally located rail transit station can be defined as just under half a mile (2,000 feet). This radius generates a circle of about 300 acres. 10,000 people living here will be at an overall density of about 16 dwelling units per acre. To function as a genuine or “complete” community, a Center needs workplaces for a matching number of jobs and should have stores, civic, and service facilities, notably supermarkets and schools, offices and halls. Open space will be landscaped and pedestrian-friendly, with greenery, sports fields and parks.
Movement among Centers, including commuting to regional downtowns such as San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose, will be by high-frequency, high-quality transit, usually rail. The transit station can be either underground, as in Downtown Berkeley, or at grade (typical for Caltrain) or elevated (as many BART stations are). Car use and ownership will be reduced for Center residents, in some cases brought down to car sharing levels. Car movement and parking is underground (although this may not be achievable entirely at initial construction) thus making the regular surface level of the community car-free: quiet, green and safe, especially for children.
Many arrangements and architectures are possible, but as proposed here a Center is laid out on a Copenhagen, or Curitiba, “fingers of the hand” pattern. This highly-legible configuration creates a social, civilized and intensely-used set of pedestrian streets, linking residential buildings to the central plaza and transit station. The Center’s open space, in pie-slice shapes, is integrated and accessible to all the housing units outside the downtown. Open land will be used in many ways, from schoolyards to community gardens, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, tots’ playgrounds, and in the broader outer parts, soccer and softball fields, small forests or grassy open parks.
Along each pedestrian street, larger buildings are offset from each other, with a minimum distance between buildings of 150 feet to preserve window-to-window “high-rise privacy.” Privacy is also enhanced by siting buildings obliquely, as feasible.
The transit station is in the middle of the Center, surrounded by a grid of anchor stores, smaller shops and offices, and other community institutions, and by residential high-rise buildings. The surface above the underground transit station and the underground parking is a large public plaza.
Among the multi-unit residences there will be a concentration (perhaps 1.2 million sq ft) of non-residential functions in the Center’s “downtown.” Many of the residential multi-unit buildings, particularly those closer to the central transit station would have one or two stories of mixed use shops and offices on the ground and lower floors. Parking is provided, for both the cars of residents and those of transit-using commuters and others from outside the Center, in underground garages, holding about 5,500 cars in total. Auto roadways to serve the parking garages are narrow, and are underground or at below-grade levels. The Center and its garages work extremely well for the transition to electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Within the 288 acres generated by a 2000 foot walking-distance radius, the Center’s outer edge will be about eight or nine minutes on foot (three or four minutes by bicycle), from the transit station, which could be underground, elevated, or at grade. The landscaped and car-free radial walking paths converging on the station, provide for movement on foot and bike within the Center, and there is abundant green and open space well-distributed for community members’ easy use. When mixed with townhouses, slender buildings of 6, 9,or 11 residential stories should aim to provide an average of 550 square feet of living space per resident.
Why multi-unit residential buildings?
Putting housing for 10,000 people, say 4000 units, within walking distance around a significant number of the region’s roughly 100 feasible transit stations necessarily means density--this cannot be single family house territory. Density in turn means high rise buildings, if ground surface is to be preserved for open space. Today in central San Jose, where new low and high-rise multiple unit residential buildings are going up, the high-rises are the more prestigious and attractive to young renters and buyers. They pay a premium for that style of building, and within a high-rise building, pay a premium for the upper floors.
But many middle-class and suburban-oriented Americans, perhaps Californians particularly, strongly resist high-rise housing. Like all multiple-unit dwellings, high-rise buildings are often seen as down-market, and some people look upon high-rise apartment living as unnatural, ugly, and anti-human. People are aware of a high-rise world of urban ultra-cosmopolitanism, symbolized by Manhattan, and also observable in San Francisco, but not surprisingly, such housing is seen as unrelated to the ordinary people whom a Center aims to house.
Therefore, it is critical to defeat these fears by designing this density attentively and well, which can be done. Using multi-story housing, and confining motor vehicles to underground levels, as much as half or more of the Center’s land can be kept open and green for the humane value of having plants, openness and natural light around us in daily life, and also for a wide variety of specific uses, such as playing fields, community gardens, picnic grounds and more. By building much of the Center to the six-story level—providing four or five residential stories (familiar from European cities)—we could achieve the necessary density while gaining broad open space. Placing some even higher-rise buildings than that in the ‘downtown’ central section, for households without children, however, allows a further increment of green open space for the community.
Buildings as a challenge to architects: good living spaces for reasonable costs
In our culture multiple-unit buildings, apartments and condos, maybe high-rises, rather than houses, are less valued for families, so we would seem to be moving in the direction of low-income housing. But that is not what is needed, since we want to draw the entire population into the new, more energy efficient, economical and time-efficient way of life, keeping a unified society and serving people of middle and upper incomes as well as those in need (although it is recognized that lower-income people are the more intense users of transit). We also do not want Walking TODs to be adopted exclusively by the privileged, becoming high income enclaves. Because transit proximity is recognized as a plus value for housing, that could well happen if building Centers were done by the private market.
So a dense housing proposition must be created that will attract the large “middle” segments of the population, including many who are capable of bearing the costs and who have housing choices. That means building living units of substantial size, well constructed and with such features as light on more than one side. We plan to have open and green space generously available, but for such high-value land, preserving open space is again expensive. Therefore, unless there are public subsidies and cost-reducing technical breakthroughs in construction methods, a Center risks being more costly perhaps, than middle, or “workforce” people, those already frozen out by the region’s very high prices, can pay. So keeping costs as low as possible also becomes an important part of the architectural program.
Is it possible to build a high-rise building (six to fourteen stories) which will attract modern, middle-class Americans in substantial numbers? Residential structures must be designed very differently to change a pre-existing negative public image of apartment buildings.
The design challenge is to overcome these liabilities while reducing the cost of high-rise square footage, so that apartments can achieve spaciousness approaching that of houses. While keeping costs down, we want to design units that are generous, in square footage, in ceiling heights, and in abundant windowing. The prototype building for a Center as proposed here is a slender tower that will give most apartments corner locations that bring in daylight on two sides. Such buildings are perhaps best known from their success in glass-clad form in Vancouver. They will be understood to be the stable, permanent urban homes of family households, to be passed down from generation to generation as a house would be, rather than as transitory lodgings in a culture of high turnover.
For transportation, it is a great advantage for a Center resident to live very close to a trunk line. But busy trunks themselves, whether freeways, arterial streets or transit railways are also by their nature noisy, ugly, and even dangerous--no one wants to live on a secluded residential street when it becomes a crowded arterial. So, while we want residents to be close to the trunk, they must be protected from it. We want people to be very close to a trunk, but the proximity of the trunk must be mitigated, which is a major logic of putting the trunk itself underground if at all possible.
We can gain valuable land, and increase amenity and safety greatly by minimizing or removing auto circulation from the land within a transit oriented settlement, but we cannot eliminate private automobiles entirely. The obvious solution is to put the vehicles at a separate level, let us say underground, but to do this for both their circulation and their parking will require major excavation, a large scale expense. Thus, our capital costs of transit oriented housing are rising, even though in the long run, through allowing smaller expenditures on car transportation, living in TOD should be less expensive than living in the dispersed sprawl of exurbia. A certain number of people will be able and ready to pay high costs for new denser housing in good locations (clearly many in San Francisco and probably in Berkeley and parts of Oakland as well), but, region-wide, the middle segment of the market, not to speak of the lower three deciles, clearly cannot. There must be a role for public investment in Centers.
A new Bay Area as an ensemble of centers, overlaid on the present map
A network of Centers could be seen as a sort of sprinkling of modern pedestrian places set out in a dispersed way, but well linked by rail transit, on a map of the existing Bay Area. Within each Center, one walks or bikes; among the trunk-linked Centers, one travels by transit, cheaply, conveniently and without too much regard to distance. Thus, a map of the region would show it divided in a spotted pattern into two kinds of territory, like the islands of an archipelago seen from above, contrasting with a surrounding sea of auto-dependent suburban territory. It is easy to move on foot within a transit zone, which contains both housing and activity/worksites, and easy to move by rail or BRT on the trunks among them, but when one crosses out of a transit zone or a Center into the surrounding, less intense, basically suburban “sea,” the mobility world changes, and cars are needed.
For a great deal of the population and housing that the Bay Area is adding now, and will be adding through coming growth, we should build settlements like the Centers sketched above which are on trunk rail transit but are protected from it. The transportation load is re-divided in a new way between modes, such that virtually all trunk trips would be by transit, primarily by a regional rail system based on a well financed and augmented BART/Caltrain/VTA with certain bus-served spurs, and a great many local trips would be done by foot. There will be a certain amount of filling in by special vehicles, such as the bike, the Segway, and the folding MacPherson mini-vehicle. Over time, the pattern of locating housing and functions and destinations within Centers would progressively intensify as new population concentrates in the Centers. That will also reduce developmental pressure on the surrounding suburban areas. Because very many present day car trips become either walking trips locally within a center, or trunk transit trips between centers, let’s imagine that automobile travel could be cut by xx percent after a certain, say 20+ year, maturation of the system.
One purpose of the “archipelago” of Centers is to permit a person living in a Center anywhere in the Bay Area to work anywhere else in the region. Home-to-work travel by trunk rail would in fact be quite easy, even if geographically long, for anyone with both home and work located in Centers. The great improvement in regional transportation enlarges the pool of jobs for workers, while for an employer sited within the archipelago, the entire Bay Area becomes a pool of potential employees.
A person coming into a destination such as downtown San Francisco in the transit-served region, from let us say, Solano County by the Carquinez Bridge, would park his vehicle at the frontier, let us say, a BART station in Martinez and switched to transit to move about in the transit-served archipelago before returning to his car in Martinez to go home.
Centers would be built as the market and public finance could get it done, starting with the localities that desired them, the El Cerritos, not the Orindas. The idea is to make the prototypes so good that the Orindas would eventually want them and the pattern could become universal, the network intensifying itself over time as more homes, jobs and other destinations are placed within the transit served Center zones. In the meantime, there is continuing steady investment in the rail lines. To be specific about issues that are current now, Caltrain is electrified and brought downtown into the Transbay, quite possibly through Mission Bay, but without too much further dithering, and BART should gets its $3B State of Good Repair bond and also new railcars, beginning to move toward driverless trains and express tracks.
Here and Now
How can we go from the present housing and GHG crunches to a better situation, with more reasonable housing sale prices and rents, less gentrifying displacement, and firmly declining GHG emissions?
Amid the current crazy housing rents and prices, and the loud uproar about them, a first need is for widespread public recognition that the housing crisis is a regional, Bay Area matter, not a city by city one. This is an accepted verbal piety, but may not really have sunk in, especially in the fever point of San Francisco. The present challenge is about the whole region. Solutions can be sought and need to be found in the Bay Area as a whole, not in separate silo efforts confined to each of its constituent cities and towns.
This means that we need a capable regional decision-making and administrative institutional instrument to manage a large transition to a more modern, more equal, more sustainable and less expensive Bay Area. With the battle now going on between ABAG and the MTC, shaping a regional institution looks like an issue that is fully in play, but there may be less in the struggle than meets the eye. In fact, both these bodies, being composed of commission members nominated by the localities where they hold elected offices, are better reflective of the governments of the 100+ cities and counties than they are of the regional population seen as a whole. Their record is one of defensive passivity, and resisting modernization rather than reaching and implementing major policy responses to the genuine policy problems confronting the region. The regional agencies need not only resolution of the tensions among them and of the process issues on which they feast, but require a new focus on their substantive mandate to organize massive new housing supply and to shift transportation reliance away from the automobile.
Where are we now in this picture? The costs of housing in the Bay Area, most spectacularly in San Francisco itself, have gone to such a high level, along with linked issues such as gentrification and economic displacement, that it has now become a political reality that more housing, much more housing, must be permitted and built. In fact, that is starting, including the use of high-rises, although provision for lower income housing lags. It has become a political given, that more housing must be built, and that the public sector will be involved in supplying part of it at lower than market prices.
In fact, an impatient head of steam has risen to the level that some advocates are urging that housing, any housing, should be built right away to increase available supply to satiate demand and bring prices down. This is so urgent, it is being shouted, that that that it doesn’t matter where and how the housing it’s built, just get it done. (BARF, Dougherty 4/14/2016 NYT).
But this is a very shortsighted view that risks permanently inflicting on the region a lot of bad housing and living situations. Proponents of “just build anything anywhere” are ignoring the basic verity that you cannot do land use without doing transportation. The result, if their approach prevails is that they will put people in a lot of places where they will be afflicted by an unreformed transportation system, as in the case of San Leandro where dense multi-family moderate income housing is being built cheek by jowl with a high speed traffic arterial. This drive will also revive the old urge to push housing out to the sprawl periphery, such as Eastern Contra Costa. In such places, perpetual commuting and transportation expense absorbs all the family savings from the putatively lowered housing costs due to increased supply.
What is needed is that the region quickly build housing, sharply increasing its supply, but NOT that it do it randomly and haphazardly. The new housing should go onto the transit network. To some extent, understanding of this has been achieved, with Plan Bay Area and the Priority Development Areas. Now is the time for really superior architecture and city planning to enter the scene, and to show how TOD can be done within actual comfortable walking distance of the transit stop, and also in such a way that it is protected from the noise and clangor of the trunk line. This last feature of high quality TOD could be called mitigated WTOD, and the two structural features of 1) true easy walking access, and 2) mitigated negative impacts of proximity to a the trunk line (such as undergrounding the tracks and associated parking), add up to what we have called Centers.
A network of such Centers needs to be conceived on a regional, not a city basis, and for that an instrument, a regional organization is needed, as the BV 2020 people saw. But it cannot be the existing MTC-centered regional system, which, staying in the hands of the localist cities, has shaped itself to restrict and frustrate reform and growth, rather that to channel them into good long term solutions.
In fact, both heightened activity, and intelligent steering are needed--a region that encourages and facilitates growth, rather than stymies it, and at the same time, does not drive growth into the two bad forms, sprawl, and speculative helter-skelter-ism, both of which favor and prolong the domination of the mass private automobile transportation system. Rather than obstruct and frustrate growth, the needed regional agency will channel a big spate of growth toward full orientation to a vigorous and improved common transportation system, with good protection from the negative impacts from that system. In a word, Centers, and Centers for all, rather than either concentrated low-income housing or luxury, plutocratic residences.
This leads back to the current struggle about the regional instrument, or MPO. How should it come out? Firstly, the regional institution should be shaped by the needed future, not by the stalled present. The solution should not be the one that is the most impeccably comfortable for the status quo, which is the way the “merger” struggle is going on now, but one that can and will advance the Bay Area’s modernization agenda. The grip on the region of local governments and locally elected officials needs to be relaxed, which probably means that the commissioners need to be more directly elected by the regional population, ideally by region-wide slates rather than by sub-regional geographic areas, which would be the natural tendency.
There should also be a strong central executive leader, elected region-wide on the basis of a policy platform, that is to say, running for the office with an agenda/program. An early initiative of the first leader could well be developing a proposal for a region-wide vote to pass a regional housing bond on the scale of three billion dollars, which could be mixed with market funds to support growth that is transit oriented, high-quality, sustainable and egalitarian, perhaps 12-15 billion worth in total, over a time span of xx years. It would be useful to consider starting not with multiple Centers, but with one, done on a pilot basis to test out the concept and costs.