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TriplePundit Sponsored Series

Tech Titans: Community Citizens?

How We Got Into This Mess: A History of Bay Area Transportation

By Nithin Coca

“Growing congestion due to a booming economy.”

“An influx of new people into already crowded cities.”

“Rising real estate prices.”

Sounds like the San Francisco Bay Area today, no? But actually, these are clips from newspapers stories in the 1950s, when San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose saw rapid population growth due to soldiers returning from World War II and the first phase of the baby boom.

That is when the region embarked on a plan to build what was then the largest public works project in American history -- the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, now known as BART -- which opened in 1972 and is, today, a vital pipeline for the region, carrying more than 400,000 people each workday.

Today, the Bay Area is in the midst of another boom, due to the region's lucrative tech sector. The region's population has grown by 200,000 since 2010, and another 2 million are expected by 2040, while our regional transport system – highways, buses, BART and Caltrain – are already reaching peak capacity. Yet, there is little momentum for the type of massive, public works project we saw in the '50s and '60s.

Here's how we got into this mess.

Missing links

The Bay Area was initially not a single metropolitan area, but three. San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose all grew with very different political, urban and, ultimately, transport structures. Then came the suburbs.

“As suburban populations centers got more power ... they wanted to get away from [big urban areas], and so they created their own cities and transit agencies,” Rod Diridon Sr., with the Mineta Transportation Institute, told TriplePundit.

With the sprawl that came with the post-World War II population boom, these suburbs sprung up and filled in the gaps between – and spread beyond -- the three initial populations centers. Highways became a fixture in the region, and, besides BART and, to some extent, Caltrain, transit was left to the individual cities and counties that were reluctant to cede control to a regional authority.

That means, today, there are an astounding 27 different transit agencies operating across the nine counties that make up the Bay Area -- which, according to Gerry Tierney, an urban mobility expert at Perkins + Will’s San Francisco office, is one of the chief reasons we lack a comprehensive regional transportation system today.

“When you have 27 separate transit agencies, it is impossible to get coherent transportation planning that will operate on a complete Bay Area basis,” Tierney told Triple Pundit.

“We have a 19th-century political structure trying to address 21st-century problems.”

In the early 1990s, 32 regional business leaders, community activists and academics came together to push to address the region's lack of integration as part of the Bay Vision 2020.

The commission's final report, which quoted then University of California-Berkeley chairman Ira Michael Heyman, sounds incredibly prescient and is apt to the challenges facing the region today.

“As with most people in the region, we cherish the Bay Area and seek to assure its beauty, livability, economic strength, and the opportunities it affords those who live here. We have concluded, however, that these qualities are in jeopardy because we have no effective means for addressing the problems that cross city and county boundaries. Only by some changes in the structure of government in the region can we tackle increasing traffic congestion, long commutes between home and job, shortages of affordable housing, loss of valued open space to urban sprawl, predictable air pollution, and deterioration of our economic base."

The report set out an initial plan to merge the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Air Quality Management District in order to integrate planning and decisions for land-use, transportation and air quality. This would then lead to greater integration of the region's myriad transit agencies. It went to the state legislature, where it passed the House but, after intense lobbying by agencies and certain Bay Area cities, it was defeated in the Senate.

“My guess, it would put them out of business,” said Diridon, speaking of the opposition to what seems to be a common sense plan. “Instead of having three different very powerful boards, three different executive staffs, and so on and so on, you'd have one.”

“That would [have been] the first step in beginning to merge the transit agencies.”

Had the bill passed, it could have allowed a powerful regional agency to plan for the challenges now facing the region. Moreover, it could have avoided absurd situations like the one now facing Caltrain. The commuter rail between San Francisco and San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is facing a steep budget shortfall: Three of the agencies that fund it – San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara County's VTA and San Francisco's MTA -- are planning to cut subsidies, despite the fact that Caltrain is not only the region's most efficient system, but has also seen higher ridership growth than services run by the three agencies.

New, informal transit

There is another side-effect of the region's transit shortcomings: Entities setting up their own as informal systems. The most well-known of these are the controversial tech shuttles.

Before the shuttles emerged, driving was the optimal choice for those commuting to Genentech, Google and Facebook's campuses, which are far from mass transit; hours on public transit was deemed unfeasible. Many commuters don't stick to a single transit agency area, but travel across the region and across multiple jurisdictions that, to this day, don't connect, coordinate or have a combined fare structure. Shuttles were created to fill in a missing gap, and are used not only by tech companies, but aso by UC-San Francisco, Mission Bay, and even cities like Emeryville and San Leandro.

“It is estimated that up to 45 percent of non-automobile users in the peninsula are on private shuttles,” Tierney said. For Tierney, shuttles are an integral part of the region's transport picture, and are likely here to stay, but they need to work together with existing, public and private transportation infrastructure.

This shows that companies are aware of the transit challenges in the Bay Area, and it is an opportunity. Remember that crisis in the 1950s? Then, it was Bay Area business leaders who pushed for transit measures that led to BART. This time, as the region faces another challenge, it is yet to be seen if the new business tech bigwigs are willing to push for the comprehensive, regional, integrated transit system we so desperately need.

Next we'll look at initiatives and solutions to the regional transportation challenge, and what role tech companies can play in helping build coalitions for change that not only benefits them, but Silicon Valley and the Bay Area as a whole.

Image Credit: Eric Fischer via Flick

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca