Priority Development in the Bay Area
Tech jobs have driven a boom in the Bay Area, home to 7.7 million people and almost 4 million jobs. The employees of the more than five thousand tech firms like Google, Facebook, Uber, AirBnB, Intel and Apple spend more money on everything, increasing jobs in industries from retail to construction and education to healthcare. The dot-com boom of the nineties reached a peak employment in the year 2000; with the dot-com bust it took fifteen years to recover.
Tech and the Bay Area may be heading for another bust. Tech employment is flat in Silicon Valley, while tech job growth surges in Seattle, Washington DC, Denver, Austin, and even Detroit. Soaring housing costs and killer commutes in gridlock traffic are causing employers and employees to look to other states. Housing supply lags demand, causing high-income workers drive up prices and rentals until they are unaffordable for teachers, emergency responders, bus drivers, and all that make cities livable. Inequality and homelessness are at crisis levels. In the 7,000 square mile Bay Area, only 20,000 housing units are added annually. Needed are three times that many.
Regional Plan and Governance
Regional plans and governance are taking a greater role in economic growth, jobs, more affordable housing, and moving from current sprawl and gridlocked freeways to more walkable mixed-use neighborhoods and better mobility.
The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is the regional planning agency and Council of Governments for the nine counties and 101 cities and towns of the San Francisco Bay Region. The region encompasses Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma counties. The association closely coordinates with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission which controls much of the region’s transportation funding, maintenance, and projects. Both have boards representing the counties and major cities.
Plan Bay Area 2040 is the region’s plan for better transportation, land use, and reduction of carbon emissions.
Priority Development and Conservation
The California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375) requires the state’s 18 major regions, like the Bay Area, to have integrated plans for development, transportation, and emissions. SB 375 calls for Priority Conservation Areas (PCA) to protect against development of open spaces and natural treasurers. PCAs protect areas like Golden Gate Park, the Marin Headlands, and open spaces. Most importantly, PCAs have stopped cities from continuing to fill the San Francisco Bay, shrinking the bay as the cities expand their size and tax base.
SB 375 also calls for Priority Development Areas (PDA) to encourage mixed-use development near rail and transit centers. The good news is that most PDAs are in areas that already have urban density and good transit. The bad news is that most of these areas will be below sea level in a few decades. In fact, most are in areas that were underwater for months after the Great Flood of 1862 and are vulnerable to future floods and seismic triggered storm surges. Most PDAs are on land recovered from the bay; with skyscrapers on land that could liquify in a major earthquake. Needed is more development near transit centers at elevations greater than 30 feet, including walkable transit-connected suburbs.
Like most of America, most Bay Area commuting is done in cars with solo drivers. The region has 28 transit agencies, with redundant costs, overlapping commuter services, and inefficiencies that are causing lost ridership. As an experiment while research this article, I took a trip that required five hours roundtrip and five transit operators; I could have driven the round trip in my electric car in 80 minutes.
Yet, innovative mobility is being tested and implemented. In a former quiet area of San Jose, the region’s only city with one million population, Diridon Station is becoming the hub that interconnects California High Speed Rail with Caltrain and BART commuter rail, with Amtrak, with bus rapid transit, with other public and private bus and shuttle providers, taxi and ride hailing services, bike and scooter shared services, and even tests of autonomous vehicle services.
Alphabet, the parent company of Google, YouTube, Maps, and other companies, is currently headquartered in Mountain View in a shoreline area vulnerable to sea rise and flooding. Most workers currently commute on gridlocked highways to this tech campus. Alphabet recently secured approval to build a massive mixed-use development at Diridon Station. The San Jose station is at 92-foot elevation. Twenty thousand Alphabet employees will have the opportunity to work and live at the new location, 15 miles from the current Mountain View HQ.
At Sanford University, in the City of Palo Alto, autonomous vehicles have clocked over a million miles and continuously improved. Global major automakers have research centers with thousands of brilliant engineers developing the hardware and software for autonomous, connected, shared, and electric (ACES) mobility. Yes, car makers are thinking beyond the car, exploring a wide range of mobility-as-a-service.
In the suburban city of Concord, in Contra Costa county, the GoMentum Station is the nation’s largest secure testing facility for autonomous and connected vehicle technology. The Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) is thinking beyond the bus. CCTA and partners lead a collaborative effort at GoMentum Station, bringing together automobile manufacturers, communications companies, technology companies, researchers and public agencies with the aim of accelerating the next generation of transportation technologies.
GoMentum Station is a public-private partnership that includes Lyft, Sumitomo Electric, and other collaborators. Level 5 autonomous vehicles (AV), from cars to 12-passenger shuttles, are tested and improved in the five-thousand-acre geofenced station. The research and testing is of keen interest to Lyft investors including GM, Ford, and Alphabet, which also owns shuttle service provider Waymo.
On public streets, these 12-passenger AV shuttles are tested taking riders from Bishop Ranch, a car-oriented suburb, to a BART commuter rail station 10 miles away. AV shuttles could provide suburbs with better last-mile solutions than 40-foot buses which are too expensive to run in suburbs with the frequency needed to get people out of cars.
Walkable Cities Connected to Walkable Suburbs
In San Francisco, near the new Salesforce Transit Center, thousands walk to work in the thriving mixed-use neighborhood. With a walk score of 100, everything is nearby. Yet a two-bedroom apartment may rent for $5,000 per month.
In contrast, suburban Bishop Ranch offers beautiful free-standing homes at more affordable prices. With a walk score of only 30, a trip anywhere has demanded a car until the shuttle experiment. Commutes to work are often long frustrating drives in gridlock traffic.
Peter Calthorpe’s book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, contrasts urban living where a household only emits six tons of CO2 with a sprawl suburb where households emit 21 tons. It is no wonder that urbanists and environmentalists fight spending billions to widen freeways and allowing farm land to be converted to gated suburbs. Yet, Calthorpe details how much of housing growth can be in compact suburbs, averaging only 10 tons of emissions, with inviting main streets and transit stations that connect to regional jobs.
Walnut Creek, a suburb of 70,000 people, was a car-oriented housing development, with denizens driving long distance to work. After the BART station opened in 1973, the city rezoned to allow high-density office and apartment development. In 1974, voters approved a bond measure that allowed the city to purchase 1,800 acres of undeveloped hillsides, park sites, and open space. Protected open space encouraged city density and provided locals with beautiful hiking opportunities.
Now, downtown Walnut Creek is an inviting place to live with a walk score of 76. Multi-story apartments and mixed-use developments are downtown in walking distance over one hundred restaurants and cafes, to retail from small to Target, and a BART rail station for those working in Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose. The Iron Horse Regional Trail provides 27-miles of walking and biking made possible by the Rails-to-Trails conservancy.
Walkable suburbs transit-connected to cities can provide regions throughout America with more affordable housing. Safe walking, bike lanes, and innovative mobility services are transforming the last miles to downtowns are regional rail. Mixed-use development at greater than 30-foot elevation provides regional resilience to all coastal cities vulnerable to sea rise, flooding, and hundred year storms that now hit every year from New York to Miami, from New Orleans to Houston, and from San Diego to Seattle.
One such region, the Bay Area, can grow to ten million, become more sustainable, resilient, and affordable. Improvements are not the result of rigid top down planning. They are the result of hundreds of experiments by large employers, government innovators, non-profits, and even by individuals who are moving to higher ground, but want thriving walkable communities.
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