The Housing/Transportation Crisis: Next Steps

The Current Approach: Right now everything is in an existential muddle. Some say that jamming high density housing near transit stops in established neighborhoods will solve the problem. This lunacy is based upon the false premise that putting housing near transit will by itself ease traffic. Others say that continuing to permit each town and city to set its own zoning and land use standards is the most democratic, and therefore the only way to go. And then there are those who have convinced themselves that to accommodate increasing population, the growth of the sprawling low-density suburbs should continue indefinitely. (If clogged highways and insufferably long commute times was the objective then this approach has worked brilliantly. However if there are ever to be short commute times and an easing of gridlock it will require a new and more enlightened approach.) Still others are demanding that the large corporations whose hordes of incoming employees largely caused the current mess should step up to the plate and fix it. (It has been suggested that the only time California’s metropolitan highways work is during a pandemic.) Each of these approaches responds to the Bay Area’s Housing/Transportation Crisis in a different way. Taken alone, none of them makes any sense and none is acceptable.

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Getting things back on Track:  For starters, the State of California should “butt out”. Instead of trying to solve regional problems from Sacramento the State of California should zero in on altering the regional agencies that it created, so they can and will carry out their regional responsibilities effectively and in the public interest.

A strong and well-structured Association of Bay Area Governments could better engage the transit agencies and the affected towns and cities in coming up with solutions that both leave what’s good alone and address regional land use problems regionally.

A regional transportation organization that effectively asserted and explained the need for regional solutions to regional problems and took a consistently pro-active approach to resolving regional problems would be far more productive than MTC’s current practice of remaining passive to regional problems while cutting backroom deals with powerful local and development interests.

How the Crisis Evolved: It’s clear that the current housing/transportation crisis has arisen at least in part because large corporations, particularly in the hi-tech field have recruited and brought in tens of thousands of high-paid employees with nary a thought give to where they would live or how they would get to work, much less what the influx might do to lower-paid Bay Area residents pushed out of their housing, and to the affected towns and cities. The corporations should play a major role in resolving the crisis they helped to create. But the responsibility for the shortage of housing and long commutes does not fall only on the corporations. In fact, many towns and cities eagerly encouraged the influx, always in shortsighted hopes of immediate financial gains. Virtually none of these municipalities, nor the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, nor the Association of Bay Area Governments, bothered to look ahead.

The bankruptcy of sprawling people farther and farther away from job centers and then forcing most of them to commute by freeway has become everyone’s nightmare. Yet this sorry process, which has been ongoing for over a half a century, has been recognized as a losing proposition for at least the last 45 years. The notion that it makes sense to keep sprawling and/or piling housing near transit stops and calling it a day would be laughable, if the resulting destruction weren’t so obvious.

A Better Way to Go….the Middle Ground:  There are places in the region that would benefit from infill development. However for this to work would require a special kind of infill.   For starters it  couldn’t be just housing.

Regional transit centers could be developed in the form of walkable, bikeable transit villages, complete with significant job opportunities, pedestrian amenities, banks, commercial outlets and services, schools, public institutions and medical facilities. To avoid the need for so much driving, the centers would need to be linked to each other and to the Region’s established employment centers by fast trains or fast buses traveling in bus-only lanes. Getting this right would be both expensive and complicated, and it would require strong and effective regional leadership, as well as the combined resources of the corporations and affected public agencies and jurisdictions.

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