Union City’s Station Specific Plan….Transit-Oriented in Name Only

The City of Union City has just revealed its ambitious 471 acre “Union City Station Specific Plan” in the general vicinity of the Union City BART station. The first chance the public had to learn about the project came at the City’s 2.11.2021 Scoping Meeting.

This venture, like so many others in the Bay Area is being loudly and continuously heralded as “transit-oriented”. The term admittedly has a nice ring to it. That’s because “transit-oriented”, is intended to suggest that placing a housing project near a train station or bus stop would cause people to forsake their cars in favor of less congesting and more environmentally-acceptable means of travel such as bus, train, ferryboat, bicycling and walking. Sounds positive, right?

Here’s the rub:

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In the Bay Area (pre-Covid) only about a quarter of the trips we all took were commute trips. And of the commute trips 15% were by transit. That means that pre-COVID only 3.75% of total Bay Area trips were transit-commute trips. In other words well over 90% of the total trips were by automobile.

For this reason, unless a large percentage of the incoming residents elect to sell their cars and renounce auto travel, the traffic will increase, not decrease. Think about all those other trips, the non-commute trips…such as to grocery stores, concerts, medical centers, sporting and social events, barbershops, restaurants and big box stores. To say nothing of the trips to see family and friends, schools, etc. How do you get there today? How do most of us get there?

The promoters of large development projects are well aware of the fact that their prospective incoming residents will continue to make most of their trips by automobile. In the case of Union City’s Station East housing project there will be 1791 new parking spaces to accommodate just 974 housing units. Which says a lot.

The inconvenient truth is that unless robust corollary steps are taken, more residents will inevitably mean increased driving. The developers and their political allies know this, but go to great length to hide the fact, in part by defining their projects as “transit-oriented”. To give credence to this false narrative, the ridership-forecasting consultants hired by developers focus only on commute trips while ignoring the much great number of non-commute trips.

In the case of the Station Specific Plan, Union City’s politicians have compounded the problem by ramrodding through a brand new east-west highway leading directly to the south entrance of the Station East residential complex. While the highway is still very much in the planning stage, Station Specific Plan planners seem to regard it as “a given” and therefore see no need to evaluate it in terms of its impact on their project.

In order to avoid an inevitable surge of additional driving it would be necessary to bring in many attractive public and private uses and services…all within walking and easy bicycling distance of the new housing. Here are a few of the possibilities:

  • First, lose the highway!   There are much better things to do with well-located urban open space than by obliterating it with a destructive highway, cutting Union City in two in the process.
  • Make it easy and safe to bike, walk, skate or scoot to all parts of the Downtown Plan as well as to nearby schools.
  • Lest the new residents become accustomed to hopping into their cars 20 to 30 times a week (more if there are teenagers in the house), accelerate the non-residential parts of the program, if necessary by offering financial incentives designed to bring in the necessary supporting uses asap. Architect Peter Calthorpe had, and still has, the right approach.
  • Make certain that AC’s bus service in and around Union City is optimized. Upgrading existing transit systems invariably requires determined prodding by the affected municipalities.
  • Consider attracting more nearby residents to the non-residential parts of the development by activating a free downtown shuttle bus, perhaps financed in part by the benefiting merchants.

Redouble efforts to get the Redwood City to Union City passenger Dumbarton rail shuttle up and running. A fast and reliable, out-of-traffic passenger rail service across the south part of the Bay would do much more to ease traffic congestion on Decoto Road and elsewhere in Union City than a proposed one-mile highway between Paseo Padre and Mission Boulevard.

Putting housing units near a BART station flanked by a competing highway leading to the door of the housing complex just doesn’t cut it.

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