Thursday, June 6, 2013

Plan Bay Area: A regional bar set too high?

Traffic on the Bay Bridge
When I first heard about Plan Bay Area, a regional blueprint for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and making housing more affordable around the San Francisco Bay Area, I was thrilled. One of the major aspects of the plan involves large transportation investments around the region: improving streets, connecting regional transit networks and creating more transit-oriented housing! California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (Senate Bill 375), which requires metropolitan areas to lower GHG emissions from cars and light trucks, set Plan Bay Area in motion and has spurred a range of suggestions for lowering carbon emissions.

The plan sets some lofty goals for the region. With an expected population growth of nearly two million people by 2040, the plan sets to lower GHG emissions by 15% per capita by 2035. As Downs states in his article on traffic congestion, the growth of a region greatly increases their level of congestion. And the Bay Area is growing rapidly! In order to reduce GHG, the plan hopes to densify transit corridors and lower vehicle miles traveled. Some of the controversial ideas for reaching this goal include increases in bridge tolls, implementing a driving fee based on miles traveled and a potential congestion tax in Downtown San Francisco and Treasure Island. [1]

As much as I am excited and proud of my home away from home and the nine Bay Area counties working together to create a regional plan, I have my doubts. The plan assumes that 60% of GHG reductions will occur by encouraging job and housing growth close to transit and the other 40% will happen through car and transit climate initiatives (costing roughly $640 million to implement). Seeing these numbers, I wonder the effects of attempting to lower emission by implementing a VMT tax and supporting densifation of areas around transit. This is all well and good, until I delved into the complex relationship between VMT and density and how it affects other regional goals, specifically affordable housing. The results aren’t pretty.

Successful VMT reductions call for high levels of densification. I genuinely support a VMT tax for the region. Get people off the road and onto trains, buses, bikes, boats—anything other than personal vehicles. There are so many excellent transit systems in the region that need to be utilized more and congestion has a negative effect on regional prosperity. Why then, would the plan state that although a VMT tax is desirable, it would most likely fail due to its need for a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature to pass? Since the plan focuses on residential growth at levels that most cities cannot and will not support, implementation is considered unlikely. Sad but true.

transit riders exiting Caltrain

Not only is there entire areas where densification is unlikely, the areas that can be densified will likely be creating housing too expensive for the residents they hope to attract. In case you haven’t heard, the Bay Area is going through a major housing shortage. The areas where people work have no housing and the areas where people want to live are charging exorbitant prices. Just look at this map. As a future planner who takes a special interest in transit oriented housing, I know (as should the Plan Bay Area planners) that shifting land use patterns towards high-density living causes increases in housing costs. “Higher residential densities are correlated with less affordable housing.” Worse off, Adrian Moore states in his paper on VMT reduction for climate change goals, that in order to have a significant effect on GHG reductions (25% reduction), density has to occur at 13 units per acre, on average, for 60% of all new residential housing. That means no more single family homes. That also means that the estimated housing increases already being proposed for by 2040 in San Mateo (10,000 units), San Jose (130,000) and San Francisco (90,000) better be DENSE!

Not only will the land-use patterns create inequitable housing, the time it will take for land use changes to occur and eventually result to lower GHG emission will probably take longer to achieve than the year 2035. Taylor’s article on rethinking congestion states that land use changes happen very slowly and only really result in small areas of the urban regional fabric. So changes will take decades to occur and will result in minimal changes to travel choice or destinations. 

Overall, the plan attempts to make positive strides towards lowering congestion. While it has no action items or strategies for implementation, it does show that all counties are doing their part to combat greenhouse gases. Some counties may win more funding than others, but that’s because they can have a greater effect on lowering overall congestion. I believe that the Bay Area is headed in the right direction; my only concern is the baseline indicators the plan has unfairly set for some of the smaller, more suburban areas in the region. I am still excited to see what happens with this “plan”; I just plan on keeping a close eye on its actual and tangible results. 

References Not Hyperlinked:
[1] Downs, A. Still stuck in traffic: coping with peakhour traffic congestion. Brookings Institution Press.2004.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.