An Excellent Overview of Regional Planning

Environmental advocate Peter Lydon wrote these comments on MTC’s Plan Bay Area, which capture the essence of regional planning:


Independently of anything the regional agencies do, the nine-county Bay Area is growing in population and getting wealthier, so, inevitably, it is changing. That means that the region is in transition. The aspect that concerns us is a needed transition from the present land use/mobility system to a new one.

The old, existing system is based on the single-family house, the personal automobile and the freeway. It handles growth mainly through outward spatial diffusion, or sprawl. It has grown up over decades, and has become our thoroughly familiar environment. We have all deeply adapted to it. It is individualistic, and not egalitarian. Growing up in times of economic success and prosperity, it offers what people believe is freedom. Therefore, on the basis of inertia alone, the traditional layout has support from the very large share of the population (and public and private administrative structures) that are comfortable in it and who want to preserve what is known and good.

But the present sprawl system is inefficient and expensive. Every person and household lives under the strain of that, whether the costs are in time, or energy, or money. Not everyone can meet its expense, so that in a significant number of cases, the region rejects people—either forces them to leave because they cannot find affordable housing, or fails to bring them into the Bay Area, like the prospective worker or manager who cannot be recruited because housing here is too expensive.

The existing traditional land use/mobility system here also uses a great deal of fossil energy, heavily emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs), especially through transportation. The discharge of carbon dioxide has rightly lost its former acceptability, since we have learned that climate change caused by GHGs, mainly carbon, is doing very grave damage, and will only worsen. California has recognized this in a set of laws, notably SB 375 that specifically governs planning by the state’s metropolitan regions. Apart from our own desire to reduce carbon discharges, the Bay Area as a metropolitan region is now under a legal requirement to devise and carry out policy to cut the greenhouse emissions which are a major byproduct of its existing configuration.

Our region’s new land use/mobility configuration, is the other, forward term of the transition. It is not fixed, but is in creation, so that we need both to work out what it will be, and to plan the steps to make it real. The proposed Plan Bay Area (PBA) commendably attempts both of these tasks. The new system is less suburban and spatially diffuse than the existing one, and more geographically concentrated and urban, as reflected in its 169 Priority Development Areas (PDAs). In addition to being more energy efficient, the new system is more social and collective in that public transit will gain trips in relation to the now-dominant private car. The new system will emit less pollution and save time and energy as well as money for Bay Area residents, especially in the long term.

In the present PBA exercise, the region is planning how to move from our old system toward the new one, as mandated by SB 375 from the State of California. Besides that externally imposed legal obligation, the Bay Area has its own native call for change: many citizens, particularly environmentalists and the less well off do not need a state law to want to move away from the old system toward a new one. At the same time, the region has many others, both officials and ordinary citizens, particularly in the suburban cities, who resist change. They cling to the traditional land use/mobility system which works for them. So, although the political party system is not directly in play, a form of political issue is present.

In a situation of inevitable regional population growth: 1) Present day income/wealth differences in our region have gone much too far. We must move away from an unsustainable division into two societies and back toward greater equality. 2) All Americans are under a great historical imperative to end or reduce GHG emissions. Apart from being required by the letter of SB 375 to fulfill the state’s mandates for 2020 and 2035, the Bay Area should be working hard, on its own initiative and conviction, to fulfill the law’s spirit and cut GHGs as rapidly as we can, beyond the state targets if possible.

Substantive Points
Evaluating the Plan Bay Area draft boils down to judging how effective it is in advancing the transition from the wasteful and unsustainable old land use/mobility system to a more modern, better one.

In that light, we see that:

In land use, PBA represents a very large step forward. The Priority Development Areas (PDAs) and their reflection in the 2013 Regional Housing Needs Assessment are a major historical achievement in the life and maturation of our region, a turning point deserving full praise and support. These plans to bring population growth into a more focused, denser set of “complete communities” with improved transit access are the result of a long gestation and a careful consultation of local communities, which have requested each one. The importance and high value of the PBA’s commitment to focusing growth in PDAs can hardly be exaggerated. The emergence of these denser settlements now in PBA shows us the outline of the new land use/mobility system that is the destination of the big transition. In subsequent quadrennial plan iterations, the PDAs should be further focused and improved into the large humane and congenial fully walkable TOD Centers that the region needs, but the PDAs are a very big step toward where we need to go. Unfortunately, it can’t be certain that the cities will actually implement the PDAs as vigorously as they should, and it has to be noted that the land use aspects of PBA represent institutional and prescriptive legal changes. Of themselves they carry little money, and do not represent budgetary commitments or decision-making on actual projects.

In transportation, where the money is, the PBA is much less successful in advancing the region from its traditional system to the new one that it needs. Perhaps held back by the county Congestion Management Agencies and other clients, MTC has contributed much less well than ABAG has in land use. The transportation foot dragging falls under two headings:

1) Heavy proposed investment (beyond maintenance and the performance initiative) in the old highway system perpetuates its grip and therefore retards building the new urban layouts and forms of access and mobility that are needed. The Regional and VTA Express Networks, totaling $8.1 billion (because of the antique rule that new lanes must be built), are flagrant. The PBA itself predicts a 9% decrease in Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) per capita and there are independent predictions at the national level that overall VMT could hold steady or decline in this period (NYT, 5/14, 2013, John Schwartz). At the strategic, systems level, highway expansion now is sending good money after bad.

2) Some major MTC transit investments continue to be poorly designed and wasteful ones, as were the BART extension to SFO, and the East Bay Bridge span at $6.5 billion. BART to Santa Clara at $8.3 billion clearly calls for another hard engineering/managerial look. Extending electrified Caltrain to Warm Springs, in place of extending BART to Santa Clara in the other direction, could cost far less.

The PDA land use planning reforms are meritorious, but they are slow-acting, and cannot make much contribution to the per capita GHG reductions required by 2020. That burden falls on the transportation part of the PBA. Here, the claim that the Plan will narrowly satisfy SB 375’s GHG requirements seems shaky. It looks largely based on trends that are independent of the plan, and on statistics-parsing, rather than actual policy-making. The PBA contents itself with simply getting to California targets, and shows little ambition to exceed them. It leaves on the table, for example, the major GHG gains that could come from working much harder at the regional level to speed the conversion to electric vehicles.

In sum, the magnificent Bay Area can congratulate itself on the land use and housing advances in Plan Bay Area. The transportation component of the plan should be re-examined for ways to save the large funds that will be misspent on inertia-driven investment in the obsolescent freeway/sprawl system. Programs like One Bay Area Grants should be given those resources to support a high level of quality in the execution of Priority Development Areas, which includes assuring that the PDAs are open to all, and not centers of gentrification.

Sometimes the best way to spend transportation dollars is not on directly on transportation, but on transportation-supporting land use. This is such a moment for our region.

Peter Lydon’s thoughts are contained in the small book,
Centers for the Bay Area, Walkable Communities on Transit, which can be purchased ($15) at the Builder's Booksource bookstore on Fourth Street in Berkeley, or at the Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco. You can contact him at ptrlydon at