An Excellent Overview of Regional Planning

An Excellent Overview of
Regional Planning

05/26/13 Filed in:

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

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

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.


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

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

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
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

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