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The White Queen

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'

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vikingposts:

Always.
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Living in Place, Reinhabitation, and Bioregion

Living-in-place means following the necessities and pleasure of life as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to ensure long-term occupancy of that site. A society which practices living-in-place keeps a balance with its region of support through links between human lives, other living things, and the processes of the planet – seasons, weather, water cycles – as revealed by the place itself. It is the opposite of a society which makes a livingthrough short-term destructive exploitation of land and life. Living-in-place is an age old way of existence, disrupted in some parts of the world a few millennia ago by the rise of exploitative civilization, and more generally during the past two centuries by the spread of industrial civilization. It It is not, however, to be thought of as antagonistic to civilization, in the more humane sense of that word, but may be the only way in which a truly civilzed existence can be maintained.

Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It involves becoming native to a place through becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life-supporting systems, and establish an ecological and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it. Simply stated it involves applying for membership in a biotic community and ceasing to be its exploiter.

Bioregion refers to both a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness - to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place. Within a bioregion the conditions that influence life are similar and these in turn have influenced human occupancy.

A bioregion can be determined initially by use of climatology, physiography, animal and plant geography, natural history and other descriptive natural sciences. The final boundaries of the bioregion are best described by the people who have lived within it, through human recognition of the realities of living-in-place. All life on the planet is interconnected in a few obvious ways, and in many more that remain barely explored. But there is a distinct resonance among living things and the factors which influence them that occurs specifically within each separate place on the planet. Discovering and describing that resonance is the best way to describe a bioregion.

– Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann, “Reinhabiting California”

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After PARK(ing) Day

Last month’s PARK(ing) Day seemed a lower-key affair than in past years. Valencia Street, which in prior years had many temporary parks lining the street, had only a handful this year. I wondered about it, and got thinking that perhaps, in neighborhoods like the Mission, PARK(ing) Day’s role in reclaiming streets as public spaces has been eclipsed by San Francisco’s official street reclaiming programs – and that this represents progress. While Valencia has fewer PARK(ing) Day parks than in the past, parklets and bike corrals have blossomed up and down the street, along with the wider sidewalks and bulbouts between 15th and 19th streets championed by the community-based Better Valencia Project. Mission District businesses on streets like Valencia and 18th have embraced parklets and bike corrals enthusiastically, and they are popping up with increasing frequency elsewhere in the city.

It makes sense that the most tentative, temporary, and reversible methods for street reclaiming, like PARK(ing) Day, are the first to appear – organized by artists and activists, and serving to raise awareness of the possibilities for creating people-oriented public places. The playful success of PARK(ing) Day, pioneered by the Rebar Group, enabled the placemaking proponents within City government to propose an official version, in the form of low-cost, reversible pilot projects like parklets, bike corrals, and Pavement to Parks.

So what’s next? Hopefully more PARK(ing) Days, more parklets, pavement to parks, and bike corrals, but also bolder, more permanent projects that reclaim streets for people. Better Valencia has settled in successfully, and prototype projects like Linden Living Alley are showing San Francisco how living streets can work on the City’s many narrow streets. San Francisco has in recent years embraced the toolbox of Tactical Urbanism – parklets, bike corrals, food trucks, shipping container urbanism, temporary public art, etc. Are we ready for even bolder strategic moves to reclaim streets? The challenge with these projects is that they cost a lot more to install, aren’t easily reversible, and require new thinking and better coordination by City departments resistant to change. Where trade-offs are involved, strategic urbanism may also require a degree of political courage uncommon in San Francisco.

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Reelection endorsements

The Sierra Club * Democratic Party * League of Conservation Voters * Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club * Green Party * SEIU BART Chapter * SEIU Local 1021 * Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club * Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club * Noe Valley Democratic Club * League of Pissed-off Voters * San Francisco Bay Guardian * San Francisco Chronicle * San Francisco Examiner * Bay Area Reporter * Senator Mark Leno * Supervisor David Chiu * Supervisor John Avalos * Supervisor Christina Olague * Westside Chinese Democratic Club (partial list)

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Reelection!

I am running for reelection to the BART Board of Directors this November. Below is some basic information about who I am, what I do, why I am running, and what I hope to accomplish.

The Past four years have been challenging ones for BART. Despite the worst economic downturn in BART’s history, BART has:

  • achieved the highest ridership in its history
  • maintained high on-time performance and customer satisfaction
  • avoided service cuts
  • upgraded BART trains with new seats and floors to enhance comfort and cleanliness
  • funded replacement and expansion of the entire fleet
  • improved safety and amenity by improving lighting, signage, access, appearance, and public spaces at stations
  • established a Civilian Review Board and Independent Police Auditor for BART Police, and reformed BART police training, policies, and practices, following a comprehensive outside audit of BART’s Police Department. 

It’s a solid record of success, but we have much more to do. I will continue to work to create a seamlessly connected, world class public transportation for a sustainable and just Bay Area, with BART as a leader and integral part. This includes:

  • Renewing the aging system, and expand it to meet future needs.
  • Improving frequency and reliability and expand hours.
  • Making the BART system cleaner, greener, quieter, and safer.
  • Improving accessibility of the system for all riders.
  • Replacing and expanding the BART fleet
  • Improving the existing fleet with new seats, new floors, and more space near the doors.
  • Upgrading and improving BART stations.
  • Covering entrances to underground stations to improve escalator reliability, cleanliness, and safety.
  • Upgrading BART elevators with larger, transparent cabs.
  • Seamlessly integrating BART with other transit systems.
  • Fostering vital, walkable, affordable, and livable neighborhoods around BART stations.
  • Expanding secure bicycle parking at stations, and expanding bicycle access to trains during commute hours.
  • Improving bicycle and pedestrian access to stations, including pedestrian safety improvements, bike paths, and greenways along BART rights-of-way.
  • Creating quality improvement and sustainability systems at BART to improve and monitor our performance.
  • Creating small business opportunities in contracted BART services and station retail.
  • Strengthening BART’s commitment to Civil Rights, Environmental Justice, and Diversity.
  • Continue to support civilian oversight of BART police, and improve policing at BART.

 The 9th BART District includes the geographic heart of San Francisco, from Potrero Hill to the Inner Sunset, and Pacific Heights to the Excelsior. It includes the BART stations from Montgomery to Balboa Park. As a BART Director, I have worked with the six communities surrounding these BART stations to address their neighborhood needs. Working with San Francisco’s Planning Department, we have created land use, transportation, and public space plans around Balboa Park, Glen Park, 24th Street Mission, and 16th Street Mission, and Daly City stations. We have completed renovation, lighting, wayfinding, safety, and accessibility projects at all six stations, including two major access projects at Balboa Park Station, and done so with strong community involvement in design and decision-making. I want to see those plans through to completion.

I have served on the BART Board of Directors for 15 years, and elected or reelected four times. In that time, I have come to know the system well, as well as the communities BART serves.

I have lived in San Francisco for over 20 years, and been involved in nearly every major transportation issue of the past two decades, including removing the northern end of the Central Freeway, bringing Caltrain Downtown, creating the SFMTA, chairing the committee that renewed the city’s transportation sales tax and campaigning for the measure, increasing Muni funding, getting High Speed Rail to San Francisco, co-chairing the first comprehensive Regional Rail Plan, serving on two committees that developed Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project, developing San Francisco’s Better Streets standards, reforming the city’s parking policies.

I have served as the Executive Director of Livable City, San Francisco’s leading transportation and land use policy organization, since 2006. We operate the City’s Sunday Streets program with SFMTA, and work on a range of transportation, land use, sustainability, and public space issues and projects.

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ugly theory

"the drive to eliminate paradoxes at any cost, especially when it requires the creation of highly artificial formalisms, puts too much stress on bland consistency, and too little on the quirky and bizarre, which make life and mathematics interesting. It is of course important to try to maintain consistency, but when this effort forces you into a stupendously ugly theory, you know something is wrong." – Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach

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The Freeway (written March 16, 2011)

I read about the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway last week, and I was reminded that Daniel Solomon wrote a short essay about it in his fine 1992 book Rebuilding. Here is what he wrote:

 In 1960 I took my first course in architectural design, I read Space Time and Architecture, I spent lots of time fiddling with a car that had four exhaust pipes and three carburetors, and I made a little exhibition of photographs of San Francisco’s newly completed Embarcadero Freeway, which I thought was beautiful. On the night of 27 February 1991, the eve of its demolition, I walked the length of the top deck of the freeway. The blowing up of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis in 1973 has been described as the end of a variety of eras – the Modern Movement, federal housing programs, the American city, the New Deal, liberalism, optimism in general.

The demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway is also a big deal. For one thing it closes the book on Giedion, on the idea of the kinetic city, the shifting viewpoint, the beauty of zipping between buildings at high speed. For Giedion the enjoyment of this sort of thing was an axiom of the times, an unavoidable mode of perception. But most people hated the Embarcadero Freeway. They got no thrill at all zooming 70 mph four feet from the windows of the YMCA or blasting down the Washington Street off-ramp with Myron Goldsmith’s great Alcoa Building terminating a shifting, serpentine axis. All the views of the bay, the bridge, the ships, the sense of entering a city nobly by car, none of that was even mentioned in the great public debate about the freeway. When it became clear that the earthquake of 1989 had damaged the freeway to the point that it would have to come down, there were public celebrations, like the end of a war. People embraced and drank toasts and wept.

The evening walk on 27 February was very strange. It was drizzling and dark, and it was like walking in Venice where the only sounds are footsteps and voices. For some reason there were lots of languages – Portuguese, German, Japanese, French, Chinese. People were in silhouette in the dark , just walking quietly, talking. As much as I had loved the views driving – ten thousand times, twenty thousand times, they were much more beautiful on foot, in the quiet.

On 27 February 1991 the automobile era ended.

Now even in California, people will talk about other ways to get around: about not having to get around so much; about towns, streets, public places, walking.

 I have been thinking a lot about this since the anniversary. I remember visiting the city from Berkeley, where I then lived, and watching the huge machines chew and hammer at the Embarcadero Freeway, aided by workers with water hoses to keep the dust down. A year later I moved to San Francisco and involved myself in the effort to tear down the earthquake-damaged Central Freeway, which ended up as a pitched political battle involving three successive ballot measures.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti became San Francisco’s Poet Laureate in August 1998. In his State of the City speech soon afterwards, he said: 

What destroys the poetry of a city?

Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry. All over America, all over Europe in fact, cities and towns are under assault by the automobile, are being literally destroyed by car culture. But cities are gradually learning that they don’t have to let it happen to them. Witness our beautiful new Embarcadero! And in San Francisco right now we have another chance to stop Autogeddon from happening here. Just a few blocks from here, the ugly Central Freeway can be brought down for good if you vote for Proposition E on the November ballot.

He went on to say:

Other outrageous things on my wish list include: One – give bicycles and pedestrians absolute priority over automobiles, and close much of the original inner city to cars, including upper Grant Avenue. Two – make the City a center for low-power alternative radio and TV, with tax breaks for the broadcasters. Three – uncover our City’s creeks and rivers again and open up the riparian corridors to the Bay. Four– paint the Golden Gate Bridge golden. Five – tilt Coit Tower – think what it did for Pisa!

Proposition E did pass that November, and the northern end of the Central Freeway was torn down and replaced with Octavia Boulevard. A few of the “outrageous things” on his list may not be so far out of reach as they were in 1998. This year, Sunday Streets will pedestrianize upper Grant Avenue, if only for a day. A small team of innovators in the Public Utilities Commission are seriously exploring ways of restoring the city’s watersheds as an alternative to expanding the city’s combined sewer and storm water system.

I have come to the conclusion that something did change with the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway. When you are in the midst of a great turning of the values of your culture, it is not easy to tell when the balance tipped. Hazel Henderson’s notion of three zones of transition - breakdown, fibrillation, breakthrough - rings true, as does William Irwin Thompson’s notion of cultural “noise”:

If a political policy is unsound, one discovers it through noise. Noise is an expression of the ignored and the unknown, of the irrelevant and the unvalued. As the noise builds up it reaches  a point in which it overwhelms the signal, and then one gets a reversal in which the noise begins to be heard as information and the old signals fade into a background hum, a musak of buzzwords and archaic rhetoric.

As for the domination of the city by the automobile, let me put forward a tentative hypothesis, based on Hazel Henderson’s zones of transition. The breakdown of the idea probably began in the late 1950s, with San Francisco’s 1959-1966 Freeway Revolt, and the struggles by New York neighborhoods against Robert Moses’ urban expressways, and the publication in 1961 of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. No one probably have guessed so at the time; the Interstate system was getting underway, San Francisco adopted it’s Modernist Planning Code in 1960, and San Francisco’s automobile-centered Urban Renewal was tearing through San Francisco’s historic neighborhoods, but the dissenting voices were already growing louder and more articulate. The ‘fibrillation’ period began in the late 60s or early 70s, with Allan Jacobs’ urbanist revisions to San Francisco planning practice, the opening of BART in 1972 and transbay service in 1973, the 1973 oil shock, San Francisco’s 1973 Transit First policy, and carried on through San Francisco’s “Planning Wars” of the 1980s, including the Downtown Plan with its emphasis on transit and walking, and the removal of portions of three freeways in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

And now perhaps the dodgiest notion: that the breakthrough began in 2007. In that year, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly rejected Don Fisher’s Proposition H, which promised to usher in era of easy motoring and plentiful parking by dismantling San Francisco’s limits on Downtown office parking, and requiring at least one parking space for every new dwelling in the City. While Don Fisher did get rather thoroughly outfoxed by Aaron Peskin, my hunch is that Fisher was also vainly struggling against a cultural tide that had powerfully turned. Since then, the project of reclaiming San Francisco’s streets and public places from the automobile – of “towns, streets, public places, walking” – has begun to unfold in earnest, and in myriad ways.

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Why is the Yes on D campaign lying about signs?

Measure D, which appears on this November’s ballot in San Francisco, would allow new large general advertising signs (aka billboards) along Market Street between 5th and 7th streets.

The measure’s author and chief proponent is building owner David Addington, who owns several buildings on the north side of Market Street in the proposed billboard district. The measure is destructive in a number of ways, which I won’t go into here; needless to say I am hoping that San Franciscans maintain their historic aversion to billboards and ballot-box planning and defeat the measure this November. While Mid-Market won’t be helped by Measure D, Mid-Market does need help, which I also won’t try to describe here, as it is the worthy subject of one or more essays. The purpose of this essay is to correct misinformation the Yes on D campaign has repeatedly put out about the history of signage along Market Street, and what current city laws governing signs allow and disallow.

According to the account Mr. Addington and other Measure D supporters have given to groups across the city, a 1967 law called the Market Street Beautification Act required the removal of all the neon business signs, historic theater marquees, and billboards along Market Street, including the historic marquee and blade signs for the Warfield Theatre, which Mr. Addington now owns. As the story goes, this ill-conceived act sent Mid-Market into a tailspin, making the street dark, dangerous, and derelict. Measure D, they claim, is necessary to bring back these historic marquees, and will restore down-at-heels Mid Market to a thriving bright lights district that will rival the Fisherman’s Wharf as a tourist attraction.

Several elements of this story seemed shady to me.

  • I have only heard of this supposed law from the Yes on D folks. My colleagues at the Planning Department seems never to have heard of it, nor have I encountered any other accounts of this law.
  • No trace of such a law can be found in San Francisco’s Planning Code. The Planning Code is where most of the City’s controls related to signs are found (controls of a structural and technical nature are found in the city’s Building Code). There is a Mid-Market Special Sign District in the planning code from January 1970, but it is very different from the one described by the Yes on D campaign, as explained below.
  • There are two prominent historic neon theater marquees, with multi-story blade signs, along Market Street today – The Orpheum Theater at Market and Hyde streets, and the Golden Gate Theater at Market, Golden Gate, and Taylor streets. If the law required removal of the Warfield Theatre’s historic marquee, then why are these two similar marquees still in place?
  • A law like the one Mr. Addington and his cohort describe would be different from any other control in the Planning Code, and would probably be unconstitutional. The Planning Code sets controls building heights, lot coverage, uses, signs, and the like, but is generally not retroactive. Existing building features or uses which don’t meet the new rules become ‘existing nonconforming’ elements, and are allowed to remain in perpetuity, until the building in question is replaced or undergoes substantial renovation, or until a sufficient amortization period has passed. New sign controls of any sort would not mean that non-conforming structures would have to be taken down immediately, unless they posed an immediate risk to health or safety; indeed, such a requirement, if done without compensation to the property owner, would probably be found unconstitutional. For signs, the Planning Code has at times set a reasonable amortization period, allowing the property owner several years to realize the value of whatever original investment they may have made in the sign before it must be taken down.

 

I spent a few hours researching sign controls in the Planning Code, and in the San Francisco Public Library’s San Francisco History Center and Government Information Center. My research found:

  • There is no record of a 1967 ordinance requiring historic theater marquees and business signs on Market street to be taken down.
  • There was in fact a Market Street Beautification Act, but it didn’t regulate signs. It was legislation authorizing a $24.5 million dollar bond measure to be placed before the voters in June 1968 for the improvement of Market Street. The bond was approved, and paid for construction of the wider brick sidewalks, granite kerbstones, and crosswalk pavement along Market Street from the Embarcadero to Central Freeway, as well as Hallidie and United Nations plazas.
  • The visual blight associated with billboards, especially rooftop billboards, was identified as early as 1962, in SPUR’s report “What to do About Market Street?”. The Mid-Market Special Sign District was added to the Planning Code in 1970, and it distinguishes between general advertising signs (aka billboards), which are disallowed, and business signs, which are permitted. The sign district makes generous allowances for business signs such as theater marquees. Business signs may project six feet over the sidewalk, and can be up to 60’ high, so long as they cover no windows above the third floor or project higher than the roof. Projecting signs with vertical lettering, like those on the Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters, are permitted up to 60’ in height, and up to 100’ above the street, so long as they aren’t taller than the roof of the building. The goal was to create pedestrian-oriented signs to enliven the street without marring the skyline, to create attractive building storefronts, and to dignify the street’s buildings by not obscuring architectural detail.
  • 2002’s Proposition G, which Prop D’s proponents claim prevents the restoration of historic marquees like the Warfield’s, in no way regulates business signs; it only regulates billboards. It in fact specifies that “Nothing in this ordinance shall preclude the Board of Supervisors from otherwise amending Article 6 of the Planning Code”; leaving the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission free to amend controls for business signs.

So could the Warfield Theatre’s historic signage be rebuilt today, under current law? It in fact can – with one change.

Two historic photos of the Warfield from the Public Library’s Historic Photos collection show the Warfield signage. The picture below, from 1922, shows two large blade signs hanging from the building’s corners, one on Taylor Street, and the other on Market. Both signs would conform to current planning code standards – they are less than 60’ high, and do not cover windows, rise more than 100’ above the street, or extend above the rooftop. The code allows one building sign per building frontage, so the two signs – one visible from Taylor, the other from Market – also conform.

Loew’s Warfield Theatre, 1922. From the San Francisco Public Library’s photo collection.

Two marquees projecting over the sidewalk, one on Taylor Street, at the left in the photo, and the other on Market where the current entrance is, to the right in the photo. The photo below, from 1964, shows the Market Street marquee in greater detail:

The Fox Warfield Theatre, 1964. From the San Francisco Public Library’s photo collection.

Both marquees would be legal under current standards, except they could not extend more than 6 feet over the sidewalk. The previous controls allowed theater marquees to extend all the way to the curb. As you can see from the photos, the Market Street sidewalks were then much narrower, and treeless. The 1970 sign controls took into account the proposed redesign of Market Street:

The six-foot limitation is established in large part by the physical fact that double rows of trees, where they occur, will provide only a six-and-one-half foot clearance for signs when the trees are grown to their full spread of ten feet…Marquees, which in the past have been allowed to exend all the way to the curb, must be re-oriented to keep within the six-foot limit; even theatre marquees can be designed with high visibility under this limitation.

So why would the Measure D proponents continue to misrepresent the facts? The most generous explanation is that they are merely confused about both what current law permits, and about the history of sign controls on Market Street. This seems unlikely, considering that Mr. Addington hired one of San Francisco’s most knowledgeable land use attorneys to write Measure D, which changes the controls only for general advertising signs and not for business signs. If it is indeed his intent only to restore the Warfield marquee, and to build or restore similar marquees along Market Street, it seems doubtful he would run a very costly citywide campaign to allow himself to do so, since doing so is already permitted under current law, and Prop D only permits billboards.

The likeliest reason is that this misleading and inaccurate story is more compelling that the real story. For decades, San Franciscans have reviled billboards as blight, and sign regulation has moved progressively towards greater limitations on billboards, culminating in 2002 with Measure G, which was supported by three-quarters of the electorate.

On the other hand, San Franciscans love historic theaters and their marquees, and we are gladdened by successful efforts to preserve and restore historic theaters, like the Castro and the Vogue, and still mourn the loss of other historic theaters, like the Fox, which was demolished to build the lugubrious Fox Plaza.

Spinning Measure D as an effort to bring back historic theater marquees, and even historic theaters, is a much more appealing story than telling the public that Measure D would bring unprecedentedly large billboards back to San Francisco’s most prominent street, including rooftop billboards, rotating billboards, and blinking billboards, with few limitations on size or scope, and regulation and approval effectively taken away from the Planning Department and handed over to a private entity – or that the measure was concocted without a single public meeting or hearing.

Too bad that their story doesn’t jibe with the facts.

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Expanding transit sustainably

Effective and efficient public transit is a key to making cities more livable and sustainable. Cities around the world are building, and in many cases rebuilding, rail transit networks. The Bay Area is no exception; cities, counties, and the region (through its Metropolitan Transportation Commission, MTC) have invested billions to build and expand rail transit throughout the Bay Area. The Bay Area has done an impressive job building an increasingly connected rail transit network for the region. Yet the regional network is plagued with recurring problems – transit projects that over-promise and under-deliver, capacity problems at the region’s core, boom-and-bust maintenance and reinvestment cycles which compromise performance and safety, and funding priorities that favor new extensions over operating, maintenance, and reinvestment of existing transit. Our best guess about the current state of our rail network and its future prospects, contained in MTC’s 2009 Regional Transportation Plan, shows a system in crisis. MTC projects that BART’s capital reinvestment needs over the next 25 years are less than half funded, with an $8 billion shortfall. The planned extensions to the BART system – Warm Springs, eBART, and the Oakland Airport Connector – are all anticipated to operate at a loss, and all will draw from BART’s overtapped operating budget for their operating and capital costs. These extension projects contribute nothing to expanding BART’s core system capacity, which, before the current economic downturn, was becoming acutely constrained. San Francisco’s Municipal Railway (Muni), which operates the region’s second-most-used rail network (Muni has almost twice BART’s ridership, but mostly on its extensive bus network) is facing similar problems. Its light rail system is aging, overcrowded, unreliable, and saw a serious light rail collision on July 18 which injured dozens. Yet the RTP forecasts that over a third of Muni’s essential capital reinvestment needs over the next 25 years will remain unfunded, with little or nothing available for adding capacity or increasing safety and performance. Meanwhile, Muni has diverted tens of millions of dollars in capital funding at its discretion towards its $1.4 billion Central Subway project. The Bay Area’s unsustainable transit expansion practices are not new. The region had an extensive rail transit network in the first half of the 20th Century, much of which was dismantled or allowed to fall into ruin after World War 2. As streetcar and commuter rail lines were being dismantled and abandoned, residents of three Bay Area counties voted in 1962 to build the BART system. The initial BART system massively over-promised and under-delivered. The 1962 study projected that, by 1976, BART would have 258,496 riders on an average weekday, and operate at a surplus of $11 million/year. In 1976, the system carried only 131,370 riders on an average weekday – 51% of the projected total – and instead of running a surplus, required $40 million in operating subsidy. BART did not reach its 1962 projection of average weekday ridership in 1976 for another two decades. BART has never operated at the surpluses it initially projected, although its farebox recovery ratio (the percentage of a system’s operating budget that comes from fares) has nearly doubled, from less than 35% in the mid-70’s to almost 62% in the 2008-9 fiscal year. Over the past 20 years, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has been engaged in a complicated scheme to dramatically expand the region’s rail network. The rail expansion plan, like the original BART plan, over-promised and under-delivered. The Regional Transit Expansion Plan, adopted by MTC as Resolution 1876 in 1988 and updated as Resolution 3434 in 2001, focused largely on BART expansion. The plan relies on a complex financial scheme involving federal, state, and county funds. The linchpin was BART’s extension to San Francisco International Airport (SFO); this project, originally costed at $1.05 billion, received $750 million in Federal funding, and the  the balance was to come largely from San Mateo County’s transportation sales tax. San Mateo County contributed another $200 million to help build two BART extensions in the East Bay, to Pittsburg-Bay Point and Dublin-Pleasanton. Once it opened, the SFO Extension was to draw another $146 million from projected operating profits to help build a third East Bay extension, to Warm Springs in Fremont. The regional rail plan delivered three BART extensions, and construction of the Warm Springs Extension is about to begin. The financial arrangements, however, began to unravel in the 1990s, as the cost of the SFO extension project ballooned to $1.7 billion. The extension, which opened in 2003, has not generated the millions in operating profits originally projected; it has operated at a loss since opening day. MTC’s plans also failed to take into account the needs of the existing system. As systems age, they require life-cycle investments in repair and replacement to keep them operating. Growing ridership makes additional demands on these systems too – more railcars, additional capacity at stations, larger shops and maintenance yards, expanded access to stations. It is time to recognize the current crisis, and put the region’s rail network on a sustainable course. The experience of the past two decades offers several lessons about how to expand the region’s rail network sustainably. The goal is not to stop expansion of the region’s rail network – continued effective expansion is essential to completing an integrated regional rail network – but rather to expand in a way that sustains the safety and financial soundness of these systems.

  • Choose the right project for the corridor. BART has historically been a one-trick pony, offering up expensive BART extensions as the solution to every demand for better transit service. BART technology offers many advantages, but is extremely costly – as much as $150-200 million per mile. BART policy now supports expanding its transit offerings to include other types of rail (light rail, commuter rail, DMU/EMU), but unfortunately BART ‘grandfathered in’ some of its long-planned extensions, even though they don’t make much transit planning sense. The recent case of the Oakland Airport Connector project shows how BART still tends to err towards high-cost projects that don’t offer substantially better service than lower-cost alternatives. Effectively balancing the considerations involved in choosing the right project for a given corridor – capital cost, lifecycle operating and maintenance costs, future capacity needs, rider benefits, right-of-way, system connectivity and interoperability, environmental and land use benefits, access, etc. – is a complex art, and the proper subject for one or more essays. Our region’s process for developing and prioritizing projects is more politically driven than policy driven, and lacks rigor and strategic thinking.
  • Expand urban core service and access. Since the completion of the original, three-county BART system in 1973, BART’s management and directors have sought to expand BART further out into the suburban Bay Area, and have paid little attention to the region’s urban core. But it is the dense, mixed-use urban core communities which can be served most effectively by heavy rail metros like BART. Improving access to existing stations by improving walking, cycling, and local transit connections, changing land use to foster denser, mixed-use ‘transit villages’ around existing stations, and adding stations between stations (in places like 30th Street in San Francisco, 14th Avenue/San Antonio in Oakland, and Solano Avenue in Albany) are more cost effective ways of adding new riders than extending into low-density suburban areas. Yet these strategies receive scant attention from BART’s leadership, and receive little regional funding compared to less effective suburban extensions.
  • Preserve existing service. A transit agency must demonstrate it can meet the operating and maintenance needs of the extension without compromising service to current riders, or burdening them with the additional cost. There is no public value in opening shiny new extensions while driving away existing riders with higher fares and diminished service.
  • Cover core system impacts. An extension’s funding plan should cover both the full cost of the extension, and the core-system impacts of the extension (vehicles, maintenance facilities, capacity needs, etc.) For decades, BART was able to rely upon the surplus capacity built into its lines and stations, and its spare railcars, to absorb additional riders, so that adding extensions off the ends of the system didn’t create capacity problems in the core. That ended a decade ago or more, and every extension must now include core system investments to accommodate the new riders.
  • Plan for life-cycle costs. Operating surpluses from extensions should go first to making sure that core-system operating needs and lifecycle capital needs of the extension and core system are covered, before going to build additional extensions. The SFO Extension’s vast pyramid scheme, which has, and will continue to, draw millions of BART fare revenue and San Mateo County funding towards East Bay extensions while making capacity and capital demands on an overtaxed core system, is demonstrably unsustainable.
  • Plan using scenarios. In an increasingly unpredictable world, projects must be robust and resilient, and serve the needs of riders in a range of plausible futures. Transit expansion projects are often sold to policymakers using plans and forecasts favorable to the desired project. The SFO extension’s ridership, funding, and cost projections, for example, assumed high economic growth, robust growth in air travel, low construction costs, and unprecedented changes in observed travel behavior (assuming, for example, that 90% of northbound Caltrain riders bound for San Francisco would transfer to BART at Millbrae, even though it involved longer wait time, longer travel time, and a higher cost). The stars didn’t align precisely as BART forecast, and the project encountered huge cost increases and big operating losses. Smart transportation project planning must examine how the project fares under different plausible future scenarios – high and low economic growth rates, varying prices for energy and materials, changing real estate and financial markets, etc.