San Mateo County has the third highest rate of driving mileage per capita in the Bay Area, behind Marin and Sonoma counties. Eighty-two percent of residents drive as their primary mode, due in part to a built environment that keeps people stuck in their cars. Low-income and transit-dependent populations who take the bus face dwindling service, while those who ride their bikes and walk face hostile street conditions, enduring dangerous highway overpasses to get to their jobs or school.
The county also faces a rising adult obesity epidemic and a population of people over 65 that is expected to double by the year 2050, according to the Indicators for a Sustainable San Mateo County report, issued in May. The report notes that automobiles are the primary source of pollution in San Mateo County, which contributes to a variety of health problems.
Bicycle, pedestrian and transit advocates interviewed for this story say the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) is partly to blame, with its history of favoring the automobile over other modes in the way it disperses state and federal funding to cities for transportation projects. It’s been slow to embrace sustainable transportation and livable streets principles.
“You look around Highway 101 and you’ll see huge new projects in place for additional expansion,” said Gladwyn d’Souza, a pedestrian advocate and Belmont planning commissioner.
As C/CAG looks for a new executive director, advocates say it’s a good opportunity to reconsider how the agency functions, and to focus on how a new executive director can raise the bar on sustainable transportation on the Peninsula. Though the agency’s governing body ultimately makes the decisions, an executive director can be a powerful influence.
C/CAG’s governing board is comprised of representatives who are mostly elected officials from the Peninsula’s 20 cities. No one city has a dominant influence over funding decisions, said Joseph Kott, who served as C/CAG’s transportation planning manager until last January, and is now a consultant and visiting scholar at Stanford University.
“I think it’s pretty well balanced,” said Kott. “It’s not like one goliath in a lot of pygmies. They’re all more or less in the mix.”
C/CAG (which has an archaic website that makes the agency seem less than transparent) distributes federal and state grants to local agencies, while the San Mateo County Transportation Authority distributes Measure A sales tax revenue to needs including Caltrain and local shuttle service. Most C/CAG board members do not have a background in land use, planning and transportation.
“Many of them aren’t that knowledgeable about transportation issues,” said former Menlo Park Mayor Steve Schmidt, who is vice chair of C/CAG’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC). “It seems to me that educating the board members is part of the responsibility of the executive director. They make the policy. They make the recommendations, but I think sometimes they’re not as familiar with the big issues.”
That’s why, advocates say, a new executive director should be a visionary on sustainable transportation issues.
The current executive director, Richard Napier, who is retiring from the agency after 17 years, has a background as an engineer. “He’s really had to learn a lot on the job over the years,” said Kott. “I don’t think he was particularly trained for his job, but that’s not a slight against him. A lot of us learn on the job.”
One thing Napier was particularly skilled at, according to several C/CAG board members, was his ability to build strong relationships with city officials. As a former Sunnyvale mayor, he has a knack for dealing with elected officials and building consensus. That, says East Palo Alto City Council Member Carlos Romero, a member of the C/CAG board, is a required skill a new executive director will need.
“You have to establish and develop those relationships with the elected officials as well as all those directors of public works and city managers in the county,” said Romero. “That will be the initial set of homework that he or she needs to get on top of and become comfortable and familiar with.”
While most sources characterized the small staff at C/CAG as hardworking and competent, Kott said they could benefit from skills development, “particularly skills that were more creative, more innovative, and comprehensive transportation planning. That is, people who are trained and have some experience in devising sustainable solutions for transportation problems,” he said.
In an interview, Napier acknowledged the agency is understaffed at times but said “it’s important not to overstaff.”
“There’s a balance you have to make,” he said. “Keep in mind that while direct staff is small we contract for all the other services and that’s what keeps our costs down.”
The Pace of Change
While Romero told Streetsblog he is frustrated that C/CAG hasn’t moved faster on sustainable transportation issues, he cautioned against moving too quickly.
“This is probably, unfortunately, the appropriate pace for a community that, if you look at it, really does live and love its car,” said Romero, a housing development and land use consultant who’s been on the C/CAG board for four years, but is leaving when his East Palo Alto City Council term expires at the end of this year.
“We have to be cautious in the way we introduce novel, more progressive, more sustainable concepts of development and planning,” he said. “I wish I could introduce half of this stuff overnight, but it would fall on deaf ears or there would be tremendous push back from some of the cities in the county, but it would probably set us back.”
Schmidt, the former Menlo Park mayor, agreed that it will take some time to get away from the Peninsula’s antiquated car culture but said it’s important to provide options for people now.
“What we want to do is provide facilities and improvements that will enable that 50 percent of people that are open to using transit, bicycles and walking for getting around,” he said. “We just want to provide opportunities for people who don’t want to be stuck in traffic.”
“We’re not saying that we have to transform all of suburbia,” added d’Souza. “It would be really silly to transform all of suburbia because our suburbia is actually well connecting these huge steel chariots. What you really want to do is provide choices and alternatives. Fill the gaps and allow people to make choices.”