With Turnover at the Top of C/CAG, an Opportunity for Change in San Mateo

A bike rider braves the Willow Road highway overpass in Menlo Park. Photo: Bryan Goebel

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.

Member Representatives

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.”

  • mikesonn

    Bay Area: only as green as the latest Prius.

  • Michael Helquist

    Thanks Streetsblog for this coverage of the conditions in San Mateo Country. Reporting like this gives livability advocates there recognition and support while making much more public the case for moving away from the seemingly entrenched car culture in an area less familiar with better options. 

  • Anonymous

    Having two regional bodies distribute state and federal transportation funds seems wasteful and inefficient. All transportation funding should be distributed by the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

  • mikesonn

    Especially when those are the people driving into SF and fighting us implementing congestion pricing.

  • Andy Chow

     The other alternative would be a centralized transportation agency like VTA down south. I don’t think it is any better either with their way of spending money.

  • Sprague

    San Mateo County seems to be in a very good position to increase its non-automobile transportation mode share if it pursues bike and ped infrastructure upgrades and bus and Caltrain service/frequency improvements.  Perhaps new housing developments, on an appropriate scale, in the vicinity of Caltrain stations along with better bus and bike station access would enable Caltrain to increase its frequency and hours of operation.  More frequent trains and longer hours of service, of course, entices more riders to the system.

  •  There are a lot of people in San Mateo County that are going to take a heavy lift to change modes.

    1) The coast (though I will say there are a lot of people who bike around Half Moon Bay, if they leave town it’s a haul and there is only one infrequent bus)

    2) Most everything above Alameda De Las Pulgas. We considered moving to the Peninsula and were looking at housing, and did not consider anything above Alameda due to the (steep) hilliness, lack of public transit or pretty much any retail in walking distance. The same applies to the upper reaches of Daly City (though there is some more retail), Millbrae, San Bruno. A lot of housing is not going to be bikeable except by the very fit – we ride up there to get a “super hard workout”.

    This makes it tough – downtown San Mateo *could* be a nicer more pedestrian focused area. It’s right on the train, close to a lot of residential areas, it’s flat, very bikeable. But it also services a lot of people who aren’t in that catchment who have a tough haul to get there without a car.

    This said, we should do a lot to capture the people in the lowlands. The Caltrain/El Camino corridor is still pretty dense by US standards, has good transit bones, and is flat enough for cycling to be quite feasible.

  • Kevin

    My dream for SMC would be a continuous bike lane that shadowed El Camino Real, and bike lanes radiating out of BART and Caltrain stations.

  • Andy Chow

    Unlike other counties, San Mateo County is geographically diverse. For example, a significant portion of SamTrans riders come from Daly City. Despite the hilly terrain and foggy weather most of the year, there’s enough density and proximately to San Francisco that make transit productive in this part of the county. Daly City is not particularly a high income city. Other cities do not generate as much transit ridership, despite the fact that many of them have a more favorable terrain and weather.

    Another factor is the increasing aging population. While many of them are driving today, and would prefer to keep driving, some of them would need to have some type of alternatives especially if they want to stay in their own home. Biking and traditional transit might not be an option for them. There needs to be more creative solutions like flex route transit and volunteer driving to more address their needs.

  • mikesonn

    San Mateo County as a whole might be geographically diverse, but the population center is pretty much just as Murph described it – it’s the flats. 101 to ADLP. The rich in the hills just want to be able to drive down and park for free which only hurts those in the flats.

    Take a drive down Middlefield through North Fair Oaks. It goes from two lanes in RWC to FOUR lanes through NFO and then back to a serene tree lined two lane road through Atherton. This is infrastructural racism/classism. Make the road wide and fast through the poor part of the county so the rich folks can get to their jobs faster. NFO actually has quite a few shops and taquerias and a community that would benefit from some street calming and bike lanes to offer “options”.

    ECR is a six lane behemoth cutting through downtowns. 101 is a canyon that separates communities. I’m pretty sure even incremental changes to the peninsula won’t impact peoples desire to drive. We need leadership that will help shape the peninsula in a more sustainable way starting with C/CAG level regional planning. This would include things like what RWC is doing downtown with parking management but it would also guide RWC to add housing stock downtown.

    101 is a parking lot and now even 280 is seeing traffic-induced delays. The solution is not more of the same.

  • Tahoe

    Just get rid of Caltrain and pave a grade separated 4 lane bike superhighway.

  • mikesonn

     HSR should just take some lanes from 101. Clearly the peninsula is fine with a concrete river dividing it.

  • Anonymous

    I see why VTA’s performance would have any bearing on SMCTA.  As Steve Schmidt said “Many [C/CAG members] aren’t that knowledgeable about transportation issues” which is why I think that SMCTA would do a better job.  Also, it would be one stop shopping for funding and provide better coordination for planning major projects.

  • Andy Chow

     The high speed rail fiasco shows that the anti-growth sentiment is still alive on the Peninsula. Redwood City is one of the progressive few among many cities that are fearful to what HSR might bring along. I don’t think a top down approach to growth planning will work on the Peninsula. C/CAG is not a political body like city councils that can bring political legitimacy. C/CAG can’t really tell cities what and how to build.

  • mikesonn

     Again, C/CAG is made up of elected officials, they can work together to form a cohesive plan, and take that plan back to their respective cities. There they can work out the details (and issues) and possibly bring it back to C/CAG with more local suggestions or just implement said plan closely but not maybe not to the letter.

    Either way, leadership and ideas, that is what C/CAG is not bringing to the table now.

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