More Sophistry in Favor of a Second Bay Bridge for Cars

Chronicle Op-Ed massages stats and makes false equivalencies to support another highway bridge between SF and Oakland

The push is on to build another Bay Bridge. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog
The push is on to build another Bay Bridge. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

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“According to the U.S. Census, 90.47 percent of the Bay Area’s workforce that needs transportation uses a vehicle to get to work and requires roads and bridges… BART travelers constitute only 3.3 percent of commuters, so even a second BART tube would have a negligible effect on traffic improvement,” goes the logic of a recent Op-Ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. The writer of the piece, structural engineer Roumen V. Mladjov, argues that the Bay Area should invest in another car bridge to increase mobility.

It’s unclear how Mladjov arrives at that figure of 3.3 percent, but he seems to be lumping in all Bay Area commuters–including those who don’t go anywhere near the Oakland Bay Bridge or the BART Trans-bay tube on their daily travels. Obviously, BART carries a small percentage of all commuters throughout the Bay Area, if one includes the entire mega region; by that measure, so does the Bay Bridge. What matters in the decision to build another Bay crossing is how many people want, and will want, to commute across the Bay, and what’s the most efficient way to serve that need.

A more relevant figure, from BART’s presentation at last week’s BART Board workshop: 75 percent of Trans-Bay travel is done by transit, with 66 percent done just on BART. It doesn’t matter how people commute from Sausalito to SoMa, Cow Hollow to Cupertino, or Moraga to Orinda, and a million other destinations that don’t involve travel on the congested corridors between Oakland and San Francisco.

Mladjov also argues that a second Bay Bridge would cost $3 billion–compared to the $6.4 billion it ended up costing just to replace the eastern span of the existing Bay Bridge. He argues that the new bridge construction can be managed better. But is it credible to write that it can be built for less than half the cost, for twice the length of bridge?

Mladjov’s Op-Ed, as Curbed pointed out on Friday, is part of a growing call for a new Transbay crossing. And while most people studied in transportation agree that it must be a rail crossing, following on the heels of Senator Feinstein’s call for a new car bridge there seems to be a disturbing kind of deja vu. It’s as if some in the region are relapsing to 1950s/1960s logic, when planners, believing that the only way to add mobility was to add more motor-vehicle lanes, even went as far as to remove the train tracks from the Bay Bridge. Image how much better off we’d be if we still had those tracks and the massive transit system that went with it?

In the 1960s, the capacity of the Oakland Bay Bridge was reduced by removing these trains and tracks. Photo: Transbay Joint Powers.
In the 1960s, the capacity of the Oakland Bay Bridge was actually reduced by removing these trains and tracks to make more car lanes. Photo: Transbay Joint Powers.

Even without the historical perspective, it’s kind of imponderable that the SF Chronicle would run an Op-Ed advocating for a new Bay Bridge when the article doesn’t even attempt to answer the most gaping hole in its argument–where are all these 160,000 or so additional cars supposed to go once they get across the new bridge? Where are they going to drive? Where are they going to park in San Francisco?

Mladjov writes that other cities generally have more car bridges per person than San Francisco. He uses New York and London (and Paris and Sydney) as examples. It’s a little hard to make one-to-one comparisons since there are clear differences in geography (such as the fact that the Oakland Bay is far wider than the Thames, the East or Hudson Rivers, the Seine, or Sydney Harbor). That said, New York has seven roadways that cross the East River, connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

It has 13 rail crossings across the East River, with a 14th currently under construction.

London, between its many tubes and overground rail routes, has roughly an even number of rail and road crossings.

So to try and continue Mladjov’s logic: the Bay Area has the Bay Bridge, the San Mateo Bridge, and the Dumbarton bridge across the Oakland Bay. It has one, two-track rail crossing–the BART tubes. Between Marin and San Francisco it has only one bridge, for cars only obviously; same with the East Bay and Marin.

If we take Mladjov’s argument that we need the Bay Area to develop a bridge ratio on par with New York, London, etc., then, indeed, we have lots of catching up to do. After we build a four-track Transbay crossing to take BART and Caltrain across the Bay (which is generally the format that planners seem to favor), and we’ve restored the Dumbarton rail bridge, and we’ve built a rail bridge either for SMART or BART from San Francisco to Marin, and we’ve built a rail bridge between Oakland and Marin somewhere near the San Rafael Bridge, then we can start to talk about another highway bridge. At least, that’s what we’d have to do to have our bridge ratio resemble New York and London.

The freeway building age destroyed neighborhoods, ripped apart the fabric of our communities, left us with horribly polluted air, teeth-grinding traffic jams, and a transportation death rate that, in a civilized country, would have people protesting in the streets. The development of driverless cars and electric cars may mitigate some of these problems, but only if planners resist the urge to relapse into a 1950’s mentality that the automobile is the future of all transportation. Yes, it’s a part of it, but only if supported by robust public transport and sensible, human-scaled planning that prioritizes people over the free-flow of automobiles.

Mladjov is right about one thing: even additional train tubes and bridges to carry BART, Caltrain, High-speed rail, Capitol Corridor trains, and SMART will probably have a negligible effect on car traffic. That will be even truer if we build another car bridge (and it will probably make backups even worse). At least with a rail crossings, hundreds of thousands of people will have an alternative to soul-crushing traffic.

A tweet by Jon Orcutt illustrates why driverless cars offer little towards sustainable cities.
tweet by Jon Orcutt illustrates why driverless cars offer little towards sustainable cities.
  • bobster1985

    All good points, and the final point that needs to be made is this: before we start building more roads, more bridges and more traffic lanes for cars, we need to stop allowing all these cars from flooding into our congested city carrying only the driver. Carpooling is the ONLY way to reduce car traffic significantly.

  • bggb

    And congestion pricing and/or increased tolls. You want to drive, you pay.

  • bggb

    If you’re using New York as your transportation measuring stick, you’re doing it wrong.

    Signed,
    A 20 year veteran of NYC

  • Walt

    I suspect the 90% for vehicular commutes is close for the entire Bay Area.

    It’s over 60% even for SF according to the last census, and clearly it will be higher in the other more car-centric parts of the Bay Area

    What we need to both – a new BART tunnel and a new car bridge

  • Mike Jones

    FYI: There are no combined rail/road bridges crossing the Thames in London.

  • Eric Johnson

    Good rebuttal. Thanks, Roger.

  • com63

    The first link “A recent Op-ed” points to the wrong location

  • Roger R.

    Thanks. Fixed it.

  • Cyclist’s Rights

    There’s no such thing as a “car lane”

  • Ethan

    “is it credible to write (a new bridge) can be built for less than half the cost, for twice the length of bridge?”

    Yes if people get over themselves and build a simple viaduct. The never-been-done-before tower is why it ran billions over budget. Even Caltrans’ original estimate for the tower portion $780 million. Back in the 90’s the estimate for a no-tower viaduct was $200 million and later $250 million.

  • Walt

    If, as the article indicates, 90% of Bay Area commuters use a car to get to work, then where on earth do you think the votes are coming from for such a punitive and confiscatory measure?

    Fetishize all the pipe dreams that you want but, in the end, politics is about the art of the compromize.

  • Walt

    Blackfriars Bridge comes very close. The rail and road bridges almost touch each other.

  • John French

    Not even on the Bay Bridge, where bicycles are prohibited? I suppose trucks, buses, and motorcycles use those lanes too…

  • crazyvag

    Find it hard to believe that only 3% of cross bay traffic is via BART. Smells like stats are cherry picked.

  • Bernard____

    This is the worst piece of anti bridge propaganda I’ve ever read. Sure there are some good points, but the fact of the matter is we NEED a second crossing, ideally straight from 280 to Alameda.

    That we people can skip the hideously jammed San Francisco portion of the highway. AND we can add rail to the bridge.

    Does that not make sense to you?

    Sure debate the numbers and effectiveness, but at the end of the day, we need another bridge.

  • bobster1985

    You want to drive solo in the South Bay and Peninsula? Be my guest. Enjoy your bumper-to-bumper commute. You want to drive into San Francisco? Then be prepared to pay for it. And don’t expect San Francisco to build anything that’s going to make it easier for you to bring your car in our city.

  • bobster1985

    As the saying goes, you don’t cure obesity by buying a bigger pair of pants. Haven’t we learned yet that more roads and bridges only attract more traffic and generates more of the same congestion we’re trying to solve?

  • Walt

    There are over 400,000 registered vehicles in SF. Across the entire Bay Area it’s probably more like 4 million.

    There is NO serious discussions about introducing tolls or congestion charges. You are living in a fantasy world. The fact remains that the freeways, highways and bridges are the most important pieces of transportation infrastructure in the Bay Area (along with airports), and they will need to be expanded at some point

    Beggar-thy-neighbor policies that set BA cities against each other is not the way forward. The voters do not agree with your “war on cars” rhetoric.

  • bggb

    As the article indicates, that 90% number is dubious at best.

    Congestion pricing has been resisted, installed temporarily, and then gained in popularity and made permanent the world over.

    San Francisco is not some exceptional metropolitan area. If anything, there will be more support for progressive and environmental taxes there than in other cities.

  • DrunkEngineer

    I’m sure the good people of Alameda would be thrilled with a new freeway blasted through their neighborhoods.

  • Ethan

    Pan Am Way and Ferry Point through the old naval station pass through a single, sparsely populated area a quarter mile wide and a quarter mile long. That’s it.

  • City Resident

    Right now, we’re engaging in a war on our environment. In California, automobile emissions are the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases. Congestion pricing may not seem to be currently palatable, but increasingly frequent heat, drought, and devastating wildfires won’t be popular either. Carbon taxes and/or congestion pricing may soon be necessary to better manage and mitigate our transportation choices.

  • I don’t know where you got this “over 60%” number, but it’s not the Census.
    https://factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/16_5YR/S0801/0500000US06075

  • Walt

    It was in the census that I read.

  • How ever so helpful.

  • Walt

    You are welcome. I am always happy to educate others

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