ULI Talk: The Bay Area’s Transportation Future

Housing, BART, Muni, bikes, walkable cities--what's the picture going to look like in 2040?

A rendering of the recommended plan for Geary BRT at 17th Avenue in the Richmond. Images: SFCTA
A rendering of the recommended plan for Geary BRT at 17th Avenue in the Richmond. Images: SFCTA

It costs $2.25 to go one block on the Geary 38 bus, but someone driving a Tesla can use all of San Francisco’s streets for free. “It’s fundamentally inequitable” said Jeff Tumlin, Principal and Director of Strategy at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting, during a panel discussion at San Francisco’s Urban Land Institute. “We even manage traffic signals based on vehicle progression” rather than on how many people move through an intersection, “so a person on a bus is valued at 1/200th of a person driving in a car,” said Tumlin. Last night’s panel about the future challenges of transportation and housing featured transit officials, developers, and Debs Schrimmer, Transportation Policy Manager for Lyft.

Moving forward, suggested Schrimmer, it may be time to start asking solo drivers to pay to use the streets of downtown, especially during congested periods. “It’s done in London, Stockholm, Milan, Singapore… conversations about congestion pricing are happening in New York,” she said. “San Francisco last looked at it in 2007; it’s time has come again.” She added that, if universally applied, it would act as an incentive for people to share rides and result in better efficiencies.

In theory, that could help companies such as Lyft, since traffic should be minimized and more people would be deterred from driving a private car into the city. Schrimmer added that the real success of Lyft hinges on robust public transportation. “Lyft’s vision for 2040 is similar to what many of you want to see: walkable, bikeable, dense communities.” To her, ride-hail services are about helping to solve the last-mile problem and supplement transit, which is why she stressed the importance of building a second Transbay tube and extending Caltrain to downtown San Francisco. “A transit backbone is key.”

The panelists agreed that major investments, such as a second Transbay tube, has to take place to make transit competitive. Image: SPUR
The panelists agreed that major investments, such as a second Transbay tube, have to be made to keep transit competitive in the future. Image: SPUR

“Transportation is a basic right, not just a privilege of the very wealthy,” said Julie Kirschbaum, Chief Transit Officer for the SFMTA and another of the panelists. “That requires high-occupancy transit to be more reliable and quicker than it is today.”

For that to be achieved, the city has to correct the undervaluing of a bus or light-rail passenger at “1/200th of a person driving a car.” Kirschbaum said the agency wants to “carve out more space” for transit. That means more red-carpet/transit-only lanes, and, hopefully, moving forward on Bus Rapid Transit on Geary. She also said Muni rail has to become more flexible and reliable. “The new platform for the Warriors Arena will have crossovers before and behind … We’ll be able to turn trains around. That’s important to managing infrastructure.”

But Kirschbaum also sees an inherent conflict between better transit and ride-hail services. And that conflict, she said, has to be managed. “For example, at the Outside Lands music festival, we set up an urban fence so Lyft pickups don’t get in the way of the fifty buses we staged on Fulton Street to get people out.” But right now forcing ride hails to limit pickups and drop-offs to designated loading zones isn’t “something that everyone is opting in to… you have to regulate the other systems that are compromising the more efficient experience.”

The Mandela Transit Village is a $900 million housing, office, and retail development proposal for the West Oakland BART Station. Image: BART
The Mandela Transit Village, a $900 million housing, office, and retail development proposal for the West Oakland BART Station, would be built on land that is now surface-level parking. Image: BART

Meanwhile, Sean Brooks, Real Estate and Property Development Manager for BART, also wants that second BART tube, plus increased frequencies on all the lines. Also: “more seamless connectivity with TNCs and future autonomous vehicles,” he said, adding that fare payment technology has to “let all systems integrate and talk to each other.” Especially in BART’s more suburban environment, that could reduce demand for parking, because people could bike to stations or take a TNC. That would free up surface parking lots to be developed for housing and shopping, which would allow people to live closer to the stations, which in turn could reduce driving further–at least in theory. “Do we grow up or out as a region? Do we continue to expand our system to the Stocktons of the world, or do we intensify and densify the land uses around our stations? The answer is a combination of both.” He said the key is to slowly replace surface level parking with drop-off locations and mixed-use developments.

Tumlin wondered if, given the price of land and the cost of maintaining parking spaces, it wouldn’t be cheaper for BART to develop its parking lots into housing and pay for a last-mile trip in a TNC for BART patrons. “BART controls some of the most valuable real estate in the region,” he said. “A parking spot costs at least $20 per day,” to maintain that real estate, “and if you’re charging $2 or $3 for a parking spot, it’s cheaper to provide free Lyft service than to continue to subsidize parking.”

“Parking is not the evil thing; it’s not,” said Jon Knorpp, Senior Managing Director, Giants Development Services. “We run the most transit-friendly ballpark in the industry, with fifty percent of the people who come to a game taking something other than a single occupancy car.” Those people, he said, take ferries, trains, buses–but “you’re not going to convince the guy in Gilroy with eight kids not to drive.” That’s why the ballpark still maintains some parking.

But as his company develops Mission Bay, it is trying to keep new parking structures flexible. As he explained, housing needs financing, and bankers require a certain amount of parking. So, he said, they are focusing on parking structures rather than street parking, and on consolidating parking into those structures. “How do we do it so we can potentially use that structure for other uses?” He explained that by keeping the top floors of the 3,000 spot parking structures flat, they hope some day to convert them to more housing or office space.

A rendering from the Mission Rock Master Plan. Image: Port of SF
A rendering from the Mission Rock Master Plan. Image: Port of SF

“We developed the first master plan that doesn’t have one on-street parking spot–it’s all delivery zones for TNCs, with parking aggregated into one building to keep the cars at the perimeter,” Knorpp explained. “If you’re driving a car into Mission Rock, you’re either lost or dropping someone off.”

Tumlin, meanwhile, worried that the inefficiency of government in delivering public transit improvements was cursing the region to continued reliance on automobiles and autocentric design. “We have private companies running on the public right of way. But the city also needs to provide a more competitive product. Look at [improvements for] Van Ness and Geary, which have been in the works for so many years–and we still haven’t broken ground on Geary BRT!”

Kirschbaum seemed to blame the hypocrisy of San Francisco voters for that. “Everybody is transit-first at the 50,000-foot level, and nobody is transit-first when you remove their bus stop or their parking space,” said Kirschbaum. Stakeholders complain, plans are revised, stakeholders complain again–and projects get watered down and delayed.

Tumlin agreed, pointing out that the complaints of a handful of people can have an unwarranted impact, often gumming up the works for the entire city, which is what happened with Geary BRT. “We’re in a city that is managed by complaint, so two people can manage 200,000 people,” he said.

The panel
Jeff Tumlin, Julie Kirschbaum, Debs Schrimmer, Jon Knorpp, and Sean Brooks at Tuesday evenings ULI panel

For more events like this, check out ULI’s Events Page.

  • nolen777

    “fifty percent of the people who come to a game taking something other than a single occupancy car.”

    I hope he really meant “private vehicle” or the number is way over 50%. Half of people at Giants games got there in single occupancy cars?!

  • Kieran

    Since they mentioned in this article they wanted to revolutionize transit so that by 2040, things are easier…Well, besides the 2nd Transbay Tube(their route plan for the 2nd tube looks great, by the way, having a station in Alameda and from the map, it looks like it’ll follow the 980 corridor(I guess after it’s removed)..It could be better but that’s a good start for it..

    I think a big part of making transit more useful in the Bay Area is to have more ferry boats, both bigger ones than the largest today and smaller boats as well to help balance it out. I read an article recently about where they proposed having smaller ferry boats hit certain stops like Martinez..I think that’s a good idea but also think that say, Petaluma could use a ferry station again..It makes no sense that Petaluma(which had ferry connections for decades dating back to the 1800s) loses its ferry connection with to the rest of the Bay Area in the mid 20th century..

    Either SMART or BART needs to also be extended alongside(or underneath the Bay) the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge…That’s something that easily should’ve been done in the 20th century with a BART extension of the Richmond line, in my opinion..By having a useful rail connection, BART could say, terminate in downtown San Rafael, connecting to SMART/Golden Gate Transit..Or, SMART could be extended into Richmond, use the standard gauge UP/Amtrak right of way south to a redeveloped BART/Amtrak station at say, West Oakland or Jack London Square. Though, if SMART gets extended into the East Bay, then it really should be electrified(by that point, hopefully Amtrak will also have been electrified so it’d simplify electrifying SMART)…I don’t see why SMART was made a diesel train(unless it was done because it was cheaper).

  • Edward

    You are correct about being cheaper. Once the service gets up to running every twenty minutes, requiring double tracking the system, then you can think about electrification. Just for comparison:

    “In a
    presentation made today to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board,
    which owns and oversees the Caltrain rail service, the cost for
    electrification now is projected to be between $1.47 billion and $1.5 billion. The previous projection, originally calculated in 2008, was $1.2 billion. Nov 6, 2014

    The electrification will be 51 miles long. SMART as presently operated is 43 miles long. The cost of building SMART was much less than the cost of electrification of Caltrain, but the systems are definitely different. Keep that in mind.

  • Kieran

    Now that makes sense about SMART..They were cheap so it’s a diesel instead of electric train and obviously when ridership grows, it’ll be a completely double tracked system. Hopefully that all comes to pass..

    I know that SMART and Caltrain are different systems….SMART obviously uses much smaller rolling stock and won’t have Caltrain’s ridership for some time to come..However, if SMART can take advantage of say, a transportation grant(wishful thinking obviously) for instance, then that’d at least help pay for around 50-60% of improvements including electrification and double tracking then that’d help quite a bit, seeing as how it’d cost roughly a couple billion $ to truly improve it over time in the coming years

    Though in the long run I’d still like to see it electrified and running to the East Bay..It’d make sense to do it considering the impending growth of even more density in the Bay Area during the next few decades…A properly done SMART East Bay extension could definitely help out commuters.

  • Ethan

    Instead of expensive electrification, consider batteries. They keep improving a few percent each year. There’s also hybrids combining batteries with fuel cells. A liquid battery called “flow batteries” may be excellent for trains because they need the space trains can provide.

    In northern California over the next 10-20 years, I predict it’s going to be very challenging getting money for any project that isn’t a second BART tube, or HSR. During that time SMART might increase service frequency as demand increases. Perhaps in the 2030’s when SMART has a shot at something big and new, battery technology will have advanced to where electrification is no longer necessary.

  • Kieran

    Yea it’ll obviously be real tough over the next decade and maybe longer for SMART to get any real funding $, hence my point in that getting $ from any type of transportation grant(though very unlikely) would be a great way..Other than that I don’t see it getting too much $ overall….

    I’m not too high on battery-powered trains but I’ll look into flow batteries..Sounds interesting..You might be right in that by the 2030s battery tech could have rendered electric trains obsolete. We’ll see if that comes around by then.

    Though in the short term I am glad they’re working on getting the Larkspur extension done sooner than later….That’s unusually quick action for an extension being constructed considering how bureaucratic the Bay Area is concerning transportation.

  • helloandyhihi

    Sue the city.

    SF’s elected officials don’t care about transit. We should be fed up and try something new. Transit advocates aren’t a powerful constituency and that’s not likely to change. I say: copy pedestrian advocates in LA and use lawsuits to compel the city to live up to its transit-first promise.


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