By Jack Stubbs

The nine-county Bay Area, home to nearly eight million people, continues to undergo an immense transformation as commercial and residential development occurs at a rapid rate — creating a host of mounting socioeconomic and regional challenges around how local organizations and agencies can successfully build and enhance local transportation networks and infrastructure. 

“The transportation landscape in the Bay Area has shifted remarkably over the past decade or two, and it’s no longer enough to just focus on the problems that one county has; because while transportation dollars do operate within county lines for the most part, transportation issues very frequently supersede those lines…transportation routes used to be one-directional in the morning and reversed in the evening; now we’re seeing it go both directions,” said Alex Eisenhart, public relations specialist with SamTrans, about the U.S. 101 Mobility Action Plan (MAP), an initiative hoping to provide one more piece of the puzzle in solving the region’s transportation conundrum. 

Originally announced in Spring of 2019, MAP is a collaborative effort between SamTrans and project partners City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County (C/CAG), CalTrans, Metropolitan Transformation Commission (MTC), San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA), San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMTCA), non-profit organization TransForm and the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).

It’s no longer enough to just focus on the problems that one county has

MAP is also a multi-county effort to develop programs and Transportation Demand Management (TDM) policies to decrease travel time and congestion, prioritize more carpooling and high-capacity mobility strategies for the region’s residents and commuters and more accessible transportation options for lower-income communities throughout the Bay Area counties. 

While still in its initial planning stages, the initiative, which focuses on the U.S. Route 101 highway that traverses through San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, ultimately plans to address a host of transportation-related issues facing the residents of a rapidly-growing region. “We realize that we can’t build our way out of congestion issues, so we want to improve routes within our existing infrastructure. While the work we’re doing is primarily focused in San Mateo County, the infrastructure itself really runs through the entire Peninsula, from San Francisco down to the Silicon Valley,” said April Chan, CEO of planning and development with SamTrans. “We primarily focus on U.S. 101 and are looking at how we can help to move people using the spine that we already have and looking at what type of programs we can put in place to help move our residents — from home and work — throughout the corridor, where a lot of developments are being facilitated.”

The U.S. 101 corridor, which runs along neighborhoods that are home to more than 640,000 people, is currently not maximizing efficiency for the many Bay Area residents that utilize it. For example, only 22 percent of all vehicles on U.S.101 are presently carrying two or more people, and 78 percent of all vehicles that travel U.S.101 are carrying only one person, according to the project’s web site.

The web site and survey outlining the long-term objectives of MAP were released in summer 2019, while the first phase is expected to be complete by year-end 2019.

Spanning a significant and expansive geographical area comprising key Bay Area counties, the initiative is spearheaded by several local public and private agencies, one of which is Oakland-based non-profit TransForm. The hope is that MAP will not only provide a blueprint for how to improve regional transportation infrastructure but also open lines of communication in the longer-term between city agencies that are often looking to solve many of the same issues.

“This is an example of planning across jurisdictional boundaries that could also help give an example of how to do this…because unfortunately, a lot of planning [efforts] can be particularly siloed across so many different Bay Area agencies…there’s been a bit of criticism in that regard…that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, as long as agencies are working collaboratively,” said Chris Lepe, regional policy director with TransForm, who is spearheading community outreach efforts with the initiative. 

“[In terms of community outreach], all of the public agencies [involved with the plan] are working with TransForm…We are still trying to determine what the most appropriate community outreach efforts are. We are trying to reach out to some of the more community-based organizations [in order to] garner more input about how we can provide more access to these programs that we’re implementing,” said Chan. Once the planning phase for MAP is completed by the end of this year, the project team hopes to create an action plan further detailing the specific goals of the initiative and selecting a designated agency with which to partner.

Throughout the summer of 2019, the project team held a number of pop-up events and public meetings, sharing their recommendations with members of the public. These conversations served as a template of what MAP will ultimately accomplish in the longer-term and also hope to initiate more transparency and face-to-face conversations between the region’s agencies and the residents they serve, says Lepe.

“What we’re bringing to the table is ensuring that there’s an equity lens here, making sure that we’re really getting out there and engaging with some of the region’s disadvantaged communities of concern along the U.S. 101 corridor. We’ve done some workshops with key stakeholder groups, like affordable housing organizations and nonprofits like Youth Leadership Institute in San Mateo County and the non-profit Day Worker Center in Mountain View,” Lepe added. “We’ve spoken with people directly on the ground at transit stops, flea-markets and other community destinations and city events. So our add-value for the process, really, was reaching out to lower-income, disadvantaged populations, to advance equity as we look to move people along the corridor.”

Lepe hopes that MAP can ultimately have a farther-reaching impact on how infrastructure projects are coordinated and executed at the local level, beyond the U.S. 101 corridor in particular and reflect a paradigm shift in how public-private partnerships can collaborate to solve the region’s long-standing issues around transportation. “I think there’s definitely a positive trend here…public agencies are able to tap into certain segments of the community in deeper and more meaningful ways [and utilize] those pre-existing relationships with groups that we’ve established a lot of trust with over the years,” Lepe added.

A number of public agency and county employers as well as other partners have several programs and projects underway along the U.S. 101 corridor, all of which MAP will consider as a foundation on which to build. Some of those projects include express lanes (by late 2022, an express lane will run on U.S. 101 between Sunnyvale and San Bruno); transit improvements (SamTrans will begin piloting new express bus service in late 2019, and capacity will be increased on Caltrain through electrification by 2022); and Carpool 2.0 Rewards Program, wherein C/CAG and commute.org will incentivize drivers to utilize other modes of transportation. 

Various other in-the-works initiatives — joint efforts between public agencies and private organizations — reflect an increased interest in ensuring the long-term positive growth of the Bay Area region. Some of these include Plan Bay Area (PBA) 2050, led by MTC, Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and several local non-profits; Let’s Bike Oakland, a collaboration between Oakland city staff and community members to address historic and ongoing racial inequity by prioritizing and improving bike infrastructure for black and brown communities; En Movimiento, a transit plan that looks to improve the existing transportation infrastructure in East San Jose; and ReX Transit Network, a proposed new transportation system that will build upon the region’s existing rapid-transit and local bus systems. 

And while the increasing prevalence of community-oriented initiatives like MAP, among others, indicate that progress continues to be made in connecting the expanding Bay Area region, there’s a recognition that significant work still needs to be done at the local, practical level. “Transportation isn’t always at the top of the list [of priorities for projects] and might not even be on the list [at all]…[but] I think more agencies are coming to understand those needs and the great benefits that can come about from these collaborations,” Lepe said. 

In spite of the significant steps taken to bridge the gap between larger city agencies and local organizations and community members through ongoing initiatives, there remain very real financial considerations that need to be overcome to achieve goals around transportation and social equity for a rapidly-evolving region, thinks Lepe. “One thing agencies should be thinking about as they’re designing and budgeting for a public planning process is how great of a percentage of the budget they’re planning to use for community engagement more broadly.”

As these many initiatives continue to take shape due to the collaborative efforts of all those involved, significant work lies ahead to successfully transforming an initial data-driven vision into a viable proposition. “We’ve done a lot of good surveys and workshops and collected the data and feedback,” Lepe said. “And now that we’ve identified these potential transportation strategies, the question is where we go from here — to see what’s actually going to work for people on the ground.”

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