Air Quality & Emissions, MTC, Regional Transportation Plan, SB 375, Transit Villages

Laying the groundwork for a Sustainable Communities Strategy

Last month the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and regional partners released the Initial Vision Scenario, a document that lays the groundwork for the Bay Area’s Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS).  MTC and ABAG will develop an SCS with the goal of reducing regional per capita vehicle emissions 7 percent by 2020 and 15 percent by 2035, in accordance with the greenhouse gas reduction targets that the Bay Area was assigned by the State Air Resources Board (ARB).

In 2013, MTC will publish an update to the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP).  The 2013 RTP, consistent with previous RTPs, will outline the Bay Area’s transportation needs and priorities in relation to the funding that is expected will be made available for investment in the region through the planning horizon.  This time, however, the RTP will include and be coordinated with the SCS.  The essence of the SCS, as described in Senate Bill 375, is

a forecasted development pattern for the region, which, when integrated with the transportation network, and other transportation measures and policies, will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles and light trucks to achieve, if there is a feasible way to do so, the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets approved by [ARB] …

The SCS will essentially serve as a blueprint that calls for focused growth in the region, preferably in established urbanized areas that are accessible by transit and are designed to encourage walking and biking.  The Initial Vision Scenario, which is a preliminary step in the process toward developing the SCS, compiles information on those urbanized areas and estimates their capacity to absorb new growth.  The Initial Vision Scenario asks the region as a whole to accommodate a population increase of 2,081,600 people (in 902,600 households) and 1,222,000 jobs by the year 2035.  These totals are based on aggressive annual growth averages that outpace historical trends (e.g. +48,800 jobs/year for the next 25 years compared to about +10,000 jobs/year for the past 20 years).

MTC’s calculations at this stage suggest that the Initial Vision Scenario achieves 11 percent per capita emissions reduction by 2020 (exceeding ARB’s 7 percent target) but only 12 percent per capita reduction by 2035 (falling short of ARB’s 15 percent target).  This represents a slight improvement over the existing RTP, but these numbers are preliminary.  The Initial Vision Scenario is not a comprehensive analysis of all relevant factors, and its suggested distribution of growth does not represent the final housing allocation that will ultimately be adopted.

The Initial Vision Scenario’s suggested distribution attempts to minimize sprawl by housing 97 percent of new households in the Bay Area’s existing urbanized areas.  Most growth is allocated to Priority Development Areas (PDAs), which include areas that local governments had previously identified (before SB 375) as preferred growth zones within their respective jurisdictions.  By incorporating into the SCS these local land use plans, which are already approved or at least have some local support, MTC and ABAG seek to develop an SCS that is a collaborative product supported by regional consensus.

Initial Vision Scenario - Growth Distribution

PDAs and Growth Opportunity Areas identified in the Initial Vision Scenario. Courtesy of MTC/ABAG.

Local “Planning Assumptions”

During the legislative negotiation in Sacramento that led to the passage of SB 375, local government advocates lobbied to have concessions inserted into the bill ensuring that cities and counties would retain full authority to regulate land use within their respective boundaries.  More generally, the SCS may not contravene the federal requirement that regional decisions conform to recent local “planning assumptions” (for example, general plans).

Local governments in the Bay Area have already enshrined in their general plans the broad principle that it is desirable to grow through transit-oriented infill growth rather than sprawl, and many jurisdictions have taken concrete steps to implement that broad principle — by developing transit villages and specific plans that support higher densities at transit nodes, by rezoning downtown areas to accommodate more growth, and by setting urban growth boundaries.  Indeed, as noted above, the PDAs reflect the areas that local jurisdictions themselves identified as the best places to grow.  The fact that local planning activities are generally consistent with the framework that SB 375 envisioned would be advanced by regional governments suggests that the Bay Area may be well-situated to meet SB 375’s demands.

Yet even so, MTC and ABAG are walking a tightrope, and generalities notwithstanding, the devil is in the details.  One cannot help but wonder, for instance, how the Initial Vision Scenario’s statement that the area around the future Berryessa BART station in San Jose “will have grown into [a] vibrant residential communit[y]” housing 8,024 households and a mixture of neighborhood amenities will be reconciled with what has been planned for the flea market site — about 2,800 units, including low density single-family homes and a gas station approved by the city in 2009.  Although the Initial Vision Scenario is grounded in local planning efforts, MTC and ABAG allocated additional units to some PDAs that exceed local growth estimates — only “for discussion purposes” at this point, of course.  The Initial Vision Scenario also distributes growth throughout the region based on the uses and characteristics of each locality, without evaluating whether the market would support the suggested number of units in those places.

Moving forward, MTC and ABAG will need to correct the Initial Vision Scenario’s many limitations and complicate its simplifying assumptions.  Doing so will reveal the challenges the Bay Area faces in developing and implementing a realistic SCS.  The Initial Vision Scenario assumes new transit improvements, which include sixty miles of dedicated transit lanes and substantially increased capacity through higher frequency service, particularly for light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail lines.  It does not deal with the technical and financial challenges associated with making that assumption a reality, including the existing regional funding shortfall for transit operations.  But the SCS must ultimately be consistent with the prevailing financial constraints in the RTP.  The SCS, unlike the theoretical Initial Vision Scenario, should not simply assume that transit capacity will be increased unless the RTP anticipates that the funding will be made available to provide that higher level of service.

The Initial Vision Scenario also forecasts a complete reversal of previous decades of sprawl by concentrating 97 percent of new households “within the existing urban footprint.” But as laudable as that goal is, being within the existing urban footprint is not the same as being close to reliable transit service.  Many parts of the Bay Area, although “urbanized” in the sense that they are not rural, are still not dense and remain quite auto-oriented.  It would be an error to assume that new residents of these neighborhoods will forgo driving simply because they didn’t move to an exurban greenfield development.  Thus, one task moving forward will be to determine how pedestrian and bicycle amenities can fill the gap in places where it’s not feasible to provide frequent transit — as well as to improve our ability to model how effectively these types of improvements translate into reduced emissions.  Another task will be to determine what additional measures, like pricing mechanisms, will be needed to achieve the 15 percent reduction target by 2035.

SB 375 creates a slippery balance of power between local and regional governments.  Metropolitan planning organizations are responsible for producing an SCS and may need to rely on locally unpopular measures to achieve the regional target assigned by ARB.  But at the same time, MPOs should collaborate with cities to ensure that the SCS has local support and creates actual changes on the ground.  Carefully crafted language in the Initial Vision Scenario suggests that MTC and ABAG are cognizant of this, but at this preliminary stage, the most interesting and difficult questions have not yet been addressed.


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