Is Bay Area Transit Stagnating Under the Weight of Oppressive Zoning Codes?


Posted on 28 September 2012

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By Robert Cruickshank

I've seen Matt Yglesias's post on Los Angeles's transit expansion get passed around a lot online recently. It seems as if everybody's writing their "omg L.A. is building huge amounts of transit!" post, and that's great, it helps sustain momentum for more rail and shifts the view of L.A. away from being car-dependent. Maybe that can even help build support for Measure J, which would fund more rail in L.A.

For me, the story of rail expansion in L.A. is a familiar one. What I found interesting and different about Yglesias's post was its subtext that L.A. is doing much more than the Bay Area when it comes to transit expansion. Yglesias was writing about L.A., but his eyes were focused further north:

The usual response to too much traffic in the United States is to strangle growth. New development would mean more cars would mean more traffic, so cities adopt rules to block new development.

That's how San Mateo County between San Francisco and Silicon Valley managed to muster a measly 1.6 percent population growth in the past decade despite enviable access to two of the highest-wage labor markets in America. Over the past 20 years, however, L.A. has chosen the bolder path of investing in the kind of infrastructure that can support continued population growth, and shifting land use to encourage more housing and more people….

While the Bay Area and many Northeastern cities stagnate under the weight of oppressive zoning codes, L.A. is changing—by design—into something even bigger and better than it already is.

Here again Yglesias is going over familiar ground. In May 2010 I asked Has Northern California Abandoned Mass Transit?, a question others have been asking since. L.A.'s huge expansion of rail is striking in part because the Bay Area isn't embarking on anything like it.

So is Yglesias right to argue, implicitly but clearly, that L.A. is thriving while the Bay Area is stagnating? And are "oppressive zoning codes" the core of the problem?

I'm not sure the comparison is entirely fair on the basis of transit expansion. Keep in mind that the Bay Area has a 30 year head start on L.A. when it comes to building out rail in its urban core. But L.A. is catching up fast. BART has 104 miles of tracks; Metro Rail is at 87 miles. With the upcoming expansion projects, whether funded by Measure R or the upcoming Measure J, Metro Rail will easily pass BART.

But the Bay Area isn’t standing still. BART to San Jose is under way. SMART is about to begin construction to bring rail service from Santa Rosa to San Rafael. Caltrain electrification is going to happen. The Central Subway is about to start tunneling.

Unlike L.A., San Francisco never abandoned rail entirely. A few cable car lines were saved, but more importantly, so were some of the Muni streetcar lines. The Muni Metro is a workhorse of transit, in need of some more capacity and more routes but still getting the job done.

SF is more dense, but L.A. is no slouch. The City and County of San Francisco has a population density of 17,000 per square mile, with the City of Los Angeles at 8,000. But if you compare metro regions, it's L.A. that is more dense than the Bay Area.

It's density that is part of the underlying story, both in terms of Bay Area transit and in Yglesias's article. L.A., with a lot more low-cost land in an urbanized area, has more ability to add density than much of the Bay Area, where land costs are a lot higher. Yet one reason land costs are higher is, ironically, because of successful efforts to prevent density.

Those anti-density zoning codes, whether the legacy of anti- "Manhattanization" activism in SF in the '70s and '80s or the desire of some Peninsula and Santa Clara County residents to remain locked in sprawl, are Yglesias's target. With more density comes more demand for mass transit. And with fears about density come fears of transit. Anti-density attitudes are a big part of the opposition to improved Caltrain and HSR service in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, as well as the anti-bus rapid transit activism in Berkeley.

And yet even that isn't the whole of the story. While the Subway to the Sea is the project in L.A. that gets the most media attention, a lot of the new miles of tracks are being laid out in the San Gabriel Valley, where the Gold Line will serve sprawling suburbs. I'm fine with that, since suburbanites need rail too. But it does challenge Yglesias's underlying assumption that "oppressive zoning codes" are a reason why transit isn't taking off in the Bay Area. Zoning codes in the San Gabriel Valley are pretty strict too.

As I pondered this question last night, it seemed to me that the main issue separating transit in NorCal versus transit in SoCal wasn’t density, nor was it political will. It's money.

Los Angeles County, as a single political entity, simply has an easier time raising revenue than the nine-county Bay Area region. Getting Measure R over the 2/3 hump in 2008 was no small feat, but Santa Clara County did the same thing at the same election to help bring BART to San Jose. L.A.'s unified political clout is key to their hopes of landing the federal loans needed to make the visionary 30/10 plan work.

For the Bay Area to see a second growth spurt in rail to match the BART construction spurt of the 1960s and 1970s, one has to put together the political leadership of numerous counties and major cities behind a single package that will provide benefits for each constituency. That's no easy task. It's not that the politicians are hopelessly divided. No, it's that getting a package that gives something to everyone requires a lot of money to be spent. Building new transit lines in SF or Oakland is pretty expensive, but gets a big boost in riders. New tracks in the suburbs are less expensive but bring fewer riders (which, to me, isn't a reason to not build BART extensions - the suburbs need trains too). A regional package has to knit something together that offers everyone a piece. The price tag for that won't be cheap.

Ultimately, the Bay Area faces a much more challenging political task than L.A. Would Measure R have passed if voters in Orange and San Bernardino Counties had to weigh in and be subject to the tax increase? SMART only passed because it got enough support in Sonoma County to overwhelm a less enthusiastic Marin County electorate - and that was in its second try. BART saw three counties - Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Clara - drop out of the system before construction began in the 1960s.

Anti-density and anti-transit attitudes aside, I think you'd have a pretty hard time finding a majority of Bay Area voters who oppose funding more mass transit. It's just not that easy to actually get a ballot initiative in front of them. But figuring out how to solve the riddle should be a priority for the Bay Area, as BART begins to near capacity in the central core and as the need becomes ever more urgent to provide everyone with an affordable and reliable alternative to lighting oil on fire in order to get around.


Robert Cruickshank writes on California politics at Calitics and California High Speed Rail Blog. This article was originally published at California High Speed Rail Blog.