Dick Spotswood: Planners keep pushing the bogus concept of transit-centered housing
Author: Dick Spotswood
Publication: Marin IJ
Regional governments tout the benefits of so-called transit-centered housing. The concept is at the heart of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s CASA (Committee to House the Bay Area) compact and San Francisco Democrat Sen. Scott Wiener’s new Senate Bill 50.
Superficially, it appears logical that people living in high-density apartments adjacent to rail, bus or ferry transit stops won’t need an auto to commute to work. Instead, they’ll take transit because it’s more convenient.
The reality isn’t so simple.
With transit-centered housing, the image that pops to mind includes a Manhattan or at least a central San Francisco, Philadelphia or Chicago level of public transit. There, with a century’s worth of transit infrastructure, they’ve crafted their bus/rail network to a stage of development where virtually every origin and destination is connected.
That’s crucial, because the 2019 commute doesn’t resemble the days of old when Bay Area suburban commuters were mostly headed to one destination: downtown San Francisco. Today’s commute, often involving two-employed resident households, resembles the crisscrossed lines of an old telephone switchboard running all over the Bay Area.
No doubt our region would be better served by a comprehensive transit network similar to that in greater London. To get there is enormously expensive and will, with America’s endless environmental reviews and litigious culture, literally take a century.
Let’s see if transit-centered housing works as promised in Marin. Presume our typical commuter lives at Corte Madera’s Tam Ridge Apartments, aka WinCup. The four-story 180-unit high-density complex is exactly the housing envisioned in SB 50. When approved, WinCup was touted as transit-centered housing next to a Highway 101 trunk line bus stop.
The time selected for this exercise is the 8 a.m. morning weekday commute. The destinations are six Bay Area employment centers. It’s a fair time for a test, because traffic is heavy and transit frequencies (public transportation such as bus, train or ferry) at their maximum. Travel time from WinCup to each destination by auto and transit is estimated using the smartphone Google map app.
From WinCup to:
• Montgomery and Market streets: auto, 33 minutes; transit, 55 minutes.
• UC Mission Bay Medical Center: auto, 42 minutes; transit, 1 hour, 18 minutes.
• UC Berkeley: auto, 28 minutes; transit, 1 hour, 40 minutes, via San Francisco.
• Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square: auto, 41 minutes; transit, 1 hour, 43 minutes.
• San Francisco State University: auto, 28 minutes; transit, 1 hour, 13 minutes.
• Oakland’s Alameda County Courthouse: auto, 27 minutes; transit, 1 hour, 17 minutes.
The transit commute from WinCup to downtown San Francisco and UC Mission Bay is competitive with driving. The ease of bus travel versus driving and parking makes it viable. Not so, trips from WinCup to San Francisco State, downtown Oakland, Santa Rosa or UC Berkeley. Ditto for jobs in San Mateo County. New Tam Ridge residents – much less those living farther afield – are necessarily going to drive to those jobs.
To promise that a high proportion of high-density transit-centered housing residents will regularly use transit without first providing a comprehensive transit network is intentionally misleading. For many destinations, you simply can’t conveniently get from here to there by transit, and MTC planners know it.
They push the bogus concept because there’s no other plausible rationale for constructing high-density units far from job centers. Big city politicians, big business honchos, developers and tech titans – the folks who pull the regional agencies’ strings – need more housing for their expanding workforce.
Whether the transit-centered housing theory works in practice is irrelevant to them. They’ll be enjoying big profits while average Bay Area citizens pay the price with increased traffic congestion, higher taxes and crowded schools.