As part of our series, Boomtown, we’re answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. Our first one comes from Chris Tann, who lives in south San Jose and gets stuck in congestion when he commutes alone to his job in Cupertino on Highway 85.

“When will the city and county planners actually think more than a few years ahead, and put in place the necessary changes to bring Bay Area transportation, both roads and public transit, into the 21st century?”

Bay Area transportation planners are actually looking many decades into the future, but the changes, as an Orinda city official once put it, will be “evolutionary rather than revolutionary.”

Moving more people around the Bay Area will require us to make better use of our current infrastructure, expand public transit, build dense housing around transit corridors and make the streets safer for people to bike and walk, according to three experts who study Bay Area transportation.

Express toll lanes, modern trains, buses that run faster and more frequently, protected bike lane networks and communities designed to give people more options to get around are the future. Getting there is going to take a long time, a ton of money and lots of political will.

“The Bay Area has the most robust transit system west of the Mississippi, and we need to build on that strength,” says Jeff Hobson, deputy director of TransForm. “We need to use our existing infrastructure better because that’s the cheapest way of serving more people, that’s the most cost-effective way of serving more people.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission confirms traffic congestion has gone up in the last six months, a sign the economy is booming. Traffic on the Bay Bridge is the highest it’s ever been, while highway congestion across the region has remained relatively steady over the years. There’s not going to be a quick fix to the Bay Area’s traffic woes akin to the highway boom of the 1950s.

“We don’t want to build our way out of this crisis,” says Randy Rentschler, the MTC’s legislative and public affairs director. “We need some strategic investment, we do. We need to fix some highways, we do. We need to widen some, fix some interchanges, we do. But we don’t want it to be what we are only doing here in the Bay Area.”

Express Lane Network

Transportation officials envision a 550-mile network of express toll lanes by 2035.
Transportation officials envision a 550-mile network of express toll lanes by 2035. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission )

One way transportation planners want to help ease the commute for drivers is by building a 550-mile network of express toll lanes, not expected to be completed until 2035. In express lanes, solo drivers pay fluctuating FasTrak tolls based on traffic while carpools, vanpools, buses and other eligible vehicles use them for free.

It will take a few decades to complete the network, but work is underway. There are now express lanes on southbound Interstate 680 between Sunol and San Jose, and on State Route 237 between Milpitas and San Jose. Two new lanes are being constructed on Interstate 580 between Livermore and Dublin. Chris Tann can expect an express route on Highway 85 sometime in 2016.

Of course, express lanes don’t benefit every solo driver. They benefit those who can pay. TransForm, which advocates giving people of all income levels more options to get around, has urged MTC to consider ways for low-income drivers to get discounts.

In a 2013 report, TransForm suggests toll money be used to expand bus service, instead of building more highway lanes. Existing lanes could be converted to express routes, the report says. The money could then be used to ramp up a network of public transit buses that would use the same express lanes, and move more people.

Building Housing By Transit

Construction cranes loom near Redwood City's train station.
Construction cranes loom near Redwood City’s train station. (James Tensuan/KQED)

Chris Tann is like a lot of commuters in Silicon Valley who don’t live close to work, and for whom a bus or train is not always an easy option. The built environment encourages people to drive. Private tech shuttles are one response to the lack of convenient, reliable transit.

Plan Bay Area, which provides a long-range transportation and housing vision to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourages new housing along transit corridors so people have the option of taking a bus or train, instead of driving.

Two-thirds of new housing production will be focused on the 15 Bay Area cities expecting the most growth. Topping the list are San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, and cities mostly on the Peninsula and in the South Bay.

Whether the new housing will benefit people of all income levels remains to be seen. Bay Area cities are drastically behind on their affordable housing goals, and it will take many years to catch up, barring bold action.

Expanding Public Transit

Transbay Transit Center construction.
Transbay Transit Center construction. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

A bullet train that whisks you from the new Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco to Los Angeles. A quiet, sleek BART train that runs 24 hours in a second Transbay Tube. A Muni bus that glides from Union Square to the Outer Richmond in a dedicated transit lane. An AC Transit bus that zips you from San Leandro to downtown Oakland. Transportation planners have got some big transit projects in the works, but some will take decades to complete. However, there is some relief on the horizon.

Bus rapid transit: By 2018, the first rapid bus lines in the Bay Area should be up and running in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco. Bus rapid transit works well because it frees buses from car traffic, allowing them to run faster in their own lanes. Level platforms and easy payment options allow seamless boarding for everyone.

BART:  BART’s $3 billion fleet of the future will come in installments over several years. The first cars should be running sometime in 2017, but all 775 cars won’t be fully integrated into the system until 2021, when the average number of weekday fare-gate exits is expected to increase from 400,000 to 500,000. BART service to Silicon Valley should be partially complete by 2017, but it’s not expected to extend all the way to downtown San Jose until 2025. Building a second Transbay Tube is gaining political support, but is still decades away. While 24-hour service isn’t in the foreseeable future, BART has beefed up overnight transbay bus service.

New Muni trains made by Siemens are expected to begin arriving in 2016.
New Muni trains made by Siemens are expected to begin arriving in 2016. ((Photo courtesy of the SFMTA))

Muni: The Bay Area’s largest transit system is also updating its fleet of buses and trains, and planning a rapid system that carries up to 70 percent of passengers. That involves making its most popular lines more reliable and efficient, and street changes that allow buses and trains to run quicker. Big projects include bus rapid transit on Van Ness and Geary, and the Central Subway, now under construction and expected to start service in 2019.

Caltrain: Caltrain is planning to electrify its tracks to run smoother, faster, quieter service with a new fleet of electric trains by 2021 that will replace most of its current diesel fleet. That’s not much consolation to Caltrain’s growing number of riders, but in the meantime it is planning to run longer trains with cars it recently purchased from Metrolink in Southern California, which will also add more capacity for riders with bikes.

Smart: North Bay transportation officials are currently constructing the first phase of a 70-mile train and bicycle corridor from Larkspur to Cloverdale known as SMART. The first leg from Santa Rosa to San Rafael is expected to be complete by late 2016.

Safe Streets 

Cyclists ride on green bike lanes on Market St.
Cyclists ride on green bike lanes on Market Street (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition/Flickr)

The Bay Area doesn’t need another highway boom, but what it does need is a boom in bicycle infrastructure, says Bay Area bike advocate Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition. 

Connectivity is key. Building low-stress protected bike lane networks around the Bay Area that connect to transit hubs is one way governments can get the best bang for their transportation buck: it’s cheaper and healthier.

“Every dollar invested in bike infrastructure comes back to you many times, whereas every dollar invested in transit infrastructure compels further expense in operating. Every dollar invested in motor vehicle infrastructure compels further expense in environmental mitigation and health,” says Snyder.

“There’s no reason,” he continues, “why any agency should be pinching pennies when it comes to bike infrastructure. That’s the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Some Bay Area transportation agencies do have new funding to improve street safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, thanks to voter-approved funding measures in Alameda County and San Francisco. That money will help fix potholes and redesign streets that are hostile to people biking and walking. Similar measures may eventually go before voters in other Bay Area counties, says Hobson.

However, no city or county except Alameda has the funding to actually build out a 21st century bike network over the next 10 years or more, says Snyder.

Community Process 

Getting transit and safe streets projects approved, funded and built in the Bay Area can be a big challenge. Projects face opposition and get watered down. Or sometimes they become mired in bureaucracy, and sit on shelves for years until transportation officials have the political capital to move them forward.

“Folks say they want things but then there’s a whole host of people who say they don’t, and the big challenge in the Bay Area is to try to find a consensus where people can reasonably agree, even though we’re always going to have lawsuits and difficulties,” says Rentschler of the MTC.

So, the bottom line: Change will come in increments, but it will take many years to get our transportation system into the 21st century.

Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.

What is the Bay Area’s Plan for 21st Century Transportation? 13 April,2015Bryan Goebel

  • TJG

    I wish they would continue the Central Subway north to Fisherman’s Wharf, then West to Ft. Mason, then south along Van Ness all the way to Market. Then go East across the bay. That would create both a second tube to Oakland, as well as connect Fisherman’s Wharf and Van Ness to the Market St. Corridor. The city is wasting its money ($400million) on Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit instead of realizing that Van Ness has huge potential for more.

  • Acommuter

    As more people move to the East Bay, the planners need to think about how to move people from the East Bay to the Peninsula. Currently, it is a nightmare to try to take public transit from the EB to the Peninsula. A transbay tube at or near the San Mateo bridge, BART continuing South on the Peninsula, and a Ferry from Jack London Square to San Mateo. We don’t need more freeways, we need more public transit options, that are frequent and reliable.

    • ash

      The last thing people who live in the peninsula want is more influx of commuters or residents. Stay out of the peninsula please. If you work here, move here. Chances are, if you work here you can afford to live here.

      • > “Chances are, if you work here you can afford to live here.”

        Well, if you ignore about most everyone in the retail, food, and service industries …

  • Mark Bellamy

    The biggest problem with public transit on the peninsula and San Jose is there is no way to quickly get to the CalTrain without a car. And the light rail isn’t it as it stops everywhere and is slow as molasses if you live in Campbell, Mountain view or other places not in central San Jose. A fleet of small electric or hydrogen buses providing local transit to the trains would solve a lot of issues. It is very effective in some places with corporate buses providing their employees transit to tech campuses. Train stations are basically the same thing, a fixed point the buses can convey people to.

    • MarinDem

      The biggest problem with transportation on the Peninsula is you didn’t want to participate from the beginning and pay your fair share of BART costs SO now you are playing catch up and will just have to WAIT and kick in some of that Peninsula money for services. As for San Jose and whatever County that is down there . . .well that’s another story of the little engine that ran way too slow while the population was growing way too fast ! Do you know the way to San Jose? LOL

  • Chris Tann

    One thing I would like to understand is whether the toll-lanes on Highway 85 will represent an additional lane, or whether they will simply be a conversion of the existing HOV lanes. If a new lane is to be added, then I see this as being worthwhile (or at least, buying a little extra traffic-relief for a short time). If it is simply a conversion of the existing lane, then I see the benefit as being minor, as the HOV lane is already backed up much of the time…

    • murphstahoe

      Adding a new lane on 85 would probably require billions of dollars of right of way acquisition somewhere…

  • Jameson Triplett

    SMART is a smart start to connecting Marin. So now lets plan to connect SMART to San Francisco via the golden gate and Geary st. Imagine a terminus where SMART connects to the Muni subway line under geary st… With it’s line up 101, you’d get thousands of people off of the roads in Marin and the GG bridge.

  • keenplanner

    There are many opportunities to make transit faster and more effective that would cost very little. Why aren’t there bus/hov lanes running all the way across the Bay Bridge? Drivers would whine, at first, but if the bus was faster than sitting in traffic, and cheaper than driving, let ’em. Same for the Golden Gate, which would complete the HOV network all the way to Santa Rosa, and allow buses to speed through congestion.
    Which leads me to wonder, why doesn’t the Van Ness BRT continue up Lombard to the GG bridge? GG Transit could utilize the BRT lanes to avoid the congestion on both streets.
    Combining most of the major transit agencies into one overseeing agency would save millions of dollars annually, and allow for more route coordination and efficient transfers between systems and modes, much like BART trains at MacArthur. Imagine a MUNI where you could jump off the 71 at Fillmore and know that there would be a 22 waiting.
    Bay area transportation agencies need to start acting like they’re more than an afterthought. Moving people by transit, bikes, and walking is much more important than moving cars, and is a much more appropriate response to an extremely serious climate crisis.

    • sfparkripoff

      Cars are constantly blamed for high greenhouse gas emissions by San Francisco transit agencies and the Department of Environment (DOE). Yet according to the DOE’s own commissioned 2010 Municipal GHG Emissions study by ICF International, gasoline-using cars represent only 9% of San Francisco’s GHG.

      Additionally, why are you so quick to blame cars for Citywide GHG emissions? According to DOE records, when the fossil fuel plants at Hunters Point closed in 2006 and the Potrero plant closed in 2010, the City’s GHG level plummeted by 11.6%. 33%of MUNI’s revenue is generated by car fees. Transit First and MUNI could not even function without the supportive revenue from cars. Does the Board of Supervisors, seriously believe it’s prudent fiscal planning to cut thousands of cars from the street AND lose nearly 30% of Muni’s car fee-generated revenue (which represents 33% of its budget)?

      Will pedestrians and cyclists make up the revenue that is lost? How many more new taxes will have to be put in place to support the Bay Area’s Plan for 21st Century Transportation?

      • 94103er

        So let me get this straight: You’re saying, oh, well, all the cars are funding Muni! Without cars, Muni can’t function! Because, you know, even if Muni runs a million more times more efficiently with a lot fewer cars obstructing the whole fleet, it’ll continue to suck taxpayers dry! But taxpayers aren’t enough to fund it anyway–it’s CAR FEES!!!!

        Are you really that stupid?

        • sfparkripoff

          Muni is the slowest transit service in all North America because of MUNI, and not because cars are obstructing their. MUNIs own drivers have filed a class action suit against MUNI because the Municipal Transit Agency, “has a practice of designing its routes in a manner that makes it IMPOSSIBLE for Operators to stay on schedule.”

          and your solution is to blame cars for “obstructing the whole fleet”. Muni’s work rules:

          1 Prevent Muni from hiring extra operators to cover peak periods of demand.

          2. Condone High levels of absenteeism

          3. Prevent management’s ability to discipline drivers for improper behavior.

          4. Allows Overtime to be paid based on vacation or sick days rather than actual time worked.

          Once again, your solution for all of these issues is to “give transit priority on the street” and to charge motorists a higher rate to subsidize MUNIS mismanagement?

          Are you really that stupid?

    • MarinDem

      LOL if you think anyone in Marin County is ever going to let anyone from SFMTA MUNI near our Golden Gate Transit System. Compared to MUNI taking a GGT Bus from Marin into SF is worlds apart – like riding first class in an airliner vs. taking the Greyhound!

  • sfparkripoff

    What is the Bay Area’s Plan for 21st Century Transportation? Regional Planners under Plan Bay Area have hatched an ill conceived plan to herd thousands of new residents into San Francisco under the guise of remaking SF into a “sustainable” city. National groups such as Complete Streets, Thunderhead Alliance, and others, have training programs teaching their members how to pressure
    for redevelopment, and training candidates for office. It’s not just about bike lanes, it’s about remaking cities and rural areas to their view of sustainability. High density urban development without parking for cars is the goal.

    These unelected bureaucrats believe that people should be rounded up off the land and packed into transit villages, close to employment centers along transit corridors. Of course with all of the new housing and TAX REVENUE cities can continue to pay out exorbitant salaries and pensions to public workers. Who wins? Developers, public workers, and their trained advocacy organizations share in the windfall of cash from redevelopment projects. Their plan is to restrict your choices, limit your funds, narrow your freedoms, and take away your voice.
    Learn more about Plan Bay Area at

  • MarinDem

    The ongoing problem with transportation is that by the time most systems come online in 10-years they will already be outdated or over burdened. Why can’t someone be smart enough to think about what will be needed in the future vs. building for the future based on today’s needs? Or building pie-in-the-sky projects like building a huge apartment complex near a transit center with hopes that those hundreds of residents will use public transportation when in reality it ends up putting hundreds more cars on the road from a single point and increased stress on parking! Best of luck, but better yet – can we get somebody intelligent who also has some common sense to go into the urban planning field?

  • alussier

    Nice synopsis, but leaves out a few major projects also on the horizon: Caltrain to downtown SF, connecting directly to BART and all Muni Metro lines. Muni Rapid Bus on 16th Street, connecting the Mission, Showplace Square and Mission Bay. Muni Rapid Bus on Geneva linking BART, Caltrain, Light Rail and the Hunters Point Shipyard. These are all programmed to be in effect in 10 years or less.

  • Dave Snyder is a lobbyist for the bicycle special interest group—and former head of the SF Bicycle Coalition. Like to hear from him which streets in SF are suitable for protected bike lanes. City Hall is pandering to the bike lobby with the Masonic Avenue bike project, which will eliminate 157 parking spaces to make protected bike lanes for an unknown number of future cyclists. But even that project has created a lot of opposition, and it’s likely to be a political fiasco with a lot of negative feedback.

    And why not some serious discussion of the high-speed rail project? Are even progressives beginning to understand that it’s a dumb project that’s not likely to happen?



Bryan Goebel

Bryan Goebel is a reporter focused on transportation and housing issues. He was previously the editor of Streetsblog San Francisco, and an anchor/editor at KCBS Radio. He's a lifelong Californian and has also worked at radio stations in Barstow, Redding and Sacramento.

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