Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

San Francisco Metropolitan Planning Organization Thinks Bigger

The way formal transportation planning works in the US is that it is "constrained," that is, projects are put in the plan based on their ability to be funded.  These projects are organized into plans at the metropolitan scale, created by "metropolitan transportation organizations," tasked by the US DOT with this responsibility.

From the standpoint of what I call "Transformational Projects Action Planning," important, visionary projects are often not on the table because they aren't inline for funding, require cross-jurisdictional support, etc.  (See "Why can't the Bilbao Effect be reproduced?")

Logos of transit agencies in the MTC's planning district area.

In my opinion, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay area is one of the nation's more innovative MPOs generally.

For example, they run the common transit fare card system for their region, rather than it being the function of one of the transit agencies.  But they do much more than that, with a wide range of planning activities, facilitating the creation of joint powers authorities that link jurisdictions in creating and operating services such as the Caltrain commuter rail program, initiating dock-based bike share for the region, etc.

The planning district for the MTC covers 9 counties.  By contrast, in Southern California, the counties are so big and populated that MPOs typically are county-specific.

The San Jose Mercury-News reports ("Got a $1 billion-plus idea to fix traffic, transit in the Bay Area?") that the MTC has just introduced a "challenge," a request for proposals for innovative ideas in "solving the region's traffic and transportation problems." From the article:
Last month, the regional transportation planning agency put out a call for proposals. It’s looking for big, bold ideas that would completely transform the way residents and visitors move around the Bay Area.

Don’t worry about cost, says MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler. The minimum price tag for capacity-adding transit or road projects is $1 billion, and there is no maximum.

“If we can get enough interest in a bold vision,” Rentschler said, “we can chase the money for it later.”

The problem, he said, is that government agencies are constrained — by what is politically feasible, by laws that require them to use existing funding streams when sketching out their visions for the future, by being focused on what is achievable in the short-term. Over the past several decades — ever since the BART system was envisioned and built — those constraints have led to small, incremental changes, he said.

… This competition — open to anyone with a good idea and complete with nominal cash prizes of $100 for finalists and $500 for the winner — is meant to break open that mold of thinking and focus not on improving what is already here, but imagining what could be.
As Daniel Burnham said:
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.
The due date for submissions is September 6th.

That being said, sometimes you don't have to do "transformational" projects in order to have big effects.  As pointed out in the Village Voice piece just referenced, signaling improvements on the Lexington Line (4/5/6) would increase throughput and reliability significantly.

Plus, that an MPO is being creative makes the MTC a big outlier in the context of transportation planning in the US.

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