Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Vehicle Mileage Tax Coming Soon to California?

Editor's Note:  The MTC suggested a VMT (vehicle mileage tax) in June 2012 but was promptly denied. Caltrans will now install meters at on/off ramps which may have the same effect.  The motivation is to raise additional revenue and to make transportation more expensive so that people will be encouraged to use public transit.  Look for policies like this in California shortly.

from Atlantic Cities:

In Oregon, Pushing Ahead With Road Use Fees

In Oregon, Pushing Ahead With Road Use Fees


If the gas tax were a fuel gauge, its needle would be quivering pretty close to Empty. As great as hybrid, electric, and fuel-efficient cars are for the environment, each new one to hit the road diminishes gas tax revenue. Even if states increased the tax — which many have refused to do for far too long — its long-term viability as a funding mechanism is doubtful at best.

The most compelling replacement for the gas tax is a vehicle-miles traveled fee. From a funding perspective, a V.M.T. fee would certainly level the playing field: instead of paying road taxes at the pump, drivers would pay based on how much they drive. But for some people, the idea of having the government track their every movement is just too creepy to accept.

The state of Oregon is trying to overcome those privacy concerns by exploring options for being tracked in a mileage program. In a new V.M.T. fee pilot program, still in progress, participants can choose from five mileage reporting plans, ranging in transparency from invisible to opaque.

"We have to somehow, some way, have people tell us how many miles they've driven," says Mary Olson, a commissioner at the state's department of transportation, and also a participant in the latest pilot. "If you want to use technology to do that, you run into privacy issues. Some people are very sensitive about that. Other people like me don't care at all. You can't have one solution. You have to have multiple solutions."
Oregon has been way ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing V.M.T. fees. The state's first concept study, completed in 2007, concluded decisively that "a mileage fee could be implemented to replace the gas tax as the principal revenue source for road funding." Nine in ten participants in that study said they'd support a V.M.T. program moving forward

The new usage charge pilot program, which began in November and runs through the end of this month, involves about 40 volunteers from state government. Participants chose the tracking plan that best fit their privacy tastes and will pay 1.56 cents for each mile driven — receiving a credit for any gas tax paid during the test period. The idea is to make sure each tracking option works in practice.
"What we're trying to accomplish now is really the mechanics of it," says Olson. "The goal today is not to raise more revenue. The goal today is to try to figure out a collection system that is efficient and that we have confidence in and that addresses all the concerns the public has."

The five tracking plans vary in terms of oversight. Two are managed by the Oregon D.O.T., three by a third-party vendor. They also vary in terms of payment: some require setting up an online account tied to credit or debit information, others go the old fashion route of monthly bills payable by check.
The key difference is the tracking system. Two advanced plans track mileage data as well as movement with a G.P.S.; the advantage here is that users aren't charged a fee for driving on private or out-of-state roads — only public roads in Oregon. Two basic plans involve an odometer-type device that collects mileage data but has no G.P.S. to track movement. Users may end up paying a little more, but they're getting privacy in return.

The most primitive plan, for people who want the most privacy, uses no tracking device at all. Users pre-pay a flat fee that assumes a monthly mileage. At some point, say when the car gets official inspections, the odometer is checked and the difference between miles paid and miles driven is reconciled.

Olson has chosen the most advanced plan. She says she plugged a small device into her car's diagnostic port and set up an online account — the whole process took five minutes. She has a pretty typical commute pattern, going five days a week from her home in Oregon City to her office in West Linn.

She says that in December she drove a total of 336.6 miles, according to her online V.M.T. statement, of which 334.4 miles were taxed. Her V.M.T. fee came to $5.21, but she received a gas tax refund of $6.20. That left her account with a credit of 99 cents. To challenge the system, Olson says she used her car's actual odometer to track her mileage on private, non-taxable roads, and that figure squared nicely with the V.M.T. statement.

"The gas tax is a perfect tax. It's not invasive on the person using it and it requires very little effort on the agency that depends on that money for providing services," says Olson. "Trying to replace that is really difficult, because anything you try to do is so much more complicated than just pulling up to the pump and paying for gas."

The usual caveats apply when discussing a system V.M.T. As we pointed out last August, mileage fees don't exactly encourage greener cars. They also may be vulnerable to tampering and create equity problems, especially in corridors that lack transit options. (Some of those concerns can be addressed if a proper portion of the fee goes toward public transportation.)

Despite these cautions, Oregon is preparing to take its system public soon. The state legislature has prepared a bill that would implement a V.M.T. fee on all vehicles getting 55 miles per gallon or better. (The change only applies to car models beginning in 2015, however, and as currently written the law wouldn't go into effect until that year.) Olson says the bill will be introduced sometime in 2013.

"It has to happen," she says of a shift to mileage fees. "Realistically, given the age of the transportation system, and the demands of increasing population, you have to be prepared to raise the necessary funds to provide the citizens with the type of transportation system that they want."
Top image: Minerva Studio/ Inset chart courtesy Oregon Department of Transportation
Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of The King's Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America. He lives in New York

VIDEO: Light Rail Greatest Hits.

Should we expect SMART rail through San Rafael to be safer?

Monday, January 21, 2013

8 Urban Policy Ideas for Obama's 2nd Term

Editors Note: President Obama is a big supporter of Smart Growth and regionalist approach to government like ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments)that take away rights of local communities to determine planning according to local needs. No sooner had the polls closed when SMART GROWTH urban planners offered ideas to accelerate Smart Growth . Much of the funding for the urbanization of Marinwood-Lucas Valley will come from HUD and other federal programs. Here is an article printed in the Atlantic on Wednesday after the election:

8 policy ideas the president should feel more than free to steal. 

America's cities may not have been a focus of this year's presidential campaign, but the economy certainly was. And all the evidence we have is that our urban areas, where some 80 percent of us live, are the true drivers of our economy. If the next president wants to find a way to jump start innovation and entrepreneurship, consumer spending, the housing market, and yes, the creation of jobs, focusing on policy areas that strengthen America's cities is a no-brainer, regardless of party affiliation. (Or at least, it should be.)
And so below you'll find eight of our favorite federal urban policy ideas, gathered in advance of Tuesday's election results, that we now hope someone on President Obama's team will print out and tape to their forehead. Heck, why stop there: you can do it, too! [NOTE: This has been updated slightly since it first posted Tuesday evening, to reflect the results of the election]
Reform and cap the home mortgage interest deduction and spend the savings on low-income housing. Currently, the federal government funnels about $35 billion a year in housing aid to families making more than $200,000 a year through the widely popular but counterproductive home mortgage interest deduction. Yonah Freemark and Lawrence Vale made a strong argument for creatively restructuring this housing aid in a recent New York Times op-ed:

The National Low Income Housing Coalition (N.L.I.H.C.), working with Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, and more than 350 organizations nationwide, suggests reforming the deduction by converting it to a credit, capping eligible mortgages at $500,000 and using the proceeds to finance the National Housing Trust Fund.
This is a good idea: it would increase the number of middle-income families qualified for homeowners’ aid but reduce expenditures over all by cutting spending for the wealthy. Were about $30 billion in saved funds redirected to the poor, as the coalition proposes, federal funding for affordable housing could be almost doubled with no change in the deficit.
Raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon. This recommendation comes from the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles debt reduction commission. The gas tax, currently at 18.4 cents a gallon, feeds the Highway Trust Fund that pays for road infrastructure and mass transit across the country. The fund is on its way to insolvency, though (an ironic byproduct of the fact that we have more fuel-efficient cars and hybrids on the road today). In the long term, most experts agree that we need to move away from the gas tax toward some kind of user fee to fund transportation infrastructure, but in the meantime, nearly doubling it is our best bet. This will be wildly unpopular (with politicians and drivers). We should do it anyway. A slightly smaller hike of 10 cents has been projected to cost U.S. households on average about $9 a month.

Create a national infrastructure bank. Transportation is not the only infrastructure we’re bad at funding. The same applies to bridges, ports, waterways and energy systems. These projects are often funded by Washington according to earmarks, not actual significance. A new national infrastructure bank with an independent board could finance only those projects with the greatest regional or national value, leveraging private capital to pay for projects normally funded entirely with public money. This approach, similar to one that’s been used in Europe, Asia and Latin America, would also re-frame infrastructure as an investment rather than an expense. You can read more pleas for this idea here, here and here.
Reform the Federal Railroad Administration and enable regional high-speed rail funding. There's wide agreement that European-style high-speed rail would make the most sense here in the U.S. in the Northeast corridor and along the California coast. But neither will come to fruition until their two main obstacles are removed: the puzzle of how to ensure dedicated funding for them, and the dysfunctional Federal Railroad Administration.
On funding, we like former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit's idea of copying the strategies behind the original Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which owed its passage to "a lot of discussion, brokering, setting goals" with governors, as Babbitt puts it. Via Better Cities & Towns:
The biggest difficulty, he indicated, is that high-speed rail requires a dedicated form of financing. Would the country as a whole be willing to pay for a system serving seven or so states? That’s highly unlikely, said Babbitt. “There are 43 states that will say no to an earmarked tax.”
The way to overcome that obstacle is by establishing a gasoline tax that would be paid by residents of the Northeast corridor states, he argued. “That’s the lesson of the Interstate Highway Act. We need to get back to dedicated user fees. It should be focused on regional users.”
As for the FRA, thanks to our friends at Market Urbanism for tweeting this link to us earlier, which includes a brutal recap (written five years ago) of the agency policies that led to the debacle that is Amtrak's Acela service. We'll let
Amtrak's botched attempt at a high-speed train is a good case study in the problems caused by the FRA. As originally designed, the Acela was supposed to provide high-speed rail service on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston, New York, and Washington DC with speeds as high as 150 mph.
In order to procure the world's best off-the-shelf train for the least amount of money, Amtrak decided to buy an existing design from a European or Japanese manufacturer, who have decades of experience building and operating high-speed trains. The winner of this competition was a consortium of Bombadier and Alstom (the French TGV builder).
Then, in 1999 with Acela planning fully underway,
the FRA pulled the rug out by issuing regulations for high-speed rail service requiring trains to withstand 800,000 pounds force without deformation. The 800,000 figure is an arbitrary number dating back to the 1920s; this mandate has since been increased to 1 million pounds.
The buffering requirement confounded Bombadier. Train weight is of crucial importance as it affects the amount of track wear, noise, and energy costs. To meet the buffering regulation, the train would have to be significantly bulked-up. The result was a highspeed train nearly twice as heavy as its European counterparts. As such, the Acela has been described variously as a tank-on-wheels and a bank-vault-on-wheels. Indeed, an overweight train like Acela would be banned from the European high speed rail network.
Deploy social impact bonds. While we’re at it looking for novel funding schemes, this one would help pay for social programs that serve, for instance, foster children, criminal offenders, the mentally ill or drug addicts. These are the types of initiatives that tend to get hit first with budget cuts. But social impact bonds, already tried in Britain, could connect private investment to public good to keep such programs alive. John Roman and Jeffrey Butts at the Urban Institute explain how it worked in Britain here:
A social investment bank called Social Finance issued a 5-million pound bond to finance services for 3,000 recently released prisoners. Private investors, including community foundations and other charitable organizations, purchased the bond with the promise that if recidivism among the returning prisoners was reduced by 7.5 percent, they would receive a 7.5 percent return on their investment after six years, paid by the government. Even larger reductions in recidivism would result in greater returns.
Why would investors buy such bonds? Private donors, charities, and charitable foundations whose mission is to do good work and improve communities are betting that the profits they earn will allow them to do even more good work and more community development than they otherwise could. If the program flops, they are no worse off than if they had invested directly through grants.
Make “location efficiency” a thing and use it in federal policy. The Center for Neighborhood Technology popularized this idea with its Housing + Transportation Index measuring the two interrelated costs of living. Often, if you have a cheap house in the suburbs, you spend a lot on gas, while a more expensive apartment in a walkable neighborhood can come with dramatically lower transportation costs. This tradeoff speaks to location efficiency: How close is your home to the places you need to go – to your job, your grocery store and your favorite pub? Walkable neighborhoods are "location-efficient;" suburban subdivisions are not.
Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has begun to take a greater interest in this concept. Imagine if the federal government created a clear and unified definition for "location efficiency" and then used it as a metric to determine which local projects merited federal grants or other support. What if you could qualify for a larger federally backed mortgage on a "location-efficient" home?
Reform elections so they aren’t as chaotic as they were today. Seriously, why in America in 2012 should it take several hours of waiting in line to cast a simple ballot?
Some solid ideas to solve this, via our Atlantic colleague Andrew Cohen:
Congress ought to pass a "Voters' Rights Act," which guarantees a mail-in option and ensures significant early-voting hours for 10 days before a federal election. That would give working people -- you know, the real "middle class" -- four full days over two weekends to cast their ballot. Congress also ought to expand the scope of the Voting Rights Act, the venerable civil-rights statute, to force local election officials everywhere in America (and not just in Southern jurisdictions) to justify restrictions on voting rights.

And the next president, whoever he is, ought to quickly empanel another Commission on Federal Election Reform to investigate these partisan state schemes and recommend ways to achieve meaningful reform. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor should head that commission. And former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald should head up its investigative functions.
Invest in protecting our largest coastal cities from rising sea levels: The next president should do anything he can to reduce the carbon emissions that are contributing to global climate change. But the tragic truth is that even if America does everything possible to combat rising sea levels, sea levels are still going to rise. If Superstorm Sandy taught us anything, it's that we're well past due on discussing serious infrastructure solutions to this looming problem. Let's get started right away, while the political climate is primed. In the case of New York, here's five possibilities worth considering.
Top image: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Full article: 8 Urban Policy Ideas

Planners want to Move your job Downtown.

Editor's Note: This article is published by SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal) who are key influencers of policy for ABAG and the County of Marin which is behind the Urbanization of Marinwood-Lucas Valley. 

Job Sprawl in the Megaregion

How can we slow the decentralization of work in Northern California?
Region Image

Of the nearly 60 Fortune 1,000 companies in Northern California, only one-third of them are based in our megaregion’s central cities of San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Oakland. This sprawling pattern of job growth poses great challenges as the boundaries of the megaregion expand outward, resulting in unsustainable commute patterns and increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions. While many key industries of our megaregion’s economy are now based in these car-oriented suburbs, this sprawling pattern of employment must change if we wish to meet regional and statewide targets for addressing climate change.

In particular, the recent California state Senate bill 375 aims for transportation planning that reduces driving through better-coordinated land use planning. While the bill specifically discusses planning for housing, it is just as important for employment. We will not be able to reduce daily driving unless we investigate the matter of where jobs are located, and develop effective strategies to shift more work to locations that can be served by regional public transit.

In addition to its impact on the environment, the location of jobs is a key variable in the economic competitiveness of our regional economies. Long commutes on congested freeways reduce productivity. The spread-out pattern of work makes job access a challenge for people in lower-income households, who have fewer choices of where to live. Yet dense employment districts benefit employers as they share ideas, workers and clients. Proximity to other businesses — particularly in related industries — is an important factor in a firm’s competitiveness. This is best achieved when jobs and businesses are concentrated into centers.

This article outlines the problem of job sprawl, and offers a framework to address it. Our overall goal is to slow the continued outward growth of jobs from already developed employment centers, and to shift more commuters — wherever they work — into sustainable commute modes. We propose a four-part land-use solution to:
  1. Shift more work back into traditional transit-served downtowns, such as the central business districts in San Francisco and Oakland.1
  2. Concentrate more employment at suburban transit stations in "edge cities" such as Walnut Creek, Concord, Sunnyvale and Mountain View.
  3. Remake existing low-density office parks and scattered office buildings along highway corridors into higher density employment districts with the potential to be served by transit.
  4. Reform the self-enclosed, car-oriented corporate campus into a more sustainable model that may include increasing employment density while also bringing in other uses, additional shuttles and new transit.
Achieving these four goals requires policy interventions that shift the incentive structure for employers, developers and individual commuters.

Ultimately, we envision a polycentric megaregion where the various employment centers serve different roles, yet are all connected in a transit network. The shifting of work to transit-served areas reinforces each center (including the traditional downtown) as more businesses become connected to each other. This vision recognizes the multi-centeredness that is a permanent feature of our megaregion, but tries to reshape this geography for a 21st century in which non-driving alternatives are increasingly important.

job growth at urban suburban edgeThis graph is a jobs index comparing the jobs located more than 10 miles from CBDs to jobs located within three miles of CBDs. The dark blue sections show the difference in this ratio between 1998 and 2006. (For instance, the ratio for Phoenix is 1:1, meaning Phoenix experienced 100 percent more growth at its urban boundaries than it did in its city center.) The lightest areas show the values for cities within the Northern California megaregion.

Why the suburbs don’t have to sprawl

Suburbanization, or the outward movement of people and economic activity from central cities, has been a persistent feature of urban settlement for centuries. It is neither a contemporary problem, nor an issue specific to a certain city or country. But while every economically prosperous city in history has extended its boundaries by adding new residents and work settlements on its urban fringes, the first signs of suburbanization hardly resembled the low-density, auto-dependent and placeless pattern of development that we now know as sprawl.

By contrast, in the 19th century the suburbanization process was a logical extension of the city itself. While places like Brooklyn, New York and Lake View Township north of Chicago were initially located outside of the traditional city, by 1900 they were annexed by the growing city and no longer considered suburbs. Around the same time, many cities extended electric streetcar lines to residential communities called “streetcar suburbs.” These places were characterized by a streetcar connection through a main street commercial district. Parts of the inner East Bay such as Berkeley, Piedmont and the Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland were all streetcar suburbs. While these places today are praised for their liveliness and walkability, they facilitated an outward growth of metropolitan areas that helped fuel sprawl with the rise in private automobile ownership.

A more car-oriented era of suburbanization followed the declining use of streetcars. Before World War II, rising rates of car ownership fueled the development of suburban strip malls and manufacturing plants. (The issue of ‘whether jobs follow people or people follow jobs’ still remains unresolved. Some argue that the industrial jobs first left the city and then people followed the jobs — this was certainly the case for many of the Bay Area communities that grew to support shipbuilding industries during World War II.) Manufacturers were attracted to lower land and labor costs (particularly with the increasing advent of assembly lines) outside of city centers. And with the introduction of trucks, they no longer needed to be in city centers to utilize lower freight costs.

This pattern accelerated with the widening availability of homeowner subsidies and massive investments in highway infrastructure in the decades after WWII. Still, the most dramatic shift of employment centers occurred after 1970, particularly in office functions that had previously been located in downtown central business districts. As new service industries developed, locating employment in CBDs became unnecessary and expensive since most of the work could be done in remote office spaces using telecommunication technologies. As a consequence, many films built back offices in suburban sub-centers.

What is job sprawl?

Over the past few decades, employers have followed residents to the suburbs as the share of jobs in central cities has declined. In fact, most workers now live in one suburb and work in another, rather than commute back to the city. This process of job decentralization is the key factor that has facilitated job sprawl.
Yet what we call "job sprawl" is simply the spread-out organization of work into locations where the density is too low or that are too poorly designed to be effectively served with transit. As a result, the vast majority of commuters drive to work. Put most simply, the primary problem with job sprawl is that as work decentralizes, it puts more jobs in non-transit-served locations and means most commuters are unable to access work without a car.2

By contrast, when most jobs are in the core of a region, the "commute shed" — or the geographical area from which a region’s commuters originate — is fairly contained, and a higher percent of all commuters have overlapping commutes. Not only do most commuters live within a reasonable distance of their job (a commute of approximately 30 minutes), but many of them also have similar commutes, thus making transit investments highly effective.

But as more jobs move to the suburbs, each new job site has its own distinct commute shed. Suddenly, a "reasonable" 30 minute commute to this new suburban location can include a much more remote community now at the edge of the region. Because many of the edge communities have few economic development options, they often have city councils that are distinctly pro-growth and therefore willing to accept any development. In a region such as the Bay Area, where many of the core communities are generally anti-growth, pressure at the edge becomes even more intense. For example, as more work shifted to Concord and Livermore in the East Bay, commutes from places such as Brentwood, Antioch and Tracy became much more reasonable. The same holds true for job-rich Sacramento suburbs such as Rancho Cordova and Roseville, which makes living in the Sierra foothills viable.

Yet it is not the outward movement of jobs alone that is the problem. Instead, it is the disorganized, low-density form of employment that forces most people to use a car to make the trip between home and work. The more job locations there are, the harder they will be to serve efficiently with transit, particularly when the region’s commute patterns begin to look more and more like a spider web. In this situation, the most effective way to get from one place to another (or from home to work) is the private automobile. Public transit can almost never work where job density is too low and the residential origins are too scattered.

Over time, this process becomes self-reinforcing. As more jobs move to the suburbs, the commute sheds become more stretched out, and the edge sprawls farther out into farmland or natural habitats. And as workers increasingly move farther toward the edge of the megaregion, more employers will follow them and continue to perpetuate this cycle.

Today, the suburbanization of work is now a key driver of residential sprawl as the commute shed defines the edge or boundary of a megaregion. Reversing residential sprawl necessitates stopping job sprawl. Yet with more than half the U.S. population now working in the suburbs, stopping job sprawl is no longer about limiting the movement of work to the suburbs, but instead about reorganizing work within the suburbs to better meet the needs of a sustainable region.

us jobs by industry
Many of the jobs facing the highest decentralization rates nationally are key industries in the Northern California megaregion. For some industries, such as transportation and warehousing, decentralization is not surprising. But why are industries such as management, information and education moving away from central cities?

Why job sprawl is getting worse
As evidence that job sprawl is getting worse, we analyzed three trends: the decentralization of jobs, declining transit commute patterns, and increasing congestion and vehicle miles traveled.

Trend #1: There has been significant increase in job growth outside traditional downtowns
Since the 1990s, the share of jobs located within three miles of central business districts has steadily declined. Based on an analysis of the decentralization of work from the four central business districts or primary downtowns of Northern California (San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Stockton) during the eight-year period between 1998 and 2006, these CBDs experienced a net loss of more than 22,000 jobs, while jobs located 10 to 35 miles from these CBDs increased by more than 225,000.

Nationally, job growth out from the center has become a significant trend. Of metropolitan areas with more than 900,000 jobs within 35 miles of the central business district, all have experienced a decline in the share of jobs within three miles of the CBD and an increase in jobs 10 to 35 miles from the CBD.

Also, the rates at which jobs move outward in certain industries in the United States are increasing. Nationally, some of the most rapidly decentralizing industries are the same industries that are most important to the Northern California economy, and particularly to its traditional central business districts. Industries such as management, information services and education are experiencing the greatest share of relocation to areas 10 to 35 miles from CBDs. While it may not be surprising that manufacturing, transportation and warehousing are moving out into the suburbs and beyond, the trend of less cost-sensitive industries (for instance, knowledge services such as management of companies and finance) moving out poses yet another challenge for traditional downtowns, given that these are industries where the CBD is also most competitive. For example, nationally, 46 percent of jobs in "management of companies" and 42 percent of jobs in professional, scientific and technical services are located 10 miles or more from a traditional CBD.3

shifts in the location of jobs
Over the last 8 years, central business districts in Northern California have lost over 22,000 jobs. Meanwhile the number of jobs located 10 to 35 miles from the CBDs has increased by over 225,000 (that’s more than half the number of jobs in downtown San Francisco).

Trend #2: The number of commuters who drive alone to work has increased dramatically.
The share of commuters in the Northern California megaregion who drive alone to work has been increasing since the 1980s. Even in San Francisco, where transit ridership is historically and significantly higher than elsewhere in the megaregion, the share of commuters who drive alone has grown. This increase is in part due to the movement of jobs from urban cores to suburban office parks that are not as easily accessible to transit. It is also due to the growing number of professionals living in San Francisco and commuting to information and technology jobs in the Peninsula and South Bay.

Among counties in the Northern California megaregion, San Joaquin County in the Central Valley and San Benito County south of Santa Clara County stand alone in experiencing a decline in the share of drive-alone commuters — due in no small part to the advent of transit access in these areas. San Joaquin County saw a significant increase in transit ridership following the 1998 creation of the Altamont Commuter Express, which links Stockton to San Jose with daily rail service. San Benito County also experienced an increase in the number of commuters who use transit to get to work, once Caltrain was extended to Gilroy in 1992 and transit from San Benito County to the station was introduced. This suggests that improving transit access to areas where it previously did not exist can have significant impacts on commuter travel behavior.

Despite the increase in drive-alone rates, there is hope. More than 30 percent of commuters who live within half a mile of a regional rail station take some form of public transportation to work. Improving transit access for commuters, on both the home and work trips, can have major impacts on traffic congestion, the number of vehicle miles traveled, and greenhouse gas emissions throughout the megaregion.

Trend #3: There has been a rise in VMT and traffic congestion across the megaregion.
The spreading of jobs across the megaregion has led to major increases in daily freeway vehicle miles traveled, the percent of commutes spent on congested roadways, and the personal cost of congestion that those who drive alone to work must bear. In 1982, only 35 percent of peak hour travel in the megaregion was congested. Today, that number is closer to 80 percent. Congestion costs each peak hour traveler more than $1,000 a year in wasted time, fuel and resources. As jobs continue to move farther away from both central business districts and transit nodes, this trend is only going to get worse.

Transit or trafficIncreasing congestion has been a consistent feature in Northern California commutes. Not surprisingly, the total transit ridership per capita has scarcely changed. With future population growth, just maintaining our current high levels of congestion will require shifting many more people and jobs to places served by transit.

How to solve job sprawl
While reinforcing traditional downtowns is a key goal of the megaregional planning agenda, suburban job locations increasingly are a part of our economic landscape and thus invariably a part of the solution. Job sprawl cannot be stopped or reshaped without acknowledging this and finding a way to make more suburban jobs transit-accessible.

We propose four solutions:
  1. Put more jobs into existing transit-rich downtowns.
  2. Shift more work to suburban transit-served employment centers, often in or near "edge cities."
  3. Remake multi-tenant suburban office parks and scattered office buildings along highways corridors (our "edgeless cities") into more clustered, transit-served destinations.
  4. Redesign the corporate campus to accommodate significantly more work and to further reduce drive-alone rates.
All four of these land-use approaches are necessary to reduce the harmful impacts of job sprawl. But each also has limitations.

Solution #1: Put more jobs into existing downtowns with high transit ridership.
First, the simplest solution is to create more jobs and encourage more businesses to be situated in downtowns that already have high transit ridership, mixed uses, mobility and infrastructure. This was the argument SPUR made in its "Future of Downtown" policy paper. In Northern California, San Francisco and Oakland are the best examples of downtowns with healthy transit ridership: San Francisco has more than 50 percent and Oakland around 24 percent. Downtown Sacramento and San Jose trail significantly, but are ideal places to add jobs, particularly because both are investing heavily in transit and asserting themselves as the economic and cultural centers of the surrounding areas.

The key to making this model work is the right combination of transit infrastructure, market-based parking pricing, good urban design, a well-maintained pedestrian environment and, depending on the city, the overcoming of other non-physical business-climate issues — such as perceptions about Oakland’s public safety or San Francisco’s costs.

This approach is easier said than done.4 It is very rare in American urbanism to successfully restore a continuous pedestrian fabric to central city landscapes that have already lost their historic buildings and replaced them with blank facades and surface parking lots, but that is the ambitious planning agenda we call for. This approach also requires significant investment in peak-hour transportation infrastructure, keeping in mind that it is generally less costly than the auto-centric infrastructure required by other employment models. The successful central business district model of good transit and a pedestrian environment with limits on parking is the most successful and proven way to get commuters out of their cars.

While some may argue that the idea of shifting more jobs back downtown is an attempt to return to the pre-automobile pattern of the early 20th century, when each region had a more monocentric form with a single large downtown, our notion actually is more of an acceptance of the polycentric form of the contemporary region. Given the three types of downtowns considered in this essay, the solution of adding more jobs to downtowns results in a widely differentiated set of transit-served downtowns that range from Oakland to Berkeley to San Mateo to San Rafael.

But today, this model must coexist with other ways of organizing work.

Solution #2: Channel more suburban jobs into transit-served nodes and edge cities.
The second-best locational solution to job sprawl is to shift more employment adjacent to rail or regional transit stations in the suburbs. Suburban transit-oriented development nodes are emerging and have created the foundation for increased transit commuting to suburban job destinations. This can be achieved through a variety of strategies, such as building on surface parking lots next to stations, rezoning nearby areas and reworking the street grids, and ultimately by influencing more businesses to locate near these established nodes.

There are some drawbacks to the suburban transit-oriented development approach. Even a successful suburban job center likely will not approach the density levels of a traditional downtown, and thus it will be hard to achieve high transit ridership. Further, commuters will be coming from scattered places, thus making it easier and faster to go from home to work via car, even if work is at a suburban TOD. Ultimately, the level of transit ridership to these places will be based on the availability and price of parking at the job center, the pedestrian experience from the station to work, and the density and transit accessibility of the commuters’ homes.

Solution #3: Create denser suburban job corridors.
The third locational solution is to remake existing car-oriented employment centers. These places are the low-density office, lab, retail and industrial spaces that spread along or near highway corridors and proliferate throughout suburbia. The places include buildings such as the Zhone headquarters along I-880 or Vacavalley Business Park. These edgeless areas are the hardest to address, in fact, because their employment densities are low and their employees are spread out. Additionally, in some places the land values are low, thus making it harder to increase densities.

Some of these edgeless cities do not have any rail transit today, but may be getting close to appropriate levels to support it. According to a well-known 1977 study, 8,000 people per square mile is the minimum residential density necessary to support rail investment.5

Solution #4: Reimagine the corporate campus.
The fourth locational solution is about remaking the traditional corporate campus, which is typically a relatively dense job center with a single tenant. There are several ways to accomplish this. First, there should be an expansion of the successful shuttle programs of employers such as Genentech, Apple and Google. For example, as many as 50 percent of workers employed at these companies (who live in San Francisco) take shuttles to work. This rivals the share of commuters taking transit to downtown San Francisco.

Second, there should be an increase in the number of jobs at each campus by building on the seas of parking and landscaping that surround existing buildings. With less parking, companies could begin to charge for parking and provide the revenue to transit commuters. Less parking and landscaping is also a cost-saver to the company. As employment density increases over time, new transit could be brought to the campus.

Third, the self-enclosed design should be opened and better integrated with the surrounding community. University campuses remain places of innovation and intellectual protection while also being more open to outsiders. This remaking of the campus could also involve integration of other uses such as retail and even housing to the campus and the areas immediately around it.

improving regional transit reduces driving
The number of Northern California commuters who drive alone to work has been steadily increasing since the 1980s, except in areas where regional transit access has been improved. For example, after the creation of the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE), transit ridership in San Joaquin county rose by 1,137 people daily. Similarly, when Caltrain was extended to Gilroy in Southern Santa Clara County — with shuttles linking San Benito to the stationridership in San Benito jumped from 302 to 2,248 commuters per day.

As this article argues, solving job sprawl does not involve a single approach. We live and work in a polycentric region with a wide range of employment locations, each with a slightly different opportunity to capture future job growth. We also cannot be naĆ­ve and assume that the traditional central business districts will regain a majority share of regional jobs, even if this would be the most effective strategy to reduce overall driving. But we certainly can push to make sure that employment throughout the region shifts to more appropriate places. This strategy is the only viable approach to solving the worsening challenge of job sprawl, which in turn is one of the major causes of residential sprawl. Over the next year, SPUR will explore this issue further, refining its approach and developing policy solutions. If we are serious about stopping sprawl, we need to be just as focused on jobs as we are on housing. END


1 See "Recentering Work: The Future of Downtown San Francisco," March 2009, where we argued for channeling job growth into transit-rich cores, like downtown San Francisco.
2 We are focused primarily on office sprawl. While many jobs in an economy do not require offices (retail, distribution, construction, production, etc.), the majority of work in the megaregion is directly tied to an employment center that is primarily a collection of office buildings.
3 Kneebone, Elizabeth. "Job Sprawl Revisited: The changing geography of metropolitan employment." Brookings, 2009.
4 An example from the City of Oakland demonstrates the challenge of increasing parking prices. When prices were raised to help fill a budget hole, local businesses staged a strike by shutting down their businesses, thus forcing the City Council to reverse the parking rate increases indefinitely. While well intentioned, this approach of ramping up parking costs can backfire if residents and local business owners perceive the increase to be more about paying local salaries and less about managing congestion or ensuring that there is always a free parking space. Reversing a poorly executed increase in parking prices can push back an improvement to parking management for years.
5 See: Pushkarev, Boris S. and Zupan, Jeffrey M. Public transportation and land use policy, 1977.

About The Authors

Egon Terplan is SPUR’s regional planning director. Graduate students Shelma Jun and Lesley Miller, and Ph.D. candidate Bige Yilmaz, assisted in research and writing for this article. Research for this article was funded with generous support from the Clarence E. Heller Foundation and the Wallace A. Gerbode Foundation.

From THE URBANIST Issue 485 • September 2009