April 21, 2015

Letter from Sacramento: Smart ways to spend $10 billion

Photo courtesy  Peter Thoeny on Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy Peter Thoeny on Flickr Creative Commons.

A couple of weeks ago, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins shot an arrow into the air that has enlivened a perennial debate about how California can pay for its transportation system.

During a speech to a transportation organization and through a press release, the Speaker proposed a plan to raise $10 billion dollars over the next five years—about $2 billion a year—to “address the state’s transportation challenges.”

The funds would be raised by shifting some money around within the budget, and then establishing a new road user charge. Almost as fast as you can say “pothole”, I started receiving emails from Club members around the state who were asking me what the Speaker meant by this proposal.

Why so much interest by environmentalists?

First, transportation is one of the single largest sources of air pollution in the state. That includes the smog and other ground-level pollution that damages hearts and lungs, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions that disrupt the climate. There are 33 million cars and light- and medium-duty trucks registered in California, more than in any other state in the U.S. And that number doesn’t include the big heavy duty trucks that carry freight around the state.

Second, road congestion in many parts of the state has become nearly unbearable. As Speaker Atkins noted in her speech to the California Transportation Foundation, Californians annually waste nearly $19 billion in time and fuel while stuck in traffic. The average San Diego traveler can expect to spend 67 hours a year waiting in traffic, while the average San Francisco traveler can expect to spend 80 hours stuck in traffic.

Third, the way we use transportation is changing, and will continue to change. A new report by the federal Department of Transportation identifies some fascinating trends in travel habits. A few notable trends include that per-capita vehicle miles traveled has been declining nationally since 2006, even before the Great Recession began. There is no single reason for this trend, but one notable one is that millennials—people between the ages of 18 and 34—are driving much less.

Whether because of pollution, traffic, or less desire or need to move, everything points to needing to approach the transportation system differently than has been done in the past. The standard practice by transportation agencies, including our beloved CalTrans, has been to focus on building highways and heavily traveled, multi-lane surface roads designed primarily for automobiles. All the indicators say that standard practice will no longer work.

In California, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) estimated in 2011 that the state has about a $193 billion shortfall in the amount of money needed just to fix and maintain the transportation system through 2020. And that doesn’t include money to improve the system, especially bike, pedestrian and transit improvements.

Speaker Atkins’ proposal for raising $10 billion for highways, bridges and roads deserves attention. It won’t make a huge dent in the funding shortfall predicted by the CTC, but her proposal can make a difference in how California’s transportation system adjusts to the new realities. If that $10 billion is raised and spent the same way as in the past, it will be like throwing good money after bad.

But, if the funds are distributed in a way that, for instance, insures that local road improvements include fixing potholes and making them friendlier to transit, pedestrians and bicyclists, then the money will make a long-term difference for the better.

If the funds are used to establish more transit express lanes on roads and highways, they will make a difference.

However, if the funds are just spent to build some extra highway lanes, the new funding won’t mean much. It won’t get us clean air, it won’t ultimately reduce congestion (except possibly for a brief period after the new lanes open), and it won’t provide the kind of system that California needs.

The Speaker’s office tells me that details for the funding proposal, including whether the user charge will be a real user fee based on vehicle miles traveled or some other metric or just a flat fee, are still to be worked out. That’s fair. It’s early in the two-year legislative session.

Speaker Atkins did a good thing by presenting the proposal. Transportation funding isn’t an easy discussion and it takes nerve to lead the charge.

Now everyone, including environmentalists, will be trying to help direct where the arrow lands. If you have a good idea about how to raise or spend those dollars, let me know.

Kathryn Phillips
Director, Sierra Club California

For a sustainable Bay Area, tracking the viability of a key smart-growth program

Priority Development Areas shown in pink. Image courtesy of MTC, 2013.

Priority Development Areas shown in pink. Image courtesy of MTC, 2013.

This article is the first in a series about the Bay Area’s Priority Development Areas, or PDAs, and the Sierra Club’s efforts to ensure that this critical smart-growth program is implemented successfully and sustainably.

In 2015, the Bay Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee will focus special attention on two related subjects: 1) working to make Priority Development Areas (PDAs) a success, and 2) attempting to shift the focus of county Congestion Management Agencies from congestion management to greenhouse-gas reductions.

PDAs, or Priority Development Areas, are areas targeted for infill development alongside public transit. Successful PDAs should be developed as “complete communities”—that is, they should provide amenities and services to meet the day-to-day needs of residents in a pedestrian-friendly environment. The goal of PDAs is to ensure sustainable housing growth even as the region’s population booms (by one estimate, the Bay Area will be home to an additional two million new residents by 2040). Successful implementation of the region’s PDAs should prevent sprawl, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide affordable housing, and preserve open spaces.

PDAs are the core smart-growth program of Plan Bay Area, the region’s integrated land-use and transportation plan. The integrated approach to regional development was a result of the California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (SB 375), which set regional emissions-reduction targets and required each region to develop a strategy to reach that goal. Plan Bay Area was the region’s roadmap to reaching required cuts to per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions of 7% by 2020 and 15% by 2035; and to sustainably house the influx of new residents.

Thus, the 2013 Regional Transportation Plan (Plan Bay Area) was, for the first time, the joint responsibility of the transportation agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), and the land-use and housing agency, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). As noted in Plan Bay Area, to meet the requirements of SB 375, “Plan Bay Area directs more future development to areas that are or will be walkable and bikeable and close to public transit, jobs, schools, shopping, parks, recreation and other amenities.”

This summer, the Sierra Club and Communities for a Better Environment settled a lawsuit brought against MTC and ABAG, the agencies in charge of Plan Bay Area. The lawsuit alleged several areas of concern with regard to the Plan’s ability to meaningfully address its stated goals of reducing climate change; securing the health and safety of vulnerable communities; and promoting sustainable growth. A key concern was the viability of PDAs in the first iteration of Plan Bay Area. The Sierra Club and others were troubled by the fact that some PDAs have little or no access to public transit, and that there was no guarantee as to what to expect in the future in terms of the provision of adequate service. Further, several PDAs are vulnerable to earthquake hazards or flooding from sea-level rise, while others potentially pose a risk to nearby natural resources.

One of the agreements reached in the settlement is that there will be an analysis of PDA performance before the next update of Plan Bay Area in 2017. The Sierra Club will support PDAs that ABAG and MTC demonstrate are likely to be successful. But if a particular area has flaws that suggest it will not be viable as a PDA, then it is not unreasonable for the responsible agencies to consider taking the area off of the PDA list and to stop providing funds to support its development.

MTC and ABAG have now begun work on developing the successor to Plan Bay Area. It will be interesting to see the PDA analysis as the new plan is assembled.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, which will appear in the April-May 2015 issue of the Yodeler. The next article will review two East Bay PDAs: one that looks like it will be a success, and another that has several troublesome factors.

— Matt Williams

The downtown Caltrain extension: vital to the future of the Bay Area

DTX project sketch map (1)In keeping with the Sierra Club’s principles, the San Francisco Bay Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee wants to make the Bay Area a less automobile-dependent, less greenhouse gas-emitting, less congested, and more equitable place to live and work. One important project that would go far toward helping the Bay Area achieve these goals is not getting the attention—or funding—it deserves. That project is the planned 1.3-mile extension of Caltrain from its existing terminal at 4th and King to the future Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco.

Adding Caltrain service to the spacious regional-transit center at First and Mission Streets will bring the new terminal to life and greatly improve connections among over 50 bus and rail lines. With Caltrain, the Transbay Transit Center will become the largest and most important nexus of transit lines in western North America—truly fulfilling its promise of becoming the Grand Central Station of the west.

The Bay Area has waited a long time for Caltrain’s downtown extension. In 1999, 69% of the San Francisco electorate voted for the extension of Caltrain to a downtown regional transit center.  Construction on the Transbay Transit Center itself is proceeding rapidly and completion is expected in 2018. Platform space for Caltrain (and eventually high-speed rail) is being provided on a lower level of the Center. Unfortunately, San Francisco’s politicians have been slow to pick up on the importance of the Caltrain connection, and funding has languished to the point where construction on the extension has been delayed.

When completed, the extension will connect the east-west BART and Muni Metro subways under Market Street to the 78-mile north-south Caltrain, running to Silicon Valley and San Jose and later, via high-speed rail, to the Central Valley and Southern California. With Caltrain extended and underground pedestrian links in place between the Transbay Transit Center and the Embarcadero BART Station, San Francisco’s new downtown transit hub will directly serve eight rail lines (Caltrain, BART, and Muni lines J, K, L, M, N, and F), as well as Muni, AC Transit, SamTrans, Golden Gate Transit, and other bus lines. The new terminal will be within easy walking distance of a 400,000-person employment center and over 10,000 new housing units.

The Caltrain connection will make every line serving the transit center more useful to more people. This, in turn, will encourage more transit-oriented development, both near the terminal and near other stations along the affected lines. The transit center’s value is already widely recognized, as evidenced by the astonishing amount of new high-rise construction that has sprung up in its immediate vicinity.

As with any large public project, Caltrain’s downtown extension needs significant funding commitments—in this case from high-speed rail and other state entities, as well as federal, regional, local, and private investment. Here’s a roundup of funding sources that have, or should, come through for the Caltrain extension:

  • State: High-speed rail will share Caltrain tracks and station facilities, substantially raising the costs of both the transit center and the Caltrain extension. Despite this, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has so far contributed nothing to the project.
  • Federal: The MTC has belatedly placed the Caltrain Downtown Extension in line for Federal New Starts funds, but this funding will come sooner if it’s backed by strong expressions of local support.
  • Regional: Caltrain’s extension will require toll-bridge revenues from the Bay Area Toll Authority and other regional funds. The MTC now has a new opportunity to help accelerate the construction of this vital transit-integrating facility.
  • Local: San Francisco’s contribution to the project has so far amounted to a miniscule 2.8% of the total budget, compared to its 34.8% contribution to the low-ridership Third Street/Central Subway project. A greater commitment from the City is warranted.
  • Private: Nearby landowners who benefit from the transit center have agreed to take part in a special Mello-Roos Improvement District Tax to fund the Caltrain extension and other related infrastructure needs. While some developers are now objecting to the new taxes, the city has not backed down.


The completed Transbay Transit Center with a Caltrain connection will provide tens of thousands of daily transit riders with highly efficient bus and rail connections. To make sure the extension is built without further delay it is essential that the public voice strong support for the project. Make your views known! Share this story with your friends. Write or call the MTC, Mayor Edwin Lee, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Peninsula Joint Powers Board (Caltrain), and your favorite newspaper or media outlet. Tell them to get behind the Caltrain extension project.

—Jerry Cauthen and Peter Lydon, members of the Bay Chapter Transportation and Compact Growth Committee

Contra Costa County Transportation Plan projects more driving

Photo courtesy of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.

Photo courtesy of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.

Transportation is the single-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the Bay Area, so it must be a key focus in our fight against climate disruption. Unfortunately, a new plan for transportation spending in Contra Costa County is projected to result in more driving, which would likely lead to an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Each of the nine counties in the Bay Area has a “congestion management agency.” One of the goals of the Sierra Club Bay Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee is to try to shift these agencies away from the hopeless cause of trying to manage congestion and towards beneficial work to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and light trucks.

In August, Contra Costa County’s congestion management agency, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, released a draft of its new 25-year Countywide Transportation Plan. The Executive Summary states: “By improving the transportation system, we can help address the challenges that a growing population, more jobs, and more traffic will bring. The [Countywide Transportation Plan] lays out a vision for our transportation future, the goals and strategies for achieving that vision, and the future transportation investments needed to promote a growing economy, advance technological changes, protect the environment, and improve the quality of life.” The Sierra Club contests the claim that this plan would protect the environment.

Alas, the Transportation Plan, which runs until 2040, states that it will result in a five percent increase in vehicle miles traveled per person—the opposite of the objective laid out by the Bay Area Regional Transportation Plan (“Plan Bay Area”), which calls for a ten percent reduction of vehicle miles per capita over the next 25 years. Greenhouse-gas emissions from cars are directly related to vehicle miles traveled, so the county’s Transportation Plan flies in the face of California’s goal of cutting the climate disruption-causing emissions.

The Bay Area Regional Transportation Plan (“Plan Bay Area”) contains a list of “performance targets.” Two of these are to “reduce per-capita carbon dioxide emissions from cars and light-duty trucks by 15 percent” and “increase non-auto mode share by 10 percentage points.” The County Transportation Authority does not disclose whether the Transportation Plan will achieve these targets, but given the projected increase in vehicle miles per capita, we can conclude that it would be incredibly difficult to do so.

As for congestion reduction, the County knows its Transportation Plan will not do much. The draft Plan notes, “Where feasible and beneficial, improve the throughput capacity of roadways while recognizing that these improvements will not, in the long run, eliminate congestion.” Despite this stated understanding, the Plan proposes to lay out $3.8 billion on building more freeway lanes. That money would be better spent on projects and programs that could lead to a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, such as  providing more frequent bus service or accelerating the Complete Streets program.

The Contra Costa Transportation Authority should withdraw its draft Transportation Plan and begin fresh on one with an overarching goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

—Matt Williams

Read more about Plan Bay Area in “Settlement puts Plan Bay Area back on track“.

Settlement puts Plan Bay Area back on track

Photo via Flickr.com/thomashawk.

Photo via Flickr.com/thomashawk.

On June 19, Communities for a Better Environment and the Sierra Club, together with Earthjustice as legal counsel, announced an agreement with the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) over a lawsuit related to the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), otherwise known as Plan Bay Area. This settlement is a victory for all Bay Area residents, ensuring that planning for the region’s transportation, housing development, and land management will meaningfully address the goals of reducing climate change; securing the health and safety of vulnerable communities; and promoting sustainable growth.

The litigation goes back to August 2013, when the social justice and environmental organizations filed a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act. Plan Bay Area (a 28-year, $292-billion master plan) was supposed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through smart growth programs and by improving transportation alternatives to driving. However, the plan did not provide information about the sustainability of the key smart growth programs, and did not assure adequate funding to maintain the region’s existing transit system. Plan Bay Area also took credit for reduced greenhouse-gas emissions for projects and programs unrelated to it, such as new statewide formulations for motor-vehicle fuels.

Further, there was no program for dealing with increased freight traffic, which poses health and safety risks for people living near busy truck and railroad lines (see “Oakland joins forces with neighboring cities to oppose dirty fuels by rail” on page xx).

Under the settlement, ABAG and MTC must be transparent about what the next regional transportation plan—likely to be adopted in 2017—will do to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Bay Area residents have the right to know how and to what extent the plan secures their health and safety, and that of the environment.

Plan Bay Area’s smart growth program is based on Priority Development Areas (PDAs) targeted for sustainable housing growth. For example, West Oakland Transit Town Center will have more than 6,000 new housing units built during the life of Plan Bay Area. The settlement requires that the next regional transportation plan provide the public with information about whether or not each of the approximately two hundred PDAs will be successful and sustainable. For instance, residents will be told if a PDA will be adequately served by public transit, or if it may flood due to sea-level rise.

The settlement also requires that the next regional transportation plan have a transparent and effective strategy for reducing air pollution from trains and trucks moving through populated areas such as West Oakland.

Subsequent to the environmental settlement, an Alameda County judge dismissed a related lawsuit by the group Bay Area Citizens, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, claiming that Plan Bay Area was unnecessary and would reduce property values.

—Matt Williams, Chair of the Chapter Transportation and Compact Growth Committee

Agencies agree to disclose environmental impacts of Bay Area Transportation and Housing Plan—Settlement lays groundwork for robust regional planning

Photo by Brandon Doran, flickr.com/brandondoran

Photo by Brandon Doran, flickr.com/brandondoran

Today the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments reached an agreement with environmental and social justice groups on litigation relating to their latest regional transportation and development plan, Plan Bay Area.

Plan Bay Area’s stated purpose was to reduce climate change pollution by planning for transportation, smart housing development and land management in the nine counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay.

In August 2013, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and Sierra Club sued the agencies for failing to adopt a plan that would meaningfully achieve these goals. Earthjustice, which represented the groups and was co-counseled by CBE, challenged the agencies for failing to provide information about the viability of communities targeted for development, for ignoring the public health effects of increased freight shipments through vulnerable communities such as East Oakland, and for taking credit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions which actually resulted from other greenhouse gas abatement measures unrelated to Plan (such as California’s low-carbon fuel standards).

Today’s settlement provides concrete benefits to all residents of the region.  The settlement requires the agencies to:

  • More honestly account for the Plan’s effects on greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Provide the public with information on how the areas targeted for housing growth, the “Priority Development Areas,” will be able to grow successfully and sustainably into the future (i.e., whether they are adequately served by public transportation, whether they are susceptible to sea-level rise); and
  • Examine how freight movement in the area harms already vulnerable communities, and take measures to mitigate those harms.

“This settlement provides the public much-needed information and lays a solid foundation for a better version of Plan Bay Area, which is due in 2017,” said Irene Gutierrez, Earthjustice associate attorney. “Everyone who lives in the Bay is affected by Plan Bay Area. This settlement provides area residents with insight into how they will be served by the agencies’ plan, and how their communities are expected to grow and stay healthy over the coming years.”

“This settlement requires the agencies to create a real plan for reducing the harmful pollution from trucks and trains moving freight through already highly polluted communities,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, staff attorney for Communities for a Better Environment. “It sets the groundwork for the agencies to start planning how the Bay Area will move toward zero-emission trucks and trains.”

“Climate disruption threatens Bay Area families and businesses, and passenger vehicles are a leading cause of this disruption.  This settlement provides residents and policy makers with important information about whether the next Plan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles,” said Matt Williams of the Sierra Club Transportation Committee.  “The settlement also provides the public with key information about the sustainability of priority development areas, which are at the heart of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring that area residents live near good public transit.”

Plan Bay Area is a multi-decade regional transportation and housing plan, covering transportation planning, housing development, and land management, for the nine counties around the San Francisco Bay.  The regional plan is meant to be revised every four years. The latest version of Plan Bay Area was approved by the agencies in July 2013. As mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Plan Bay Area was accompanied by an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Earthjustice represented the groups and served as co-counsel with Communities for a Better Environment in this lawsuit.  The groups challenged the agencies’ EIR for Plan Bay Area, alleging that the EIR for Plan Bay Area fell far short of providing the public with information needed to meaningfully participate in planning transportation and housing development in the Bay Area.

The settlement finalized today remedies those deficiencies by requiring the agencies to provide the public with more information about the environmental effects of the Plan.  The settlement provides the public with essential information about the effects of the Plan on transportation and land-use greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of freight transportation on public health, and the viability of communities targeted for development.  The gains achieved by the settlement lay the groundwork for a better regional transportation and housing plan in the future.

For more information about the Regional Transportation Plan, see “Sierra Club sues for better Regional Transportation Plan“.

SF Mayor Lee’s meter policy would make parking harder, congestion worse

If you’re the kind of driver who likes struggling to find a parking place, then you’re the kind of driver who San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is trying to appeal to with his campaign against parking-meter enforcement on Sunday afternoons.

As mayoral appointees, Boardmembers of the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA), which governs the city’s transportation system under the mandate “transit first”, were forced to approve the proposal. The mayor, who expresses a concern not to aggravate drivers when he will need their votes for major funding issues this November, proposed dropping enforcement of parking meters on Sunday afternoons.

The change was opposed by a wide spectrum of the community, ranging from the Chamber of Commerce and the MTA Citizens Advisory Council to the Sierra Club. Muni can not afford to lose the $9 million a year in meter revenues and fines. The obvious alternative, raising fares faster than the cost of living, would be disastrous for lower-income residents, the ones who depend most on transit services.

Drivers, too, benefit from healthy transit attracting people who would otherwise drive. Forcing even a small proportion of Muni riders into cars would cause disproportionate increases in congestion on streets that are already close to their limits for comfortable vehicle movement.

Further, the meters have helped assure a turnover of parking spaces. Now drivers will be forced to resume cruising around looking for empty spaces. Businesses will lose revenue when drivers give up coming.

So who are the losers? Transit riders, drivers, local businesses, and the environment? Are there winners? That’s hard to say.


Write to Mayor Ed Lee at:

City Hall, #200
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place
San Francisco, CA 94102

and the MTA Board of Directors at:
Attn: Roberta Boomer
One South Van Ness Ave., Seventh Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103

Encourage them to reinstate charging for meters all day on Sundays.

Howard Strassner, Executive Committee, Sierra Club San Francisco Group

SF Supervisors say no EIR on commuter buses

Three corporate shuttles at a Muni stop at Park Presidio and Geary. Photo by Sue Vaughan.

Three corporate shuttles at a Muni stop at Park Presidio and Geary. Photo by Sue Vaughan.

Update (May 9, 2014): On May 1 appellants filed suit challenging the policy.


Should San Francisco prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on its new commuter-bus policy (see April, page 7)? The Sierra Club thinks so, and so did the folks who filed an appeal of the Planning Department’s decision not to prepare an EIR, but on April 1 the Board of Supervisors rejected the appeal.

The Planning Department gave the project a Class Six “categorical exemption” from the requirement to do an EIR. “Class Six is a very limited exemption for data collection,” argued Richard Drury, attorney for the appellants. “Experimental management goes far beyond mere data collection, as does changing the law to make [the pilot] legal. [The administrators of the pilot] even admit to moving stops. That’s not mere data collection.”

The appellants’ attorney introduced evidence from the San Francisco budget and legislative analyst’s office that the private commuter buses may have impacts on infrastructure, bicycle and pedestrian safety, and socioeconomic displacement. He also introduced written testimony from a professional traffic engineer who claims there is a fair argument–a standard under the California Environmental Quality Act for requiring an Environmental Impact Report–that the Commuter Shuttle Policy and Pilot Program “may have adverse and significant environmental impacts.”

In addition, the California vehicle code prohibits any but common carriers from stopping in bus zones. “Does the city have the authority to tell shuttle operators that they don’t have to comply with the law?” Supervisor David Campos asked city attorneys repeatedly.

Other supervisors expressed concern about the impact of upholding the appeal on Vision Zero (see April Yodeler, page 7), a statement of purpose adopted by the Municipal Transportation Agency to improve street safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.

In the end, only Supervisors Campos and John Avalos voted to uphold the appeal.

The appellants have 30 days from the rejection of the appeal to sue. It is not known if they will do so.

Sue Vaughan, chair, Sierra Club San Francisco Group

Bike to Work Day 2014–Thursday, May 8

BTWD14_BannerThursday, May 8.

Take part in the San Francisco Bay Area’s 20th annual Bike to Work Day, a part of National Bike Month.

“Energizer stations” will be located along commute routes, where bicyclists can stop for refreshments, giveaways, and bicycling information or simply to be ‘cheered on’ by fellow participants. Energizer stations will be open during morning commute hours and some will even re-open during the evening commute.

More than one million Bay Area residents live within five miles of their workplace, an ideal distance for bicycling. The work commute only represents 23% of all trips; you also may be able to bike to shop, to school, for errands, and for social events. In a world concerned with climate change, pollution, congestion, and wasted time, the question should really be: why not bike to work? We expect hundreds of thousands of people to bike to work in the Bay Area, with many being first time bike commuters. Will you be one of us?


For more details about energizer-station locations, sponsorships, Bike to Work Week activities, and Bike to Work Day “after-parties”, see:

Alameda, Contra Costa: www.ebbc.org/btwd

Marin: www.marinbike.org/Events/BTWD/Index.shtml

San Francisco: www.sfbike.org/?btwd

Too many buses, too little information–SF needs to study shuttle buses and tour buses

Three corporate shuttles in a row at a Muni stop. Photo by Sue Vaughan.

Three corporate shuttles in a row at a Muni stop. Photo by Sue Vaughan.

Update (March 25, 2014): The appeal of the categorical exemption for the shuttle-bus pilot program will be heard at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

Controversy has been raging in San Francisco over the private commuter shuttle buses that ferry workers from San Francisco to South San Francisco and points south. The San Francisco Group of the Sierra Club calls for the city to enforce the law prohibiting private shuttles from pulling into Muni bus stops, as these buses have been doing for many years now, but also to find alternative stops for such private buses, charging the corporations or schools that operate the shuttles for the expenses.

In the meantime, the Club has also called for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the pilot program and policy adopted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) on Jan. 21. Key questions include:

  • do the buses serve a vital environmental purpose by getting cars off the road–or do they undermine Muni and Caltrain by diverting riders–or both?
  • how significant is the buses’ competition for curb and street space with Muni, Golden Gate Transit, and SamTrans?
  • do the buses contribute to skyrocketing rents, increasing evictions, and displacement of average to low-income San Franciscans to auto-centric suburbs?
  • what about the buses’ diesel emissions?

Without solid facts how can the city respond effectively? That’s why the city needs to prepare an Environmental Impact Report, under the California Environmental Quality Act, to assess the true impacts of these buses.

We do know that these shuttles–often large, sleek buses with tinted windows, and sometimes double-decker–have been pulling illegally into bus stops on Park Presidio, Haight, Divisadero, Fillmore, Van Ness, Mission, Valencia, and Noe for several years now, and seemingly in increasing numbers. This has happened as the Bay Area tech sector has been surging without a commensurate increase in housing near tech work centers such as Cupertino, Mountain View, Menlo Park, and South San Francisco.

The shuttles operate on behalf of Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, eBay, Box, Genentech, and other companies. Some shuttles also serve educational institutions, such as the Academy of Art University and the University of California in San Francisco. Some serve businesses within San Francisco.

Under the new program, the SFMTA will hold a few public hearings, restrict the private shuttles to about 200 stops, and charge the companies operating the shuttles $1 per stop per day. The Board declared that this pilot program is categorically exempt from the requirement to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

On Feb. 19 attorney Richard Drury filed an appeal of this declaration on behalf of appellants including Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee, the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, the League of Pissed Off Voters, and the Service Employees International Union. The appeal will be heard at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, April 1. The Sierra Club believes that the city needs an EIR to gather the kind of information needed for a sound decision.

Google has announced that it is donating about $6.8 million for two years of free Muni passes for low- and middle-income youth–a program that the Club supports–but this does not compensate for the ongoing obstruction of Muni service by the buses. And Google is just one of the many companies running the buses.

The extent of the problem

The SFMTA estimates that the private shuttles currently provide about 35,000 person-trips per weekday (about 5% of Muni ridership). Many of the trips are within the city, but a survey by the Regional Planning Department at UC Berkeley estimates that about 7,000 people use the buses to commute from San Francisco to the Silicon Valley, that about 20% of those riders would otherwise use public transportation if the private shuttles were not available, and that the availability of the buses–and the absence of adequate housing in the Silicon Valley–are influencing rider decisions to live in San Francisco. Close to 50% of those surveyed said they would drive alone if the commuter buses were not available, and another 40% said they would move somewhere closer to their jobs.

The UC Berkeley study also found that most of the people who use the buses to commute out of San Francisco make $100,000 or more, and are drawn to San Francisco’s walkability and cultural amenities.

In the meantime, housing prices in San Francisco have skyrocketed (up 10.6% in December 2013 over the previous year according to Trulia), and evictions are increasing. In particular, owner move-ins and speculator use of the Ellis Act to evict tenants are both going up. The Ellis Act is a state law, passed in 1985, that permits landlords, without necessarily selling their property, to evict tenants and get out of the business of renting. The Ellis Act was little used until the late 1990s and the start of the first tech boom. Ellis Act and owner-move-in evictions skyrocketed and then dropped back down a little after 2000 and the first dotcom bust. Now, both Ellis Act and owner-move-in evictions are going back up. In 2012 – 2013, according to San Francisco Rent Board statistics, Ellis Act evictions went up 81%, for a total of 116. Speculators who purchase a building with rental units frequently evict tenants under the Ellis Act and then sell the building at a vastly increased price to a group of people who share the mortgage under a tenancy-in-common.

Unknown are the numbers of tenants who are accepting speculator “buy-outs” not regulated by the Ellis Act or local ordinance. When tenants are threatened with Ellis Act evictions, they often accept buy-outs, getting more displacement money than when Ellis Acted out of their homes.

Tour-bus update (bus encounters of the third kind)

In October the San Francisco Group called for the initiation of a planning process to regulate tour buses throughout San Francisco (see Dec., page 4). The SFMTA, however, adopted a plan just for Alamo Square (similar to existing plans for other neighborhoods such as Seacliff and the Marina). It did not address the need for citywide planning.


Write to the clerk of the Board at Angela.Calvillo@sfgov.org and/or to your individual supervisor at:

City Hall
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, #244
San Francisco, CA 94102

or through www.sfbos.org. Urge them to prepare an EIR on the shuttle buses, and to study the problems of tour buses throughout the city. Your letter needs to be received before the appeal is heard on April 1.

Sue Vaughan, chair, Sierra Club San Francisco Group