Published Tuesday, February 28, 2006, in the San Francisco Chronicle
In the Bay Area, bad traffic's part of the landscape
By John King
"We are aware that people seem now to tolerate the enormous time and
money costs of congestion and inaccessibility. We are confident,
however, that before very long these costs will reach the point
where they cannot be tolerated."
-- Regional Rapid Transit: A Report to the Bay Area Rapid Transit
Let me break the news gently to you, dear readers: Jammed roads are
as much a part of the Bay Area landscape as ocean views, oak-studded
hills and overpriced homes.
Or in the words of the rock band X, "We're desperate/get used to
Dusting off X's 1981 oldie is appropriate in light of the Bay Area
Council's apocalyptic pronouncement last week that a regional poll
found the most pressing concern of residents here is transportation.
"We've really shortchanged infrastructure in the state and in the
region over the past decade, and it's taken its toll," council
President Jim Wunderman proclaimed to The Chronicle's Michael
But as Cabanatuan observed in his article, transportation has topped
the annual survey at least 18 times since 1980. And why stop there?
Let's roll the clock back to 1955 -- when the consultant report that
led to the creation of BART took dire stock of the challenge of
navigating the region by car.
"Regional Rapid Transit: A Report to the Bay Area Rapid Transit
Commission" was the slab-like tome prepared by the Parsons
Brinckerhoff engineering firm and presented to the state Legislature
in 1956. The methodical analysis of growth patterns and demographic
projections radiates the peculiarly mid-century belief that a good
gray study could solve all problems. And the images show us a place
that in some spots is recognizable and elsewhere is changed beyond
recognition. There are the marshes of Brewer Island instead of the
suburbs of Foster City at one extreme; orchards where my parents'
Walnut Creek house now stands at the other.
But the text framing the study could be lifted straight from the
latest Bay Area Council poll. Only the numbers are off.
"Today's automobile age has brought with its miracles a level of
travel discomfort, cost and hazard that is critical," we're told in
an introductory section titled "The Problem." "In today's Bay Area,
home now for some three million people, traffic problems are
aggravating. With the population forecasted to increase by more
than 50 percent in the next 15 years, they loom as staggering."
Today's population: 7.1 million.
It's easy to snicker at the naivete of Ozzie and Harriet being
frustrated by the occasional backup. But then I turned the page and
saw a map showing the "peak hour travel times between adjacent urban
San Francisco to Oakland: 43 minutes. Oakland to Walnut Creek: 50
minutes. San Mateo to Palo Alto: 26 minutes. Richmond to Vallejo:
And so on. Slowly.
No wonder the 1955 study called for a rapid transit system "moving
the maximum number of people in the minimum time" -- and not just
today's BART, but an expansive web that wrapped south from Novato to
San Jose, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a deck placed beneath
the current roadway. In San Francisco there'd be an elevated line
along Lombard Street that slid underground at Van Ness and chugged
beneath Columbus for a spell on its way downtown.
Seduced by this vision of connect-the-dot convenience, it's
tantalizing to think how easy life would be if only the North Bay
and the Peninsula had bought into the system. If only "the orderly
installation of interurban rapid transit" had been "progressively
extended as the Bay Area grows."
Then reality kicks in.
Go back to the report's travel times; it has always been a chore to
get around this region. All the broad freeways we've added since
then make it possible to look at a map and think it should be a snap
to shoot from Pleasanton to Point Reyes. But was there ever a time
in the past 50 years when Bay Area drivers didn't feel besieged?
The other extreme -- fighting the asphalt -- hasn't worked either.
One example: In the 1980s and early '90s, there was talk of widening
and improving Vasco Road between Brentwood and Livermore, a north-
south passage between eastern Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
Critics blocked the idea, arguing that fewer lanes means less
sprawl, thus less traffic headed south.
Guess what: As eastern Alameda County grew, Silicon Valley firms
opened plants there. Brentwood started looking real good to high-
tech workers in search of cheaper housing -- and its population
has climbed from 7,500 to 40,000 since 1990, according to the U.S.
Census Bureau, even though Vasco is still two lanes.
For the record, the only three times in the past 15 years when
transportation hasn't topped the Bay Area Council list came at the
tail end of the recessions that hit early each decade.
Somehow traffic jams at rush hour aren't quite so pressing when you
don't have a job to rush to.
That's the root cause of the Bay Area's transportation mess: People
want to be here. You and you and you and me.
The pay is good, or the politics tilt in the right (left) direction.
You can't imagine buying artisanal bread anywhere else. So you stake
your claim and make it work.
If you change your mind, two other dreamers take your place. And
pretty soon they'll complain about the traffic, too.