Regional Transit and Equity in the Bay Area

Mark Cordes, Executive Director

There is a scene in the movie John Wick where the gangster kingpin explains to his son who John Wick is and says, “The bodies he buried that day laid the foundation of what we are now.”

Burlingame Transit, one of 11 agencies that became SamTrans in 1976

As we think about the history of development, transportation, and regional governance, we need to pay attention to the people and places in our community who were left out, paved over, and ignored. While those in power were not exactly gangsters, the legacy of racism and classism embedded in our built environment did, in fact, harm some and advance the fortunes of others.

The legacy of racism in our region is well documented in books like The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which outlines how federal policy drove racial segregation in housing and development decisions. This racism was explicit in exclusionary zoning and dejure codes like those that governed Daly City, until those codes were ruled unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948. Post-Shelley, a more obfuscated and de facto practice of segregation used redlining and neighborhood “security evaluations.” The results of these de facto and de jure policies are still very apparent today in our Bay Area communities.

When I was born in the 1960’s, my grandparents lived in a working-class neighborhood in San Mateo. My grandfather drove a truck and my grandmother was a homemaker. As of today, their house is valued at $1,750,000 (according to Zillow). There is no way a teamster — or frankly even most professionals — could afford that house today. My family sold that house in the early 1980’s, but that they had access to it in the first place was largely determined by their racial access to housing and a job that paid well enough. This access was denied to people of color outside designated areas.

One of the tools that could have mediated the marginalization of communities of color, working class, and poor folks would have been a useful public transit system to provide access to jobs, civic amenities, shopping, and services. However, the same policy and governance system that created and enforced segregation also planned and authorized transit. The result was that, in many cases, existing mass transit was removed in favor of less effective — and more expensive — travel by car. My father used to take mass transit from San Mateo to the Financial District in less than an hour. Our system today is an inadequate replacement for what was lost all those years ago.

Our region exists as it is because it was planned and created this way at a local level, with incentives and policies shaped by federal and state governments, at a time when planning and policy were steeped in racist ideas around segregation and access. The traffic we sit in, the inequity we see, the pollution we marinate in are all the result of these policy decisions.

A Brief History of Regional Planning in the Bay Area

Before the 1950’s, almost all decision-making regarding urban planning and transit in our region was the purview of local communities and their governments. There was some coordination, but it was simply inadequate to the challenges. As a result, our region as a whole is every bit as compromised by these equity failures as any particular city or county, because it can be no more than the sum of its parts. Further, we cannot escape that our region operated with — and in many cases still centers — many of the same values and incentives that undermine equity at the local level.

BART, 1974. Photo: Barney Peterson, The Chronicle

For example, the suburbs were created and made desirable compared to the cities in large measure because of “white flight” racism and isolation by social class. Regionally, BART was created to serve this suburban shift and enable regional access to the economic core. At the same time, the kind of localized service and regional connectivity that could have provided an antidote to marginalization and inequality was neglected. Ironically, San Mateo County rejected BART at the same time it finished dismantling the local services that my father used to get around the peninsula — only to later allow BART as far as Millbrae at much greater expense.

As I recall it, one of the tropes in my grandparents’ working-class white neighborhood was that BART would be a conduit of crime. This was a common racialized fear leveraged to great effect for far too long. In fact, this same argument was used very recently against BART building a cost-effective and useful regional connection to the Altamont Corridor Express station in downtown Livermore.

During the 1950’s, the Bay Area Council (BAC) was instrumental in trying to create a regional governance structure for the Bay Area with authority over transportation and development. Of course, this effort wanted to maintain the centrality of San Francisco and Oakland as vital centers of economic and political activity, influence, and power. The BAC felt that this kind of regional decision-making and coordination was critical to positioning the Bay Area as one of the major metropolitan areas in the country.

In the 1960’s, a variety of federal, state, and regional decisions followed on the BAC’s efforts. In 1961, ABAG was perhaps as much a creation of local governments to prevent regional governance from emerging as it was to solve actual regional issues. Parallel to ABAG, the Bay Area Transportation Study Commission (BATSC) was created but it lacked any real power. (It was intended to meet the basic qualifications of federal mandates for regional transportation planning.) The BATSC ended in 1969 after producing a report which recommended the creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). After a decade of federal legislation requiring regional planning and coordination for transportation with little progress to show for it, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) had enough of half-measures and threatened to withhold certification of ABAG as a regional authority, and therefore also withhold federal funds.

In 1970 the State Legislature created the MTC. The FTA’s pressure to make MTC the primary authority came at a time when BART and its scheduled debut in 1973 was also raising issues of regional coordination and rivalry. The concern was that in order for BART to work financially (and justify the investment) it needed to run near capacity. Running at capacity would require feeder systems to be implemented, meaning county financial support. In other words, a regional transportation authority was required on a variety of present and pressing issues.

When the MTC was created, the State Legislature did not provide funding for it. Further, the MTC’s Regional Transportation Plan of ’73 drew intense opposition from transit operators. These tensions, lack of funding, and lack of implementation authority all limited the MTC.

In 1974, in response to federal legislation, Governor Ronald Reagan designated the MTC as the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the nine county San Francisco Bay Region, which put the MTC in the position of allocating federal funds in larger counties. This was followed by Assembly bill 664 in 1977, giving MTC the authority to set toll schedules and allocate surplus funds from all transbay bridges.

MTC Commissioners

The governance model for MTC is a 21-member Board of directors made up of city and county appointees and representatives along with state and federal authorities. By design, these people represent their local politics more than the region’s needs for a cohesive, equitable public transit system.

Our regional transportation planning and funds distribution system was created as part and parcel of the same milieu as exclusionary housing, white flight, and the rise of the car at the expense of public transportation. The development of this regional body was driven by federal policy with a goal of regional coordination at almost the exact same time as redlining and other race and class-based policies not only ensured but exacerbated our present inequalities.

What We’ve Inherited: The bodies he buried that day laid the foundation of what we are now

If they were starting out today, my grandparents would live in Lodi and my grandfather would commute at least an hour to start his day at the warehouses in Tracy. If my grandfather was delivering to the Bay Area, he would do so and then load up at the Port of Oakland to return to his warehouse location. Most of his day would be spent in heavy traffic and it would not matter if he was on his or company time. (Actually it would all be his time because he’d likely be an independent contractor, but that is a whole other discussion.)

The point here is that our transportation system is every bit as infected with inequity as our housing and other development systems are today. In fact, I would argue that our transportation system writ large and our public transportation system in particular bear an undue burden of our equity and policy failures in housing and development.

Because of this problematic and racist past, and the regional struggles for resources and authority born from it, it is not altogether clear that our present regional governance is equal to the tasks of getting us to a sustainable future and addressing the equity needs so obvious today. In fact, if our history teaches us anything, it should teach us that unless the governance systems are explicitly built for equity and sustainability, they will not arrive at those ends on their own.

This is particularly evident when we see the gross inequities of our transportation system, which was largely designed to serve particular segments of our population at the expense of others. The worst performing line in San Francisco has been the T Third, which predictably, judging by our history, serves one of our last remaining black communities. Despite good intentions behind the T Third, we still cannot manage to center equity and accessibility with our current system.

It is no coincidence that the T Third line also serves communities most burdened with car ownership. This is not a chicken and egg problem. Car ownership and traffic are endemic to that community precisely because of the effects of our racist past and our inability to truly address that wrong to date.

At a regional level, this same pattern plays out on a larger scale with the same effect. Insufficient resources and priorities mean that today, AC Transit and Muni were the only two agencies leaving riders at the curb during COVID while some suburban systems banked funding from COVID relief and did little to expand service.

How To Move Forward

As we ponder the future of our region and its transit system, it is critical that we acknowledge the past and how it impacts all of us today. It is very important that we ask hard, serious questions about how regimes and incentives formed our governance, policy, and technocratic systems with values that are anathema to us: namely, racism.

There is a lot of interest today in building a regional public transit system that can lead us to a sustainable, accessible future. There are people getting involved in various organizations to wrestle with the challenges our transit system faces. In recent years we, as a region, have discussed major regional transportation funding, integration of fares and service, the suburbanization of poverty and resulting compounded lack of access, and other important and interrelated issues. These conversations are good, overdue, and necessary for us to figure out our way forward.

I would respectfully suggest that as we have these discussions and organize our advocacy, we need to center the communities most negatively affected by past decisions. By centering these communities we have a chance to design efficient public transit that best serves all of the Bay Area. We have a chance to allocate resources equitably, and not just based on what seems politically popular in the moment. Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat the tragic history that we struggle to redeem today.

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