Last week I wrote about the problems with Oakland’s transportation decision-making process. Existing problems include not only a lack of planning for future investment, but flawed approaches to oversight of public and private transportation projects for compliance with city goals, poor coordination with other cities and agencies, and an almost incoherent division of transportation responsibilities both within the bureaucracy and at the City Council level. A Transportation Commission is floated as one solution to that problem. Before thinking about what a Transportation Commission or other changes to transportation decision-making would look like in Oakland, it’s instructive to look at other cities’ approaches. I examined the transportation structures of a dozen West Coast cities, and Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan’s office shared their research on Transportation Commissions with me.
Rather than list all of the cities and their different approaches to transportation decision-making, I will summarize three different models of transportation decision-making and use representative examples. Many cities have advisory-only transportation commissions with no real power and a limited or unclear mandate for review, much like Oakland and its Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (which I chair). Some cities have Transportation Commissions with some real power, and City Council Committees that unify transportation policymaking. And two cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have powerful independent transportation authorities with a clear mandate and substantial, though appealable, authority.
Advisory-only transportation committees
Berkeley, Portland, and Seattle all have advisory-only committees. All three cities have both Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committees, with varying levels of oversight mandates. Portland and Seattle have regional transportation authorities, and don’t have city-level Transportation Commissions. Berkeley has a Transportation Commission, but its only role is advisory, and it doesn’t have a clear mandate (for example, the Planning Commission, not the Transportation Commission, reviewed both Bus Rapid Transit and the new ferry service). Berkeley’s City Council has no committees beyond Rules, so there’s no transportation committee; Seattle’s Council coordinates its transportation policy message to regional agencies with a Council Committee; and Portland has a very different governing structure than California cities. None of these cities encourage its transportation commissions to examine private development projects. All in all, these cities do not have a very different approach to transportation decision-making than Oakland.
Some independent transportation authority
Alameda, Long Beach, and San Diego are examples of a middle ground between advisory-only and authoritative Transportation Commissions. In San Diego, the Land Use and Housing Committee of the City Council hears all transportation-related issues, including parking and encroachments, making it easier to have a coherent policy. The city does not enjoy a Transportation Commission, or even a bike or ped advisory committee, but does have a Community Planning Advisory Committee and an Airports Advisory Committee, with substantial oversight over some aspects of transportation. Long Beach doesn’t have City Council Committees, but has an independent Public Transportation Commission that oversees its city-run bus system (Oakland, by the way, does have a city-run bus system, and is planning to expand it, yet has no transit authority figure).
Alameda’s Transportation Commission not only has a clear mandate to review transportation policy and the transportation aspects of major projects (and Environmental Impact Reports), but serves as the public appeal board for decisions made by the Department of Public Works. In Oakland, the Planning Director’s decisions are appealable to the Planning Commission, but other internal decisions are either unappealable or only appealable directly to the full City Council. By providing a venue to appeal decisions on minor encroachments, for example, the Alameda Transportation Commission relieves the City Council of some time-consuming tasks, while reinforcing the unity of the transportation decision-making. The Alameda Transportation Commission, however, has multiple vacancies, and Alameda does not seem to be doing a great job with transit planning (though at least they have some ideas!).
Transportation commissions with real power
Los Angeles and San Francisco have institutional structures devoted to transportation. The LA City Council has a Transportation Committee, and San Francisco has an independent Metropolitan Transportation Authority with significant power. Los Angeles operates a Department of Transportation (LADOT), unifying all transportation-related service in one organization, as does San Francisco, whose MTA arose from a combined Department of Public Transit and MUNI in 1999. LADOT has an advisory committee roughly equivalent to a Transportation Commission, with significant authority over transportation decision-making, including ambulance licenses, off-street parking, transportation planning, and encroachments; In SF, all such decisions are made by Mayor-appointed SFMTA. Both LADOT and SF have separate Taxi Commissions. The LA City Council and SF Board of Supervisors maintain ultimate authority over transportation decisions but rarely get involved on non-budget issues.
It is apparent that there are several models for expanding and unifying transportation decision-making with an independent body. For City Councils, the LA and San Diego model of placing all transportation issues in one committee seems to work well. But there is a huge difference between the SFMTA, whose decisions are hardly ever appealed to the Board of Supervisors, and the Alameda Transportation Commission, which is clearly subservient to the City Council and doesn’t have much budgetary authority. LADOT’s Board of Transportation Commissioners are invested with similar powers to the SFMTA, yet their decisions are more explicitly subject to City Council review.
The virtue of creating an independent authority would be to tap expertise in the community while relieving the Council of some of its more mundane duties, like examining encroachments. The BPAC is meant to advise city staff, yet has no mandate over anything but the bike-ped program so has to resort to wheedling to hear private or redevelopment projects. The LA Commission is structured to advise staff, but in reality has similar powers to the SFMTA, which is meant to be the final word. Both the Alameda and Berkeley Commissions are mandated to merely advise the Council, yet Alameda’s Commission has real power and unified authority while Berkeley’s has neither. Other cities vary in their Transportation Commission’s bureaucratic placement (ie, advising staff versus advising the Council), power and mandate, and scope of authority. Oakland has many models to examine when planning its own Transportation Commission, but which one is best?