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Does Oakland need a new approach to transportation?

There has been a lot of talk lately about the perceived need for a Transportation Commission in Oakland, particularly after the City Council was forced to admit that they had no other use for over $100m in transportation funds that would be available if the Oakland Airport Connector were cancelled. Oakland is a city almost wholly dependent on transportation connections, yet there is little or no long-term transportation planning. This blog is an attempt to start a conversation about a Transportation Commission, and solicit comments on what the purpose and nature of such a commission would be.

To those paying attention to transportation issues, there is a growing consensus that the status quo is unacceptable. There are many recent examples of the city’s failure to adequately plan for transportation improvements. While the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans enjoy staff members dedicated to ensuring their mandates are carried out, there is no other example of city plans with follow-through. The aborted Uptown parking lot is a great example of this problem: despite an Uptown transportation plan calling for diverting most car traffic off Telegraph at 20th St, the Redevelopment Agency proposed a major car infrastructure project on Telegraph below 20th. Only Chinatown organizations appear to have any contact with the City of Alameda regarding its huge proposed development on the former Naval Air Base. And beyond a single Bus Rapid Transit line, there is no major transit infrastructure improvement planned for Oakland.

These are issues of planning and follow-through. But there are also ongoing issues affecting transportation that are unaddressed or poorly addressed. The best example is the new Kaiser Hospital project at Broadway and MacArthur. Despite pleas from members of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, the Planning Commission never held a separate hearing on the transportation aspects of this major project, and as a result, Building Services recommended sealing off a well-used pedestrian and bike route from Shafter Avenue to Mosswood Park. Only after a coordinated effort by bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and a great deal of goodwill from Kaiser Hospital, is the problem due to be fixed (the median will be cut through, and a pedestrian signal installed, early next year, and bike access is planned after all hospital construction is finished). All of this grief could have been avoided had there been a discussion of the transportation impacts of the project when it was moving through planning.

There are other examples of ongoing failures to address transportation issues. AC Transit finds it very difficult to work with Oakland to change bus stop locations, and so mostly doesn’t bother. BART and Oakland don’t talk to each other about issues like taxi stands and loading zones around or in stations. The Port doesn’t coordinate with the city on the ferry service that it has signaled it will stop subsidizing. There is only one inter-agency working group that I know of, which is the Policy Steering Committee for the Bus Rapid Transit project, and one of Oakland’s representatives, Larry Reid, hasn’t shown up for a single meeting despite being scolded publicly by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. Taxi stands go in and out on the whim of the City Administrator. Unlike most cities, Oakland doesn’t provide any city transportation services, ambulances are unregulated, and there’s no city agency with authority over transportation issues – even the Transportation Services Division of CEDA is hobbled by scant mandates over some important aspects of transportation policy, like Building Services’ authority over driveways and medians, and Planning’s jealous monopoly over the citywide rezoning.

The lack of coordination on transportation extends to the City Council level. Transportation issues are split up among different Council Committees, making it harder to have a coordinated policy: parking fees are at Finance, investments and most policies go to Development, most right-of-way issues go to Public Works, and taxi regulation goes to Public Safety. Meanwhile, Oakland’s representatives on major transit agencies are scattershot: Rebecca Kaplan is our representative to ACTIA (the County’s main funding agency for transportation), Jane Brunner is our representative to the MTC-ABAG Joint Policy Committee, and CM Reid is Oakland’s voice on the Congestion Management Agency, which is the County’s transportation planning authority. A casual observer of transit issues will know that these three Councilmembers don’t see eye-to-eye on transit issues.

Though Oakland’s economy and cityscape is defined by transportation more than any other factor, the city has ignored transportation planning and has no coordinated or formalized means of addressing a whole host of transportation issues, from parking ratios for new buildings to bus stop locations. There is absolutely no planning whatsoever for transit improvements, and, frankly, CM Reid seems to be intent on preventing Oakland from making any transit investments now that he has approval for the Airport Connector, using his positions on the Congestion Management Agency and the Bus Rapid Transit Steering Committee to undermine BRT without doing anything that his bus-dependent constituents would even notice. In 2006, the Mayor’s Transportation Task Force recommended (PDF) creating a Transportation Commission “to develop. implement, and prioritize transportation strategies,” yet this idea was only half-formed and didn’t address many of the problems outlined above.

Can these problems be addressed with a Transportation Commission? Does the City Council have to restructure its own appointments and committee system in order to address transportation issues? Do City agencies need to be reorganized in order to create a Transportation Department, or can the Task Force’s suggestion of a “go-to person” and a working group be sufficient? Do you agree that the issues outlined above are real problems, or is Oakland doing just fine transportation-wise? Like almost everything else that came out of the Mayor’s Task Forces, the Transportation Commission idea has gone nowhere, but if the idea is worthwhile, there may be an opportunity to revive it. But that begins with identifying the problem. In this case, the problem may be bigger than the proposed solution.

UPDATE: I added a link to the Transportation Task Force report (PDF).

Posted in actransit, airport, alameda, bart, berkeley, brt, california, citycouncil, development, janebrunner, kaplan, larryreid, oakland, planningcommission, taxis, transportation, zoning.

17 Responses

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  1. Robert says

    I would certainly agree that Oakland needs a much better coordinated transportation policy. But perhaps because it is ill defined, I don’t see how this proposed Transportation Commission would accomplish that. In an ideal world this would all flow out of the transportation element in the master plan, conformance monitored through the city staff. With staff, council, the mayor and various commissions all at odds with each other at times, I struggle to see how another commission would help? Now if you can articulate what this commission is supposed to do, and how it would accomplish it, I am open.

  2. Mike d'Ocla says

    Good points about the lack of planning. What you’ve left out are the goals that define contemporary urban transportation and land-use planning. For example, creating and revitalizing the economies of the urban center(s) and neighborhoods, pollution reduction, improvement of quality-of-life. All these are important goals and the strategies needed to get there are easy to find. They include: more pedestrian and bicycle facilities, strategic, well-informed parking policy and infrastructure, improved public transit.

    Without these goals and strategies incorporated in all Oakland planning, this city will continue to go nowhere.

  3. Steve Carney says

    A Transportation Commission, as does the Planning Commission, would also serve the purpose of putting important issues on Staff’s radar that otherwise may be ignored. A TC would add a layer of bureaucracy and generate more work for an overburdened transportation staff, but unless Oakland’s transportation challenges are being addressed by our City Councilmembers and City upper management, which is not currently happening, then a TC would benefit Oakland residents, not to mention our economic interests and the environment.

  4. V Smoothe says

    Oakland’s transportation planning is fragmented and ineffective, there’s no question about that. But it seems that a large part of the problem is institutional disinterest in comprehensive transportation planning. I’m not sure if a Transportation Commission could solve that problem.

    For example, at a recent Rules Committee meeting, staff attempted to agendize an update on AC Transit’s BRT project for a committee meeting, and Council President Jane Brunner refused to schedule it, saying simply “we’re all pretty aware” of the project and that more information was unnecessary. If we had a Transportation Commission, they could hear the update on BRT. But as long as policymakers remain disinterest, would that review accomplish anything for the City? I’m not sure.

    At a minimum, we need project-level review of the transportation aspects of significant projects. Such review should consider transportation impacts of project design, as well as compliance with the City’s various transportation-related adopted policies. Is a separate Commission needed to accomplish this? I don’t know. Perhaps a Transportation Subcommittee of the Planning Commission would suffice.

  5. Mike d'Ocla says

    V sez: “But it seems that a large part of the problem is institutional disinterest in comprehensive transportation planning.”

    That’s exactly right. I began working with nonprofits 20 years ago (in Seattle) in promoting alternative urban land use and transportation policies (they are of course intimately tied together). I attended the first “Car Free Cities” conference in Amsterdam in about 1990. Mayors and planning officials from cities from London to Athens were in attendance. I was the only person from the U.S. there.

    European urban regions, and Canadian as well, can succeed in implementing long-range environmentally- and economically-sound transportation planning. In Europe and Canada, regional transportation agencies create thoughtful plans and have the power to see them through. Here transportation planning is all about turf battles, city public transits systems vs one another vs BART vs the paving industry. Our regional transportation agency has is powerless.

    Some cities, like Portland, Oregon have succeeded in doing the right thing primarily because of the long-term commitment of well-informed citizen groups and a strong larger sense of community which is lacking in the Bay Area.

  6. Mike d'Ocla says

    Robert: “Sounds like we don’t need a commission if you already have all the answers.”

    Why not try this:

    1. Read some books about urban/transportation planning. What has worked well and where. There’s lots of information out there.

    2. Contribute here something that you have actually spent time reflecting on. Your snarky put-downs reveal not much more than your adolescent developmental level.

  7. ralph says

    I believe this was stated previously but what bothers me is not a lack of transportation policy but is an undefined goal of what Oakland should be be and provide. Then I ask how do you create a transportation policy that facilitates the goals of the city and addresses the concerns of the city it serves.

  8. Naomi Schiff says

    Backing up a little, what kind of commission? Oakland’s commissions vary widely in power, effectiveness, responsiveness to the public, and worthwhile use of city staff time. The League of Women Voters is taking a look at commissions, and you might want to find out about their study results which (I think) may not yet have been released. One possibility is that for every new commission we should see if there is a moribund one we can jettison. I’ve suggested that we join all the bond-reviewing commissions into one, preferably with some savvy appointees who understand what they are looking at. There may be some commissions which rarely manage to get a quorum, or which meet rarely and merely rubber stamp staff initiatives. On the other hand, if you can get a commission together which has actual punch, maybe it could be really helpful. How would it get its members, would they need to be qualified in some way, or would they simply reflect the appointments of politically whimsical councilmembers and mayor?

  9. dto510 says

    Next week I’ll look at what Transportation Commissions look like in different cities. First, though, I wanted to ask, what is the problem? A Transportation Commission by itself of course couldn’t solve coordination problems caused by the structure of the bureaucracy. I’m hoping to hear more suggestions about how the problems can be solved with or beyond a Transportation Commission.

  10. dto510 says

    Good point about articulating goals, which you did well. The City Council has set goals and policies on transportation, with the Land Use and Transportation Element, the Transit First City resolution, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans, and the Bus Rapid Transit resolution. As I wrote in the blog, the problem isn’t just with planning (and perhaps a lack of ambition), but also oversight and follow-through.

    So the question is, how does the city incorporate its existing goals and strategies, which are good, into planning and day-to-day decision-making? Can a Transportation Commission do that? Or does it take political leadership, or bureaucratic reorganization?

  11. Robert says

    Sounds like we don’t need a commission if you already have all the answers.

  12. dto510 says

    Why not? A Transportation Commission could be like a task force coming up with new plans, but couldn’t it also be a means to enforce or interpret already agreed-upon plans?

  13. Robert says

    dto, that was a totally snarky response to someone who appears to believe that he knows all the problems and knows all the solutions to those problems. But in all seriousness…

    Oakland has policies in place for transportation, but as V notes below, the problem seems to be lack of follow through on those policies. We already have city staff, commissions, and even city council that are supposed to enforce those policies, but all too often totally ignore policy do to whatever they feel like. And this is true for issues far beyond transportation. Adding one more government agency doesn’t seem like it would necessarily do any better job of enforcing transportation policy without the commitment to back it up.

    I agree with V that a coordinated review of transportation elements is needed, but this review is already within the scope of staff and the planning commission. They just do not do a very comprehensive job of it. Rather than add another layer to the review process, council could just make it clear to current agencies that this transportation review is expected from them.

  14. dto510 says

    I disagree that it’s a lack of political will or an engaged citizenry that hampers regional planning, but it’s institutional structure that can often determine how progressive decision-making can be. Portland is a great example: it’s not that Portlanders are so much more liberal and open to using alternative transportation than Oaklanders, it’s that they enjoy a real voice in how their metropolitan area is planned. Their metropolitan government, which is more powerful than the MTC, is directly elected. By contrast, the MTC’s governing structure is insultingly unrepresentative, and the Commissioners are unaccountable. If the MTC thought their highway and suburban priorities were what the public wants, they wouldn’t lie about them.

  15. Mike d'Ocla says

    Yes, there is a different institutional structure in Portland than in the Bay Area. But I would argue that the institutions in Portland were set-up with significantly and better-informed citizen participation than the institutions here because of greater community integrity, savvy and involvement there than here.

    I attribute the difference (and I am not alone in this) to cultural differences. The Bay Area has been settled by all sorts of different groups moving here largely for their own economic gain during boom times from the Gold Rush to W.W. II when California was the focus of so much military spending.

    Oregon was originally settled by community-oriented groups from established communities in the east of the U.S. who moved there in the hopes of continuing their highly-functional community life based on agricultural economies rather than the economic booms of gold and war with their inherent corrupting effects.

  16. dto510 says

    Combining all the tax and bond oversight boards into one is a great idea. I see the effort to establish a Transportation Commission complementary to the LWV’s study, which will hopefully have some good recommendations (like yours) to decrease the number of commissions while increasing their effectiveness. Right now there’s a lot of resistance to any kind of new commission because of all the current commissions sapping staff resources without contributing as much to the city as people would hope. I will get in touch with the LWV and find out what their timing is.

    But your question is key – what kind of commission? A powerful one, or a an advisory-only one? That’s also related to the question about what to do about the Council’s haphazard approach to transportation decision-making. Should some power, say over encroachments or taxi permits, be invested in a Transportation Commission instead of the Council? In order to have full review of important transportation decisions, it’s probably necessary to have an independent body with actual decision-making power, more akin to the Planning Commission than the Budget Advisory Committee.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Transportation commissions in other cities – FutureOakland linked to this post on December 3, 2009

    [...] 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. [...]