“It’s difficult for government to innovate,” says Darnell Grisby, executive director of TransForm, which pushes for transit and walkability improvements throughout California. “It’d be nice if the public sector was allowed to try and fail the way that tech companies do. I think the taxpayer would get a lot more out of it.”
Overall, Oakland has spent a trim $160,000 on material costs for both Slow Streets and Essential Places, and was able to use many shutdown roads for Covid-19 testing sites and vaccinations over the course of the year.
Grisby, who moved to the city from Washington D.C. in November, says he’s been pleased with Oakland’s openness to dialogue. He hopes that this past year’s trials have helped create an appetite for progressive changes to infrastructure and transportation.
“Necessity is the mother of invention and the pandemic created a lot of necessities,” he says. “It reminded us the importance of urban spaces and our time together as human beings. Sometimes we’ll need support from one another, and what that looks like collectively happens to be called government.”
One of the best features of express lanes is that they enable fast and reliable bus service. Most of the buses we see on 101 today are private commute shuttles. We need to develop a regional network of public express buses. Without this alternative, many people will stick to their cars even when the pandemic is past. TransForm designed a compelling system called ReX (Regional Express), which is sort of like light rail but implemented with buses on highways. They propose stations throughout the bay “near jobs, shopping, medical centers, colleges, and more”, with service every 5 minutes at peak times and every 10 minutes otherwise.
One example of a Square Partnership in action is the four-sided relationship between Elemental; transportation planning software developer Remix, which Via Transportation just bought for $100 million; an Oakland, California-based "liveable" community planning agency, TransForm; and several project advisers that interact with its customers, including The GreenLining Institute.
"To really address equity issues, we believe it’s a combination of the government, nonprofits and the private sector working together," said Darnell Grisby, executive director of TransForm, named this week to the California Transportation Commission. "Nonprofits have to understand the importance of the private sector."
For Grisby, “the key is to create a mobility network that works for all users.” And that is done by centering people, rather than technology or purely economic outcomes. “If you center people, it is better because people will thrive, and then the economy will thrive as well,” he said. This is in contrast to the economic philosophy that has been the rule over the last forty or so years that “was more extractive, and that utilized people as inputs.”
“Change is on the way,” he said. “It’s underway – and people will increasingly feel it with time.”
And it makes sense that this change would be led by California, which has always been a home for innovators, and dreamers. But, as Grisby pointed out, “We’re also very fragile.”
Guaranteeing that any shifts go in a positive direction – toward sustainability, equity, and environmental responsibility – “will require a combination of political deftness and a focus on results for the people, as well as data that shows our thinking works,” he said. “It’s a legacy I take seriously.”
Darnell Grisby with Transform, a nonprofit organization that promotes walkable communities and public transportation, said many of the parking spots sit empty.
"Almost a third of those parking spaces will go unused. This is especially true near transit and much of Berkeley is already very well served by public transportation," Grisby said.
But it’s more than existential, because as transit limps along under the weight of an airborne virus, its decline will have ripple effects to the economy, equity and the environment, Hayley Currier, of advocacy agency TransForm, says. “Public transportation is required for a green and just recovery,” she adds.
Advocates praised what AC Transit and VTA are doing, but said it should have been directed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission back in the spring, near the start of the pandemic. “I only wish that every transit agency in the Bay Area had the funding and the wherewithal to put something like this together,” said TransForm’s Edie Irons. Irons and another advocate opined that the free masks will help save lives on and off the bus, since many essential workers don’t have access to fresh, quality masks.
“There is a difference between being safe – based on science and what we understand about masks and ventilation and distancing, for example – and feeling safe,” Hayley Currier of TransForm, a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, told Streetsblog. “This plan needs to provide specific, consistent guidance that all the operators must follow, in order for all workers and riders to feel safe,” she said.
“But they won’t hold themselves to a high enough standard,” she added.
“We are pleased to see the safety results from OakDOT intersections around Lake Merritt BART,” Bike East Bay’s Dave Campbell told Streetsblog. He noted that his organization and TransForm worked on helping the city get the grant to build them. “Also happy to see a project we helped coordinate get built and be successful.”
“Generally, I think we’re all increasingly aware of how local jurisdictions and local residents who are anxious about new housing, especially affordable housing, and the traffic and parking implications of that, can block housing production,” says Edie Irons, communications director for TransForm, a sustainable urban planning advocacy organization. “That’s a big part of what’s gotten us into this housing crisis.”
TransForm endorsed AB 2923 not only because it will make it easier to build housing next to transit, but also because of the specific rules it imposes on that housing.“We see the problems with balkanized transit planning everywhere we look in the Bay Area,” says Edie Irons of TransForm.
“There’s also a parallel balkanization in housing production efforts. With each city approving or denying individual projects with their different zoning and housing development laws, there’s nothing to stop each city from passing the buck.”
Other groups are weighing in with the governor in response to the calls for delay and claims of harm. Joshua Stark at TransForm points out that the new rules will benefit everyone, including car drivers, by reducing driving instead of encouraging ever more traffic as the current practice does. See his blog post, here, for more details.
“Just about the only people riding transit now are people with no other option. To leave them stranded… especially during a time of civil unrest and lack of safety, is unconscionable,” said TransForm’s Edie Irons."
“This sounds like a total failure of these transit agencies to provide an essential service that people are relying on right now,” said Irons.
Most of the speakers pushed the commissioners to consider setting aside five percent of the allocation for PPE, pointing out that this was a “small sliver” of the total. Hayley Currier with TransForm said that putting that amount into a regional fund would also be “in line with your own principles, that agencies should have access to money based on need, not on their pre-COVID budgets,” she said.
“Up until two weeks ago our large tech companies were making huge amounts of money off the Bay Area but not investing back in the services. They need to pay into our public system,” said Hayley Currier, Policy Advocacy Manager for TransForm, one of the 30-some advocacy groups pushing for VPT’s approach. Other familiar groups supporting VPT’s vision include Friends of Caltrain, the San Francisco Transit Riders, and Seamless Bay Area.
Currier points to the near-collapse of some transit agencies in the country, and BART being forced to end service at 9 p.m., as further evidence that current funding schemes, based on fares and sales taxes alone, just don’t work. The way transit is funded now depends on the ups-and-downs of the economy to fund something that the VPTers consider a fundamental service supporting a basic human right: freedom of movement.
For now, although “This emergency has underlined the holes in the essential systems (including transit),” wrote Currier in a followup email to Streetsblog. “100 percent of the energy needs to be addressing the COVID-19 crisis and doing what we can to center our work towards community resilience and supporting vital services that are under extreme stress.”
“Of course this pandemic changes everything, and a transportation funding measure may not make sense to put on the ballot this year,” said Hayley Currier, policy advocacy manager for the group TransForm, an organization belonging to the coalition, Voices for Public Transportation.