Caltrans has a great new plan – and that is no joke

A Caltrans worker on the Bay BridgeTransportation advocates have cracked many a joke about how Caltrans, California’s state Department of Transportation, should really be called the Department of Highways, because that’s all they care about. 

But given the excellent direction of Caltrans’ new Strategic Management Plan, the joke may be on the naysayers.

The plan, released last month, marks an incredible shift in direction for an agency that has historically focused on road widening and moving cars quickly at all cost. Their press release outlines Caltrans’ promising new focus on people who bike, walk, and use public transportation.

This could be big.

Caltrans sets a new course

Caltrans’ new plan sets five goals, each supported with measurable objectives. What’s exciting here is that these objectives go beyond monitoring traffic flow on freeways to improving the safety of all travelers and efficiency of all modes of transportation in California.

The first objective under “Sustainability, Livability, and Economy” is to triple the number of bicycle trips and double the number of walking and transit trips by 2020, statewide. At the same time, Caltrans aims to achieve a 15% reduction in driving (per capita). These metrics will measure Caltrans’ progress towards the goals of improving quality of life for all Californians and reducing environmental impacts from transportation.

That certainly doesn’t sound like a Department of Highways. That sounds, um, kind of like what TransForm is about. Great! State transportation is fixed!  

Not exactly. Goals are great, but implementation is where the real journey begins.  Future Caltrans must overcome decades of institutional memory and longstanding processes set by Caltrans past.  

Fortunately, this new plan is part of a larger shift catalyzed by a blistering critique of the agency by State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI). This new Strategic Management Plan is probably the most tangible and far reaching change yet.  Kudos to Secretary Brian Kelly, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, and Caltrans staff for making this leap.

On the path to real change

So what are some of the key changes we want to see? Most fundamentally we need to see a change in planning so we develop a different pipeline of projects.

A critical way that Caltrans can make good on its intentions is by accelerating the use of the Smart Mobility Framework, an approach that we’ve advocated for for some time.  In effect, the Smart Mobility Framework considers road widening as a tactic of last resort after employing other solutions to reduce trips or provide lower impact alternatives like transit or operational improvements.  We highlighted “SMF” in a blog post one year ago, when Caltrans first came out with a new mission.

Adopted years ago by Caltrans, this is a great framework for focusing on land use, transit, vanpooling, pricing, and other options first, with highway expansion as a last resort. 

So we were thrilled when Caltrans released the Final Report for the SMF Implementation Pilot Study, and then quickly made an announcement to keep the momentum going by creating a Smart Mobility Framework Learning Network.

This network will bring together professionals throughout the state for a series of webinars and forums to learn, promote, and expand Smart Mobility thinking and planning.  At the end, lessons and discourse from the SMF Learning Network will be compiled into a report to advise Caltrans on how it can best integrate this practice into – get this – all aspects of its work.

There are other tools that we believe Caltrans can use to achieve its new, ambitious goals.  And we’re optimistic that if they embrace these additional strategies in the same way they seem to be embracing Smart Mobility, Caltrans – and California – could look a lot different in the future.

Our final destination: a multi-modal California

So what else needs to happen to help Caltrans’ new strategic plan take off? One opportunity is right around the corner: the Governor’s May budget revise. The budget revise is expected out this week and we want to see state transportation leaders support an increase in the Active Transportation Program (ATP) to make walking and bicycling safer. 

And I never thought I’d be able to write this and keep my job, but I’m hoping to see some new investment in Caltrans too. Planning smart and collaboratively takes more time than a more narrow focus on road widening.  It will take money for the agency to make significant progress in advancing its new goals. 

We also need to keep cheering Caltrans on as they make this bold course change. There are plenty of people who still benefit from the old Caltrans, and they are not sitting idly by. We need to let our state leaders know that Californians appreciate Caltrans’ new focus on health, safety, sustainability, and efficiency – not just for cars, but for people on bikes, kids walking to school, and workers taking the bus or train to their jobs.

What do you think Caltrans should focus on? Leave your ideas in the comments below.


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