About a year and half ago TransForm and seven public agencies kicked off a unique partnership called the Highway 101 Mobility Action Plan. This was in anticipation of planned express lanes between San Jose and San Francisco, an issue we’ve been working on for years. It was clear to TransForm and all agencies involved at that time that new lanes alone would not result in optimal outcomes for equity and mobility, and that we needed to come together to improve travel time reliability, prioritize higher capacity transportation options, foster healthy and sustainable communities, and advance social equity.
The Project Management Team (PMT), composed of participating public agency, consultant, and TransForm staff, worked together to:
- Conduct an analysis of commute behaviors along Highway 101,
- Form and obtain input from a Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG) and Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), and
- Develop and disseminate an online survey to the community with in-person outreach at locations where people of color and folks with low incomes gather, and at organizations and institutions serving historically underrepresented populations.
Based on data, research, and input, the PMT identified around 60 short term transportation actions and a framework for equitable implementation. The 101 MAP Briefing Book is the final product of this initial collaboration and includes an explanation of the need for action, an overview of project goals and performance metrics, a summary of stakeholder and community input, a list of the MAP actions and how they were assessed for mobility performance, equity, and implementation, and finally, how the action list will be promoted and advanced in an equitable manner.
The 101 MAP is different from the typical agency plan in multiple ways. Seven public agencies worked together to plan across jurisdictional boundaries. They agreed on the plan's goals and performance metrics, prioritizing equity in both the goals and implentation appraoch. And while many agency plans emphasize infrastructure investments that can take many years (if not decades) to plan and construct, the MAP’s focus is on cost-effective interventions that can be implemented much sooner and be modified and scaled up over time.
Just as it is important to affirm what is important and unique about the MAP, it is also important to convey what it is not and the challenges that lay ahead with implementation, starting with the pandemic.
While we are excited about the potential of many MAP actions, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in the region, put further strain on low-income communities of color, and called many promising MAP strategies into question in the short term. For example, the shutdown of the economy and other COVID-related implications have led to:
- Layoffs and major economic strain for households across the region, particularly for those who were already struggling,
- Deeper health inequities, with Black and brown communities suffering disproportionately from COVID-19 cases and deaths,
- Huge shifts in travel patterns and preferences among the public, including major drops in transit ridership and shared modes,
- Unprecedented financial challenges at many public and private entities that we would normally look to to implement the MAP strategies,
- Service cuts to public transit systems, leaving transit-dependent essential workers with fewer transportation options, and
- A major shift, potentially over the long term, towards remote work for many. This will result in fewer commute trips, but could also stimulate suburban sprawl and longer trips.
Here are a few examples of MAP actions we think may be well suited to our current pandemic context, as well as longer term solutions that will be important in a post-COVID recovery:
- Action 16 - Introduce a monthly transit pass accumulator on Clipper. This would automatically provide a monthly pass for the rest of the month once the value of a pass has been spent on individual rides, so that riders who cannot afford the up-front cost of a monthly pass don’t pay extra. Affordability programs will help essential workers and people with low incomes, and also help draw more riders to transit over the longer term if and when the pandemic subsides and the economy ramps back up.
- Action 19 - Improve transfers/synchronization of multiple transit providers in the MAP study area. As transit services have been greatly reduced, it is more important than ever that remaining services are coordinated for seamless transfers, including between agencies. Such synchronization will continue to help encourage ridership when service expands again.
- Action 44 - Assess needs for traffic calming measures in neighborhoods and downtowns with high volume of cut-through traffic. As walking and biking has increased, it’s important to rapidly scale up efforts to improve safety and encourage alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle use. To do this with racial and economic justice as a goal, it’s also critical to implement such strategies with local input and buy-in, particularly of those communities largely left out of transportation planning in the past.
- Action 54 - Transition public and private bus and shuttle fleets to zero emission vehicles. Environmental Justice communities located along Highway 101 have been overburdened by air pollution for generations. Now COVID is disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities across the nation, in part because of that public health disparities caused by pollution. Many MAP strategies (including #44 above) can reduce pollution, but investments should be focused on improving air quality in high-pollution areas and communities with poor respiratory health outcomes. An approach we applaud, for example, is SFMTA's Green Zones, which prioritize zero-emission travel in San Francisco's "equity strategy" neighborhoods.
It’s important to be clear that all 101 MAP actions, including those highlighted above, are voluntary and will require ongoing agency commitment and political will to implement. There is also no guarantee that each agency will implement the actions through the equitable approach detailed in the plan.
So, what will it take to implement, coordinate, and scale up the most promising MAP actions and do so in a way that advances equity? How can this corridor approach be expanded to new areas and what can the region learn from it? Some key recommendations seem clear at this time:
- Sustain an ongoing partnership for coordinated planning and accountability: An ongoing multi-county collaboration must continue beyond this first phase to monitor identified MAP performance measures, report back on outcomes of various actions, and coordinate across agencies and geographies. Who will ensure progress is made on the goals and performance measures identified in the MAP? And who will take responsibility to modify approaches and actions when necessary?
- Prioritize actions with a COVID and racial/economic justice orientation: Racial and economic justice concerns are rightly top-of-mind right now, and we should absolutely be focused on solutions that advance equity. The most compelling actions to the public will be those that will clearly produce equitable outcomes and that are grounded in the needs and priorities of historically underrepresented and undeserved communities. As noted in the MAP, it’s not just the type of action but how it is implemented that matters.
- Maximize express lane revenues for MAP actions, not widening: Revenues that are generated once express lanes are in operation on the 101 corridor should be invested to the greatest degree possible on community-supported MAP actions. The more local agencies prioritize the construction of new highway lanes to expand the express lane network (as opposed to cheaper conversion of existing lanes to express lanes), the fewer dollars there will be for more equitable mobility strategies like those in the MAP. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) will soon be making a momentous decision about conversion vs. widening on a regional scale through their Plan Bay Area process. The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has a large network planned consisting of many new and costly lane miles that amount to more than any other county in the region, including dual express lanes on Highway 101 from Mountain View to Gilroy.
- Allocate revenues from local taxes and other sources: Local taxes, such as San Mateo County's Measure A and W sales taxes, can augment express lane toll revenues to fund MAP actions, though agencies have varying levels of funding and degrees of flexibility to spend on the types of transportation strategies recommended in the MAP. That being said, funding will be a key challenge for all agencies due to economic fallout from the pandemic. Focusing on easily implementable low-cost strategies will be key. Public-private partnerships could help bridge public agency funding deficiencies, but would require sustained commitment from private-sector partners.
On a final note, today is my last day at TransForm. While I’m sad that I won’t get to see this project through into the next stages of implementation, I have high hopes that TransForm and collaborating MAP agencies will continue the important work that we started. It’s vital to ensure express lanes on the 101 corridor provide maximum benefits to communities historically impacted by the highway and by the ramifications of our separate and unequal region.