After 22 years amazing years at TransForm, I’ve got a touch of grey and a whole lot more to reflect on than fits in a blog post. We’ve had tremendous victories together, and if you click on them, you’ll see “first-in-the-nation” more than a few times. But three themes jump out about what has been behind our victories, what has changed, and what still needs to change (along with more than a few Grateful Dead references).
The power of diverse coalitions
Our earliest victories sent tremors through the regional power structure, and they were based on diverse coalitions uniting equity, environmental, and health agendas. When the 1998 Regional Transportation Plan proposed underfunding public transit agencies while including over $10 billion for wider roads, we said “enough.”
After rallies and marches full of unlikely allies, we saw an amazing thing happen. It was the final day for the adoption of the regional plan, and we packed the room. MTC Commissioners, in the glare of every TV camera and news outlet in the region, voted unanimously to reject their own staff’s recommendation and adopted the coalition recommendation to fully fund transit. Cuts would be avoided. There was, literally, dancing in the streets! And the victory kept the merry pranksters together for the next big lift.
A 1998 transportation sales tax proposal in Alameda County had split progressive organizations — environmental groups opposed its highway expenditures, and social justice groups supported its increased spending on public transportation. The measure failed by nine percent.
In 1999, with the agency planning another try, a young Jeff Hobson, fresh on the job with TransForm (known as BATLUC back then) unified the progressive groups around a better plan. Headlines read “dueling transit plans” as the Coalition platform gained traction. After a rally with a big crowd, the agency actually locked its doors and wouldn’t let us in to testify! But the writing was on the wall. Our diverse coalition was able to get 80% of funds dedicated to public transit, paratransit, and bicycle/pedestrian safety. Jeff helped lead the grassroots effort to sign up over 300 groups in support. The new sales tax passed in 2000 with a record-breaking 81% of the vote!
Just last year, Chris Lepe and our allies on the Peninsula continued that great style of organizing with a major victory in San Mateo County on Measure W. Powerful coalitions TransForm co-founded, like ClimatePlan, the Great Communities Collaborative, and Sustainable Communities for All, continue to shift planning and spending priorities towards equity and climate protection.
The challenge for 2020 or beyond: pulling together for a regional “mega measure” with strong equity and climate outcomes. If anyone can do it, it’s TransForm and our amazing partners across the Bay Area. Without love in the dream it will never come true.
Pairing equity with efficiency is a winning strategy
There are social, moral, economic, and a host of other reasons to ensure we are getting social equity benefits from public policy (see PolicyLink’s Equity is the Superior Growth Strategy). Yet we can’t seem to fund our way out of worsening inequity. Luckily, we’re increasingly finding that innovative, efficient solutions can also increase access and affordability for the most vulnerable communities.
Car dependence and the way we build for it is incredibly regressive. So is climate change, for that matter. Low-income people, immigrants, seniors, disabled, and communities of color have the most to gain from excellent transportation access, and pay the most (in dollars and other ways) for our car culture.
A great example of this win-win is our long-standing campaign to prioritize transit on our roads and highways to both cut traffic and provide faster, more affordable alternatives to solo driving. (And a joy of lasting two decades is watching some of the more outside-the-box ideas actually germinate and take root.) When TransForm first introduced the idea of optimizing our highways to move more people with fewer cars at a meeting, there were snickers across the room. Now, the idea is finally ripe, with studies happening in San Francisco and on the Dumbarton bridge. Our new report, Pricing Roads, Advancing Equity, shows how progressive congestion pricing can unlock incredible benefits for vulnerable communities and commuters. Even more exciting is that MTC is now analyzing our ideas, including a proposal for a Regional Express Transit (ReX) Network for potential inclusion in the next regional plan.
The same win-win is shaping up to be a real possibility in the new mobility space. New technologies have incredible potential to lift up those who have been left behind in the past, and TransForm has done pioneering work to steer the future of technology toward greater equity.
Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.
Reducing driving, especially with affordable housing
TransForm saw early on that to solve our problems we need to get to their roots. Getting people out of their cars isn’t just about great transportation alternatives, it’s about where we live and how connected our homes are to those alternatives. From our GreenTRIP program to helping conceive and then win California’s Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program, so much of our work has been about creating more walkable, vibrant places that help people drive less. I
In 2004 we tried to make the case that new public transit lines or expansions should not be funded unless we planned for thousands of homes, many of them affordable, within half a mile. One of our interns spent a whole day at a new Costco built adjacent to the new-at-the-time South San Francisco BART station, and counted just 42 riders coming and going — for a 25-acre development! That would bring in only $44,000 per year in fares for BART, rather than the $10 million that housing and jobs would bring on that land. Those findings went into our report, It Takes a Transit Village, and the subsequent campaign helped lead to the first-in-the-nation rule we had been pushing for.
Today, leaders are clamoring to figure out how to make more transit-oriented development a reality, but we can’t lose sight of the importance of affordability. TransForm has proven that people who live in affordable housing near transit are more likely to use transit than higher income residents in the same locations. Affordable TOD is key to meeting our climate, equity, and traffic reduction goals.
What a long, strange, wonderful, and inspiring trip it’s been. And even with so many paradigm-shifting victories, the stakes are higher than ever with increasing climate disruption and widening inequality. After all, every silver lining’s got a touch of grey. So as we keep truckin’, TransForm and its allies will need even more creativity, powerful coalitions, and disciplined focus on root causes. I believe the shared leadership practices we've been building and strengthening for the last several years, and deepening now with the interim co-directorship of Ann and Jo Ann, will help TransForm rise to the challenges ahead.
I can’t wait to see how this work unfolds as I continue to support TransForm as a proud alumnus, friend, and donor. And I can’t wait to celebrate all we’ve done together and all TransForm is poised to do next with at All Aboard! on April 11.