BART Beats NIMBYs, But Not at Every Station

BART's quest to build housing at its parking lots is an object lesson in what ails the Bay Area's fragmented transit systems.

There’s something incongruous about stepping off of a packed BART train into a vast parking lot. The fact that the very same stations that allow so many people to get around without a car are themselves surrounded by cars does not make for great symbolism. 

Nor does it make much environmental, financial, or spatial sense, according to BART policy. Since 2005, the agency has been trying to transform its many surface parking lots into bustling mixed-use neighborhoods, with new homes, offices, and stores. Progress has been slow going. Many of the cities in which BART stations are located are opposed to new development, especially housing, and even more so if the net result is less parking. 

In 2018, the state passed a law introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu of San Francisco aimed at accelerating these goals, deeming BART’s quest to build housing “an urgent matter of statewide concern.” AB 2923 is now beginning to be implemented, and over the course of the next two decades, it will render the areas around many BART stations unrecognizable by forcing cities to allow 20,000 new homes and 4.5 million square feet of new office space to be built on BART land. For housing and sustainable transit activists, the law is a huge win. For lovers of the status quo in quiet suburban areas like North Berkeley and Lafayette, it’s a major defeat. 

However, because of the Bay Area’s tangled mess of transit agencies and governing bodies, some of BART’s surface parking lots will be around for the foreseeable future. AB 2923 does not apply to BART land in San Mateo or Santa Clara counties, which means the law meant to evenly distribute the burden of building housing near transit will not be evenly applied. 

While this legalistic discrepancy may not ultimately have a huge impact in practice, it serves as an object lesson in what ails the Bay Area’s fragmented transportation and urban planning regimes. The windswept parking lots at Daly City and South San Francisco BART stations are a lens for understanding why it’s so difficult to build housing in the Bay Area, why Caltrain is stuck in an existential political crisis, and why large, urgently needed infrastructure projects like the second transbay tube are almost impossible to imagine in the current administrative environment.

‘Band-Aid Solutions’

The unevenness of AB 2923 is a “symptom of the origins of BART,” says Ian Griffiths, director of Seamless Bay Area, an organization that advocates for the creation of a single, unified transit system in the region. “Like so many of our other transit agencies, BART’s governance has not really been updated to reflect the expansion of our region, and the extension of the BART system specifically.”

BARTD, or the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, was formed in 1957 to plan and build a space-age rapid transit system linking San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, and San Mateo Counties. The plans for America’s first new rapid transit system in half a century were nothing if not ambitious, including the construction of the world’s longest underwater tunnel between Oakland and San Francisco, and a new rail crossing on the lower deck of the Golden Gate Bridge. But just as with today’s visionary infrastructure projects, these grand plans quickly ran into setbacks. 

In 1961, San Mateo County dropped out of BARTD, citing the redundancy of the existing rail service now known as Caltrain. Marin dropped out soon after, due to engineering disputes related to the Golden Gate Bridge’s ability to handle BART trains. This put BART into a fiscal crisis, necessitating the creation of a half cent sales tax in the three remaining member counties. After years of dramatic political maneuvering, vividly depicted in Michael Healy’s biography of the system, BART fully opened in 1974.

The original 1974 BART system map (Photo: BART)

While BART was eventually extended into San Mateo County (beyond Daly City) in order to reach SFO, the BART District was not. Rather than joining the District, subscribing to the regional sales tax, and gaining representation on the BART Board, San Mateo County funds its BART segment through a surcharge on every trip, which currently stands at $1.44. This makes BART in San Mateo County extra expensive, pushing some low-income transit riders on to slower SamTrans buses instead. A one-way trip from Balboa Park to Montgomery costs $2.10. A one way trip from Colma — just three miles south of Balboa Park — to Montgomery costs $3.90. 

Santa Clara County, which quietly opened its first BART stations in June, as the first phase of the BART to San Jose project, is also not part of the BART District. The Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA), the county’s transportation agency, planned and built its segment of BART with its own funds, and contracts with BART to run the system.

“We’ve punted the hard choices and the important structural reforms that will actually enable us to manage an effective transit system,” Griffiths says. “It’s been easier to just come up with Band-Aid solutions and ad hoc agreements between transit agencies.”  

These jury-rigged administrative policies produce strange side-effects. For instance, BART’s civilian fare inspectors cannot enforce fare evasion in San Mateo or Santa Clara counties, although BART police can. Yet another wonkish anomaly: AB 2923 does not apply on the peninsula’s other two counties.

The current BART system map. AB 2923 does not apply to stations closest to the bottom. (Photo: BART)

Not In My Parking Lot

The state’s involvement in what BART can and cannot do on its parking lots is a function of the transit system’s changing identity over the years. Originally conceived as a suburban commuter rail service that could accommodate a maximum of 250,000 passengers, BART has become an all-day transit system providing over 400,000 rides per weekday before the pandemic. In the early days, when BART bragged about providing every rider a seat, it made sense to provide lots of parking at its stations. But as the Bay Area has grown, it has become more difficult to justify all of those homes for cars when homes for people are so hard to come by. 

BART officially adopted a transit oriented development (TOD) policy in 2005, but between then and 2019, the agency only managed to build 1,725 homes. 

“So often the local communities that live around the stations either prevent these projects from happening entirely or cause them to be so stalled or prohibitively expensive that developers just aren’t interested,” says Griffiths, who used to work on TOD for BART. He worked extensively on the North Concord/Martinez station area rezoning, which took more than a decade due to neighborhood opposition. BART spokesperson Jim Allison notes that the TOD under construction at the Millbrae BART station parking lot took seven years to break ground after a developer was selected. 

It’s no surprise, then, that 17 cities opposed AB 2923, including Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Berkeley, as well as Alameda County and the League of California Cities.

“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. AB 2923 groups BART stations into three categories: the highest intensity, which only applies in downtown Oakland, requires BART parking lots to be zoned for buildings at least 12 stories tall with no more than .375 parking spaces per home. The next category, which encompasses most of the stops lining the eastern side of the Bay, must be zoned for buildings at least seven stories tall and no more than .5 parking spaces per home. And every other station must be zoned for buildings at least five stories tall, with no more than one parking space per home. 

None of these station area types have minimum parking requirements, only maximums, which means that if a developer so chooses, they wouldn’t have to include any parking at all. The law also requires that developments include transportation demand management programs to compensate for lost parking, and anti-displacement strategies for the surrounding neighborhoods. As part of its TOD strategy, BART plans for 35 percent of the 20,000 homes built on its land to be offered at below market rates.  

The cities subject to AB 2923 have until July of 2022 to get their zoning in accordance with state law. If they don’t, these zoning guidelines will automatically apply on BART-owned land.

Cities are beginning to respond in kind. Berkeley, which opposed the measure, became the first city to begin the process of changing its zoning code to reflect the new law. San Leandro and Pittsburgh are ensuring their ongoing planning efforts meet the standards set out by AB 2923, according to Jim Allison of BART. Over the next two years cities like Lafayette, Dublin, and Pleasant Hill, which actively opposed the bill, will need to decide whether to preemptively change their zoning or simply let BART’s new standards take effect in 2022. 

One of many parking lots surrounding Daly City BART station (Photo: Benjamin Schneider)

San Mateo Exceptionalism

But in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, local authorities are not under the same pressure. The BART-owned parking lots at Daly City and South San Francisco stations are not currently up to AB 2923 zoning standards and have no TOD plans. (Colma BART station also has a massive surface parking lot owned by SamTrans, where plans to build housing have been on hold for years as the agency awaits permission from the Federal Highway Administration.) 

That’s not to say there is no TOD happening in these counties. The areas around Santa Clara’s new stations were rezoned for lots of new housing, including 7,100 homes around Milpitas station and another 5,100 around the Berryessa/North San Jose station, according to Bernice Alaniz, a spokesperson for VTA. When all is said and done, however, these stations will still have surface parking lots. 

Millbrae station in San Mateo county has two major TOD projects underway on its parking lots, despite a “large resistance” from neighbors, the majority of whom were “older white homeowners,” says Evelyn Stivers, executive director of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County. “The arguments were pretty gross. One was, ‘We’d rather have a mall.’ The other was, ‘Renters make terrible neighbors, and we don’t want them in our schools.’” 

If AB 2923 applied in San Mateo county, it would be a lot harder for these kinds of sentiments to slow or prevent housing from being built at the remainder of the county’s BART station parking lots. Instead, development proposals for these sites are liable to be mired in the same kind of process that took place in Millbrae, Concord, and other BART station areas. The end result could be fewer homes — particularly affordable homes — and more parking than the standards set out by AB 2923. 

San Mateo’s exclusion from the law is made even more significant because the county’s stations are arguably the best place in the entire BART system to add new housing. San Mateo has by far the worst jobs-housing imbalance in the Bay Area, building just one home for every 26 jobs added over the past three years. And its BART stations are on one of the most underutilized segments of the system. Millbrae station has never achieved half of its initial projected ridership, thanks in part to an awkward transfer between Caltrain and BART. The relatively roomy ride from San Mateo county into downtown San Francisco stands (and sometimes even sits!) in stark contrast to the sardine can trip through the Transbay Tube, the bottleneck linking every other part of the BART system to the region’s major job center. 

“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.” 

As With Housing, So With Transit 

The problem with every neighbor having a say in whether housing gets built in their “backyard” has become widely recognized in recent years. But the problems with all 101 Bay Area cities, 27 transit agencies, and 9 counties pursuing their own transportation agendas is only now starting to gain widespread attention. The uneven application of AB 2923 shows how these two issues are inextricably linked: it will be difficult, if not impossible, to solve one problem without solving the other. 

Right now, however, with the coronavirus pandemic decimating transit ridership and revenues, the transit part of the equation is front and center.  

Over the past week, Caltrain has been thrown into a political crisis so severe it could shutter the railroad, as politicians from San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties squabble over the agency’s funding and administrative structure. Currently, San Mateo county is the equivalent of the BART District for Caltrain, with the exclusive power to hire and fire senior staff. San Francisco and Santa Clara county leaders are pushing for greater representation in Caltrain’s governance structure, and in the process, are imperiling a one-eighth cent sales tax that would guarantee the railroad a stable source of funding. 

All of which begs a question: if the jurisdictions that make up Caltrain and BART can’t agree on how to run their existing systems, how will the Bay Area ever execute all of its trans-county, intra-agency infrastructure aspirations — like a second transbay tube for BART, Caltrain, and high speed rail, or a rail line next to the Dumbarton bridge, or new train tunnels beneath the Altamont Pass? 

The Seamless Transit Act, introduced earlier this year by Assemblymember David Chiu, who also spearheaded AB 2923, would have helped by moving the region’s transit agencies and counties into a closer state of collaboration. That bill was shelved — yet another casualty of the pandemic — but the idea is very much still alive due to the work of groups like Seamless Bay Area. Something like that vision looks increasingly like the only viable path towards creating significant new transit infrastructure in the Bay Area. A regional transit agency wouldn’t solve everything, as L.A. Metro and New York’s MTA can attest, but it would almost certainly make it easier to work on our problems in a more equitable, rational way. 

Some activists have called for BART to absorb Caltrain as a potential solution to the latter’s woes. That could — potentially — set the stage for AB 2923 to take effect on San Mateo county’s BART parking lots. It’s all very complicated. But if those asphalt deserts ever get high-density, low-parking, mixed-income development, it will probably be due to state or regional-level mandates that can be summarized very succinctly: build the housing near the transit.

Tags: , , ,

Related Stories