Look up. Bay Area urban planners have a new “North Star.”
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments on Oct. 19 approved Plan Bay Area 2050, an expansive vision guiding the region’s growth and development over the next three decades. The document takes a broader view than previous regional plans, endorsing progressive policy priorities like a universal basic income and a region-wide rent cap, alongside massive new spending on affordable housing and transportation infrastructure.
“We now have a blueprint for what it would take to solve an intersecting set of crises facing the region — housing, social equity challenges, transportation — that goes beyond what we’ve explored in the past,” said Dave Vautin, an MTC planner who has worked on Plan Bay Area 2050 since 2018.
Regional housing and transportation plans are mandated by a 2008 state law requiring cities to reduce car travel and greenhouse gas emissions. The specific strategies proposed in the plan would accomplish that, slashing emissions from transportation nearly in half by 2035, as compared to 2005 levels. But unlike its predecessors, Plan Bay Area 2050 also seeks to ameliorate racial and economic inequality, and proactively adapt to climate change impacts such as rising sea levels.
Planners have accounted for about $600 billion out of the $1.4 trillion that the region will need to spend over the next 30 years to carry out the plan. Some of the most ambitious pieces, like the rent cap, universal basic income and freeway tolling will require enabling state legislation. But simply having a plan to point to is an important first step toward achieving these goals, according to the planners. “It really helps me make the case in Sacramento and Washington. …,” said MTC legislative manager Rebecca Long. “It’s just a really powerful foundation for making progress on so many of what seem like insurmountable challenges.”
So what does the plan include? We break down some of the biggest and boldest strategies below.
The plan calls for building nearly 400,000 permanently affordable new homes across the Bay Area by 2050. Another half a million homes that are currently affordable, whether by deed restriction, or because the private market landlord is charging a low rent, would be purchased by governments or nonprofits so as to remain affordable in perpetuity. These two strategies alone would cost over $400 billion to execute.
Tenant protections are another significant aspect of the plan. “The strategy envisions a set of protections and policies similar to what we see in the city and county of San Francisco, across the entire region,” Vautin said. That includes the right to counsel for tenants facing eviction, and regional rent control that would limit price increases to the cost of inflation, while exempting apartments built within the preceding 10 years. Inclusionary zoning, another policy currently in force in San Francisco, would become a regional phenomenon, requiring large developments across the Bay Area to offer between 10% and 20% of their units at below-market rates.
While Plan Bay Area lacks teeth to ensure that cities enact these policies, another related planning process will help make this document more than just a collection of pretty maps. The priority development areas identified in Plan Bay Area 2050 will help guide cities as they prepare to accommodate their respective shares of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, a state-mandated process that pushes cities to build enough housing to keep up with population growth. Due to new laws spearheaded by state Sen. Scott Wiener, the Bay Area’s housing allocation for 2023-31 more than doubled from the previous RHNA cycle. Cities that don’t make a good faith effort to allow new housing will now face consequences.
The location of the priority development areas — usually near transit, job centers and good schools — have not been without controversy. Fernando Martí, co-executive director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations in San Francisco, calls these geographies a “blunt tool” that “doesn’t take into account existing communities.” If cities follow Plan Bay Area’s lead, working class neighborhoods in the inner Bay Area could see massive amounts of development, Marti said, which could be harmful to those communities.
Still other strategies in the plan are controversial for different reasons. Matt Regan, vice president for public policy at the Bay Area Council, doesn’t think the rent control and inclusionary zoning provisions will help ameliorate the region’s housing shortage. “The data is pretty clear that both of those policies will have a negative impact on overall housing production,” he said.
Yet Martí and Regan praised the broad strokes of the plan.
The large majority of transportation spending projected in the plan would go to operating and improving the Bay Area’s existing mass transit system. That includes bringing subways up to a state of good repair, increasing transit frequency and reversing pandemic-era service cuts. While it stops short of calling for a single, unified transit agency for the Bay Area, the plan does call for integrated fares and trip planning, as well as timed transfers between systems.
The plan also envisions the construction of a familiar list of big-ticket infrastructure projects, including the extension of the Caltrain tracks into Salesforce Transit Center downtown, finishing a BART extension to San Jose and the completion of California’s high speed rail system. More conceptual projects highlighted in the plan include Link 21, a proposal to build a second train tunnel between Oakland and San Francisco.
More modest infrastructure upgrades are in the plan, too, including new transit-only lanes across the region and a 10,000-mile network of “complete streets” that are safe for walking and biking. In a bid to eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2030, the plan quietly calls for reducing speed limits on major arterials to 35 mph, and freeway speed limits to 55 mph.
In addition to massive investments in transit, the plan envisions widening a select few freeways and interchanges. The document goes on to acknowledge that these projects “will likely increase vehicle miles traveled in the long term, with any congestion relief benefits disappearing by the year 2050.” The real solution to congestion, the plan argues, is road pricing. By 2050, most of the Bay Area’s freeways, as well as downtown San Francisco, will require a toll for drivers, with discounts for low-income people and carpoolers.
“Without pricing, we cannot get to those climate goals, we would have fallen short of the state mandated target,” Vautin said. “And we’re able to do that without causing adverse equity impacts.”
Economy and environment
Perhaps the most surprising strategy in Plan Bay Area is a universal basic income of $500 per month for every Californian, with the benefits to the wealthy canceled out by higher taxes. That $200 billion line item “actually made a tangible dent in the gap between rich and poor in the final plan,” Vautin said.
Additional economic strategies include universal high-speed internet, along with incentives for major employers to move closer to transit.
On the environmental front, the plan puts the price tag on protecting Bayside communities from sea level rise at $19 billion. Low-lying infrastructure and neighborhoods, like Highway 37 and the Embarcadero, may require different forms of protection, including sea walls, natural marshes or horizontal levees. Zoe Siegel, director of climate resilience at Greenbelt Alliance, highlighted this strategy as the most exciting in the plan: “The entire region is at risk of sea level rise, and this really puts forth a vision for how to address that.”
Still, advocates of different stripes remain concerned that mechanisms do not currently exist to make the plan a reality.
“The ambitious goals articulated in Plan Bay Area will not be achievable without rethinking regional institutions,” said Ian Griffiths, policy director of the transit organization Seamless Bay Area, which advocates for a unified transit system for the region. “Creating a clear regional authority for transportation is a necessary step.”
Martí and Regan also highlighted the need for a more powerful regional government to implement the housing aspects of the plan. “What ABAG and MTC need to do going forward is celebrate the bold, ambitious goals that are in this document,” Regan said, “And then start holding the cities and counties within ABAG-MTC, start holding their feet to the fire.”