San Francisco's Housing Element -- Built on Misunderstanding
Nov 23, 2004
Publisher: San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle

Recently, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors approved a change to the city's General Plan, with potentially far-reaching impacts on the city's neighborhoods. Proponents of this change, known as the Housing Element, claim that it better connects transit and land use by densifying housing and reducing parking requirements near transit corridors. In fact, the policy completely misunderstands the research and theory of transit-based housing as well as the process of community-building.

I advance this criticism as someone who has championed a better link between transit and land use for over 15 years: as co-director (with Robert Cervero) of a research center at UC Berkeley, as a BART director for eight years and, most recently, as the director of the state labor department for the five years of the Davis administration. I add immodestly that a book Cervero and I wrote, "Transit Villages in the 21st Century" (McGraw-Hill, 1996), continues to be used by transit planners and in fact was cited by proponents in the Housing Element debates -- though they misunderstood our arguments.

One goal of transit-based housing is increased transit ridership and decreased automobile use. At UC Berkeley's National Transit Access Center, we conducted several trip surveys in the 1990s of persons living within a one- quarter mile radius of stations on major rail lines of California. We found transit ridership four to five times higher among these persons than among others in their same city. Our findings were borne out by other studies of transit ridership on rail systems in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and San Diego, as well as by an updated survey of California rail-transit stations that Cervero conducted in 2003.

These studies, though, focus on rail transit, particularly heavy-rail transit, such as BART. The data on ridership for light rail and buses, the main transit service in San Francisco, show a far less significant tie between transit ridership and station proximity.

More important, transit ridership is not the only goal of transit-based housing. The main goal is community-building. Transit stations, especially heavy-rail stations, provide opportunity for new communities, whose residents are not dependent on automobiles for local or regional trips. These communities ("transit villages") mix housing with neighborhood-serving shops, public spaces, and other amenities, with streetscapes that encourage a safe and easy walk to the station.

By these characteristics, most San Francisco neighborhoods already qualify as transit villages. Their densities are far higher than in the suburbs -- in fact, they are higher than nearly all urban areas outside New York City. They mix housing (multi-family and single-family) with commercial and neighborhood-serving retail uses; and residents can get around by foot and bicycle, as well as short automobile or bus trips.

Furthermore, a key transit village concept is scale. There is not one correct density for the transit village; rather, the appropriate density depends on the scale of the surrounding neighborhood. Transit villages respect the character of the surrounding neighborhood, especially as that character is supported by existing residents.

The Housing Element, in contrast, ignores neighborhood character. It seeks to squeeze persons into these neighborhoods, often in odd configurations and against neighborhood opposition. It assumes that many new residents will not own cars -- even though our research showed that transit village residents, while using transit for many trips, do own autos and need parking.

San Francisco does have areas in which higher density housing is appropriate, primarily Rincon Hill and the central waterfront. These areas are near three rail systems -- BART, Caltrain and Muni light rail -- and potentially a fourth rail system, the proposed high-speed rail station. Additionally, the character of the existing housing in these areas is one of high density. Mayor Newsom's housing strategy focuses on these areas, and from a transportation perspective, this is the correct policy.

Think of San Francisco neighborhoods like Noe Valley, the Inner Richmond, West Portal, the Castro, the Inner Sunset and the Marina: They are jewels in their bustling shops and stores and active street life, yet they possess a human scale and accessibility. Other neighborhoods around San Bruno Avenue, the Lower Fillmore, Third Street and the Outer Mission are improving their commercial areas and can become urban jewels.

Yet, all of these neighborhoods are fragile and can easily be undermined. City planning needs to support neighborhood-based planning and high-quality Muni service in the built communities, and encourage new transit-based communities in the city's emerging central waterfront and Southern areas.

Michael Bernick is a senior fellow with the Milken Institute and counsel with HNTB Corp., a nationwide infrastructure firm. His latest book, The Director of Employment, will be published in 2005.