Two Steps Closer to Walkable Communities


April has brought two exciting pieces of news, both of which will make it easier to achieve the Great Communities Collaborative (GCC) mission of building affordable, walkable communities served by transit.

In the first, Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, endorsed the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ (NACTO) Urban Street Design Guide. Caltrans is the state agency responsible for highway, bridge, and rail transportation planning, construction, and maintenance. For the cities and communities that we work with, Caltrans plays a variety of roles, including administering competitive grant programs for planning and capital improvements related to building safer, more people-friendly streets.

But one of Caltrans most important and least obvious roles is the management of more than 50,000 miles of California’s highways and freeways—including streets that serve as hubs of communities.  And that’s where the endorsement of NACTO’s guidelines is so exciting.

The streets that came to my mind when I first heard the news are all long boulevards in the Bay Area. These are corridors that connect diverse communities; that look different from city to city; that are important corridors for travel as well as destinations in their own right. They are also places where GCC and our partners have worked. These include:

  • CA 123, or San Pablo Avenue, runs north/south and connects Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, and Richmond. Possibly one of my favorite streets in the East Bay, if only because it shows how comfortable a wide street can feel with medians, taller buildings, and lot of trees – even on a street designated as a highway. The San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan, which several GCC partners have worked on over the years, will cover the areas that border El Cerrito and Richmond.
  • SR 185 changes International Blvd from a city-owned street to Caltrans property at 42nd Avenue and continues that way down through San Leandro. International Blvd has been the focus of the City of Oakland and the GCC for many years. A new BRT line will begin construction later this year, and the City, residents, businesses, and non-profit partners have been working hard, both in developing the TOD Plan for the corridor, and now in working on its implementation, to make this street a place for the community to flourish.
  • SR 82 is more often called El Camino Real and connects almost every city along the Peninsula in the Bay Area, from San Jose up through Millbrae and San Francisco. The Grand Blvd Initiative has been bringing together cities, counties, local and regional agencies to make El Camino a “grand boulevard of meaningful destinations” for over seven years.

Though these streets run through the heart of many communities, their designation as state highways meant that any changes had to be passed through state regulations—regulations often created for highways in rural or less populated areas. Caltrans endorsement of NACTO’s Urban Design Guidelines has the potential to change that dynamic entirely. The Guidelines acknowledge that there are different types of streets, and highways, but that each type can be designed so they are safe and comfortable for people doing all kinds of travel, including walking, biking, taking transit, and driving.

For more, read the Caltrans news release here.

The second exciting piece of news is a proposal from Senate Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg. Steinberg is the author of SB 375, the 2008 legislation that changed the way metro regions in California plan for housing and transportation to promote sustainable transit-oriented growth. This month, Steinberg shared his proposal for how the State should invest revenues from California’s Cap and Trade Program, which is required by existing state law to spend 25% of all Cap and Trade revenues in disadvantaged communities.

For supporters of affordable and equitable transit-oriented development, Steinberg’s proposal is incredibly exciting. His plan allocates an estimated $3 to $5 billion annually to affordable housing near transit (40%), transit projects and operations (30%), high speed rail (20%), and road and transportation infrastructure (10%).

Funding for affordable housing has been in crisis since the loss of redevelopment and with the drying up of other state funding sources, including Prop 1C, and groups across the state have been calling for a dedicated source of funding for affordable housing for several years.

Funding for transit operations – the cost to run train cars and buses and keep them maintained – is the hardest to find; federal sources for transit focus on new capital investments. And in times of economic hardship, many transit agencies have to make tough decisions to cut lines or reduce service, which impacts the low income workers dependent on that service and also makes transit less competitive with riders who can choose to drive.

This proposal is not the only one on the table, but it is exciting time in CA, as we see institutional change, with Caltrans endorsing NACTO’s forward-thinking street standards, but also innovative and strategic planning for how we can make the investments necessary to implement our regional and local TOD plans equitably and sustainably.

Read other stories about work to keep our neighborhoods clean, healthy and walkable: