SPUR Talk: Cities and Transportation Megaprojects
By Roger Rudick
November 28, 2018
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
In the pursuit of efficient transportation solutions, local governments’ responsibility in the process isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.
In California, there’s often so much oversight from boards and different regional entities that decisions become impossible and planning becomes reactive. Instead, decisions are based on mitigating disruptions to communities instead of planning with community needs in mind argues Elizabeth Deakin, Professor Emerita of City & Regional Planning and Urban Design at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley.
For example, the proposed 70-foot viaduct over San Jose’s Rod Diridon Caltrain Station, intended to cultivate the Caltrain station as a regional transportation hub, was shot down for the possibility of an unappealing passenger experience and aesthetic dislike.
Quite often the megaprojects of developing cities experience a similar hiccup as Diridon. As a result, successfully navigating the fragile balance of destroying communities with construction while catering to communal aesthetic desires and the bureaucracy of municipal centers has become vital.
At times when city planning has been neglected, cities have had to combat the introduction of megaprojects with unfavorable solutions, resulting in equally unfavorable situations. Deakin illustrates the complexity of city-planning with slight irony: “I used to tell my students the most efficient way to run buses is to never open the doors. If we got rid of passengers, it would be much more efficient.”
In attempt to accommodate new innovation and previous infrastructure, station planning manager with the City of San Jose, Eric Eidlin has looked across the ocean. The Diridon Station has become a reimagination of the Utrecht station in the Netherlands.
“Utrecht only has 300,000 people, but all national rail-lines come together at its main station, which is a massive transportation facility that handles twice as many people as SFO every day–and it’s a stone’s throw from a quaint medieval town. It is space efficient and can be put in a dense urban area.”
Eidlin has also utilized France’s station planning as a model throughout San Francisco’s Rail Alignment and Benefits Study (RAB) which aims to incorporate both high-speed rail and an electrified Caltrain into downtown San Francisco. Transit planning in France is solely controlled by a smaller committee eliminating the bureaucracy heavily present in the Bay Area.
Deakin, however, cites the smaller government operations to derive from a higher general confidence in the French bureaucracy system. In acknowledgement of California’s contrary complicated government, Deakin supports San Francisco’s decision to fund the RAB study independently, prioritizing local development needs and creating organizations to manage megaprojects. “Plan for how you’re going to create the city in the first place.”
How do we create locally-focused planning agencies to help manage these megaprojects? “The tool we’ve tried to use in California is the Joint Powers Authority,” said Deakin. “But sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Look how we struggle to fund Caltrain. Maybe not all JPAs are equal, and we should ask what are the characteristics of ones that are robust?”