It’s just beginning to dawn on residents of the Bay Area that it is nigh impossible to build our way out of traffic congestion. Folks realize that the land available for high speed road and freeways just isn’t there—the core of the Bay Area is not going to get any major new roads. Currently CalTrans and local agencies are trying to extract “efficiencies” from existing roads by trying to engineer the hell out of our existing infrastructure. So what we get are reductions in freeway shoulders and medians in order to add a lane, synchronizing traffic lights, metering lights to optimize traffic flow at onramps, and speed studies of roads to bring speed limits up to the 85th percentile rule. For the most part these efforts accept that car driving should not be impeded unless absolutely necessary. Of course this isn’t completely true: for example freeways such as the Central and the Embarcadero have been torn down. I’m not sure that removing either of them reduced congestion. Push back from cycling advocates has produced more bike lanes, some at the expense of car lanes. But generally what commuters want is faster commutes by car, not mass transit or bikes. So transit agencies are loathe to do overt social engineering to force drivers out of cars. Instead they attempt to alleviate the pain that comes with driving a car on congested roads.
It’s equally difficult to expand mass transit infrastructure such as BART, Caltrain, or high speed rail. Perhaps there is a naive belief that mass transit expanded ad infinitum will solve congestion. We hear talk of a second transbay tube for BART and extending the BART system further eastward into Brentwood (Pittsburg-Bay Point line) and Livermore and beyond to the Central Valley (Dublin line). The reasoning seems to be, “If we have BART go to cities where commuters flee, then they’ll stop driving their cars and traffic congestion will go down.” I used to believe this: building more BART/Caltrain/SMART/etc. will get drivers off freeways. But I don’t believe it anymore.
Just as road building is growth inducing—building more roads to reduce congestion actually leads to increased traffic and fills to capacity—we can expect the same effect with BART. Assuming that BART can even catch up with existing demand–that’s a big if–building more BART may temporarily reduce congestion (both on the freeway and in getting a seat on BART). But more capacity will likely induce growth in transit use and lead to…more congestion. As it becomes more tolerable to commute by BART from Pittsburg, and then Antioch, and then Brentwood, and then further east, it exacerbates the growth pressure on those communities. That will drive housing prices up as those communities now have an asset—shorter commutes by BART—that will then drive growth further eastward.
There’s no end to this process.
So what does all this have to do with cycling? If you throw your bike in a car and drive to a ride start, it’s not going to get better. You’re still going to get stuck in traffic unless you drive during off-peak times and the likelihood of you spending even more time in the car is going to go up. Short of a dramatic economic downturn, I don’t see how it can get better and it sure isn’t going to stay the same. If and when BART expands it will make it easier to go further away from the central Bay Area. But what the roads at those end points will look like is a dreary prospect; the roads will be built for suburban traffic. If you want to see what that means, go to Antioch today. You’ll find wide boulevards with occasional strip malls dividing up the subdivisions, in other words nothing much you’d want to spend any time riding on. Antioch city roads are designed to speed car commuters quickly to the next arterial.
What about the roads close to home? Infilling and taller, denser housing are going to mean more people, which means more cars. Do you really think people will give up car ownership even if their condo doesn’t have a dedicated parking spot, even with Uber and Lyft? I don’t think so. Since roads won’t be increasing, it means more traffic congestion and very likely more traffic on the roads we like to cycle as commuters forsake clogged arterials for secondary roads. Even when traffic is nightmarish people still drive. The future doesn’t look good for us.
I’ve come to believe that the mantras about better roads, better mass transit, more housing, and especially more housing equals less commuting are all bandaids for the real problem: growth. None of these pie-in-the-sky solutions is going to make it better—they perhaps stand a chance of making things less worse in the shortrun. Accommodation for growth allows more growth. At what point does it become so unlivable that people stop coming to the Bay Area? Unless growth itself is addressed we as cyclists better get used to riding on more dangerous and no less congested roads.