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Eight New Year’s resolutions for the Bay Area

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The region’s 2020 vision—more housing, better transit, and less PG&E

White, red, and purple fireworks exploding over San Jose. Via Shutterstock

The beginning of a new year and a new decade are times for reflection, aspiration, and renewal—or maybe just for anxiety about how long you can possibly keep this year’s resolution from crashing and burning. But there’s no harm in believing.

After our look at potential resolutions for San Francisco as a whole, here are a few 2020 visions for the Bay Area writ large.

  1. Tech should upgrade housing. Among the more gratifying trends in Silicon Valley for 2019 was the seeming game of brinksmanship between major tech companies to pledge increasingly large sums of money for housing development. Google and Facebook rolled out $1 billion housing plans each, and Apple responded with a $2 billion patch of its own. While those are objectively large sums of money, the fact remains that those companies—and their competitors—can afford more. (Just ask Bernie Sanders.) Indeed, the state would be wise to look at that $4 billion as, in tech terms, seed funding. After all, it’s not as if the tech giants are doing this out of the kindness of their hearts—they benefit from new development as much as anyone. And these big, showy gestures shore up their often-battered public images.
  2. NIMBY no more. It’s true, not every potential housing development is good housing, and maximizing all possible density in every place is not necessarily always a good idea. That said, it’s well beyond time that the entire Bay Area—and the Peninsula, in particular—put away bad faith anti-housing arguments and work on creating new housing that fits the character of each community while also relieving some of the pressures that those not secure enough to be able to regard soaring home values as a blessing. Of course, this is so overdue that framing it as a 2020 issue seems almost naive, but here we are. Cities chafe at the idea that Sacramento will take the power of zoning and development out of their hands, but the solution to that is to start wielding it in a meaningful way themselves.
  3. BART needs to go further: In 2020 we finally get the first real BART service to the South Bay—months/years overdue, but at least it delivers. But what about beyond that? Obviously we can’t fund and build any significant new BART plans in one year, but with the rate that the Bay Area is growing these days, and the challenges posed by absurd new commutes (see more about that below), there’s never a time to stop at least entertaining new BART service. In the recent past, BART has explored potential new stations north of Richmond, in Jack London Square, at 30th and Mission, and into Livermore. But why stop there? BART may feel this is not a good time to dream big—they’re facing declining ridership and cratering customer satisfaction at the stations they already have. But if the San Jose extension has taught us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as starting too soon.
  4. The second crossing: The proposed second bay crossing—colloquially referred to as a “second transbay tube”—has been an elusive Holy Grail for Bay Area commuters and transit planners for decades, along with its older sibling, the equally aspirational second Bay Bridge. In 2018, BART announced that it was “taking early steps” to finally cross the rubicon on a second crossing, and in June of this year contracted out to start seriously studying the idea. Such a proposal extends far beyond 2020, but in the coming year BART needs to hunker down and not let the current raft of day-to-day problems distract from or sink this long-term ambition. Almost nothing gets done fast or cheap in the Bay Area, which makes the cost of delays now too steep to brook for the future.
  5. Save the super-commuters: In 2017, some 4.8 percent of Bay Area commuters traveled 90 or more minutes to work, the overwhelming majority of them by car, roughly 104,480 people in all. Somewhat-but-not-quite nearby cities like Stockton and Modesto had even worse commute times—largely because a lot of those residents now commute to the Bay Area, so much so that some federal agencies studying transit and air pollution have started counting the inland towns as part of the Bay Area. Anyone on the roads can tell you that the problem has not unexpectedly improved in three years, largely because this problem is itself a symptom of larger ones—the high cost of housing and the inadequacy of regional transit solutions. The good news is that reliving those issues will also help curb this one—if Bay Area cities get serious about it.
  6. Focus on the wider homelessness crisis: The federal government spends a lot of time fretting about the homeless problem in San Francisco (rarely in any productive way), but the problem is not unique to the city. In 2019, nearly every county in the region saw a huge surge in its homeless count over the past two years, ranging from 20 percent in San Mateo County to 42.8 percent in Contra Costa County. Only the North Bay saw any declines compared to 2017. Although San Francisco’s homeless problem is particularly pronounced—i.e. larger per capita—it would be naive to imagine that the the region’s combined homeless population of more than 34,000 are not part of a related system of economic issues, and for that matter are not a lot of the same people from year to year. The new year would be a great time to stop thinking about homelessness as an SF issue alone.
  7. Justice for prison firefighters: More than ever, the Bay Area and the entire state of California rely on demanding and dangerous firefighting work to help stave off the ever-looming threat of another deadly wildfire outbreak. A surprising number of these firefighters are inmates of California’s vast prison system, where they risk life and limb for as little as $1 or $2 per hour. And then, due to related licensing requirements, these workers find it almost impossible to pursue paid firefighting jobs once released. Now granted, it is prison, so it’s hardly surprising that the work afforded to these people is less than rewarding. But the system as it exists now isn’t fair, and whatever crimes people commit to end up in this position, their contributions are literally lifesaving. Some kind of reform must happen—exploitation is just not a good long-term plan for saving the Bay Area.
  8. Time to pull the plug on PG&E: Speaking of wildfires. UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies polled thousands of Californians in November and found that almost 90 percent of San Francisco residents surveyed favored some radical change at Pacific Gas & Electric Company, ranging from the state taking over the utility to breaking the energy conglomerate up into many smaller companies. And 90 percent of San Franciscans are not wrong; PG&E has essentially never been safe, accountable, well-run, or even always that good at the basics of delivering electricity. San Francisco seems more determined than ever to break away from the bankrupt utility, and the rest of the region would be smart to lay their own plans. What will replace the company in the future is a source of due anxiety—but the bar is about as low as it can get right now.