TransForm: Making the Pivot from Highways to Transit

Photo Credit: Kent Kanouse Used with A creative Commons license

Photo Credit: Kent Kanouse Used with A creative Commons license

Jeff 2015 new headshot

Jeff Hobson

Clarrissa Cabansagan_0

Clarrissa Cabansagan

Oakland-based TransForm is one of the most accomplished transportation advocacy groups in the U.S. Founded in 1997, the group works on a wide range of issues – from Bay Area parking reform and transit funding campaigns to statewide cap-and-trade legislation. 

TransitCenter supports TransForm’s “Optimized HOT” work to convert highway lanes on Highway 101 south of San Francisco into tolled express lanes that prioritize transit and carpools. We recently spoke with deputy director Jeff Hobson and community planner Clarrissa Cabansagan about the campaign, TransForm’s evolution and what it takes to make real change.

Across the country, advocates and cities are securing nascent investments in transit, often running uphill against indifferent or hostile state governments. What was Caltrans like in the 90s, and how has it changed?

Jeff: There’s been a tremendous change in Caltrans’ attitudes and what they are trying to do. All the rules coming out of the state are vastly different from what you saw ten or even five years ago.

Last year Caltrans launched a great new strategic plan with ambitious goals on climate, bike-ped, and more.  Now, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has put out revised guidelines for conducting environmental reviews, to focus on reducing driving. They say agencies have to consider induced demand – the fact that if you build it, cars will come. When agencies look at it that way, they’ll see how damaging road widening projects are.

And Caltrans hasn’t recognized induced demand in the past?

Jeff: No – the change actually made newspaper headlines!

Not only is the state saying that highway widening will increase driving, but that agencies should consider converting existing general purpose lanes to express lanes as mitigation. That’s huge in legitimizing  TransForm’s proposal, and making it easier for agencies to consider conversions instead of widening in the future.

That brings us to the Optimized HOT project. This idea is pretty audacious and hasn’t been done in the US before.

Jeff: We know that this a high-risk/high-reward project, and that’s exciting. If we do convince the counties to convert a general purpose lane to an express lane and use the revenues for transit, we really will have won a huge shift.

How’s it going?

Jeff: We put this idea out there at the end of 2013 and talked with different agencies about the possibility.  We’re so excited that San Mateo County picked up the idea, and worked with our MPO, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, on an analysis that confirmed that what we’re proposing is the best solution. It would move more people with less traffic, get done more quickly and cost less than road widening.

Clarrissa: This is a new way of conceiving public infrastructure – seeing the existing highway as a place for and a way to fund public transit. Even if we get Muni and BART the money they need to repair themselves and run most efficiently, they only serve some people. The highway network touches more of the region.  We need to give more people more transit options, even if they run on the highway.

Moving from physical to digital infrastructure: TransForm and Ridescout recently won the Just Transit SF competition. Can you tell us more?

Clarrissa: Ridescout helped Muni build a mobile payment app. Our project is to offer incentives via that app, either to encourage folks who have long left transit to get back on, or, in places that have seen increased bus service, to incentivize use of that service. Or where there is overcrowding on bus lines, the app might give you a free ride if you walk a block to a less crowded line.

We know that making transit more reliable and affordable attracts people. Now the smartphone and real-time information might shift some of the factors that make people choose transit. So this is a test case for how people’s behavior can be shifted using technology to offer incentives.

We’re struck by the amount of work you do that involves incentives, pricing and tolling.

Jeff: Just providing more transit service is not enough to break the cycle. There are so many incentives and subsidies for driving baked into our infrastructure. People who drive need to see those true costs of driving and the tremendous benefits of transit. That means we need to disrupt the supply of new highway capacity and manage the demand.

Do you find there’s a difference between working on transit expansion, versus parking or pricing issues?

Jeff: When we’re trying to provide new services, we can focus on the people who want them and get them to say “Yay! We want this!”  The people who don’t want them often don’t get involved. But people are often more motivated by what they might lose than what they might gain. So when we talk about pricing, we’re asking people to pay for things they think they’ve previously gotten for free, though in fact they’ve paid in increased congestion.

Clarrissa: There are also equity implications. We understand the economics behind why pricing will result in the right behavior. But when our allies see the suburbanization of poverty and the dependence on automobiles for those not located next to transit, it’s a hurdle. When it comes to HOT lanes, people wonder if these lanes only benefit the rich.

And that’s tough to get over.

Jeff: Right, the equity issues are really big. That’s why with express lanes, we’re trying to make sure that we end up with “Robin Hood lanes” instead of “Lexus lanes”: we call for creating express lanes by converting existing highway lanes. That way, we can use tolls from solo drivers to fund public transit and reduce traffic congestion on all other lanes. And in the shared-use mobility realm, we’re focused on making sure that they’re regulated in a way that they provide benefits to low-income families as well.

You’ve been around since 1997.  How has TransForm and its work evolved?

Jeff: We spent our first six or seven years as a “follow the money” organization: Where’s the public funding going? What values underpin those decisions? And we helped win billions for transit from local transportation funding measures.

What came after that?

Jeff: And then we saw that, OK, there’s billions of dollars going towards creating new transit in the Bay Area.  But is it going to work well?  We realized we had to get involved in land use planning and pricing.

We also started some demonstrations of promising practices that weren’t being done, or not being done well enough. That led us to get communities involved in transit station area planning, so that there would be enough homes and jobs around stations, and riders on those transit systems. We started an urban-focused Safe Routes to School program in Oakland, whose school district has students who speak over 45 languages.

And now the organization is in its third phase?

Jeff: The third phase was taking that to the state level and trying to get replication around the state:  To get state legislation that would help put some of the practices into place that we had already done in the Bay Area. SB 375, the California law that sets goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, is a great example.

What would you say to someone who’s just starting a transportation reform group?  

Jeff: [Laughs] We started in a shed in [TransForm executive director] Stuart Cohen’s backyard!  It held Stuart’s desk and some bikes. When I moved in, I displaced the bikes. It was small enough that if we sat down at the same time, neither of us could get up because the chairs were back to back. So, not that different from the way a lot of scrappy nonprofits start out.

We started by trying to be at the sweet spot of social justice and the environment, overlaid with good transportation planning; and have tried to combine strong advocacy with good technical backing. We respect the agencies we try to influence, and we’ve always tried to get these agencies to push the envelope without breaking it.

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