Transportation and housing are at a crossroads.
We can’t fix our biggest challenges — the high cost of living and climate change — without getting housing and transportation right. The current situation isn’t working. In Berkeley, traffic stretches several blocks from campus in the evenings, car crashes are at the deadliest level in decades and students spend more than $1,000 a month to share a room. It’s not just a California problem — across the United States, housing costs are at a record high, households are spending half their money on housing and transportation and driving is more dangerous than it’s ever been since 2002, despite two decades of technological safety improvements.
Public transit can fix many of our transportation problems. Compared to cars, transit carries several times more people per lane. A bus stop the size of four parking spaces — such as the one at College Avenue and Bancroft Way — serves several hundred people. However, even with record gas prices, transit ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels and agencies face a fiscal cliff when federal pandemic relief money runs out. Without new funding and ridership, many agencies will need to make huge cuts.
After two years of remote office work, the way we travel has changed. For over a century, transit was designed to funnel office workers from suburban areas into downtowns. We still see this today with the four East Bay BART lines merging into one line in downtown San Francisco. What’s needed now is a transit network that gets people to all the things that remain in person. That means trips to essential jobs, hospitals, schools, colleges, stores and services. For example, some of the busiest bus stops today are those serving supermarkets.
For short trips, especially in places with mild weather such as the Bay Area, biking can also be a cheap and environmentally friendly way of getting around. Electric bikes and scooters open up many neighborhoods that were previously too hilly for biking. However, most potential riders don’t feel safe sharing the road with speeding cars. That’s where traffic-calming modifications, such as speed bumps, narrower intersections and other barriers that make it physically hard to break the speed limit or make illegal turns, as well as bike infrastructure (such as the curb-protected lanes on Milvia Street or the cycle track on Bancroft Way) make a difference.
Why haven’t we done this yet? In addition to resistance to change, there’s also a lack of funding. In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, which cut property taxes and caused local governments to lose half their funding overnight. It took over two decades for cities to recover, during which time lots of deferred maintenance racked up. Even today, Berkeley only paves half the streets it needs to repave each year just to maintain the current pavement quality. In 2020, a ballot measure — Prop 15 — was proposed to reform California’s property tax system by having the taxes on commercial property be based on its current value rather than the purchase price — just like the way it works in every other state. However, business owners spent more than $70 million on a No campaign and defeated Prop 15.
In the meantime, what can cities do to get more funding? Even if the tax rate is locked by Prop 13, new jobs and housing can grow the tax base. A block of apartment buildings pays more property taxes than a block of houses, even though both require the same length of street to be maintained. When new homes are built near bus lines, it brings more riders as well as the tax revenue to run more buses.
Similar to how California’s transportation systems haven’t kept up with our travel needs, California’s housing supply has not kept up with our housing needs. In the 2010s, the Bay Area added three jobs for every new home built, causing a housing crisis surging out from Silicon Valley, washing over the East Bay and spilling over into the entire western United States. In Berkeley, new student housing construction has not kept up with the number of students, even as students have to compete with Silicon Valley commuters for housing.
As the state legislature sends bills to Governor Newsom and California voters head to the polls this fall, change could be coming. Potential bills include SB 886, which would speed up the building of student housing, as well as SB 6 and AB 2011, two bills that would allow apartments to be built in places that currently only allow shopping centers or offices. Planning for next year’s bills will begin later this fall. On the horizon are ideas such as the Social Housing Act (apartments built to house the rich, poor and middle class, with rents based on income), as well as closer coordination between the Bay Area’s 20+ transit agencies, of which the BayPass transit pass that 1/4 of UC Berkeley students currently have is a pilot project. Locally, Berkeley voters will vote on Measure L, an affordable housing and infrastructure bond, paid for by a property tax of about $265 for the average home, with more valuable mansions and commercial buildings paying more.
Welcome to Berkeley! This is the perfect time to plug into student groups and community organizations that are acting locally — whether it’s the local branch of a political party, or an issues-based organization focused on housing or transportation policy.