Traffic may be a regional problem, but just about every city in the Peninsula has its own local gripes — and proposed fixes — for easing congestion on neighborhood streets and prominent commute arteries.
Among the trendiest solutions is the creation of a "transportation management association" (TMA), an agency that develops, markets and manages programs aimed at getting people to stop driving solo and giving commuters new options.
Mountain View and Sunnyvale are each looking at TMAs to manage traffic in their commercial hubs. When Sunnyvale approved the precise plan for the 450-acre Peery Park in 2016, it required the establishment of a Peery Park TMA. Mountain View, meanwhile, has set specific targets for businesses as part of its new North Bayshore Precise Plan, which aims to reduce the solo-driver rate from 63% to 45%. The Mountain View TMA is expected to be a big part of the solution.
While the TMA programs all share the goal of reducing solo driving, they vary widely in structure, scope and funding mechanisms. And despite everyone's acknowledgment that traffic is a regional problem that requires regional solutions, each TMA program has been operating more or less in a vacuum. Palo Alto, for example, has two TMA programs that function completely independently of each other. There's the SRPGO program, which is funded by Stanford University and offers shuttles, carpool assistance and other commuting benefits to employees at Stanford Research Park. There's also Palo Alto TMA, a nonprofit that is subsidized largely by the city and offers transit passes to downtown's low-income employees and mid-level managers.
Now, a movement is afoot to change that. On Thursday, elected leaders, transportation experts and representatives from major employers in the region convened at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto for the fifth and final meeting in a series called "Manzanita Talks." Launched by Joint Venture Silicon Valley, the series sought to bring all the parties together to exchange knowledge about transportation-demand management, explore partnerships and — most significantly — consider creating a "subregional TMA" to serve the greater area.
Elected leaders who participated came from the cities of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Redwood City, Sunnyvale, Los Altos and Atherton. From the private sector, representatives who work on corporate transportation programs came from Facebook, Genentech, Google, Intuit, LinkedIn, Palantir Technologies, Salesforce, Tesla and the Los Altos Property Owners Downtown group.
The benefits of the subregional approach could be dramatic, according to the "The Manzanita Report and Alternatives Analysis," a 162-page report that was released prior to the meeting. The report surveys myriad recently established TMA programs on the Peninsula, provides case studies about larger TMA efforts elsewhere in the nation and considers the trade-offs that cities would have to make under the subregional approach.
A key component of the new report is the exploration of a subregional TMA, a nonprofit that would allow established TMA programs to share services. This could mean shuttles that would circulate throughout a wider area, carpooling services that would match more people and partnerships between cities to collect data and conduct surveys, activities that may be too expensive for one organization to measure.
Such a program, the report notes, would give more people access to transportation-demand management (TDM) services and create new connections to employment centers and neighborhoods. Cities would also be able to reduce redundancies and realize the "positive effects of purchasing power," the report states.
A larger TMA may also benefit from more funding opportunities. It would also allow the various partners in the subregion to identify and advocate for new transit services that would make the most sense, given the existing TDM offerings.
The closest thing the region currently has to a subregion TMA is Commute.org, an organization that provides shuttle- and consulting services for employers in 17 cities and towns in San Mateo County and that gets the bulk of its funding comes from public sources, including the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
In addition to the potential benefits of forming a subregional TMA, the report also notes that such an approach would come with its own challenges. As the organization grows, it would become harder for it to focus on "hyperlocal transportation issues" or provide "one on one" services to residents and individual businesses. Including all the stakeholders in decision-making would also become more difficult.
"Pulling together the public sector organizations, private sector companies, commuters and residents from all eight jurisdictions would be a very complex task," the report states.
Despite the challenges, many of the elected officials and company representatives at Thursday's meeting expressed enthusiasm for moving forward with some form of organization to provide the services recommended in the report. Several asked for a clearer "call to action" that they could bring back to their respective decision-making bodies for approval.
"A bunch of us at this table have been talking about something like this for a good four years — so getting to this point, going around the table and seeing positivity (about) where we have gotten is really promising," summarized Michael Alba, head of transportation operations at Facebook. "We need a call to action that is something we can take back and get official sign-on to."
Menlo Park City Councilwoman Betsy Nash likewise emphasized the importance of regional cooperation.
"We need to work together for optimal solutions. Each city cannot do this alone," she said.
Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, said his group plans to make some revisions to the report and send it back to attendees to bring back to their decision-making bodies for approval.
Working together and sharing intelligence
In addition to analyzing the subregional TMA concept, the new report also recaps the topics that were addressed during the talks, describes what other cities are doing to tackle traffic issues and looks at different organizational structures, including a "super region" scenario in which the Bay Area has one gigantic TMA serving all nine counties. It is also meant to serve as a guiding document that would help cities and companies work together "across sectors and jurisdictional boundaries."
The report also includes a joint statement from the participants, acknowledging the magnitude of the area's traffic challenges. The statement notes that the region has added nearly 900,000 jobs over the past decade. The growth and prosperity, however, has exacerbated the problems of skyrocketing housing prices, income inequality and "debilitating traffic congestion." With new jobs far outpacing new housing units, a large portion of the workforce is located on the outskirts of the region and beyond. As a result there are 90,000 "megacommuters" who drive more than 90 minutes each way to their Silicon Valley jobs, according to the report.
"Our roadway congestion, already the nation's worst, will only worsen," the report states.
"The goal, of course, is to reduce traffic congestion, increase transportation choices, and free up space on the roadways," the report states.
John Ford, executive director of Commute.org, a joint powers authority formerly known as the Peninsula Traffic Congestion Relief Alliance and based in San Mateo County, advised meeting attendees that their challenge is not an easy one.
"At the end of the day we're tasked with ... convincing someone like you or me to do something other than drive alone to work. That's really hard."
He pointed to one policy tool that already exists but is currently underutilized: the Bay Area Commuter Benefits Program, a law that requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide commute benefits to their workers. Four years after the law was implemented, he said, compliance is only at about 60%.
Aaron Aknin, the creator of the "Manzanita" report, co-owner of the consulting firm Good City Company and former employee with the cities of Redwood City and Palo Alto, offered attendees traffic information from the "big data" firm StreetLight Data. On Thursday, he asked attendees for suggestions on which streets or areas they'd like to see traffic data from first.
Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth said he was eager to explore some of the data to understand traffic trends between East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park in particular.
Participants Thursday also emphasized their interests in making sure those transportation choices are provided to the area's workers in an equitable way — not only seeking to help low-income or minority community members find ways to avoid driving solo to work, but also to do the same for people who live far away, or are single parents who have to drop their children off at school before going to work, or work for companies that don't particularly care how their employees get to work and aren't much concerned with subsidizing alternatives.
Company representatives also explained that they plan to continue to explore all options to get their workers to and from work by ways other than solo driving.
Tom Harrington, global commute solutions leader at Intuit, listed the different commute options he's worked to provide employees including vanpools, long-distance shuttles and public transit passes.
"We do it all," he said. "We have to deliver on every single one of these options we're talking about. ... I don't think any individual jurisdiction or company can be as effective as if we were to work together."