Transforming Transportation in the Nation’s Capital and around the Bay Area

by Mariia Zimmerman


Over the past 6 months, MZ Strategies, LLC has examined the recent history of transportation reform efforts in the San Francisco Bay Area and Greater Washington DC regions. Both metro areas have witnessed a significant transportation transformation over the past 15 years – in the types of transportation investments happening, the linkage to land use and development, and the connection to broader social, economic and environmental goals. We are pleased to release today a new report that summarizes key lessons learned from these two regions where advocates, philanthropy, the public sector and private entrepreneurs have created powerful coalitions to make transportation investments work better for people, places and the environment.

The report, Transportation Transformation: Innovation & Reform in Washington DC’s National Capital Area and the San Francisco Bay Area, is part of a year-long effort funded by the Ford, Rockefeller and Surdna Foundations, TransitCenter and the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities to define the factors that contribute to successful adoption of locally-driven, market-oriented transportation transformations. 

Advocates of the 6 Wins for Social Equity Network organizing for improved jobs and equity outcomes from the Bay Area's long range transportation plan and sustainable communities strategy. (Source: Breakthrough Communities)

Advocates of the 6 Wins for Social Equity Network organizing for improved jobs and equity outcomes from the Bay Area's long range transportation plan and sustainable communities strategy. (Source: Breakthrough Communities)

Many metropolitan areas witnessed a wave of innovations in the last ten years as public and private sectors advanced progressive investments in bicycling, pedestrian and transit networks. Yet a number of questions remain regarding how replicable these efforts may be to other kinds of market and policy environments, and their connection to other reform objectives including those related to healthy communities, clean economy jobs, and sustainable development.

In the Bay Area, regional planning has been transformed through the explicit connection now made in Plan Bay Area between transportation investments, climate change, affordable housing and social equity goals. Where and how transportation money is being invested is radically different in this region than in other parts of the country, where a rigorous set of performance outcomes drives investments across modes. Over 80% of transportation monies now support transit, bicycling and pedestrian projects and through the One Bay Area Grant program (OBAG) funds are allocated to local communities based on a formula tied to committed plans for preserving and increasing affordable housing. The region is also on the cutting edge in new mobility options where improved access to open data has generated an explosion in mobile apps, new technologies and shared use transportation.

In the National Capital region, transportation systems are being expanded in all directions: from the recent opening of the Silver Line in Northern Virginia to bike share and streetcar networks in DC and Arlington and the Purple Line LRT corridor about to start construction in suburban Maryland. These investments have the potential to redefine suburbia in the 21st Century. Coalitions between advocates, local governments and developers are working to link job location, land use and housing policies to transportation investments creating multiple regional and community benefits. In both regions, however, economic disparities are creating a powerful, and challenging, impetus to ensure that billion dollar transportation investments improve the quality of life and access to opportunity for low-income households.

Today’s report, Transportation Transformation: Innovation & Reform in Washington DC’s National Capital Area and the San Francisco Bay Area, provides a snapshot of the pathways to reform these two regions have taken offering lessons learned for other regions to consider. Impressive public leaders, community advocates and regional non-profits have adopted a set of strategies to redefine how their regions grow, what mobility means, and who benefits from transportation.

Among the key findings:

  1. Follow the Money.  Transportation planning is a complex process that requires building local capacity to influence decision making process and pressure points through data & tools.

  2. Institutionalize Collaboration. Diverse, multi-issue coalitions are most effective when members formalize processes for strategic coordination and leverage the different assets of policy and community organizing groups.  

  3. Community Organizing + Technical Capacity = Reform. Linking technical expertise with grassroots organizing enables sustained, flexible and multi-prong approaches that integrate transportation with broader community-driven goals.

  4. Small Scale Campaigns Used to Build Trust and Impact. Authenticity & ownership are reinforced through this approach which builds trust and relationships among diverse stakeholders to celebrates wins and recalibrate after losses.

  5. Build, Leverage and Support Political Leadership. Time spent to educate political candidates, build relationships and vocally support progressive policies and leaders is time well spent. Visionary leaders are catalysts for change - including those from public and private sectors.

  6. Sustained & Consistent Funder Investment Key (but not a Requirement). The influence of having philanthropy remain at the table via local, community and national foundations is critical to accelerating systems change, especially around equity issues.

  7. Health Creates a Powerful Reform Lever. Public health issues bring in important new partners, resources and messaging.

  8. Data defeats prejudice. Research, analysis, and effective communication efforts educate the population, inform public debate, and promote transportation reforms by showing measurable progress.

  9. Tailor your Communications. Social media creates new opportunities to reach a diverse constituencies while giving authentic voices to people of color, advocates from different political backgrounds, or geographies.

  10. Pilot projects and university partnerships build innovation. Regional advocates are building alliances with universities and the private sector to pilot new approaches from bike share to MUNI Youth Passes to equitable TOD and land acquisition funds, to name just a few.

Over the coming months, MZ Strategies, LLC will continue to gather input and refine our recommendations. We will be looking more deeply into the role of technology and private sector leadership to drive innovation. We seek to identify the most critical roles for philanthropy and non-profits to influence government and private capital decisions that better support these transformations. Stay tuned for more information on this project and we welcome ideas or experiences you may have to share.

A special thanks to these National Capital Region and Bay Area groups who helped to convene stakeholder meetings and provided additional project input: Breakthrough Communities, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Greenbelt Alliance, the Piedmont Environmental Council, Public Advocates, TransForm, and Urban Habitat.