AS SOMEONE WHO was raised in the Bay, and who recently finished teaching a graduate course on “Environmental Futures” for the English Department at San José State, I was struck by the recent slate of announcements that California will ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, that the state will invest $54 billion in climate change projects over the next five years (including $14.8 billion for transit, rail, and port projects), and that BART celebrated its 50th anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 11th.

Daniel Lanza Rivers is an assistant professor of American Studies and Literature at San José State University. (Courtesy photo)

My students and I spent this spring semester exploring the ways that imagination and speculation can shape our relationships with equity, each other, and the environment. And thinking about these announcements in this mode, I can’t help wondering about the opportunity costs and social disparities that are baked into any response to climate change that prioritizes rail transit and electric vehicles without also bearing down on the dynamics of equity.

Like many Bay Area residents, I took public transit to work in the days before the COVID shutdown. Sure, my trip from Oakland to San José and back again lasted three and a half hours — involving four bus rides, two turns on BART, a handful of city blocks, and six different fares. But at least I had my hands free. Now that I’ve returned to working on campus, I’ve joined the many Bay Area residents who have replaced BART rides and bus fares with freeway traffic and fights for parking. Spending the first morning of the semester sitting in a line of cars that stretched for blocks, I couldn’t help thinking that things could be different.

To be sure, Bay Area public transit has made some gains in recent years: the Antioch BART extension opened in 2018, connecting the Delta to the inner Bay. And the rail line finally made it to the North San Jose Station in 2020, potentially trimming an hour off of my own commute (no jumper bus fighting afternoon traffic on 880). But as I reflect on the state’s recent investments, these local improvements feel incremental, and they fall short of the kind of wholesale revision that we’ll need if we want to decarbonize our roads while also investing in equitable and effective transportation.

Public transit meets racial equity

Like histories of housing, histories of transit are deeply entwined with those of race, class, property, and mobility. There are reasons, after all, that Marin shrugs in the corner of the BART map, or that the Lafayette BART station is located across the freeway from the wealthy suburb’s walkable downtown. A recent study published by Equity Atlas found that Marin County is home to 4 of the top 20 most segregated enclaves of white wealth in the Bay (including Belvedere, which topped the list), while Lafayette comes in at number 16. Just as histories of racial and financial segregation have shaped the Bay Area’s contemporary housing landscape, the region’s transit histories are marked by moves to insulate wealthy suburbs while fragmenting the mobility of communities of color and working-class folks, many of whom are being pushed out to the further reaches of the region. 

To be sure, reinvesting in rail and other forms of public transit doesn’t offer a silver bullet solution to decarbonizing the economy or responding to the Bay Area’s transportation and housing woes. It can, however, play an essential role in a mosaic approach that responds to climate change while reaching toward more equitable transportation futures. Just as moving away from fossil fuels is a necessary step toward addressing the climate crisis, reimagining transportation and investing in affordable, effective, and accessible rail could reshape daily life and equity across the whole region. Two of the most impactful ways that we could manage this are, first, to invest in a robust and far reaching revisioning of rail and bus transit that seeks to connect rather than fragment. And, second, to create the public funding structures necessary to institute an affordable fare for all riders, regardless of their point of origin or the distance they travel. 

A 1982 map of the BART system shows its original network of stations along with BART Express Bus routes (indicated in blue dashed lines) connecting outlying cities. Forty years later, some of those cities have seen the buses replaced with permanent rail extensions while others still wait — incremental improvements that leave the Bay Area lagging in its progress toward a carbon-free and equitable transportation future. (Image via BART/Wikimedia Commons)

For too long, the ability to live near work has been both a luxury and a driver of urban displacement. And the Bay Area’s traffic patterns have eroded the time and stolen the peace of mind of those of us who find ourselves traveling great distances to our places of labor. If we choose to invest in creating a broad, robust, and reliable transit system, we can cultivate a future of access and mobility that shifts the financial, physical, and psychic burdens of travel off the shoulders of those for whom mobility has been used as a barrier to access and equity.

As the generational inheritors of a warming planet, we are coming to better understand that our futures happen whether we plan for them or not. And the time has come for us to imagine and enact new transportation futures across the Bay. By prioritizing equity, access, and infrastructural reach, we can create new maps of connectivity that work to integrate the Bay’s many communities, rather than separating them. We might even see that perennially-delayed BART station arrive in Downtown San Jose. Maybe it’ll happen in my lifetime. If not, I hope I don’t spend the coming decades sitting in traffic, idling as I wait to park my electric car.

About the author

Daniel Lanza Rivers is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, and an assistant professor of American Studies and Literature at San José State University.