There may be no greater issue that plagues Coastsiders than traffic.
In the last two years, transportation has been on the Midcoast Community Council agenda nearly three-quarters of the time. And a simple search for “traffic” on the Coastside’s Nextdoor social media pages brings up dozens of posts in the last week, and hundreds over the last month.
Weekend traffic is perhaps the worst. On any given Saturday night since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors’ cars line up until after 10 p.m. along Highway 1 waiting to get onto Highway 92 to get home. Some Coastsiders refuse to leave their homes all weekend for fear of getting caught in an hours-long backup.
And frequent crashes — across Highway 1, in the Devil’s Slide tunnels or even over the cliffs south of the slide — can turn a brief delay into a massive problem. Some Coastsiders’ greatest fear is getting caught in gridlock amid a wildfire evacuation.
But traffic created by weekend visitors isn’t the only transit problem the Coastside faces. There is a second, perhaps more daunting, problem. The sprawled design of the Coastside, with communities flanking just one main artery, makes infrastructure expansion difficult. And as climate change drives the need for more sustainable transportation options, there is no easy way to end the area’s reliance on motor travel.
That doesn't mean local leaders aren’t trying. San Mateo County is working on its Connect the Coastside plan, a $100 million effort to address existing and future Coastside traffic problems. The plan is based on projected buildout by the year 2040 and includes solutions like roundabouts, crosswalks, limits on local development and increased SamTrans bus service.
The county’s Office of Sustainability also just released its Active Transportation Plan, which targets improvements to walking and biking, including a network of bike routes, sidewalks and crosswalks for residents living in the unincorporated areas of the county.
The city of Half Moon Bay is looking to tackle transportation as well, with its two Highway 1 projects and Poplar Street calming project that focus on making roads safer for bikers, walkers and motorists. And Caltrans just held its first public meeting on a plan to install variable message signs alerting motorists of Highway 1 delays in the hopes they will consider alternative routes.
But transit experts and local leaders say solving the problems facing the Coastside might take some out-of-the box thinking.
Stanford professor Dehan Glanz, who specializes in urban design, pointed to the metering system planned for San Francisco’s Lombard Street and demand-sensitive parking fees across the city as new options to explore. For large event weekends, Glanz said he has seen other areas successfully use ferries, a gondola or a shuttle system to move visitors more easily.
In fact, in 2017, the county created a free weekend beach shuttle on the Coastside, but ridership was dismal, with a maximum of a dozen riders on any given weekend. The county did not apply for future grants to fund the project.
To make real headway on the long-term problems facing the Coastside, Glanz said prioritizing compact development — with an extra floor of development in each of the downtown areas, for example — would reduce sprawl and locals’ reliance on their cars. But it only works if it’s paired with an equally fervent public transportation expansion.
“Asking people to support high density when there's no promise of a matching transit service that's going to reduce congestion, that’s tough,” Glanz said.
City of Half Moon Bay Public Works Director John Doughty said he is open to creative ideas that take a systematic approach to solving area traffic. To him, the quickest, easiest and cheapest solution is promoting widespread ridesharing to cut down on vehicle trips, especially for commuters. To address visitor traffic, he pointed to Vail, Colo., as a model for providing real-time parking availability.
“That would be our dream,” Doughty said.
But there is one big problem facing each potential solution: neither the city nor the county own the major roads where the worst of the backups occur. Any solution — from a streetcar to basic signage, has to be approved, prioritized and funded by the state transportation agency. And getting Caltrans’ attention isn’t easy when the rest of the state also faces critical transportation needs. Even projects not involving state roads require permits, agreements and coordination across many jurisdictions.
“This is the world we live in and work in,” Doughty said. “We all want to move faster on things that will improve the lives of our residents, but it’s a challenge.”
There is some hope. Senate Bill 288, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month, will exempt some transit projects from lengthy environmental review processes. The bill still requires a minimum of three public meetings for each project, and not all projects are eligible. Still, San Mateo County Transit District Public Affairs Specialist Alex Eisenhart said the SamTrans board was excited to see it pass.
“We hope to see projects that meet the CEQA exemption move more quickly thanks to this bill,” Eisenhart wrote.