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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Redundancy in Public Transit - Vol III. The Political Economy of Transit in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-63


This report focuses on two concrete developments. One is the historical process that produced the Bay Area Rapid Transit District in 1957 and the district's particular regional rapid transit plan, approved by the voters of Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties in November, 1962. The other is the process that produced the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District in 1955 and 1956, and the particular transit service this District began operating in 1960. The relation between the two districts, the latter is contained within the former's territory, is one of the central concerns.

These developments are analyzed as contingent outcomes of a regional transit movement that was active during this period. Several aspects of this movement's history are analyzed. Its origins are located in the context of postwar automobile-based suburban growth and the decline of privately owned interurban transit. Government-owned interurban rapid transit, in addition to freeways and off-street parking, are discussed as the transport means sought by business and political leaders in downtown San Francisco and Oakland to maintain and enhance their competitive positions and to gain shares of postwar economic growth.

The composition of movement leadership groups is described; the informal and formal regional organizations they created are analyzed with particular reference to the internal conflicts which delayed the movement's progress in the early years, and then caused it to fracture and partially disintegrate during the latter period. These conflicts are interpreted as instances of urban mercantilist politics. Existing central business districts were in competition with each other while they were also in competition with growing suburban commercial zones. Transit was a controversial political terrain on which the many places in the region sought to gain competitive locational advantages.

The movement sponsored a pioneering venture in regional transportation planning; the central planning innovation was a regional rapid transit system designed to function in a metropolitan area where land use patterns had been and would continue to be shaped by the motor vehicle. The important roles of private consulting firms and representatives of private financial capital in the public works planning process are high-lighted.

Several alternative transit system designs were technically feasible and were advocated by various interested individuals and groups. The political and economic reasons why some technical features, such as an underwater tube, were adopted, and others, such as the bus rapid transit, were rejected are discussed; the priorities of an alliance between downtown Oakland and San Francisco account for many of the technical choices made.

In addition to its internal, mercantilist dimension, two aspects of the movement's situation are considered. One of these is its relation to the three major privately owned interurban transit companies in the region. The decline of Key System, which was controlled by national City Lines from 1946 through 1960, and its consequences are traced in detail. The role of the California Public Utilities Commission, which closely regulated privately owned transit companies, is analyzed.

The other aspect is the relation of the transit movement to the large-scale program of freeway and bridge building conducted by state government agencies. The movement's progress was intimately linked with bridge location controversies that raged during the period; the political and design connections between transit and freeways are explored, particularly with regard to the San Francisco freeway "revolt" of 1959.

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