Dec. 27, 2001



Is growth inevitable?

Regional planners predict continuous Bay Area expansion


By Rachel Brahinsky


The Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional think tank representing nine Bay Area counties, released its economic and development predictions for the next 25 years last week.


The group's planning projections are widely cited in news reports and are used as the basis for economic and transportation studies by government agencies and private industry groups.


ABAG's vision is one of inevitable population expansion, which means widespread construction of new housing, among other things.


For slow-growth advocates, it's not a welcome scene. And critics of the report say they're concerned ABAG's predictions will become a blueprint for Bay Area growth. They fear a future characterized by untamed development, since ABAG's research assumes there will be no new planning or growth-control initiatives in the coming years that could change historical development trends.


A quarter century from now, the report says, the economic effects of the Afghan war will be a blip in Bay Area history, as will the dot-com boom and bust. Instead the study, released last week, says that growth and development will progress at a steady upward pace. By 2025, 1.4 million more people will live and work in the area, it says. One result will be worsening traffic snarls, with 80 percent of commuters depending on cars to get to work, ABAG predicts.


Historian Gray Brechin, who chronicled local development wars in his book Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, warns that the forecast could become reality.


Here's how it works: first agencies calculate their vision of growth based on the status quo. Cities and counties then look for funds to implement the plan. And once the ball is rolling, it's tough to challenge. When the federal government in the 1950s estimated massive development for the Bay Area, an antigrowth activist movement sprang up, Brechin explained in an e-mail – but still the growth continued.


"This is what I mean by a self-fulfilling prophecy: by projecting growth trends ... and accommodating them with publicly financed freeways, water systems, etc. [the prediction is] sure to happen," he wrote.


Paul Fassinger, ABAG research director, said it's true the ABAG study assumes there will be no major policy shifts but defended the group's research strategy. "I think the right approach is to assume the standard case and then to ask the 'what if' questions afterward," he said. He added that his agency is involved in an alternative, "smart growth" planning process, which could affect future development forecasts.


E-mail Rachel Brahinsky at