Monday, July 6, 2009

NIMBYism and the Environment Don't Mix

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

by Robert Cruickshank

The East Bay Express, a weekly newspaper serving the Berkeley-Oakland market, had a great feature article last week titled "You're Not An Environmentalist If You're Also A NIMBY". Its focus is the debate over urban density in Berkeley and Oakland, where folks who claim to be environmentalists are also opposing greater urban density, despite the fact that such opposition fuels sprawl, which contributes significantly more pollution and carbon emissions to the atmosphere than urban density:

Global warming is changing far more than just the climate. It's altering the way environmentalists view development. For years, city dwellers who consider themselves to be eco-conscious have used environmental laws and arcane zoning rules to block new home construction, especially apartments and condominiums. In the inner East Bay, liberals have justified their actions by railing against gentrification and portraying developers as profiteers. But the lack of urban growth in Berkeley and in parts of Oakland during the past few decades also has contributed to suburban sprawl and long commutes. And all those freeways choked with cars are now the single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the region.

The debate on the Peninsula regarding high speed rail has a different focus, and yet the basic details remain similar as this AP article on Peninsula "concern" over HSR explains - one of a number of similar articles that have been written about Peninsula NIMBYism in the wake of the release of the draft scoping report on the SF-SJ segment of the HSR route. As in Berkeley, folks in Palo Alto and Menlo Park are primarily driven by a desire to maintain their communities exactly as they look right now, with little regard for the environmental consequences of maintaining an urban landscape suited to the auto-oriented 1950s.

There is a crucial difference between the urban density debate in the East Bay and the HSR debate on the Peninsula. NIMBYs on the Peninsula have been able to have it both ways, claiming that they aren't opposed to HSR, that they either want it built underground (without explaining how to pay for it, meaning they're not offering a credible proposal) or built somewhere else (without explaining why, if HSR is so awful for communities, it's OK for Pleasanton and Hayward to be stuck with it).

In all this time I've never been unsympathetic to legitimate concerns from community members about making sure that HSR can work in their town. Nobody, myself included, wants to just drop the train in the middle of town. Of course, neither does the CHSRA, despite the frequent hyperbole you hear from some on the Peninsula.

But what you never seem to hear is an honest assessment of the HSR project's place in our broader agenda of environmental and global warming action. Too often HSR is cast as some random project being foisted upon the Peninsula, when in fact it's designed to help them get around their county, their region, and their state more easily and sustainably.

27 comments:

nimby said...

Off topic, but not too far. A couple more interesting news events for those that do not live in the bay area.

The SAME Amtrak train kills two in separate incidents a mile apart. Neither of these deaths appears to be suicidal and makes yet another strong case for grade separation.

http://www.mercurynews.com/breakingnews/ci_12749769

This is not train related but shows the scary strength of NIMBYs.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/07/04/BAKU18ICI7.DTL

Happy reading.

Michael said...

"There's going to be a huge amount of unhappiness if they don't do it right," said Malcolm Dudley, a former Atherton city councilman. "Right means tunneling it. It's done all over the world in urban centers."

Right, because Atherton is definitely the urban center of the state, with development so dense it can't justify a weekday Caltrain stop...

Robert Cruickshank said...

Good catch, Michael. Malcolm wants to have it both ways - Atherton is a "small town" when it serves their purposes, and is an "urban center" when it serves their purposes. Ridiculous.

Rafael said...

Ironically, the combination of NIMBYs up and down the SF peninsula and the failure to integrate planning of the SF Transbay Terminal could ultimately lead to a route modification that would bring fast, efficient, clean HSR to the very doorstep of those folks over in Berkeley.

In strictly technical terms, tracks out of Pacheco Pass could be run up the still-available I-880 median between San Jose to West Oakland BART. This option was studied but not selected as the preferred route because ridership analysis suggested - credibly, IMHO - that San Francisco would make a preferable terminus for northern end of the starter line. This preference was made explicit in AB3034, but that same legislation also clarified that it would not constrain CHSRA's choice of route.

Running tracks up 101 instead is not possible because the median is no longer available.

Perhaps the "environmentalists" in the SF peninsula and in SF proper should consider if they really want Caltrain to remain a quaint commuter line with the familiar complement of diesel fumes, horns, bells and squeals, delays at grade crossings and regular fatal accidents/suicides.

Sometimes, what you've got is actually a lot worse than what you could have. That's as true of high-density transit village development as it is of zero-emissions vehicles like modern trains.

Anonymous said...

Completely off topic, but California's bond rating is plunging rapidly toward junk status. High speed rail is counting on being able to borrow at least $10 billion in general obligation bonds. This will almost certainly have significant implications for the funding of the HSR project.

luis d. said...

This has been discussed elsewhere but I wanted to share. Here's a map of BART from 1961 and how Peninsula NIMBY's have always slowed progress of the region by rejecting Bart to their area by voting down a 1/2 cent tax to pay for it back then, wich is explained at the bottom of the map.

http://tinyurl.com/m6fvk3

Props to the person who found it.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Anon (and please pick a username even though I'm responding favorably to your comment), that is an excellent point. CA's rating going to junk status could have a negative impact on the HSR project, assuming there's no long-term budget solution that helps restore our credit rating.

This *may* help lead to a federal "backstop" for CA debt - essentially the feds cosigning our loans - which would certainly help matters.

Rafael said...

@ Robert Cruickshank -

if the Obama administration decides that California is "too big to fail", it should make any assistance contingent on a few changes that address the root cause of the perennial fiscal nightmare.

In particular, they should demand the state get rid of the 2/3 rule for passing a balanced budget, perhaps even repeal the 1978 ballot initiative on property taxes. This might well require constitutional amendments on the ballot of a special election.

If the federal government just tides the state over without demanding any painful structural changes, it just sets up yet another moral hazard (cp. banks and auto industry).

Until a few days ago, any congressional bill to bail out any state or to do so in ways that interfere with its fiscal sovereignty would have been filibustered by the GOP. Now, it is no longer in a position to do so.

Clem said...

Hey Robert, here's some red meat ;-)

jim said...

cities such as oakland, san francisco and berkeley have more density than any other place in california - they have more than done their share of absorbing population. Slowing growth in these already over crowded locations does not create sprawl. Most people dont wan to live in that environment. What creates sprawl is the policies of other cities and towns that encourage tract housing rather than density and that happens because that is what sells homes to families. Its time for these sprawling cities to clean up their acts and do their share of densification and quit trying to shove al the states problems on san francisco and oakland. You don't get to dump all the unpleasantries on us while you enjoy wafting through a suburban field of poppies.

CComMack said...

Sure jim, "most people don't want to live in that environment", which is why property values in SF, Berkeley, Chicago, NYC, Boston, etc. are all plummeting to zero. Oh, wait...

To say that SF, Oakland, and Berkeley have finished growing, and that all growth should happen elsewhere, is bunk. Berkeley isn't even at a historical high for population; it's down 11% from its 1950 total.

Many people like living in cities; not everyone, but quite a lot, and more today than any in recent history. Pulling up the drawbridge and saying "no room" in SF will only keep out the most mobile and educated; they will flee to Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and even LA, taking the future vitality of the city with them.

This may be fine with you, jim. It's certainly fine with me; I don't live in the Bay Area, and the cities that hold my allegiance will be more than happy to keep building for density and steal as much of California's best and brightest as they can lay their hands on. But I imagine that most people who frequent this blog -- and most Californians -- will object.

Denier said...

http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_12767070?source=rss&nclick_check=1

Anybody know where the new Facebook campus is? Its literally across the street from the Caltrain station on California. About a 3 minute WALK. AND Facebook gives its employee's FREE Caltrain passes.

Imagine that, trains don't get cars off the roads. NIMBY's and environment don't mix? Well guess what, trains and environment don't mix either.

NONIMBYS said...

IF trains and the Environment dont mix then cars and the enivonment are 10 times worse..like the stupid SUV commericals with the beautiful woods and an off road going thru it

jd said...

denier, your syllogism is incoherent. train=bad because facebook make free and accessible? What have do with environment? make head confused.

timote said...

Rafael-

You probably discussed this already, I get lost in the details of these options, but why does the 880 median become important? Just looking at Google maps, it appears that there are tracks heading north out of SJ, across to Newark, then across Newark/Union City (I think this is the ACE route) to the tracks towards the east side (near the Union City BART station) and then up to Oakland. There seems to be a lot more ROW or vacant or commercial land near this route than the contentious peninsula route.

As an EB resident I'd love to be a reverse NIMBY and have the train over near me...getting to SF would require another bridge/tube, though, which probably kills the deal...

jim said...

@ccom- The so called "best and brightest" as you put are of no concern. I doubt most of us live here so we can basque in their presence. We live here because a) its just home, and b) the weather is nice, its a laid back town, and its in a beautiful setting. That's what draws people here and if we let too many in, it will kill the city. the only people who want san francisco to look like every other american city, are people who aren't from here, real estate agents, and developers. That's why you see them being fought every step of the way and most folks here couldn't be less interested in what outsiders think about how things are done here. In fact there's quite a bit of pride about the fact that we tend to thumb our noses at the rest of the country's ways. As for those best and brightest, one year of shoveling snow and they'll be back, ( only to find we've gotten along just fine without them and raised the rent on their former apartment)

Rafael said...

@ timote -

the tracks already in place belong to UPRR and are therefore not available for HSR. For safety and capacity reasons, HSR needs its own tracks and the I-880 median would be the obvious place to put them.

There is a disused railroad ROW immediately next to the BART tracks between Union City and approx. Fruitvale. However, getting there from San Jose and continuing on to Oakland would be difficult. Not that an I-880 alignment would be easy to construct, the trains would have to run in a shallow trench to clear overpasses. Plus, the asphalt lobby would have to accept the permanent loss of expansion capacity for I-880.

Keep in mind that the #1 reason for the preference for the Caltrain ROW was that its contiguous and in most places, wide enough for four tracks.

jim said...

I doubt californians are going to let a handful of nimby's cheat the state out of billions in federal stimulus funds.

CComMack said...

@jim

People choose a city to live in based on economic opportunity, not trivialities like the weather. God knows I don't live in Las Vegas for the weather; SF holds no special appeal for me, either (I like snow). Again, you're entitled to your opinion, but don't pretend it's universal; if everyone shared your values, Toronto would be empty and there would be a waiting list to move to South Carolina, but it's not and there isn't.

Speaking of South Carolina, your attitude really is parallel to the worst cultural aspects of the American South, minus the racism: a dedication to preserving the status quo in every detail, derision towards outside opinion, a phobia of cold weather, a glorification of being "laid-back", and an ugly nativism. Obviously, this approach to the world has succeeded in delivering an excellent quality of life to the people of the rural South, so much more so than the hardscrabble industrial North...

timote said...

Rafael-

Thanks for the info. I hate to see beautiful ROW being unusable due to the owner's reticence, but this is the hazard of actually respecting private property rights ;-)

I understand the rationale for the Caltrain ROW, I just look at all the tracks through the EB and relative size around most of them and I wonder if we're on the right track so to speak. I will say, though, some are as tight as the Caltrain tight areas as well.

No perfect solution will be found, that's for darn sure.

Thanks again.

Adirondacker12800 said...

HSR needs its own tracks and the I-880 median would be the obvious place to put them.

I880 has a median? There's places where it widens out enough that they put in guardrail instead of Jersey Barrier....

Denier said...

JD - simple:

Even FREE trains that drop you at your doorstep, still not enough incentive to get people to ride trains. Trains don't help get people out of cars. Environmental Argument for HSR = a crock of crap.

jim said...

@Ccom- I don't know that anyone is here for economics. working for amtrak I can live anywhere in the country, and my wages would go a lot further almost anyhwhere but here. Im here because my family is from here and there is no better weather anywhere. its the only place where I can breathe year round Never hot , never cold. Even people who make good money in silicon valley live here, instead of there, because they like the weather and lifestyle. Unlike other american cities that are mostly about economics, san francisco is about something else. ive seen many american cities and most of them are just butt ugly. There's an aesthetic you get used being from california that other people aren't aware of. Californians can rarely live someplace else without a sense of loss.

jim said...

denier, trains in california are the most successful trains in the country. often sold out or standing room only during the summer months. nationwide, trains are also sold out throughout the summer and during holiday periods. You don't know what you are talking about.

Board Watcher said...

I doubt californians are going to let a handful of nimby's cheat the state out of billions in federal stimulus funds.
That's one of the dumber things I've read in a while. That's like saying you won't allow yourself to be cheated out of a buy one snow tire, get one free deal when you can't afford a car and hate snow.

Alon Levy said...

Californians can rarely live someplace else without a sense of loss.

And yet, more Californians move to other states than the other way around. California to Arizona is the second most common state to state move in the country, after New York to Florida. U-Haul is so swamped with requests for moving eastward that it charges premium rates for moving from California to Texas, and bargain rates for moving from Texas to California.

jim said...

They can leave and they can pretend its better but deep down they know they have compromised. Any one can make it in Texas. Texas is a shithole. Anyone who thinks they have a better life there isn't fooling anyone. Ive lived there. In fact In my 45 years Ive left cali for boston, dallas, reno, seattle, and traveled with an ice show for a while too. Ive seen al of it. This country is a mess. No matter where you go the weather is unbearable and with a few exceptions, the geography is butt ugly. If you have no sense of aesthetics, then you may be ok but if you have any sense of of your surroundings you can not grow up here and then be satisfied living in texas. if you are youre stupid or lying.