Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Greenwashing" the Berkeley BRT

BRT in Tehran

Two weeks ago the Berkeley Daily Planet published a commentary by Charles Siegel entitled, “BRT, NIMBYs, and the New York Times.” It is helpful that Mr. Siegel offered readers such an illustrative example of how BRT supporters have distorted the facts in an attempt to discredit BRT opponents in Berkeley...

Contrary to the implications in Charles Siegel’s commentary, the New York Times article that was the original impetus for this current debate in the Planet barely mentions BRT in Berkeley. That article is almost entirely concerned with a controversial bike path in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and a proposal to put wind turbines offshore in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The writer, Elisabeth Rosenthal, added BRT to her article (Green Development? Not in My (Liberal) Backyard) to try to add more substance to her thesis, but she handled the complex BRT issue in a very superficial and trivial way. Here are all of the substantive references to the East Bay BRT proposal in her piece:

In Berkeley last year, the objections of store owners and residents forced the city to shelve plans for a full bus rapid transit system (B.R.T.), a form of green mass transit in which lanes that formerly served cars are blocked off and usurped by high-capacity buses that resemble above-ground subways...And in Berkeley, store owners worried that reduced traffic flow and parking could hurt their business.

That’s it: only two sentences. (There is also one rhetorical question at the end of the article that is unanswered: “So what will happen to…the Berkeley B.R.T.?”) It should be clear to the readers here that the NYT writer did not do due diligence when investigating this issue. It seems likely that she simply read the heavily-biased accounts put forth by AC Transit, or, at most, contacted one or more of the rabidly pro-development groups, such as TransForm, to get an opinion that matched her pre-conceived conclusion. In short, the author was advocating rather than reporting, and this should be acknowledged by Siegel, rather than implying that this was an objective account...

Siegel omits a key passage from the article that seriously undercuts his own message about NIMBYs:

Nimbyism is nothing new. It’s even logical sometimes, perhaps not always deserving of opprobrium. After all, it is one thing to be a passionate proponent of recycling, and another to welcome a particular recycling plant---with the attendant garbage-truck traffic---on your street. General environmental principles may be at odds with convenience or even local environmental consequences.

In other words, it is perfectly understandable that people want to protect the quality of life in their own neighborhoods. It is important to stress that the difference is between competing efforts to protect the environment, rather than the way this issue has been unfairly represented by Siegel and others as a battle between pro-environment crusaders and anti-environment reactionaries...

Calling something “green” magically confers social and environmental benefits to a project—no matter what it actually accomplishes. That trick is well known to developers and planners now, and it should be called out. “Green development” is the modern-day equivalent of the draconian “urban renewal” of the late 1950s. Both are simply planning terms meant to disguise the real intentions of the planners: the destruction of existing neighborhoods and their replacement with new higher-density buildings that offer sizeable profits to developers...

I note that the NYT writer helps perpetuate another misconception about BRT when she claims that these systems “resemble above-ground subways.” By definition, a subway is a system that is “under ground.” The primary reason it operates as efficiently as it does is that it does not have to compete at all with surface traffic. Another version of this claim is the assertion that BRT systems are equivalent to “light rail lines on rubber tires.” The intention is to make it sound like they are equivalent to a transit system that people actually like to ride, as is the case with light rail systems. Don’t be fooled. A bus is still a bus, whether it has its own lane or not. Bus travel is always more uncomfortable and jarring to passengers than light rail is, and putting a bus in its own lane does not change this reality.

...After offering his selective account of the NYT article and claiming that the only thing that stopped BRT here was the complaints of a few NIMBYs, Siegel then asserts: “Anyone who attended the meetings about BRT in Berkeley and heard the people involved knows that the New York Times is right and the Daily Planet opinion piece is wrong.”...In fact, the reality is almost entirely the opposite: the vast majority of people at any public meeting on BRT were strongly opposed to the plan for legitimate environmental, economic, land use, and efficiency reasons. 

Mayor Bates himself flatly contradicts Siegel’s assertions about public opinion on BRT. At a meeting of the BRT Policy Steering Committee in October 2009, Bates made the following remarks: “I think it’s pretty clear that the public reaction to the [BRT] plan was extremely negative, almost across the board. I don’t think they found too many people other than the planners who like it. It’s sort of embarrassing when staff comes up with a proposal that’s almost dead on arrival...”

It is important to note that Mayor Bates has been one of the most vocal backers of BRT in Berkeley, and he himself could not overlook that obvious truth about the wholesale public rejection of the plan...

“BRT was supported by the two major environmental groups working for better transportation in our area, the Sierra Club and TransForm.”

Sadly, the Sierra Club has long since abandoned any pretense of objectivity in local political issues, and consistently supports any high-density development scheme favored by Mayor Bates—no matter now damaging it may be to the quality of life for residents in our city, and no matter how minimal and illusory the supposed environmental benefits it claims. It is enough to call a project “green” or “sustainable” to get the Sierra Club to act as a major cheerleader. 

Look at the new buildings downtown, like the hulking concrete Arpeggio, the sterile monstrosity Golden Bear center, the distinctly-ungardenlike Library Gardens, and the tree-and-open-space-free zone misnamed the Brower Center. The once-good name of the Sierra Club has been forever tarnished by its pandering to the developer-smitten establishment in Berkeley and its support for misguided projects that will plague our downtown for decades to come.

The other group that Siegel mentions, TransForm, is recognized as a completely undemocratic organization that is primarily funded by pro-development groups to promote construction of high-rise residential buildings. This group regularly organizes outsiders to come into communities to try to manipulate their decisions about transit systems and development. TransForm routinely mischaracterizes its involvement with the communities it claims to represent, calling what it does “cooperative engagement,” when it is really coercion and manipulation. And its representatives routinely misrepresent the views of the public at regional and local meetings.

I challenged Joel Ramos, the community planner for TransForm, to attend at least one meeting with the community members in Berkeley if he was going to continue to talk about their beliefs, but he failed to do so. He also refused my request to debate him in public about BRT.

"BRT was supported by many individuals with a long history of environmental activism. Many supporters have degrees in city planning or transportation…"

...There was powerful testimony offered by experts in transportation and land use in opposition to AC Transit’s BRT proposal. In such cases, it is important to examine the underlying motives of the spokespeople. Those experts who spoke against BRT did so as a matter of principle, rather than for economic gain or personal advantage, and that is why their evidence carried so much weight with the public...

"BRT was opposed by Telegraph Ave. merchants and vendors who cared only about its effect on business."

It is, of course, true that business owners and vendors had legitimate concerns about maintaining their income, and what’s wrong with that? They need parking access for vehicles that carry goods, for one thing, a need that cannot be handled by public transit. And they understood the financial risks they would face if months or years of construction kept their customers away. But that is not all they considered. Many members of the business community understood that this BRT proposal would harm residents throughout the whole community, and they opposed it on those grounds, too.

"BRT was opposed by people in adjacent neighborhoods who cared only about its effect on traffic and parking in their own neighborhoods."

I am one of the people living an adjacent neighborhood in the Southside, and I know that many residents here care about the negative impacts that this project would have on the whole city, particularly its drain on scarce transportation resources. I also had legitimate concerns about increased traffic, pollution, and parking problems throughout the entire Southside.

"BRT was opposed by people who were simply pro-automobile activists, complaining that it would take away lanes that they use for driving, making their auto trips take 10 or 20 seconds longer."

...Even partial lane closures on Telegraph Avenue have resulted in monumental back-ups that severely blocked traffic and access to businesses for hours. And with a lane closure the entire length of Telegraph Avenue and beyond, similar back-ups would be unavoidable. That is exactly why AC Transit refused to do a pilot lane closure project to demonstrate the impact of cutting the traffic lanes on Telegraph from four (two in each direction) down to two. The public would have been furious, particularly trucks making essential deliveries to businesses and people needing to access health care facilities on Telegraph Avenue...

Doug Buckwald is a long-time Berkeley resident who has examined public transit systems in Oakland, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Paris, Rome, Venice, Munich, and other cities. He rides public transit every day in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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