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Learning to love congestion

Steve Geller
Saturday November 24, 2001


There is a lot of unhappiness with the Transportation Element of the General Plan, specifically policy T-35, which would improve access to downtown Berkeley for working and shopping by making better use of available parking and public transportation. 

Public transportation enthusiasts like me see a salutary shift from cars to buses, resulting in less traffic congestion and air pollution. But people who run downtown enterprises see a dwindling number of customers, because there won’t be enough parking. 

At a recent City Council meeting, there was a long parade of public comment, calling for more parking. It wasn’t all store owners: nearly the entire staff of the downtown YMCA turned out. Customers, Y members, visitors to Habitot and patrons of the arts are said to be turning away from downtown for lack of a parking space. 

Well, what about the bus? I’d have thought that people who come to the Y for exercise would not be too delicate to get on a bus, or walk from the bus stop. 

Not so. Judging from the comments, a large number of people who come downtown are either old, or encumbered with young children or freight. Most of the able and unencumbered remainder feel public transit is inconvenient, takes too long or doesn’t serve where they live. So they want to drive. 

Well, if this is the way things are, maybe I’ve been wrong to promote public transit. My assumption has been that most people want to reduce congestion. I’ve gotten that idea from reading about several polls that put congestion as the number one urban problem. 

But if all these people really aren’t willing to use public transit, really want to drive and park, then maybe congestion is really not such a problem after all. Given this revelation, here’s a different public policy: 

Public transit should be provided, but only enough to satisfy the demand from people who are transit-dependent or who choose not to drive. 

Transportation policy should focus on improving roads and providing plenty of parking. The next time there’s a poll that complains about congestion, it can be ignored. As long as they can drive, as long as there is parking, most people can hang tough with any amount of congestion and air pollution. 

Well, that’s a relief. If AC Transit wants to focus on the high-ridership corridors, then that’s the way to go. Maybe one or two people might switch from driving a car to riding those Bus Rapid Transit vehicles. But the main job of public transit will be moving the poor and other transit-dependent part of the population. Everyone else will be free to drive and fill the streets and parking lots. 

If we make the truly informed choice to put up with congestion as the price of unlimited car use, then that’s freedom. 

There’s no point in wasting tax money on transit if only so many are ever going to use it. 

Something may have to be done when the Environmental Protection Agency comes down on our region for excess air pollution, but the Bush Administration may find some clever political solution to that. 

So maybe I’ll forget about promoting bus riding, and join the call for the elimination of policy T-35. Let freedom ring; let there be plenty of parking, minimal bus service and let everyone stop worrying and learn to love congestion. 

Steve Geller