Public Comment

Commentary: De-Gassing Our 78,000 Commuters

By Alan Tobey
Tuesday September 12, 2006

A recent regional study by the Bay Area Council contains some eye-opening statistics about Berkeley working and commuting patterns. According to the BAC, of Berkeley’s 71,172 jobs in 2005, only a third (33.1 percent) were held by Berkeley residents, meaning two-thirds commuted to work here, while more than half of the city’s 54,421 employed citizens (56.7 percent) commuted to jobs out of town. Taken together, this means that nearly 78,500 workers—not counting students—commute into or out of Berkeley every workday. And the large majority of them still do so by private automobile. 

As we look forward to passing our feel-good greenhouse gases initiative in November, let’s keep in mind that these commuters are by far the largest single category of contributors to the greenhouse gases we are pledging to reduce. There are only three things to do:  

1. Press for less-polluting, energy-efficient vehicles and more responsive public transit. 

2. Encourage Berkeley employers to hire Berkeley residents and pay them a Berkeley-livable wage. 

3. Increase our housing stock, especially in transit-friendly locations, until we decrease upward market pressures on housing prices and rents. 

Only the third of those tasks is controversial, because of some citizens’ perception that we’re already building “too much new housing.” The BAC data illuminates that contention: in 1999-2005, when residential construction was more active than in any other period since the 1960s, Berkeley added exactly 1220 new residential units, an average of 175 per year, many of which are housing students. At that rate, we were increasing housing stock and population at the fearsome rate of 0.4 percent a year. From being so “excessive,” Berkeley’s population would actually double—by about the year 2180.  

For housing affordable by the average worker we did far worse: Only 374 of our new housing units (31 percent, or 53 a year) were classed as affordable. In other words, for seven years we have been giving one in-commuting worker a week a chance to move into a new affordable place in town, out of the 47,000 who might like to. How much more “excessive” could we get? 

So before you vote to feel good about being green, think of what we are committing to get done in years to come: drastically change an embedded pattern of un-green commuting in favor of a “village Berkeley” model that takes care of our own in a more proactive and responsible way. 

The Bay Area Council’s interesting report is at 


Alan Tobey is a retired technologist and has lived in Berkeley since 1970.