Editorial: Paying for the Privilege of Driving Alone

By Becky O’Malley
Friday May 04, 2007

It’s day six of the missing freeway link, and Berkeley is still standing. Friends have called from all over the country to reassure themselves about us—thanks, folks, but we’re just fine. 

If you’re driving from El Cerrito to the Oakland airport, it’s easy to pick up a freeway connection south via 980. Commuters through the tunnel from over the hill have figured out that they can take their usual 24-580 route into the city, as can those of us who live on the south side of Berkeley and in Rockridge or Temescal. Coming back from San Francisco is not quite so simple. Caltrans and common sense recommend a jog via the West Grand exit through Oakland city streets before reconnecting with 580 east, though a sizable number of misguided commuters seem to have instead chosen to add to Ashby Avenue’s permanent eastbound blockade, which starts at about 2:30 every afternoon. This confusion was aided and abetted by eager radio and TV newsies, who pushed the Ashby route all day Sunday. 

As of yesterday, the Chronicle was still interviewing residents on the affected streets. They quoted Oakland Mayor Dellums about the adverse health effects of 5,000 extra cars on Oakland residents. “The potential for tons and tons of air emissions into that area producing high health risks is enormous,” he said. Well, sure.  

That’s a short-term (weeks or, at the most, months) effect on his constituents, but it shouldn’t be minimized. At the same time, has anyone calculated how many home-bound cars drive east on Ashby every afternoon, even when the freeway is at full operating capacity? Or west, every morning? And how many use the Derby-Belrose corridor? Someone probably knows those numbers, though I don’t. (Department of Special Pleading: the O’Malley family has been breathing the emissions on Ashby for 34 years.)  

And here’s the next problem: The University of California at Berkeley is currently floating an assortment of environmental impact reports which collectively propose to build a number of parking spaces in the next few years which could come uncomfortably close to the same 5,000-car figure. When you add up the Gladiator Gym, the Long Range Development Plan, the Downtown Plan, the British Petroleum Building, etc. etc. etc. the number of cars scheduled to drive past our house and the homes of others is huge. And they will be permanent commuters, unlike the displaced freeway traffic in Oakland. 

And then there’s the ABAGgers—the perhaps 2,500 residents which some Berkeley city staff have been trying to claim we’ll have to add downtown to meet some mythical ABAG quota. Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman and other Downtown Area Planning Committee members have done a pretty effective job of demolishing that myth, but there’s no question that a substantial number of new units have been built and will continue to be built in downtown Berkeley. And contrary to another cherished myth, a lot of the new residents will be driving through town. Poschman cites a Caltrans study which showed that 60 percent of the people who live in “transit villages” (developments near transit hubs) drive alone to work.  

Counting all this is hard, of course, because The University is careful to divide up the plans of its several autonomous entities—the main campus, the professional schools, the research labs and the athletic events and other performances—so that it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening. In CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) jargon that’s called “impermissible segmentation”, and it’s done all the time by UC. They usually get away with it.  

It would be nice, though perhaps too much to hope for, if Berkeley’s city officials were as concerned about the effects on our health of all this excessive new traffic as Ron Dellums is about the health of his constituents. There are ways of dealing with it, if they cared. The most interesting one is being floated by the New York City mayor, Republican Michael Bloomberg, taking a leaf from the playbook of an unlikely fellow mayor, Socialist “Red Ken” Livingston of London. It’s congestion pricing: making drivers pay to use busy streets. Automated methods of tabulation, similar to the “Fast Pass” now used for bridge tolls, make this easy to enforce. And it doesn’t have to be as draconian as the London version, which makes every car pay about $8 a day to enter crowded streets. In Berkeley, for example, we could charge a fee just for cars with solo drivers entering the downtown/university area, with exemptions if desired for neighborhood residents, parents who’ve dropped off kids already and similar categories. Incentives for car pools have been a modest success, but penalties for driving alone might work even better, and are now technically possible.  

The city of Berkeley doesn’t have any zoning control over UC expansion, but it does have a variety of ways for regulating the use of city streets, including the right to grant or deny permission for curb cuts into UC parking lots and garages. How about making collection of a parking-alone tax at campus garages a condition for granting UC’s desired curb cuts? That might increase car-pooling, but even if it didn’t the revenues could be allocated for improving public transit. Perhaps the various lawsuits now making their way through the legal system could demand this or some other form of congestion pricing as a mitigation for the adverse environmental impacts of UC’s expansion in Berkeley’s future. Just an idea—but it might make a difference.