Public Comment

Commentary: City Council Ignores Elmwood Congestion

By R.J. Schwendinger
Tuesday July 31, 2007

I mailed a few letters this past Saturday, getting to the post office just before pickup at 4:30 in the afternoon. The post office is on the corner of College and Webster in the Elmwood. I live on Prince Street and was alarmed that every parking spot on the street was taken; it is the longest uninterrupted street in the city, between College and Claremont avenues. Traffic on College was backed up beyond Woolsey, almost to Alcatraz Avenue as a result of the red traffic light at Ashby. Alcatraz is four blocks south of Ashby. After I mailed my letters, I walked to the corner of Ashby and College, and as a result of the red light there, traffic was backed up on Ashby several blocks east as well as west. I wondered: has the city ever commissioned an environmental report for auto exhausts in my neighborhood, especially on the corner of Ashby and College on a Saturday afternoon?  

There is a church with a Chinese congregation on Prince near College, and when there is activity there, its members occupy many parking spaces on the street. However, there was no activity there when I mailed my letters; it was obvious that people who live elsewhere were parking on the street so they could take the short walk to businesses in the Elmwood.  

I often wonder what motivates politicians like those on the Berkeley City Council to approve projects like Wright’s Garage. Neither the mayor nor council members who approved the project, as well as those who sit on the ZAB commission, live in the Elmwood neighborhood. Obviously, they will not be impacted by the problems it will generate. I understand that my council representative lives up in the Hotel Claremont area, considerably east of the Elmwood neighborhood, so he could easily detour the congestion already prevalent at Ashby and College.  

Campus activity, its employees, sport and cultural events, generate enormous traffic on the North/South College corridor. Employees from San Francisco generate as much or more traffic on the east/west Ashby corridor. This corridor is also backed up by drivers from outside of town who are going to events or an evening on the town in San Francisco. Of course, the mayor and his allies on the city council have no reason to concern themselves about the impact these conditions have on Elmwood residents. By virtue of where they live, they are spared being exposed to it daily. 

There are several scientific studies that apply directly to the traffic problem of the Elmwood. One done by Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, examined the association between traffic-related pollution and childhood asthma. It found that children developed “asthma from exposure to high concentrations of auto pollution.” Another study by researchers from the California Environmental Protection Agency, Cal Department of Health Sciences, and Lawrence National Laboratory, confirm the above findings that “traffic-related pollution is associated with respiratory symptoms in children.” A third study comes from the Netherlands and it finds that older folks, 55-69 years of age, suffer from “cardiopulmonary disease when living near a major road.” 

Imagine the harm being done to residents of the Elmwood from thousands of cars, many of which stop at a red light and stand idling on four major streets in Berkeley, seven days a week. 

I fear greatly the pollution that is being generated by all the traffic, for the elderly who live in the Elmwood. There are many on my street who are over 65 years of age, and not a few with cancer, as with myself, and other blood diseases. I fear for the children in the Elmwood. There has been a large increase of children on my street alone, from toddlers to ten years old, who are taken to the businesses in the Elmwood daily. All are unknowingly exposed to the numerous, disease induced pollutants.  

I fear for all of us who live in the Elmwood, for we have a mayor and members of the City Council who are reckless with our lives, having no interest in our “general welfare,” no curiosity about protecting us. Rather, they are defiantly assaulting the young and the old with their approval of the Wright’s Garage—their mindless decision to approve an increase in traffic in an environmentally overburdened neighborhood.  

I urge all residents of the Elmwood to press the city, as well as our council member Wozniak, to demand that an environmental impact report be made for the Elmwood neighborhood. The monitoring of the pollution should be done especially at Ashby and College on a Saturday afternoon, on a windless day, during game day at the campus, as well as at five in the afternoon on weekdays, when the overwhelming traffic, representing thousands of residents living outside of Berkeley, unwittingly overwhelm the neighborhood with crippling, poisonous exhausts. 

The report should be conducted by a respected, independent scientist who has no ties to members of ZAB and members on the Berkeley City Council. Such an appeal should not prevent concerned citizens from commissioning a scientist to also do the work. Once findings are made, they should be shared with the public and California’s Environmental Protection Agency. Elmwood residents, upon learning of the invisible destroyer in our midst, can act to turn around the irresponsible votes of ZAB and the city council.  


R.J. Schwendinger is an Elmwood