Public Comment

Commentary: Our Greenhouse Gases and Our Border

By Alan Tobey
Tuesday July 31, 2007

Berkeley’s process to begin implementing Measure G, the greenhouse-gas reduction initiative passed by 81 percent of Berkeley voters last November, is off to a good start. Community workshops held in collaboration with city commissions have been well-attended and lively, and have produced long lists of helpful ideas for action. It seems that the city council will have more than enough raw material from which to decide on policies and incentives after it receives the staff report in December. And many of us citizens will then gladly line up to sign a pledge to do our own bit to help further reduce the greenhouse gases we help to produce in Berkeley every day. However, we’re still taking too narrow a view, and that phrase “produce in Berkeley” explains why. City staff report that about a quarter of our greenhouse gases are produced by automobiles as they drive our city streets (freeway traffic, for which we’re not primarily responsible, is excluded). But there’s an even larger contribution to greenhouse gases that we’re also responsible for—the hundreds of thousands of vehicle miles traveled every work day by commuters into and out of town. According to the evolving Measure G implementation plan, if the miles aren’t traveled in Berkeley they simply don’t count. And that’s leading us to an ostrich-eye view of what we need to do. 

According to a 2005 study by the Bay Area Council, a workforce housing advocacy group, Berkeley provides about 71,000 private- and public-sector jobs—or approximately one current job for every adult Berkeley resident. However, 66.9 percent of those jobs—about 47,600—are held by people who live out of town and commute in to work. In addition, 56.7 percent of our 54,400 “working residents” commute out of town to their jobs—a total of about 30,800. 

Put those two numbers together and we get a truly astonishing statistic: every working day about 78,400 people commute into or out of Berkeley to get to work. Since the average Berkeley commute has been estimated at 28 minutes, we can be sure that many of those commuters are not just tiptoeing across the border from north Oakland or Albany. And we also know that many (and probably most) of our inbound and outbound commuters do so by private automobile, with an average occupancy of 1.2 people per car. 

So here’s the unfortunate reality for our current Measure G planning: Every working day Berkeley is responsible for something like half a million GHG-generating auto miles that are not being targeted for reduction—and not even being counted in the year-2000 baseline. That’s more far GHGs than everything we produce by car trips within our city borders. How environmentally responsible is it to ignore this “half-million-mile gorilla” in the middle of our Measure G planning space? 

The root problem, of course, is that many Berkeley workers who’d love to live here can’t afford to do so. Between now and Measure G’s 2050 endpoint, truly fixing this problem would involve not just personal actions (recycling and walking more and buying compact fluorescents) but structural changes to our housing mix and transportation systems. And that, if we take the charge seriously, would require significantly changing many of our current assumptions about acceptable urban density, the desirability of larger-scale workplaces and the greater availability of affordable workforce housing. It’s all too tempting to ignore today’s unfortunate highly-polluting pattern of living and commuting in our Measure G implementation, even though it’s our worst single GHG offender. But Measure G should require us to take a more responsible global view—and “out of Berkeley, out of mind” is an attitude that falls well short of that. 


Alan Tobey has lived in Berkeley since 1970, and avoided car commuting for all but four months of his working life.