Public Comment

BRT, NIMBYs, and the New York Times

By Charles Siegel
Tuesday March 22, 2011 - 08:44:00 PM

On March 12, the New York Times ran an article named “Green Development? Not in My (Liberal) Backyard.”

It began by saying, “Park Slope, Brooklyn. Cape Cod, Mass. Berkeley, Calif. Three famously progressive places, right? …. But just try putting a bike lane or some wind turbines in their lines of sight.”  

Then it pointed out that, in Park Slope and in Cape Cod, residents are suing to stop bike lanes and wind turbines, and “In Berkeley last year, the objections of store owners and residents forced the city to shelve plans for a full bus rapid transit system (B.R.T.), a form of green mass transit….” 

The article said that the residents all claimed to have reasons to oppose these projects, “But some supporters of high-profile green projects like these say the problem is just plain old Nimbyism.” 

As surely as night follows day, an outraged opinion piece named “Why is the New York Times Bashing Environmentalists?” appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet objecting to this slur against our city: “the author’s claim that opposition to a full bus rapid transit system on Telegraph Avenue was a function of ‘nimbyism’ is a bald-faced lie. There’s certainly nothing new about the mainstream media trying to find hypocrisy in the most environmentally forward thinking city in the United States, but opposition to that particular BRT route had everything to do with sound transit planning and nothing to do with nimbyism.” 

Anyone who attended the meetings about BRT in Berkeley and heard the people involved knows that the New York Times is right and the Daily Planet opinion piece is wrong. 

BRT was supported by the two major environmental groups working for better transportation in our area, the Sierra Club and TransForm. 

BRT was supported by many individuals with a long history of environmental activism. Many supporters have degrees in city planning or transportation. Others, like myself, are not professionals but have been working for environmentally sound transportation for decades. 

BRT was opposed by Telegraph Ave. merchants and vendors who cared only about its effect on business. 

BRT was opposed by people in adjacent neighborhoods who cared only about its effect on traffic and parking in their own neighborhoods.  

BRT was opposed by people who were simply pro-automobile activists, complaining that it would take away lanes that they use for driving, making their auto trips take 10 or 20 seconds longer.  

Finally, BRT was opposed by the usual suspects who make a career of being against everything proposed in Berkeley. 

Opponents did claim that BRT was not “sound transportation planning,” but those of us who have some background in transportation issues saw through them immediately. Their arguments generally took one number from the DEIR in isolation, and anyone experienced in transportation planning could see that they were new to the issues and did not understand what the number meant. 

I will not rehash these arguments. I will just point out that the US Department of Transportation found that, of all the Small Starts projects proposed in 2010, our BRT project was the most cost-effective.  

The writer of the Planet opinion piece seems to be blind to all these facts.  

Merchants, vendors, and neighbors made some valid points about the impacts of BRT, which I think could have been accommodated in the final plan. Unfortunately, the career obstructionists stirred up so much opposition to the plan that the city killed it before the FEIR was completed and mitigations were developed. 

Anyone with experience in local politics knows that it is easy to stir up opposition to a project by using scare tactics among those who are immediately impacted by it. 

The overwhelming majority of BRT opponents were people who had never been active in the past on environmental issues or on transportation issues, and who became active only when a project was proposed in their back yard. The overwhelming majority of supporters were people with a long history of activism on environmental issues and transportation issues. 

What do we usually call people like the majority of BRT opponents?  

People who were never active on energy issues until wind generators were proposed near their Cape Cod homes, or people who were never active on transportation issues until bicycle lanes were proposed near their Brooklyn homes or bus lanes were proposed near their Berkeley homes and businesses, people who then worked against these projects out of pure self-interest, without thinking of their impact on the entire region or on the environment, these people are usually called exactly what the New York Times called them: NIMBYs. 

Charles Siegel’s most recent book is Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices. He is a long-time Berkeley resident.