Two weeks ago, the Berkeley Daily Planet published a commentary by Charles Siegel entitled, “BRT, NIMBYs, and the New York Times” (March 22, 2011). It is helpful that Mr. Siegel offered readers such an illustrative example of how BRT supporters have distorted the facts in an attempt to discredit BRT opponents in Berkeley. Their arguments could be regarded as merely humorous if they had not been used in such a vicious and manipulative manner during the campaign for BRT. And it certainly is clear from Siegel’s writing why he and other BRT zealots repeatedly refused offers to debate this issue in public. They would have been humiliated if they had done so.
Am I overstating the case here? Hardly.
First, contrary to the implications in Charles Siegel’s commentary, the New York Times article that was the original impetus for this current debate in the Planet barely mentions BRT in Berkeley. That article is almost entirely concerned with a controversial bike path in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and a proposal to put wind turbines offshore in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The writer, Elisabeth Rosenthal, added BRT to her article to try to add more substance to her thesis, but she handled the complex BRT issue in a very superficial and trivial way. Here are all of the substantive references to the East Bay BRT proposal in her piece:
“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 in which lanes that formerly served cars are blocked off and usurped by high-capacity buses that resemble above-ground subways.”
“And in Berkeley, store owners worried that reduced traffic flow and parking could hurt their business.”
Yes, that’s it: only two sentences. (There is also one rhetorical question at the end of the article that is unanswered: “So what will happen to…the Berkeley B.R.T.?”)
It should be clear to the readers here that the NYT writer did not do due diligence when investigating this issue. It seems likely that she simply read the heavily-biased accounts put forth by AC Transit, or, at most, contacted one or more of the rabidly pro-development groups, such as TransForm, to get an opinion that matched her pre-conceived conclusion. In short, the author was advocating rather than reporting, and this should be acknowledged by Siegel—rather than implying as he does that this was an objective account.
What Charles Siegel Left Out
Even more important than Siegel’s misrepresentation about the NYT article, Siegel selectively omits a key passage from the article that seriously undercuts his own message about NIMBYs. The author states:
“Nimbyism is nothing new. It’s even logical sometimes, perhaps not always deserving of opprobrium. After all, it is one thing to be a passionate proponent of recycling, and another to welcome a particular recycling plant — with the attendant garbage-truck traffic — on your street. General environmental principles may be at odds with convenience or even local environmental consequences.”
In other words, it is perfectly understandable that people want to protect the quality of life in their own neighborhoods. And, it is important to stress that the difference is between competing efforts to protect the environment—rather than the way this issue has been unfairly represented by Siegel and others as a battle between pro-environment crusaders and anti-environment reactionaries.
But just like this NYT writer who overlooked things about BRT that did not fit into her neat hypothesis, Charles Siegel chooses to overlook this critical passage that acknowledges the reasonableness of people organizing to protect the environments in which they live. Instead, Siegel launches into an extended diatribe about how utterly contemptible so-called Nimbys are. This is a perfect example of the manner in which the BRT zealots have twisted information to present their point of view.
* * *
Greenwashing damaging development practices
Also, I must point out the misleading characterization of BRT systems in the NYT piece. Calling something “green” magically confers social and environmental benefits to a project—no matter what it actually accomplishes. That trick is well known to developers and planners now, and it should be called out. “Green development” is the modern-day equivalent of the draconian “urban renewal” of the late 1950s. Both are simply planning terms meant to disguise the real intentions of the planners: the destruction of existing neighborhoods and their replacement with new higher-density buildings that offer sizeable profits to developers.
That is why it is important to talk in specifics when evaluating development projects like BRT, to determine exactly how the quality of life in an area would be impacted by their implementation. Falling back on generalities (like “green” and “sustainable”) allows developers to avoid examining these important considerations—and allows NYT writers and people like Charles Siegel to write misleading articles.
A bus by any other name is still…a bus!
I note that the NYT writer helps perpetuate another misconception about BRT when she claims thatthese systems “resemble above-ground subways.” This is silly; first of all, by definition, a subway is a system that is “under ground.” The primary reason it operates as efficiently as it does is that it does not have to compete at all with surface traffic and other activity. Another version of this claim is the assertion that BRT systems are equivalent to “light rail lines on rubber tires.” The intention is to make it sound like they are equivalent to a transit system which people actually like to ride—as is the case with light rail systems. Don’t be fooled. A bus is still a bus, whether it has its own lane or not. Bus travel is always more uncomfortable and jarring to passengers than light rail is, and putting a bus in its own lane does not change this reality.
In fact, I challenge public transit riders to take a ride on one of AC Transit’s enormously uncomfortable Van Hool buses, and then ride on BART, a MUNI streetcar, or even a PCC historic streetcar on the “F” line in San Francisco, and compare the experiences. Anyone who does so will easily be convinced that BRT is nothing like a light rail line or a subway—not even close. It will still be a bus line, sure as night follows day, with all of the inherent limitations and discomforts that buses entail. You can call a fish a bird as often as you like, but that does not make it suddenly grow wings and feathers.
Let’s take a tour
Now, join me on a tour through Charles Siegel’s commentary. Fasten your seat belt, though, because we are in for a bumpy ride through logic wrought with potholes as big as refrigerators and slippery statements that will make your head spin out.
After offering his selective account of the NYT article and claiming that the only thing that stopped BRT here was the complaints of a few NIMBYs, Siegel then asserts:
“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.”
This is a good example of the intentionally misleading communication that has characterized the BRT zealots’ approach from the very start of the controversy. First of all, it is not true on its face, because everyone certainly would not agree with Charles Siegel’s conclusion. In fact, the reality is almost entirely the opposite of Siegel’s assertion here: the vast majority of people at any public meeting on BRT were strongly opposed to the plan for legitimate environmental, economic, land use, and efficiency reasons.
In fact, Mayor Bates himself flatly contradicts Siegel’s assertions about public opinion on BRT. At a meeting of the BRT Policy Steering Committee in October 2009, Bates made the following remarks:
“I think it’s pretty clear that the public reaction to the [BRT] plan was extremely negative, almost across the board. I don’t think they found too many people other than the planners who like it. It’s sort of embarrassing when staff comes up with a proposal that’s almost dead on arrival...”
It is important to note that Mayor Bates has been one of the most vocal backers of BRT in Berkeley, and he himself could not overlook that obvious truth about the wholesale public rejection of the plan. It is telling that Charles Siegel not only lacks this ability to admit the truth about BRT—but instead asserts exactly the opposite.
Siegel’s statement is also a good example of Black or White Thinking, a common logical fallacy. Most people who have passed high school English know the danger of making extremist statements, such as “Everybody knows…” “It is never the case…” “It is always true…”, etc. Apparently, Charles Siegel was absent from class when this issue was discussed—or he wasn’t paying very close attention.
Next, we read:
“BRT was supported by the two major environmental groups working for better transportation in our area, the Sierra Club and TransForm.”
Sadly, the Sierra Club has long since abandoned any pretense of objectivity in local political issues, and consistently supports any high-density development scheme favored by Mayor Bates—no matter now damaging it may be to the quality of life for residents in our city, and no matter how minimal and illusory the supposed environmental benefits it claims. It is enough to call a project “green” or “sustainable” to get the Sierra Club to act as a major cheerleader in its completion.
If you have any doubts about this, just look at the new buildings downtown like the hulking concrete Arpeggio, the sterile monstrosity Golden Bear center, the distinctly-ungardenlike Library Gardens, and the tree-and-open-space-free zone misnamed the Brower Center. The once-good name of the Sierra Club has been forever tarnished by its pandering to the developer-smitten establishment in Berkeley and its support for misguided projects that will plague our downtown for decades to come.
Besides that, the other group that Siegel mentions, TransForm, is recognized as a completely undemocratic organization that is primarily funded by pro-development groups to promote construction of high-rise residential buildings. This group regularly organizes outsiders to come into communities to try to manipulate their decisions about transit systems and development. TransForm routinely mischaracterizes its involvement with the communities it claims to represent—calling what it does “cooperative engagement”, when it is really coercion and manipulation. And its representatives routinely misrepresent the views of the public at regional and local meetings. (They actually do this so often that they ought to be called misrepresentatives.)
I challenged Joel Ramos, the community planner for TransForm, to attend at least one meeting with the community members in Berkeley if he was going to continue to talk about their beliefs, but he failed to do so. He also refused my request to debate him in public about BRT. You may have noticed that this a common behavior among BRT supporters—they always shy away from a fair fight in public, preferring instead to use one-sided forums to propagate their suspect values where they won’t be challenged in any way.
“BRT was supported by many individuals with a long history of environmental activism. Many supporters have degrees in city planning or transportation…”
Most readers will recognize the time-honored appeal to authority. If an authority says something, it must be accepted as true. The problem with that logic is that for any authority who that says “x” is true and not “y”, there is almost always another authority who says that “y” is true, and not “x”.
In fact, although Charles Siegel strenuously tries to deny it, this was the case in the BRT debates, too. There was powerful testimony offered by experts in transportation and land use in opposition to AC Transit’s BRT proposal. In such cases, it is important to examine the underlying motives of the spokespeople. Those experts who spoke against BRT did so as a matter of principle, rather than for economic gain or personal advantage—and that is why their evidence carried so much weight with the public.
Besides that, Charles Siegel is contradicting his own principle here, at least if we can believe what he wrote in his most recent self-published book, Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choice.
In his book, Siegel stresses that it is not wise to trust “top-down planning” efforts—such as, I might add, the East Bay BRT proposal—because those who develop them are almost always out of touch with the actual needs and conditions of local neighborhoods. As Siegel says:
“In recent decades, many of our greatest successes in urban design have been the result of political action, not of planning…and citizen-activists had to spend much of their time working against projects that city planners had proposed or approved.
The choice of how we live is not a technical problem to be solved by planners, it is a human issue that is a matter of personal and political choice.”
Siegel then goes on to recommend the imposition of “direct political limits on urban growth…that would reduce the need for planning and allow more individual choice and more local decision making.”
I could not agree more, and that is one of the primary reasons that I oppose BRT—which was developed in defiance of the wishes of local communities. Siegel should oppose it, too.
“BRT was opposed by Telegraph Ave. merchants and vendors who cared only about its effect on business.”
Here Charles Siegel employs another logical fallacy, that of oversimplification. It is, of course, true that business owners and vendors had legitimate concerns about maintaining their income, and what’s wrong with that? They need parking access for vehicles that carry goods, for one thing, a need that cannot be handled by public transit. And they understood the financial risks they would face if months or years of construction kept their customers away. But that is not all they considered. Many members of the business community understood that this BRT proposal would harm residents throughout the whole community, and they opposed it on those grounds, too.
Siegel then states:
“BRT was opposed by people in adjacent neighborhoods who cared only about its effect on traffic and parking in their own neighborhoods.”
I am one of the people living an adjacent neighborhood in the Southside, I know that many residents here care about the negative impacts that this project would have on the whole city, particularly its drain on scarce transportation resources that could be used more beneficially in other ways to increase transit use and decrease traffic congestion. I also had legitimate concerns about increased traffic, pollution, and parking problems throughout the entire Southside.
“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.”
Name-calling is never very useful, and there is no such thing as a pro-automobile activist, as far as I can tell. I could just as easily call Charles Siegel an anti-democracy advocate, or an AC Transit stooge, but such things serve no purpose other than to mislead people about the true issues, and to harden positions. Thus, Siegel’s approach is ultimately anti-educational and divisive. We need to come together to develop transit and transportation solutions that benefit everybody.
Now, regarding Siegel’s claim that BRT might make “auto trips take 10 or 20 seconds longer”—that is just ludicrous. Even partial lane closures on Telegraph Avenue have resulted in monumental back-ups that severely blocked traffic and access to businesses for hours and hours. And with a lane closure throughout the entire length of Telegraph Avenue—and beyond—similar back-ups would be unavoidable. That is exactly why AC Transit refused to do a pilot lane closure project to demonstrate the impact of cutting the traffic lanes on Telegraph from four (two in each direction) down to two. The public would have been furious, particularly trucks making essential deliveries to businesses and people needing to access health care facilities on Telegraph Avenue. !0 to 20 seconds longer? In your dreams, Charles.
“Finally, BRT was opposed by the usual suspects who make a career of being against everything proposed in Berkeley.”
This is one of the most pernicious statements in Siegel’s whole diatribe. The implication is that some people seem to enjoy standing up in opposition to the city council in Berkeley, and the Bates Machine. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is one of the most frustrating and humiliating experiences to try to speak up for the community in this town. Most people who do so are repeatedly subjected to baseless attacks from the establishment (similar to Charles Siegel’s comments here, actually) that typically make them never want to attend another council meeting or commission meeting again in their lives.
It is very easy to make this derogatory claim about citizen-activists, but you will notice that when Mayor Bates makes it, he never names names. We should all call the mayor to task whenever he levels this inaccurate charge in the future, as he most certainly will. It is one of his favorite spins on people who still have principles that he abandoned long ago. Primary among these principles is the support for democratic rights and public involvement on issues that affect us all.
“What do we usually call people like the majority of BRT opponents…who [as Siegel claims] opposed BRTout of pure self-interest, without thinking of the impact on the entire region or on the environment? These people are usually called exactly what the New York Times called them: NIMBYs.”
I have another word for them, one that Charles Siegel himself has recommended in his book: citizen-activists.
And regarding the pejorative term NIMBY, I think I have a useful way to evaluate it use.
In my book, anybody who calls another person a NIMBY undoubtedly is one, because—usually due to zoning protections and environmental laws—they will never face development projects in their own neighborhoods that will ruin their own quality of life. They, therefore, are the ultimate NIMBYs, and they should be publicly recognized as such.
* * *
Sadly, Charles Siegel and others are actually harming the cause of public transit by clinging to a dying project, BRT. This is like a triage doctor spending all of his time trying to save a comatose victim of a massive heart attack—when all around him there are people suffering from cuts, bruises, and broken bones that could be healed.
We need to use our transportation dollars on projects that have community support and will make a real difference in increasing transit use and decreasing automobile traffic on crowded corridors. BRT won’t do this at all. Instead, why don’t we work together to try to develop transit solutions that will?
Doug Buckwald is a long-time Berkeley resident who has examined public transit systems in Oakland, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Paris, Rome, Venice, Munich, and other cities. He rides public transit every day in the San Francisco Bay Area.