Public Comment

Transit Planning and Unplanning

By Charles Siegel
Tuesday April 12, 2011 - 09:33:00 PM

Doug Buckwald writes (Daily Planet, April 6,2011) that my support for bus rapid transit is not consistent with my opposition to top-down planning in my book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices. I am glad he has read the book, but I am afraid he does not understand it completely. 

Unplanning includes a history of the American city, which shows that many of its current problems are the result of planning that has occurred since World War II. For example, transportation planners built freeways, and land-use planners zoned to separate land uses, and now we can see that all this planning actually increased automobile dependency. 

Then the book uses a thought experiment that looks at three different political limits on automobile use and on the scale of development, which would all reduce the need for planning. It shows that these different political limits would produce cities that have different ways of life. 

The point of this thought experiment is that decisions about urban form are decisions about how we live, which people should make for themselves. We tend to reduce these decisions to technical problems, which we expect the planners to solve for us. We need to see that they are actually personal and political decisions.  

Buckwald's criticism misses two points that my book makes. 

First, the book says very clearly that we need to make responsible political choices to reduce the need for top-down planning, and I see no sign yet that our society is making those responsible choices. 

Second, the book says that we can reduce the need for top-down planning but not eliminate it entirely, no matter what political choices we make. It explicitly uses transit lines, such as the BRT proposed in Berkeley, as an example to show where planning will always be needed, saying: “Regional planners must lay out transit lines, major arterial roads, and regional parks.” 

Incidentally, the book has had some success. It is being used by a class at the University of Florida. Another professor used it as the main source of information about city planning for a book he wrote about global warming. An article based on it was published on, the leading web site about city planning. 

Let me correct one other point that Buckwald makes, his claim that “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 neighborhood….” 

I myself live on the edge of downtown Berkeley, near the North Berkeley Senior Center. The Trader Joe’s project is just two short blocks from my house, and I am happy to have a supermarket within such easy walking distance. I supported this project and many other development projects in my neighborhood. 

One of the problems in my backyard is all the cars that are attracted by city meetings at the Senior Center. Doug Buckwald himself cruises on my block to find parking when he goes to commission meetings. I once saw him complaining to the Transportation Commission that he arrived late because he had trouble finding a parking space and had to drive around and around the neighborhood looking for one, berating the commissioners for not make it easier for him to find parking.  

Let me indulge in the fantasy that people will begin bicycling on trips where it is actually easier than driving. Of course, some people cannot bicycle, and many trips are too long for bicycling, but I would guess that about one-quarter of all trips within Berkeley could be made just as easily by bicycle as by car.  

If people biked on these short trips, it would mean far fewer cars in my backyard, as many people would bicycle to commission meetings. Anyone who complains about traffic on neighborhoods should consider taking this step to reduce their own impact on neighborhoods. 

It would make it easier for those people who do have to drive, by reducing traffic congestion and opening up more parking spaces.  

It would reduce the frustration and road rage that people face in their everyday lives. Buckwald’s bike ride to the Senior Center would be particularly pleasant, because it would go right through campus. I myself take this bicycle ride several times a week. 

Most important, automobiles are the number source of greenhouse gas emissions in California and in Berkeley. If people began to bicycle on short, easy trips, rather than demanding more parking to make it easier for them to drive on those trips, it would give me some hope that we could control global warming and leave a livable world to our children and grandchildren. 

Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident and environmental activist.