During college, the proprietor of the Merry-Go-Round had a classmate who spent his spare time reading the Congressional Record. At the time, we joined those who mocked him for his choice of leisure activities. (You could find us at Rudy’s).
Then, last week, we found ourselves spending our evenings watching the videos of the Planning Board meeting held Monday, followed by the joint Planning Board/ Transportation Commission meeting held the next day. Suddenly, Ari didn’t seem so strange after all.
Not every minute of these meetings was either informative or entertaining. But they did offer, if not pearls of wisdom, at least nuggets of insight into what our leaders are thinking.
Today, we present three of those nuggets.
We need to have parking close to the water for people who have difficulty walking longer distances, for people who have disabilities, whether they’re age-related or otherwise, and for people to actually enjoy the water and some of the activities we’ve talked about putting out there. . . . I don’t know many people who can take their kite-surfing equipment on the bus, shuttle, or some other form of public transportation.
— Planning Board member Lorre Zuppan
Ms. Zuppan made these comments during the Planning Board review of the latest version of Alameda Point Partners’ plan for Site A. She was responding to criticism leveled by her colleague, self-anointed transportation planning guru John Knox White, about including “dedicated” visitor parking along the waterfront abutting the Seaplane Lagoon. (To Mr. Knox White, providing additional parking spaces at the Point is akin to handing out razor blades at Halloween).
One may make fun of Ms. Zuppan’s example – who’s she expecting to see at the Seaplane Lagoon, John Kerry? – but her comments display an admirable inclination to view the Point as a place for people and not just a project for planners. To her (as well as to fellow Board member Dania Alvarez-Morroni), the issue is not just how well a plan comports with the principles of transit-oriented design but also how well it serves the needs of residents, employees, and visitors.
This is not the first time Ms. Zuppan has insisted that development at the Point be user-friendly – for everyone. Take the occasion on which the Planning Board heard one of the first presentations on the transportation demand management plan, with its goal of promoting the use of public transit to get to and from the Point. Ms. Zuppan worried that the plan would keep away a significant number of Alamedans for whom taking the bus might prove difficult, particularly the elderly and families with small children. “We’re not all single young adults or people with kids grown up,” she said. “I want to make sure that our TDM plan is realistic, it considers the full lives of people.”
Likewise, Ms. Zuppan consistently has urged her colleagues not to lose sight of the economic goals for development at the Point. Projects must generate cash sufficient to pay for infrastructure. In addition, once built, the projects are supposed to generate sales tax revenue sufficient to stop “leakage.” Too often, Ms. Zuppan has remarked, these goals are minimized, if they are discussed at all. “We haven’t really talked about the kinds of industries or jobs we’re looking for and how that might match to the zoning,” she noted when the proposed zoning ordinance was presented to the Planning Board. “We need to be more thoughtful about that.”
Mr. Knox White (and his acolytes) undoubtedly would like to see Site A and the rest of the Point become a model for TOD, TDM, TLC, and other concepts of which they are so fond. (All right, we admit we made up the last acronym). We don’t begrudge them their aspirations. But which would be better for the City: a development that makes the planners “ooh” and “aah,” or one that provides funds for infrastructure, delivers amenities for Alamedans, and generates revenues for the General Fund? If you can’t have both, we suspect Ms. Zuppan (and Ms. Alvarez-Morroni) would prefer the latter. And we encourage them to continue to speak up.
This community has said we want to do multi-family housing, for a number of reasons, but primarily because it generates less traffic than single-family housing.
— City Planner Andrew Thomas
Mr. Thomas made this comment at the joint meeting as part of his response to a question from Ms. Alvarez-Morroni about Alameda Point Partners’ request for a waiver of Measure A, the Charter provision prohibiting multi-family housing. Not only was multi-family housing at the Point legal, Mr. Thomas argued, it was the right thing to do.
Since Mr. Thomas (and others) advance this argument so often, its underlying premises bear closer examination.
Start with “the community has said” part. Mr. Thomas’s description of the “community” view is certainly correct if he is referring to the visionaries on the Planning Board or to housing advocates like Renewed Hope. But the evidence of public support for multi-family housing is more equivocal.
It’s not only that the voters overwhelmingly defeated the SunCal initiative seeking an exemption from Measure A. After that debacle, staff ran a series of community workshops designed to ascertain the public’s preferences about future development at the Point. Here’s what the summary report said about the types of housing people wanted to see:
There is a great deal of concurrence that once the number of total housing units permitted is determined, the housing that is built within this “cap” should include a wide variety of housing types, including single-family homes, duplexes and “duets”, town homes, row houses, and small apartment houses similar to what is found in many existing Alameda neighborhoods. As with most issues, there are also some who disagree. A small number of participants argue for a plan that allows only single-family homes, but it appears these participants are doing so because they assume that a plan that allows multi-family homes implies more units (and therefore more traffic) than a plan that allows only single family homes.
More specifically, staff sought input from the public on which land uses Alamedans favored in five “sub-areas,” one of which – Plan Area E – is slightly smaller but otherwise coterminous with Site A. Here’s how the report summarized the public’s views:
Plan Area E lands should be dedicated to waterfront open space and recreation, maritime-related uses, visitor-serving retail and services, cultural uses and entertainment, and lodging. Some felt that office and workplace uses, and even some multi-family housing, could be accommodated in the areas that are not restricted to State Lands limitations, as State Lands may not be used for residential purposes.
The current plan is to build a total of 800 multi-family housing units at Site A: 164 town houses, plus apartment buildings containing 288 market-rate and 128 “affordable” units, along Ralph Appezzatto Memorial Parkway, and another apartment building(s) containing 220 units north of the Seaplane Lagoon. To us, this goes more than just a little beyond what the “community said it wanted.”
The second part of the argument – that multi-family housing generates less traffic than single-family housing – is also problematic.
Our standard reference, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s on-line TDM encyclopedia, supports the proposition that “increased density and clustering” – such as that resulting from multi-family housing – “tend[s] to reduce per capita automobile ownership and use, and increase use of alternative modes [of transportation].” Likewise, according to VTPI, transit-oriented design “can significantly reduce per capita motor vehicle travel.”
But this doesn’t prove the case. Note that these comparisons are made on a “per capita” basis. To judge the relative impact on traffic volumes of multi-family versus single-family housing, we need to compare the two alternatives for a project covering the same geographic area. If that is done, multi-family housing’s “per capita” advantage may not translate into a corresponding advantage in traffic volume.
Take Site A for example. Alameda Point Partners has stated that, on the 18.49 acres on which it intends to put 800 multi-family housing units, it could build 265 single-family homes. In all likelihood, the multi-family project would contain more people (and more potential drivers) than the single-family project. Even if the people who live in the town homes and apartments take fewer trips, or drive fewer miles, per capita, than single-family homeowners, the total traffic volume generated by the multi-family project might well be greater than that of the single-family project.
The assertion that multi-family housing generates less traffic than single-family housing is calculated to address the primary concern expressed by opponents of residential development at the Point: increased congestion at the tubes and bridges. But it ain’t necessarily so.
If we’re really serious about changing commuting patterns in Alameda, we have to do three things: provide incentives for current residents to change their behavior to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commute trips; aggressively pursue job creation to provide opportunities for residents to work on-island to reduce the number of people who commute off-island; [and] focus on transit-oriented development and aggressively pursue transportation demand management strategies for all new developments.
— Planning Board member David Burton
This was part of Mr. Burton’s reaction, read from a prepared text, to the staff recommendation at the joint meeting to begin work on revising the City’s TSM ordinance and preparing a Citywide TDM plan. Normally, we’d count Mr. Burton among the visionaries on the Planning Board – and nothing he said diminishes that reputation – but his comment sets forth as straightforward and as concise a to-do list for transportation planning as we can recall hearing from any Board or Council member.
But it may be easier said than done.
We’re not referring just to the third item on his list – relying on TOD and TDM to reduce the traffic impact of new developments – but to the first two. Mr. Burton surely is right to direct attention to the driving habits of current residents. (As he put it, “the problem is us.”) The challenge is to find a strategy that actually will work to wean Alamedans away from their cars.
Behavior modification is the key to the success of any program intended to reduce automobile use, and TDM takes a carrot-and-stick approach. Mr. Burton said he wanted to “hear more” about “how we provide incentives to make that behavioral shift.” But he then acknowledged that the carrot might not be enough. “Let’s figure out,” he said, “how to encourage, or if need be compel, more likely encourage, current residents to take advantage of those services.” (emphasis ours).
And there’s the rub. As our regular readers know, we’re fans of former University of Chicago Law School Professor Cass Sunstein, who argues that government often can achieve its objective by “nudging” people to make the “right” choice. But even Professor Sunstein admits that a nudge doesn’t always do the trick; sometimes government can attain its goal only by punishing people who refuse to make the “right” choice – or insist on making the wrong “one.”
Mr. Burton appears willing to use the coercive power of government, if necessary, to get people to change their behavior. But like Professor Sunstein, we are troubled by this position. (We, too, have a libertarian streak). Suppose that the City provides all of the tools in the TDM arsenal – more convenient buses and ferries; more complete bicycle and pedestrian networks – and Alameda residents still want to drive! Then what do you do? Hold them up to public ridicule? (Oh, sorry, we’re already doing that). Impose the City’s own vehicle registration tax? Confiscate their cars?
Mr. Burton’s other suggestion – increasing job opportunities on the island itself – is more palatable. And if it worked, it would indeed reduce traffic congestion at the tubes and bridges. According to the American Community Survey, 32.5% of Alamedans work outside Alameda County. (The percentage who work elsewhere in the county – like Oakland – is unreported). Obviously, if these people found jobs in the City, the volume of off-island commuter traffic – whether by car, bus, or ferry – would be reduced. In fact, some of these residents might even be able to walk or ride a bike to work.
The hard part is figuring out what kind of jobs will induce Alamedans to stay close to home and then luring the businesses that provide these jobs to Alameda. It’s undoubtedly true that the Target and Safeway stores at Alameda Landing have created jobs. But who’s getting those jobs – Alamedans or others? And what kind of jobs are they? Even though we’re sure that Target and Safeway employees earn a “living wage,” we doubt that all of the people lining up for the Harbor Bay ferry in the morning would give up their jobs in San Francisco if offered only the chance to work at retail stores in Alameda.
So we come full circle back to Ms. Zuppan and her admonition to keep our eyes on economics. She was talking about finding businesses that would pay for infrastructure and generate sales tax revenues at Alameda Point. Mr. Burton was talking about finding businesses that would provide jobs in Alameda for current (and future) residents. It could very well be that they’re talking about the same thing.
Community forum summary: 2010 Community Forums summary report
Alameda commuter data: ACS Alameda Commuting Characteristics