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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Traffic got you down? Get over it.

Uploaded: Oct 20, 2019
Most development projects in California need to do an environmental impact report as outlined by CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) before they can be approved. The report covers the project's impacts on air and water quality, noise, transportation, wildlife, and more. Starting in July 2020, the transportation section will no longer look at traffic congestion. Instead, projects will be asked to evaluate Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).

That is, concerns about sprawl are trumping concerns about traffic congestion. No longer will you see intersections rated with traffic grades from A-F. From CEQA’s point of view, an F on traffic is the lesser of two evils. A denser region is a greener region.

How did this come about, and will it help to reduce our emissions?

California is on a mission to reduce transportation emissions. This sector is by far the biggest source of emissions in California.


California's greenhouse gas emissions, 2016 (Source: 2019 EFI Report)

A full 70% of those emissions come from light-duty vehicles, which are cars and trucks weighing at most 8500 pounds. Other sectors -- freight, aviation, shipping, rail -- tend to be harder to decarbonize, so most of California’s specific policies to date are targeted at reductions for cars and light trucks. (1) (2)


California's transportation emissions 2016 (Source: 2019 EFI Report)

We cannot do this gently. Take a look at our emissions trajectories up until now, and where we need to go to hit our 2030 goals.


California's greenhouse gas emissions targets and progress through 2016 (Source: 2019 EFI Report)

You can see that the only area where we are making real progress is in reducing electricity emissions (yellow). The recession around 2008 helped some with transportation, but emissions have gone right back up. Moreover, the California Energy Commission expects that we will add about 30% more vehicles over and above the 2015 baseline by 2030, leading to this sobering chart showing the job ahead of us. We need to reduce transportation emissions by about 46% by 2030, and those of light-duty vehicles by more than that.


California’s projected transportation emissions (Source: 2019 EFI Report)

California has developed a four-pronged strategy to do this. These are listed in order of projected impact by 2030, from greatest to smallest.

- Improve fuel-efficiency of gas-powered cars. This is mainly the so-called CAFE standards that the federal government is trying to relax, but also includes things like encouraging people to drive smaller cars and even to drive more efficiently.

- Move to lower-carbon fuel. This is primarily blended fuels (e.g., with ethanol or renewable diesel), but also includes reducing emissions in the upstream supply chain.

- Move to alternative vehicles. This focuses largely on electric vehicles (and the infrastructure they require).

- Reduce demand. This includes promoting transit and telecommuting as well as increasing the density of jobs, housing, and services to reduce the need to travel.

The chart below shows the projected effects of this strategy. They are significant, though insufficient to account for the projected growth of vehicles, which is not shown on this chart. You can see that the strategies that involve changes to consumer behavior, primarily moving to electric vehicles and driving less, have lower projected impacts.


Projected impact of transportation emission reductions by 2030 (Source: 2019 EFI Report)

The CEQA change from measuring congestion to measuring VMT is directed at the fourth pillar in the list, namely reducing demand. The impetus for the change started over ten years ago. In 2008 Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act. To reduce vehicle miles, the act encourages development of denser communities, where many people don’t want or need cars, and more generally aims to penalize cars relative to other modes of transportation.


Transportation strategies for Sustainable Communities (Source: 2019 EFI Report)

But since it went into effect in 2009, per capita VMT hasn’t budged. On the land use side of things, planners noticed that the CEQA project analysis was essentially fighting against itself, with some sections (e.g., air quality) pushing for reduced VMT, but others (e.g., transportation) pushing for increased VMT to avoid congestion. The result was a tendency to encourage projects at the outer edges of a region, increasing travel distances but reducing congestion.

So in 2013 Governor Brown signed a bill (SB 743) to fix this problem and prioritize a reduction in VMT. As asserted in the Transportation Element of Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan “This shift recognizes that prioritizing the free flow of cars over any other roadway user contradicts State goals to reduce GHGs.” Five years and many discussions later, CEQA has been updated. Instead of requiring projects to look at how traffic at various intersections is affected, instead we will analyze changes in vehicle miles traveled. According to this helpful primer on the CEQA changes: “The shift to VMT analysis under CEQA is intended to encourage the development of jobs, housing, and commercial uses in closer proximity to each other and to transit.”

Local jurisdictions have some flexibility in how to measure VMT, which lower-VMT alternatives to consider, and how to mitigate any impacts on a regional basis. One interesting thing is that projects meeting certain criteria don’t need to do a VMT analysis at all -- they are automatically assumed to be good. For example, projects in low-VMT areas could bypass an analysis. See the green areas in San Jose, for example:


Lower VMT areas in San Jose (Source: OPR Technical Advisory)

Another exception is for projects near a train station or a stop on a “high quality transit corridor. (3) In our area, that would mean projects within a half mile of a Caltrain station or a bus stop on El Camino or University Avenue could ignore both traffic congestion and VMT in assessing CEQA’s transportation impact. (VMT is likely to come up elsewhere, though, for example in the context of air quality.)

There are lots more details. The full amendment is here, and the technical advisory is here. There is a short but useful primer here. But generally speaking, what do you think about this push to encourage density and discourage cars to help reduce our ever-growing transportation emissions?

My take: We need to take steps to reduce sprawl. We must be careful of how we use land, and low-density residential and commercial development spread over more and more land is not going to cut it. But we also need to acknowledge that putting more people in less space can be a difficult sell. As urban planner Brent Toderian puts it in a conversation with Vox’s David Roberts: “The city has to be able to virtually guarantee the quality of the outcome from the urban design, livability, multimodal perspective. And a lot of cities have not set up the culture, the structure, the capacity, the training, or the tools to deliver quality. So when NIMBYs express a fear of change over density, they’re often right…. Don’t let them be right, is what I’m saying.” He sets a high bar. I wonder, in reality, how much of what we will do will be redesigning cities versus redesigning the expectations of the next generations. I have yet to see a city that is clean, quiet, safe, green, and affordable. I have seen a few that mostly meet the first four. I’m not sure all five is even possible. That said, in our area, I expect there is plenty of room to grow without sacrificing quality of life. I just haven’t seen a real plan for what that looks like. I figure it needs to start with truly effective transit and dedicated areas of affordable housing, both of which can be expensive. Maybe that is the problem. Is there anything we can learn from Minneapolis’ 2040 plan? While we are putting more people in less space, I’d also like to see us protecting more open space from development, to better reinforce why we are densifying.

All of this imo is a long-term play. For the short-term, I would like to see us double-down on more straight-forward ways to reduce vehicle demand. Provide more support for alternative transportation modes like bikes, preserve local services, and see if there is a way to get transit working for more people. Traffic is going to get worse and more people will be looking for options. How can we help them? Encourage tele-commuting. When we can’t reduce demand, we should do more to ensure that miles that are traveled are electric and charged midday. Let’s build the used EV market and deploy charging infrastructure in all workplaces and parking areas. Create more incentives to move to EVs and, more generally, smaller cars. At the same time, keep pushing hard on the pathways of fuel efficiency and lower-carbon fuel.

Density is a tough sell in our community. But what if it were coupled with much-improved transit and alternative transportation for all, a more socio-economically diverse local community, and additional space protected from development? I’d be up for it. But what do you think about density? And how would you go about reducing miles traveled or more generally reducing transportation emissions?

Notes and References

0. Yes, that’s a Mick Mulvaney reference...

1. California’s Air Resources Board, which is the source for this data, indicates that these aviation emissions do not include interstate or international diesel.

2. LDV = Light Duty Vehicle. HDV = Heavy Duty Vehicle (e.g., large trucks, buses). NGV = Natural Gas Vehicle (there aren’t many of these).

3. There are some exceptions to this. For example, if a project has more than the minimum parking required, it needs to do a detailed VMT analysis, presumably because it seems to be encouraging car use. (Source: Office of Planning and Research’s Technical Advisory)

Current Climate Data (September 2019)

The global land and ocean surface temperature departure from average for September 2019 tied with 2015 as the highest for the month of September in the 140-year NOAA global temperature dataset record, which dates back to 1880.

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Comments

 +   25 people like this
Posted by Los Altos Neighbor, a resident of Los Altos,
on Oct 20, 2019 at 7:45 am

You left off the best way to reduce our carbon footprint, reduce demand with a moratorium on ALL new office buildings. Stop attracting new people to the area where it forces us, many born here, to give up quality of life to cram more into limited space with limited resources. Why do residents have to suffer so the big bosses can cram more workers near their Atherton and Professorville homes rather than expanding to states where homes sit empty like Detroit?


 +   10 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 20, 2019 at 8:01 am

One of the bigger problems is that we are now being forced to drive farther to buy things we need or else buy online which increases the number of trucks and cars on the roads.

As one example, when OSH closed instead of buying hardware close to those who live in south Palo Alto or Mountain View, it necessitated a longer drive to Home Depot or similar. Now that Ace has opened, it is close enough for many to ride bikes or at least to drop in on the way home. Every time we lose a store and are forced to buy online (chicken and egg scenario), we are causing another delivery truck on our local streets as well as being the proud possessors of another cardboard Amazon box and plastic inserts.

You talk about the need for living and working close together to reduce traffic, but the now almost old fashioned idea of large shopping centers, with big box stores nearby to do one stop shopping, make a lot more sense than our small supermarkets in Palo Alto and almost weekly need to buy from Amazon things which in the past were part of our routine shopping trips. In the not so distant past, our family would be able to buy everything from say Sears, including stocking up on underwear and if we couldn't get what we needed from Sears, Penneys was close enough to walk without getting back in the car. Now we have Target runs and have to drive somewhere else if they don't have it and is it my imagination or does Target have a lot less in their store than they used to?

Shopping is a big cause of traffic and yet it is never listed as one of the causes.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Tom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Oct 20, 2019 at 9:06 am

Here's a tech type idea that might really help decongest our roads. Most driving commuters pass dozens of places that employ their same skills on the drive to "their job". They have driven past dozens of shorter commute opportunities they probably never really noticed. Suppose somebody make a job postings site where commuters can describe the work they want and indicate an intersection near their home and one near their current workplace. (for location indication with privacy). Then every week you get a list of job openings meeting your employment desires all having a better commute than your current one. Some will be highlighted as available via public transportation via one ride or two rides. There are lots of co-benefits... If some of your coworkers got shorter commutes to similar jobs, and new fresh bikers took some of the vacancies at your workplace, you'd have an easier time finding parking. And you might get that promotion into one of the openings. Or you might find your dream life (combination of better commute and job combination).


 +   18 people like this
Posted by Office Guy, a resident of Community Center,
on Oct 21, 2019 at 9:58 am

How about we stop building office buildings everywhere in the Peninsula to attract more foreign and out of state workers?

Or better yet, build those office buildings somewhere else, maybe where housing isn't so expensive, so people can have shorter commutes?


 +   5 people like this
Posted by dbaron, a resident of University South,
on Oct 21, 2019 at 10:35 am

dbaron is a registered user.

To those who suggest that the office buildings should be built somewhere else: that doesn't address the underlying issue of carbon footprint, unless the "somewhere else" is a place with lower carbon footprint than the Bay Area. But the Bay Area often has lower carbon footprint than other metro areas (have a look at the maps at Web Link), so it's better for the environment to have the new offices and new housing here, especially if it's done in a dense way that encourages walking, public transit, and biking.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 21, 2019 at 11:33 am

I agree somewhat with the California approach, but, there are some big problems with California's painting with such a broad brush:

>> A denser region is a greener region

From the VMT standpoint, true up to a point. But, true high-rises are not the answer. For seismic and fire safety, when buildings get above 70', construction costs jump. Wood construction is not practical, you need steel and concrete. Cement for concrete is very energy/GHG-intensive itself, increasing the "embodied energy" in the building. Most taller buildings are less energy/resource efficient-- see, for example, the 2016/published 2018 "The Seattle Energy Benchmarking Analysis Report published in September 2018". And, when buildings are very tall, they need extra plazas, parks, and other spacing adjacent, to avoid the "urban canyon" effect, reducing the usable density. According to the reports, as well as others I have cited previously, 4-story wood-frame buildings have the lowest construction cost per square foot, the lowest embedded energy per square foot, and the lowest operational energy usage per square foot. And, the height is low enough that people generally prefer to walk around on streets with buildings this height, while many people dislike urban canyons. So, denser-up-to-a-point, the point being 4 stories, is good. In the meantime, looking at VMT, the other side of the question is do 4-story buildings have enough density to support rapid transit? More than enough-- the issue is usually at the other end: how do I get from transit to my workplace/other-destination. You need transit access on the destination side as well as the housing side.

>> Another exception is for projects near a train station or a stop on a “high quality transit corridor. (3) In our area, that would mean projects within a half mile of a Caltrain station or a bus stop on El Camino or University Avenue could ignore both traffic congestion and VMT in assessing CEQA's transportation impact. (VMT is likely to come up elsewhere, though, for example in the context of air quality.)

I have to heap scorn on this part of the California approach. VTA buses on ECR are just not a practical way to get very far very fast at rush hour. I don't consider ECR to be a "transit corridor" at all. When I've ridden the VTA buses to get anywhere. Right now, it would take an half an hour to Castro in MV and an hour and a quarter just to get down to the SC transit center to switch to something else. I'm happy to take Caltrain if my destination is close to a station, because Caltrain is fast. Over the years, I've known several people who kept a second junk car near a transit station to drive the last 4 miles to their job because there was no other practical way to get there.

>> So when NIMBYs express a fear of change over density, they're often right.... Don't let them be right, is what I'm saying.

I'm a NIMBY myself when it comes to high-rises. They aren't the optimal energy solution. If we can stick to 4-story buildings, I'm on board. Part II: if I get on board, will I be able to get off near my destination job/shopping/school/entertainment? This latter part of the transit equation is being ignored. Reducing VMT depends on the end points, more than the housing.


 +   22 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 21, 2019 at 11:34 am

The assumption that density is always good or that it encourages walking or biking is just wrong and misguided, and is resulting in our area being ruined without dramatically increasing any of those things.

Hong Kong is one of the most dense places on the planet with the best public transit with over 90% usage, but still most people don't live near their jobs. They have average commute times on the order of Los Angeles'. And do you think all those people who never have any contact with the natural environment care at all about what they do to the environment the way someone who has more personal contact with what is happening with nature and to our planet does? Planning for people to want to act like coral is just idiocy. We are not Hong Kong, either, we neither have to put up with sprawl nor density on the far side of the u-curve (which is where we are, when density actually creates all the problems we thought it was helping).

Letting large tech corporations take over the Bay Area and density ala entry-level-tech-worker monoculture is creating a lot of social and economic injustice. I'm surprised you haven't noticed how these false arguments about affordability and density have gotten the environmental community to basically either disappear or become unintentional water carriers for big money developers, sadly working against their own stated interests.

Big cities like our area are also no longer a good place for working class people as far as opportunity, so using public resources to make it an even worse place for them to stay is hurting that whole sector. See the work of MIT economist David Autor, who suggests a better way is to repopulate medium-sized towns. It's a lot easier to get people to walk and bike when it's actually NICE and easy to do so. "Encouraging" walking or biking by destroying traffic circulation only makes the pollution problem worse, discriminates against the disabled (people with mobility issues make up 10% of the population, and there are other disabilities and needs), and destroys economic opportunity.

Encourage density and coral-like behavior in cold places where people don't want to be outside, and where people are okay with that. But here, increasing air pollution and making it so that the disabled have to deal with an even greater burden on their time and energy to get around is just cruel, stupid, and unnecessary, and it is NOT green.

You're not even considering such elephants in the room as demolition and construction waste on the environment. It just makes far, far more sense to focus on how to move growth to multiply job centers -- not sprawl, this is a vast nation with numerous cities and towns already that want the investment and growth, not to mention this poses the possibility of creating the black-hole-density utopias (eye roll) urban planners are trying to crush the lives of ordinary people here to achieve for the big companies' interests.


 +   17 people like this
Posted by Bay Native, a resident of Los Altos Hills,
on Oct 21, 2019 at 11:39 am

I completely agree with the above posters that a great way to start by reducing our carbon footprint here is to stop the construction of new buildings which then attracts more people! I'm young, but still old enough to remember when you could drive on 280 on a Sunday and not spot a single car for miles! Now, there's traffic at all hours of the day. It can even take up to an hour to go 5 miles in some areas. This has gotten out of control and I'm sick of hearing that we need more housing/office buildings.

It's no longer about wanting to provide for your family and have a better life. This is about greed. Everyone wants to say they've lived in Silicon Valley or worked for a tech company. The quality of life for everyone, including us bay area natives has gone down significantly because of this thought process. People are living in RVs on El Camino!! These are not poor, underprivileged people or people like Wo'O from Ideafarm, but rather middle-class techies who mainly came from out-of-state.

Most of these folks do not give one care about the environment, maintaining our neighborhoods, or even being a contributing member to our communities. I feel sad to say that we're probably never going to have our small community life back, but at least let's try to have some balance.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 9:45 am

I continue to be frustrated by this issue:

>> In our area, that would mean projects within a half mile of a Caltrain station or a bus stop on El Camino or University Avenue

>> For the short-term, I would like to see us double-down on more straight-forward ways to reduce vehicle demand. [...] see if there is a way to get transit working for more people.

People ride Caltrain for a lot of reasons, but, one reason is that it gets them door-to-door faster than driving-- to certain locations. The 22/522 as currently used will -never- do that, because the buses are stuck in the same traffic jams as the cars. Commuters are guaranteed to take longer by riding the bus. If "they" are serious about getting people to ride public transit, then, "they" will have to find a way to make public transit faster. That is, dedicated bus lanes or rail rights of way. If they can't or won't do it, then, they are not serious about public transit.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 10:27 am

As an aside to the bicycles issue, on a recent trip to Napa region, I noticed that many places had discounts for those arriving on bikes. I have never seen a restaurant/coffee/entrance fee around here discounted for those arriving by bike.


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 10:38 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Strop forcing us to drive miles out of our way to avoid ridiculous traffic configurations that always back up for blocks. Stop even thinking about creating more congestion on 1 of the 3 access roads to 101 by allowing Casti and Stanford to expand and further gridlock those roads. Put school buses back on the roads to eliminate tens of thousands of daily parent car trips.

Finally, stop allowing the construction of more office buildings which create more commuters and raise housing prices even more by creating more competition. And vote out all the politicians who are serving developers instead of residents.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 10:49 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Wow. Fantastic comments. Lots of great points.

I love the discussion around how much density is desirable. One commenter makes the point about construction costs and emissions for tall buildings, summarizing with “So, denser-up-to-a-point, the point being 4 stories, is good,” noting also that it’s sufficient to support effective transit. Another observes that too much density distances people from the places we are supposed to be caring about and protecting. “And do you think all those people who never have any contact with the natural environment care at all about what they do to the environment the way someone who has more personal contact with what is happening with nature and to our planet does?”

So what is the “right size” for the towns/cities in our area?

It’s also interesting how many of you intuitively understand that we need a better balance between jobs, services, and housing. One of you wishes “we're probably never going to have our small community life back, but at least let's try to have some balance.” We have too much office space, for sure. I appreciate the point that moving growth to multiply job centers is not necessarily sprawl. There’s a comment that growth needs to happen here, because it is the greenest. I don’t see that, though. California is a big state. And gas has the same emissions everywhere (for the most part). Since reducing driving is critical, a better balanced city with co-located jobs, housing and services could well be greener than the imbalance that we have here.

I wonder about services, and which ones need to be local versus which ones are well served by online shopping. One commenter notes that “Buy[ing online ... increases the number of trucks and cars on the road.” But is that true? It’s not obvious to me. Delivery trucks are very efficient, right?

Finally, several of you dispute the characterization of El Camino as a “high quality transit corridor”, noting that there is no right of way for buses. “If ‘they’ are serious about getting people to ride public transit, then, ‘they’ will have to find a way to make public transit faster. That is, dedicated bus lanes or rail rights of way. If they can't or won't do it, then they are not serious about public transit.” I agree. As a random aside, the focus on transit stops makes me wonder if people will fight back against better bus service on Willow or San Antonio or Embarcadero or Shoreline because of what it might mean in terms of bypassing CEQA analyses, or even density requirements.

Anyway, great comments, I appreciate how much thought you are giving to this issue.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Oh My, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 10:54 am

"Strop forcing us to drive miles out of our way to avoid ridiculous traffic configurations that always back up for blocks. "

You're either exaggerating or you don't understand the definition of being forced to do something.
That's actually a CHOICE; your choice, and a bad one at that. Decisions like that will doom you on the roads if you're looking to spend less time in your car.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Chuck Bernstein, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 12:00 pm

We should be clear that the move to eliminate congestion as a criterion is driven by developers, not human beings who live in a community. Does anyone seriously believe that New York City is an environmental paradise because of its superior density? The rationale for the change in criteria is laughable: I work two miles from my home and CalTrain does not travel from here to there. On certain days, it can take me 30 minutes in commute traffic to travel those two miles. How does it reduce air pollution or make us greener to focus on the two miles rather than the 30 minutes?

One of the biggest contributors to congestion is school transportation. Like the shopping cause mentioned earlier, that is rarely discussed. It is also one of the easiest to solve: lots of people going to a relatively few locations at roughly the same time, though the times could be made more flexible with morning study halls, etc. By prohibiting parent drop off within a quarter mile of a school during key hours, automobile traffic could be reduced substantially.

Requiring developers to mitigate their blight could help solve problems, but it would also increase the cost of the development. That's when we have to bring the homeless into the discussion, and the obfuscation is complete.

What gets in the way of good solutions is greed. It is cheaper for developers to contribute to politicians who are willing to pass silly and destructive laws than it is to fix the problems they cause.

Hooray for the NIMBY folks who want to protect their own backyards! Better that than spending money to protect other people's backyards in Afghanistan or Iraq.

--Chuck Bernstein, 444 Oak Court, Menlo Park


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by John, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 12:44 pm

Thinking people driving less will solve climate change is an act in foolishness. VMT goes up, transit usage is going down or patchy for the most part... The only thing that will solve climate change is technology improvements. A tax on carbon (which California already has... 2 actually, Cap and Trade + Low Carbon Fuel Standard (lowering carbon ‘content' of fuel) is the only way to reduce CO2, new tech like electric cars, or more excitingly carbon capture or synthetic fuels will solve the issue. The IMF says by 2030 a carbon tax of $100 a tonne is needed. That's only about a dollar extra per gallon of gas. Our gas is already very expensive, and Cap n Trade + LCFS add about $30 a tonne already. Anti-sprawl measures won't solve climate change, instead they limit the ability for medium income people to attain their own home (American/Californian Dream). The switch from LOS to VMT for CEQA impacts (traffic mitigation to trip mitigation) is helpful for urban areas, but unhelpful for suburban development (although jurisdictions can still use LOS for general plans and road widening projects thankfully). California is such a beautiful state, but rampant anti-development forces (such as from the writer of this blog, those who love the natural environment, but lose track of the fact development helps people enjoy the best of nature. Preserving low-grade land doesn't promote nature, it causes scarcity and is fundamentally selfish) have made it very unaffordable. More density is needed I agree, but away from National parks and other high quality areas of nature, we should allow a lot more development. Look at Google Maps, yes we have a lot of ‘sprawl' (not a bad thing), but we have huge amounts more as protected National Parks and other areas. If we allowed more development on lower grade land, like farmland by metro areas and scrubland/fields, many more could have affordable homes. For example, if we had more transport capacity to the North Central Valley, more people could live there and not face awful commutes. We need more density, sprawl and protecting the best natural areas! People shouldn't have to move to Texas, Arizona etc...
Mountain House was a joke in the recession, now houses go for $550,000, A's house builders just can't build what people want. It's a shame.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Rob, a resident of another community,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 8:46 pm

I wish more employers allowed people to work from home a few days a week. Try tele-working.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by shukaduka, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 22, 2019 at 9:47 pm

I just watched PBS News Hour and saw a lead for an overflow story about how maybe organic farming was more greenhouse gas productive than conventional farming. So I went to that overflow story:

Web Link

Gist is, organic is less productive of food (per acre) so more acres are farmed. More land use means more emissions (?) Also more habitat reduction.

Perhaps. Cites USDA. At least USDA is not Monsanto or ConAgra. I know this is off topic from your latest post, but would appreciate comments.

By the way, I really appreciate your style, the mix of openness, forcefulness, numerical evidence, and respect you show. You are teaching people to be good citizens. IMHO


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Translator Bot, a resident of Bailey Park,
on Oct 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

Translator Bot is a registered user.

"I want all the economic and personal wealth benefits of Silicon Valley without all the people and cars and buildings. You know, like when this whole area was orchards. I want a 20th century pace of life but a 21st century standard of living."


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Barb, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Oct 23, 2019 at 9:25 am

> By the way, I really appreciate your style, the mix of openness, forcefulness, numerical evidence, and respect you show. You are teaching people to be good citizens. IMHO

I, too, appreciate it.

[Remove ad hominem]


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 23, 2019 at 1:50 pm

This change will have no effect. City permitting processes always dutifully performed the required traffic impact analyses, and then routinely overrode the results. After all, how could another project negatively impact areas already rated F?

I predict the VMT analyses will be even more unfriendly to development--adding buildings always attracts vehicles and their VMTs--so still more unmitigated negdecs will be generated in response.

Sound and fury, nothing else


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 23, 2019 at 1:55 pm

"I wish more employers allowed people to work from home a few days a week. Try tele-working."

That's a tough proposition for plumbers, teachers, public safety workers, medical staff, roofers, farmers, storekeepers, or anybody else doing useful necessary work.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 23, 2019 at 4:03 pm

Not in favor of congestion - but as long as the congestion is not extreme, electric cars can be slightly more efficient in slow traffic on the freeway (maybe 20 mph) than going at full speed. Of course, there's no fun in moving slowly on the freeway. If people have to commute twice as far to get to work, they contribute twice as much to traffic overall. Density - or, at least, living near work, which density should enable - makes traffic worse around the immediate vicinity of the dense areas, but better overall.

An interesting thing about Hong Kong - the champion of density - is that its carbon footprint is either low or high, depending on how you calculate it. If you look at locally generated emissions - it's quite good. However, the city is extremely dependent on imports; when that gets figured in - according to one report - it's worse than the U.S. Only about 17% of its carbon footprint is generated locally according to the report: Web Link

Not sure if that's an argument against density, but rather against consuming a lot of imported good. It's still surprising.


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Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 23, 2019 at 8:40 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Ooh, great questions and observations.

@Chuck asks “How does it reduce air pollution or make us greener to focus on the two miles rather than the 30 minutes?” Bingo, that’s exactly the right question! My understanding is that when CEQA focuses on traffic (as measured at certain intersections), we would for example prefer projects at the outer boundary of a city, where there is less traffic. But the commutes to that site would be longer (in terms of miles, and sometimes in terms of minutes as well). Since miles is what correlates with emissions, the environmental analysis was paradoxically resulting in increased emissions. There are other anti-environment implications from using the traffic metric. For example, the congestion analysis focuses on cars, and if we add capacity for cars in response, we may be making it harder to add capacity for cleaner modes of transportation.

You also ask another great question: “Does anyone seriously believe that New York City is an environmental paradise because of its superior density?” Right?? FWIW, here’s what I was referring to… If the metric you are looking at is emissions per capita -- how many emissions are generated per person -- then cities are indeed paradises compared to suburbs. The average person is responsible for fewer emissions, largely because people in cities drive much less, but also because people occupy less space, so it uses less energy to heat, etc. So cities do help us to lower our emissions. The density also frees up space for wildlife habitat. (I wonder how big NYC would be if everyone lived on 7000sf lots!) None of this is the same as saying cities are environmental paradises, though. So it’s interesting to think about what you want to optimize.

@John, great comment. I agree that a substantial carbon tax would be effective. I hope we are able to get that in place. Re land use, I should have clarified that when I said “no development” I was assuming it could be used for things like energy production/storage/transmission, agriculture, pasture, carbon capture (trees? other?), etc. I should do a post on land use...

@shukaduka. That’s a great link, thanks. I saw something similar about grass-fed beef, suggesting that since grass-fed cows grow more slowly and use more land, they are less climate friendly. There’s a lot to learn…

@Alan. FWIW, the speed vs power graphs for EVs are steeper than you might think. This shows power consumption vs speed for a Tesla, based on actual data (source: cleantechnica). The Bolt curves that I've seen are similar.



Also, yes, there is a lot of contention about whether to focus on “production” emissions or “consumption” emissions. Many European countries, for example, look much worse when consumption, which incorporates imports, is used. There is some more information here. I didn’t realize Hong Kong was in the same boat, but it makes sense. Similarly, there are countries, many in Asia, that have high production emissions, but they are mostly making things for export. On the one hand, they can make their production more efficient. On the other hand, the emissions are not entirely their doing. I wrote about our area's consumption emissions some in an early post.


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Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 24, 2019 at 2:32 pm

Posted by shukaduka, a resident of Old Palo Alto,, on Oct 22, 2019 at 9:47 pm

>> I just watched PBS News Hour and saw a lead for an overflow story about how maybe organic farming was more greenhouse gas productive than conventional farming.

Looked at another way, large majority of GHG emissions are due to livestock. Livestock are also very water-intensive. By not eating beef, I more than compensate for reduced productivity, and, save a lot of water as well.

Web Link

>> Gist is, organic is less productive of food (per acre) so more acres are farmed. More land use means more emissions (?) Also more habitat reduction.

There are other reasons I favor "organic": reducing indiscriminate use of antibiotics, and reducing pesticide use. The executive summary of the latter is, "Rachel Carson was right"-- massive pesticide use really is bad for the biosphere-- and farmworkers.


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Posted by McGill, A., a resident of Green Acres,
on Oct 24, 2019 at 6:01 pm

pesticides and fertilizers come from refineries, oil pumps, etc..

Have to factor the whole megillah...


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Posted by Chris, a resident of University South,
on Oct 24, 2019 at 8:08 pm

Los Altos neighbor,

We need an effective carbon tax and more land needs to be zoned for housing and less for offices, particularly for the working class.

But think about it. If congestion is really that bad, new offices would not be able to hire the qualified workers they need.

The issue is primarily that there is not enough working-class housing in areas close to where the jobs supporting the wealthy tech workers are. Also, old-timers are slow to change their commuting habits and they are locked into distant housing because of our tax system.

Younger workers in the new offices have been willing and able to adjust to new forms of transportation and commuting.


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Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 24, 2019 at 9:19 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Chris, you suggest that the younger folks are more adaptable than the older folks when it comes to getting out of cars. I'm not sure the older folks would agree, but let me run a comment by you that appeared on an earlier post. The comment suggests that it's not about age so much as life circumstances. Thoughts?

I find it refreshing that so many young single people find life in our area to be so easy without a car.

I'd enjoy hearing these same "car haters" thoughts if they stay local and find themselves in a relationship with a few kids.

Is it possible to raise a family in our area without a car? Not really. If there's more than 2% of Palo Alto families with 2 adults and even one child over 5 yrs who don't have a car (or a nanny with a car), I would be shocked! I predict the percentage of single parents without a car would be even lower.

When it's 40 degrees and raining and you have to get one child to daycare and another to school and still get to work by 830a...how do you do that? With a car!

When you have to leave work to pick your middle schooler up at their trumpet lesson, your other kid up at soccer practice, and still get home for homework and dinner...you need a car!

Density will not change this. Although if you replace "car" with nanny, it might be possible! And in Palo Alto, there's no shortage of nannies!

Can anyone live in Palo Alto for any period of time (10 years) with a family of 4, and 2 working parents without a car?


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Posted by Actual Environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 12:17 am

"Density is a tough sell in our community. But what if it were coupled with much-improved transit and alternative transportation for all, a more socio-economically diverse local community, and additional space protected from development? I'd be up for it. But what do you think about density?"

The push to densify is driving up the value of land, which incites redevelopment, which pushes out socioeconomic and racial diversity " it's been accelerating hand-in-hand with densification. Densification in jobs centers simply does not produce such benefits.

"I wonder how big NYC would be if everyone lived on 7000sf lots!"
Wrong question.

A LOT of people work in NYC but are living in Westchester, New Jersey, New Haven (CT), Bethlehem (PA), and other areas on much larger lots and commuting long distances to the city.

Read this article about extreme commuting
Web Link
People are commuting to the City from Pennsylvania.
"New York State had the highest rate of long commuters [those who spend more than 60 minutes getting to work], about 16 percent, followed by Maryland and New Jersey, at roughly 15 percent."

Density does NOT make people live near their homes. Studies of Hong Kong demonstrate that, too. If density were the answer, NYC shouldn't have ANY distance commuters, and yet ...

"At first Mr. Ubert thought he would hate the commuting life, but that soon changed. “It's really not so bad, and what we get in return is amazing." What they get in return is a 3,100-square-foot, five-bedroom, four-bath colonial on one rustic acre, for which they paid $375,000 last year."

At a certain stage of life, many people want more space. The article uses the term “environmental serenity".

You really should read this article:
Web Link
Recent Scientific American Article
The Myth of the Sustainable City
"Urban areas are usually celebrated for their energy efficiency and low per capita carbon dioxide emissions, but such accounting ignores how and where they acquire their resources"

"But in the greater New York City area, 56% of residents drive to work. According to this same study, New York City has the longest commute time at 35 min and the fifth highest congestion score of the ten cities in the U.S. with the worst traffic."

And why does it seem like people in cities use less energy? Again, bad accounting: “..almost everything from building materials to artificial lighting to clothing to food that is used in a city is produced elsewhere, often at high energy costs. The same issues are at play on a global scale."

"However, our need to consume these imported products, often shipped over long distances, only increases, and particularly in densely populated urban areas with the sophisticated infrastructure of “The Efficient City.""

Also, High-rise buildings are more energy intensive than low-rise

Web Link

And construction waste is a HUGE global problem. Why create so much construction waste, heat sinks, etc, instead of encouraging full life-cycle use of existing construction and repopulation of a few more towns that already have the housing and the infrastructure, but need the jobs, and maybe some key assets like a college? And more importantly, put people nearer the things they need like where the food is grown?

I can't believe with your environmental chops that you don't know about the problem of the internet delivery cardboard boxes and the food delivery app waste? Online retail has a huge packaging waste problem. The big trucks driving around the neighborhood are not more efficient than someone stopping at the store on the way home from work.




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Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 1:25 am

This article lists 5 cities that have lost half their population since 1950. Half. All of those cities, especially Pittsburgh and St. Louis, have amazing colleges, diversity of economic and cultural life, reasonable good climates, etc
Web Link

Wouldn't it be better for our entire nation (including voting patterns that net lawmakers who will support sustainability and the survival of the earth) if we didn't all just crowd into a few places? We have lots of existing cities with excess capacity, that would benefit from renewal.

Web Link
"U.S. population growth hit an 80-year low of 0.6% year-over-year in 2018. The slowdown in growth " an already familiar phenomenon in some of the world's most economically advanced countries " is largely attributable to a declining birthrate. Slowing growth nationwide does not begin to tell the story of some American cities that are being gutted year after year."

So why do we HAVE to ruin this place in order that tech can concentrate without limit in a few places? These dense tech economies are actually terrible places for low-income people in terms of opportunity and upward mobility.

The demand side of the equation is causing all these problems, and it's far far easier to solve the problem by addressing the demand side of the equation that remaking this area into an urban canyon congested nightmare only to NOT NOT NOT solve any of the problems the giveaways to developers were supposed to solve.

The real problem is that companies in this country have believed for 35 years that they are supposed to get public investments for free and never pay back when they become successful, in fact, in this area, they believe they should be able to co-opt the public investments as their own like invading marauders and make the public pay for all the negative consequences. Thus, the government must get involved to help multiply the number of job centers. However, what really should be happening is that local governments should ramp up taxation of companies with very large work forces and ENFORCE strict zoning so they have make more sustainable plans to grow by bringing the jobs to cities that need them.






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Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 1:51 am

Sorry, one more comment.

From what I have observed over the years here, environmentalists were once very powerful. The push for density and the false promises of its benefits -- such as the false promise of affordability -- have been used to almost completely destroy the power, influence, and activism of environmentalists. Now they carry water for developers who are doing the opposite of caring for the environment.

There is an inverted U-shaped curve when it comes to density (as with many things). Initially, some density reaps benefits like lower costs, etc. But at some point, those benefits flatten out, and eventually, more density means those benefits decline.

The cost of creating what actually WON'T fix things would be better spent in a more socially and environmentally just way -- use it to renew cities that need the jobs and people. Taking the pressure off of here is the only way to make rentals more affordable. (Remember, the demand side is not static -- building more brings in yet more people.)

Anyway, it's been painful to see environmentalists who twist themselves into pretzels to justify rapacious development that works against the environment, if they just opened their eyes. It seems to be the mirror image of what's happened on the right with religion. People got co-opted and now they're behaving in a way that is often completely against their faith.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Your hometown, a resident of Barron Park,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 6:05 am

This is spot on: "The real problem is that companies in this country have believed for 35 years that they are supposed to get public investments for free and never pay back when they become successful, in fact, in this area, they believe they should be able to co-opt the public investments as their own like invading marauders and make the public pay for all the negative consequences."


The rest is a load of crap.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 9:27 am

@Your hometown,
"The rest is a load of crap."

Oh? We have been densifying heavily for 15 years. All the promises have been going in the wrong direction.

If you said you were envisioning an unholy chance to concentrate a whole bunch of highly paid young white men across the entire area in a way that
- pushed out a huge percentage of people of color, Web Link
- created a population monoculture that pushed out artists, small businesses, diversity of activity,
- shuttered longstanding retail, BOTH forcing people to drive further and further for many activities of ordinary life AND creating mountains of cardboard and plastic (literally) from ecommerce,
- closed many of the places the youth had to hang out away from school,
- concentrated air pollution, especially in areas affecting people of color, and made it far worse,
- paved over the patchwork of urban-wildland spaces connecting the hills to the bay with nary a peep from environmentalists
- bulldozed trees at every opportunity, with former environmentalists enabling the bulldozers
- accelerate homelessness and lack of affordability as accelerated redevelopment allows large companies to avoid moving where they have the capacity for endless growth and just bring in more highly paid employee monoculture,
expanded and increased the heat island effect, again, with nary a peep from environmentalists
-etc etc
you would rightfully cry foul (and a lot worse).

But the above is exactly what we have been getting because of densifying, with the carrot of the opposite held out so that developers can get their way to continue to profit from densifying. There will never be a point where we reach the stated benefits of density here, BECAUSE THE DEMAND SIDE IS NOT STATIC. Building more brings in more people, both because companies can continue to expand instead of moving, but also for the care and feeding of those people.

That exactly phenomenon has changed the equation now for low-income people, making tech-centered dense cities a bad deal for low-income people and unskilled workers, where once cities were places of better opportunity. No more. (Read the recent research of MIT economist David Autor.)

Lastly, there is so much capital at the top in the world, and it's focusing on real estate. Any dip in costs in this area gets mitigated by investors snapping up “bargains" for them that are never affordable for anyone else. Has no one been paying attention for the last 40 years here? The arguments are all the same (including the old argument that NOW it's way worse and thus somehow different), and the result always the opposite of the promises.

We're NOT getting density done right. That is a false promise and a pipe dream that just allows rapacious companies and developers to ignore the damage they are doing to the area and the lives of the people living here. We're just getting density and all the problems associated with it.

We're getting worsening traffic and the increased pollution and loss of productivity associated with gridlock. We're getting worsening urban heat islands. The loss of the urban patchwork connecting the bay to the hills. We're getting development with no prioritization of safety and concern for the burgeoning propensity for loss of life BECAUSE OF DENSIFICATION.


 +   8 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 9:29 am

ALL of what I am saying is supported by the evidence. In fact, the Weekly system wouldn't let me post so many URL's, so I had to make multiple comments and take out many of the supporting links.

Taking a look just at one issue: GREATER DANGER/COMPROMISED SAFETY:
***Palo Alto's own emergency services director warns of greater danger and loss of life/injury "because we are much more dense". Web Link

***San Francisco has been densifying/ building high-rises like crazy in order to ... um... make things affordable (how well did that work out? maybe ask the majority of residents of color who were forced out) ... which has created a massive risk in the event of an earthquake:
San Francisco has 160 buildings over 240 feet and more than a dozen planned; at least a hundred of these are in areas of HIGH liquefaction hazard " "the issue of seismic safety of high rises was 'never a factor' in the redevelopment plans of the South of Market area"
Web Link

***A fire starting in a densely-built urban area easily spreads to adjacent buildings. Especially, in the case of large earthquakes, in which multiple fires may break out simultaneously"
"Densely built environments are highly vulnerable to disasters (Fig. 2). Common problems include: (a) narrow streets enabling fire to spread easily from one building to another; (b) streets cluttered with collapsed buildings in an earthquake restricting fire engine access; (c) shortage of open spaces which function as fire breaks or evacuation sites..."
Web Link
The issue of FIRE after an earthquake, especially because of densification, the real lethal risk, never even comes up. Like the high-rise development in SF, concerns of safety are being completely overridden by this false idea of a “crisis" " one that companies who want to treat the Bay Area like a clown car for their employees have created.


 +   8 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 9:30 am

@Your hometown,
Another issue: URBAN HEAT ISLANDS (which social justice advocates and environmentalists should care about), link from Cal EPA:
Web Link
-"nighttime temperatures can be as much as 22° F higher as the heat is gradually released from buildings and pavement."
"The concentration of heat in urban areas creates health risks both because of heat exposure and because of the enhanced formation of air pollutants, especially ozone. The strong influence of the urban heat island on nighttime temperatures limits the ability of people to cool down and recover before the heat of the next day, and therefore adds to the risk of illness and fatalities"
"Because urban heat islands result in locally higher temperatures, they also have significant effects on energy consumption. “

"the heat generated by urban heat islands in one area tends to move inland to blanket other areas with the overheated air. This phenomenon is clearly demonstrated in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Los Angeles Basin, and San Diego. An implication of this phenomenon is that mitigation may need to occur in areas upwind of those that are suffering the brunt of the impacts. A similar phenomenon occurs with ozone air pollution, which blows inland to disproportionately affect some of the same communities."

We are also created one giant heat island from San Jose to SF, with little thought to the environmental and safety consequences.

What is a load of crap is getting into a rut and not accepting facts that challenge your old beliefs. What is an extreme load of crap is local advocates hating on anyone who points out that the emperor has no clothes in regards to the alleged benefits of endless densification. Environmental advocates have turned themselves into unwitting handmaidens for developers, achieving nothing but the opposite of their stated goals.


 +   11 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 27, 2019 at 9:50 am

Sherry, this comment is for you. We can talk all we want about density "done right" but there is no impetus for that in our area. All we get are advocates unwittingly enabling developers to building more density done wrong.

We are LOSING not creating walkable amenities. When a rare opportunity to create walkable civic amenities like at the Fry's site comes up - the Fry's site being bikeable from all parts south -- there only talk of it being an opportunity to create dense housing. I would much rather see us promise conversion of office space to housing, limiting total growth of companies to keep the area safe for small startups again, and doing density right by making sure we have walkable retail and other civic amenities. The density is pushing us into a direction where that won't even be possible if we don't wake up.

And why is the extreme level of construction waste and negative environmental consequences generated by redevelopment and construction waste not being discussed here? The life cycle costs of dense development? The studies showing that high rises are LESS efficient? Environmentalists in the Bay Area have let themselves be completely silenced and rendered utterly powerless by false and vague promises of densification.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 28, 2019 at 9:42 am

Hi Sherry,
You made such thoughtful comments to people's posts above, after a truly thoughtful post of your own. I would love your response to mine.

My main question is: Why has "pursue density at all costs" become some kind of unholy proxy for environmental stewardship, the same way "vote Republican" has become a proxy for Jesus on the right? In both cases, it ends up leading people not to think, and in many cases, to do exactly the opposite of their own stated values and goals.

There's plenty of evidence that being overly political and beating an ideological drum that is the opposite of the religious tenets is hurting the cause of the religion in this country. Do environmentalists understand that their unthinking alliance with developer causes, promoting certain outcomes like "density", will similarly hurt the credibility of environmentalism? People can see the often counterproductive results of blind adherence to densification, and can see the very anti-environmental outcome in big cities like Hong Kong and Manhattan.

Why should “density" be the thing we keep pursuing instead of “livable sustainable places to live"? Why should we keep ignoring the many anti-sustainable outcomes of density? Why shouldn't Reduce Reuse Recycle apply to moving jobs to some of the plethora of cities in this country (making investments to multiply job centers) that have gone into decline and where there is lots of existing affordable housing, infrastructure that needs a little TLC (not overhaul), and where there is density (oh that's right, at a certain point, density also goes hand in hand with challenges that often mean urban decay and loss of connection with the natural world).

Why is “density" a goal in and of itself, when it's NOT unequivocally a benefit for anyone except developers wanting to make more money?

Did you catch this on another thread just now?

"Even in Hong Kong, with housing units so small they're called coffins because people can't even stand up or live with their families, housing is not affordable and people do not live near their work. Density has caused the DECLINE of walking, not increase.

Web Link
"Jobs-Housing Balance? Not Much

"The high density of jobs and population, its short trip distances, its extraordinary transit system and its high transit market share would seem to make Hong Kong a poster city for the jobs " housing balance ("self containment") that urban planners seem so intent to seek. The data indicates no such thing.

"Hong Kong's 18 districts illustrate a comparatively low rate of self containment. Only 21.4 percent of working residents are employed in their home districts, including those who work at home. This is only slightly higher than in highly decentralized suburban Los Angeles County, where 18.5 percent of resident workers are employed in their home municipalities."

And

"Given Hong Kong's intensely high densities, it may come as a surprise that there was a huge loss in walking to work. Nearly 70,000 fewer people walked to work in 2011 than in 2001, as the walking market share dropped 21 percent. .... In 2001, more people walked to work than either travelled by car or work at home. By 2011, fewer people walked to work than travel by car or work at home.

"These data, both in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, show that, within a metropolitan area (labor market), people will tend to seek the employment that best meets their needs, just as employers will hire the people best suited to theirs. Within a labor market, this can be anywhere, subject to the preferences of people and employers, not of planners.“

Love your blog, and love that you are being so thoughtful on it. I find that goring people's sacred cows (even if those cows are toxic and they should have realized it themselves a long time ago) is dicey business. Try challenging the idea that perpetual densification is no longer a proxy for affordability (despite all evidence that allowing densification and the greater developer profits HERE and NOW is the cause of skyrocketing costs) with a housing advocate.


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Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 28, 2019 at 1:37 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Actual
Terrific comments, thanks. And I love all the good-quality links!

First, I want to mention a problem with cities that you haven’t listed yet -- faster incubation and proliferation of certain diseases. You’re welcome :)

Next, I want to caution that I am just a random person, not an expert in any of these areas let alone all of them, so it’s best to encourage conversation in general and not specifically with me. There are way more informed people in this area; it would be great to hear from them instead!

But in order to deter you from posting nine more comments… :)

I would summarize what you are saying as: “Density done right is a great thing, but no one in the Bay Area is doing that let alone talking about it. I’m not even sure they know what it is. The density they are advocating and doing is a nightmare.”

@Anon (is there more than one of those?) made similar points, also with a great link.

Clearly it’s important to get the right balance of jobs, housing, and services. If you go too deep on jobs, you get too much commuting in (e.g., Palo Alto, NYC). We’ve gone so far overboard that Palo Alto’s electricity demand curve actually looks like that of a company. If you go too deep on housing, you get too much commuting out (e.g., Atherton, Tracy, and other so-called bedroom communities). If you go too deep on services ... I have no idea -- has that ever happened?

I also like the point about right-sizing buildings (whether it is for housing or offices or both), and designing specifically for lower emissions (construction, energy use, greenery, albedo, etc).

I don’t know what the right answer is, let alone how to get there from here. I’m pretty sure the ideal is neither big sprawls of single-story houses nor crowded hives of 100-story high-rises. Maybe it’s 100 or so Pittsburghs and Minneapolises. It’s interesting to think about. My larger point is that we should be thinking about it (and you are!). Judicious use of land is important, our population is not going to stop growing any time soon, and immigration pressure is going to exacerbate that as climate impacts take effect and populated areas in equatorial and coastal regions (and fire-prone regions!) become uninhabitable.

Minor point: One thing you mention in a comment is that consumption leads to high emissions in cities because most goods are produced elsewhere and shipped in. But most goods aren’t produced in lower density areas either, right? If you account for wealth disparities, I would guess that people living in smaller (urban) spaces will consume less stuff rather than more stuff, if only because they have nowhere to put it. And for what they do consume, it may be that efficiencies in delivery would make up for any additional distance needed for shipping (relative to suburbs). I don’t know this, but I have seen at least one study showing consumption emissions to be much less for people in urban areas for this reason (less space).


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 29, 2019 at 11:37 am

@Sherry,
Thanks so much for your reply. Just addressing your points:

That's a good point about disease " which, when endemic (because of density of cities) can also be very costly environmentally (medical care and waste, not to mention that stressed people can be more wasteful).

Second - you are not just a random person, you are someone who writes well and cares about this issue. Read that link in your most recent post to Eric von Hippel's work " he studied people who make breakthrough innovations, and found that it's not related to expertise, it's related to the characteristics of the innovator: people who have a problem they want solved and are willing to be the first to do what it takes. That's you!

Third - Unfortunately, that's not really a good summary to what I'm saying. You make really good points about balance, designing things to achieve the goals from the getgo, etc. You even ponder some really good questions " an open perspective that not nearly enough environmentalists have (e.g., maybe it's 100 or so Pittsburghs, etc), and make great points about the way climate change is going to put pressure on everything.

But then in your last paragraph, you still make too many assumptions based on old ways of thinking, such as assuming always that “density" is better environmentally.

You first have to realize that humans don't behave in perfect ways relative to solving a problem " saying they have to do this or that isn't going to get them to behave in that way to solve the bigger problem. Housing advocates assume that people commuting long distances are doing it in order to get affordable housing, and assuming therefor that they would all be willing to move closer for just affordability's sake no matter how cramped the conditions, which is demonstrably not true (e.g., see the article on extreme commuting in NY). Survey's of millenials show that the majority want to live in single-family homes. At a certain time in life, that's what works best for people, so much so, they are willing to move the family to Santa Rosa and drive back and forth and sleep on a friend's couch during the week (actual scenario) to keep a job. If they got affordable microhousing close to his job, it would not reduce his commute.

Instead of demonizing single-family homes, perhaps the focus should be on helping single-family home areas capitalize on the ways they can be more environmentally friendly than denser areas, because when push comes to shove, enough people will strive for the vastly better quality of life they have in the less-dense living conditions.

Making single-family homes into some kind of scapegoat serves developer interests, but it's not going to solve the problem, because (as in one of the links I shared) that opinion about density is based on a lot of assumptions. If people with single-family homes have electricity generating roofs that provide for all of their power locally " since electrical transmission across vast distances especially for cities is hugely LOSSY and as we are well aware in California, expensive and full of risks (please read that again, that has a huge impact on emissions) " if they have electrical cars they power themselves with appropriate technology (which they can only do because they have the area on their roofs - this is a huge issue that speaks AGAINST densification), if they have gardens that allow them to eat without any transportation costs (as I have had gardens on 6,000 sq ft that provided almost entirely for my family's food, I know this is possible) and thus it's easier to be vegetarians, if the lower density allows what they need to be produced locally and their waste taken care of locally, if the community from the better living conditions allows people to better make changes as a community to be more environmentally friendly, be sick less as you pointed out, if people walk and bike because it's NICE to do so like when I was a kid (in my single-family home town), then the single-family home college town can actually be more environmentally friendly than a denser place. (Note I am not supporting sprawl.)

Your last point isn't minor. You wrote "One thing you mention in a comment is that consumption leads to high emissions in cities because most goods are produced elsewhere and shipped in. But most goods aren't produced in lower density areas either, right?"

You need to read the links I provided. First of all, you are assuming that higher density equals less emissions, which is simply not so. One of the links I provided points out that this has only been concluded because in those studies people did not account for all the factors, e.g., that cities have to consume and send waste further and further afield. This is hugely environmentally damaging, just the transportation waste and cost to the environment from the transport which you aren't even factoring in. It doesn't get factored into the calculations.

Are you aware that "About 85 percent of the 2.4 million pounds of sewage sludge NYC produces daily is sent to landfills in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and upstate New York, says the WSJ."?
Web Link
NYC is not the only city having to truck their waste further and further afield, which causes emissions just from the transport, but is also extremely environmentally unjust.
Web Link

When people make calculations about emissions and per person density in cities, they are NOT accounting for the many ways the equation doesn't include the fact that cities cannot take care of either their consumption or waste locally. Your assumptions about “density" being somehow creating less emissions does not bear out in a holistic analysis. (Nevermind the heat islands that cause people to need more A/C, etc etc).

But the assumptions then corrupt other reasoning " why would you assume that if goods produced elsewhere are in denser areas, that this would mean they are made with fewer emissions? I just provided evidence that this blanket assumption that density is better is based on faulty accounting. Do you think the goods made in China and shipped across the ocean are overall better for the global environment just because China is a densely populated place? You are neglecting the environmental cost to transport the goods across vast distances and transport the waste away (from the MANY cities, not just a few), and all the coal plants China built to meet the energy demand of production. And why would you “guess" that people living in smaller urban spaces would consume less stuff because they have nowhere to put it? Wouldn't they then be more prone to throwing things away (with the waste having to be transported long distances " or dumped in the ocean, remember that problem?) and less prone to keeping and reusing things than people who had a place to put things? Wouldn't they be more prone to changing out things because of fashion? Wouldn't they be less prone to making things they need because they don't have time and space? Wouldn't they be more prone to demolish and rebuild things that are perfectly good before the end of their usable life? Also, densely packed people can't plant more trees en masse and tend them themselves, tend a garden large enough to sustain them, etc. Transporting energy and ... stuff ... across long distances is not environmentally friendly, and not just because of emissions.

At least take a look at the Scientific American article I cited:
Web Link
"
The Myth of the Sustainable City

"Urban areas are usually celebrated for their energy efficiency and low per capita carbon dioxide emissions, but such accounting ignores how and where they acquire their resources"

Just remember that big money interests benefit from getting unfettered development rights in high-cost areas (dense cities), and they're not doing it because the end result is that everything is cheaper (that's neither common sense nor factual). But if they get environmentalists to buy in to the idea that density is a proxy for good environmentalism, they can wipe away all the powerful resistance of environmentalists to their often unsafe and un-environmentally-sound actions. They get environmentalists to sit mum while developers literally scrub any semblance of the natural environment from the dense cities.

I'm sorry for the long post, but the problem is not my failure the summarize -- you actually didn't get it right in your own summary " the problem is that the counterproductive and often wrong assumptions are so deeply ingrained, it's necessary to avoid oversimplifications and get into specifics. For example, Uber benefitted from claiming that “rideshare" was more environmentally friendly, but what actually happens is that all the cars end up endlessly circulating and creating MORE traffic and wasteful miles " “rideshare" vehicles now make up a sizable portion of SF's downtown gridlock. But environmentalists were willing to buy the faulty reasoning out of a simplistic belief that cars are always bad no matter what the conditions.

One of the biggest reasons to avoid these proxies for our real goals as environmentalists, such as density, is that it gets us doing things for long periods of time that can even push the opposite of our goals. Keep asking the great questions, but please be willing to avoid making assumptions and guesses that may be wrong.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 30, 2019 at 9:54 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Actual -- Whoa, that is amazing that you can (almost) feed your family on your gardens. I want to read this more carefully -- it's a terrific comment -- and also read some of your sources. I would say off the bat that there is no doubt that people can live with low emissions in single family homes (cf 100 years ago). But today's population and lifestyles are quite different. Would it need a cultural overhaul? A population overhaul? Another actual environmentalist is E.O. Wilson, who makes the case that half the land and sea should be reserved for wilderness (free of humans) in order to retain biodiversity, not to mention giving species some hope of adapting to the changing climate. I agree with him that we need to reduce our impact. Does that mean living in less space?

BTW, I agree with you that many people love gardens and space and greenery and living in single-family homes. Especially families with kids, but also people who like the serenity of nature. That said, it's also true that many people love living in cities. And lots of people like living in nice cities (which is why they are so expensive). Can we make inexpensive nice cities? And what is the right balance of jobs/housing/services for the mid-Peninsula specifically, with Stanford and a number of world-class companies in our midst, a number of which are here to stay.

I also agree that, in any of these things, it's important to be clear about the goal and what's needed to achieve it. It's rarely just one thing. And I agree that we need clear thinking, that reflexive thinking and generalities can be problematic. Your comments are great.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Why?, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Oct 30, 2019 at 2:59 pm

Loving this conversation, my one very straightforward question would be this:

How in any sense can you support more development in this area when we have had multiple drought constraints, have the huge recent PGE issues, have ridiculous traffic contributing to immense emissions and have absolutely NO plans for increased infrastructure.

Sherry, you keep asking “what is the right balance“ with this undertone that “why of course we need more, you who are resisting are being the problem" when it is repeatedly brought up that this area CANNOT HANDLE MORE GROWTH WITHOUT SERIOUS UPGRADES TO INFRASTRUCTURE.

Actual Environmentalist has the most succinct, fact-based, intelligent information I have yet seen, I wish their comments were more widely read and seen, everyone around here needs a major wake-up call.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 30, 2019 at 6:06 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Why -- Just to clarify, there is a difference between balance and volume. The "balance" I am referring to is the mix of jobs, housing, and services. The "volume" would be the number of each. You can address balance separately from volume (e.g., by converting offices to housing).

Similarly, density doesn't have to increase resource use, which I would guess is more correlated with volume. I mention that because I suggest in fact freeing up land -- for neither houses nor offices. It could be used for things like power or agriculture or habitat or ... So, for example, consider if there were no housing at all in the foothills or in flood zones, and we created a few open corridors from the foothills to the bay. Housing in our area would consist of 3-story and 4-story townhouses rather than single-family homes, and it would be colocated with jobs and services, so that transit could be much more effective.

This mythical "village" would probably use less water (fewer lawns), less energy (less driving), and be more resilient to outages (in space freed up for local microgrids) and to sea-level rise, just to address a few points about the infrastructure you mention. It would also create more habitat for wildlife.

To be sure, this is just a sketch, and might not be at all realistic. But I'm just trying to give an indication of the different factors that can come into play, with a particular lens on climate change and the environment.

These comments are great, as you mention, because they add a lot to the blog post, and help everyone to refine their thinking. Thanks!


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 30, 2019 at 6:21 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Actual. BTW, sorry, this is gross, but it was kind of funny that I made a point about consumption emissions (in cities) and you responded to it in part by talking about sewage sludge. That is definitely another take on consumption emissions :) Ew.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Why?, a resident of Mountain View,
on Oct 30, 2019 at 9:24 pm

With all due respect to your “mythical village".....where do you see that people stay permanently near their jobs? In the 20 years we've lived in this area my husbands office had moved locations multiple times. We bought in MV (not our first choose but closest to both our jobs) and his office has since moved multiple times, currently in San Mateo. We're not going to sell our house every tine his company decides to move locations!

Additionally, more people are job hopping now than ever in the last 50 years. So how exactly do you see this “corridor of hiding close to jobs" happening??????

I appreciate your intent but it's not based in real life application by any means whatsoever.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Why?, a resident of Mountain View,
on Oct 30, 2019 at 9:28 pm

Sorry for typos. But I will add that the main thing I agree with
You in is your comment that “ this may not be realistic". Indeed, it is not.

So why do you continue to present it? Wouldn't it be more altruistic to consider actual possibilities and real situations rather than “what if's" based onsite hit a we all know will never happen?


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 1, 2019 at 2:47 am

@Sherry,
"I agree with him that we need to reduce our impact. Does that mean living in less space?
BTW, I agree with you that many people love gardens and space and greenery and living in single-family homes. Especially families with kids, but also people who like the serenity of nature. That said, it's also true that many people love living in cities"

I have lived in passive solar homes for more of my life than not, and solar hot water. We've had solar electricity, too, though not now. I've been a vegetarian for more of my life than not, as have the majority of my family. I've grown my own food when I could, though I have not recovered from the last drought, I just am not able to do what I used to and can't afford to hire someone.

You say but "many people love living in cities." Sure, but do they have to bulldoze my community and garden in order to do it? Especially when there are plenty of existing cities with amenities and affordable housing that would benefit from the investment. Pittsburgh has lost half its population since its peak, yet is a beautiful green place with Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh, and a relatively mild four seasons, and people from there love it for the strong community, for example. If people love cities so much, why do they have to destroy this place for it when there are so many Pittsburgh's out there? Redevelopment when places aren't even close to the end of their life cycle is not environmentally friendly. The construction industry in general is the largest contributor to landfills. If you are concerned about the environment, how about not destroying everything when the community was functioning just fine, thank you, and the buildings in line for bulldozing are mostly not anywhere near the end of their life cycle?

@Why,
Thank you for your kind words and your insightful comments.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 1, 2019 at 2:54 am

@Sherry,
"Can we make inexpensive nice cities? "

In expensive high-demand job centers, the answer based on all evidence is clearly and unequivocally, NO. If you want to get an inexpensive nice city, it's necessary to invest in a place that currently is not in demand.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Actual environmentalist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 1, 2019 at 3:05 am

@Sherry,
You also say, The companies are here to stay. Why? Why should anyone assume that? Facebook moved out of Palo Alto. Companies move all the time when it meets their needs. If we just did a better job enforcing the zoning around here and taxed companies for the true cost of the negatives they generate, some of them would leave, especially the big ones. Why should we favor the big companies over Stanford (which is much harder to move) or the smaller startups?

Amazon, Apple, Disney, Google, Hewlett-Packard -- and many more -- started in garages. Think about that for a moment. How many global giant companies have begun in microhousing so small they're called "coffins" or just plain microhousing where life is just a lot harder? This town was a good place to foster innovation, it's understandable that some companies don't want to leave. But they are the ones who can actually afford it. It's not even a good idea from a national security standpoint for them to congregate in one place.

You talk about balance - have you ever played with Sim City?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 1, 2019 at 9:31 am

I actually like living in the suburbs. Yes, the area that is not urban city or rural countryside/farming/forest.

This used to be the suburbs, single family homes, wide tree lined streets, plenty to do evenings and weekends, local amenities where you could expect to bump into a neighbor and local lunchtime eateries for a quick bite or something more if meeting a friend. Kids could ride bikes to the park and have space to play a pick up game without being shouted at by the parents of toddlers in the way, or fields marked out for organized sports. A place where we had time to chat to neighbors, help each other out, borrow an egg or a lawnmower, and water plants or pick up mail or trash cans when away. So much of this is what makes life pleasant.

The question I ask myself is whether Palo Alto can now be described to be suburban. There is a move to make it completely urban. I don't want rural, but I don't want city life. I want the burbs, how it has been and how it is changing is not very pleasant. Values are changing.



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