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What Happens to High-Density, Transit-Oriented Planning in a World of Electric Cars?

Proponents of SunCal’s land development plan for Alameda Point – roughly 5,000 new homes in a high-density, transit-oriented format – like to cite the need to reduce the public’s reliance on automobiles fueled by gasoline (i.e. oil.) But what happens to this approach when cars go electric, electric charging stations are as numerous as gas stations today, and the electric power is generated from renewable resources?

Yesterday, the federal Department of Energy announced a $1.4 billion loan agreement with Nissan North America to retool their Smyrna, Tennessee factory to build electric cars and an advanced battery manufacturing facility. Nissan will evidently use the money to produce their all electric Leaf model.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu – formerly of the University of California Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – said “This is an investment in our clean energy future. It will bring the United States closer to reducing our dependence on foreign oil and help lower carbon pollution. We are committed to making strides to revitalize the American auto industry and supporting the development of clean energy vehicles.”

Last year, Tesla Motors, a company that exclusively makes electric cars in Southern California, secured $465 million in loans from the Department of Energy. Even luxury car maker BMW displayed an electric car at the recent Detroit auto show.

(Such a shame that neither the Tesla assembly plant, nor Nissan’s battery factory are re-using one of the existing over-sized buildings at Alameda Point, creating sorely needed jobs in Alameda.)

And earlier this week, Better Place, of Palo Alto, California, announced that they have raised another $350 million to build out their footprint of switchable battery stations for electric cars (equivalent to gas stations) bringing the total value of the company to roughly $1.25 billion.

Shai Agassi, Better Place Founder and CEO said “Our technology and solutions, together with our strong partnership with Renault, provide us at least a two-year time advantage over all other alternative energy vehicle approaches. Our solution is the only one that can scale to decrease countries’ oil consumption and significantly reduce emissions, while providing consumers with electric cars that are more convenient and affordable than internal combustion engine cars.”

In his book, Randall O’Toole argues that the automobile offers users unparalleled liberty and overall operating costs compared to public transit. With electric cars increasingly becoming viable, will developers like SunCal have to find another well-intentioned movement (“Smart Growth” to date) to hijack to get their high-density, large number of housing units, deals done? When developers can’t guilt voters into supporting these projects over their use of fossil fuels, what happens next? Comment below.

5 comments to What Happens to High-Density, Transit-Oriented Planning in a World of Electric Cars?

  • Alan2009

    Excellent thoughts.

    However the Alameda City Council appears headed in another direction…in another series of closed sessions of questionable legality under California’s open meeting law, called the Brown Act.

    Apparently the majority of the Boards of the ARRA and CIC, both of which are California public agencies, held closed sessions with representatives of SunCal and the Navy to negotiate the price and deal terms of the sale of Alameda Point.

    It looks to me like the Alameda City Council members are under tremendous political pressure to “make a deal” before February 2, 2010.

  • Blue Collar Kid

    I’ll take your request for comments as a sincere desire for debate, not just for agreement. And I’ll take your points to apply generally, not just to Alameda.

    First, you’re correct that electric cars address one of the problems with cars, pollution. Electric cars fully eliminate local air-pollution and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (the electricity still needs to be generated, but this can be done a lot more efficiently, and far away, at power plants). This means people can get relatively cleanly from subdivision to mall in them.

    However, there are other negative externalities from cars and low-density development. I’ll just focus on just a couple: traffic-congestion and, related to it, sprawl. In urban areas, where people want to get to the same place at the same time for work, you get traffic jams (see 80 at almost any time), and these will exist whether the cars sitting in them are Hummers or Volts. And, for the time being, while people still work in offices (which, despite futuristic visions of everyone telecommuting, persist), people are going to need to get to offices in cities. If you don’t have higher-density housing, you have to expand outwards and eat up green space, or price people out because of housing-scarcity.

    This is where a coherent political philosphy comes into play. O’Toole is a libertarian, a perfectly respectable point of view, abd one with which I disagree. (He’s not, as far as I can make out, a trained economist, and I’m not sure about his more quantitative stuff.) For him, traffic jams and sprawl are solvable problems: privatize roads and institute congestion-pricing, and get rid of public ownership of parks. (For Alameda’s situation, I can’t imagine he’d favor Measure A–it’s government telling you what you can do with your property–anathema to libertarians. If enough people want another bridge or tunnel, a company, unencumbered by regulation or planning-controls, will build one and charge users.)

    You could certainly do this in the Bay Area, but I don’t think it’d be popular. Nationally, maybe 10% of people are libertarian. Here, I’d guess it’s lower. People simply don’t want to live in a libertarian world (I once drove from Death Valley to Las Vegas and went through Pahrump, apparently a place that comes close to having no planning; it’s not that attractive). People realize that some decisions need to be made collectively and want to have a say about the city and area they live in.

    If people want some control of their collective environment, then you have to start making decisions about collective resources. If people want parks or a green belt (as they consistently do in the Bay Area–for example, the EBRPD parks are very popular), you have to think about how to house people in or around cities. You then have to think about these people get around.

    Smart growth is a response to this. It doesn’t imply that people never drive. And maybe it doesn’t work everywhere. But it’s a good starting-point. Sure, developers want to get into it to make money: but this no more invalidates it than developers’ wanting to build low-density developments makes these bad. Developers are businesspeople and want to make money.

    I own a car and use it a fair bit. It’s convenient and, yes, liberty-enhancing. But this doesn’t imply that there aren’t better means to get around for certain purposes. I cycle to work (about 10 miles each way) and, when it rains or I’m not in the mood, I take the bus and Bart. When I have errands to run after work, I drive. (Side-note: Stephen Chu is an avid commute and recreational cyclist.)

    Apologies for the long post. My basic point is simple: if you’re not a consistent libertarian, then you have to figure out what to do about the external consequences of cars and low-density development. Encouraging people to live in higher density communities and walk, bike or take the bus for a lot of their journeys seems a sensible thing to do. The alternative is sitting in traffic jams and eating up green space.

    Measure B, most would agree, is a pretty awful ballot-proposition. However, I’m not sure how many people who vote against it are against the idea of transit-oriented development.

    Interested in your response.

  • Is O’Toole an absolutist Libertarian? If O’Toole lived on the island of Alameda, do you think he would still be against Measure A? As a society, we accept certain government intervention and controls. A government-mandated minimum wage for labor. Restrictions on pornography, its distribution, who can buy it, and so on. Securities regulation. Heck, folks are clamoring for even more securities regulation, and compensation controls for bank execs.

    The point is that not everyone WANTS to live in higher-density communities, even if YOU think they should. That’s O’Toole’s point, and that’s our point. It’s NOT the sensible thing to do if you don’t want to live directly under or beside someone else’s apartment, or if you want your own private backyard for your kids and your dog and your BBQ. (Note – O’Toole shows that suburban backyards are not typically included in measurements of “open space” even though they well should be.)

    As for pricing people out of housing…look at Manhattan and San Francisco! Very high density! And people complain that they can’t afford to live there! Building high-density to keep housing prices low doesn’t work! (O’Toole covers this in the book too…)

    As for traffic jams – the biggest ‘smart growth’ argument against traffic jams is the pollution generated from cars sitting in them. If the cars aren’t polluting, then so what? It then simply becomes an economic problem – $ lost due to wasted time. O’Toole’s argument is that very little of the available space available in North America has been touched, and backyards, suburban and urban parks provide open space within communities that consume previously un-trammelled open space. (Yes, yes, certain types of progressive liberals hate the idea of anything ‘private’ like a private back yard. Didn’t see anything in his book objecting to public parks – are you getting that from somewhere else?) O’Toole would have people build more highways to reduce congestion. Again, if the cars aren’t polluting, what’s wrong with them?

    Good for you – you take the bus and BART. Hurrah! That doesn’t work for everyone. Why should someone take a 45 to 50 minute bus/BART ride when they can drive to work in 30 minutes or so (on most days, barring accidents, etc.)? And what if people change jobs? Do you expect them to move house too, so at the new job they won’t drive, but continue using public transit as they did in their old job? “Smart Growth” conveniently ignores questions like this. In the Bay area, BART and public transit is really geared to funnel people into and out of San Francisco. If you live in Alameda or the East Bay, and don’t work in San Francisco, public transit is either not an option, or it simply takes longer than driving. And not everybody wants to live and work in a Manhattan environment either – so why should they?

    And we’ve covered this many times before – that right-wing, Libertarian bastion of research, the Brookings Institute, has shown that cars improve economic outcomes for low income families ( ) Local Smart Growth advocates talk about high-density housing and affordable housing for all the low-income people – forcing them into public transit. That keeps them in their place when having an (electric) car might give them better income opportunities. How progressive is that?

    There’s no viable solution to another bridge or tunnel from Alameda to Oakland – no place to land one on the Oakland side. So no private company is going to solve that problem. And no realistic solution on the horizon for high-frequency transit either. (BART has only vague, un-funded, ideas for a spur to Alameda in 2040.) And Calthorpe’s imaginary PRT isn’t viable either – heard any more about that lately? Funny how local public transit advocates deride the Oakland Airport Connecter for it’s pathetically low speed of 25 to 28MPH, but that’s the speed of PRT.

    Alameda residents aren’t going to rise-up and demand a new bridge/tunnel – they’re going to fight projects like Measure B instead, which are winnable battles. Transit-oriented development at Alameda Point may well be folly.

    If you want green space, why not tear down all the buildings at Alameda Point and let the Bay take it back, and turn it into marsh and swamp? Alameda Point is not an inner-urban site – because we’re an island! – it’s closer to something right on the border of the greenbelt boundary. As such, there’s an argument to be made that it should be reverted to open space.

  • barb

    It is not just that there is no place to land a tube or bridge on the other side, it is more government regulation via the Interstate Commerce Clause that precludes interference with international/ interstate shipping. The original proposal for Highway 24 was for it to traverse into an additional crossing to Alameda. However the advent of containerization – with containers 8-10 feet high on top of ships decks- in the shipping world, trumped that possibility. Ships cannot get over the existing tube. Hence the turning basin right before it.

    When the Navy operated runways, that further limited the density per acre of use. Now that is removed, but the egress/ingress restrictions have gotten worse. While Alameda can peacefully accommodate reverse flow traffic, anything that exacerbates the existing problems is going to seriously degrade the time it takes anyone to leave the island, and thus the quality of life for existing residents. It will act as a marketing deterrent to any construction at the Point. We saw how long it took Harbor Bay Business Park to fill versus Marina Village. Even with the building of the Ron Cowan Expressway to help fill the park. (Wasn’t that a grand waste of tax dollars?) Add to that something like today’s tube closure, and it won’t mater whether we are in green cars or the standard SUV that most like to drive in today’s world. We will spend more and more time in our cars, and less time enjoying the remainder of our lives.

  • This has long been the problem of applying a ‘one size fits all’ solution (Smart Growth) to Alameda. It doesn’t take into account nuances and the unique characteristics of Alameda due to the estuary, the Coast Guard, maritime law, the fact that we’re an island, etc. etc. Smart Growth advocates and Measure A opponents routinely ignore all those facts.

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