I think I have been guilty of NIMBYism; in fact, I know I have. I am not a New Yorker who grew up talking about “my building.” I grew up in single family houses with little back yards, and from 9th grade on in Lower Merion outside Philadelphia, I walked to school past trees and bushes to my beloved suburban high school. Since 1979 I have lived in the same single family house on a one block long street in Berkeley with trees and a back yard and we know our neighbors. It's a nice neighborhood. I like it.
So why should our area, and areas like it, change? People say that other people need places to live. They say that working people – teachers, police, others – are being priced out of living where they work in the Bay Area by tech wealth. They say that what we need is more vertical housing, higher density housing with some affordable units, so that people can live near their work. Scott Weiner proposed a bill to the state senate whereby local authorities would be divested of their power to forbid high density housing around transit hubs, like BART stations, and five story buildings would be automatically approved.
While I understand what people have been saying, I've rejected it. Why destroy what we have? Are trees and nature and a human-scaled life going to disappear into apartment buildings, where single family homes and in-law units will become home to 8 or 10 families on the same footprint? Will renters replace owners? Will the nearby hotel cum health club add hundreds of condo units to provide luxury housing and benefit of the husband of Dianne Feinstein, who refuses to retire, and add to the congestion? Is high density inevitable? I hate the prospect.
I haven't had much to offer as an alternative, though. I've said, well, let alternative development occur on the periphery, why does everyone need to be in San Francisco or Sunnyvale? Give it time, I've said. But that's been a pretty weak argument.
Then I got a call from out of state from a young man named Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding. He has been a scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and is now moving back to his original home near Harrisburg, PA, where he is running for Congress, hoping to take advantage of Pennsylvania redistricting and an anticipated Blue Wave. Why did he call me? I am a repetitive small donor to Democrats running for congress. I started with scientist Jerry McNerney from Pleasanton who beat worst congressman in the House, Richard Pombo, who distinguished himself by opposing the Endangered Species Act. Since then my name has been shared and I have gotten personal calls from California candidates to whom I have contributed from $100 to $500 at a shot, depending on how much I have liked their schpiel.
Eric's schpiel was that he is scientist, and only Jerry McNerney and one other in Congress are scientists. Fair enough. But when I pressed him about electability and local issues, the conversation took an interesting turn. He said that jobs were hard to come by outside of Harrisburg – which lies in the middle of the state and although it is the state capitol and there are governmental jobs available, it's mostly just central Pennsylvania rust belt depressed area. “So what are you going to do?” I asked.
He said that the area was a nice place to live and people wanted to live there. The jobs, however, were mostly in Philadelphia and Baltimore, which were too far away to commute to. And here is wheremy ears perked up – he said that his solution is high speed rail. With high speed rail the commute would be rather easy; you could work where the jobs are and live where the costs were lower and where the living was nice, and the commute wouldn't be a killer.
I thought – BINGO! My wife Ann and I have been down on Jerry Brown's high-speed rail project as somehow irrelevant and perhaps boondoggle-ish. What's the big deal about connecting LA and SF in a couple of hours? Who will be taking that route, and why? So far, we've thought, the project will mostly connect Bakersfield with Fresno, guffaw. BUT, Harrisburg to Philly in less than an hour, maybe 45 minutes? Hey, that makes a lot of sense! Live in lush hills with neighbors you have known forever, telecommute a day a week maybe, and take the high-speed train four days a week and work on the train and voila! No high-density housing with no trees and no back yards and renters going in and out all the time, NIMBY.
So I thought, the real payoff of Jerry Brown's high-speed rail solution would be in its contribution to the housing crisis. Don't think LA to SF, think regional networks tying together house and work. Now it all made sense to me. Put the money into transportation, not into housing; let the housing take care of itself in the far periphery of what are now commute timed out areas. It's housing, dummy, not transportation.
Getting from here to there is, of course, always very hazardous. When you are talking about trains and transportation, you are talking about public investment. When you are talking about zoning, you are talking about private investment. Both paths to the future need constituencies. Weiner's bill failed, for now. NIMBYism? Environmentalism? I don't know what was decisive. Jerry's high-speed train path has been partially funded. Will Brown's leaving the governorship weaken that movement sufficiently to kill it? I don't know. But to my mind, advocates of that path would do well to emphasize how this regional strategy is an alternative to high-density housing. Make it a housing issue! And while you're at it, try to nurture a high speed rail industry here at home, making things, industry. Now I'm really dreaming, I know.
As for our smart friend Eric running for the house from Pennsylvania, how will he do? Good ideas, certainly a high-minded fellow, smart – but a rookie. When he talked to me, he kept referring back to how many papers he had written and how scientifically qualified he was. Maybe that's because he got my name as a Jerry McNerney supporter. Maybe. But it's also possible that he was violating the first law of salesmanship. Which is: let the product sell itself, don't try to impress the buyer with how great the product is. Instead, try to impress the buyer on how the product could help him or her, how it would fit into their life, how useful it would be to him or her. He was trying to tell me how qualified he was. Unfortunately, tellingly, that's pretty much what people objected to about Hillary. They thought that when she told them about all her qualifications, and about how smart she was, she was telling them that it was her turn, that she was due it. She didn't ask for their votes, she told them she deserved their votes. My fear is that Eric is going down that path. But who knows, maybe that was just his pitch to me.
Well, we'll see. In the meantime, without his trying to do it, Eric turned me into a supporter of Brown's high-speed train. You just never know where conversations will lead you!
Remember, high speed rail is a housing issue, not just a transportation issue. Selling the issue that way could be the key to its success. You have a decent commute on a train where you can read, and you don't have to live in some ant hill.