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On the Bus

July 22, 2014

The latest front in the Culture War busted wide open at the Marriot in downtown Oakland Thursday night. Those expecting the assembly of regional transportation officials and municipal bureaucrats to be a dull affair, poorly attended and governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, haven’t been paying attention to the political paroxysm stirred up by Plan Bay Area.

Receiving its final vote on July 18, the plan is a region-wide development strategy for the next three decades. At stake, by some accounts, was the future of Bay Area transportation, housing, and land-use policy. Also at stake, according to not a few others in attendance, were liberty, the democratic process, the institution of private property, and the right not to be forced to ride the bus. The first to comment, Georgine Scott, read a citizen’s arrest warrant to the delegates, charging them with “treason, sedition, and money laundering.” Another speaker proclaimed himself to be John Galt, and drawing the analogy between the transportation committee and the Politburo proved to be a popular rhetorical strategy throughout the evening.

“A SHOCKING Theft of Our Democracy,” read the pre-meeting press release of the Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley. Organizing South- and East-Bay activists, the group chartered a bus for last night’s meeting, boldly designated themselves “Freedom Riders 2013.”

Eye-glazing though the term “sustainable communities strategy” may be, the plan is significant, and the battle lines resemble those of many other political divides in the Bay Area—progressive vs. conservative, urban vs. suburban, cyclists vs. drivers, and, by a cursory scan of the audience, young vs. the old.

Plan Bay Area has been in the works since 2008, and passage of the California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, which includes regional planning as part of reducing greenhouse gasses. The plan’s statutorily mandated goals are to reduce overall dependency on automobiles and ensure enough housing is available at every price level to accommodate projected growth. By the numbers, the target for the region is to reduce per capita car and truck emissions by some 15 percent by 2035.

Carolina Reid, an assistant professor in Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, said “This [plan] has implications for virtually every aspect of day-to-day life … for housing, for investment in affordable housing, for human health, and for transportation options.”

This regional approach to planning, says Reid, makes California “incredibly unique.” “Not just in terms of the legislation’s focus on climate change, but it’s actually pretty rare for lawmakers to think of these issues in a regional context,” she says.  “Most decisions like these are made at the local level, so thinking about the linkages between housing and transportation and land-use is a pretty new development.”

But the regional scale of the plan, formulated by the Metropolitan Transportation Committee with the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), a legislative supergroup of councilmembers, supervisors, county administrators, and mayors, is also what makes it so controversial. The chief rallying cry of the anti-plan, “no project,” camp was not about the document itself, but what they see as the undemocratic nature of the planning process.

“There has not been a lot of room for public input,” said Kenneth Paxton from Redwood City, one of the many of those in attendance took part in the public comment period. “I’m OK with biking and walking paths and all that, but this should really be going to the people.”

That sentiment was popularly held by many of plan opponents. “MTC don’t speak for me,” was one rallying cry, chanted between (and sometimes during) different speakers’ stints at the microphone. Another, pithier chant was simply: “Vote vote vote vote!”

“They just think we’re a bunch of rubes out in the outer rim,” said Celeste Paradise from Concord, whose sign asked: “Who needs sex when ABAG and MTC are screwing us?” A self-described libertarian in her late 20s, Paradise was one of the few Millennials among the “Stop the Plan” cohort, whose generational profile ranged mostly from late-Boomer to Greatest.

For her turn at the microphone, Paradise sang an original song decrying the utopian thinking of faceless bureaucrats, set to the tune of “America, the Beautiful.”

But those in attendance were not unanimous. Many declared their support for the plan (to boos from the other side), while others, under the banner of the 6 Wins for Social Equity Network, championed an alternative plan, “Equity, Environment, and Jobs.”

Under the current plan, auto emissions would decline on a per person basis, but not in total, when taking into account population growth. The EEJ plan calls for more aggressive reductions, as well as more investment in mass transit and affordable housing.

Taking the stand from the EEJ contingent, Bob Allen, a program director at Urban Habitat, lambasted those from the Conservative Forum for “appropriating” the title “Freedom Riders.”

“And by the way,” he continued, “This is a republic, not a direct democracy. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean you can put it on a ballot.”

After nearly six hours of discussion, the 38-member ABAG committee voted in favor of the bill after midnight.

—Ben Christopher

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