Q. Isn’t urban density a risk factor for transmission of respiratory viruses like that which causes COVID-19?
A. When we talk about the advantages of urban density, we are referring to the number of people or housing units per square mile of land area. This is related to but distinct from the question of crowding, which is a function of the number of people in an enclosed or restricted space, and implicated in viral transmission. Crowding is sometimes a desired feature of city recreational activities (such as a packed bar, concert, or open streets event), but often it is the result of insufficient and inequitably distributed built space. Less housing units per square mile in a place where many people want to live can often mean more people housed per room. Similarly, excessive allocation of outdoor space to cars can exacerbate crowding on sidewalks and in parks.
Public transportation ridership is down steeply during the pandemic, and transit operators face fiscal challenges even as they strive to implement new safety practices. We support fully funding public transportation to insure safe and adequate service especially for those who most need it. Transportation networks need a unified approach to transportation safety, including assessing and mitigating public health risks based on science, appropriately contextualizing relative risks of different transportation modes, and communicating these to the public. The Seamless Transit Principles developed for Bay Area transportation provide a template for reforming governance to support these goals. Bikeshare and other micromobility options-- equitably deployed and operating on complete streets-- can provide people with more alternatives and alleviate congestion both on roads and in transit. Dedicated bus lanes can allow more buses to run with greater efficacy and less crowding.
We can’t avoid a conversation about environmental justice when talking about impacts of the pandemic on cities. Our most vulnerable communities-- those which have been exposed disproportionately to pollution (itself a possible COVID-19 risk), have access to insufficient and inadequate housing, have been allocated insufficient public space, and have had insufficient access to health services-- are those which are seeing the worst impacts of the pandemic around the country. Even if there were an irreducible health risk of density over sprawl (which we do not believe to be the case), then exclusionary housing policies are no solution: they merely allow the privileged to opt out of these challenges, often while still enjoying the cultural and economic benefits of density.
Finally, urban density featuring flexible and diverse land use can enhance resilience to both pandemics and climate change. We don’t all have to live in skyscrapers, but living in environments dedicated to one housing type that require driving for all the activities of daily life are uniquely fragile, limiting both functional and economic responses to disturbance. If cities are urban ecosystems, then single-family detached zoning is urban monoculture. Natural environments do not all look the same, but they do share common features like diversity, modularity, and feedback that allow them to resist and adapt to stressors. We need to incorporate these principles into our human environments across spatial scales from small towns to towering metropolises.
Also see our March 2020 blog post led by Urban Environmentalist Robert Spragg.
This month we had two great events - if you missed them, check out the recordings!
Today’s Action - Support Bike & Carshare Parking Over Private Car Parking
All too often, excessive requirements for car parking spaces cause housing development costs to skyrocket - particularly in dense, transit-oriented areas where not every household needs a private car. This can pose a particularly significant barrier to new affordable housing, and it runs counter to our state policies of reducing car travel and promoting active transportation.
To address this problem, draft bill AB 3153 would allow 15-30% of required car parking to be replaced by bicycle and carshare parking in walkable/transit-friendly new development. Think that’s a great idea? Contact your state assemblymember to tell them you support AB 3153!
What we’re reading/watching:
We have some more great events coming up, a couple actions you can take from home, and some interesting articles to read. For those who weren't able to make it to Manny's with us in February (or who want a second listen) our event with Greg Shill and Jeff Wood is now in podcast form!
Happy Hour this Thursday:
We’re having another Zoom Happy Hour on Thursday, April 30th at 5:30 PM. Register here.
Equitable Mobility with Greenlining - May 4:
Our May 4th meeting will have a presentation from Hana Creger at Greenlining to talk about their equitable mobility framework. Register at this link.
New Event! Conversation on Sustainability in Oakland - May 13:
Urban Environmentalists is teaming up with the SF Bay Area Young Professionals in Energy (YPE) chapter for a virtual brown bag conversation and Q&A with Oakland’s Sustainability Manager, Daniel Hamilton. We’ll learn about Oakland’s forthcoming 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan, its recently launched Oakland Slow Streets project, and much more! Register here.
Earth Day Blog Post - “To Say No to Fossil Fuels, Environmentalists Must Say Yes to Housing”
Urban Environmentalists members Joanna, Phillip, and Zack teamed up with Anthony Dedousis from Abundant Housing LA to discuss the connections between housing policy and achieving environmental goals. The way that we use land to house ourselves has tremendous potential to preserve wilderness, cut air pollution, and bend the curve on climate change. In our post, we argue that it’s time for the environmental movement to embrace housing policy reform, just as we have embraced renewables and other green policies. Read it here!
Panel on Housing Justice - May 9
YIMBY Action is hosting a virtual panel with housing advocates on their long-term visions for housing justice. Register here.
Support AB 2345
In our Earth Day blog post we talk about AB 2345, a bill that would permit up to 50% more housing units in multifamily residential buildings in return for setting aside a percentage that are affordable to renters with low or moderate incomes. It’s a win-win for reducing sprawl and car dependency, and for affordability. Contact your state assemblymember to tell them you support AB 2345!
SFMTA Slow Streets Survey
Following in Oakland’s footsteps, SF has launched its own Slow Streets initiative! If you would like to provide feedback to the SFMTA (and suggest future slow streets!), please take their survey.
What We’re Reading:
Our recent event at Manny’s with Professor Greg Shill is now uploaded to Talking Headways!
Hopefully you're staying safe and healthy while sheltering in place! We've got two upcoming meetings in the coming weeks, a new blog post, two important actions, and a great reading list. Read on to see the details!
Late April Happy Hour:
We’re having another Zoom Happy Hour on Thursday, April 30th at 5:30 PM. Register here.
Our May meeting will have a presentation from Hana Creger at Greenlining, a racial and economic justice institute, to talk about their equitable mobility framework. Register at this link.
New Blog Post - “COVID-19: The (New) Future of Urbanism in the United States”
Robert, one of our leads, wrote a great blog post on how we see the current pandemic affecting the future of our movement. Read it here!
In April we had a low-key meeting with about 18 Zoom attendees joined by three leaders in the energy transition and sustainable mobility: Andrew Salzberg, Ben Holland, and Christian Roselund. We discussed why land use and tackling car-dependence have not been prioritized within the environmental and climate action movements, and how they and others are working to change that. They were excited to chat with us because of the potential for YIMBYs to challenge the cultural dominance of exclusionary and car-centric development patterns. Stay tuned for more collaboration, and in the meantime you can follow their work. Andrew is a Loeb Fellow and is teaching a course on decarbonizing mobility. Ben is a senior associate on RMI’s mobility team and just penned Coronavirus and the Fragility of Auto-Centric Cities. Christian is the editorial director at RMI and wrote about 21st Urban Mobility for the inaugural issue of the Energy Transition Magazine.
For residents of any Bay Area county, please join us in supporting Seamless Bay Area’s Seamless Transit Act (AB2057) by asking your assemblymember to support the bill.
If you’re in San Francisco see the SF Bicycle Coalition’s action to email the Rec and Park Commission before their Thursday 4/16 meeting asking the commission to open up more car-free space. This is also a good opportunity to call in and give public comment - the meeting starts at 10 AM.
California Energy Commission EPIC Challenge Comments
California is funding a competition to “design and build mid-rise, mixed-use development that is affordable, equitable, climate-resilient, cost-competitive and emissions-free”. We applaud this effort, but believe the design requirements could be better. Check out our public comments, where we encouraged Energy Commission staff to go all in on density; promote affordable housing in all neighborhoods, including higher income areas; prioritize micromobility and transit over cars; support small businesses and equitable outcomes; and more.
What We’re Reading (and Watching)
If you like these links be sure to “Like” us on Facebook for more:
The past month has been unprecedented, and the decisions made in the coming months will impact public policy and everyday life for an entire generation. This future uncertainty has spurred lots of discussion around the future of urban life, mobility, and public health.
Here is the Urban Environmentalist’s take on the future of cities. Spoiler alert - now is not the time to run for the hills!
Cities will Continue to Lead in Resilience
In recent weeks, ridiculous claims have been made about the “death of cities”. While it is true that a virus will spread more quickly in a densely populated area, what we should be concerned with is the poor public health response, the lack of testing, and the lack of preparedness and general mismanagement on the part of our federal government and many of our state and local governments. As Scott Wiener notes in a recent Politico piece, “this contagion is not about whether you live in a densely populated area or a less densely populated area; it's about whether you have a good public health response to a pandemic and Hong Kong and Singapore had a fantastic response”.
For context, Singapore’s first reported case was on January 23, yet thanks to its contact tracing, early testing, and quarantining of suspected cases, the island nation has only reported 879 cases as of March 28, without implementing a lockdown.
Singapore’s population density of 8358/km² is similar to New York City’s 10,194/km². Given that NYC now has over 43,000 cases, it’s clear that density is not the key issue here.
In Italy, and most likely in the United States in the next few weeks, many deaths will occur in rural hospitals with limited response capabilities. Doug Saunders notes that, unlike in previous centuries, rural areas are not safe havens. In his opinion piece, he writes, “modern travel and prosperity mean the disease will soon hit countless towns with one-emergency-bed hospitals and hundreds of residents older than 80. Their only hope is to get shipped to a larger city".
Cities are Here to Stay
Urbanization is a global trend which will continue for the next few decades. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to reside in urban areas, up from 55% in 2018. This will mean an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in cities.
Many of these individuals will move to newly minted megacities, such as Bogota, Chennai, and Luanda, as well as other large cities across Africa and South Asia. It is laughable to consider all of these individuals purchasing a car and moving to subtropical suburbs to avoid disease. So why take similar proposals seriously in the United States - especially once we consider that our cities are already some of the sparsest by world standards?
Besides legalizing more housing in built-up areas and using public transportation, another way to reduce emissions is to simply commute less. With traffic now essentially nonexistent in Los Angeles, the two-hour trek up the 405 from Long Beach to Santa Monica takes a previously unimaginable 30 minutes. Furthermore, buses are crossing the Bay Bridge and traversing the MacArthur Maze in record time, improving transit reliability for health care workers and other essential employees. Air quality has improved dramatically, allowing residents to get a socially-distanced breath of fresh air. In short, the current crisis has shown us what could be in the most drastic of ways. We suspect that, when things begin to return to the new normal and traffic returns, that the calls from previously-jaded commuters to improve our transportation systems and to request more flexible remote work opportunities will be louder than ever.
Improved Internet Access
We must also consider the fact that the majority of employees cannot work remotely.
Restaurant workers, construction workers, and hospitality employees have no choice but to commute. Furthermore, between 21 and 42 million Americans do not have broadband access at their home, and many more cannot afford monthly internet payments. Most of these individuals reside in poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas. As schools switch to online courses, children lacking broadband access will be left behind. And individuals with health issues may not be able to safely see a doctor, order groceries online, or FaceTime their family from a safe distance. We believe that funds should be allocated to achieve the goals of the ConnectALL program that was launched by President Obama in 2016.
While public transportation is taking a huge hit (BART has reported an over 90% decrease in ridership), the amount of cycling has increased. According to the New York Times, Citi Bike, New York City’s bike share program, saw demand surge by 67% before local shelter-in-place orders took effect. With car-free streets and clean air, many city residents are now able to safely exercise, commute, or grab groceries by foot or bike in their neighborhood. Many streets in cities around the world have closed off select roads and parks to cars, providing families with a much-needed space to get some fresh air. In the long run, safe streets, reduced driving, and clean air will save countless lives.
More Stimulus Investment in Sustainable Infrastructure
We should be taking advantage of the current lull in transportation use to perform a massive overhaul of our biking, pedestrian, and public transit infrastructure. As Laura Bliss mentioned in her recent Citylab article, we should expect a massive jobs and infrastructure bill to be proposed soon, to help fight the imminent spike in the unemployment rate. Work will need to be done to ensure state and federal funds are spent on building cities that are resilient, affordable, and healthy. Specifically, investments in affordable housing, public transportation, seismic retrofits, high-speed rail, and flood control would pay dividends for future generations, whereas highway expansions and suburban sprawl would be harmful.
The current state of affairs has demonstrated the superiority of a coordinated regional response to a crisis, superseding local control. The six counties in the immediate Bay Area were the first in the nation to pass a mandatory shelter in place order (March 16), which has shown promising results and has bought the region precious time to prepare for the impending outbreak.
Now, about two weeks later, over 25 states have followed our lead.
The coordinated response has now extended beyond shelter in place. California has delayed mortgage payments for up to 90 days, and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors banned evictions for multiple months for the entire county, without hesitation.
Imagine if the same urgency and coordination could be harnessed to tackle our climate crisis, our homelessness crisis, our affordability crisis, our wildfire crises, or any number of longer-term dilemmas that the Bay Area and California face. The current situation has ripped the band-aid off the gaping wound that is our emergency response capability, health care system, and safety net. Yet it has also shown how quickly and courageously our elected officials can act under pressure.
The lessons we will learn by taking a data-driven approach to emergency response, contact tracing, homeless shelter, and financial relief in the next few months could serve as a helpful guide as we move forward and continue to tackle our biggest challenges.
As the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste.
We hope you are staying safe and finding ways to stay engaged during this difficult time. We invite you to join us for our April meeting, which will be a virtual Happy Hour at 5:30pm on Mon, Apr 6, with some guests joining from Austin and Boston. RSVP here for the Zoom info.
Recommended upcoming events
Finally, this is a trying time for nonprofits whose regular funding sources may be at risk when their work is needed most. I know that YIMBY Action, which supports Urban Environmentalists, has helped me stay connected to my community and has played a role in critical organizing to keep people in their homes and get people into housing during this crisis. The best way for you to support us is to join the YIMBY Action movement. You can join at a variety of price points. If you are unable to contribute financially and want to join as a volunteer member, please contact us at info at urbanenvironmentalists dot org and we will help you get involved.
Hope to see you on Apr 6!
We hope you’re staying safe and healthy as we all shelter in place. Thank you to everyone who joined us at Manny’s this month for our event with Jeff Wood and Greg Shill, How the Car Lobby Rewrote Our Laws And How We Can Reclaim Cities for People. We have an update for everyone on important actions you can take to help save transit, our online book club on Sunday afternoon, and an Intro to YIMBY webinar on Monday - scroll down for more info.
And don't worry if you missed our March event. You can check out the highlights in our live tweets, and listen to Jeff Wood’s other great podcasts. He’ll be posting our event podcast around April 9, so stay tuned.
Today’s Action: Support Bay Area Transit During Covid-19
Today and over the weekend Congress will be deliberating about emergency funds for the COVID-19 crisis. The government is considering emergency funds for the oil industry and airlines. We need a functioning transit system for essential trips now and to restart our economy in a way that tackles the climate crisis. Please tell our representatives in DC that we need emergency funding for public transit, especially "transit operations" - the funding to keep service running.
And if you haven't yet taken action at the state level you still can. Governor Newsom has $500M of discretionary funding to use for the COVID-19 emergency - tell your legislators and the Secretary of Transportation that we need to save public transit for essential work during the emergency and our low-carbon future.
Administrators like Secretary Kim don't tend to hear much from the public, so your comments will be powerful. Please be polite.
Please speak up to support public transit, its riders, and operators with emergency funding as quickly as possible.
YIMBY Action Book Club, 4 PM on March 22: Golden Gates, with author Conor Dougherty
This Sunday, join our friends at YIMBY Action for a Zoom-based book club meeting! Golden Gates details the rich history of the intersection of housing and environmentalism in California and unearths gems like The Environmental Protection Hustle, a 1979 book that identified some environmentalism as thinly veiled NIMBYism that encouraged sprawl. Please join us via Zoom for some thoughtful discussion with the author, Conor Dougherty, and check out the Facebook event page for more info.
Intro to YIMBY Webinar, 7 PM on March 23
On Monday YIMBY Action is also hosting an "Intro to YIMBY" webinar which is a great opportunity to ask questions and learn more about some of our housing-related advocacy. Please join us via Zoom and find out more on the Facebook event page.
The first week of March is going to be a busy one for Urban Environmentalists!
How the Car Lobby Rewrote Our Laws And How We Can Reclaim Cities for People
Join us for a conversation with Greg Shill and Jeff Wood at Manny's!
Monday, March 2 at 7 PM we'll be joined at Manny's (3092 16th Street, San Francisco, CA) by Greg Shill (author of "Should the Law Subsidize Driving") and Jeff Wood (host of the "Talking Headways" podcast) titled "How the Car Lobby Rewrote Our Laws And How We Can Reclaim Cities for People." We're looking forward to a deep dive on the law and transportation!
Check out the event details on Manny's website or go straight to the Eventbrite page (tickets are $10).
Remember to vote!
Every election is now a climate election, but environmental voters have historically not turned out to vote as much as other interest groups' voters have (www.environmentalvoter.org). If you live in California, during the March 3rd presidential primary election, we have an opportunity to elect candidates who prioritize climate and housing at all levels. If you are lucky enough to live in San Mateo or Santa Clara Counties, it's so easy to vote that there's almost no excuse not to. Either:
We recommend the following sets of endorsements for voters in the Bay Area:
Transbay Bus Lane Petition
In a previous newsletter, we told you about a developing initiative to bring a bus lane back to the Bay Bridge (see our blog post on Bay Bridge Bus Lanes). That campaign is now live and Assemblymember Rob Bonta has introduced legislation in Sacramento, AB2824! Sign the petition to show your support.
We Support Enhancing California's Density Bonus
For our monthly meeting on Monday, February 3rd Urban Environmentalists welcomed Colin Dentel-Post and Paige Miller to present on the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s current efforts to study possibilities for implementing “congestion pricing” in downtown San Francisco. The presentation to Urban Environmentalists was the first presentation to a community group, following two Policy Advisory Committee meetings.
On Monday, March 2nd at 7 PM we'll be hosting an event at Manny's (3092 16th Street, San Francisco, CA) with Greg Shill (Associate Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law and author of "Should Law Subsidize Driving?") and Jeff Wood (principal at the Overhead Wire and host of the "Talking Headways" podcast) titled "How the Car Lobby Rewrote Our Laws And How We Can Reclaim Cities for People."
Greg's scholarship on transportation law and policy has been covered in a number of media outlets, including his own piece in The Atlantic. With renowned podcast host Jeff Wood along for the ride expect a riveting discussion on some of the biggest issues facing cities today, followed by a question and answer session.
Check out the event details on Manny's website or go straight to the Eventbrite page (tickets are $10).
If you want to get a head start on the discussion you can join us on Monday, February 3rd for a presentation on congestion pricing from the SFCTA at 1260 Mission Street!