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Author Benjamin Ross, a transit advocate who helped make a new D.C. subway line happen, on transit objectors, how he nudged certain neighborhoods into supporting a new project and what San Diego can learn from D.C.
The typical story for new transit projects is a top-down one: A city or planning agency proposes a new line, and over many years tries to find money to pay for it and persuade the people living nearby that it’s a good idea.
The story of the purple line, a new extension of Washington D.C.’s Metro, is a bit different. It was planned, and then delayed, by Maryland’s government, before a grassroots group fought to keep it alive. It’s now funded and expected to break ground in the next year.
A lead organizer of that grassroots support was Benjamin Ross, whose experience led to his newly released book, “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.”
Ross and I met in Little Italy and talked about how advocates for urban density and transit spending aren’t as organized as those who oppose those things, how debates over transit often unite liberals and conservatives to form coalitions and why major transit changes take so long to go anywhere.
What’s the elevator pitch for your book?
More and more want to live in the city. The market demand is there. But it doesn’t happen. And when it does happen, it very rarely happens well. This area (Little Italy) is unusually successful in that way. Usually, even if you get the buildings you get roads that are too wide. Everyone loves these neighborhoods that were built 100 years ago, with thin streets, and houses close together and buildings of different sizes close together, and yet we’re not able to build those things now. I’m trying to figure out why, and why it’s so hard to build transit.
I don’t see a time in San Diego when there isn’t opposition to expanding a trolley, or upzoning outside of downtown. Your history is basically one of local support for a project making it happen. How did that take place?
One is, making sure the people who get the benefits have a voice, as well as the neighbors. The other is understanding the nature of the opposition, which is a big part of my book. People have an instinct that people are committed to the suburban way of life. One thing is to make concessions of things that are being asked for, but really aren’t the basis of the opposition.
Why aren’t the people who are in favor of density or transit part of existing organizations? Why do they need to be organized?
One reason is that the main function of a civic association, usually, is to ward off change in the neighborhood, so it’s natural for the people who are most averse to change to be the most active. Another is a matter of age. There’s an enormous generational divide on this. Younger people just aren’t as involved in this — they don’t have the time, they aren’t committed, whatever. So you get attention in downtown neighborhoods. In a lot of cities, you have pro-urban activism on blogs.
Another is the media. The media has this image of framing everything as the neighborhood versus developers. And people who are for certain kinds of development, but against other kinds of development, don’t fit into that image, so they get left out of the story.
Another reason is that the developers’ priority always is to get something approved. So the developer’s inclination is to deal with the people who are against them and make concessions to them and the people who want a certain type of development are then left out in the cold.
My email is not a scientifically valid opinion poll, but it does give me a steady flow of anecdotal insight, and the thing I hear all the time from people is that they just do not want new big projects, or transit. They like their neighborhood. That’s why they moved there. Is it even possible, or desirable, to break through that?
A lot of this is preserving the superior social status of the single-family home and the automobile.
What worked for us is we went out and put out specific letters, neighborhood by neighborhood. In Silver Spring, the one line that really worked was, “You’ll be able to take the train to restaurants in Bethesda.” You know, that’s not the main source of riders on the purple line. But it’s a prestigious activity that enhances it. In Bethesda, the line that really worked was, “Georgetown turned down the Metro and look what happened there, you don’t want to go the way of Georgetown.” There aren’t many places where it’s a good idea to say you don’t want to be like Georgetown. (Laughs). But Georgetown used to be the place to go for a nice dinner. It isn’t at all anymore. There are a few restaurants. It’s basically a place where college kids go drinking.
The political coalitions in these fights are very mixed. Both for and against increased density, you have people of wildly different ideologies pushing for the same goal, but for totally different reasons. Why is that?
I think there’s very strong overlap from the NIMBY left and the NIMBY right. What I see is, the NIMBY left is really weakening, because smart growth has become such an important part of environmentalism. Look at Berkeley, where you have these big battles but the pro-development person is this former radical leftist, and you see the same thing in other places. The NIMBY left is much more interesting to write about, even though the NIMBY right is much more important in the grand scheme of things.
The left and right NIMBYs are converging.
There will always be people who are not interested in urban living. Do you engage arguments over lifestyle and cultural issues, which aren’t really matters of right and wrong?
You raise the issue to a larger level where they’re just a narrow pool of opponents. The trick is to organize the people who want a more urban style of life, and transit, who are usually not well organized. And that’s much more productive. Especially because you’re dealing with people who have a real reason — whether it’s the reason they’re saying — that they don’t like it. They have a value system and you can’t convince somebody out of values. So it’s important to engage in the public debate in specifics, but the key is organizing people who are usually out there in these neighborhoods, and support transit and an urban way of life.
Do you see conversations devolving into debates over process where you’re not even talking about the project anymore?
The objections are very often like that. They’ll say, “Why are you doing this so suddenly?” over something that’s been a debate for 15 years. One political lesson is: Never debate process, always debate substance. Because what you have is a system where you give the veto to narrow neighborhood groups, and you want the issue to be more democratic, by involving everyone. And the way to involve everyone is, the average citizen doesn’t care about process, within reason. The average citizen wants to know: What are you going to do?
How often do you feel swayed by local concerns? Or sympathetic? There certainly are bad projects proposed often, that warrant opposition, and those are subjective calls.
If you live next to a six-lane interstate, it is perfectly reasonable and proper to say you don’t want it to become a 10-lane interstate. That’s a totally legitimate perspective, and we’re close to those people. And the same thing: People who live in the countryside and don’t want it turned into sprawl. Just as you work with a developer who wants a nice building, No. 1 he wants to make money. That’s not our concern, but you work with him.
I think transit activists and cycling activists sometimes aren’t fair to local opposition. They don’t see their concerns as worthwhile. That’s not across the board by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think people don’t hear them when they explain their concerns.
That’s because so often these are made-up objections. I get frustrated too. But even when they’re making made-up objections, usually their real objections are real, even if you don’t agree with them. They are what they are. That’s the nature of democratic politics. You have to deal with everyone’s concerns, no matter what they are.
And yeah, don’t be shy about forming coalitions. Don’t be scared of criticism from neighborhood groups saying you’re allied with developers, and don’t be scared of coalitions with neighborhoods whose interests are aligned with the greater good.