A Tale of Two Cities: Environmental Justice and Transportation

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is a local non-profit organization that strives for environmental justice for all, specifically focusing on environmental justice for Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Recently, APEN held a protest to show their “opposition to oil trains moving through Richmond and the Bay Area” (APEN). Ethan Buckner, a campaigner at the protest, stated that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District allowed the Kinder Morgan company to bring more oil trains through the Bay Area without consulting the public. By bringing more oil trains through the Bay Area, Buckner argues that the Kinder Morgan company is threatening the lives of millions of Californians. Beyond disregarding public opinion and increasing oil trains through the Bay Area, the Kinder Morgan company is also practicing environmental racism. The Crude Injustice report shows that oil trains often travel through poor communities of color yet rarely travel through affluent white neighborhoods. In Richmond, the community residing within the danger zone from trains transporting oil is comprised 90% by people of color. The Kinder Morgan company is clearly exploiting communities of the Bay Area and especially its people of color. These injustices need to stop and I’m glad to learn that the APEN is fighting for environmental justice for all communities.

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Last year my community faced a similar situation regarding the introduction of a new high speed rail. Before I describe the situation my community experienced, it’s important to note that my town is affluent but diverse, so our experience is not of the same nature as the racially-based environmental injustices seen in Richmond.  About a year ago, the transportation committee of my town’s government began campaigning to gather support to build a high speed railway. This high speed rail would require a significant amount of tax dollars to build and result in very high speed trains streaking through town every few minutes during commuting hours and disrupting the town’s peacefulness. The transportation committee promoted the new high speed rail because it would run on electricity, have less of an environmental impact, and help improve transportation in the broader Bay Area. Regarding social equity, the high speed rail would result in environmental injustice for people living near the rails due to increased noise pollution. Since numerous citizens felt the addition of a high speed rail unfairly burden our town, in the name of improving broader Bay Area transportation, the city council ultimately struck down the proposed plan.

Although by striking down the plan my town avoided experiencing environmental injustice, this action does negatively impact other Bay Area residents that rely on public transportation. The train would have allowed more accessible and ‘cleaner’ transportation than the current system allowing lower income commuters that rely on public transportation to have a faster commute as well as more social mobility. Beyond improving social mobility a high speed rail running on electricity would also have led to decreased environmental impacts. According to Robert Cruickshank in Environmental Justice Does Not Mean What They Think It Means, “motor vehicles are responsible for 57% of the air pollution…” An efficient train run on ‘clean’ power could cut down the amount of air pollution in the Bay Area since people would rely on their cars less and decrease asthma risk caused by high pollution.

The situation my community faced is an example of the tradeoffs involved among communities regarding environmental justice. The citizens of my town felt that the burden of the high speed railway was too high of a cost and were able to block it. Although my community attained environmental justice for itself, it’s actions inhibited plans that would have helped people of other communities that depend on pubic transportation for social mobility.  For the parallel situation involving Kinder Morgan oil trains, the people of Richmond are facing an environmental injustice that is seriously threatening their safety.   Although Richmond based oil refineries would argue that inhibiting oil trains hurts their business interests, this claim is weak compared to the danger the oil trains pose to the community of Richmond. Whereas the affluent community of my town was able to politically forestall the high speed train, the much less affluent and minority community of Richmond has less political clout to fight off the environmental injustice of the oil trains


Environmental Justice and Urban Development: Contradictions and Solutions

The fundamental premise of the environmental justice movement is that environmental and social issues can be solved together, and that the struggles to rectify social injustice and to protect our natural world are inherently linked. In many situations, there is no doubt that environmental problems are disproportionately hurting marginalized populations, and this is especially true in large urban areas like the Bay Area, where industrial waste, pollution, and sea level rise immediately affect the poor, minority populations in areas like Bayview-Hunter’s Point, West Oakland, and East Palo Alto.

Yet in the case of perhaps the most pressing social issue facing our metropolitan area, the relationship is much trickier. Amid a boom in tech jobs, housing prices across the region are skyrocketing, especially in San Francisco, fueling rapid gentrification and high turnover in many neighborhoods. A classic story of gentrification involves the eviction of longtime residents from a block of old but affordable low-rise housing, which is then demolished to make room for a glittering high-rise condo building. This was the fear that inspired the failed “Mission Moratorium” proposition last year, and it remains a fear for Chinatown residents who have enacted zoning laws limiting height.

The social justice issue here is clear – new condos will almost certainly cater to wealthy new residents who don’t fit the socioeconomic profile of the neighborhood, and the displaced old residents will have a harder and harder time finding a place in the city. But what about the environmental impact of new development and gentrification? Surely new construction, high-rise buildings, and more crowding can’t be good for the environment?

Actually, despite the initial thoughts of many, new construction in cities, especially dense, high-rise residential construction, is one of the best things our society can do for the environment. As detailed in the groundbreaking New Yorker article Green Manhattan: Everywhere Should Be More Like New York by David Owen, the denser the city, the lower the per capita energy usage, pollution, and carbon footprint. Denser development reduces car dependence and decreases heating and cooling costs (as there is a spillover effect in large buildings). And in the case of new buildings in San Francisco, new construction represents an even larger improvement in terms of energy and greenhouse gas reduction because many new buildings are LEED certified, incorporate renewable energy, and advertise sustainability as a way to draw in environmentally conscious new tenants. A case in point is NEMA, a 37-floor, 4 building development in the rapidly gentrifying Mid-Market area, which is LEED-silver certified, heavily uses recycled building materials, and even includes green roofs – a studio costs over $3,200 in monthly rent.

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A plot showing new construction rate and housing price, in which San Francisco is the least affordable and slowest to build in the country. Photo from Trulia.

The “Green Manhattan” argument is part of the reason that the typical San Francisco progressive approach to housing – don’t build anything and demonize anyone who moves in – is misguided and even dangerous. The second reason is that while supply and demand may not be able to explain all of San Francisco’s complicated housing market, it is impossible to escape the reality that San Francisco has artificially held back housing supply and population growth for almost fifty years, and this lack of growth has greatly affected prices (an in-depth explanation of this dynamic can be found in TechCrunch’s excellent 2014 report). This, coupled with refusal to build new housing or upgrade transit throughout the region, has led to the real environmental cost of San Francisco’s gentrification: service workers are pushed into sprawling peripheral cities like Antioch, Fairfield, Tracy, and Morgan Hill, where commutes on crowded freeways regularly take over two hours.

The view from the office

New apartment buildings stand alongside old warehouse buildings in SoMa. Photo from AppDynamics.

So is the solution, then, to raze the low-lying Richmond district and build a hundred new LEED-certified towers? Probably not, because this would not only destroy the character of the city, but also worsen the transportation nightmare in San Francisco. But by imposing stringent affordable housing requirements on new residential and commercial development, carefully upzoning neighborhoods, improving transit services in the city and throughout the region, and improving tenant protection laws (which would encourage new San Franciscans to move into new development rather than properties cleared through unethical evictions), I believe that it’s possible to reduce the impact of the housing crisis on vulnerable populations while also reducing sprawl and capitalizing on the inherent environmental benefits of dense cities – a true environmental justice solution to the Bay Area’s greatest challenge.