Nimlby ethical development

April 1, 2011 | Cities, Development, Infrastructure, Local issues, Neighborhood, New York, NIMBY, Theory, Urban life

By: David A. Smith 



“It’s good enough for the poor.”


Right outside our front yard run power and telephone lines. 


Bus rapid transit – in Bogota, Colombia


My office silence is occasionally disturbed by demolition hammers rumbling the street six floors below my window.  I accept these intrusions on my perfect wilderness solitude because to live in a city means to live in close proximity not just to other people but also to the urban infrastructure.  By moving to and living in the city, I have thus accepted (if I am rational) that from time to time that infrastructure will be upgraded or augmented, almost invariably in some way that intrudes upon my otherwise idyllic urban quiet.  In other words, infrastructure is not free – not monetarily free, and not free from impacting my back yard – yet that basic truism seems to escape many urbanites, especially wealthy ones, as pointed out by (of all media) the New York Times:


Green Development? Not in My (Liberal) Backyard


Is that NIMLBY-ism?


Park Slope, Brooklyn. Cape Cod, Mass. Berkeley, Calif. Three famously progressive places, right? The yin to the Tea Party yang. But just try putting a bike lane or some wind turbines in their lines of sight. And the karma can get very different.


Bike lane in Hangzhou – cars are expensive there


Last week, two groups of New Yorkers who live “on or near” Prospect Park West, a prestigious address in Park Slope –


I will give credit to Times writer Elisabeth Rosenthal – she is deft as sliding tongue-in-cheek quotation marks into a sentence, calling attention to that ‘or near’ to signal the dubiety of standing these residents have.


filed a suit against the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg –


What sense of judicial entitlement in urban Americans that makes us think anything we do not like can be corrected by litigating.  First smart meters, and now bike lanes?


to remove a nine-month-old bike lane that has commandeered a lane previously used by cars.


The Prospect park bike lane – see any riders?


In full disclosure, I am thoroughly skeptical of bike lanes:


·         They consume a full car lane to create half a bike lane (inefficiency).

·         The bicycle traffic they enable is far less than the auto traffic they disable (inefficiency).

·         Many urban cyclists flout all traffic rules, running red lights or riding sidewalks (danger and negative externality), as if they believe that the righteousness of their cycling gives them some number of free passes.


A few days back, the Boss and I were walking back from a restaurant when a bicyclist came charging down our sidewalk – which are a shared resource for pedestrians, not vehicles! – going the wrong way, despite the presence of a (wide) bike lane immediately to his left.  Nancy to her credit blocked his vehicle and confronted his riding, which forced him to stop if not to think. 


Condemnatory if not effective


Ever seen a bicyclist get ticketed for violating traffic rules?


Come supporters of high-profile green projects like these say the problem is just plain old Nimbyism — the opposition by residents to a local development of the sort that they otherwise tend to support.


It’s always easy to support a behavioral change that benefits me (as part of the common weal) but impacts only you, whose view is impaired or whose behavior we intend to change.  And it’s similarly easy to believe that I will of course support the change in my own neighborhood, should it come to that.


“It’s really pretty innocuous — it’s a bike lane, for goodness’ sake — their resistance has been incredibly frustrating,” said Walter Hook, executive director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in Manhattan and an expert on sustainable transport. He lives in Brooklyn and uses the Prospect Park West bike lane to get around.


10 principles for sustainable coffee: Walter Hook


In Massachusetts, the formidable opponents of Cape Wind, a proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, include members of the Kennedy family, whose compound looks out over the body of water.


The Cape Wind hypocrisy has been well documented.


In Berkeley last year, the objections of store owners and residents forced the city to shelve plans for a full bus rapid transit system (BRT), a form of green mass transit in which lanes that formerly served cars are blocked off and usurped by high-capacity buses that resemble above-ground subways.


Here too, I have sympathy for the skeptics.  Dedicated bus lanes and urban light-rail systems seem to me to combine the worst features of fixed-rail (high infrastructure costs, low flexibility) and surface vehicles (congestion, blocking traffic, slow speed).  I’ve ridden trams in Amsterdam, Portland OR, Dallas TX, Melbourne Australia, and Brookline MA, and nowhere have I found them an efficient form of urban transit. 


Portland’s light rail – notice the vast space consumed


Cities mean congestion, and that means one of three things: traffic jams, high-density mass transit, or verticality (using underground transit).  Light rail helps none of these.  Some in Berkeley thought so from the beginning:


Illegal, but unenforced


AC Transit’s plan calls for an 18-mile bus rapid transit route from San Leandro through downtown Oakland and on Telegraph Avenue to Berkeley.


Merchants and residents along the famed avenue say dedicated bus lanes would force traffic onto side streets and make parking even more scarce. They say the $400 million AC Transit plans to spend on bus rapid transit would be better spent on cleaner buses, express buses that don’t use dedicated lanes, or a bus rapid transit route that is not so close to BART.


Give me the subway any day.


Critics in New York contend the new Prospect Park bike lane is badly designed, endangering pedestrians and snarling traffic.


Maybe it is – that’s been my experience with all bike lanes.  Nevertheless, if bike lanes and BRT systems are good policy, they ought to be good policy for rich folks too, not just for ‘those people’ to whom we consign urbanity’s third-class carriages.


Cape Wind opponents argue the turbines will defile a pristine body of water.


Good God – what defilement: from the opponent’s Web site


There is the most nimble NIMLBY-ism – you cannot put technology here, because here is beautiful.  And it happens that I live here, in the beautiful place, because beauty is expensive.  So it just happens we should put those utilities and that urban infrastructure in a location where the poor people congregate, and not defile my expensively purchased pristine view.


Deer Island’s garbage digester eggs – keeping Boston Harbor clean


And in Berkeley, store owners worried that reduced traffic flow and parking could hurt their business.


Oh, so now cars are all right if they bring you affluent liberal customers, and buses are not all right because … they bring you poorer customers?


Policymakers in the United States have been repeatedly frustrated by constituents who profess to worry about the climate and count themselves as environmentalists, but prove unwilling to adjust their lifestyles or change their behavior in any significant way.


Why yes, I profess about your excess.


In Europe, bike lanes crisscross cities –


While my knowledge is far from exhaustive, the only two cities where I’ve seen bike lanes work effectively are Amsterdam and Parma, and in both cities the area to be biked constituted mainly the old city, where cars were if not banned then discouraged by parking scarcity and parking costs.


Bike lane on Damrak: note bollards, not absence of cars


– wind turbines appear in counties with high-priced country homes and plants that make green energy from waste are situated in even the wealthiest neighborhoods.


You’d love them if they were natural … or old


As a self-confessed technophile, I find the stately minuet of wind turbines entrancing and even beautiful in its way.


Eye of the beholder?


So what is going on here?


Robert B. Cialdini, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University who studies environmental behaviors, points to two phenomena:


And they’re big phenomena; Caldini


[1] Humans hew to the “normative” behaviors of their community. In places where bike lanes or wind turbines or BRT systems are seen as an integral part of society, people tend not protest a new one; if they are not the norm, they will.


Professor Cialdini is describing a combination of the Law of the Observant (Righteous) Herd and the broken windows theory of urban civility.


[2] Whatever feelings people have about abstract issues like the environment, in practice they react more passionately to immediate rewards and punishments (like a ready parking space) than distant consequences (like the threat of warming).


Test yourself: When a sign in a hotel bathroom exhorts you to reuse your towel for the sake of the planet, do you nonetheless tend to throw it on the floor to get a new one? (Me: Guilty.)


Are you righteous?

If anybody’s watching?


What do you do, readers?  Myself, I hang ’em up – not for the planet but because they’re not really dirty.


It reminds me of the University of Wooloomooloo’s Philosophy Department Rule Two:


Rule two, no member of the faculty is to maltreat the Abos in any way whatsoever – if there’s anybody watching.


Professor Cialdini’s research has found that the best way to get a guest to reuse towels is to inform him that a majority of the previous guests in that room did not switch towels daily.


What an interesting discovery – a mixture of competition (others did, maybe you can), personalized oversight (others did, we notice these things), and shame (others showed virtue, you should too).


I do not like the cone of shame


Likewise, in a study to determine how to get people to reduce home energy use, conducted with Wesley Schultz, Professor Cialdini found that people were most likely to comply if told that all the neighbors were doing it — rather than informed that saving energy would save money or was good for the planet.


The herd is not just behaviorally observant, but also emotively observant and morally observant.  This is a significant finding.


“People need to be in alignment with their contemporaries,” he said. “It validates them. It becomes something they should do and can do.”


The Bloomberg administration says that according to polls, nearly three-quarters of people in Brooklyn support the bike lane, which has resulted in fewer accidents and lower car speeds on Prospect Park West.


I’d be interested to see the statistics behind that claim, especially if (as I suspect) all it did was shift traffic away from Prospect Park West onto other streets.





The opponents, who note that bicyclists could just as well use a bike lane within the park, contend that the city is manipulating the data and failed to conduct follow-up studies on safety.


Government manipulating data to support its claims?  Impossible!


In interviews with pedestrians and motorists on Prospect Park West, opponents stridently criticized the bike lane — though (this being Park Slope) nearly everyone made a point of saying they generally approved of cycling.


Some of my best friends are bicyclists, but would you let your daughter marry one?


Son, do you ride a bicycle?


Trapped in their own rhetoric when applied to others, the opposition groups find themselves forced to argue that they’re not against anything, they’re just for something even better:


One of the groups bringing the lawsuit is called Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes; the group opposed to Cape Wind is called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.


Some are for something in the abstract, only to oppose it when reality demonstrates the negative externalities:


Brian Williamson, a 39-year-old accountant who was picking up his children in a minivan, said that crossing the two-way bike lane was hazardous because the cyclists sped and had no red lights.  “I really despise it — it has had a really negative impact on anyone who uses a car,” he said.  


That is partly the point: As a matter of environmental policy, a principal benefit of bike lanes is that they tip the balance of power away from driving and toward a more sustainable form of transportation.  


If this is truly the view of bike-lane proponents, it is very slippery and deceitful argument: We are putting in bike lanes not for their own merits, but as a stalking horse to get rid of an automotive lane!  Not that we loved bicycles less, but that we hated autos more. 


Not that I loved bicycles less … but that I hated autos more! 


Curious, isn’t it, that it takes opposition from within the self-righteous observant herd – from those who ordinarily would be among the biggest boosters – to challenge the proponents’ motives? 


Well, we are superior, you know