Towards Carfree Cities: Treasure Island as case study

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Could Treasure Island go carfree? That was the intriguing question that Gus Yates, president of the Berkeley-based nonprofit Carfree City USA, posed during a thought-provoking presentation he gave last week at the Towards Carfree Cities conference in Portland.

The question goes to the heart of whether U.S. cities are prepared to take more than baby steps toward reducing automobile dependence. Treasure Island, which is being redesigned almost from scratch, is close to the urban core and faces significant challenges to accommodating thousands of new motorists. If not there, where?

The question wasn’t simply an abstract exercise, but a serious proposal that Yates formally presented last year to Kheay Loke, senior project manager with Wilson Meany Sullivan, the lead developer for Treasure Island, which is proposed to include about 6,000 new housing units.

The compelling arguments that Yates makes – and the reasons that Loke offered for turning Yates down – shows how, in the minds of current decision-makers, capitalist imperatives still trump the need to seriously wrestle with global warming, traffic congestion, declining public health, and other byproducts of automobile reliance.

Yates gives the developers credit for a car-light project with significant open space: “What the developers are proposing is remarkably progressive for the mainstream.”

Future Treasure Island residents will be encouraged to use an expanded ferry service to travel into San Francisco and the parking spaces will be clustered into lots away from the houses, although plans still call for about one car per housing unit.

“This is pretty good, but with a little nudge we could get them to go carfree,” said Yates, who worked with urban planners to develop a detailed proposal for making Treasure Island carfree.

To convince them, Yates relied on concepts that for-profit developers could relate to. He showed them how elimination of most of the parking garages and creation of narrower, more livable streets would open up about 40 more acres for housing. That means more profits. And he tried to demonstrate there was a market for a carfree community by citing U.S. Census data showing that 29 percent of San Francisco households are already carfree.

“We thought, with all that, how could they say no,” Yates said at the conference.

Loke complimented Yates on his forward-thinking proposal and agreed that eventually something like that might work on Treasure Island. “The market is going in your direction,” Yates said Loke told him, “but it’s not there yet.”

The bottom line, Yates said Loke told him, is that: “You can’t sell an $800,000 condominium without a parking space.”

When the Guardian reached Loke, he confirmed the meeting took place and the substance of the comments Yates attributed to him. “I do agree that people are getting more and more conscience of the impact of cars,” Loke told us. “People, particularly in the Bay Area, will be driving less and less.”

Yet he said people buying the kinds of expensive homes that will make this project pencil out expect to have parking for their cars. “For the resale value of the home, it’s important that you can offer access to a parking space,” Loke told us.

“I live in the suburbs and everybody owns a car,” Loke said. “I own two, but I usually take BART to work.”

And because that’s the reality today, planners and developers assume that will be the reality facing all of the projects being developed now. Eventually, carfree communities might have strong market appeal. “I don’t think we’re going to get there in 15 years,” Loke said, referring to the developers’ timeline for marketing the condominiums that they’re building.

Yet given current projections of U.S. cities having to accommodate about 100 million new residents over the next 35 years, as conference keynote speaker Gil Penalosa said, it’s imperative for city officials today to begin thinking about the realities of tomorrow’s cities.

“What kind of cities are we going to build?” he asked. “How do we want to live?”