The signs are all over town: it’s election time. In two weeks, three new city council members will be voted into office in Mountain View. Knowing that I’m a regular at city hall, friends have been asking me for my opinion on the candidates. It’s not easy to answer. I’m looking for bold leaders who will make our city more comfortable and convenient for people to walk, bike and take transit so that residents and businesses can thrive.
The problem is there’s a certain “Mom & apple pie” aspect to improving biking and walking. All the candidates say they’re for it, but the truth will come out when projects are proposed that require cars to give up street space or require drivers to slow down. Then there’s sticker shock. Some will balk at $10 million for a bike and walking bridge over a freeway, even if three miles of carpool lanes on the freeway below costs $72 million.
When I first started bicycling to work every day four years ago, I had no idea how profoundly it would change my life, and how I saw my city. Over time, my bike became my primary transportation for everything, with Caltrain doing the heavy lifting for longer trips. When you reduce your driving mileage to less than 1,500 miles a year and choose bike routes based on destinations instead of recreation, your point of view changes.
You see that it’s possible to live well with minimal driving, and you see how limited vision and status quo decisions keep people in cars, complaining bitterly about the increased traffic from a booming economy. You see how expensive road “improvements” put people’s lives at risk because they prioritize moving more vehicles at higher speeds, instead of prioritizing moving people. You see how the “build a lane, fill a lane” lessons of induced demand still haven’t been learned 45 years after they were first detailed when I was a little girl.
Unlike many homeowners, I’m not anti-growth. I believe it’s better to build more new housing within our existing cities than build in distant farmland or hills where people will drive long distance to work. I realize that some people will still choose a bigger home with longer commute, but there are far fewer homes available in closer, more walkable neighborhoods than the number of people interested in buying them.
That’s actually the tradeoff we chose 20 years ago when we bought our townhouse. We could have bought a single family home further away but didn’t. We wanted to be able to walk to downtown Mountain View.
My views stand in sharp contrast to many of the more vocal established residents of Mountain View. If you’re among the 40% of residents who owns a home, there’s no fear of being priced out of the rental market and you have little to gain if new housing is built near your home. Growth means your sleepy suburban city starts to look more like an actual city. You might not be able to hop in your car at any time of day, any day of the week, and drive across town on traffic-free streets and park directly in front of the grocery or drug store anymore.
As in most cities, retirement-age residents have the loudest political voice in Mountain View and they’re the most resistant to changes in housing and transportation. Most own their homes, which insulates them from skyrocketing prices in the housing market. In fact, selling their homes at huge profits could be part of their retirement strategies. And unlike their children or grandchildren, few can imagine raising a family in a townhouse and riding a bike or bus to work or to shop. That’s not the American Dream they grew up with.
Given this presumed profile of the voting majority, it’s no surprise that none of the city council candidates publicly espouses all my beliefs. So I’m looking for candidates who are willing to question the status quo and look for productive solutions to the inevitable growth that will preserve our community’s unique value. By that I don’t mean preserving the city’s current look and feel, but rather preserving it as a community of people of all ages, backgrounds and income levels that’s at the center of Silicon Valley. A city that draws new people to the area with its culture of technology and innovation, and generates economic opportunity for all.
I’m looking for candidates who will to listen to a well-reasoned argument and make the right decision, not the popular one. Like Steve Jobs, I believe that people don’t always know what they’ll like until they experience it. Case in point: when the city gave Castro Street a “road diet” 25 years ago, changing it from four lanes to three, there were cries of protest about traffic. What would they say now that Castro Street is a thriving, lovely place to dine and shop? Yes, there is traffic congestion, but there’s also a healthy stream of new revenue for the city.
So with that long preamble, here’s how I see the city council candidates, starting with ones I endorse:
Pat Showalter: I met Showalter 20 years ago when we were both Girl Scout leaders, but I didn’t know her well until we started rubbing elbows at city planning meetings. She impressed me by asking insightful questions and soliciting my opinion. She listens. Most of her biking experience has been on off-street trails, but she went out of her comfort zone to come on neighborhood tour focused on potential bike and walking improvements.
Lenny Siegel: As the founder of Campaign for Balanced Mountain View, Siegel sees lack of housing available to meet jobs growth as a critical issue. Once a strong supporter of rent control, he is now more focused on building housing and moderating office development. Like Showalter, he attended the neighborhood tour (that’s him on the bike behind Pat) and I’ve seen him riding his bike around town, so he sees the issues first hand.
Ken Rosenberg: Rosenberg is a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission who launched the Civility Roundtable series that brings people together to understand and discuss key issues our city faces. He supports a much-needed road diet for California Street to make walking and biking safer in the city’s most dense residential neighborhood. And a friend I trust who has worked with him says he’s a mensch.
Greg Unangst: Unangst is the chair of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, so it’s no surprise that many of his concerns and goals align with mine. Unangst also shares my view that we need to create walk- and bike-friendly “urban villages” beyond downtown, in places like North Bayshore. He is the only candidate who shares my support of bus lanes on El Camino so that rapid transit buses can truly be rapid.
I cannot endorse four candidates. In general, my concern is their limited support for biking, walking and transit and in some cases, anti-growth NIMBY sentiments.
Lisa Matichak: Matichak became involved in city politics after successfully blocking a housing development in 2008 which would have built townhouses on property behind her single family home. That’s textbook NIMBY. Her voting record as a commissioner on the Environmental Planning Commission (EPC) shows her preference for low density development, which she justifies by concerns for increased traffic. She does not share my vision.
Margaret Capriles: Like Matichak, Capriles has cited concerns over increased traffic in voting down higher density in housing and office projects as a commissioner on the EPC. At one meeting, she relayed concerns that some residents of The Crossings, a transit-oriented development, had about Caltrain potentially increasing service to the nearby station. Although the station does not offer car parking, residents were concerned about an increase in bike traffic. My jaw dropped when Capriles expressed she thought it was a legitimate concern.
Jim Neal: I tip my hat to Neal for his perfect attendance at city council and EPC meetings. Often he would speak up for things like building Vegas-style elevated walkways across El Camino, or preserving underutilized street parking, or for not restricting drive-thrus. Then I would speak up for the exact opposite. You’d think I’d have more in common with someone who rides transit instead of driving, but he consistently shows cars-first thinking. Then there was the time he called bikes and trains “19th century transportation solutions.”
Mercedes Salem. Salem is the only candidate I’ve never seen at any city council, EPC, BPAC or other planning meeting. Given I average three such meetings a month, I’m not impressed by her lack of participation. It didn’t help that when she showed up late for a candidate’s forum she blamed driving in rush hour traffic and pledged to fix it. I suspect we have very different ideas on how to improve mobility.
The final candidate, Ellen Kamei, was tough to pin down. While I’ve attended several Environmental Planning Commission (EPC) meetings where she serves as a commissioner, I have not gotten a clear understanding of her perspective. When I received a fear-mongering flyer with headline “San Francisco traffic is coming to Mountain View” and her name and photo, I was disturbed by the focus on cars with no mention of walking, biking or transit. The traffic solution cited was “new technology” and the driverless car.
It turns out the flyer was paid for by the Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition (NEC) of Long Beach, not the Kamei campaign. Ellen is quoted in the Mountain View Voice saying she received the mail from NEC at the same time as Mountain View residents and is not familiar with NEC at all. Putting that aside, I can’t endorse her at this time because I don’t have a clear picture of where she stands and why.
I Walk. I Bike. I Vote has compiled candidate’s responses to a short survey.
Seven of the nine All nine candidates have responded, which tells me Mountain View is taking a hard look at these issues. That’s a great sign. [updated 10/26]
Finally, I’ve never made public endorsements for political candidates before. Like discussions on religion, it’s something that I’m careful about in social settings. But these issues matter. I’m sure I’ll have readers who question my beliefs and my choices. As always, I will accept your comments. Please keep them civil.
Have you decided how you will cast your votes this election season? What do you look for in a candidate? Which issues matter most to you this year?