March 1, 1997

Berkeley City Council

City of Berkeley

2180 Milvia Street

Berkeley, California 94704

Re: Alta Bates Hospital's Emergency Room Expansion


Please excuse Alta Bates's nimby neighbors their shortsighted opposition to this project. The excuses that have been stated publicly fall into three categories: traffic, crime, and noise.

If they are concerned about traffic, where were they while I spent 8 years trying to reduce traffic in the Bay Area, especially by stopping highway construction? Not one of them showed up to help stop the expansion of I-80 through Berkeley. One neighbor complained about the 60,000 additional trips (per year) predicted by Alta Bates, and the 300,000 trips he predicts (800 per day? come on!) to be due to the expansion, but I have never heard anyone complain about the other trips in the neighborhood, such as those generated by Whole Foods, the 250,000 trips per day carried by I-80 (as of 1987 figures), the 60,000 per day that will be added by the 25% expansion of I-80, or their own driving through the neighborhood. How can people who drive cars complain about traffic?

Judging from those who showed up at a neighborhood meeting Wednesday, a large proportion of the neighborhood will eventually need emergency room services. (Strokes and heart attacks are rather common these days.) And where will they go? Kaiser is allegedly closing its emergency room, so Alta Bates is the logical choice. Would they choose to go to a hospital that is far away? I doubt it. So they would drive to Alta Bates (and hope that it has the capacity to take care of them!).

A rational person is forced to conclude that the neighborhood is only concerned about other people's driving, and only that generated by the emergency room. But even if that is a potential problem, there are many ways of solving it without throwing out the baby (medical services) with the bathwater (traffic). If we don't provide parking for the additional traffic, it will have nowhere to go. For example, we could designate the curb lanes as exclusively for emergency vehicles (and perhaps also bicycles, when not needed for an emergency vehicle).

If traffic is a problem (it is!), let's deal with it, and not try to pretend that only certain people's driving (who, coincidentally, happen to be disproportionately poor and minorities) is a problem. In spite of what Caltrans and other elements of the auto/highway lobby say, traffic doesn't obey a third law of physics: it isn't true that "traffic can neither be created nor destroyed". Traffic is very "elastic", and varies tremendously depending on conditions. For example, studies have shown that people suddenly have much less need to drive, when forced to pay for parking.

As for the emergency room expansion causing an increase in crime in the neighborhood, what are we supposed to do? Close all emergency rooms? The claim isn't even logical. It is hard to believe that emergency room patients (or their visiting relatives and friends) would have the energy or inclination to start burglarizing the neighborhood. The truth is, crime is caused not by emergency rooms, but by people. Whatever attracts the most people creates the most crime. So should we close Whole Foods? Crime is not restricted to poor and minorities. Judging from the newspaper reports I have seen of Blackhawk (a community for millionaires next to Mt. Diablo), they have just as serious a crime problem (e.g. a Jaguar dealer selling cocaine) as other communities. (After all, do you think people get to be rich by following the Golden Rule?)

What about the noise from the sirens? Ambulances do not need to use sirens, and often refrain from using them because they have a bad effect on some of their patients. They are only needed when other traffic may impede the ambulance or they have to go through a red light. A simple device (called a "signal override") is available to allow an ambulance to change the light to green. It is used in some cities to favor public transit. As to the traffic impeding ambulance travel, that can be solved by reducing traffic (which, as I said, we need to do anyway!) and by giving the ambulance its own lane.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.