Moving Arguments: How NIMBYs impact the urban mobility debate

by Jeff Mackey

Moving Arguments is a new series that looks at common arguments for and against transit investment and explores what they say about Canada’s relationship with the urban mobility industry.

The idea of transit infrastructure investment receives wide support from Canadians, especially those in urban areas. But the reality of transit infrastructure investment—especially where it will be built—can be much more contentious and can sometimes even prevent a transit project altogether. These discussions can be seen currently in the Toronto’s King St. Transit Pilot or London’s Anti-BRT Groups.

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This type of Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) opposition to transit projects is all too common not just in Canada, but around the world. Frankly, the trend is an understandable reaction to upheaval in a community caused by changes big and small. Transit investments, especially major ones, reconfigure traffic, they sometimes need to appropriate property or reduce parking availability, they can also be loud or change a neighborhood’s look and feel.

(NIMBYs should not be confused with YIMBYs, or Yes In My Back Yard groups who enthusiastically want more infrastructure investment—especially transit—in their neighborhoods.)

The phrase NIMBY came into use in the 1980’s and it has come to represent the often-intense opposition by community groups to planned infrastructure projects. These groups usually are not opposed to the intention behind a project, for example better transit service, as much as the project’s location in their community/backyard. This is by no means limited to transit investments, a classic example would be homeless shelters and transitional housing projects, while many people support the idea of improved housing for vulnerable populations, the building of these facilities in their neighborhoods is often very contentious.

People in a community about to undergo change due to a planned infrastructure investment, especially home and business owners concerned with the value of their property, are rightly interested in what effect these changes will have and, given enough opposition, these individuals often organize against a specific project. This type of community activism isn’t wholly bad. For example, the vast majority of urbanists now agree that Jane Jacobs’ NIMBY-style movement and protests against the destruction of older, mixed-use urban neighborhoods in the 1950’s and 1960’s was very prescient. Urban communities were being uprooted to allow for the construction of highways and mega-plazas, and Jacobs’ fight was not only a critical to the preservation of urban communities, but also for the livability of cities across the continent.

But most NIMBY protests against infrastructure projects don’t follow in the tradition of Jane Jacobs, especially those in opposition to integrated urban mobility improvements and compact, transit-oriented urban design.

“In San Francisco, a city facing a severe housing shortage, an environmental lawsuit halted the building of bike lanes for five years, claiming that they would slow car traffic and increase air pollution. A church in Washington, D.C., claimed that the traffic and parking impact of proposed bike lanes would infringe on the congregation’s religious liberties. Local neighbors decry attempts to redesign streets that they claim upset neighborhoods’ historical character, make streets less safe or prevent people from reaching their stores or homes,” wrote Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow for City Lab. “The impact of this NIMBYism doesn’t end with a defeated apartment building or bike lane. Opposing dense, accessible neighborhoods pushes residential development into ever-expanding suburbs and shrinking greenbelts around cities.”

This project-specific approach to infrastructure opposition uses the language of modern urbanism to cloak regressive urban policies and individual interest. When this type of opposition gathers vocal support, and can effectively bend the ears of politicians, it can be very potent. Ultimately it leads to poorer urban design, under-investment in transit systems, continued urban sprawl and less livable urban communities.

Transit systems and municipalities take public consultations very seriously at every stage of a project. Once a project has been selected as worthy of investment, the planners then figure out how to build it efficiently, cost effectively and in a manner that will maximize the project’s value for the entire service area. Their priority is the entire project, which is generally very complex, and as such they may miss some of the street-level impacts of their decisions, in instances such as these community groups and public consultations can improve a project greatly by informing the planners of street-level factors they did not fully understand.

But other times community groups have trouble seeing the forest for the trees—they are hyper-focused on a specific facet of the project because it affects them personally. While there is always some room for changes to a project plan, at a certain point changes will cost too much for too little benefit or will undermine the value of the project’s entire business case.

Judging the merits of a given transit project requires one to think collectively and to not overly focus on hyper-localized controversial impacts of a project. Community groups tend to fixate on the negative aspects of a project, residents should try to also consider the benefits of a project. For example, living in closer proximity to transit often means improved property values, more foot traffic in a neighborhood and, crucially, better transit service for the community.

Community activism is a powerful tool, but if Canadians want to see game-changing urban mobility projects in our cities, then advocates must organize with the same intensity and courage of conviction as NIMBY groups—or their message will be drowned out by them.


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