Commentary: Nishi Good or Bad for Overall Environment?


Most of the discussion on Nishi and the environment has focused on the issue of air quality at the Nishi site itself.  On this point, I continue to maintain that the concerns over air quality at the site are overstated and there is an absence of evidence that there are any health-related impacts from living at east Olive Drive, despite the very similar geographic layout and topography.

However, I have also seen arguments related to increased downtown traffic congestion, that some critics of the project argue would lead to a deterioration of air quality in the core area of Davis.

Certainly as UC Davis grows there will be more people in and around campus – that is inevitable.  But good land use policies can mitigate some of that impact.

The university is announcing that there will be an additional 8500 beds on campus.  The city has approved somewhere around 4000 beds between Sterling, Lincoln40 – and assuming Nishi’s 2200 beds are built.  (As an aside, some have pointed out that recent discussions by the council seem to assume those 2200 beds, but Nishi is by no means a certainty to pass.)

One of the prime reasons that Nishi 1.0 failed was that many in the community believed it would add to the traffic congestion along Richards Boulevard and some believed that the traffic analysis was inadequate.  Here I will not re-hash those past arguments as they are largely irrelevant to the question before us today, but I will point out that the major advantage that Nishi 1.0 had was pumping about $10 million into a roadway bypass to lead traffic directly from the freeway off-ramp to campus without driving under the Richards Tunnel and cutting down 1st St.

Nevertheless, Nishi 2.0 sought to avoid the question of Richards Blvd. altogether by bypassing it and creating university-only access.

Some have argued that there needs to be a traffic study in order to assess the impact on Old Davis Road.  I would argue that this is probably unnecessary.  Old Davis Road is impacted during peak hours of traffic for the university.  However, it is unlikely that Nishi, even with its 700 parking spaces, is going to really make a huge dent into that.

Why do I argue that?

We have data.  The university travel survey most recently sampled 767 people out of a projected population of over 10,000 people that live within a mile of campus.  The results are rather stark.  Of those traveling to campus, three-quarters of them will bike while another 17 percent will walk.  Just 4 percent will take the bus – a bus that will now have a path through Nishi onto campus – while only 2.2 percent will either drive alone or carpool.

The bottom line is that if you are worried about traffic on Richards, if you are worried about traffic on Old Davis Road, and if you are worried about traffic into the downtown, the best thing you can do is put more people living close to campus who can walk or bike to those locations.

In fact, I would argue that building student housing on campus, at Nishi, at Lincoln40 on Olive Drive and yes, even building student housing at Sterling, will alleviate rather than exacerbate traffic issues.

Observe that those living at Sterling, for example, are still basically only a mile and a half from campus.  The campus survey is pretty clear once again – if they live within three miles of campus, 52 percent still bike to campus and another 30 percent take the bus.  Just 15 percent either drive alone or carpool.

This is based on 1700 people surveyed.  And it makes sense.  Parking is not only expensive but it is a problem for students to find parking.  One of the students who spoke in favor of one of the projects pointed out that many students who have to drive to campus have trouble finding parking and sometimes it causes them to be late for class or taking tests.

Between the cost of gas, the cost of maintenance for cars and the cost for parking and the time it takes to park and walk, it turns out to be much quicker to bike or take the bus.  Plus it is cheaper.  That is why bike ridership and bus ridership is so high for people living in town.

What you want to avoid are people living outside of town.  The script flips in those cases.  While the sample dips in terms of sample size, it is pretty clear even with the 500 or so surveyed that once you live outside of Davis, you are going to drive – 75 to 80 percent of those living outside of five miles from campus drive alone, with another 7.6 to 13.7 percent carpooling.  Biking is almost non-existent and bus ridership falls below 10 percent.  For those living 20 miles outside of town, the train is viable, but only 10 percent use it.

Most people who live outside of town, drive.  And that adds thousands of vehicles to our roadways and leads to the traffic congestion at Richards Blvd. as people drive from I-80 and enter campus via the Richards Tunnel.

The other phenomenon is that of the 28,000 people or so who are employed in the area, nearly three-quarters of them live outside of the area.  So they are having to commute from out of town and come into town.  (That is exacerbated by the fact that of the people who live in the area and work, nearly 70 percent work outside of the area).

So those who are concerned about air pollution may want to look at these statistics.  The first set of statistics demonstrates that, by living near campus, you can reduce the VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and the mode share devoted to driving automobiles.  The second suggests that most people – in increasingly greater numbers – have to commute to work in Davis from out of town and, therefore, if you can provide them with housing near their work, there is a chance to reduce the number of cars.

Those who believe that adding more people, either on campus or near campus, will negatively impact air quality downtown need to more closely examine these studies that potentially show otherwise.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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7 thoughts on “Commentary: Nishi Good or Bad for Overall Environment?”

  1. Don Shor

    Some have argued that there needs to be a traffic study in order to assess the impact on Old Davis Road. 

    Why should anybody care if there is an increase in traffic on Old Davis Rd.? It’s an internal campus road for the most part. I assume they aren’t concerned about the traffic impact on the portion that goes south into Solano County farmland. This is like being worried about increased traffic on Hutchison. It is a fabricated concern.

      1. Howard P

        Shhh!  Don’t give away the fact that there will not only be a “Spaghetti Factory” in Davis soon, but a regional planting of the ingrediants, and a zero-net energy processing facility… farm to fork!

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