By Douglas Moran
Amnesia at City HallUploaded: Jun 14, 2016
A repeated theme of this blog has been the persistent problems with public participation and input, from major policy decisions down to the practical details that determine whether the implementation of a project will be successful.(foot#1) This problem was raised by several City Council candidates in 2014, but the immediacy of specific issues tend to preempt abstract/process/meta issues. Maybe in the upcoming campaign (hope springs eternal). I was provoked into revisiting this by a minor project in my neighborhood that illustrates how the organizational culture within City Hall creates unnecessary controversy and rancor.
A key attributes of bureaucracies is generating and archiving documents, and those documents are an important part of the "corporate memory" because they persist through turnover in personnel. However, City Hall's approach to documentation emphasizes advocacy for the Staff recommendations over documenting the decision process. Consequently, much of the important and useful information is not preserved, resulting in "corporate amnesia" instead of "corporate memory".
A proper documentation of a decision would include a description of the stakeholder groups, and their interests and concerns. It would list the individuals who were deeply involved so that they can be consulted should the decision need to be revisited. And it would list the tradeoffs considered and made because those can shift over time. That's what should happen, but what actually happens?
The example project is to remove a "maze" (chicane) on the bike path just before it cross Matadero Avenue. The two sets of pipes (Google Street View) have multiple important roles, including slowing down bicyclists (tight turns) to improve safety for pedestrians and for bicyclists themselves.(foot#2) These issues were prominently raised in the previous iteration of this issue--in 2011 under the previous Chief Transportation Official (Jaime Rodriguez)--but apparently didn't make it into City Hall's records (but are in my email archives). And there were iterations before that.
Unaware of this history and the multiple stakeholder groups, the new Chief Transportation Official based his decision to remove the maze based upon guidelines for generic bike paths: The maze was inconvenient for several small classes of bicyclists.(foot#3) If you want to infuriate people, tell them that the convenience of the few takes precedence over the safety of the many.
Similarly, the public outreach consulted only advocates for some of the segments of the bicycle community.(foot#4) Whether this was intentional or lack of awareness, it created a volatile situation where the stakeholder groups that weren't consulted now have to fight to get the decision changed to include their concerns.
The next phase in such situations is for those who made the decision to defend it, rather than acknowledge the deficiencies in both the process and the decision itself. This is closely related to "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up." Rationalizations that aren't credible reasons can be seen as insults. For example, misuse of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). This was a component in my very first entry in this blog.(foot#5) In the current case, the claim is that the maze fails to meet current guidelines for wheelchairs. When the current maze was installed in the late 1990s, generous clearances were provided. And the claim is based upon an interpretation of the guidelines, not actual difficulties. Similarly, the claim is made that the maze presents a hazard for the visually impaired. Again, questionable interpretation of guidelines, not actual experience or analysis. Even if there actually is a problem, wouldn't a better solution be to improve the visibility of the maze, rather than remove it.
In attempting to avoiding having to reverse itself, Staff rejects the contrary experiences being reported by residents. They may not mean to imply that residents are delusional, possibly even liars, but that is how it can be taken. Similarly, telling residents that their priorities--such as safety--are unimportant or irrelevant is sure to inflame passions.(foot#6)
Yet another insult from Staff to residents is to tell them that should it turn out that Staff was wrong and residents were right, it will be easy to fix the project. In Palo Alto, a fix done in less than 5 years can be regarded as instantaneous. It is not that uncommon for a fix that is high priority, simple and relatively inexpensive to take 10, even 15, years (personal experience). If it is an offhanded remark from a new Staff member, it may simply be obliviousness, but it can easily be taken as mockery.
----Short-term memory failures: An example----
Corporate memory failures don't occur only in iterations years apart, but between the meetings for an individual decision. Important information from the public outreach sessions routinely fails to make it into the subsequent Staff considerations, reports and recommendations. For example, in on-site meetings with Staff about the placement of an emergency water pump on Matadero Avenue residents forcefully highlighted the need to leave space for pedestrians. Despite this, City Hall located the facility so close to the street that pedestrians are forced to walk in the gutter, if not the street itself. And this in a blind S-curve. So how did Staff come to forget about the day-to-day safety of residents? They got consumed by federal guidelines designed to prevent terrorist attacks on major facilities, and blindly applied them to this insignificant facility.(foot#7)
----Change needs to come from City Council----
The long-established culture of Staff engaging in advocacy for their recommendations is at the core of City Hall's current contentious decision-making process. The only way I see this changing is for Council to reject the status quo and instead have Staff Reports better document the decision process. Forcing Staff to better consult the various stakeholder groups and fairly treat their concerns and priorities at the early stages of the decision process would do much to improve the deliberations by Council.
I have been flailing away at this for years, so it would be useful for others add their accounts, and to make Council members, and candidates, aware of the view from the trenches.
Follow-on to this blog: "Abusing the ADA & Compromising safety of others for the convenience of bicyclists" (2016-07-11).
1. Some of those earlier blog entries:
"Why not 'constructive engagement'with City Hall?" (2014-10-23)
"Die, Pedestrians, Die: The City's implicit response to major long-term safety problems" (2014-02-18).
"Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to" (2013 December 3-6): Parts 1, 2, and 3.
2. The primary safety issues: If you want a sense of why it is useful to document rather than to recreated each time you revisit the issue, the details are:
For bicyclists: The intersection has deceptively poor visibility. Paralleling the bike path (to the south), there is a low ridge created by the flood control tunnel that provides enough visual clutter and obstructions that bicyclists and motorists approaching the intersection don't register with each other.
For bicyclists: Bicyclists don't anticipate vehicular traffic crossing the bike path from the north: The neighborhood to the south is small (map), and the streets to the north are major neighborhood streets, with most of the vehicular traffic turning between them. Additionally, visibility between these streets and the bike path is often reduced by parked vehicles of people visiting Bol Park, many of which are tall (SUVs and vans).
For pedestrians: There is a long history of conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians in the segment that runs adjacent to Bol Park: A significant fraction of bicyclists believe that it is incumbent on pedestrians to be aware of their approach and to get out of their way. Many bicyclists overtaking pedestrians give them no warning, and for those that do, it is a verbal warning that comes too late to be useful and sometimes causes the pedestrian to step into the path of the bicyclist. As for bikes having bells, it has been years since I heard one (other than on my own bike). The northbound direction on the path is more of a problem because it is downhill, encouraging speeding. To avoid the bicyclists, many pedestrians take the alternate path (along the creek), but this is not a good option during the rainy season because it is more than a decade overdue for maintenance.
For families visiting Bol Park: The parking strip along the bike path is heavily used by families visiting Bol Park on weekends because there is so little parking immediately in front of the park. I too often see bicyclists making too little accommodation for families with small children getting in and out of their cars. Without the maze to slow bikes in this segment, things would be much worse.
For families visiting the Barron Park Donkeys: Families with small children use this path to get to the donkeys' pasture (map). Distressingly often I see parents herding their children fully off the path when they see an approaching bicyclist, instructing their children to not expect the bicyclist to accommodate their presence. Although this segment is unaffected by the maze, it is predictive of what would happened in the segment near the maze if it were removed.
3. Maze inconvenient for small classes of bicyclists:
Bike trailers: It is a significant problem for trailers. In the previous iterations, we tried to find ways to have the maze accommodate trailers without defeating its other functions, but were unsuccessful. There seemed to be a viable alternative of providing an alternate path around the maze, but this was vetoed by the bicycle advocates on ideological grounds: A detour, no matter how trivial, undercut the primacy of bicyclists.
Less skilled bicyclists: While most bicyclists can maneuver through the maze, some bicyclists have problems making sharp turns at low speeds. Most of these use the bars of the maze to help their balance (an explicit design feature), and a very few dismount. Bicycle advocates argue that this brief inconvenience for this small group (somehow) has a significant impact in discouraging bicycle use.
4. The "outreach" was to the grievously misnamed "Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee" (PABAC, pronounced "payback"). It is an advocacy group, not an advisory one, the difference being that the latter has a broader perspective and will raise the various tradeoffs.
5. Misuse of the ADA: component of "Librarians Against Books: Subverting the will of the electorate", 2013-10-07.
6. One of the reasons for the original installation of the original version of the maze (in the 1980s) was to exclude motorcycles, which were racing along the path. Staff's position, based on the generic guidelines, is that providing convenient access for bikes with trailers is so important that the motorcycle problem must be tolerated (police enforcement is impractical).
7. Outlined in the latter part of my blog entry Die, Pedestrians, Die: ... (mentioned in a previous footnote), starting in the sixth paragraph from the end ("A much bigger similar screw-up...").
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.
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