Abusing the ADA & Compromising safety of others for the convenience of bicyclists | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

Abusing the ADA & Compromising safety of others for the convenience of bicyclists

Uploaded: Jul 11, 2016

False claims about ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)? Unsupported claims about bicycle safety problems? Merely City Hall's rationales for a dubious project that compromises the safety of pedestrians, including small children. Both the ADA community and bicyclists should be outraged at this: Recall Aesop's Fable of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf".

This blog is a successor to my early blog "Amnesia at City Hall" (2016-06-14). That blog presented an example of City Hall making a bad decision on a small project because it was unaware of important stakeholders and their issues and the local circumstances at the site. While City Hall was unaware, that was irrelevant: There was only one priority--removing a trivial inconvenience for bicyclists--and thus the only relevant stakeholder group were bicyclists. This even after being made aware that the change would likely be compromising the safety of pedestrian and bicyclists themselves.

The specific details are unnecessary to the discussion here, but if interested, many of them are in the earlier blog (mostly in footnotes). Briefly, the project being used as an example here is a maze/chicanes at the bike/pedestrian path crossing of Matadero Avenue near Laguna. It has multiple purposes, including:
- Slow bicyclists down so that they can see-and-be-seen.
- Slow bicyclists down in a segment where there are many conflicts with small children being brought to the park (Bol Park).
- Exclude motorcycles--this path is a potential route from the Research Park to Foothill Expressway.


City Hall's initial rationalization for removing the chicanes was "The existing condition does not meet current design standards and places the city in a precarious position regarding ADA regulations and safety." (Josh Mello, Chief Transportation Official). The primary claim was that the chicanes were too narrow for wheelchairs, which was dubious because when the chicanes were updated in the mid-1990s, accommodating wheelchairs was part of the design.(foot#1) Unsurprisingly, when actual measurements were made, this claim was false. The secondary claim was that the chicanes were "a barrier for visually-impaired pedestrians", but the only section of the cited regulations that seemed relevant was that the chicane didn't have a ground-level bumper for people using canes. Since this deficiency could have been solved with a trivial addition during the intervening two decades, this rationale for removing the chicanes has zero credibility.

In the years I have been involved in Palo Alto politics, I have become accustomed to City Hall abusing the ADA in a variety of manners. My first posting to the blog included City Hall making false claims about the ADA requiring the design they preferred ("Librarians Against Books: Subverting the will of the electorate", 2013-10-07). But I also have multiple encounters where projects that could have substantial benefits for the disabled were thwarted by demands for perfection under the ADA.(foot#2)

So why the misrepresentations of the ADA? Does City Hall hope to bamboozle residents? Could they really believe that Palo Altans wouldn't check? Or could it be that they don't take the law seriously enough to check and get it right? Recognize that there are two big categories of mistakes. First, claiming that something is required when it is not, which is an even bigger mistake when it isn't even useful. Second, failing to include features that are both required and useful.

----Bicyclists vs. pedestrians----

After City Hall's decision became public, a committee of the Barron Park (Neighborhood) Association (BPA) held several meetings with Chief Transportation Official Mello and then with Director of Planning Hillary Gitelman. They attempted to explain the local circumstances, but it was an exercise in futility.

Part of Staff's response involved treating guidelines as if they were requirements. Guidelines are given relative to the generic or typical case, and presume that the planner/bureaucrat will have the necessary skills and diligence to adapt them to specific circumstances. Guidelines do have real value by producing consistency both in the generic cases and in the core of what is done for specific circumstances.(foot#3)

Bicyclists should worry about what is being done in their name--"Silence implies consent" will influence how many perceive the attitudes of bicyclists in general toward the rest of the community.(foot#4) This is yet another instance of City Hall taking the policy of promoting bicycling to absurd extremes. In this case, it is a trivial inconvenience that requires the typical bicyclist to slow to a speed slightly faster than that of a healthy pedestrian in two stretches of roughly 20 feet each. Furthermore, this is only slightly less than the appropriate speed for bicyclists in the larger segment (roughly 500 feet) of a shared bike and pedestrian path. This shared path is heavily used by pedestrians, from parents taking small children to the park up to seniors walking for exercise. A long-standing problem has been that of a significant fraction of bicyclists passing pedestrians too fast, too close and with too little warning (if any). This is common enough that various seniors with mobility and hearing deficiencies have reported cutting-back or giving up on using this path as being too dangerous. So what is City Hall's assessment of the situation: Bicyclists should be enabled to go faster--the inconvenience of going at a slower speed in this segment is discouraging people from bicycling. (Potential motto: "Show us a problem and we will make it worse.")

How little City Hall cares for the safety of pedestrians can be seen in their low regard for the issues raised. For example, after the ADA rationale was abandoned, the rationale for removing the current chicanes was that they slowed down bicyclists. Yet in response to the concerns about speeding bicyclists, City Hall claimed that the replacement would slow down bicyclists. Except that it won't: It will be a thin island with bollards (vertical pipes) whose purpose is to block large vehicles (such as cars). I have ridden through similar setups many times without the slightest decrease in speed.

City Hall claims the chicanes need to be immediately replaced because they don't meet guidelines. But it also acknowledges that the bike/pedestrian path doesn't meet the guidelines for a shared path. However, they have not yet even approved a schedule to start a process to plan improvements to the path. For City Hall, cutting a few seconds off the travel time of bicyclists requires immediate action which includes degrading the safety of pedestrians. Improving the safety for pedestrians? That can wait for years and years.(foot#5)

As to rejecting residents concerns about motorcycles using the path? First, City Hall used the logic of the five Republican hacks on the Supreme Court in "Shelby County v. Holder" (2013) where they invalidated portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the grounds that since it had been effective in blocking states from suppressing voting of minorities that it was no longer needed (which several of those states promptly disproved--surprise, surprise). City Hall made the similar argument: Since there wasn't currently a problem with motorcycles on the path, the barriers for keeping motorcycles off the path could be removed.

Second, City Hall engaged in the classic misrepresentation tactic of addressing a minor aspect of the issue as if that answered the whole. Way back when the barriers were installed, there were two parts of the problem. The lesser one was that the fields adjacent to the path were a destination for dirt bikers. The larger one was it being used by commuters on motorcycles (Research Park to Foothill Expressway). If the problem was only the former--motorcycles going into the park--why would there be a chicane on the segment between the park and the Research Park (Matadero to Hanover)?

Planning Director Gitelman stated (email) "We are also committed to closely monitoring the situation and implementing other improvements as needed,..." but how credible is this. The initial decision was made without seeking input from the community, and then confirmed in a manner that indicated that the input that was forced upon them was ignored. Smacks of "This time you can trust us!"

The argument that the current chicanes are "dangerous" or "hazardous" has repeatedly been made by those advocating their removal. Yet, when I ask for an explanation, none has ever been forthcoming. Nor can I figure out what it would be: I ride through the chicanes and I have watched many, many, many others ride through them. As I opened with, it seems to be "crying wolf!!!"

So what is the message in City Hall feeling it doesn't need to come up with a rationale that doesn't hold up to even a basic examination? On the larger stage--of the US Presidential Primaries and Brexit (British Exit from the EU) ...--the elites are throwing hissy fits, unable or unwilling to figure out what caused them to be rejected. Palo Alto bicyclists need to be concerned about the power-tripping of those that claim to speak for them: Projects that produce trivial benefit for certain cyclists to the large detriment to the larger community will inevitably produce a large backlash.

1. The path is part of the route used by patients at the VA Hospital to get to El Camino and beyond.

2. "The perfect is the enemy of the good-enough", ADA-version: During renovation of a park, I pointed out some improvements that would have benefited many, including people with mobility issues. One-for-one replacement didn't require ADA review, but any additions would trigger it. The path to the potential improvements was judged to be not fully ADA-compliant: After a period of heavy rains, it might be too muddy to be accessible to people in wheelchairs. Since there was no budget for a major upgrade to the path, the potential improvements were precluded. So why it is better to not have a facility,at all than to not have access to it a few foul-weather days per year? The legal/bureaucrat logic is that the risk (to the official) of their judgment being questioned far outweighs the benefits to the public. This is a generic part of governmental culture--imposed by lawyers.
Another example was my futile attempts to provide improved access for patients at the VA Hospital to the nearby parks and open space. Part of my earlier blog "Why not 'constructive engagement'with City Hall?" Note: the back entrance cited has since been moved to a better location as a side-effect of construction.

3. Life lesson on documentation/training materials: Historical examples have been frequent Asides in this blog. For example, certain categories of military history books provide better management case studies than mass market management books. In one book's discussion of the advantages of the German army in the World Wars, especially the opening days, the superiority of their Field Manuals was cited, with the explanation that those manuals provided good-enough solutions to common situations to keep quickly trained junior officers and sergeants alive long enough to develop their own judgment. (Aside: Some other militaries learned this lesson, and the US military was cited as one of the most successful in implementing its own version). Guidelines, Standard Operating Procedures... have analogous roles.
Earlier blog with discussion of the value of learning history: "In search of better formulated questions on school policy: part 2" (2015-05-08).

4. Earlier blog on this problem: "The Palo Alto Bicycle Lobby: Impeding more and safer bicycling?", 2014-03-16.
Another example where City Hall ignored pedestrian safety concerns within what was supposed to be a bike and pedestrian project: "Die, Pedestrians, Die: The City's implicit response to major long-term safety problems", 2014-02-18.

5. "years and years" for safety improvements: Getting traffic calming (speed humps) on a major bicycle route took roughly 15 years from when it was designated a "priority", and two more years for the pedestrian safety component that had been omitted when the project was finally installed.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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