What did we learn on our field trip?

What did we learn on our field trip?
Source: https://dcmp.org/series/4-the-magic-school-bus

Alameda City Council took its "field trip" to Tilden Way and Blanding Ave. I got to attend, and will share a few thoughts while it's fresh.

Who shows up on a weekday at noon?

Perhaps 20 - 40 members of the public attended. The crowd was somewhat older than the average Alameda resident and significantly whiter than the average Alameda resident.

Everyone should be welcome to be involved in public planning processes — including everyone who showed up today. But we need to be mindful of everyone who wasn't there. This was a sample of the Alameda population who can and do attend public events at noon on a week day — by definition, that is not a representative sample

For what it's worth, I am white and am just a hair shy of the median age in Alameda. My office is also just a few blocks away from this site. My kids are also at school today, without (knock on wood) any drippy noses. So the stars aligned for me to attend in person. Maybe another weekday I would not have been able to attend.

The good news is that the extended planning process for this project has already included synchronous forums at other days/times, as well as a variety of asynchronous means of public engagement.

What was said?

Attendees were welcome to give public comments, with up to 3 minutes of speaking time per person. I won't summarize the public comments because I think it is fair to say that all of the comments made today have been made at previous forums on this project. In some cases, it's the exact same person making the exact same comment.

This isn't necessarily bad — again, there are benefits to extended planning processes — but is perhaps a sign that most of the ground has been covered and this project is ready to be finalized.

What wasn't happening this afternoon?

Now to the downsides of extending the planning process for this project.

The city has limited resources. I counted many city staffers from Planning, Transportation, and Public Works in attendance. That's in addition to the City Manager (the executive officer who oversees all city staff and operations). For every hour they are involved in the Tilden/Blanding/Clement project, that is an hour they are not involved in safety improvements, maintenance, grantwriting, and other projects elsewhere around the city. The consultants are also paid to be there — that is money that isn't going toward other aspects of the project.

The Mayor and City Councilmembers also have limited resources in that they are only compensated for a small amount of their time. The councilmember who holds down a full-time job and is parent to two kids was not in attendance. It's great that the other four members were able to join today, but it's still worth pointing out that by attending this event they were probably not attending other events or meeting with constituents on other topics.

Some of the funding for this project also has deadlines. The same is true of other transportation projects around the city. That's not a reason to skip over genuine public engagement — but it does mean that the city has to be mindful of the overall project timeline. For the project to succeed — in whatever form — it needs to stay on track to meet those deadlines.

Let me emphasize this point again: The majority of funding for these transportation improvements comes from the county, the state, and the federal government. Much of it is not out of City of Alameda general funds. That's great! One of the constraints that does come with these funding sources is that there are stricter timelines. So, if you want to say that you are for fiscal responsibility, you should also help support the city and its staff to work at an expeditious rate to secure and use these outside grant funds.

While attendees were gathered for this on-site meeting today, city staff weren't working on other projects, electeds weren't focusing on other priorities, and the clock continues to tick on the project timeline.

Who cares?

The Alameda Sun recently featured two "open letters" that appeared back to back and offer an informative contrast:

The first "open letter" is from the Alameda Citizens Task Force Board of Directors:

Dear City Manager Ott, City Attorney Shen, City Clerk Weisiger & Mayor Ashcraft:

We understand that the City Manager is responsible for the content of the agenda with the assistance of the City Attorney, City Clerk and Mayor. We believe that the Clement Avenue/Tilden Way Redesign Project has been improperly placed on the consent calendar and should be moved to the regular agenda well in advance of the meeting so that it can be noticed to the public as soon as possible. We also believe that Section 4 of the City Council Rules of Order needs to be amended.
Open Letter to City Manager Et. Al.

The letter continues on at length. It's also available in the Council agenda packet if you want to see it on ACT's letterhead.

It's worth one minute to point out what this letter isn't about: It isn't about Alameda's Housing Element. Maybe ACT will someday raise sufficient funds to sue the City of Alameda. For now they have apparently moved on to opposing smaller newer targets, such as the timing and process for final adoption of this particular transportation improvement project. This squares with my original framing of this blog: The folks involved in ACT believe in opposing any and all change. They apparently get their local relevance and their power by saying "no."

The second "open letter" is from five homeowners associations in Bay Farm. This letter I will copy-and-paste in full:

The western half of Mecartney Road bisects the most densely populated neighborhoods in Bay Farm. Last month, we experienced yet another horrific auto/pedestrian accident which took the life of one of our elderly neighbors (“https://alamedasun.com/news/pedestrian-struck-motorist-diess,” Feb. 10). This fatality at Baywalk and Marcuse on Mecartney follows a preschooler being run over in the company of his family while crossing Mecartney at Fontana and Baywood, and an earlier fatality of an elderly woman crossing Mecartney at Verdemar and Ironwood.

We neighbors have believed for some time that pedestrian safety at these three intersections needed significant improvement. There are four-way stop signs at both Island Drive, and at Aughinbaugh Way. But except for the flashing pedestrian lights at Belmont Place, the other three intersections have no traffic controls in the East-West direction.

Within memory, a Costa Brava president and a CHBIOA president had unsuccessfully requested that traffic engineers address the on-going danger to pedestrians. A pair of non-flashing pedestrian crossing signs were installed at Verdemar following the fatality there. Traffic engineers later added a north side parking lane and a bike lane. (Engineers explained this latter adjustment was designed to narrow driver’s lane perception and slow speedy drivers).

Last year, at two well attended Alameda Police Department (APD) Beat meetings for Beats 33 and 34, neighbors requested enforcement of the speed limit on Mecartney, especially during ferry commute hours. APD has been observed routinely enforcing the speed limit on Mecartney since then.

These three accidents have all occurred in daytime under clear, dry conditions, with the pedestrians attempting to cross in a North-to-South (N-S) direction. Crossing curb to curb at Fontana and Baywood is a 107-foot distance, the equivalent of crossing more than eight lanes of traffic. This intersection has one marked N-S crosswalk and no pedestrian crossing traffic signs.

Crossing curb to curb at Baywalk and Marcuse is 88 feet the equivalent of crossing seven lanes of traffic. This intersection has no marked crosswalks nor pedestrian crossing traffic signs. There are two bus stops at this location.

Crossing curb to curb at Verdemar and Ironwood is 102 feet (equivalent to crossing more than eight lanes of traffic). This intersection has one N-S marked crosswalk and a pair of non-flashing pedestrian crossing traffic signs. There are two bus stops at this location.

Crossing Mecartney at these three consecutive intersections is not just dangerous for the elderly, but the young, who have to dodge cars to catch the bus to school. No pedestrian should have to possess track skills to be able to cross safely. And at night, crossing on foot in the dark is truly a life-threatening experience.

We represent the five homeowner associations that straddle this section of Mecartney. Up until recently, we had been told that there were other more important intersections that needed to be addressed than ours. We don’t believe this, and neither should you. You should be outraged. The city is still contemplating installing a round-about at Island Drive (that many in our community are opposed to due to increased pedestrian hazards), and yet the nearby intersections where pedestrian fatalities have occurred barely register?

We want to meet directly with Vision Zero and a city official who can commit to making this stretch of Mecartney objectively safer for our neighbors, and with the highest priority.

Editor’s note: The letter has been issued by the five boards of directors from the Homeowner Associations that straddle this section of Mecartney Road.
Open letter to the Alameda City Council

Opportunity cost

You want to know why the city's elected officials,  staff, and consultants don't have time to improve that intersection where an 84-year old resident was hit and killed by a driver? Because they're holding a Brown Act-noticed council meeting at Tilden/Blanding and they're hearing the project as a regular agenda item at another Brown Act-noticed council meeting!

I am glossing over details. There are substantive questions to ask about whether the "modern roundabout" proposed at Island/Mecartney should be a higher priority than safety improvements along Mecartney. There are also substantive questions about the city's ability to deliver "quick build" safety improvements, on a shorter term frame and as a complement to these larger permanent redesigns of intersections and corridors. (I do want to return to the "quick build" as an under utilized tool in the city's traffic safety toolbox in a future blog post.)

It's also reasonable that the city's first "modern roundabout" get a full presentation at City Council (but I'd argue that happened in 2021 when the "modern roundabouts" on Central Ave were heard by City Council.)

But let's set the details aside for a moment and speak plainly: Each thing a city does also imposes an opportunity cost — other things do not happen or are done haphazardly.

Was today's field trip to Tilden Way and Blanding Ave a good use of time? Yes. I genuinely believe that engaging with the entire public is good (with the note that when "sampling" from the overall population it's always important to add that context of who shows up and who can't show up).

Was today's field trip to Tilden Way and Blanding Ave the best possible use of City Council and city staff time to address traffic safety and Alameda's entire transportation network? No.