Of all city employees, is Alameda's planning director the most often heckled by impassioned residents?
Last year, residents of Bay Farm loudly shouted over Andrew Thomas's descriptions of Alameda's legal obligations to permit more housing at all price points and to begin to redress long standing patterns of racial segregation.
Last week, at an evening open house about Grand Street at the city's senior center, residents heckled Thomas on the topic of traffic safety:
I clipped a few minutes from the live recording of the event, to place this into context: the overall project goals are to reduce the odds of drivers in cars and trucks from hitting and injuring or killing students, seniors, and others who are on bike or foot.
The hecklers don't disagree with the goals of increasing safety; rather, they argue in effect that the goals have already been met — Grand Street is safe. It is the city's facts, the county's facts, and the regional metropolitan planning organization's facts that are all wrong.
And the middle school students on bicycles? Just as the hecklers on Bay Farm didn't appear terribly interested in the human stories behind Alameda's housing crisis, the hecklers at the senior center aren't demonstrating much interest in the human stories behind Alameda's roadway injuries and deaths.
Transportation as a culture war?
I'm curious to understand why these local reactionaries see transportation as a topic worth fighting over almost as if it's a "culture war."
Is it just that reactionaries get their relevance and power from finding topics to fight against (rather than being for anything in particular)? Councilmember Trish Herrera Spencer pulls transportation projects from City Council consent calendars as a regular way to have something to rail against and vote "no" on.
Or are these transportation projects seen as representative of other larger — badder, scarier — changes? There certainly are a lot of newer and younger arrivals to Alameda riding around on bicycles. (I guess I fall into that category myself.) Although meet dedicated cyclists and you'll see there of all ages and tenures in Alameda. And run the numbers on who is being injured or killed on Alameda roadways and you'll see that these are not just issues for newer or younger arrivals to Alameda.
Or maybe the reactionaries are fighting a culture war because certain aspects of transportation in Alameda truly are zero-sum? It's true that there are only so many feet in the width of Grand Street as it traverses the Gold Coast. A foot of street width given to middle schoolers on bicycles is a foot of street width potentially taken away from a free parking spot.
Similar fights over the "geometric constraints" of urban roadway design are brought to life in detail in SF State geographer Jason Henderson's Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. For some transportation projects, the challenges may truly be zero-sum.
But it's hardly the case that all transportation projects are zero-sum. In fact, by viewing a transportation network more holistically, it's often possible to find multiple "levers" to use in concert with each other to reach balanced outcomes. For example, Park Street may only be so many feet wide — but the city will be optimizing the use of some of those feet dedicated to on-street parking by setting prices based on actual usage. In the case of Grand Street, surveys of parking usage clearly show that a small portion of on-street parking is actually used on a regular basis. It may feel like safer bike lanes take away parking spots in front of residents' houses — but given how rarely many of those parking spots are currently used, how much of an actual loss is that?
Facts and values
Whether a transportation project comes down to zero-sum constraints or is more unbounded, its planning should be guided by facts and by values.
Heckling to disagree with facts is one way of demonstrating values — meanspirited, know-nothing values.
The city's professional staff, Thomas included, are paid to deal with public input, including rude and nonsensicle input. But I'm not, so I can say this: There's nothing positive that comes from acting like a traffic safety (or a housing plan) workshop in Alameda is an Obamacare townhall circa the summer of 2009.