June BPIT Wrap-up: The City Hall Tar Ball

By Max Berson

Stephen Box made a sarcastic remark in Room 721 of City Hall that the June 7th meeting was “The Last BPIT.”  He was referring to his encounter with security, who allegedly violated the Brown Act in the lobby, leaving the meeting subject to being re-agendized.  I’m not sure that anything like that will actually happen, but I find it hard to disagree with the “last” designation.  Since I attended my first meeting, I have come to the conclusion that engaging in the BPIT process is analogous to fighting with a tar ball: each time you land a blow, the mess sticks to you more, and you are further immobilized.  The best way out is to stop fighting and get your work done elsewhere.  Here’s my recap of this month’s meeting, and hopes for future work both in City Hall and on the streets.

I missed the beginning of the meeting by about 20 minutes, so the introductions were already completed, as well as part of the second agenda item, “Environmental Analysis and Bicycle Facility Projects.”  Wendy Lockwood of Sirius Environmental provided loads of detailed information about producing EIRs, but every answer to every question went back to the same conclusion – “You can’t do it that way, because it won’t hold up in court.”  There seemed to be no way to strike a balance between the City’s need to cover their ass, and the public’s desire to move quickly.

Next we heard from Tim Fremaux, who “explained” DOT’s procedure for determining the traffic impacts of a particular project.  This segment was hopelessly devoid of content.  Tim outlined six steps, the first five of which were “collect data from dataset X” and the last of which was “plug all the data into the magic formula provided by our proprietary software.”  Rock Miller assured us that the algorithms and formulas used in the software are available in standard textbooks, and I’d really like to see those, but the presentation built me up without delivering.

We ended the meeting in the middle of Tim’s second presentation, reviewing DOT’s proposals for restriping various stretches of road that connect East LA to Alhambra.  Something that really frustrates me about this routine is that when the community comments on Tim’s presentations, he consistently reassures us that “this is just preliminary” but fails to take note of the suggestions that are offered.

Worst of all this month was that the final agenda item entitled “Assignments” was not addressed at all.  I had really been looking forward to leaving the meeting with a clear picture of which projects would be moving forward, and which stakeholders would take responsibility for them.

To understand how all this amounts to a tar ball, it helps to be familiar with a guiding principle of the 2011 Bike Plan called the “Six E’s.”  Those “E’s” are equity, engineering, education, enforcement, encouragement, and evaluation.  In the first half year of its life, the BPIT has addressed one-and-a-half “E’s.”  Since DOT and Planning are such major players in the meeting, engineering gets most of the attention, and all attempts at encouragement have been thought of as being done through engineering.  In other words, all I can remember talking about at our meetings has been where and when the City will paint bike lanes or sharrows on the road, which lane configurations would be most likely to attract potential cyclists, and how we can get clearance for these proposals to hit the ground.

How does this focus on engineering amount to a tar ball?  It adheres to any contribution you might bring to the table, and prevents your idea from moving forward.  You arrive at the meeting ready to strike a major blow for improving cycling conditions in Los Angeles, and the engineers trap you in their sticky mass of lane configurations and anti-gridlock zones.  You offer a great idea for getting more bikes on the street and you get stuck in a discussion of how difficult the EIR process is.  As far as I can tell, you’re not even allowed to talk about topics such as educating young kids about their rights and responsibilities if they choose to ride to school.

So why was this the “last” BPIT?  Well, it’s more accurate to say that it felt like my last BPIT.  I usually approach these meetings with great optimism about the ideas we have cooked up at Bikeside over the course of the month, but I leave feeling intense frustration at being paid almost dismissive lip service by the City and her consultants.  I’ve lost interest in batting around the proposals and EIRs and court precedents that are standing in the way of laying new paint on our roads.  My goal is not to put paint on asphalt, but to put people on their bikes.  The question on my mind is this:  Would I have made more progress by spending two hours engaging community members and drawing on-the-fence commuters into the world of cycling, rather than sitting at an impasse in a City Hall meeting?  I’m leaning toward the former.

As you continue your battle with a tar ball you eventually come to the conclusion that there are two ways to end the fight.  The easy way out is to simply stop fighting.  The tar drips to the ground, and you walk home.  You’re still slightly sticky, and a little worn out, but at the very least you’re free.  This second option – and what I propose for the future of the BPIT – is to continue fighting, but take the battle to  another front.  Think of it as finding the person who put the tar ball in your way, and fighting him instead.  No muss, no fuss.

Where should we take the fight?  Anywhere that real opportunities exist.  Planning wants to talk about why an EIR for X Blvd. is infeasible?  Fine, let’s move on to educating drivers and cyclists in that neighborhood about the rules of the road.  DOT wants to bog down the meeting with an hour-long PowerPoint about lane configurations?  Pass.  The community would rather talk about how local businesses can create incentives for people to visit them on their bikes rather than in their cars.  For that matter, we would also like to make some plans for taking a look at existing efforts to enhance ridability in LA, and figuring out whether those efforts are working or whether it’s time to cut our losses and try something new.  Ideally, every BPIT meeting should consist of six 20-minute sections, each devoted to one “E.”

Remember: We don’t have to wait for the City to tell us “It’s perfectly safe to ride now!”  We can turn every right-hand lane on every street into a bike lane, simply by filling them up with our comrades.

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17 Responses to “June BPIT Wrap-up: The City Hall Tar Ball”

  1. Why did the meeting finish in the middle of a presentation, skipping an agenda item?

  2. >Where should we take the fight? Anywhere that real opportunities exist.

    Great post that really conveys the frustration of trying to work toward more equitable and efficient forms of transport with the very folks not only charged with the responsibility, but well-compensated for carrying it out, too. Or as Box likes to say, battling the ‘Department of No!’

    After all, Los Angeles looks as it does for good reason: a long history of politicians’ self-dealing, bureaucratic turf-guarding, and no small amount of fear. Oh, and disinclination toward innovation. It’s earned its reputation as the city that doesn’t work.

    So sometimes it’s necessary to step back and take an objective perspective on the opportunities as you say, and if necessary cut the losses on efforts that fail to produce any return.

    Ultimately it’s political, right? Hitting the streets to suggest what change can look like and then getting more folks on the side of good ideas.

  3. The group reached a consensus to end the meeting at 4:00 on the dot, so that attendees could move on to their next appointments.

  4. So poor meeting management then. I appreciate you attending and reporting. I’m sorry it seems to have been a soul-sucking process.

  5. That’s pretty much the exact feeling I got when I attended my first bike planning meeting which was conducted by Michelle Mowery. I had never heard so many lame ways to dishearten a room full of Eager, Enthusiastic, Educated, Enthralled, Eclectic bike advocates.

    I call those the Five E’s of getting shit done.

  6. Excellent metaphor by the way. Is tar flammable? It seems only natural that we try to light the proverbial fire under their derrière.

  7. Re: tar, I always used olive oil to wipe it off after a day at the beach.

    Re: BPIT, maybe it is time to find some sympathetic young engineers in LA and get them to move the discussion forward, because engineers are experts at dumping data and not talking in standard english. More importantly, I think cycling will have more to gain by creating local coalitions and growth cabals around cycling infrastructure and traffic calming.

    Pedicab regulation reform, currently stalled in the LADOT after a joke of an attempt to change things in the Board of Transportation Commissioners, would be a big symbolic win by creating “green” jobs as well as a group of professionals that require safe, busy, streets to make a living.

    Co-op cargo bike delivery services in DTLA, Hollywood, Santa Monica and other dense areas of the city would allow pricey cargo bikes to become available to more people (esp. those willing to take a chance riding one, without the costs of buying one directly).

    A neighborhood group of property owners (like the North Figueroa Association) could see their commercial properties become twice as valuable given a modest public investment in calmer traffic and bike lanes in front of their properties. The same goes for urban residential development and property owners looking to sell.

    The BPIT is where boring brass tacks are squabbled over, but the bigger victories come from building a group of interested parties to make the case that this little box of tacks the LADOT is quibbling over don’t f&*^ing matter because their boss will look like a jerk if they don’t do what your group is asking.

  8. The authoritative reference for capacity and level-of-service studies is the Highway Capacity Manual published by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, and it’s likely that the software used by LADOT is based on the data, formulas, and calculation procedures given in this book. Notwithstanding the name, it also covers urban streets.

    The most recent (2010) edition can be purchased directly from the TRB for $220:

    http://books.trbbookstore.org/hcm10.aspx

    If you’re just interested in the general procedures, rather than trying to review LADOT’s methodology in detail, you can probably find an older edition of the HCM for download on the Internet, and any textbook on traffic engineering will explain the fundamentals.

    If you seriously want to understand the traffic engineer mind-set, you’ll also want to read the AASHTO “Green Book,” A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets. The current (fifth) edition costs $150 from AASHTO:

    https://bookstore.transportation.org/Item_details.aspx?id=110

  9. @Rach – Actually, it can be rather entertaining. The previous meeting, where everybody blew up around the table was great fun, and rather enlightening. Thanks for your support – you can count on me to keep the recaps coming.

  10. @Anon – The issue is that I don’t really care to understand the traffic engineer mind-set. Also, I shouldn’t be required to understand it in order to lobby for what I believe in.

    I hope that the main thrust of the article was clear enough: Engineering alone can not solve the problems with cycling in LA. If we focus on engineering, I believe we will lose the battle. In order to really change the atmosphere of our roads, we need a holistic approach. We need to be in people’s heads as much as we need to be on the asphalt.

  11. Thank you, Plebis! Absolutely agree with you that we have a lot to gain by activating more political potential on the front lines. Bikeside is looking forward to hitting the pavement and cranking out community outreach on the eastern stretch of Venice.

  12. Josef, those are fascinating ideas. I appreciate the direction that you and PlebisPower are taking in regard to organizing outside of the City Hall context. Will report back on such efforts as they develop!

  13. Max –
    Thanks for adding Bikeside’s voice to the discussion. The agenda for next month’s BPIT meeting is now available online:

    http://ladotbikeblog.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/bpit-agenda-7-5-11-with-attachment.pdf

    I hope you’ll be happy to see that a number of Bikeside concerns are being discussed this meeting: the Safe Moves education program & how the BPIT can move forward the other “4 E’s” (all except Engineering) in the Bike Plan.

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