Think Bike – LADOT to CalTrans Engineer: You’re Outta Here

By Alex Thompson

Was Think Bike LA great?  I can’t answer that question, I wasn’t there.  What I can say is that the concept behind Think Bike LA is great.  Dutch planners sharing their biking best practices with LADOT staff and community stakeholders is a great idea.  Instead of LA’s bike activists electronically screaming “you don’t get it!”, Dutch planners were able to use their expertise to say the same thing quietly, and guide LA toward a solution.  But while Think Bike did a good thing, it didn’t go down without a hitch.

LADOT Bikeways staffers kicked out two prestigious bike experts from the workshops.  The details appear in my City Watch commentary – reprinted below.  One, Dale Benson, a California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) engineer, administers pedestrian and bike funding for Los Angeles.  The other, Rock Miller, has been hailed by Long Beach’s Charlie Gandy as Long Beach’s “traffic engineering genius”.  Miller designed Long Beach’s most famous bike facilities: the green stripe with sharrows, much of LB’s bike boulevard, and the protected bike lanes on 3rd and Broadway.

While the opening and closing sessions were open to the public, the meat of Think Bike were full day workshops on Thursday and Friday.  These workshops were invite only and not open to the public.  So when Miller and Benson showed up, they weren’t on the RSVP list.  Ted Rogers (BikingInLA) argues they should have registered:

Number one, the workshop was by registration only, and these weren’t the only people turned away for failing to register. Whether or not Alex Thompson thinks they should have been allowed in, they were the ones who failed to observe the simplest of requirements to pre-register.

Rogers and others are confusing the opening and closing sessions, which had open registration, with the private workshops, which were invite only.  Regardless, it is objectively foolish to turn away Benson and Miller, who asked only to observe.  The Think Bike workshops produced design concepts for three study areas.  Miller has the expertise to fully express those concepts as full fledged designs that can earn institutional support as he did in Long Beach.  And Benson oversees the funding that could fund these projects.  Turning them away is like kicking your boss out of a meeting because she wasn’t invited; it undermines what Think Bike was trying to do

So when Rogers and other point out that Benson and Miller weren’t invited, it’s besides the point.  If the Mayor had showed up would they have turned the Mayor away?  Or a Councilperson?  Miller and Benson will still be here in July 2013 when the Mayor is gone.

The Mayor’s office knows this was a bad incident – and that is why they issued official apologies to both Miller and Benson.

The uncomfortable truth no one wants to talk about is that senior LADOT Bikeways staff – Mowery chief among them – are often abrasive and oppositional in destructive ways.  It’s still a problem, and their loyalty to making LA bike friendly is still in question.  In the same period when the 7th St bike lanes went down, planned bike lanes became door zone sharrows.  While everyone is talking about green bike lanes, Tom LaBonge said “No” to 4th St Bike Boulevard thanks to flawed outreach from LADOT.

Think Bike is a great concept – a best practice for sharing best practices.  And I will defer to others in evaluating its outcomes, though I will share that I liked the Pacoima designs that came out.  But you can still screw up a good thing with boneheaded behavior.  For some reason talking about that makes me a pariah in the eyes of some.  Comments on LA Weekly and elsewhere have skipped polite disagreement, substantive criticism, and gone straight to character assassination.  For example, India Brookover:

Another instance of lazy journalism from the LA Weekly– the only “sources” are a couple of bitter guys that have weird, personal beef with LACBC.

Those two “bitter guys” are me and Stephen Box. I can’t speak for Box, but my problem with LACBC is the way that they conduct business.  That’s not a weird or personal beef, it’s a substantive disagreement with LACBC strategy.

So I will be a pariah then.  Someone has to point out when things aren’t working.  Right now that’s Bikeside, Joe Linton and a few others.  Even Damien Newton at LA Streetsblog could qualify his criticism less these days, IMO.  Even I have held my tongue too much.  It’s time to be open and honest about things that aren’t working.

(Re India Brookover’s allegations as to sources: the sources were actually Alexis Lantz of LACBC, DJ Chickenleather, an anonymous source, myself, and Stephen Box.)

My article in City Watch:

INVITATION ONLY … OR ELSE – If your boss asked to sit in on a meeting you were having with your staff, would you tell him to get out? Of course not! Or if you were a CEO of startup, and one of your major investors stopped by unexpectedly at a staff meeting, would you chastise them for not RSVPing? No, you’d give them your chair, your praise, your coffee, and your briefcase if they asked for it.
But here in the City of LA we’re experts in the art of foot-in-mouth. We’d turn away the boss and tell the investor to call first next time, and send him packing.

Case and point: at a workshop for LADOT engineers to learn best practices from the Netherlands, LADOT staff turned away a CalTrans employee who controls LADOT funding.

Dale Benson, the Senior Transportation Engineer in CalTrans District 7’s Local Assistance section, and Rock Miller, the award winning consultant who designed Long Beach’s innovative bike facilities, were turned away from the Think Bike LA workshops. The Think Bike LA workshops connected Dutch cycling experts with bike-challenged LADOT engineers to help them draft concept bike facilities to solve bike issues.

Benson administers bicycle funding and pedestrian funding for CalTrans District 7, which includes millions in federal and state funding that goes to LA biking and walking projects.  Miller is the Vice President of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) – the dominant national organization of transportation professionals – and has been praised by Charlie Gandy [link] of Long Beach as “Long Beach, California’s consulting traffic engineering genius.”

Benson and Miller have so far declined to comment.  However, LACBC Planning and Policy Director Alexis Lantz, the beloved Kill Radio DJ Paul “Chickenleather”, and a third source, who asked to remain anonymous, have confirmed that Benson and Miller were excluded.  DJ Paul was also excluded.

Rumors are circulating that Metro Transportation Planning Manager Tony Jusay was also excluded.

Lantz said “Michelle [Mowery] sort of pushed everyone out of the room that wasn’t part of the teams.”

Lantz emphasized that Benson, Miller and others were not on the three teams of twelve invited to participate in the workshops.  DJ Paul confirmed Mowery’s involvement saying “Ms. Mowery asked us to leave.”  Mowery, who works in Bikeways at LADOT, is the Bicycle Coordinator for the City of Los Angeles.

It was the anonymous source that provided the play by play.  The source reported that Benson entered the room and was confronted by Mowery.  Benson asked to observe, and emphasizing that he didn’t expect to participate:

Benson: I just want to observe and watch the groups working.

Mowery: This is a closed thing.

Benson: Well who made that decision?  Who do I need to speak with?

Mowery: You can talk to the mayor’s office . . . don’t make this difficult for me.

The source said that it seemed like “Mowery was going to call security.”  Benson, who is known to be very soft spoken, never raised his voice.

Historically, the City of LA has struggled to compete for Metro and CalTrans funds.  In the recent call for projects, the LADOT Bikeways only secured one on-street bikeways project.  That project received only 20% of the funding that LADOT Bikeways requested.

DJ Paul brought levity to the situation recounting a minutes long ordeal to get his camera battery charged, where ultimately he prevailed by trading use of his bike pump for use of a City Hall power outlet.  He said of the whole situation “it may have been a blessing because it made me work that much harder.”

Ultimately DJ Paul ran into one of the workshop teams at lunch.  Bikeways Transportation Engineer Nate Baird invited him along, saying, according to Paul, “I don’t see a problem with that.”

Neither do I!

LA’s Department of Transportation may have the right to toss a Senior CalTrans engineer out of its bike party but the question is … is it prudent? It’s way past time for LADOT to go to work on its less-than-friendly public image.

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9 Responses to “Think Bike – LADOT to CalTrans Engineer: You’re Outta Here”

  1. I think that you’re focusing a bit much on fairly small detail (Dale B and Rock M getting sent out.) Yes – it’s not a great thing, but I think that the issue here is that ThinkBike was done in a way that is divisive to L.A.’s big diverse bike communities.

    I attended the closing. I was happy about the mayor’s remarks. I thought that most of the designs were excellent, and a few of them were inspired. I did wince at some language from some city staff (please don’t call bike facilities “amenities,” please don’t say that 50-80-foot-wide streets are “not wide enough for bike lanes”) Overall I left feeling good about L.A. making some progress toward someday becoming a city that respects safe bicycling.

    As soon as I read the announcement, I could see it was an exclusive event. The public is invited to the opening and closing sessions only… Immediately I knew that this would be a contentious event that would sow divisions in the bike community. I don’t know what a fair process would have been to select community represenatives… but I can tell you that when LA City just picks LACBC to represent all of L.A.’s bicyclists… it breeds resentment.

    A friend of mine who I work closely with was invited. He assumed I would be there… and was surprised when I said nobody invited me. It’s awkward and divisive.

    L.A. is a big place. There are lots of great bike groups. Not everyone can be in the room at the same time… so there should have been some sort of transparent, open process by which participants were selected/invited. I still don’t know who picked whom.

    So… overall, to me, it feels like a step forward and a step backward at the same time.

  2. L.A. (in the broader sense) is such a collection of little fiefdoms, to the point of silliness.

    This reminds me of the recent “breakthrough” that allowed Big Blue Bus to extend their Rapid 7 to connect with the Purple Line instead of having it end where the trolley used to end.

    I’d love to see a breakdown of the cost of this workshop and how much was paid for by the LADOT versus The Embassy of the Netherland.

  3. There aren’t THAT many bike community representatives… Would have been really cool to just invite everyone and have a big group ride of love.

  4. I also got the impression that this was meant to be a more public event than it sounds like it turned out to be. Then again, I should have picked up on that just by looking at the timing of the whole thing (during the workday).

    Sounds like Michelle Meow Meoww let the scratchy nails come out that day!

  5. Alex-

    Oh Man. It’s true. My comment was pretty below the belt, and I apologize to you and Stephen Box.

    Because of my negative tone, I don’t think the main point of my comment came across– that I am truly fed up with LA Weekly’s diminishing reporting standards. When I wrote my comment, I also asked (which was edited out of your blog post above): “Why couldn’t Ryan Deto bother to interview at least a couple more people or actually lift a finger and do some fact checking?” Perhaps my language was harsh there, too– but I won’t apologize for my criticism of bad journalism.

    First of all, I was shocked when I read “Dutch officials were taken on the cleanest and best L.A. bike routes.” I was at the public portion of the event and it was obvious that the Dutch were taken on some of the most dangerous routes in LA.

    Regarding the situation involving Dale Benson, Rock Miller and Michelle Mowery: Deto never indicated that he followed up with them, or any first-hand sources at all. Your blog makes clear that you are critical of LACBC and DOT, and while I don’t usually agree with you, I respect your opinion. However, it was the responsibility of the journalist to at least attempt to do some fact checking, and interview a representative from LACBC and DOT in order to provide balance to the story. You state in your follow-up that Alexis Lantz and Chickenleather were also sources– but why wasn’t that mentioned in the original article? Deto clearly stated that you were his only source, and you maintain a very public agenda. Again, you are entitled to your opinion, but Ryan wasn’t writing an op-ed. He should have at least attempted to back your statements up.

    Unfortunately, I see misinformed writing like this all over LA Weekly–not just in their bike advocacy coverage. In this situation, I knew from first hand experience that the article was grossly inaccurate, under-researched, and biased. It was the final straw for me. So I wrote a regretfully snarky comment.

    Again, I’m sorry. I certainly did not intend to make a character assassination of you or Stephen. I really don’t want to get involved in any more LA bike drama, so this is my first and last comment on Bikeside. I’m not asking you to take my side, or that of anyone else. I just hope you can understand my frustration with the situation.

    -India

  6. India,

    Thanks for you bold apology, and your clarification of your position. There may indeed be something too what you say – perhaps Deto could have independently checked w/ the sources.

    Alex

  7. Alex:

    I was glad to read this. Well, not glad that you and your fellow advocates still feel frustrated, and really not glad that staff journalists who get the opportunity to cover the biking beat fact check poorly, but was glad to find a somewhat recent article of yours about a major event and the latest in cycling activism.

    I was going through old transcripts and notes and found our conversation from last September. I’d like to publish it on my blog, if you are okay with it. I did not forget about BAC 7 or any of the cycling community or any of the transportation and infrastructure stories I wanted to pursue. It’s just that editors at LAT and NYT had no freelance budget in 2010 Q4 and 2011 Q1. I then moved on to other projects.

    I also want to check in about the use of Measure R funds and the final application of 2010 funds and how exactly it all went down.

    I wish I’d returned to biking stories a couple months ago so I could have attended. I would really have been interested to speak with Dutch planners. Well, today is today.

    I will shoot you an e-mail tomorrow evening with the condensed and edited version of our conversation that I’d like to publish.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you!

    Best,
    Julie

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Thoughts on ThinkBike Los Angeles: 4 – Process « L.A. Eco-Village Blog - October 2nd, 2011

    […] I loved it. The designs are awesome, and I hope that any and all of them get built. Then why did BikeSide, L.A. Weekly, CityWatch, and The Engaged Observer express concern over folks not being included in […]

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