Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Week of Public Involvement and Urbanist Advocacy

Walkable urban setting in Sonoma
This is a post about which I’ve often thought but never executed.  I feared it might seem selfish or self-aggrandizing.  But having recently participated in an extended discussion on the effort needed effect change in land use policies, I decided to share what a week in my life can entail.  It can be an example of what public involvement and advocacy requires.  The topic also builds upon my last two posts (here and here) about public involvement.

I should begin with a disclaimer.  Doing what I describe below doesn’t make me a great guy.  Most days, I enjoy the involvement, so what I do is largely a labor of love.  Also, I happen to be at a time in my life when I can devote the hours.  But I’m not in the league of teachers who spend unpaid weekends grading papers or of parents who juggle work obligations to be home for dinner and homework checks.   They’re the heroes.

With that understood, here is a recent week in my civic life.  Perhaps a little busier than most, but not greatly so.  To avoid complicated and tangential explanations, I’ve simplified a few details.

Monday Morning: The week began early.  A project was the agenda for City Council approval that evening.  At the last minute, the developer was asking for relief from a requirement to build a bike path.  Several people contacted me, asking that I attend the City Council meeting to argue against the request.  I agreed to attend, but without speaking on the bike path issue.  I’ll explain why a little later.

Monday Early Evening: To prepare for the City Council meeting, I had dinner with the Chair of the Pedestrian Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC) to talk strategy and philosophy.  As the appointed liaison from the Park and Recreation Commission, I’m also a PBAC member, so we’ve often chatted.  Plus she’s a fun person.

In addition to the pending Council decision, we conversed on many points, including coordination between PBAC and the Transit Advisory Committee (TAC) which I chair.  (For those counting, yes, those are three city commissions and committees on which I sit.)

Monday Evening: The PBAC Chair and I arrived early for the City Council meeting.  Although on a different matter, I needed to talk quietly with the developer who had the bike path issue.  I had to resolve a point of miscommunication that had arisen at an earlier meeting.  And I wanted to talk about a pedestrian connectivity issue that hadn’t been addressed because of the miscommunication.

I pulled the developer aside for a private chat.  He saw the value in the pedestrian feature, but asked for more time to discuss it with partners.  (I’ve continued coordination with him and remain hopeful that the amenity will be implemented.)

In the Council meeting, I still chose not to speak, fearing that participating in the bike path discussion after asking privately for the pedestrian feature would undermine my request.  But I offered suggestions to the people who spoke in favor of retaining the bike path.

The bike path requirement was removed by a vote of 4-3.  The bike proponents left unhappy.  But I’d expected the vote to be 5-2 so saw a small ray of hope in the defeat.

Wednesday Afternoon:  SMART is a North Bay commuter rail line that will soon begin service.  I hadn’t planned on attending the SMART Board meeting, but was advised in the late morning that the Board might be prepared to jettison the second Petaluma station from their near-term planning.

I’ve written often about the alternative locations for the second station, arguing in favor of Corona over its competitor.  I also testified before the City Council the evening when they put their weight behind Corona.  With the decision arrow beginning to point toward Corona, it seemed the wrong time for the SMART Board to opt out.

Luckily, the rumor was wrong.  But I was nonetheless pleased to be at the meeting for a couple of agenda items.

First, the Board voted to officially move ahead with a third station in Novato.  Years earlier, Novato hadn’t seen the value of a downtown station, so had asked SMART to locate the two Novato stations in drivable locations away from downtown.  But the community gradually saw the light and asked about adding a downtown station.  SMART agreed to facilitate as long as Novato covered the cost, which the City Council accepted.  I was happy to be present when this walkable urban amenity was officially blessed.

Also, SMART handed out a draft train schedule.  Although everyone knew that a schedule would soon be forthcoming, it was still a symbolic moment to have an actual schedule in hand.  The trains suddenly felt more real.  And I was pleased to see enough time between the Cotati station and the downtown Petaluma station to accommodate the Corona station.  (A SMART official denied my suggestion that scheduling flexibility had been intentionally left for Corona.  I didn’t believe him.)

Wednesday Evening: The monthly meeting of PBAC was also dedicated to the SMART system.  SMART representatives spoke about the alignment and funding for the bike/ped paths near the rail alignment, on which PBAC had earlier successfully encouraged changes, and about bike parking at the downtown station, with which PBAC was actively involved.

But my most interesting moment came late in the meeting.  The City Engineer reported that construction plans had been submitted for a project that PBAC had previously reviewed.  It was a project on which, aware of the concerns of the neighbors over traffic speeds and safe biking, I’d lobbied the Planning Commission for narrower driving lanes.  In addition to leaving more room for bike lanes, narrower lanes induce lower driving speeds.

I was only partly successful in my lobbying.  The draft approval called for 12-foot travel lanes.  After my efforts, the adopted approval called for the lane widths to be as established by the City Engineer during design.  So I now eagerly asked the City Engineer about the lane widths on the plans, hoping for 11 feet or even 10-1/2 feet.

They were still at 12 feet.

Although there was little opportunity for further discussion, I expressed my exasperation at having so meekly surrendered a hill that had been so hard-won.

To his credit, the City Engineer noted my frustration and emailed me later that evening, suggesting a meeting to discuss further.  (The meeting took place a week later.  We had an open and productive conversation about the benefits of narrower lanes and the geometric challenges of narrowing the travel lanes.  We ended the meeting with the City Engineer recommitted to seeking a narrower lane solution.  Some hills must be won several times.)

Thursday Afternoon: The monthly meeting of the Transit Advisory Committee was devoted to reviewing the Short-Range Transit Plan, a state requirement for all transit agencies.  A key element of the Petaluma Transit SRTP was revisions to bus routes to better connect with SMART.  And a key topic of conversation was a scheduling challenge that had been created by the draft SMART schedule.  Finding the best scheduling fit between SMART and Petaluma Transit will be on-going task, on which the TAC and Transit staff will continue to coordinate.

Thursday Evening: Parklets, the reversible conversion of street parking into public gathering places, were invented in San Francisco about a decade ago and have now spread nationwide, including adopted policies in the North Bay cities of Sebastopol and Ukiah.  But Petaluma has neither a policy nor the staff time to develop one.

I had organized a working group, headed by a young planner with deep Petaluma roots, to remedy the gap.  To finish my Thursday, we had our regular meeting to discuss the outline that would be shared with City staff at an upcoming meeting.

Friday: On Friday, I rested, except for finishing my third urbanist blog post of the week and responding to a jammed inbox of emails.

I’m sure many are shaking their heads, complaining that the process shouldn’t take this much effort and that most people don’t have time for this much community involvement.  On the first point, I’ll disagree.  Given the complications of existing improvements, community preferences, CEQA, financing standards, consumer behavior, and much more, it’s understandable the process doesn’t pivot well.

Indeed, I’m pleased that the process doesn’t pivot too easily.  If it did, our forefathers would have razed most of the best North Bay downtowns in the 1960s and replaced the historic buildings with parking lots.  So we were lucky on that point.

On the reality that many folks don’t have as much time as me to be involved, I agree fully.   I have the inclination and flexibility to do what I now do, but can’t expect others to follow my lead.  But I do believe that folks who want our towns to look and function differently must to find enough time to participate in the process a little bit.  Perhaps a monthly conversation group on land planning plus a public meeting or two.  Too many important decisions are made in public sessions with no members of the public present.

On that segue, my next post will be about Petaluma Urban Chat, a monthly gathering to discuss walkable urbanism.  After recently out-placing its care and feeding to someone else, it seems to have come back to me.  I’m disappointed, but have also gained a new hope about what Urban Chat might be.  I’ll write more next time, while also looking for new adoptive parent.  My schedule can use the relief.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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