Watching For a Con Job
On occasion, you will arrive at some public participation meeting and find that there
are a lot of foregone conclusions that are simply assumed into being. You may hear some
seemingly well reasoned arguments in favor of this or that proposal, or seemingly pat
answers to serious questions. You may well get the feeling youve been sold a
railroad ticket, with the destination unknown.
Now, it is perfectly reasonable for highway department folk to show up with a
preliminary designs and plans if you are attending a road construction meeting. This is
normal for an engineering project.
But occasionally you will arrive to find that other things have been slipped into the
plan with seemingly no publicly expressed support, or that whole projects are
"envisioned" where no one asked for any such thing.
As an example, suppose you are attending a planning meeting concerning bike routes or
plans for bicycle facilities at community destinations. Suppose further that you find that
there are lists of projects all prepared, and the public is seemingly being given a choice
of several projects, some of which are clearly silly, others perhaps acceptable.
If this occurs it's time to get suspicious and be on the watch for any of the following
The Ugly Duckling
I once attended a meeting where the city-planning officer hung up lists of proposed
bicycling projects. These included bike paths cantilevered from the face of vertical rock
walls, others running right down the center of a river suspended on pillars, the
usurpation of prime commercial waterfront property for a bike path from nowhere to
nowhere. Pie in the Sky! No one in his right mind would suggest such projects, yet here
was the citys planning department making crazy suggestions. Further down the list
were some seemingly more acceptable alternatives.
- It's not uncommon, for people pushing an agenda to propose totally silly alternatives
designed to be discarded out of hand, (after putting up mock resistance), simply so that,
by comparison, their favored plans seem reasonable.
- Typically these ugly duckling projects are ridiculously expensive, or totally uncalled
for, would be engineering nightmares, would require taking large amounts of private
property, or have other fatal flaws that guarantee that these plans would never survive.
- Ugly Ducklings are always presented first. Occasionally resurrected later on if the
preferred plan comes under too much scrutiny.
- Only a mock resistance is offered to dropping the ugly duckling out of hand; it has
served its purpose if you come to believe that "anything would be better than
this." What comes later will be the "favored option."
- No "author" or clearly identifiable source is given for the ugly duckling, it
is just "something that has been suggested in the past" or "an idea
suggested to us by the public."
- The Ugly Duckling is a common ploy of "planners", taught in planning schools,
and commonly practiced by people so trained. Recognize it for what it is, try to influence
the meeting toward a more productive approach, but watch out for what comes next.
The Appeal to the Heart
When defending some projects that are coming under fire, another common ploy is a tug
at the heartstrings, invoking the image of victims, most often children.
When questioned why he wanted to build bike paths through quiet residential
neighborhoods with no traffic to speak of, one "Bicycle Planner" invoked the
image of children having no safe place to "learn to ride a bike", no way to get
to school (three blocks away). Why, you could fairly hear the truck tires screeching and
the sound of impact. Sure enough, at the next meeting he came complete with a picture of
his 5 year old daughter riding her miniature childs bike wearing a helmet, with her
seat so miss-adjusted her knees were at her chin, accentuating her awkward and innocent
I felt like Scrooge bringing up the point that we were not talking about playground
equipment, but rather, a transportation facility, with transportation funds, but bring it
up I did, and others joined in support.
Often when an objection to some proposal is raised, there will be someone who launches
off on a long winded explanation with lofty sounding rationale, attributing the "good
idea" to some organization with a name implying some expertise in the field. There
will be "government sponsored" studies. There will be charts and graphs.
One example commonly encountered in the area of bicycle facilities planning is
the "ABC" concept of cyclists, put forth by the BFA, the Bicycle Federation of
You will recognize the treatment you are about to receive when it starts out with
something about the "A" cyclist, the "B" cyclist and the "C"
cyclists. (Just to help matters along here, they casually point out the "C"
cyclists are usually children see Appeal to the Heart above).
- "A" cyclists are experienced cyclists, the top 5 percent, of a caliber common
mortals can only dream of attaining, who can ride in the densest rush hour traffic, and
navigate 5 way intersections with nary a second thought, bunny hop Volkswagens, etc.
- B cyclists are the casual cyclists who do not yet know all the rules of the road but
just want to go for a bike ride, and are fearful of traffic.
- C cyclists are the children, totally ignorant of all traffic rules, and who need the
protection that only the planner's proposals can provide.
Recognize these points:
A) If you have no particular trouble commuting to work by
bike, you have been promoted to the "A" class, - an appeal to your
vanity. You are expected to sit back and suck it in, and embrace their further
suggestions and plans, because, clearly, they dont apply to you. Youve been
co-opted to go willingly along with whatever they would like to impose on other cyclists,
pathetic creatures that they are, and hopefully you will not notice that no exemptions are
offered in the project plan or the law for cycling gods such as yourself.
B) If you are still new to cycling, you will see yourself
in the "B" class. There, you will be lumped in with the vast majority, 95
percent, who are just "learning" and may never become an "A" class
cyclist, but who can be safe as long as the community paints bike lanes on the road.
Because you have been grouped with the majority, you feel comfortable, you are just like
everybody else (except those foolhardy "A" cyclists), and so you may not
- you have been insulted smart enough to obtain a drivers license, and
patronizingly given permission to vote, but forever relegated to idiot status when using
- youve been told your (sympathetically implied) incompetence is incurable,
- they claim that your (by now defacto) incompetence can be made inconsequential by simply
putting paint on the road,
- No one has said a word about the accidents and risks associated with bike lanes, and the
bad driving they engender in cyclists and motorists alike.
- The public tax dollars should be spent providing expensive to build and maintain
infrastructure for incompetent neophyte bicycle riders.
- Even though you are always careful when driving near children (whether on bikes or
afoot), every OTHER driver out there is out to squash your child.
- Bike lanes, or more likely paths, will make it perfectly permissible for you to let your
child "learn" to ride a bike unsupervised and without a word of education about
- Bike paths are safe, even though the US Department of Transportation no longer
recommends bike paths because they are just too dangerous to continue recommending them.
Therefore, the "C" cyclist, the one with the lowest skills, is being
shuffled off onto the most dangerous facility.
This ABC line of reasoning is cropping up all over the country because the BFA is not a
cycling organization, but rather a organization of "Bicycle Planners", planners
that have specialized in the creation of bike paths, and bike lanes, the design of bike
routes, etc. This company was set up principally to do studies for the Federal Highway
Administration, and has since changed its name to The National Center for Bicycling and
Walking. One wonders why the subtle shift from cycling to walking.
The BFA is dedicated to keeping other bicycle planners (their constituents) employed.
Bike Planners can only be employed if there are bike projects where they are needed.
Planners go to planning seminars, the BFA puts on these seminars, and does government
studies with final reports heavily laced with ABC, and charge large fees for speaking
engagement promoting ABC.
ABC is not, and never has been, sound engineering. It yields dangerous
facilities, induces dangerous driving practices, totally confuses motorists and cyclists
alike, and has resulted in the expenditure of untold millions of dollars building bike
paths next to quiet residential streets and bike lanes on streets with more than adequate
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: ABC keeps thousands of bike planners employed cranking out
the same useless bike plans in thousands of communities across America at a cost of
millions of dollars per year.
The Trojan Horse
Often, meetings or projects announced for one purpose turn out to be for something else
entirely. You may come to suspect it was planned this way. You may be correct.
Examples Ive seen include the proposed construction of bike paths through forest
areas, often over terrain unsuited for any but the fittest cyclists (hundreds of feet of
altitude gain in very short distances). Not a horrible idea in and of itself (as long as
the forest means nothing to you), but it was proposed that federal transportation funds be
used for the project. These paths went all around the metropolitan area, but never
provided a direct route to anywhere.
I was mystified by the rationale for such proposals, until another cyclist pointed out
that the planners family were avid hikers, and bird watchers with a long history of
pushing for wilderness trails. By proposing these paths under the guise of a bicycle
facility, they had hoped to sneak them into the citys master plan and tap the
federal purse strings in one stroke.
Be on the look out for the following types of items:
- Bike paths with no destination, no "There There",
- Hiding Recreation Trails in transportation projects,
- Shared paths proposed in parks and along lakes and rivers,
- Improvements to mass transit (bike racks on busses) where only a few routes are to be
served, with only a few racks
Dont get me wrong, all of these are worthwhile projects, but they have little
value for transportation. If done, these could be funded with recreational funds; not with
transportation funding. When you want illegal and dangerous drain grates replaced or
pot holes patched, you will find that there is no transport funds for these projects
it all went into paving the bike path along the river. That path will probably be
marked off limits to bikes in a few years when the joggers, dog walkers and baby-stroller
crowd takes over.
Now You See It, Now You Dont
Another common ploy is the never-ending draft document, with a new version produced for
each meeting. The larger the geographical area, the harder this is to monitor.
Quite often, planning staff will insert suggestions that were proposed and agreed upon
by the majority of participants, and print up another draft for the next meeting.
After the next meeting, some of these proposals sort of disappear before the third
draft, even though there was no talk of taking them out.
It is often hoped that the proponents of the dropped items will not notice. Their
suggestion appeared in print, and they were satisfied. The planners deleted them after the
fact, and, if questioned, will cite objections from higher authority, or clerical errors.
I dont know which to fear more, unnamed higher authority or the lowly clerks.
Often the work product of one portion of the project area is not even made available to
other areas. This is done for a number of reasons, some even valid. First, the planners
dont want to bias the second area meeting with the results of the first, they want
to get fresh input in each area (but this will not prevent them from offering their pet
projects to all areas as possible solutions). Second, some proposals are area specific,
and need not be discussed everywhere.
Its important to go to all meetings. Even, or perhaps most especially the
"out of area" ones. You need not take as active a role in the out of area
meetings, but you definitely want to be there and take notes. Simply showing up puts the
presenter on notice that someone is watching, and puts you on his list of troublemakers.
Watch the document preparation process carefully. When all is said and done, what is on
paper is all that will survive the process. Hold peoples feet to the fire, and
insist that those points that were agreed upon are in the document, and not buried in some
footnote to an appendix.
Take Me to Havana
Seldom employed by planners or transportation engineers, this ploy is most often
foisted by groups who want to hijack a process for their own purposes. Frequently,
as mentioned previously, hikers, cross country skiers, etc. want to make a grab for
transportation funds and will descend upon a planning meeting with intent to get trails
and paths into the more wild areas. Mountain bikers are also guilty of this from
time to time. Again, cyclists should put no obstacle in the paths of these projects as
long as they are to be funded with appropriate pots of money. Ripping off ISTEA funding
designated for cycling projects or pedestrian facilities is not appropriate.
Appeal to Authority
The final tactic I will mention is the Appeal to Authority. Often this takes the form
of citing something in the law or in the city charter or restrictions on the funding or
engineering standards that must be followed.
These are tough to beat. It seldom pays to argue engineering standards with an
engineer. Unless you are an engineer. You may be able to find one
with expertise in the project area, but you probably wont be able to afford the
fees. Besides, if there are written engineering requirements that you would propose
to circumvent, it is quite possible you are on the wrong track.
But dont despair. You can use this to your advantage as often as it can be used
against you. It does take a little research on your part, but you can appear with a few
library books at many public meetings and point out a few good ideas, or facts from the
law, or the traffic regulations etc. Having accident statistics, cost data, funding
prospects, etc. for the kinds of projects proposed is a good idea.
Combating the Con Job
Take notes. When you see something that looks fishy, talk it over with other cyclists
at the rest-room break, or between meetings. If you think you see a con job, chances are
that you DO. Im not suggesting that all planners are dishonest, or have hidden
agendas, but I do know that they all have employers, whose bidding they ignore at their
Here are some tips you may find useful:
Whos Running the Show
Watch how the meeting is being run. Is public input being accepted eagerly? Is anyone
taking official notes? (If not, just do so yourself.) Are some questions, seemingly
germane, being shunted aside?
If you see any of the ploys mentioned above, talk it over with others. Find a nice way
of pointing out this to the group, (while making sure you have alternative proposals to
offer -- nobody likes a nay-sayer with no alternative ideas).
Find out Early
Listen to the chitchat. Participate in conversations with the planners, engineers and
staff. Ask questions in a non-threatening inquisitive way. Why is this done this way? Are
there other alternatives? Would it cost a lot more to do X or Y?
Find out about the likes and dislikes of those running the meetings. Are any of them
Often the middle aged women that happen to attend these meetings can tell you more
about some of the other people in attendance in 5 minutes than you might otherwise find
out in a year.
Make it public Just Say So
When you discover that the planner in charge is proposing using transport funds for
bike paths to nowhere, or the road project provides inadequate lane width for bike and car
lane sharing, point these things out.
You can find a polite way of saying this without getting too confrontational. Perhaps
something like this:
"Look Joe, I know that you really like hiking trails, but these are transport
funds we are talking about. We need to provide better access to popular destinations
before we build expensive infrastructure into areas that would be more enjoyable in their
natural state. Where will the maintenance money come from?"
Or, when facilities are being proposed that do not provide for bicycles you might
mention to the engineers:
"I know you guys are working under tough budget constraints on this project, but
the Governor said that our State plan calls for proper accommodation of all legal vehicles
on projects like this. Cant we find some way to make sure a bicycle is included
among the design vehicles of this project?"
(Getting bicycles included as a "design vehicle" imposes engineering
standards on the project that are not easily ignored. There are legal ramifications of
failing to properly accommodate a design vehicle that last for the useable life of the
project. No engineering department will ignore these. Getting this concession should be
your first consideration. This is a key tactic. Explain this, and then ask for a show of
hands of all those in favor. It works every time.)
Many times, these public, but non-threatening exposures of the facts are all that it
takes to make it obvious to others in attendance that there is monkey business afoot.
Often the target comes to the realization that it would be wise to back off a bit. Clearly
you have to do your home work in order to be effective at this tactic.
Look for Allies
Often there are allies that you can cooperate with to achieve mutually beneficial
results. There are places where a multi-use path is the best solution, such as short
sections connecting neighborhoods through green belts etc. Mothers of children within
biking distance of schools will appreciate these short cuts, so will joggers.
Or, you may find that street department wants to push cyclists off the road onto
separated paths, and neither the cyclists nor the current path users want this solution.
Even motorists can be supportive of cyclists in lobbying for wider lanes, and on-street
parking instead of painted bike lanes where they would be inappropriate. (Bike lanes
adjacent to parallel parking are almost always a bad idea).