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Tactics to Watch Out For


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 you’ve 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 con jobs:

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 city’s 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 child’s bike wearing a helmet, with her seat so miss-adjusted her knees were at her chin, accentuating her awkward and innocent incompetence.

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.


Pat Pontification

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 America.

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 don’t apply to you. You’ve 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 recognize that:

  • 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 two wheels,
  • you’ve 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.

C) If you know of, or have children, you will see these children as "C" cyclists and you will want them off the road. Recognize that this line of argument suggests (falsely) that:

  • 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 traffic safety.
  • 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 width.

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 I’ve 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 planner’s 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 city’s 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

Don’t 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 Don’t

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 don’t 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 don’t 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.

It’s 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 people’s 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 won’t 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 don’t 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.  I’m 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 peril.

Here are some tips you may find useful:

Who’s 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 cyclists?

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. Can’t 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).


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