Draft (October 2007)

Facts can be so inconvenient

Part 4 of "The Palo Alto Process: A culture of bad decision-making"

By Douglas Moran

One of my first involvements in the Palo Alto Process (in the early 1990s) involved design guidelines for the streets in my neighborhood. The City's consultants produced designs for streets with widths of 40, 50 and 60 feet. At the public meeting, residents pointed out that many of the neighborhood streets were narrower than 40 feet, including several key streets that were roughly 30-feet wide, narrower in some places.

The first thing that struck me was that the City and the consultants hadn't bothered with these facts before beginning the design process. The second thing was that this mistake didn't seem to faze them. But the important lesson was that even such a major failing didn't stop, or even slow, the approval of the designs.

In many deliberations, it often is the residents who are most focused on facts. They understand the actual situation because they have lived with it. And they worry about the facts being accounted for and addressed because they are going to have to pay for and live with the result.

I have been in deliberations where City staff has not just welcomed - but aggressively sought - this input from residents. I have been in others where City staff rejected all such input - I have been told that some staff members regard having to use information from residents as demeaning to their professional standing.

The situation to the southeast of the intersection of Page Mill an El Camino provides several recent examples of facts taking a backseat to political agendas. This area is targeted for conversion to high-density housing on the theory that you want to put such housing near transit. A perfectly reasonable generic theory, but it is based on assumptions of levels of transit usage that extensive local experience demonstrates will not be achieved here.

The second inconvenient fact is that Oregon-Page Mill separates this area from the California Avenue downtown, and that Council had just approved a very large project that would overload the sole connector (Park Boulevard). No problem - just use faint lines for Page Mill on the map, and draw a pedestrian-bike crossing at Ash in bold.

At the first workshop, I pointed out the absurdity of this scheme: First, the speed and volume of traffic in that location presents an unacceptable safety problem for pedestrians and bicyclist. Second, a crossing so close to El Camino would greatly increase congestion at that intersection (think Menlo Park). The consultants' reply indicated that they were unaware of the situation. Regardless, and despite my objections at each stage in the process, this crossing is now part of the plan approved by Council.

This area has very difficult traffic problems. To keep this inconvenient fact from interfering with the plans, the process started by deciding how many housing units to allow, and only then trying to figure out how to claim that the generated traffic could be accommodated. Even though that attempt failed to find anything remotely credible, the process moved forward, approving the housing density.

The next insult to rational policy making followed shortly thereafter. Multiple traffic studies had shown that a right-turn lane was needed on north-bound El Camino to handle vehicles that current cut-through on Pepper and Olive and for projected increases. Land was supposed to be reserved for this lane as the two buildings on the block were redeveloped. One of those buildings - the Old Pro - is being replaced and the City quietly revoked the reservation for the turn lane, allowing the developer to have a larger building.

To do this, the City used a decade-old traffic study that hadn't only been superseded by newer, more specific studies, but been invalidated because it had failed to include the cut-through traffic.

We need Council members who pay more attention to the body of facts supporting a recommendation, whether it be from City staff or outside parties, such as developers. It is inevitable that some facts will be in dispute. And that some will be unavailable. But too often in the current process, there is no justification for such problems, and Council proceeds to a decision anyway (because they were scheduled to make it in that meeting). Unless Council is more willing to reject proposals on the basis that the supporting facts and arguments are not good-enough, they will continue to get inadequate and biased information for their decision-making.