Sunday, March 20, 2011

The cost of sucky outreach

And the parson made it his text that week, and he said likewise
That a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies,
That a lie which is all a lie may be met and fought with outright,
But a lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Grandmother's Apology

Opponents of the Prospect Park West bike lane accuse the Department of Transportation of undermining the community review process in numerous ways: fudging the data, colluding with supporters, bait-and-switch tactics, disguising permanent changes as temporary trials, and other dirty tricks. Opponents of other changes, like the 34th Street Transitway, the Midtown pedestrian plazas, and various other bike, pedestrian and transit projects around the city have made similar accusations. Some committed transit, cycling and pedestrian advocates have even bought into this, echoing the idea that Commissioner Sadik-Khan is haughty, dismissive and contemptuous of the community.

This is a lie which is part a truth, which makes it a harder matter to fight than an outright lie. As I've written, the "fudged" data are actually perfectly sound, but not in the way usually presented by the DOT or its supporters. The Prospect Park West bike lane was developed in response to pressure for traffic calming and safer bike routes from a large bloc squarely in the mainstream of the community. The 34th Street Transitway was designed to serve the walking and bus-riding supermajority of the street's users. The DOT has gone out of its way to meet with stakeholders, holding meeting after meeting and offering incentives and compensations.

And yet... I don't know about you, but to me the DOT's process does seem top-down, offering a pretense of discussion while steering the group towards a pre-determined goal, and treating any concerns or objections as annoying obstacles to be cleared away. I had a discussion recently with a woman who knew very little about Prospect Park West, who was convinced that the DOT was imposing the project on the community. It "felt right," whether it was factually correct or not.

I think there are a few interconnected reasons for this perception. Part of it is that the DOT has a history of this kind of dissembling. Anyone familiar with the DOT's history knows that over the years it has come out with plans to suspend bike lanes on bridges, convert avenues to one-way traffic, narrow sidewalks and other nastiness. Once these plans are formed, only overwhelming opposition can stop them.

This is not Richard Malchow's DOT, or Chris Lynch's, and it's not Iris Weinshall's either. But it takes time to turn a battleship, and I'm sure the agency still has tons of dedicated, knowledgeable staff who hate public participation. One reason they hate it is that it's really, really hard. Many of them never had any training in how to do it right, and they're used to just barreling their way through. So they may try to start a discussion, but then when things get outside their comfort zone they retreat to what they know: rigidity and lip service.

Another reason the DOT sometimes seems unresponsive to the community is that "the community" isn't really the community. Go to any neighborhood in New York and you'll find half a dozen arrogant alterkockers who think that everyone in the area drives a car, hates any kind of noise and wants to preserve detached single-family housing for all eternity. If you ask them what the community wants, you'll get one answer. Poll the residents of the area, and you're likely to get a completely different answer. But these "community leaders" are so certain they represent the community that they feel no need to consult with anyone outside their own little echo chambers.

DOT planners know this very well by now. The ones who really care about community input will listen to a broad spectrum of voices in the neighborhood, and come up with a consensus plan that addresses the needs of all. But nothing pisses the "community leaders" off like bureaucrats not giving them special treatment, and they will actively work to undermine the consensus process. Jaded, impatient DOT planners have figured this out and will simply ignore the "community leaders" and barrel ahead with the plan.

The lie about the DOT ignoring public input is part a truth, and as Tennyson's parson said, it's a harder matter to fight. More democracy at the local level can help, and the City Council term limits have made a dent in this, but in the end the retired homeowners who have lived in the neighborhood for years have an advantage. Better trained planners at DOT will help too, but it will take time for the staff to turn over. In the meantime, the real community has to keep coming out over and over again and showing their support.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I went to the Partnership for Parks conference last weekend, and the most interesting thing I learned there was a different model for "community outreach." The conference was full of stories of New Yorkers who cared for their parks, went to volunteer in those parks, then wanted to make the parks better and therefore reached out to community groups in order to figure out what they wanted in the park.

The reason for this process is that it's become generally accepted that a busy park is a safe and clean park, and that empty parks are not attractive for recreation and become eyesores. In addition, more local participation helps people feel as if it's their park.

There's a huge contrast between this process and the DOT process, which is a little bemusing because streets are public spaces too. Using the Parks approach, you would think that every employer along 34th St would have been approached and asked whether a busway would help get their workers to the job.

Perhaps it has to do with the desire for residents for empty streets and busy parks, not the other way around.