This is being cross posted on the website www.aBetterBrainerd.org.
It was reported in the local paper last week that my hometown of Brainerd, MN, is undertaking an initiative focusing on biking and walking. Here is how the newspaper article began.
Calling all walking and biking enthusiasts — the city of Brainerd wants you.
City officials voted unanimously at the Brainerd City Council meeting Tuesday to form an ad hoc Walkable and Bikable City Committee.
The move is part of one of the recently identified strategic focuses: invest in the city neighborhoods.
Okay. Sounds great, right? I'm not much for more committee meetings but, if that is how we're going to get something done, well it is better than nothing. I'm really excited about the city council's stated focus on investing in neighborhoods and, if this is the next step, I'm in.
Then I continued reading.
The ad hoc committee will be tasked with developing comprehensive city-wide sidewalk, trail and bike lane plans for inclusion in the city’s comprehensive plan, which it will later recommend to city council. The ad hoc committee will also explore a skateboard park development.
The goal is to present the plan to council in or by 2016.
My first thought is that this had to be a typo. Present a plan by 2016? That had to be the end of 2013. Or 2014 at the latest. There is no way this city council's top priority is going to a committee for the next three years, is there? I mean, that is one, possibly two, elections away. Some of these people won't even be there anymore.
Unfortunately, 2016 is not a typo. Three years and then we'll have a "comprehensive" approach. So what's going on? A clue lies later in the story.
The committee will be about 12-15 people, and will possibly be broken in two sub-committees, with one focusing on biking and the other on walking.
Death by committee. This is one of the ways in which local governments are their own worst enemies.
Let's assume that investing in neighborhoods really is the top priority of many in this city. And let's also assume that the elected officials, the staff and the residents would like to see some tangible progress on this before....say....the next election. How can everyone approach this more productively?
The very first thing we need to do is abandon the idea that there will ever be a "comprehensive" plan or that a plan that is deemed "comprehensive" is even desirable. This goes to the very core of what has gone wrong with planning profession and why we (I'm an AICP myself) are nearly irrelevant to the future of the cities we serve.
The term "comprehensive" is defined as:
Comprehensive: complete; including all or nearly all elements or aspects of something
Cities are incredibly complex places, even those that have been streamlined and dumbed down to a myriad of Euclidean zoning pods connected by a hierarchical road network. There is no way we'll be able to develop a complete or thorough understanding of biking and walking in the city over the next three years unless we are going to devote a ton of time and resources to the effort. And we're not. We're forming a committee. Two sub-committees to be exact.
But let's pretend that we did devote the time and resources and that we did develop this deep knowledge and detailed plan for walking and biking infrastructure in the city. Since we have little to no biking and walking infrastructure today, how do we know what's going to happen when we start to introduce it?
I think there is enormous pent up demand, but how does a "comprehensive" approach attempt to measure that? What neighborhoods are the most ready and would provide the greatest bang for the buck, so to speak? Which improvements are going to be the most advantageous and which are going to be too expensive to bother with in the beginning?
None of this is knowable until we get out and start doing things, which ostensibly will be in 2017 at the earliest. But this is where the notion of a "comprehensive" plan is the most dangerous, because once a bureaucracy has a plan -- especially one that is seen as a comprehensive document based on the consensus of selected committee members -- it might as well be written in granite.
Now pause here, because there are a whole ton of planners and those sympathetic to the modern process of planning that are saying, "Chuck, my experience is the opposite. All the plans just sit on the shelf and never get done. There are not in granite."
Yes they are....for the bureaucracy. It is way different for the elected officials -- the ones who have to vote to implement -- because their priorities will govern. Elected officials move all over the place, rarely wanting to adhere to the last council's plan (they likely defeated them in the last election for getting nothing but the wrong things done anyway). The conflict between elected officials, the "comprehensive" direction laid out through prior work and the staff is ultimately reconciled through more strategic visioning, more committees and, yes, another "comprehensive" plan.
There is a deep tragedy here because, in the end, the only things that get done with this approach are the HUGE projects, the ones that gain enough momentum and take on a life of their own so they transcend election cycles. While the hundreds of tiny, inexpensive things that we could be doing to actually improve our neighborhoods are not even examined, let alone given serious consideration, we perversely are forced to devote enormous amounts of time and effort on projects that do not align with our stated core values.
For example, a couple years ago we invested millions of (other people's) money in a shortcut between one of our poorest neighborhoods and the Wal-Mart in the neighboring city. It was a project that happened because we were able to get stimulus funding and other outside support, the fruits of countless hours of staff time and effort. While it wouldn't have resulted in the big, splashy project, what if all that time and energy had instead been focused on solving the day-to-day problems in our neighborhoods?
We're having the same misdirection of focus and energy with a new utility extension project at the regional airport. The airport facility has recently been improved and, as part of that process, state fire officials indicated that more water was necessary. While the fire marshal's concerns could be addressed with a large holding tank at a cost seemingly nobody has bothered to determine (but which my experience tells me would be in the $200k - $400k range), instead there is a plan, and now a project, for spending $7.5 million to run the sewer and water from the city to the airport. The idea is that this investment would allow for industrial and airport-related development. This claim is made with apparent sincerity even as the existing industrial park -- which, granted, is not at the airport -- has had nearly two dozen empty lots for sale.
But this project is big and has taken on a life of its own. It has a champion in the airport manager and our local legislators have now signed on and have pledged state money. If you're a city council member who wants to focus on investments in existing neighborhoods, how many staff hours, and how many taxpayer dollars, are you going to allow to be diverted from your priorities to this project? The answer is: given the money and the importance of the people involved, as much as it takes.
And while that is the tragically wrong answer, it is certainly understandable. If you're a council member, you're thinking: the airport project is hot and moving forward -- we can't ignore that. It got started before I got here and I'm not jumping in front of that train. We've got our strategic vision done now and we're moving ahead with a comprehensive bike and walk plan, so it's not like we're standing still on my priorities. You want neighborhood investments? Yes, we'll get there.
That's not good enough for the people living in these neighborhoods, for the business owners trying to make a living there and for the future of the city.
As an alternative to this futile process and the standard "comprehensive" plan approach, we (along with our friends at Better Block and Street Plans Collaborative) floated the concept of the Sandbox City, where the scientific method is applied to make ongoing, incremental progress. A city formulates a question, forms an hypothesis, predicts an outcome, tests and then analyzes the results. Then repeats.
A practical example as applied to bike facilities.
Question: Is there a demand for bike facilities in the city of Brainerd sufficient to justify their installation?
Hypothesis: Painted bike lanes along streets designated as arterial within existing neighborhoods would be the most widely used.
Prediction: Without bike lanes, less than 1% of trips along H Street NE are by bike. With bike lanes, bike traffic on H Street NE would rise to at least 5% of trips within 12 months.
Test: Measure the amount of bike traffic on H Street NE on a given day. Then, stripe 5-foot bike lanes on the outside of each 14-foot driving lane. Measure the amount of bike traffic in regular intervals after the striping, up through 12 months.
We could run this test tomorrow for less than $5,000. The city of Brainerd is going to spend more than that in staff time just getting ready for the meeting with legislators later this month. They are going to spend many multiples of that in resources preparing their "comprehensive" bike and walk plan. That is time and money we're never going to get back that is being diverted from our urgent top priorities.
We don't need a committee, or two subcommittees, or three years to run this test. We can do it right now. If it doesn't work, then we're out $5,000 and we develop a new hypothesis. But if it does work, our Sandbox City principles tell us to build on it. How do we make this test permanent? Can we apply this approach to other similar places within the city? Can we expand this idea within the neighborhood? All of these questions we can ask and answer right now on our budget.
And we'll make progress now. Not in 2017. Not based on the consensus of a group of people who have the time or the vested interest to sit through three years of subcommittee meetings. Not in accordance with an approved "comprehensive" plan. NOW. Today. In this neighborhood, with these people, living real lives right now as you read this.
They will see that progress. They may even thank you for it.
This week, Strong Towns, as part of our A Better Brainerd pilot initiative, will be releasing details of eight projects for consideration by the Brainerd city council. These projects are the result of our ongoing engagement and experimentation within the Northeast Brainerd neighborhood. They are small and low cost but address very real and pressing needs within the neighborhood. In the spirit of the Sandbox City approach, these are the low cost, high return initiatives that every city should be looking to make. We're doing this for our city but also as an example that other resident-led initiatives around the country can copy.
You can follow the release of those projects, and the final report, this week at aBetterBrainerd.org. We will be engaging local leaders, business owners and other civic-minded people, as well as those living within the neighborhood, on these proposals. We also hope to present these ideas, and discuss the merits of this approach, with city officials.
As we've said before, the city council's priorities of investing in existing neighborhoods is right on. Let's not wait three years to start making Brainerd a better place. A strong town.
We've started a contest over at the Strong Towns Network for those who like to write and have some thoughts to share. Even if that is not you, come and hang out with us there. There is a good conversation going on and we'd all benefit from your thoughts.
And if you'd like more of my work, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.