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By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Nonstarter killed after 2 decades

Uploaded: Jun 28, 2016
The Matadero Creek Bikeway proposal is an example of why it is so hard to get things done in Palo Alto. It was proposed in the early 1990s as part of the Comprehensive Plan. After repeated studies over the years, it may have finally been killed by City Council because of major problems that were obvious from the very beginning. To understand why a nonstarter persisted for over two decades, look at the comments on the news article. Although a few commenters reiterated the facts-on-the-ground that led to the decision, most of the comments came from the "reality-challenged", and are representative of what kept this proposal alive.(foot#1) Among the "reality-challenged" I include those who can't be bothered to learn the facts (basic due diligence) and those that don't let facts that they have been made aware of influence their opinions. I have been in meetings on this proposal where the advocates dismissed the inconvenient facts with "That can't be true" or dismiss the problem by saying that they believe--unsupported faith--that a workaround can be found.

While reality-challenged people are an annoyance in online forums, they can be toxic in meetings. By frittering away the limited time available, they render individual meetings ineffective. And they suppress the participation of people crucial to actually getting something done--those people realize that subsequent meetings will be a waste of time and don't show up (I didn't participate in the most recent round, having low/no expectations). How City Staff views public input is also negatively affected. First, the presence of transparently uninformed people undermines the credibility of those who did do their homework. Second, dealing firmly but politely with such people is difficult and exhausting--it is too easy to take a dismissive attitude toward the meeting and public input as a whole.

The truly depressing aspect of this fiasco is thinking about what improvements for bicyclists could have been accomplished with two decades of wasted funding and the time and energy of Staff and residents.

----Lessons from its history----

I am going to highlight selected aspects of this history that have broader relevance. I have no interested in recapitulating or otherwise revising the deliberations of this specific project.

It all began back in the early 1990s. Other cities were developing creekside bicycle and pedestrian trails, so of course it just wouldn't do for Palo Alto not to have one of its very own. Inspired by the Stevens Creek Trail (Mountain View and Cupertino), the decision was to have a trail follow Matadero Creek from the Baylands to just short of Foothill Expressway and then continue to Skyline. The citizens committee, supported by Staff, decided that since some other creeks had broad public lands along them, including greenbelts, then that must necessarily be the case for Matadero Creek. Except that it wasn't.

First problem--which is how I got involved--was that in my neighborhood (Barron Park) there was no such space along the creek. Some houses were built close to the top of the creek bank, with a few overhanging the creek (not allowed for new construction), and private ownership extended to the middle of the creek. I told the committee members of this (repeatedly), but their dogma gave them such certainty that they refused to even look for themselves on their way home from the nearby meeting. Consequently, the City approved a plan that had a bike path slicing through people's houses (not just their yards).(foot#2) Aside: At some unknown point years later, sanity/reality prevailed and this portion of the path quietly disappeared from the plan.

The second problem was that although there was some available space along the concrete creek channel between Bayshore Road and Alma, what was being envisioned wouldn't fit in that space. Not by a long shot. The vision was based upon the greenbelt portions of the Stevens Creek Trail--which are at least 100 feet wide, and in many places much wider. What is available on Matadero is a roughly 15-foot wide access/maintenance road that is also the route for underground high-capacity electrical power transmission lines that feed a series of substations in southwestern Palo Alto, including the Research Park. Both of these severely limit the changes/improvements that can be made. If you read the comments on the news article, you can get some sense for how many different things were envisioned to be crammed into this narrow space.

The third problem is that this access road didn't provide a continuous path. The extent of this problem has been noted repeatedly over the years. Although we didn't have Google Maps when this proposal first arose, enough of these problems were readily apparent simply by going to the bridges and looking up and down the channel. Listening to the advocates, I often wondered whether they had even bothered to do this.

The fourth basic problem was that the proposed bike path is very close to the back of houses, often 20-25 feet (possibly closer). Recognize that the typical layout of a house assumes noise from the front (street) and a quieter back. Putting a bike trail close to the quiet zones of a house can be quite an imposition. Advocates claim that a similar situation prevails along the Stevens Creek Trail, without any problem. Although I have not ridden all of that trail, I don't remember houses being anywhere near that close.(foot#3)

In the meetings and online discussions, residents along the creek have talked about the impact of the proposed bikeway on their homes. Unfailingly, some advocate dismisses this as being about the resale value, failing to see the home as having value as a place to live. I don't know if this is cluelessness, provocation, arrogance, or simply a sign of the times.

----Conclusion----

The decision just made by Council could have easily been made two decades ago. There was more than enough information and warning flags to indicate that the proposal wouldn't work. But there was a lack of leadership by City Hall. The advocates weren't challenged to address the problems that the realists pointed out. Nor were the advocates required to choose a coherent vision for the path, that is, a set of goals and features that would fit in the available space. Nor were the advocates required to even acknowledge the negative impacts on other residents, much less think about how they might be ameliorated. But it was also a similar failure of leadership within the advocacy groups.

In business pitch for a startup or an internal project, one of, often the, most important component is who are the leaders and champions. Champions often include people within the expected customer groups and other "thought leaders" who can be project to help provide visibility for the product or project. Lacking credible, competent, committed champions gets a project labeled a nonstarter. But with City Hall, the champions for approved projects can simply be people who are enthusiastic about a vision and unconcerned about the practical details.

Again, it is depressing to think what could have been accomplished with what was wasted on this nonstarter.

----Footnotes----
1. "Palo Alto hits the brakes on Matadero Creek bikeway: Physical and political obstacles hamper once popular bike project in Midtown", Palo Alto Online, 2016-06-21.
Notable commenters reiterating facts-on-the-ground from both the Council meeting and the article itself: "Midtown Biker" (Jun 21, 2016 at 5:25 pm), "maggie" (Jun 21, 2016 at 5:35 pm), Tom Dubois (Council Member) (Jun 25, 2016 at 1:22 pm)

2. The Barron Park segment of Matadero Creek is lined with mature oaks, and thus Google Maps (Earth view) gives you only a rough sense of how close houses are to the top of the creek bank, requiring you to extrapolate the position of the creek. If the location of the creek on the map does immediately register with you, start behind Barron Park Elementary School and follow the canopy north to the intersection of Josina and Matadero Avenues, and south to the eastern edge of Bol Park.

3. If you want to use Google Maps to compare the environs:
Stevens Creek Trail in Cupertino (map and Street View from Stevens Creek Blvd) and in Mountain View (map) where it is primarily in the buffer zone along Highway 85.
Matadero Creek channel northeast of Ross Road (toward Louis Road): Earth View map and Street View. In the current Earth view, the top of the wall casts shadows that take on the appearance of a dotted line. Recognize that the sediment that you see is the middle of the concrete channel, with the adjacent concrete also being inside the channel.

----
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.

Comments

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Jun 28, 2016 at 8:09 am

Palo Alto has perfected the art of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Can we have some kind of bike passage over 101 already?!


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Not a Troll, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 28, 2016 at 8:48 am

Good article, but why would anyone want to engage in a discussion here when you state that comments may be deleted at your discretion?

Please feel free to delete this comment.

[[Blogger: Normally I might delete such a comment as being a violation of the rules (a reader flagged it as "objectionable"). However, since a major point of this blog entry is people refusing to participate productively in a deliberation, I am leaving this is an example. Although the use of "discretion" is technically accurate, the word carries an implication of arbitrariness regarding my decisions, rather than me applying established rules. This is pushing the boundary of deliberate misrepresentation (a violation). The rule on misrepresentation is intended to keep discussions centered on facts and perspectives and to cut off the unproductive back-and-forth that occurs when someone tries to "win" (or be a troll) by misrepresenting other viewpoints. If a commenter is not willing to respect others by accurately portraying what was said, they don't get to participate.
]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident 2, a resident of Midtown,
on Jun 28, 2016 at 8:54 am

If you are in the Fairmeadow neighborhood, there is a bike underpass on Meadow that is as direct a bike route across 101 as is possible.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Max Hauser, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 28, 2016 at 9:22 am

"I told the committee members of this (repeatedly), but their dogma gave them such certainty that they refused to even look for themselves on their way home from the nearby meeting. Consequently, the City approved a plan that had a bike path slicing through people's houses (not just their yards). . ."

Another concrete instance of the "analytic" vs "aspirational" personality-type conflict you've written about before? Web Link-

It seems like this blog post (like many of yours) highlights aspects of human nature, important (or dominant) in local policy-making processes.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Kevin Ohlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jun 28, 2016 at 9:49 am

Excellent insight: don't let the facts on the ground (literally) get in the way. I get the same sense when there are discussions about roundabouts. They work so well in other places, why not here? Of course, most places have roundabouts occupying acres of land, not a potted plant plopped in the middle of a low-traffic residential intersection.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on Jun 28, 2016 at 4:15 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Doug - Thank you for your usual thoughtful analysis.

In my opinion Palo Alto needs to start every potential project with a clearly articulated statement of what is trying to be accomplished. In this case the problem statement should have been to determine the best routing for an East-West bike path in this general area.

It is foolish to latch onto a particular solution and then try to force that solution to work. Think Matadero Creek Bikeway or [[removed: additional topic that invites a large digression by other commenters]].


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Jun 29, 2016 at 10:49 am

Resident 2: That bike passage is closed about six months of the year (in winter, due to potential flooding)


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Face it. That trail was never a priority at city hall, or they would have actually gone out of tge office, inspected the proposed route, said OMG, and immediately put the notion out of its misery.

It appears instead that somebody at 250 Hamilton looked at a map, drew the route, put it aside, quit, someone else got the task, called the usual neighborhood meetings, got reassigned to higher priority items, someone else got the task, ... , until the process drifted to its final train wreck.

Kinda like the original storm drain upgrade process.

Expect more. It's what they know over there.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 29, 2016 at 1:29 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Curmudgeon

The route was draw by residents -- members of the (citizens') Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee's subcommittee on bicycling. I know -- I was present at those meetings, and raising the ignored inconvenient facts.

On being a non-priority: The path has been an off-and-on priority of City Staff, supported by bicycling advocates. Remember, providing service to a broad range of bicyclists has routinely been a non-priority for Staff/advocates -- their priority has often been how Palo Alto gets rated as "bicycle friendly" by various national groups that look at paper, not facts-on-the-ground.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 29, 2016 at 5:52 pm

"The route was draw by residents... "

Geez. Any of them working for the city these days?


"-- their priority has often been how Palo Alto gets rated as "bicycle friendly" by various national groups that look at paper... "

Awards--the reliable civic motivator. I recall Mayor Dena Mossar, wife of the editor of a prominent local bike newsletter editor, gushing over the Platinum Award the city would surely receive from a bike group for opening the Homer Ave bike/ped tunnel, proudly describing how the award was made of aluminum. Those people over at 250 are very easily dazzled.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Exaggeration, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jun 30, 2016 at 7:02 am

Doug, there is only one national organization that gives awards to "Bicycle Friendly Communities": the League of American Bicyclists. They DON"T just look at a paper application; they ask for input from local reviewers who know the area. I have been a reviewer for several cities in the area, including Palo Alto, and I have seen my comments reflected in the final output of the process and feedback to the applicants.

I also know Dena Mossar's husband, and he is not and has never been the editor of a bike newsletter.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Exaggeration, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jun 30, 2016 at 7:05 am

I would also like to point out that many "bicycle advocates" have not supported this boondoggle. They could see clearly from the start that it was not feasible and preferred the money to be spent elsewhere. I believe that the bicycle advisory committee has recommended several times that the on-creek alignment be abandoned, but it was kept alive by politicians and neighborhood groups. The fact that the studies continued shows that the "bike lobby" is not as unified or as powerful as it is sometimes made out to be.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 30, 2016 at 12:39 pm

"I also know Dena Mossar's husband, and he is not and has never been the editor of a bike newsletter."

You never read "The Turning Crank"? He was a very prominent contributor at the time. Maybe my memory overpromoted him.

Whatever, the specific example of our city's endemic bedazzlement over expensively-earned baubles holds. [[...]]


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 30, 2016 at 2:18 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "I would also like to point out that many "bicycle advocates" have not supported this boondoggle. They could see clearly from the start that it was not feasible and preferred the money to be spent elsewhere...."

I don't remember this in the public discussions or news accounts. That is not to say it wasn't mentioned, but rather that it wasn't presented prominently enough to influence the deliberations. This goes to my point in "Conclusion" about a failure of leadership among advocacy groups.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 30, 2016 at 2:32 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "...national organization... They DON"T just look at a paper application..."

I was making inferences from meetings on the Bike Plan.
- The emphasis was on quantity (miles) of bikeways, with quality/utility issues routinely dismissed as unimportant.
- "Wayfaring" signage was important, even on sections of bikeways where there were no cross-streets/paths, only small cul-de-sacs. Again, quantity, not utility.
- The amount of emphasis put on having bikes on congested arterials when there are paralleling bikeways 1-2 blocks away. The explanation is always bureaucratic -- bicycling on every street -- ignoring utility and safety.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 2, 2016 at 1:02 pm

"The explanation is always bureaucratic -- bicycling on every street -- ignoring utility and safety."

More likely there's a platinum award, on an genuine aluminum plate, for towns that push bicycling on every street.

When weighing multiple hypotheses to explain screwy city hall actions, rank those involving ego topmost.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jul 2, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Re: Curmudgeon

Yes it is definitely ego, where the metric is bureaucratic.
In the "Around Town" section of the July 1 issue of the Palo Alto Weekly, this is explicitly acknowledged under "Pedaling Toward Platinum":
"This would mean making progress on some of the city's weaknesses when it comes to biking, including insufficient bike lanes on major collector streets;... Keene said."


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 2, 2016 at 5:50 pm

Spooky. I swear I hadn't read that before making my comment. Some verities are reliably eternal.

[[Blogger: The cited statement is far from the first: the goal of "Going platinum" has long been talked about by the City. But the coincidental timing is "spooky".]]


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by maggie, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Jul 5, 2016 at 7:14 pm

maggie is a registered user.

A Doug Moran

"I include those who can't be bothered to learn the facts (basic due diligence) and those that don't let facts that they have been made aware of influence their opinions."

Couldn't agree more, especially on paloaltoonline!

Thank you for another thoughtful blog.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 13, 2016 at 2:01 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Interesting editorial, but I think some of the explanations for why one would support a path along Matadero Creek are too reductionistic and oppositional, especially in the echo chamber of the comments section. I was and am a proponent of opening the access roads along the creek to the public between Alma and the Bay, and it has nothing to do with ego, prestige nor bureaucracy as is suggested in some of the last comments.

(I am not referring here to the upper stretch of Matadero, west of El Camino, for which the early access proposals in the 90's predated my time of greater community engagement. I was not aware of these early proposals until reading Doug's article, and agree that access to that stretch would be problematic in the residential areas.)

In 2002-2003 I volunteered as a Creek Monitor with Acterra for the stretch of Matadero Creek from Middlefield to the Bay. I got an official badge giving me permission to jump the fence and walk along the access & maintenance road, and I was tasked with reporting any problems such as pollution or fish die-offs. It was interesting to see and hear the wildlife in the creek, and depressing that it was channelized in concrete with its attendant ecological damage such as impeding native frogs' ability to access the creek for breeding and laying eggs. A friend who grew up a block from the creek reported that as a child he would see lots of the frogs around but with channelization, other flood control projects, pollution, etc. now he almost never sees those frogs anymore.

Ever since then I thought it would be great if the public was permitted to access the creek as well, and hoped that it would help foster a connection to nature, place, and community, and that people would be increasingly interested in protecting and restoring nature. While de-channelizing the creek is a long-term, perhaps long-shot vision, there are smaller more attainable steps we could take now to facilitate wildlife access to the creek. (Incidentally, while researching when the creek was channelized, I found this video, "Our Dream of Living Streams" by the Silicon Valley Watershed Alliance: Web Link)

When the Bicycle Transportation Plan of 2003 was being developed, it and its potential projects were reviewed by the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee. I was a proponent of including the eastern stretch of Matadero from Alma to the Bay as a potential long-term project, for the reasons I outlined above. For me it wasn't about elite commuter cycling, nor gaining prestigious biking awards for the city. It was solely for the purpose of enabling the community to engage with a natural element which wends its way through the city, visible but overlooked, semi accessible yet forbidden.

The long-term plan of Matadero Creek access was preserved in the Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan of 2012, I again supported that plan. I was thrilled when a committee was formed to examine it's feasibility in more depth: finally this thing might come to fruition. I was dismayed but not surprised by the literal NIMBY opposition to the idea. I think the greatest travesty was that the Water District made changes to the access road which created apparently insurmountable hurdles to a creek access path, and the district and city failed to communicate effectively about how to meet the needs of the Water District without ruining the feasibility of the creek trail. My understanding is that it is those recent changes which, at least for the moment, put the kibosh on this project. So, I blame bureaucracy, a lack of holistic planning, and probably a dose of yielding to NIMBYism for the suspension of this project, but hope that one day the community will be granted free access to the creek where feasible. A report from the aforementioned committee, "Midtown Connector Feasibility Study" is available at Web Link starting at page 11 of the 111 page pdf, and includes delineation of feasible and constrained sections.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 13, 2016 at 2:55 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "I was and am a proponent of opening the access roads along the creek to the public between Alma and the Bay, and it has nothing to do with ego, prestige nor bureaucracy as is suggested in some of the last comments."

Notice that Cedric is speaking about his own priorities and not what came through at the meetings.
While the reports mention access to the creeks for residents, the primary emphasis is on it as a bikeway, and it is too narrow to do both. You can see this in the recent discussions on the shared Bike/Pedestrian along Bol Park. To the complaints of cyclists speeding by pedestrians, the typical response from cyclists is that the problem is that the path is too narrow. This path has room for pedestrians to step onto the dirt at the side if they are aware of the approach of cyclists. Based on the position of bicycle advocates in that discussion, the access roads are not wide enough to be shared Bike/Ped paths.

Note: I too would like to see better access to the creeks. I was deeply involved in the latter stages of the creek bypass project that allowed Matadero Creek above El Camino to not be channelized, but stay as a largely natural creek bed. My concern is having the access road be a place you encourage parents to bring their children to look at nature and to encourage usage by that group of cyclists who believe that it is up to others to be aware of their presence and get out of their way so that they can speed along unimpeded.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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