By Douglas Moran
Nonstarter killed after 2 decadesUploaded: 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.
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.
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.
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