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By Douglas Moran

A manipulative candidate questionnaire

Uploaded: Sep 8, 2016

The severe limitations of multiple-choice exams are well known, and I expect that all of you have your own horror stories.(foot#1) Despite this, the local advocacy group Palo Alto Forward (PAF) sent City Council candidates a questionnaire that was dominated by poorly formulated multiple-choice questions. From this questionnaire, you are likely to learn more about Palo Alto Forward than about the candidates. You may also find my critique of this questionnaire useful in your reading of other questionnaires.

My first reaction to the questionnaire was that its authors had no appreciation of resource limitations, conflicting priorities, and tradeoffs, even at the basic level of someone who has only reached a pre-management position, such as "project leader". My second reaction was that the authors had little/no experience working the issues, but that had only read about them. This was surprising because the contact person is Eric Rosenblum who is a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission. My third reaction was that my first two reactions were wrong--the questionnaire was so relentlessly biased in its statement of the choices offered the candidates that the intent was not to learn of the candidates' positions, but to provide ammunition to attack the candidates that don't support PAF's agenda.

One of the basic lesson in rhetoric is that just because something is stated as a Yes-No question doesn't mean it has a Yes or No answer. The classic example is "Have you stopped beating your wife?": Neither a Yes or a No answer allows you to deny that you had been beating your wife. (Note: I have retained the archaic word choice and attitude because it is so deeply embedded in the literature and thus is useful for search). Additional layers can be added, for example, "Do the police know that you haven't stopped beating your wife?" There are similar problems with multiple-choice questions.
Note: I am quicker than most to pick up on these implications and presuppositions because they were a significant part of my Ph.D. research.

The initial multiple-choice questions allow candidates to write 200 words to add "nuance" or details to their choice. For many candidates this is likely an exercise in futility: They could expend that, and more, simply responding to the misrepresentations and bias in the question and choices. Furthermore, PAF said in the introduction that they would be producing a "scorecard" from this--resulting in those candidates having their positions misrepresented.

You can find the full questionnaire on the PAF website.
Note: This posting was largely written before any of the candidate responses were posted online, but was held until after deadline for submissions. Thus, it is unconnected to the responses of the candidates, neither influenced by them nor an influence on them.

Four of the 11 City Council candidates responded to this questionnaire: Adrian Fine, Liz Kniss, Don McDougall, Greg Tanaka (responses). Statements by the campaigns as to why they chose whether to respond are welcome as comments.

Let me apologize in advance for the awkward and inadequate formatting, and ask your forbearance--the blogging software anticipated only simple blogs and not more complex documents such as this. The only formatting it offers is bold and a (subdued) italic--no indenting, fonts, color ...

---- General Question 1 ----

The problems begin with the very first question:
(G1) "Our identity: What kind of city should Palo Alto be in coming decades?"
The first choice for an answer is
(G1a) "A quiet suburb: great place to have young kids and a great place to retire. Not a jobs center. Example: Los Altos"
Unsurprisingly, I have not heard anyone advocating anything close to this position. For example, how would all those jobs in Stanford Research Park, Stanford Hospital, ... be made to disappear? This position is a fabrication that PAF and its allies have used to disparage those that don't fully support their agenda. Various phrasings include "return to a sleepy college town", "return to the 1950s", "Mayberry".

Another choice (third) is
(G1c) "A major job/ university center: major regional economic center, competing with neighboring cities for jobs. Major expansion of our downtown area. Example: Austin, TX".
This is position where the advocacy seems to evaporate when I have asked a few basic questions. Our problem is with an excess of companies trying to move here, open units here, and expand here, and that we have developers wanting to build more and more offices. But "competing" with other cities?
For example, various local boosters have argued that Palo Alto needs to build enough new office space so that the next Googles and Facebooks (note the plurals) don't need move to neighboring cities. But when it is pointed out the number of jobs that this would involve, those boosters disavow the logical consequences of their posturing (or vanity or hubris).(foot#2) Having to look at the numbers and do the math can be so very inconvenient. Also inconvenient is local experience that contradicts the advocacy.(foot#3)

Aside: PAF has contradictory positions on this: It argues that the local circumstances are so unique that innovative companies need to locate and expand here, and thus we need to facilitate this.(foot#4)(foot#5) And it argues that if companies are not allowed to their desired expansion in Palo Alto, they can easily move entirely out of Palo Alto.(foot#6)

Austin has severe deficiencies as an analogy, the most prominent being that it is not a built-out city like Palo Alto. Although it has been some years since I was there, Google Maps matches my recollections are that it has extensive physical space to grow (map).

The remaining choice (second) is
(G1b) "A mid-sized university town: innovative and accommodating to a wide range of ages and socio-economic backgrounds. Significant job center. Example: Boulder, CO".
Sure. Uh-huh. This feels like that classic marketing ploy of steering people to the desired choice by bracketing it with bad choices. But this bears closer consideration.

I suspect that Boulder was chosen because it is a often cited example of "The New Urbanism" that informs many of PAF's positions. But Boulder is another poor analogy for Palo Alto. First, although it is currently about the same physical size as Palo Alto, it, like Austin, has space to grow outward, although not as much (map). The second dissimilarity is its schools. Palo Alto has been making various compromises to add capacity to its schools: Some are beyond what the buildings were designed for, and many have student populations larger than what educators deem appropriate for their grade levels. Details:
Palo Alto has 17 schools: 12 Elementary Schools, 3 Middle Schools, and 2 High Schools.
Boulder, with a 50% larger population, has double that (35): 16 Elementary Schools, 11 Middle Schools and 8 High Schools. The Boulder numbers are only for schools within those city limits--the school district extends well beyond, to cities such as Lafayette and Broomfield.

Similarly for urban parks: Boulder has twice Palo Alto's--350 vs 173 acres--which is 4.4 acres per 1000 residents vs. Palo Alto's 2.7. Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan sets the target at 4 acres per 1000 residents (a common urban planning target).

Fourth, Boulder has a slower growth rate than what is being advocated for Palo Alto by groups such as PAF. Boulder's average annual growth rate over the past two decades is 0.6%. The proposed growth scenarios for the Comprehensive Plan Update that are supported by PAF and allies have growth rates of 0.7-1.5% per year. Cory Wolbach--Council member and PAF member--recently called for at least a 2% rate. ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) has an annual growth target of roughly 1% (via re-zoning).

So, is the answer that PAF seems to be steering candidates toward not one that PAF supports?

---- General Question 2 ----

Consider question
(G2) "Jobs: Housing imbalance: Palo Alto has the highest jobs: housing imbalance in the country. ..."
That claim is almost certainly false, but it depends upon the lines are drawn and what gets counted and how. Manhattan NY has a higher imbalance than Palo Alto. So does Stanford.(foot#7) The jobs-housing imbalance of Manhattan is well-known because it is a routine example in the Urban Planning literature about how job centers enable good public transit, and how density of jobs near transit is more effective in generating transit usage than housing density (literature: about twice as effective). Multiple senior Urban Planning professionals have told me that it is a perversion of the concept of jobs-housing ratio to apply it to something as small as Palo Alto--it was meant to be applied to a region. Even for a large city like San Jose, the irregular municipal boundaries (map) would produce lots of absurd situations where a short commute across the boundary is "bad" and a long commute within the boundaries is "good". The current scheme is a bureaucratic convenience (contrivance?) imposed by ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) rather than good public policy.

The first potential answer to this question is
(G2a) "The jobs: housing imbalance is not a problem; this is a natural occurrence in certain job centers, and should not influence policy."
This is a gross misrepresentation of a legitimate position--that the boundaries of cities are not a meaningful way to assess this issue, but are only a minor factor in the interaction of jobs, housing and transportation. Rather than "not influence policy", they argue that having job centers can support larger and more important goals. Recognize that ABAG and MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) pushed Palo Alto to designate the area near the California Avenue Caltrain station as a "Priority Development Area" and to change the zoning to encourage/allow more office space. Pushing for substantial job growth in the face of a housing shortage is not a contradiction for them--they simply assign targets for more housing without having to worry about how it would be accomplished.

Note: PAF's position is answer
(G2c) "The jobs: housing imbalance is a problem; our first and most significant priority should be devising policies to incentivize the construction of more housing"
and they have strongly opposed
(G2b) "The jobs: housing imbalance is a problem; our first and most significant priority should be limiting office growth and taking other measures to restrict job growth".

In considering candidates' answers to this question, recognize the importance of the phrase "our first and most significant priority". Any candidate who choose (G2b) is unlikely to be dismissing the need to build more housing, but rather obeying the "Law of Holes" ("When you find yourself deep in a hole, first stop digging").

---- Specific Question 3 ----

Another example of manipulative "choices" is their question
(S3) "Caltrain: What do you think should be done about the 'at-grade crossings'where Caltrain crosses streets?" (although some might argue for a variation of Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence").

Background: Grade-separation is widely accepted as necessary, with most of the debate about how to pay for it. The problem is that the current Caltrain schedule is close to a tipping point of greatly increasing congestion during rush hours. Without grade-separation, the right and left turn lanes on Alma would backup enough to block travel lanes, and the backup on Churchill and Charleston could reach El Camino and cause lane blockage there. Note: This is not my opinion, but assessments I have heard over the years from professional traffic engineers. The concern about backup from the current schedule was why it was decided to keep that section of Charleston at four lanes when other sections of Charleston-Arastradero were reduced to two lanes. Caltrain electrification may well create opportunities to somewhat increase the schedule without reaching the tipping point.

Background: Trenching is currently the most widely supported option. First, it uses less land than raising the tracks (on a berm). Second, a conventional vehicle underpass (or overpass) would require seizing dozens of homes.(foot#8)

The first choice is:
(S3a) "The tracks need to be trenched, to maintain the aesthetic value of Palo Alto."
Notice the implication that the trenching option is only?/primarily? about aesthetics, a misrepresentation that trivializes this position. Is this ignorance or an attempt to steer the candidates away from this answer?

The second choice is a non-answer:
(S3b) "We should evaluate all practical design options ..."
It allows the candidate to be totally noncommittal, to the point of disguising whether they have any knowledge or thoughts at all on this issue.

The third choice is the "Free lunch" choice
(S3c) "Palo Alto should consider 'value capture', using funds from new buildings near the corridor to pay for grade separation and station improvements, and should consider the amount of development it would take to pay for the designs we want".
But we all know "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." The reason that grade-separation hasn't already occurred is that it is hugely expensive--to fund that with a percentage of new development would require permitting massive additional development.(foot#9) A major danger of this approach is that governments tend to wildly overestimate benefits and revenues, partly intentionally and partly naively (sports stadiums are a prime example). This is probably the answer that the question was designed to steer candidates toward, especially given PAF's history of advocating for high rates of growth and development. Recognize how not choosing this answer can be presented: The candidate can be portrayed as against trenching even though it was the funding mechanism (massive growth) that they opposed.

The fourth choice is
(S3d) "Palo Alto should not be responsible for Caltrain improvements. We should fight against more frequent service until Caltrain pays to trench the train."
Notice the equating of grade-separation with trenching in this choice. Notice the implication that Palo Alto should be responsible for paying for Caltrain improvements, and that the candidate picking this option is shirking that responsibility. (Aside: There is a long history of various advocates asserting that Palo Altans are so rich that they can afford to pay for virtually anything that those advocates support) Most importantly, notice the choice of the loaded word "fight", which is likely intended to portray anyone supporting this as an "obstructionist", rather than someone taking a balanced approach to the various forms of transportation. Alternatively, the choice of "fight" might signal an expectation (by PAF) that Caltrain will behave irresponsibly, ignoring the impacts on others of its actions.(foot#10)

Summary: Again, three bogus options. And the remaining one is not primarily about the purported topic of the question--at-grade crossings--but rather about promoting massive development (PAF's agenda).

---- Specific Question 4 ----

The question about "Bike infrastructure" is just plain sloppy. There is no sense of what the problems are, how big they are, or how much the solutions would cost. It also allows candidates to ignore tradeoffs, such as putting more bike racks in various locations could obstruct pedestrian flow.(foot#11) This is a question designed to encourage pandering to a particular special interest groups, and to disadvantage those candidates who think in terms of cost-benefit and balancing the needs of various stakeholder groups.

How would you answer
(S4d) "Our focus on Safe Routes to School should be: increased/ kept about the same/ decreased"
SRTS is widely portrayed as a large success, having largely completed the rapid growth phase of establishing the major routes and creating a culture of bicycling among students, and having entered a phase of maintenance and lesser improvements. If this is the case, the "correct" answer would appear to be "decreased" so that some resources could be redirected to another program where they would have greater impact. But of course, no sane candidate is going to give that answer: They would anticipated being pilloried for not caring about student safety.

---- Lightning Round Question 1 ----

The final five questions are strictly multi-choice--no elaboration allowed. The first of these question is
(L1) "Encourage construction of more studio apartments and other naturally affordable smaller units."
In a market with a high demand for housing, it is that demand--not the unit size--that is going to have a disproportionate effect on price. Experience elsewhere (for example, New York City) has demonstrated that the price of such smaller units is not much less than the price of units that are significantly larger. Furthermore, experience is that teachers, City employees and various others that PAF touts as the intended residents for such units are not going to choose them.

---- Lightning Round Question 3 ----

Similarly, the third question ignores basic economics and regulatory capabilities:
(L3) "Make it easier for homeowners to build second units on their property, especially to accommodate multiple-generation households and caretakers." So who is going to be willing to pay more rent for such units? A HENRY (High Earner, Not Rich Yet)? Airbnb customers? Or a low income worker? Furthermore, PAF's history in advocating for such units has focused on them being for young professionals.

---- Lightning Round Question 2 ----

The second of these questions is
(L2) "Encourage buildings composed of apartments and condos over ground-floor retail. Current policy requires developers to build office space into any new four-story building in a commercial district."
Notice the word "encourage" -- this means establishing policies that provide incentives (subsidies in various forms) to developers to have housing, which in turn encourage the reduction of office space in commercial districts.
Recognize that policy on offices in commercial districts was not intended to include large companies such as Palantir--those companies are expected to move to an industrial park when they reach a certain size (as Facebook did).(foot#12) Instead they are intended for small businesses, including startups, professional services (accountants, small law firms, insurance brokers, consultants, counseling services, architects, ...), non-profits, ... Allowing big companies to squeeze out such businesses has hurt the University Avenue district, and the communities it is supposed to serve (businesses and residents). Should we be considering increasing the problem by incentivizing the reduction of the types of office space needed by companies that serve the community?

Replacing office space with housing is likely to damage the retail in a commercial district--one floor of offices will typically supply more customers for the retail than several floors of housing. Having retail convenient to offices reduces trips (Greenhouse Gas generation).

There are also good reasons for designing a building to have offices between the (ground floor) retail and housing--the offices provide valuable buffers for the noise and smells, thereby reducing conflicts that might result in restrictions on the operation of the businesses. Do we really want to be incentivizing bad design?

This illustrates one of the complexities of development policy: You may want to protect office space for one type of businesses while capping the growth of office space for other types (example, larger software development companies). How do you keep doing the latter from undermining the former? How do you define those categories? Does City Hall have the legal capability to enforce this? Does this sound like a "Lighting Round" decision?

---- Lightning Round Question 4 ----

Another question is
(L4) "Allow car-light and car-free housing in walkable, transit-accessible areas for residents who are able to not own a car."
But how do you know that such people will occupy that housing? Planning needs to be based on experience, not what a few advocates say they hope will happen. "Hope is not a strategy." Could we count on enforcement? Palo Alto's history of regulatory enforcement in such matters is so bad that it might as well be non-existent.

----Summary----

The intention of the above critique is first to provoke you into thinking more critically about what is really being asked in this and other questionnaires. In considering the candidates responses, whether they are aware of the undercurrents indicates their level of experience with the issues. As I noted in the introduction, questionnaires can tell you much about the group asking them, which carries implications for the candidates that they choose to endorse.

----Footnotes----
1. Multiple-choice exam horror stories: My ultimate one comes from a high-stakes SAT-like exam way back when I was in high school. For several of the questions, all of the good students saw multiple "correct" choices, and collectively the best students were able to make a strong, convincing cases for all the choices. Since there was obviously no "correct" answer, the discussion devolved into what would be scored as correct. Pointless, but illuminating. We were students at a rural high school attempting to guess the experiences and biases of adults living in a very different environment (greater New York City). It was a few years after this that the problem of hidden biases of such exams became prominent, but that criticism focused on race and largely ignored geography, culture and socioeconomics.

2. Posturing on large-scale job growth: Example: Steven Levy's comment of "Nov 15, 2013 at 2:20pm" on my blog "Palo Alto's Culture War: Analytics vs. Aspirationals". Aside: Levy is on the board of Palo Alto Forward.

3. Ignoring experience: These advocates claim that if we don't accommodate all the companies that want to locate and expand here in Palo Alto, the industry will move away. However, in the late-1970s and 1980s, the big computer chip companies expanded outside this area (for example in Oregon, Arizona and Texas), as did other parts of the computer industry and other tech industries. When Google moved to Mountain View and when Facebook moved to Menlo Park, was there an exodus of other tech companies out of Palo Alto? Of course not. Long before that, the Detroit auto industry diversified geographically with components being manufactured throughout the Midwest, enabled by railroads and the telephone. Yet some would have you believe that it is essential for the future of a company such as Google that the members of their many groups all eat in the same cafeteria to promote accidental synergies. As a reality-check, ask yourself about potential synergies between Adwords, Docs, Google Fiber and self-driving cars.

4. Local circumstances unique: "Why My Startup Isn't in Stockton: How to Further the Culture and Network Effects of Silicon Valley" by Mike Greenfield, LinkedIn, 2014-10-02. Greenfield is a PAF member and husband of PAF founder Elaine Uang.

5. "Facilitate" vs. "compete for": There is a large spectrum here with many intervening points, such as "encourage". I am ruling this off-topic because there is potentially endless argument about whether someone was speaking for PAF or themselves, and whether they were careful about their word choice (or even understood the shades of meaning).
Note: I have been told that Mike Greenfield and others in PAF have blogged about "competing" with San Francisco and other cities, but I haven't seen a piece where that was unambiguous.

6. Companies can easily move away: "Palo Alto Forward joins opposition to office space limits", Palo Alto Online, 2015-02-26.

7. Highest jobs-housing imbalance: Source: U.S. Census Bureau, latest available (2014) "American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates", Table S0804 ("Means of Transportation to Work by Selected Characteristics") and Table S2301 ("Employment Status"):
Manhattan: 2,499,438 employees total, 892,000 employed residents (derived from 62.9% of 1,418,130 residents over age 16).
Palo Alto: 95,742 employees total, 34,448 employed residents (derived from 64.2% of 53,658 residents over age 16).
"Housing" is an intuitive term, but not a properly defined metric. Using "employed residents" as that metric, Manhattan has a jobs-housing ratio of 2.80 and Palo Alto is slightly less at 2.78.
Manhattan is roughly twice the size of the developed portion of Palo Alto. If you took just the southern half, there would likely be a greater imbalance (Financial District, Empire State Building, ...)
For Stanford, there isn't 1-year data, so using the 5-year data (2010-2014):
17,945 employees total, 5,559 employed residents (derived from 44.2% of 12,557 residents over age 16)
for a ratio of 3.23 (16% higher than Palo Alto).

8. Seizing dozens of homes: First, the change in the level of the cross streets would be substantial for a significant distance and some properties would loose access to the street. Second, the change in level of the cross streets would require major changes to the Alma intersections, and the various options involve seizing houses.

9. Speculative calculation: A common guess of the cost of trenching is $1 billion. Paying that off over 30 years produces $33M/year. Assume that Caltrain and VTA pays half (remember, this is speculation, not a projection -- I think this is unrealistically high). Ask the advocates how would Palo Alto bring in $16.5M/year in development fees.

10. behave irresponsibly: We have seen this with VTA wanting to have bus-only lanes on El Camino and declaring that it wouldn't increase congestion by (falsely) assuming that parallel routes have plenty of excess capacity to absorb the traffic displaced from El Camino.

11. Bike rack tradeoffs: I discussed some of this in my blog "Another Copenhagen Syndrome" (2016-03-05) in the sections "Scaling up" and "Theft".

12. Discussion of Palantir squeezing out other business: "The CIA-backed start-up that's taking over Palo Alto", CNBC, 2016-01-12.


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An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.


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