Pershall's Folly


Why Cyclists Don't Trust City Hall

Strictly an Individual Rant which does not represent the opinions of my employer, my family, my friends, or anyone else but me.
Every now and then, you'll hear local City officials bewail the "antagonistic" attitude of the local cycling community. Santa Cruz cherishes a myth about itself, i.e. that Santa Cruz is a "bike friendly" place -- cyclists should be grateful to live and ride here.

There's some truth to that rumour. There are plenty of towns in California less bike-friendly than Santa Cruz. But when it comes right down to it, the entire USA is pretty much bike-hostile (you just can't deify the automobile without penalizing the cyclist). Santa Cruz is better than nearby Watsonville; better than bustling San Jose, just over the mountains; but it's hardly bicycle paradise.

Local cycling conditions are not that great; by European standards, very bad indeed. The local Public Works Dept and Traffic Dept are very traditionally car-centered. Millions of dollars are routinely, even eagerly, spent on automobile facilities and the encouragement of driving -- road widening, parking structures, etc. -- but bike projects are usually small, ill-publicized, inadequately discussed, and often very controversial. The local bike community is diverse; it comprises (at least) extreme sports cyclists, recreational cyclists, and daily (carfree) cyclists. The desires of these different groups don't always line up for an easy consensus, so it really is hard for the City to "please all of the people all of the time."

This may not be a sufficient excuse or explanation, however. The City's Public Works Deparment and Recreation Department do seem to go off at a tangent sometimes, installing or recommending bike facilities that are anywhere from sub-optimal to completely useless. They have been known to create bike lanes that last for a few blocks (or less) and then vanish; they have been known to propose "bike paths" that lead from nowhere to nowhere. It takes a lot of time and effort to poll the public and find out what people need and want; sometimes the City seems to want to skip that step, and hire or appoint "experts" to tell the public what they want. Often, this doesn't work out and there are, understandably, hard feelings.

A recent incident (which is, we hope, far less costly than some larger planning blunders) serves to illustrate a typical bureaucratic fumble, and the bad PR and resentment engendered by poor process. Mistrust and antagonism between the bike-riding public and the local government seem likely to be exacerbated by "Pershall's Folly."

This Fall, in the pavement outside a popular local restaurant, there recently appeared this new and bizarre device:

About the same time, an article in the local paper (entitled 'Locking Into a Good Idea') waxed enthusiastic about a "pilot project of recessed bike racks." To quote the Sentinel writer:
Bye-bye cumbersome bike racks. Thanks to one local resident, a new, streamlined breed of racks is poised to replace the old ones currently crowding Santa Cruz sidewalks. [...] Pershall said the city has been extremely responsive to his idea... as part of a pilot program by Public Works and Parks and Recreation.
What it boils down to is that a local resident, businessman, and amateur inventor (Terry Pershall) had designed a novel device -- a "retracting" bike lock post -- and somehow got approval (and money?) from the City to install a couple in public places. It's not clear exactly how this happened, how much money was spent, or who approved the project.

The City claims that the Pershall Posts have been installed "at no cost":

We have agreed to install two of these racks: one at Zachary's and one at Fortier's Opticians on Walnut Avenue. We have not agreed at this point to install any more bicycle parking racks. We are receiving the racks at no cost to the city. One of the reasons we agreed to do it was to see what users' response to the installation would be.

It's hard to imagine a sidewalk facility, involving concrete drilling and a sub-surface mechanism, being installed without any involvement of City personnel (and attendant salary costs). However, the cost of the installation is only one issue. The City's "fait accompli" process is probably more of a problem for most local cyclists. As one of them pointed out,

If you wanted user feedback, a number of sources would have been glad to review it on paper. The SCCRTC bike committee, the CTC bike subcommittee, or bicyclist groups like People Power or the Hub.

Cyclists would indeed have been happy to review this rack design on paper; they have freely pointed out its many design flaws in messages to the local bicycle mailing list. Almost all the flaws which have been documented there could have been discussed before any sidewalk space was devoted to it. However, the public was never invited to comment. The City's review process in this case consists of installing the Gizmo and then (how?) evaluating its acceptance rate. Exactly who is monitoring the installation and how a rating will be established, are questions also at present unanswered.

This lack of discussion prior to the installation is rather odd, because the local cycling community is not just vocal; it's very engaged, very pro-active about improving bike facilities. Local cyclists have put considerable effort into documenting and evaluating various bike rack designs and installations (see Don Fong's Bike Parking pages). So one would think the City would rush to exploit this body of local knowledge, and to consult with the cycling community when it considers improving or altering bike parking facilities. The cycling community needs and uses such facilities every day, and presumably understands what works and what doesn't.

The verdict so far, after the fact, is overwhelmingly negative. In summary, local cyclists find the strange new rack design impractical, inconvenient, and in fact more likely to discourage rather than encourage cycling.

The overblown Sentinel article seemed to threaten the replacement of existing, very functional "inverted-U" racks with the bizarre "Gizmo". Naturally enough, this has alarmed local cyclists. But what upset them more, I think, was the lack of communication by the City. There have been enough incidents where communication and planning process has been poor, that some cyclists have become cynically convinced that the City doesn't give a damn what cyclists want or think.

In this particular case accountability seems to have reached a real nadir. One City official responded to vigorous email criticism of the Gizmo as follows:

Your comments are not unexpected. I try to find some positive value to my experiences. Even your comments have some good comments about the usefulness of these devices.

You should consider that the City is at least willing to try different options to make it easier for bicyles in around town.

Given that the email commentary on the Gizmo documents exactly how it would make life harder for cyclists, this official response seems to support the case of those who claim the City staff "doesn't get it" or "is clueless." But apparently not completely cluelss, if cyclists' comments are "not unexpected." If a negative response was expected, then doesn't that mean the City staff knew from the beginning that this was not a good design and that cyclists would not like it? And if this was known or suspected in advance, why did they forge ahead with this "pilot project"? As one critic opined:

unfortunately, Pershall's "innovation" makes life harder, not easier, for bicyclists. it is so bad that i find it hard to believe the experiment was in any way motivated by a desire to help bicyclists. on the contrary, its poor design seems to reflect a complete indifference, if not antipathy, to our needs.

There are many, many problems with bicycle and pedestrian facilities throughout the City, which have been the subject of repeated complaints, suggestions, meetings, etc. There is certainly no shortage of good, worthwhile, important problems to tackle.

Yet, instead of addressing these urgent problems, the City in this case seems to have embarked on a undiscussed field test of a fundamentally flawed gizmo by a local amateur inventor. This would be just another charming eccentricity to add to the character of a charming town, if it there weren't already a perception on the street that the City public works and traffic departments don't take bikes seriously. The apparent frivolity of this "pilot project," the secrecy (whether deliberate or accidental) with which it was conducted, and the apparent threat to real, functional bike parking (as reported by the local paper), make this incident a real morale-damager for local cyclists and a bad PR hit for the City.

Cyclists are saying that the Pershall Gizmo is designed to suit the preferences of downtown merchants who stigmatize bikes and bike racks as "cluttering" City sidewalks, not to suit the needs of any sane cyclist. The City's claim that they are trying to make life easier for cyclists rings very false in this case. Given the eternal difficulty of overcoming car-centrism in City planning offices and the severe inequity between funding devoted to bikes and transit and that devoted to the automobile, it's not surprising that "Pershall's Folly" strikes some local cyclists as living proof of bad faith on the City's part; of a bias against bikes and in favour of cars; and of an arrogant disdain for public process.

As one local cyclist posted to a mailing list, in frustration:

in addition to its sometimes-admirable willingness to experiment, this city also has an unfortunate history of charging blindly ahead with misguided ideas, while shutting its ears to public input . . . frankly i am puzzled by public works' handling of this case. and i think i'm not the only one.

Even if the funding and energy the City put into this "pilot" project was minimal by public works standards, it's still a diversion of scarce resources and meagre attention from bread-n-butter priorities like

When the City spends public money on a frivolous, impractical concept like "Pershall's Folly," without even bothering to confer with the people who ride bikes every day and might actually use the facility, cyclists may be forgiven for getting very depressed. The message that seems to be sent here is a sad one: that to the City of Santa Cruz, bikes and cyclists just don't count.

True, the City has devoted some resources and some staff to bike issues and facilities. But local cyclists see a consistent pattern of heavy investment in automobile infrastructure, a consistent pampering of car drivers, while cyclists remain the "poor relations" of public planning. The unheralded, undiscussed appearance of "Pershall's Folly," the foolish and alarming puff-piece in the local paper, and City staff's weak attempts to defend this silly episode as an attempt to improve bike facilities, all make a very unfortunate impression. This is not how a City substantiates its claims to be bike-friendly -- this is how it undermines them.

Drop by Zachary's. Have a look for yourself at "Pershall's Folly" and imagine it in daily use. Now imagine an eccentric local inventor being permitted to design our next parking structure for cars. Imagine car drivers, let's say, dealing with parking meters that have to be manually hauled up from below pavement level before use. Imagine car drivers squatting by their cars, heaving on recalcitrant sub-surface mechanisms, getting their hands and clothing greasy and dirty, just in order to park their cars and go shopping. How likely would the City be to describe such a system as "making life easier for drivers"?

Now I wonder, does the City really have a legitimate beef about the "bad attitude" of local cyclists, or is it just possible that the cyclists have a legitimate beef about the bad attitude of the City?
De Clarke