Public engagement is an idea as old as the ancient Greeks. Men regularly gathered in the heavily trafficked public marketplace for debate about issues of the day. The concept has stood the test of time and is attributed to the start of democracy. And there’s good news. Over the centuries, we’ve made substantial progress.Women, once excluded, are now an integral part of the workplace, marketplace, and our political process.
From that prospective, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is to be commended for starting their three-year Plan Bay Area 2050 with “Public Engagement Phase I: Narrowing Down the Strategies” (Oct-Nov). Community education and engagement are a crucial part of gaining support for long-term plans. This two-month engagement phase kicks off plans to develop a 30-year plan, which covers transportation, housing, the environment, and the economy.
For more about PBA 2050, see https://mtc.ca.gov/our-work/plans-projects/plan-bay-area-2050.
The bad news is that MTC’s definition of public engagement has regressed from the original ideal. With Plan Bay Area 2050, MTC has reduced public engagement to simplistic “popup events” with post-it notes substituting for real problem solving. Instead of genuine discussion, public debate is reduced to 1:1 conversations with MTC popup facilitators who spout canned responses.
Rather than encouraging everyone to think outside the box, MTC restricts feedback about the Plan to the size of a small post-it note, placed next to a childish smiley face (“like”) or sad face (“dislike”), or in a row designated by a little light bulb (“idea”). This, mind you, is in response to data and plan and studies consisting of hundreds of pages.
In light of this, let me tell you about how MTC’s Public Engagement process is actually being conducted around the San Francisco Bay Area.
Popup “public engagement”
On Thursday morning October 10th, I drove to Contra Costa College in San Pablo to attend an event that the MTC “meetings and events” page listed at a street address that turned out to be across from the College athletic field. Since it failed to list a specific location, it took awhile to find my way to campus and then to the Student Center, where the “event” was being held. The notice said the event would be from 10 am to 1 pm, when 99% of adults are working.
Two MTC hosts had a card table set up with two poster boards, outside the student union. Choosing this location for an opportunity to gather “community input” made little sense because most students were in a hurry to get to class, and much more interested in studying, grabbing lunch, or socializing than hearing about “30-year plans.” So, only a few stopped and talked. And, even for those who did, it strains credulity to believe that a few minutes of casual interaction was in any way sufficient for them to grasp the complexity of plans that impact jobs, housing, businesses, transportation, and pretty much everything else for decades to come.
From San Pablo, I drove to the next event being held at lunchtime, from 12 noon to 2 pm, at the Richmond Library. Upon arriving, I picked up the “Richmond Pulse: Youth Voice and Community News,” printed in both English and Spanish. Page 2 listed “Local Happenings” and on Page 17 there was a calendar, but the MTC Public Engagement event wasn’t listed.
Then I spotted the MTC hosts, who stood, mostly silent, by poster boards similar to the ones at the Contra Costa event. This was, after all, inside a library, where wall signs reminded everyone of the protocol to “Please Be Quiet.”
Most people walked out past the MTC hosts, offering a polite nod, and again with only a few stopping to whisper for a few minutes.
My experiences seemed so bizarre that I decided to ask other people I knew about their experiences at other such “popup” events held my MTC.
Kathleen Jenkins, a candidate for the Orinda City Council in 2018, went to a popup event on Thursday, October 17th. It was just getting light out when she arrived in the early hours of the morning, at 6:45 am. The event was scheduled from 6:30 am to 8:30 am – also known as “rush hour.” Believe it or not, this incredibly inconvenient time (what are you typically doing at 6:45 am?) was the only public engagement activity offered in her community.
Kathleen reported, “MTC set up two poster boards at Casual Carpool, a narrow 48” stretch of sidewalk where people line up to catch a carpool. It goes without saying that nobody, at that time of the morning, is interested in talking about a 30-year plan. To MTC’s credit, they offered coffee, but it wasn’t enough to induce conversation, and people they approached quickly turned back to their cell phone or the newspaper.
Kathleen went on to say, “One of the MTC hosts asked me about my concerns. I pointed out that since Plan Bay Area 2013, congestion has gotten worse, housing prices have gone up, and homelessness has sky-rocketed. The plan had even warned that the greatest negative impact would be on the most vulnerable. The host got defensive and quipped, ‘Oh, I guess you’re one of them!’
She offered Kathleen a go-away tot-bag with the logo “Be Region Able.”
In San Francisco, Tes Welborn, president of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, went in search of the Public Engagement event at San Francisco State University Quad on Wednesday, October 16th (11:30 am -1:30 pm). In her email to me, Tes wrote that she couldn’t find the event. “There were no signs.”
Undeterred, on Friday, Tes went to another scheduled event at the Farmer’s Market at Civic Center (10 am -1 pm). She reported,
“When I arrived, a middle-aged white man and a younger Chinese-speaking woman were setting up. I heard them ask, ‘Where's the script?’ They had flimsy easels that kept blowing over. The posters, in English and Chinese, displayed the general strategies of the Plan, but I didn’t find the strategies listed on their website. They gave away bags of chips and some people were given the tote bag with the slogan "Be Region Able."
“There are three farmers' markets that meet at this location during the week. The Friday market is the least well-attended. I tallied as MTC hosts talked to about 50 people while another 500-750 passed by without stopping. An event organized by a local tenants’ group or a nonprofit housing developer would have drawn more of the desired "under-represented" populations.”
MTC’s public engagement efforts have been controversial for many years.
In 2008, responding to the threat of climate change, the legislature passed California SB-375 (Steinberg), also known as “The California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act.”The law required that every region develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by zoning to build high-density housing near transit. The SCS is a part of a larger planning process called Plan Bay Area.
Transportation expert Tom Rubin, a veteran of MTC planning, remembers the controversial process MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) used leading up to the adoption of Plan Bay Area 2013.
Rubin explains that like today, MTC hosted a series of meetings around the nine-county Bay Area. However, when compared to the post-it note engagement of today, the meetings of 2013 were substantive, albeit manipulative. The workshops encouraged pre-registration. Participants were fed sandwiches. The sessions included educational handouts, presentations, Q&A, and break-out groups. Facilitators sat at every table to “help” the group move to priorities and decisions.
Still, attendees felt manipulated by the tight control by facilitators and their sense that outcomes were pre-determined. People objected, tempers sometimes flared. Some meetings became a ruckus between informed and genuinely interested members of the public and scripted MTC/ABAG staff.
You would think MTC and ABAG might have learned something from all this. But you’d be wrong.
Instead of improving an interactive, public engagement process, MTC and ABAG have doubled down to make public engagement a farce—simply a matter of fulfilling a mandatory, regulatory requirement. While we desperately need planning and problem-solving with keen knowledge and substance, good will, and widely shared buy-in, MTC offers us catch-phrases and smiley faces.
We could do so much better
Instead of Silicon Valley companies and charitable foundations putting millions of dollars into adversarial YIMBY campaigns, they could fund initiatives that offer the best in group problem solving, facilitation, and collaboration into our community planning process. With that we might start to gain insight into achieving win/win solutions to the complex challenges we face in housing, homelessness, the jobs/housing imbalance, unfair wage and tax policies, and a host of other problems.
If we assume that all parties want the best for our entire 101 Bay Area cities and nine counties, we need to find a middle-ground between the contentious meetings of 2013 and the wasteful gamesmanship of popup events and post-it notes.
I’m very interested to hear from other Bay Area residents their experiences at these MTC popup events. And if you haven’t attended one, please do so. The meeting schedule is in the website link below. Go to a popup event near you. Talk to the MTC hosts and other members of the public. Take pictures and videos. Leave comments. Share the attached flyer and send a report back to me, using the attached form.
It’s time we returned to the ideals of the Greeks and make public engagement a meaningful exercise, a source of pride, and a pillar of our democratic process.