On participatory planning and bus rapid transit

An opinion article in the Oakland Tribune discussing animosity against the AC Transit Bus Rapid Transit throughout the San Francisco East Bay corridor.

An East Bay business owner wrote an opinion article on the Oakland Tribune discussing his opposition to the proposed AC Transit Bus Rapid Transit Corridor, that is currently going through the planning process.

Center BRT lanes require removal of parking spaces to place automobile lanes closer to the street curb.

He opposes the project mainly because he fears with the loss of parking spaces, there would be a loss of customers, who depend on the automobile to carry their goods from stores in the corridor. This is due to the placement of the BRT lanes on the center of the road, which requires some loss of parking spaces as the automobile lanes move closer to the curb.

However, he explicitly states that he is “very disappointed with the approach AC Transit leaders have taken” in the planning process. For example, he believes that the planning staff “ha[s] not negotiated in good faith with the merchants and property owners on Telegraph throughout the BRT process.”

In other words, he has a sense of distrust over how the bus rapid transit corridor is being implemented because he feels his needs are not being adequately met.

The people commenting argue that bus rapid transit can provide a ‘economic boon’ for the businesses in the corridor with more frequent and faster bus service. What is interesting is that they are primarily people who are employed in the transportation / planning professions.

So the question is, which side is right? The merchant or the AC Transit planning staff plus the planners who are commenting on the issue.

Actually, I believe both sides are correct, but let’s get the point of view of the merchants for a second.

This video above shows how AC Transit engages communities in public meetings; through long, PowerPoint presentations and large discussions, sometimes filled with arguments that  seemingly bring more confusion.

If anything, even if the planning staff has explicitly stated that only some, not all, parking spaces will be lost, there has to be some miscommunication or misunderstanding between him and the staff.

I’d like to raise this simple question: are there any ways, from an artistic, a visual, an interactive perspective to create a dialogue that brings both sides informed about their perspectives? For example, I’m talking infographics, videos, short documentaries, games, etc. that make an emotional impact such that the merchant trusts the planning staff?

For example, how can the business owner understand that frequent and faster service, means that people within the corridor have more opportunities to take transit to his shop? How many customers will come to his shop for every 5 minutes the bus passes by his store, versus the people who park on the parking space? I don’t have an answer for this question, but this does address the merchant’s immediate need: how to bring customers back in a struggling neighborhood commercial district?

Similarly, for the planning staff, I would like to challenge them to have better community engagement tools to understand the users of the bus riders more; place a face on the bus riders. They have to put themselves in the shoes of the merchant owners: who are the customers, where are they coming from? How many of them would be able to take transit, if the frequent service existed?

Jarrett Walker, international transport consultant once said, “My goal is not to make you share my values, but to provide perspectives that help you clarify yours.” That is the role of the planner. Similarly, what tools enable those perspectives?

 

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