It happens all the time. You are working away, doing absolutely nothing wrong, but deep inside the system there is an unseen flaw. Everything starts to bog down, and eventually you see it’s come to a screeching halt. The only choice you have is to reboot, a three-fingered salute done with either a flourish or a quiet sigh of desperation. You’ve all been there at some point on a computer, but it can also happen with elaborate planning processes.
The time has come to reboot the Central Corridor in Saint Paul.
I had the great pleasure of being a part of a media tour of the proposed LRT line, crammed into a bus with teevee, radio, and print journalists – and a few humble bloggers like myself. The event was put on by the Funder’s Collaborative, a group of foundations that have decided their resources will work best if they work together. The hosts for the day included some very big names like Knight Foundation, Surdna, St. Paul Foundation, and number of others. These are not small operations. My favorite joke on the tour was to look at the cushy seats of the bus and tap into the onboard WiFi proclaiming, “I was expecting something yellow”.
As many of you know, I’ve been a strong opponent of this line as proposed for a number of years. I am not in any way against improving the transit systems in Saint Paul, and indeed I’m a regular bus rider. But the process that has been in place for about 20 years to craft a transit solution has been exactly backwards. They picked the technology, then where it would go, and then asked the people who would use it what they thought. The inherently top-down nature runs chillingly against the culture of Saint Paul. It’s run its course to become the Final Environmental Impact Statement – which eliminates nearly all parking, takes away 1/3 of the sidewalks, and cannot possibly described as “Pedestrian Friendly” in any way at all. But you can’t be shrill about this and expect to win friends.
It was clear that I did have a few potential friends on this bus, too. The backwards nature of this “process” has, at the very end of it, finally assembled the people with the knowledge and power to make something good happen. They talked about equity and effectiveness, and the importance of not gentrifying University Avenue out of existence. Each one talked about how important it was to engage diverse voices in a process of learning, creating, and consensus building.
“It’s very difficult to bring dozens of groups to the table and get them to agree, but that’s what we have to do,” one speaker declared. I couldn’t help but note that, so far, three of them have filed complaints or lawsuits.
What was obvious in this whole tour, more than anything else, is that team working on transit along University Avenue finally, after so many years, has all the right people in place to be successful. It’s no longer the domain of the road builders at URS (who are also being sued by the State of Minnesota for their role in the I-35W Bridge collapse). The resources, the clout, and more than anything else the understanding is now present to do this thing the way it should have been done all along.
Some are receptive, too. I showed people outside Mai Village just what an 8 foot sidewalk looks like, and some were appropriately appalled. I was caught pacing off the lane width in the street, and had to tell them lamely, “I may too pedestrian to be outstanding in my field, but I’m enough of a pedestrian to be caught out standing in the street.” The gestures and the gags allowed me to make the point, right there on the ground, away from the thick reports and pretty pictures of the roadbuilders. Some people who saw me understood what I was saying immediately – the plans they have run completely contrary to everything that they profess as a value.
No one likes having to reboot, of course – you lose all the work you’ve done so far. But if the system has had a fatal flaw deep inside it from the start, it doesn’t take a hard look at what you’ve got to realize that it’s been corrupted and ruined. At that point, a reboot can be very refreshing. What we’ve learned, after all, is far more valuable than the plans that have been made. It’s time to accept it and reboot.
For more information on what a reboot of the planning process might produce as an alternative, please follow the embedded links or look here. Thank you.