It is hard to believe that it has already been six weeks since we convened Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place 2012. The conference inspired a multitude of ideas, forged new partnerships, and reinforced existing ones. The tone was mostly upbeat; however, owing to the frustration of those who have been calling for change for years if not decades, sometimes the messaging took out their frustrations on engineers and transportation professionals.
Reprinted below (with permission) is an email sent to me by Bryan Jones, one of the professional engineers in attendance at the conference, expressing his concerns over how some of the advocates who spoke at PWPB Pro Place engaged in what I would call engineer-bashing. After spending 40 years as a transportation engineer myself, I empathize with Bryan (who works, for the record, as the Deputy Director of the City of Carlsbad, California’s Transportation Department). As an engineer, I too have often borne the brunt of folks frustrated with the direction of transportation over the last 50 years.
I felt that Bryan’s email was worth sharing, not so much in an effort to defend my profession, but because I know that Bryan is 100% correct in pointing out that when advocacy unleashes harsh and personal rhetoric, it not only distracts us from the path to change, it deepens the barrier that we have to cross to engage the transportation for change. Bryan’s remarks about the reaction in some quarters to our disappointment with MAP-21 also resonated with me. Stomping our feet over what could or should have been will do no good.
I hope you will enjoy Bryan’s observations as much as I did. –Gary Toth
I wanted to take a moment after Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place to share that I really enjoyed the conference. There were many great sessions and featured keynote speakers. For me, it was about connecting and reconnecting with people and fostering relationships. It was about hearing what others are doing in their organizations whether in advocacy, government, private business, or non-profits, at the local, regional, state, or national level. The 2012 organizers did a great job bringing the Pro Place theme into the conversations. I was fascinated and inspired by people from Project for Public Spaces like Fred & Ethan Kent, and advocates like Victor Dover. They brought a great new language and conversation to the Pro Walk/Pro Bike movement. Their messages resonated with me as their work results in creating streets, places, and communities where people want to be. And that means jobs, new businesses, and thriving and safe communities. The City of Long Beach and the host committee also did a fantastic job. Well done Charlie Gandy and team!
While the host committee reached out to organizations like the Institute for Transportation Engineers and AASHTO, there was an undertone throughout the conference that these organizations and their members along with a certain political party was to blame for society’s current problems. So the reach out was one step forward, but the undertone might have been two to five steps backwards. In fact, some of the speakers did not even make it an undertone. When speakers attack certain professions such as Traffic Engineering or political parties such as Republicans, it does not create partnerships or unity for a movement but furthers polarization and a greater divide. Most engineers at this conference felt unwelcome if they could not overcome or look past some of the speaker’s attacks.
The speakers were good, and their message could have been delivered without attacking or blaming. I heard it during keynote speeches and in break-out sessions. A good analogy would be a comedian’s or musician’s talents that get lost or unheard because of their curse language that prevents some from attending or listening. However, many of the speakers spoke to the choir and audience present rather than connecting with, welcoming, and reaching out to these new organizations which could be our partners now and in the future. In fact, I heard from many engineers that they felt unwelcome, which is definitely not a feeling we want them leaving with because we need them as partners and collaborators. I have been working closely with advocacy organizations for most of my career, and I feel my collaborative experiences with them have allowed me to be a better engineer and planner. I always encourage my colleagues in the engineering and planning professions to proactively engage advocacy organizations in a collaborative manner.
We can dwell on the perceived setback of MAP-21 and become victims. It is an easy position to take. However, our reality is in our thoughts and we can focus our thoughts on all the great successes that have been accomplished and how to foster more of these successes. We can focus on what we “CAN” do rather than what we “CAN’T” do. Blaming others or specific groups for our built environment accomplishes very little and, as I remember one of my mentors saying, when you point blame on others there are three fingers pointing back at you. We have to be careful throwing rocks in a glass house. We live in a democracy so our built environment is the responsibility of all of us…now and in the past and future. And it has caused unintended public health, environmental, and mobility costs to name just a few of the consequences.
I might suggest that we can focus on changing to a culture of Active Transportation by changing the language and conversations. We need to identify and LISTEN to what our allies’ and perceived enemies’ objectives are. We should not just be talking, but SHOWING how effective our alternatives are through implementation—even at a small scale—with consistency, which can build a lot of momentum. However this requires us to CONNECT PEOPLE. A title I might suggest for 2014–I heard this “connection” discussion in April Economides presentation about her team’s success in Long Beach with Bicycle Friendly Business Districts. She changed perceptions by changing the language and conversations with people that were against bikes. While her passion is green stuff, she understood the passion of many of the business owners was also “green” $tuff! She spoke with them about the pro$perity of welcoming bike riders into their business districts, and did a lot of listening to their concerns and objectives.
Just so you know a little about me, this was my first Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference…although I called it Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place. I am a Traffic Engineer, but also a Professional Transportation Planner; a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners; a League-Certified Instructor from the League of American Bicyclists; an advocate for Bicyclists and Pedestrians; a Complete and Livable Streets Implementer; and a local government public administrator/ leader. I have also had success with implementing Complete and Livable Streets in two jurisdictions (Fresno and Carlsbad) that were fairly automobile-focused when I started in their organization and community.
Neither of these communities has really been on the radar of most in the nation, as we didn’t accomplish change through policies and processes but rather through leadership, making connections, fostering relationships, and focusing on results. A lot of the success in these communities has come from aligning projects with community values and partnering with others like regional MPO’s, advocacy organizations, public health organizations, and our local business community. These two jurisdictions also both happen to be fairly conservative in political climate, so this movement does not have to be about one political party against another. These two communities might be great examples to further explore how political support was gained from a political party that is perceived by many as the enemy or surpressor of progress in transportation.
In my advocacy, I take time to encourage, empower, and enable engineers and planners to be leaders by evaluating and questioning their standards, policies and process and to determine if these standards align with community values and result in the outcomes where people want to walk and bike. We need bold transportation professionals that bring ingenuity and creativity to our profession; the world is ever-changing, and our profession must keep up. I want to also encourage the Pro Walk/Pro Bike organization to continue to utilize those of us in the transportation profession that “get it” and are your allies. We can help bridge the gap and create and foster the necessary relationships and connections with our fellow colleagues that might be slow to adopt the new active transportation system.
We have seen the innovation that has occurred in the telecommunication industry over the last fifty years. It started out with community phones with operators, then private phones, rotary phones to digital push button to wireless. Later the cellular phone was invented and first came with a briefcase size battery and as innovation occurred in the batteries and technology we went through flip phones, phones with keyboards, phone with lots of buttons and we now have the popular iPhone with one button. We are all waiting to see what comes next to help us connect with each other.
We have also seen a change in perspective with storm water regulations in California from quantity to quality. What would it be like if we experienced a change in perspective with transportation from quantity (freeways and wide thoroughfares with expectations of Level of Service C and D for peak hours) to quality.
However, change does not occur as quickly anymore from the Federal or State government. They are too big and remote to serve the people very efficiently and effectively or change course quickly. I am a firm believer that building quality streets, neighborhoods and communities starts with local governments. 85% of Americans lives within these cities. So in 2014…Pro Walk, Pro Bike, Pro Place, PRO PEOPLE! We could even add Pro Business and Pro Jobs! Or Pro Prosperity! or as this article suggests Pro Community Thrive! Just some thoughts on how the messaging could be better received by potential partners of tomorrow that maybe perceived by some as enemies of the movement today.
Bryan D. Jones, TE, PTP, AICP, MPA
City Traffic Engineer
City of Carlsbad