Last week, as we pedaled behind the new white tricycle along its 14‑mile route across the island, we saw that signs had gone up at the corner of Versailles and Central Avenues announcing that Versailles was “closed to thru traffic.” The purpose of the auto ban, we later learned from a City press release, was to “provide more space for physical distancing and physical activity for the duration of shelter in place order.”
So yesterday at the end of our ride we decided to take a look for ourselves.
Over the space of the five blocks covered by the embargo, we saw two families riding bikes and another walking the dog. No one was “social distancing” – but there weren’t enough people on the street to require it anyway. We suppose that, at least for the three groups we passed, the street closure was fulfilling its purpose. Still, we wondered why the City had decided to do it in the first place.
City Manager Eric Levitt told us the story.
Staff had placed on the March 17 agenda an item recommending various actions to implement the “transportation priorities” specified by a Council referral last September. (None of these actions involved street closures.) Before the item was ultimately heard on April 22, the City Clerk received four emails that not only endorsed the staff recommendations but also proposed that the City adopt a “slow streets” program similar to those recently put in place in Oakland and San Francisco. Under such a program, streets, or portions thereof, are closed to all but local vehicular traffic.
The authors of all four emails were officers or board members of Bike Walk Alameda, the local advocacy group whose stated mission is “to make our city a safe and enjoyable place to walk and bike.” One attached an online petition electronically signed by 376 people (363 of them Alamedans), just short of its 400-person goal.
Seeing this correspondence, “we looked at [the request] internally,” Mr. Levitt told us, and decided to create a “pilot” program closing Versailles Avenue from Central to Fernside and Pacific Avenue from Grand to Oak to non-local traffic as long as the COVID-19 emergency declaration remained in effect. Staff chose these two streets, he said, to give residents on the East End biking and walking opportunities similar to those provided by the Jean Sweeney Park and the Cross-Alameda Trail on the West End.
Mr. Levitt told us that “my intent” is to re-open the two streets as soon as the declaration is lifted. That message apparently didn’t get through to Vice Mayor John Knox White, who told his colleagues at the April 22 meeting – before being cut off by Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft for bringing up an item not on the agenda – that “I want to make sure that the pilot really is our short-term first step and it leads to a more city-wide, broader place.”
At first glance, City staff’s immediate acquiescence to the agenda proposed by the Bike Walk Alameda crowd may seem surprising – the two local business associations surely would like to get a similarly receptive welcome – but it’s really not. In fact, the activists have not one but two allies at City Hall.
One, of course, is Mr. Knox White, who was elected to Council in November 2018. Previously, he spent six years on the Planning Board, all the while apparently retaining a seat on the Bike Walk Alameda board. During his tenure on the Planning Board, Mr. Knox White established a record of being an avid fan of space for bicycles and an ardent foe of parking for automobiles. He was an impassioned advocate for both the Shoreline bikeway and the “complete streets” plans that re‑designed Central and Clement Avenues to include bike lanes. Likewise, when presented with a new development proposal, he invariably raised the same objection: It included too many parking spaces.
Since his election, it has been more of the same. As Mr. Levitt, ever the diplomat, put it, Mr. Knox White’s “policy focus” as Vice Mayor has been on “creating more opportunities for bicyclists and pedestrians.”
The activists’ other ally at City Hall is another one of their own: Brian McGuire, the former president of Bike Walk Alameda, who was hired by the City as a transportation planner in April 2019.
On his Linked In page, Mr. McGuire refers to himself as a “Transportation Specialist.” According to his public profile, he worked in the casino industry for about a dozen years; spent a year as a substitute teacher and 21 months as a salesman for Bay Ship & Yacht; and was self-employed from January 2016 until he got the job with the City. To the Merry-Go-Round, Mr. McGuire is better known as one of Alameda’s leading Twitter trolls. Using the moniker “BMac,” he especially delighted in bashing former mayor Trish Spencer on social media – even when the facts didn’t support his allegations.
Since becoming a City staffer, Mr. McGuire has kept a low public profile until recently, when he surfaced as the first-named author of a staff report submitted to Council by City Planner Andrew Thomas. He also was given his own square in the Zoom feed of the
April 22 Council meeting, and Mr. Thomas called on him to assure Councilman Tony Daysog that academic research actually did support the staff report’s assertions.
We hesitate to give Mr. Knox White and Mr. McGuire all the credit, but the record of
pro-bicycle, anti-parking actions taken by Council since they assumed their current roles is impressive. In the span of less than a year, Council has:
- Approved a plan to reduce the vehicular traffic lanes on Otis Drive between Westline Drive and Willow Street from four to three and to add bike lanes;
- Passed an ordinance authorizing the Public Works director – without advance notice to neighboring businesses or residences – to remove parking spaces located within 20 feet of a crosswalk;
- Awarded a $330,000 contract to a national design firm to prepare an “Active Transportation Plan” to replace the City’s existing bicycle and pedestrian plans;
- Adopted the aforementioned referral submitted by Mr. Knox White and Councilman Jim Oddie, who appears to have taken over the role played on the Planning Board by David Burton of acting as Mr. Knox White’s faithful sidekick; the referral spells out specific “transportation priorities” in order to “ensure that staff has clear, full council direction” on which short- and medium- term projects it should devote its attention to;
- Authorized a $2.2 million contract amendment for design work for the Central Avenue “complete streets” project, which includes adding bike lanes between Eighth Street and Sherman Street/Encinal Avenue and a two-way protected bikeway adjacent to the three schools between Alameda Point and Paden Elementary School;
- Passed a resolution adopting a “Vision Zero” policy and directing staff to “immediately evaluate and recommend modifications to existing standards and policies for auto travel lane widths; street width for fire access; bike lane and buffer design; crosswalk design; and rapid installation bulb-outs and other pedestrian safety facilities, with the goal of improving roadway safety for all users”;
- Authorized hiring two additional full-time “parking enforcement officers” to hand out tickets to citizens who violate time limits at City-owned parking lots and meters;
- Passed a resolution setting 10 feet as the “standard” width for vehicular traffic lanes (except for truck and bus routes) and eight feet as the “standard” width for parking spaces (with seven feet permitted “to accommodate bicycle or transit facilities”); requiring marked crosswalks at “regular and frequent” intervals on “arterial and collector” streets; declaring that “On‑street parking shall be the lowest priority” in designing streets; and stating that “Separated bicycle lanes should be provided instead of unprotected, standard bicycle lanes, unless not feasible.”
From a purely selfish point of view, we suppose we ought to applaud all of these initiatives. Reducing the risk of unexpected encounters with drivers who don’t know, or don’t care about, the rules of the road would make us less defensive during our – now – daily bike rides. And since we’re not going to the store very frequently anyway these days, the parking restrictions don’t bother us.
Nevertheless, we have our qualms about how these pro-bicycle, anti-parking policies got through Council. Having watched several of the videos of the relevant meetings, we recognize a pattern that, unfortunately, has come to characterize the way in which certain of our Council members “debate” issues: The interest of one group is deemed paramount; competing interests get only lip service. The argument takes the form of a morality play: the forces of Light (your side) against the forces of Darkness (everyone else). And anyone who dares to express a contrary opinion is denigrated as either obtuse or uninformed.
We saw this behavior at work during the Council discussions about rent control and “just cause.” It was a customary feature of Mr. Knox White’s performance on the Planning Board. And it emerged once again at the April 22 Council meeting.
The first public comment read into the record by City Clerk Lara Weisiger came from Linda Asbury, executive director of the West Alameda Business Association, who objected to the “policy statement” that on-street parking should be the City’s “lowest priority” in designing streets. “On-site parking is a critical element in the preservation of local business,” she wrote. Relegating parking to lowest-priority status “suggests that business districts and local businesses are a low priority” – an especially galling message to send to the small businesses in town who are struggling to survive in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
When Councilman Daysog picked up on this point during the Council discussion, City Planner Thomas gave a response that started out quite reasonably. “We want to provide for everybody’s needs,” he said. “Local businesses need parking.” Accordingly, the City’s policy would be to or restrict or eliminate on‑street parking “only where we need [to do] it to ensure that the other users are safe.”
Then, however, Mr. Thomas got caught up in the right‑thinking rhetoric and went a step further: “But if it’s a tradeoff between a single parking space and preserving somebody’s life,” he said, “we’re always going to err on the side of saving somebody’s life.”
Taking the hint, the “progressive” politicians were quick to portray the parking issue as posing a stark moral choice. “[W]here there is a tradeoff to be made between something that is unsafe and people dying and a parking space,” Mr. Knox White declared, “we’re going to choose protecting our residents and the safety of our residents.” Echoed Mr. Oddie: “We’re not saying that parking is a low priority; we’re saying that saving children’s lives is a high priority.” (For her part, Councilwoman Malia Vella expressed, in her own unique way, a similar view: “The return on investment of removing a parking space to save a life is huge.”)
Now, if we were Mr. Daysog, we might have kept our mouth shut rather than exposing ourselves to the accusation that we wanted to see children dying on the streets so that we’d get a place to park. But he opened his anyway. Which promptly led to a rebuke from Mr. Knox White.
“I’m a little flabbergasted,” the Vice Mayor began, by Mr. Daysog’s reference to basic planning tenets he learned while studying for his master’s degree in the subject from the University of California. Those principles “represent more of an old-school perception of how this is done,” Mr. Knox White, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Colorado, lectured. The “folks coming out of Cal, and UCLA, and the University of Texas, and MIT would beg to differ today.” So take that, you old fool. (Ironically, Mr. Knox White and Mr. Daysog are just about the same age.)
Of course, it didn’t really matter what Mr. Knox White said publicly. Mr. McGuire was standing by ready and willing to write up whatever pro-bicycle, anti-parking policy the Vice Mayor wanted, and three (and perhaps four) of his colleagues were sure to approve it. But is it really necessary for an elected official to respect only those who share his own ideology and to disparage every other viewpoint?
We hoped only Donald Trump thought so.
Parking space removal: 2019-07-02 staff report re daylighting ordinance
ATP contract: 2019-07-16 staff report re ATP
Council referral: 2019-09-03 DK-Oddie referral re active transportation plan
Central Avenue project contract: 2019-11-05 staff report re Central Avenue project