A City Planner Makes a Case for Rethinking Public Consultation

A woman with a cane stood facing the corner of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. She was blind, and trying to make her way out through an exit. But the gate wasn’t where she thought it would be.

Warren Logan, an Oakland-based transit policymaker, approached her and asked if she needed help. She told him that she was headed to the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired center. After years of traveling into and out of San Francisco, she’d gotten the commute there down to a science. Hop onto the fifth car. Get out at Civic Center station. Turn left. Take an escalator up. Walk three feet to the left, and through the gate. But this time, she’d followed the path, and gotten stuck in a corner.

What must have happened, Logan finally realized, is that on this day she’d boarded an eight-car train instead of the usual 10-car train. That small discrepancy meant she’d gotten on the wrong escalator, and ended up walking three feet left into a wall.

BART operators take care to place their doors in precise, consistent positions every time they park, but sometimes models and placements change. Conductors announce approaching stops, but sometimes the sound is garbled. These variables are tiny, but they matter.

For Logan, who became Policy Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations for the Mayor’s Office of Oakland in July, this interaction was a breakthrough for him. “That is what I remind myself every day about transportation planning,” he says. “There are people who fundamentally depend on the details.” And it’s these personal stories he wants to keep hearing.

One place he doesn’t hear enough of them is at traditional public forums like community meetings, he says. Research shows that the people who speak in City Hall forums are generally whiter and wealthier homeowners, who are likely to oppose things like new development. But in Oakland, Logan is working with the city administration to create new pathways for folks from all backgrounds to participate.

CityLab sat down with Logan in his Oakland City Hall office to discuss what he thinks are the right ways to get the community engaged in city policy-making, why Oakland embraced scooters, and how to start measuring the joy of taking transit, not just the efficiency. The interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

What drew you to work in cities?

My grandfather, who is 102 years old as of April, was the first African-American Board of Realtors president and the first African-American realtor in Southern California. And one of the things that he’s really instilled in our family is understanding how important it is to engage our civic leaders—or frankly be a civic leader—as often as you can, in every way that you can. Because it is not uncommon, and in fact it is deliberative sometimes, to exclude low-income people of color. One of my major goals following this family lineage of sorts is to dismantle that behavior.

How do you bring that perspective to your work in the transportation space?

Everyone is a transportation planner when they wake up in the morning and say, “I need to get from my home to my job or to drop off the kids before work.” And if you ask anyone what’s your tip for getting from A to B, they’ll give you what they think to be the best way to get there.

The difference, though, between each individual person and the people who are responsible for engaging all citizens, is that we think about everyone’s—albeit selfish, understandably—rationale for what they would do to improve the system, and chart a course forward to understanding all those different opinions.

If you ask a lot of people—and frankly most people in Southern California, maybe a little bit here [in the Bay Area]—what would you do to fix the congestion problem, they might say “widen the road.” And from an engineering standpoint, that is the last thing you should do. That’s where a transportation planner has to wrestle with what people might assume would be the best solution, and what is technically the best situation, without being patriarchal.

One of the things I challenge myself and others to do every day is to dig deeper into these “Five Whys”: “Why is it that you think that you need to widen the freeway?” And more importantly, “why are you driving?” And then, “why are you driving at this time?”

Because oftentimes I think a lot of families are like, “it’s not that I want to drive, it’s that I chose an affordable place to live that is nowhere near my job. And there is nothing I can do about that.” And so unless you want to extend BART out to this place, this is what we’re doing right now.

There’s a woman who represents District 6 here in Oakland, and [when approached with a proposal to build bike lanes] she said, “it’s not that we’re against bike lanes, it’s that we don’t have anywhere to bike to.” And that really stuck with me. It’s not just about bicycle safety, it’s also about land use and commercial investment. And that’s the foundation of city planning. It’s connecting all of those dots.

What are the ways people traditionally participate and talk to government, and what’s the ideal way to do so?

The most traditional style is a public meeting. We put up a notice saying “Hear, Hear, please come down to City Hall to talk about this subject.” And during that song and dance you have someone—maybe it’s a product manager or your council member or even the mayor—providing a slideshow presentation, and then there’s a time for people to provide public comments. Every good city planner is trying to move as far away from that as possible.

Lately, a lot of planners will have what are called “open houses” where, again, we invite you to come to a central place and you might walk around a room and share your opinions with different project staff, and during that time you can ask questions and get answers. But there’s still sort of this transactional relationship: You come into a place and share your brief opinion about something, and then I’m shuffling that all up with everything that everyone has said.

Then there’s a workshop, where again, folks are typically coming to governments. We sit around a table and we ask a series of questions. I could ask you, how might you address the congestion problem? And instead of me trying to personally wrestle with all of the different pieces and come back to a silo, I will actually bring 10 people around the table and say, let’s wrestle with this together. You all can debate with each other, and I can help guide that conversation. That’s much closer to the ideal, where we are creating a solution together.

The next two forms of engagement are online engagement and surveys; helping reach folks who can’t come to a location. And then the most important—and this is the way that I like to engage with people—is bringing City Hall to you.

If you call me or email me or tweet at me and say, “I have a concern and I want to talk to you,” I’ll say, “where are you, and can I come meet you there?” That’s one of the big mantras that we have here in City Hall: blowing up City Hall, really trying to reformat the way that we engage with people, and bringing the government to you.

It used to be the best architects made good city planners because it was about form and vision and about this patriarchal look: very Robert Moses. And now we are trending towards design thinking: How do we train leaders to listen instead of to speak?

We’re not always going to agree. There are plenty of times that people disagree with things I’ve proposed but they feel comfortable to tell me directly. And they also feel comfortable suggesting other options. I’d rather people say that we don’t always agree, but at least he listens to me.

From your experience in the traditional public meeting format, whose voices are generally heard, and why?

Traditionally, the people whose voices are heard are wealthy homeowners. The voice that gets heard is the squeaky wheel—the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And that’s not fair. In part because there are lots of people who literally do not have time to be the squeaky wheel.

If traditionally cities rely on that one community meeting at City Hall at 5:00 p.m.—I think about just regular folks, let alone the low-income parent with two kids working three jobs wrangling with their commute. It is not fair! Or even to require people to come to a central location, to speak their ten cents for a limited two minutes, is not fair.

That’s one form of government that we are really trying to push against. And by we, I mean this office, this city council, this administration.

A lot of times government agencies have made up their mind, and now they’re just doing due diligence to inform you—not outreach, not engagement—to inform you [of a decision], and you have a moment to say your piece and make it quick.

That’s the thing that I’m trying to work against, too. For example, our bike plan, Let’s Bike Oakland, starts with “Here’s what we heard,” not “Here’s what we told you.” Oakland DOT went to public meetings that were hosted by other community groups. They went to festivals, to street fairs, and just really met people where they were.

I think there’s this false idea that community members aren’t speaking and sharing their opinions. People are having this conversation. It’s just that government isn’t there to listen.

So how do you let people know that the government wants to listen in new formats, and then how do you make sure you’re in the right place to actually engage?

One of the things that we’re working on here is, how do we hear from people through Twitter? There are plenty of times people will tweet at me saying, “Warren, my sidewalk is cracked.” We need to find a way to funnel that into a process, or create a new process.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition recently had their own Oprah moment, where they said, “you get a bike rack, you get a bike rack.” They told people to turn on the location services of their phone, and then tweet @sfbike and take a picture of where they wanted a bike rack. They set up an online form so that on their end, they could fill out a bike-rack request based on that location. You could complain on social media, and someone could scrape that information, and say, “I heard you.”

Not everyone’s on Twitter, of course, though. When you’re in these more face-to-face meetings, or more workshop-style formats, how do you facilitate good conversations?

You can’t just say what you don’t want. You also have to say what is the ideal. Because there are laws that are restrictive and then there are laws that are encouraging. And I want to shift folks towards the policymaking of, “what is our vision?”

I’ll use scooters is an example: A lot of people say these scooters shouldn’t be on the sidewalks. That’s true. And then the next question is, where do you want them to go? I don’t think that people are able to necessarily make the leap to say, ”how might we create a safe environment to scoot … in a safe location that does not impede on the pedestrian right of way, and also keeps riders safe from dangerous vehicular movement?” It turns out that I might be able to encourage you to look at cycle tracks or protected bikeways in a totally different way, just based on your frustration that scooters are on sidewalks.

Speaking of scooters! What are the things that people get most angry about and what are the things people get most excited about in community forums?

People get angry about change. I think people get angry and not excited when they weren’t involved in making the decision for the change; and when they felt like they weren’t included or they don’t understand, or they don’t trust the decision. When people feel like something is happening to them.

The tenor in Oakland is really different from San Francisco, in that we don’t get a lot of “don’t”; we get a lot of “do it faster.”

We just passed this enormous funding measure called Measure KK to repave 100 miles of pavement over three years in Oakland. Before that, we had the “pothole vigilantes.” The city wants to be able to pave their own roads. But by the same token you have these folks who were like, “if the city’s not going to do it, I’ll do it. I’ll raise money in my community, I’ll go buy the asphalt, and I’ll fix the pothole.”

That says a lot about Oakland. You have so many awesome residents, who say, “we’re gonna get it done. I can’t tell you how—it might be messy, and it’s not going to be perfect—but we’re going to be creative, and we’re going to be fast about it.”

When you have people in your community with a lot of opinions, is it hard to balance the perceived will of the people and your own sense of what’s right and wrong for a city?

Yes, it is hard to balance people’s interests, of course. It is especially challenging to have enough time and trust to really have these conversations. The other challenge is that I feel really strongly about certain things that I don’t think we should ever compromise on.

When you think about design guidance for Vision Zero, for example, you want to provide what’s called daylighting at intersections: You take 30 feet to be a red zone, so that as you’re driving and approaching the crosswalk you can see the person walking much easier, and the person walking can see you. On its face, if you ask someone “shall we make our streets safer,” they’ll say yes. [If you ask them], “shall we take away parking to make our streets safer,” they’ll say no.

Frankly, that is not a tradeoff I’m willing to make. That’s my personal, professional opinion. But those are the kinds of tradeoffs or challenging debates we have to have.

There are businesses that feel that certain bicycle improvements along streets are going to damage their business. It always comes back to parking. But when you get to a deeper conversation, what you’re really saying is, “it’s not this bike lane. It’s that the city didn’t do better public engagement when they were doing a facade campaign. Or, there aren’t enough mitigations for the construction during that process. Or better yet, the design doesn’t go far enough. Don’t just put a bike lane, actually put landscape medians so that it’s an attractive space.” But a lot of folks don’t know what they can ask for.

So that’s the hard part, is that people are talking about different things all at the same time. I’m talking about bike lanes, you’re talking about parking, and they’re talking about business development. And yet it’s all surrounding the same capital improvement that we’re negotiating over.

How much influence do community members have over developing policies at the city level, besides soliciting feedback on a policy draft? Are there examples of times you wouldn’t have acted without a critical mass of people saying, “we want this”?

Telegraph Avenue right over here is a good example. Originally that street was designed to be a buffered bikeway, and typically buffered bikeways along commercial corridors end up having a lot of double parking. So the Bicycle Coalition really rallied their team to encourage the city to consider protected bikeways, because it takes up the same amount of space, but it protects the bicyclists from double parking. And so we ended up switching the design.

Another example is scooters in Oakland. Scooters in Oakland are very different from scooters in San Francisco in that, for a time, we had scooters in Oakland, and no scooters in San Francisco. Lime posted [in May] that they had their one millionth scooter trip in Oakland alone, in like, eight months. And that’s insane.

And the reason for that is because a lot of the people that we were seeing on the scooters were young black and brown people. This is a group that has been disproportionately impacted by virtually every other mode of transportation and left out of virtually every other mobility conversation. And now they have found something to help them move around the city. Why would we take that away now?

How do you prove something like scooters or bike lanes are working for a community, or are at least popular among certain groups of people?

There are two ways to go about changing hearts and minds. Some cities focus a lot on data. You collect as much data as you can and present it and say, 99 percent of people feel this way so we should do X. That being said, I think that we also have to find a way to expose people’s lived experiences and to share stories in a way that can be really rich.

With data, we’re getting better at collecting how people are traveling. You took a scooter here, and now that is represented in the data that we’re going to get from scooter companies. That said, it doesn’t capture that you were looking for a bike, and you couldn’t find one. And so it is my job to ask you, “what did you want to do? What would you like to do? What would be your ideal?”

Because what I don’t have in terms of data is that. I only have the part that you did take a scooter, [not what you didn’t do.] You need both.

And how do you get both?

We’re working on it. That’s something that I would say is an area that the transportation planners and frankly governments writ large need to work on. I think part of it is these kinds of conversations—we just need to ask.

The other thing, too, is that we need to think about the way that we measure success. It’s not always the way people make decisions. For example, [news reports and planners will] say this transportation improvement is going to save you five minutes on your commute. That might be good!

But you might say, well, the five minutes might not help me. Some parents say, for example, in San Francisco and I think here, too, that they actually like driving their kids to school because it’s the time that they get to spend with their kid uninterrupted. How do we assign value to that type of relationship?

Similarly, people say, “I like to drive because it gives me enough time to listen to podcasts. I don’t mind that much traffic because I’m learning a new language.” I live a mile and a half from this office. Normally, I bike. Today I chose to walk, and the reason for that is because it’s a nice sunny day outside, and I wanted to walk next to the lake. But we don’t really measure the joy of some kinds of mobility experience.

What really has caused me to think about that more comprehensively is because if you ask people who are hopping off of a scooter and parking it, “what do you think about scooters?” they’ll say two things, in this order: “They are tons of fun. They’re super dangerous.”

The fact that they made that connection—it’s fun—is something that we don’t assign to public transit. No one would say, I think BART is fun. But is there something I can do to make BART fun? We’re spending a lot of money and time trying to identify policies for the mega-measure, Faster Bay Area. It’s a $100 billion measure to improve public transit service in the Bay, among other things.

But nowhere in there is likely to include, how do we make transit fun? This is sort of crazy, but what if we spent $1 billion trying to make public transit fun? People have told me, I don’t feel like I have dignity when I stand at this bus stop. We think about making public transit efficient, secure, and sustainable—all good metrics—but how do we make public transit dignified?

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