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Santa Barbara City Council, Public Criticize Bike Master Plan Outreach Efforts

Meetings bring up concerns about the video and a survey designed by Los Angeles-based consultant firm to get public input on the plan update

Santa Barbara’s bicycle master plan outreach efforts have been criticized by city officials and members of the public for being biased and incomplete.
Santa Barbara’s bicycle master plan outreach efforts have been criticized by city officials and members of the public for being biased and incomplete.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk file photo)

The consultant firm hired to lead Santa Barbara's bicycle master plan update rolled forward in defense of its process, despite concerns by some City Council members that the company's survey, timing and video outreach was headed nowhere.

"I think you want the community to answer you the way they wish to answer, not as you wish them to answer," Councilman Frank Hotchkiss said. 

The city has set aside $170,000 for Melendrez, an urban planning firm based out of Los Angeles, to lead the update of the city's master plan, but the outreach effort has been widely criticized by city officials and members of the public. 

The bicycle master plan update has sparked debate between alternative transportation advocates and others who believe that the city is systematically narrowing roads, widening sidewalks and creating bike lanes in an activist-driven attempt to promote bikes over cars as the primary mode of transportation in Santa Barbara.

Even bike enthusiasts such as the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition are upset that some of the bicycle count data has been left out of the planning process.

The Santa Barbara City Council listened to Melanie Smith, of Melendrez, give a presentation at Tuesday's council meeting. Smith opened her presentation showing a slide of the 1969 Oil Spill in Santa Barbara, apparently to illustrate the city's commitment to environmental planning.

Smith admitted that "it is a fast schedule," and that "we are trying to do this as efficiently as we can." Councilman Gregg Hart said the rapid approach may be coming at the expense of quality — and real solutions.

"We have spent a lot of time getting to a very compressed moment in time," Hart said. "If this is going to be a useful there needs to be more time. This survey asks about attitudes and goals and feelings, but it doesn't have anything grounded in reality for the neighborhoods."

The firm created a short promotional video, in partnership with city staff, that leads into a survey about biking for Santa Barbara residents to take. The Planning Commission and members of the public last week panned the survey, saying the questions are subjective, open to interpretation and slanted to favor the perspective of bike riders. 

The promotional video leads off with a flurry of statistics and an interview with a new Santa Barbara resident who says that she won't ride her bike in town because of the "horror" stories she's heard from friends.

The city and the consultant opted this time to drop the video from its presentation, although it is still available on line for the survey taker to watch. 

Without telling anyone, the city and consultant altered the promotional video between last Thursday's Planning Commission meeting and Tuesday's City Council meeting, removing a slide that originally claimed that bike ridership has risen by 200 percent from 2000 to 2012.

The city and consultant at Tuesday's meeting explained that the statistic was misleading and instead replaced the slide with one that showed ridership of people using bikes to get to work had risen by 71 percent from 2008 to 2012.

Hotchkiss urged the consultant to drop the statistics and interviews at the start of the video because they could be seen as potentially biased. Hotchkiss suggested cutting all of the introduction and focus on neutrality in the the presentation.

"I don't think anyone is going to agree on the bike statistics," Hotchkiss said. "There was a sort of negative slant to the intro. It seems smarter to me to remove that obstacle completely."

But Smith disagreed, saying the purpose of the video is to "simply frame the questions" and to provide the the survey taker with "some context."

"The intent in the selection of these video clips was to show diversity of opinion," Smith said. "We felt like there was a diversity of opinion in there."

Hotchkiss replied: "I understand your intention, but I don't think it succeeds."

Hart agreed: "The solutions to this inherently involve a tradeoff. I would like this process to enlighten this dialogue and I don't think it has."

Members of Cars Are Basic have alleged that the city lies and misleads the public by using statistics out of context, or not at all, in order to push a bike-planning agenda. 

"If your staff is giving the taxpayers garbage and nonsense, what you are going to get back is garbage and nonsense," said Tom Becker, representing Cars Are Basic and the Automotive Coalition.

Becker said he received no response from city transportation planner Browning Allen questioning a statistic he presented. 

Bicycle activists have also raised concerns about the city's process. The city and the consultant have decided not to use any of the data from the Bicycle Coalition, which uses volunteers to perform bicycle counts in an effort to measure the popularity of bike riding.

The city, however, did not share any of those bike counts with the consultant because Rob Dayton, a public works transportation supervisor, said the city is only concerned about people who use their bikes to get to work.

Stan Franklin, an advocacy coordinator with the Bicycle Coalition, said the whole thing seemed like something out of a Monty Python movie.

"We are a little confused about our role," he said. "Would you design a garden without a gardener? Would you go rock climbing without a rock climber?"

The consultant plans five public meetings, or "summits," regarding the master plan on consecutive days beginning May 16.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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