Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fun with DIY streetcar routes

The most recent COTPA "Let's Talk Transit" public forum was a lot of fun and I am glad I was in OKC for it. I still think COTPA has some work to do, and they could be a little smoother in how they answer questions and present the streetcar system, but I would give them an all-around A. The meeting flat-out exceeded my expectations, and I came away with a few ideas of my own. Various COTPA and Planning Dept people gave presentations and took questions from the group.

They did a great job of giving a base explanation of the streetcar system and showing the examples such as Portland, but there was one question they never really answered: One older woman who looked well-cultured and like the perfect potential downtown resident stated her frustration with the fixed guideway nature of the streetcar project. Because downtown is still growing developmentally, she didn't understand why we were going with a fixed rail transit system when downtown's growth patterns are still evolving, which she thought that bus made much more sense for. Mike McAnelly told her he'd answer her question later, which he did in a way, but never made the specific connection. I wished he would just directly tell her that streetcar affects and incites development in a way that nothing else can, which makes the still-yet evolving developmental patterns one of the most important reasons behind the need for a fixed guideway transit system. To put it more simply, with streetcar we have an opportunity to shape the development of downtown that we don't get with many other public projects. It's a golden opportunity to take advantage of our blank slate downtown and use streetcar.

The most important realization I came away with is a new appreciation for how hard it sometimes can be to take a group of random people who aren't professional planners and get them to think like a planner, plan like a planner, and at least find a consensus and keep a project on track. Simply put, it isn't possible. My group was comprised of an incredibly diverse was an older guy with strong convictions, a businessman who was really quiet, a guy who looked to be a student maybe 5-6 years younger than me, and lastly a bona fide crazy dude in his 20s with badly thinning hair that was a bizarre cross between Kramer and Einstein. I thought about taking a picture just for demonstration purposes but I decided that would be mean, and besides I shouldn't negatively identify anyone I meet. And then our COTPA liaison was Jeanne Smith, the River Transit Manager for COTPA..who was great.

Kramer/Einstein would not stop talking and yammering on, and made it incredibly difficult for our group to work together. And he kept standing up over my shoulder and pacing, also incredibly annoying, despite the numerous empty chairs around the table. By the time that half of our allotted time had already elapsed we had absolutely nothing to show for it, so I devised a new plan where the entire group would just write down important sites they wanted to be on a route or near one. Kramer/Einstein still would not shut up, and I was near giving up. We were down to our last 5 minutes and still had nothing to show for it.

So getting desperate with the group's bickering and wasting time, I gave up on the public process and just drew the damn route I remembered putting up on the blog earlier that day on a brochure I had in front of me. When I showed it to others, the group instantly settled on what I drew and the older fellow liked it so much he said, "That's it. Build it." I was however disappointed that Mr. Kramer/Einstein didn't allow for us to have a true public process that had the unique input and suggestions from the otherwise great people in my group--but at least we had a good, respectable proposal to show to the rest of the public forum assembled, and in my opinion, it was one of the best ones. There were a few others that stood out to me.

Mainly, proposals from the group that had Jeff Bezdek and the group that had Chuck Wiggins. I tend to agree with the person in the audience who said the group that had Jeff was cheating just by having Jeff. Speaking of Jeff, it was great to finally meet him although I'm afraid he came away with the wrong impression of me personally as I couldn't stop laughing when Doug was circling us, snapping pictures. Doug should really consider a career as a professional photographer. Anyway, here's Jeff's plan--one thing that struck me after he presented was how remarkably similar Jeff's plan was to mine, with the only difference being that he had one arm going N/S west of Broadway going down Hudson. Another similarity that Jeff's had with our route proposal was a Sheridan baseline all the way down to Mickey Mantle and then going up to the Oklahoma Health Center.

One concern that Jeff mentioned was that there would be a cost difference between tracks going up the Mickey Mantle bridge between Bricktown and Deep Deuce versus just crossing underneath the BNSF tracks at NE 4th Street. And despite noticing that people seem to really like Walker for a route alignment, he has a few good reasons for avoiding it and going down Hudson, two of them being that Hudson needs redevelopment more and that the Walker Circle poses engineering challenges, and I think his other concerns will come out when it's appropriate. I still favor Walker personally because you don't really have to extend the line beyond the circle and the traffic circle could very well be a natural end point for a segment, instead of having to do a pinch section in the middle of a street for the streetcar to turn around. I strongly favor Broadway having a streetcar line, and Hudson is only 3 blocks from Broadway. Walker is only 4, but because it never really goes through the CBD, psychologically the difference is better and it incorporates more of the Arts District.

Like I mentioned I also appreciated Chuck Wiggin's proposal, in which the focus was on employers. A practical focus. Once again, it has the similarity with the base line going down Sheridan. I think virtually every single proposal out of the 7 different groups all used Sheridan as a baseline, which was something I remarked on in my presentation. I think Sheridan more than any other corridor in downtown seems ripe for rail. For N/S alignments we all kind of differ, but I feel like a strong consensus is building behind the idea that Sheridan connects it all. In fact in Jeff's proposal and in my proposal, Sheridan is the only E/W route, while there are more than one N/S routes (mine has three, his has two). Chuck's uses 4th Street to get over to the Oklahoma Health Center and has the longest Sheridan alignment I saw, connecting the new OCU Law School to Bass Pro, McDonald's, and the proposed/formerly proposed Candlewood Suites. You know, the coolest area of Bricktown. Instead of a loop system, as proposed by Walter Jenny's group and a few other groups, or a hub-and-spoke system as proposed by me and Jeff, his is an interesting combination of both that I think I'll call loop-and-spoke. The more and more I think about Chuck's proposal the more I like it as much if not more than mine, and just about the only person at the forum that I didn't meet was probably Chuck Wiggin. Shucks.

Overall, I know that some other bloggers such as Doug have been concerned about the level of public involvement in these public forums. I also know COTPA was heavily criticized for only getting 250 survey responses on the website, which everyone agreed was low. However, I think that this meeting more than answered the need for public involvement. COTPA asked us to sign our names on the maps and they seemed to take great care to collect all the maps and I believe they will be using them in the next meeting which I suspect will be over land uses surrounding the streetcar--probably the meeting that really gets the public excited behind the project.

In talking to Kinsey Crocker, who is doing their PR, I believe they are going to put all the routes up on the Let's Talk Transit website, and I can't wait to see those. I also believe a news station was there, and I know KTOK had someone there recording audio..don't know if they were broadcasting live though. Reruns will also probably be on City Channel 20. Overall it was a great process, a good experience, and I think COTPA not only got a lot of useful feedback but will put the feedback to good use. It was also great to meet so many people, a lot of whom read this blog. I look forwarding to attending the future public forums that are planned.

To conclude, I want to come back to the planning process with the average joes and how it didn't really work so well. It's a very difficult leadership challenge and I personally struggled trying to find a way to get the group moving in the right direction and working effectively toward the same goal, and not just yammering on about their favorite and least favorite streets in downtown--although I will admit my sole reason that I insist Broadway has a streetcar route is just that Broadway is by far my favorite street in downtown, and Automobile Alley is my favorite area (one reason I've featured so much of Steve Mason's stuff on here). I think I saw first hand what Mayor Mick experiences and it could be a major reason as to why he has allowed for such little public involvement in MAPS 3.

It's true that the public, for the most part, is really not who you want planning this kind of stuff--despite the high quality of proposals that got presented at the public forum on Tuesday. Those proposals took a high degree of leadership from me, Jeff, and the other people who took charge within their own group to lead everyone in the right direction (although I have no idea if other groups had the same difficulties..I certainly didn't see another Kramer/Einstein). It's something to think about. I can see where Mayor Mick has a vision he wants to achieve, and more importantly, I don't see him willing to take a chance on public involvement..indeed it can be a scary thing. I still think it's a flaw of the dear mayor's because while being a scary thing, it is an absolutely VITAL thing. Vital. And it's not all bad, like I mentioned, the end results were almost all good even if the process seemed scary at times. There are always people within the community who are more than capable of providing input that IS valuable and you have to let those people take the lead on public partnership initiatives, and they can't do that unless there is public involvement. And that's what this is, and that's why I encourage everyone to roll out to the next public forum which will be held April 29th from 6-8 same place..


Doug Dawg said...

Nicely done, Nick, and it was good to finally meet you at this meeting. BTW, I was they guy who yelled out, "They cheated ... they had Jeff," or something like that.

I've finally finished my own article on the meeting and have emailed it to Kinsey Crocker this morning (although it's already posted in my personal blog), together with a link to your Let's Talk Transit blog article. Glad to say that my table didn't have a person matching the description of the young man you described ... but you know that younger people can sometimes get out of hand. But, all's well that ends well. I thought that the meeting was very well conceived and executed.

Thanks for the photographer remarks, but it's much too late to start a new career. You can see quite a number of pics in my own article, 2 of which are of you.

NR said...

Thanks Doug~ I appreciate it. I too thought the meeting was executed well, conceived well, and hopefully the results will be as good.