A Problem with Amateur Legislation; Putting Main Street on a Diet

GELFAND’S WORLD--This little note is intended as advice to anyone who wants to complain -- and particularly to neighborhood council participants.

Let's start with the fact that you see a problem -- you find those pesky electric rental scooters irritating, or the city has rebuilt a public roadway to slow down traffic. They said it was to improve safety but you think it's made the road into a danger zone. 

You think the cost to public safety is worse than the benefit, and you want something to be done. We see lots of attempts to remedy such problems at our local councils and at our regional alliances. Here are a couple of examples and some well-meaning advice about what not to do in approaching such questions. 

The Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC) was faced with a question about that most dominant issue in our municipal discourse -- traffic. Specifically, we were invited to consider a motion about something called (oddly enough) road diets. Your first response is probably going to be, "What the heck is a road diet?" I can tell you that after close to two hours of discussion and debate spread out over two meetings, it wasn't entirely clear even to the participants how that term got invented. 

Here are two definitions. 

From Wikipedia: "A road diet, also called a lane reduction or road rechannelization, is a technique in transportation planning whereby the number of travel lanes and/or effective width of the road is reduced in order to achieve systemic improvements." 

It's a little vague, but basically it involves taking away road surface in the hope that it will somehow increase safety. Some folks have claimed that the term originated from the idea of putting a road on a diet and causing it to reduce in surface area. 

Here's from the Federal Highway Administration:

"A classic Road Diet typically involves converting an existing four-lane, undivided roadway segment to a three-lane segment consisting of two through lanes and a center, two-way left-turn lane. ... A Road Diet is a low-cost solution that addresses safety concerns and benefits all road users — a win-win for quality of life." 

The second version makes a little more sense. If you want to see a more tangible (albeit a bit defensive) explanation, check out the full page for the Federal Highway Administration

So How could anyone be opposed to a measure that is supposed to save lives? We'll get back to that in a moment. 

The other tendentious issue that came up at a local neighborhood council recently was the existence of those electric scooters that are left all over the sidewalks and lawns for people to rent. In my neighborhood they are provided by a company called Lime. Other areas have different vendors, but in every case, there has been debate over their presence, some of it pretty heated. 

So, we were faced with motions and resolutions that purported to deal with the alleged pernicious effects of road diets and Lime scooters. I'm going to summarize the substance of each motion: 

For the Lime scooters, the motion demanded that the city charge higher fees to the Lime company in order to fund increased police enforcement of rules regarding the usage of such devices. 

For the road diets, the motion demanded that the state and local municipalities outlaw road diets. 

In each case, the argument essentially came down to the allegation that there is a danger to public safety. For road diets, the specific charge was that fire trucks and other emergency vehicles were hindered in their ability to attack the recent fires -- this apparently due to changes in road design that slows car traffic but had the unintended effect of slowing down emergency vehicles when they were most needed. 

By the way, the term for this feature is referred to as "traffic calming." If your downtown street has a center divider with large, colorful planters and narrowed lanes, you will tend to drive a little slower, partly because it isn't possible to drive faster and partly because you are slowing to look at the scenery. This would obviously have a different effect if five or ten fire trucks were all trying to get through as fast as possible. 

In the case of the Lime scooters, the argument included the fact that some people ride them without helmets and that the Lime company is not providing helmets. The argument also included the assertion that the fee structure for a company to license its scooters for public rental is not high enough to fund the required law enforcement efforts. 

In listening to these motions and the proponents' arguments, I was immediately struck by the thought that there could be some problem with the scooters and the road redesigns, but the proponents were not giving the whole story. Clearly there is an argument for the use of road diets, or they wouldn't have been adopted so widely. On the other hand, we have seen a couple of road redesigns down here in San Pedro, and it was the strong consensus among the neighborhood council board that at least one of the two road redesigns was just plain stupid. 

As for the rental scooters, there was a different sort of problem with the motion. It may well be that rental scooters create some sort of safety hazard, either to the rider or to the public at large. The scooters don't have a lot of reflective material on them so they are hard to see at night. They are small, and don't provide a lot of maneuvering capability. I would also guess that most riders have little or no experience in using them. 

All that having been said, the motion regarding the scooters did not invite a public inquiry as to the dangers or benefits of the new technology. For example, as a benefit, it may be that such devices provide a partial solution to the "first mile, last mile" problem. This problem has been recognized by transportation planners for years -- If you are going to use the wonderful new mass transit rail system and you live two miles from the nearest station, you have to get there somehow. Something like the Lime scooter (or preferably the next generation of design) could be the solution. Imagine finding a scooter at your neighborhood train station and (through a rental agreement with the scooter company) keeping it at your home overnight, only to return it to the train station the next morning. 

So here is the message to those of you who see a potential problem and want your neighborhood council to take a position on your behalf. Present a full and honest approach. Admit to the reasonable arguments that the opposition might make, and show that there is, nevertheless, a need to take some action. 

By the way, this technique of admitting your opponents' best arguments up front is something that is taught in speech classes and something you will see in courtroom dramas. If you fail to admit the possible benefits of either road diets or rental scooters, you are going to get ambushed when the other side gets its say. 

There is one other point which the legally trained readers will have recognized long since. There is an old principle that a legal restriction on, for example, freedom of speech must be as narrow as possible. The nation can forbid a member of the armed services from revealing classified material, but the president can't forbid Saturday Night Live from doing a parody of It's a Wonderful Life. We ought to be applying the principle of minimizing legal prohibitions on issues of personal freedom. 

This implies the corollary that any legal restrictions (including an increased fee structure on scooter companies) be designed to solve the specific problem rather than just make a statement against scooters or public rentals per se. The motion should also be logically defensible: If the city were to increase fees on scooter companies, the revenues probably wouldn't go towards enforcing laws on scooter riding. 

The Lancc was offered the original resolution against road diets at its December 2018 meeting. Joe Linton in Streetsblog LA [Streetsblog LA, Joe Linton: ] gives a pretty accurate description of that debate, including the fact that Lancc agreed to put off consideration of the motion until the January 5, 2019 meeting. The only caveat I would offer to this story is that Lancc members did not come into the meeting with any particular intent regarding road diets. We heard both sides and, I would suggest, reached the conclusion that there should not be a blanket prohibition. At the January meeting, we passed a motion that stated this point directly. Those who were present will also know that I represented my own neighborhood council in suggesting that the argument should go both ways: We have road diets that are, in one place OK, and in another place frankly stupid. 

In summary, if you want to present a motion regarding some pressing public issue to your neighborhood council, PTA, or other improvement association, try to make it honest in the sense that you give proper weight to pro and con arguments, and tailor it specifically to the actual dangers and needs. If the argument is that scooters are dangerous, then the motion might include a call for a public inquiry on the possible dangers and how to remedy them. Likewise, if "traffic calming" measures conflict with the potential movement of emergency vehicles, then limit such measures so that fire trucks and ambulances can get through. 

* * * 

Well well. The president's statement that he was pulling the troops out of Syria turns out to be scrap paper, just as so many of his previous threats. It turns out that the new policy is essentially the same as the old policy. Remember when the term flip-flop was used as a negative against a Democrat? And there's another flip-flop that is having a serious effect on the country: The current government shutdown came about as a result of a Trump flip-flop on a congressional continuing resolution over funding. 


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)