Photo by whiteknuckled on Flickr.

Reasonable people disagree about whether the change to the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes is for the better or worse. Personally, I’m not sure. But the experience makes it more difficult to keep defending DDOT against criticism that they’re not planning or communicating adequately.

I’ve slightly modified my comments in yesterday’s post (with a note saying so). The new lanes use the median and part of the pedestrian refuges. That could be better because drivers don’t expect to drive in the median and the lanes will more clearly look like bike lanes. Or, it could be worse because cyclists have to travel over stone pavers which could be slippery, and might have to dodge pedestrians who expect to wait in the refuges.

Some are saying there were indeed major traffic tie-ups on Pennsylvania Avenue. The traffic analysis actually only looked at a few intersections. It’s certainly possible it missed something. We still don’t really know.

But this whole episode frustrated me, and I believe other bicycle advocates, because of the way it happened. Bike lane supporters fought hard to defend DDOT on the lanes, from pushing back on AAA to getting large numbers of favorable comments to the TPB.

I had some trepidation about that process. DDOT had presented just one version at a single public meeting, without posting the plans, though it had been talking to stakeholder groups for months. Officials presented the plans for Pennsylvania Avenue, and plans for other roads, as virtually a done deal. But I didn’t make a big issue of it because the lanes, on the whole, seemed good.

Then, at the last minute, we found out the lanes were being redone, and found out from the press. There was no explanation of the issues with the lanes at the time, no discussion about whether the problems that had cropped up warrant redoing the lanes or not. There still isn’t even clarity about whether this is coming from Mayor Fenty, or Gabe Klein, or the feds, or what.

DDOT continues to seem to operate in two modes: If they know what they want, they wait until the last minute to tell others. If they don’t know, they go to the community early and do whatever the majority of people or the ANC seem to want. Neither is ideal.

This isn’t just an issue with bike lanes. Phil Mendelson and others keep expressing concern about the streetcar planning. As with the bike lanes, streetcars are a worthwhile project and DDOT can’t (and shouldn’t) consult with the public on every decision. At the same time, the fact that there were issues with Potomac Development Corporation about the connection to Union Station came as a big surprise to me.

Since Scott Kubly took over streetcars, he’s been moving the project far faster and communicating far better than his predecessors. Some of the confusion over streetcars’ lack of planning seems to stem from the fact that the planning is happening quickly. That’s fine. And to some extent, all public works projects go ahead without every detail worked out. Certainly that was the case with the building of Metro.

However, these sudden revelations and reversals give a lot of credence to those who argue that we need “more planning.” The problem is that we can always have more planning, and at some point there’s so much planning that nothing gets built. I’d like an environment where projects can move quickly, but also details and decisions are quickly disclosed and there’s opportunity for interested people to learn about, discuss and debate the issues.

I fear Gabe Klein and others might learn the wrong lesson from the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane debacle. They could conclude they should have done more private vetting of the plans before getting started. They could suppose that had they suggested the current plans in the first place, advocates would have been excited about those and no controversy would have ensued.

I think it’s the opposite. If they had explained to WABA, the Bicycle Advisory Council, me, and others about the issues that had come up, then I believe people would have been much more positive about the changes. We could have had a post saying, essentially, “DDOT noticed these problems with the lanes, and thinks they might need to be rethought. What do you think?”

Maybe GGW commenters and bicycle advocates still would have come down against redoing the lanes, and DDOT could have gone ahead with the changes anyway, but the tone would at least have been much more collaborative instead of frustrated. DDOT is now going to community meetings across the city on streetcars, and that’s helped tremendously to build support and to assuage fears.

And if indeed there were problems with the original plans, as opposed to simply political pressures, some of these issues could also have been alleviated by better public discussion up front.

There’s nothing wrong with trying something and having to change it. We shouldn’t be afraid to fail. And we shouldn’t unduly criticize DDOT for trying something and failing. I just don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that they be up front about what they’re trying and what’s failing.

The more the public knows about plans, the more supporters can organize for it, and the more undecided people can learn the details and in many cases come to support a project. DDOT has many friends enthusiastic about its plans. The best way to keep those, and accumulate more, is to keep people feeling in the loop and involved.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.