Does the bicycle coalition control the SLO City Council?

Richard Schmidt


Near the end of a nearly three-hour San Luis Obispo City Council session on ramming a bike freeway through a neighborhood between Foothill Boulevard and Highway 101, a large audience consisting of people who seldom go to council meetings got a peep down the rabbit hole into which city government has jumped.

The meeting was a council review of the Bicycle Advisory Committee’s recommendation that Chorro Street be narrowed to build a physically separated bike freeway, and that Chorro and Broad streets be turned into 10-foot-wide single-lane one-way streets too narrow – by law — for fire engines, despite Chorro’s being the fire department’s essential access to downtown. Two other bike freeway “alternatives” were on the table, both rejected by the bike committee.

I refer to these as “bike freeways” based on physical character, but also metaphorically because city technocrats are ramming this one through a neighborhood with the same disregard interstate highway technocrats rammed their freeways through urban neighborhoods in the 1960s, insensitive to the destruction they are causing and the people they are harming.

Neighborhood residents, who would be hugely affected and whose desires were shut out of the rigged planning process, turned out in mass – more than a hundred filled the council chamber plus an overflow room with huge TV screen, and spilled out into the hallways. Dozens spoke, and most were somewhere between concerned and livid about the city’s wrecking their neighborhood and destroying its quality of life.

Some bicyclists opposed the plans as misguided overkill. Those supporting the bike freeway could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

While this bike freeway is of major concern to residents, it should also be of concern to drivers who might not appreciate dodging traffic circles and other loop-de-loops. Daily vehicle load on Chorro and Broad streets is about 11,000, compared to the city’s claimed 300 bicycles.

Towards the end of the council session, after lecturing neighbors about “change” and “progress” and telling them parking cars in front of their homes is illicit “storage” of private property in public space, the council discussed what to do. It became clear where they were headed: ram something through the neighborhood whether it made sense, whether residents could live with it, whether the city could afford it, whether it would infuriate drivers, whether it would discriminate against the old and the handicapped, whether it was needed or not and whether it would even work for bicyclists.

They did agree to bypass precisely what the Bike Committee recommended, but told staff to continue to ram the bike freeway by zagging it out Chorro Street to Mission Street then over to Broad Street. They chose to remove parking along many blocks to make this possible. This would dump unprotected bike traffic onto Foothill Boulevard at the fourteenth most dangerous intersection in town.

To a person, the council had no qualms about taking away much-needed resident and visitor street parking in this early 20th century subdivision lacking the off-street parking amenities of recent subdivisions.

Mayor Heidi Harmon

Speaking last, as is her custom, Mayor Heidi Harmon announced it was important to move ahead because “so many people want this.”

It was a climactic moment, the mayor deaf to what had happened in the previous several hours of public testimony: “so many people want this.” The rabbit hole of authoritarian propaganda-driven anti-democratic leadership had opened and swallowed the evening’s events.

How does this happen? My concern is less with the rightness or wrongness of the council’s action and their obliviousness to public sentiment – though as someone who’s lived most of his life in the neighborhood and whose essential on-street parking is on the menu. I have strong feelings – but rather to try to understand how such crazy “planning” makes its way to a SLO City Council hearing in the first place and receives a green light from them.

This is important because again and again in recent years one loony item after another hits council agendas, the public speaks out, and is usually ignored.

The how-it-happened story is complex, but fascinating. It becomes clear the city’s planning process has been re-engineered during the current city manager’s regime to rig it to benefit favored special interests against residents. So exploring the bike freeway’s origins is a good proxy for understanding what’s wrong in a more general sense at city hall.

Sometimes our era’s internet narcissism opens a view into mysteries, like how things come to pass. With this bike business, we are fortunate to have this explicitly laid out for us, online, by two of the key protagonists, City Councilman Dan Rivoire and former planning commissioner and candidate Rivoire sponsor Eric Meyer.

Their article, “How San Luis Obispo Established the Most Powerful Bike Funding Policy in the Nation,” was published in 2015 on an obscure east coast bike activist website, suggesting it wasn’t initially meant for local consumption. It lays out the heroic story of activists Rivoire and Meyer conspiring to move bike planning to the stove’s front burner and consign auto planning to the freezer.

“Eight years of careful planning — and a bit of luck — just paid off in a big way for the San Luis Obispo Bicycle Coalition,” their article begins. Rivoire was the Bike Coalition’s executive director, and Meyer a key brain at the coalition. They cite three separate planning “victories” that got us to where we are:

1. The city’s recent adoption, in its revised general plan Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), of a transportation “modal split” which arbitrarily assumes only 50 percent of total trips within the city will be by motor vehicle, 20 percent by bicycle, 12 percent by public transit, and 18 percent by foot, car pool or other mysterious means. Remember those percentages.

What drivers and residents must understand is the city’s traffic planning is now bound by these percentages. So even as the council approves sprawling additions to the city that require greater motor vehicle use, they plan for less motor vehicle movement. As the council, at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce and land developers increases the number of jobs faster than housing, they plan for less motor vehicle use even as commuting skyrockets.

The notion of “modal split” is not new. During my eight years on the city Planning Commission, we established SLO’s first bicycle modal shift goal which premised that in newly developed areas we’d try to separate bikes from cars, and in older parts of town we’d paint bike lanes on streets to encourage safer more friendly biking. It’s a goal I supported. But 28 years later our modest 8 percent bike rider goal has still not been achieved. That’s the reality of legislating this sort of thing.

What’s new today is setting a wildly unlikely bike goal of 20 percent, then railroading it into all city planning. Anyone familiar with SLO traffic recognizes the absurdity of assuming one out of every five motor vehicles on the road today will soon be replaced by a bike. Are we going to bike en mass to Costco? Are the tradesmen in pickups going to tricycle their tools and lumber around town? Will our refrigerators be delivered by rickshaw?

Already we see the bizarre impacts of such planning. When an LA developer recently proposed luxury student apartments at 22 Chorro (corner of Foothill), he demanded and got drastically reduced on-site parking because he’d have more than 100 bike racks, which are very cheap to provide. He claimed this would be a “bicycling community,” but offered no evidence his tenants would not have cars they’d park off site, in the adjacent neighborhood – the same neighborhood where the city proposes to remove parking for the bike freeway. Staff had no problem convincing a council of true believers this was good planning.

2. The second victory for bikes, say Rivoire/Meyer, was the city’s changing, also in the LUCE, how it measures roadway congestion, what’s called Level of Service (LOS). In traditional LOS measures, LOS is described as, say LOS A, meaning free flowing traffic, down the alphabet to LOS F, which is gridlock.

Prior to adopting the LUCE, the city’s goal had been to provide LOS C or better; now LOS F is just fine, meaning there’s no longer a planning commitment to avoiding gridlock. If you’re a motorist, you might find that interesting.

That’s LOS background, but not what Rivoire/Meyer crow about. To them, LOS is “an outdated standard that measures transportation projects only on the basis of automobile delay.” In its place, they explain, the city has established “Multi-Modal Level of Service,” which can give priority to bicycles over vehicles.

There’s intention behind such perverse planning against free movement for our dominant form of transportation. Lurking within is profound hostility to the automobile, and the belief that everyone who’s virtuous should ride a bike. Making driving in SLO miserable, with vehicular LOS F and bicycle LOS A, is a premeditated way to force people out of cars and onto bikes. Oh that it were so simple!

3. “Third (and most important!)” Rivoire/Meyer write, “The city created a policy that allocates general fund transportation spending by mode to match the mode share percentage goals desired.

“If you remember only one thing from this article,” they write, “this is it.

“This policy mandates that our city must allocate general fund transportation spending at the same ratio as the mode share goal desired. Meaning 20 percent of funding needs to go to bicycling. This is a huge shift from business as usual in America.”

Translated into plain English: If a traffic improvement costs $1 million, the city must find a bike project to spend $400K on. This is now built into the city’s transportation budgeting.

I recently asked Public Works Director Daryl Grigsby if this was actually happening, and he replied, “The last couple years I believe we have come close to all the goals except for transit.”

But why 20% percent? What’s most interesting is how these bike “victories” happened. There’s a saying “the inevitable happens only after a great deal of careful planning,” and this story illustrates that maxim.

Mayor Heidi Harmon, council members Dan Rivoire, Carlyn Christianson, Aaron Gomez and Andy Pease.

“These changes didn’t happen all at once” Rivoire and Meyer write. “They happened over the course of about eight years under the guidance of many minds at the Bicycle Coalition . . . If we had tried to make this all happen at once during a Circulation Element [LUCE] update, we would have failed.

“It happened because we focused on the smallest relevant plans first.”

The first “smallest relevant plan” was the city’s Climate Action Plan, a new plan mandated by the state, which came to the Planning Commission when Meyer was on it. This plan isn’t really a plan, it’s a dream list of percentage objectives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from various sources with no identified means for achieving them. It was prepared by undergraduates for a class project. But it’s become the Holy Grail at city hall.

When it came before the Planning Commission, Meyer pulled a proposed number for bike share out of thin air, 20 percent. Again, Rivoire/Meyer explain: “Eric pitched the idea of pushing the bike mode share goal to 20 percent, thinking that we might get 15 percent as a compromise. But in a surprise vote, the entire planning commission agreed to the new 20 percent bike mode share goal.

“In the context of the Climate Action Plan this bike mode share increase didn’t seem that controversial . . . The City Council later easily approved the new Climate Action Plan.”

With the camel’s nose inside the tent, watch what happened next!

“A year or two later, when the Bicycle Master Plan came up for review, it was modified to match the Climate Action Plan,” Rivoire/Meyer write. “Since city staff were able to explain that they were merely updating the bike plan to match the more recent climate action plan, it went through without a hitch.”

The Bicycle Master Plan is another thing few residents are familiar with, though it constricts much of the city’s planning. It proposes a grandiose set of projects, which the city claims might cost around $50 million, but which clearly would cost some multiple of that.

The plan elevates a map of marginally-vetted bicycle activists’ dreams to official status. It includes three new bicycle bridges over Highway 101 (California Boulevard, Casa Street, and Broad Street) each of which will cost millions. Completing the “railroad safety trail” that exists in fragments between Cal Poly and Orcutt Road, will require five bridges (Highway 101, the railroad near Pepper Street, Monterey Street, San Luis Creek, and Johnson Avenue). Then there are various bike freeways like the one on Chorro and Broad streets, which the council said is precedent for a number of similar neighborhood incursions.

A staff report to the Bicycle Advisory Committee said temporary Chorro and Broad streets construction would cost more than $100K, and final construction more than $1 million. Those numbers were mysteriously reduced in their report to the City Council.

So, the bike share change to 20 percent in the bike plan was “noncontroversial” because it duplicated what was in the Climate Action Plan.

That still left the biggie, getting 20 percent into the General Plan itself.

“A few years later,” Rivoire and Meyer continue, “the city’s transportation and land use plan, known as LUCE . . . came up for review and updating. Eric was appointed chairman of the citizen task force dedicated to overseeing the update. The task force again debated increasing the modal goal over what was in the old LUCE, but what ultimately led . . . them to approve it was the simple fact that the Planning Commission and City Council had already approved that figure in the two other plans years before.

“This 20 percent mode bike mode share goal would never have been approved in the LUCE had it not already been part of the two smaller plans. [Sic.]

“This is a key point and may be a pathway that others can follow . . .

“Meanwhile, Dan was elected to City Council shortly after the City Planning Commission approved the LUCE update, so when it came before the council, his was the deciding vote that approved it and he is now in a position to help shepherd the new prioritization of funding.

“Our work to get a place on city boards, as bike advocates, paid off.”

Thus – by getting special people into important positions and understanding how to manipulate planning process from inside — the puzzle fit together. An arbitrary percentage of bike riders vs. car drivers plucked from thin air became a goal to be pursued at all costs and the sole new measure for allocating transportation spending.

The Bike Coalition. Rivoire and Meyer state these outcomes were guided by “many minds at the Bicycle Coalition” over an eight year period. So it’s worth taking a brief look at the Bike Coalition, now renamed Bike SLO County.

Rivoire was its executive director for seven years, and, according to his LinkedIn page, had been a manager for more than a year before becoming director. For a small non-profit, it’s unclear how they get funds to pay a director, lobby, and maintain a prominent office.

Their strange bedfellow relationship with the city certainly helps. They rent commercial space in the city’s Marsh Street parking garage at a sweetheart rate – a 2015 report by the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) suggests it may be as little as $1 per year – on the pretext they are providing municipal services, like bike activism.

Thus, like other selected special interest groups including the Chamber of Commerce, they’ve been permitted to cultivate an inside track at city hall that’s economically beneficial to the organization.

While finances of Bike SLO are opaque, we do know they receive support from the developer community. For example, the CEO of RRM Design Group says in a LinkedIn endorsement “RRM has supported the SLO CO Bike Coalition for many years. . . “ He adds Rivoire’s “ability to partner with the business community is unparalleled.”

RRM is a major player in local development and represents developers of major current additions to the city.

Less ambiguous is $5,000 Gary Grossman, developer of the “San Luis Ranch” (Dalidio farm), gave the bike coalition during Rivoire’s leadership (he also endorsed Rivoire’s council candidacy). This raised enough eyebrows, given Rivoire’s deciding vote on the LUCE which permitted Grossman’s development to proceed, contrary to existing rules, in an airport hazard zone, that the city attorney sought advice from the state FPPC.

From their report we learn Rivoire’s salary depended “in part” on his fundraising success. The FPPC said it needed more specific information to determine if a legal issue existed. This was potentially messy, given Rivoire’s partisanship for Grossman’s project. He found a new job.

Bike SLO is a focal point for bike activists. The SLO Bike Club says it donates yearly to support Bike SLO, and waxes poetic about the Rivoire andMeyer article: “Two important lessons from this story – the importance of plans and the planning process and the value of the support that our bike club has given the Bike Coalition for more than ten years.”

Then there’s in-house city hall bike activist infrastructure. The Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) overlaps membership with Bike SLO and the clubs. It’s a special purpose committee with one and only one goal – promoting bikes. There’s nothing wrong with that, provided their work has some checks and balances on it.

But under the “streamlining” regime established by the current city manager, more and more special interest committees report straight to the council, with no other advisory body checking their work.

This is a sea change. Twenty years ago, something like the Chorro and Broad streets bike freeway would have been vetted by the Planning Commission, which is better able than the BAC to separate special interest activism from what’s good for all, and it would also have undergone environmental review. The wild Chorro and Broad streets plan that went to the council would have been considerably toned down, perhaps even received negative recommendations, prior to going to a council hearing.

There is also the activists’ “attitude.” The strident righteousness of the BAC chair’s comments to the council on Chorro and Broad streets could hardly have been more dismissive of and contemptuous towards neighbors who were concerned about their future if the BAC recommendation was adopted. Is such behavior by an advisory committee chair fair or appropriate?

Staff who developed the bike freeway plans had what they called “neighborhood meetings,” but they invited bike activists so there was never a meeting to sit down and talk with and listen to neighbors. At these “neighborhood” meetings if one or two bike activists wanted something and ten neighbors didn’t, it got into the plan. Adding insult to injury, some of the bike activists coddled by staff don’t live in the city.

This rigged process is what residents who have contact with today’s city hall are becoming accustomed to.

To whom do they listen? Then there’s the council. Harmon ran for mayor saying she’d listen to the people and empower them. So she heard speaker after speaker beg the council to back off the bike freeway, then – with the rest of her cohorts — voted to continue because “so many people want this.”

Who was she listening to?

Perhaps to Meyer.

Meyer didn’t speak at the council hearing, but sent a note referring to a “vast swath” of people who want this (Harmon’s “so many people want this?”) and urged the council to approve something, but “do not let NIMBY’ism drive your decision.”

So there you have it in a nutshell: in the bike activist mind residents with legitimate concerns are collectivized as NIMBYs to be ignored.

The purposes of hurling this disrespectful epithet are simple: to eliminate the need to think carefully about an issue; to categorize, denigrate, demonize, dismiss, disenfranchise an entire group; to manipulate the political process against the vital interests of that group; to free politicians from even needing to listen; to legitimize meanness and disrespect.

Official intolerance has reached this point in our city. Developers feel free at council and other public meetings to shout NIMBY; staff say it; the council and mayor sit by and allow this. The clique that’s seized city power is subjecting an entire class of citizens – home owning residents – to disfavored treatment. This isn’t respectful democracy. It’s a mirror-image of President Trump’s authoritarian meanness.

And so we come to understand how our city’s planning – and politics — got hacked by a small activist clique, and where that has led us.

Make no mistake about it, dear readers, we residents are no longer sitting at this city’s table, we’re on their menu. Today one neighborhood gets shish-kebabed, tomorrow another. Maybe yours. Is this the kind of city we want?