“Stealth Democracy*” and the Girard bicycle lane

I’ve been feeling bad about the whole Girard bicycle lane debacle, like it’s somehow my  fault, or at the very least that I don’t  have much standing to complain about the results. (Because we at Better Burque can’t help ourselves, let us remind you of the results.)

24girardHere’s the root of my guilt. I’m a regular bike commuter through that corridor, and I’ve been looking forward to the city’s Girard complete streets project. But in the summer of 2016, when the city held a public meeting to solicit public input on the final plans, I didn’t attend. Mumble mumble excuses busy mumble mumble. Or maybe there was a baseball game, I don’t remember.

The point is that I didn’t hold up my end of the civic bargain.

So then I’m riding home from work a few weeks back, excited to try out my new lane, and whammo! My new lane was inordinately skinny. I went to the web site and read the plans. I went out to the site and measured to compare. I looked up the AASHTO standards for bike lane widths. I read the Complete Streets Ordinance. And only then did I engage in the pageant of democracy. By which I mean I shared the picture with friends and we tweeted it and stuff.

In an uncomfortable book a few years back, political scientists John Hibbins and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse advance an intriguing argument – that despite our rhetoric about the richness and importance of participatory democracy, when you really probe Americans, they pretty much don’t give a shit.

People do not want responsiveness and accountability in government; they want responsiveness and accountability to be unnecessary.

In other words, they just want government to Do The Right Thing, where The Right Thing is the thing I happen to agree with. In my case, The Right Thing was “safer bike lanes in the Girard corridor so I don’t have to do those crazy cuts through the neighborhood in search of a safe place to cross Lomas”.

As I look back at the plans presented to the public in 2016, it looks like folks within the government were trying to do the right thing. Had I exercised my role in ensuring responsiveness and accountability by attending the meeting, I’d have likely said, “Yup, looks good to me!” The problem was that the stripes on the street didn’t match the stripes on the plans.

At my day job, I’m in the midst of a deep dive into some issues involving democratic process and municipal governance. The literature is scary, providing little comfort to my democratic instincts. Low-attention voters mostly are just engaging in cultural identity protection, not really paying attention to policy much at all. Efforts to expand government responsiveness and accountability through more democracy often are a mess as a result. You can imagine how, after a career as a journalist invested in my role in the pageant of democracy, this is uncomfortable stuff.

Luckily, with respect to the Girard bike lanes, the right thing seems to be happening. While Chris McKee’s story doesn’t settle things, the gossip is that the final solution will involve narrowing the car lanes and widening the bike lanes, so I guess it’s all good?

* The title of Hibbing/Theiss-Morse’s book is “Stealth Democracy”. It’s super interesting.

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