“Why don’t they just do X?”

A group of local pedestrian/bicycle advocates last night on Twitter engaged in a cathartic group rant, with pictures included, of places where Albuquerque’s pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is terrible. It was accompanied by a running commentary of a common form: “Why don’t they just do X?”, where X is the obvious thing, like including a sidewalk, or a bicycle lane that’s actually wide enough for a bicycle.

The problem with this approach is that we don’t really mean the question the way we’ve phrased it. In fact, we don’t really mean it as a question at all. Most often what we really mean when we say this is, “It is obvious that they should do X.” And the solution here, because we think it is obvious, is to shout the obviousness of X louder, and be frustrated when it doesn’t happen.

We make a lot more progress on this, I think, if we actually mean the question the way we’ve phrased it, if we genuinely ask why X hasn’t been done.

Bike Lane Closed Ahead sign, Paseo Del Norte, Albuquerque
The Great Wall of Paseo Del Norte, Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Better Burque proprietor Scot and I found ourselves late yesterday morning on the north end of Albuquerque on bicycles, pondering the best way home. This of necessity required crossing Interstate 25, or Paseo del Norte, or both. Paseo is a heavily traveled roadway (40,000-plus cars per day) that is a main east-west route across town. Interstate 25 has notoriously bad bicycle infrastructure at the major street crossings, especially in this part of town.

This problem, these “Great Walls” (Paseo, I25), are one of the major bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure challenges in Albuquerque, as Scot has detailed at some length (see here here here). Scot and I mostly do this on bicycles, but as last night’s Twitter gripe session made clear, it’s even worse if you’re on foot. Imagine being a pedestrian trying to get through this:

I have actually walked through this. My work used to be on one side, the car repair shop on the other. Scot’s body language here speaks volumes. We gave up and turned around.

There are a number of different values for “X” here, where “X=things that could be done to make this safer and more usable for bicycles and pedestrians“. But the question becomes more interesting and useful if we can really thrash out the “Why don’t they just do X?” as a meaningful question rather than a tautological assertion of the obviousness of X.

In a classic 1961 paper, the political scientist Vincent Ostrom and his colleagues laid out a framework for thinking about the problems of what he dubbed “polycentric” governance:

“Polycentric” connotes many centers of decision-making which are formally independent of each other…. To the extent that they take each other into account in competitive relationships, enter into various contractual and cooperative undertakings or have recourse to central mechanisms to resolve conflicts, the various political jurisdictions in a metropolitan area may function in a coherent manner with consistent and predictable patterns of interacting behavior. To the extent that this is so, they may be said to function as a “system.”

We deal with this a lot in my day job as director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, because water management is profoundly polycentric. Lots of people are in charge of their little piece, no one’s in charge of the whole thing, and understanding how all the little pieces interact to make the whole thing is a critical piece.

The “system” in the Better Burque Freeway Crossing Case Study is the seamless web of roads – some city, some county, some state Department of Transportation – and the the complicated handoffs required as jurisdiction, budget, planning, construction, and maintenance responsibility pass from one to another.

In the location of the photo of Scot looking forlornly into the Osuna-San Mateo underpass beneath I-25, the “system” has sidewalks and a bicycle lanes behind, on the city street leading into this intersection. But as the city street approaches the Land of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the freeway in the background and the hellscape beneath, the bike lanes and pedestrian access dwindle away to near nothing.

I don’t know the answer to why we haven’t evaluated the various values of “X” needed to fix this and the many freeway underpasses like it – or the crossings of Paseo del Norte, or the other points of contact between local and state road jurisdiction where this common problem occurs. But it seems that a genuine “why” question here, rooted in a serious inquiry into how the various government entities interact, will get us farther than simply posting more pictures on the Internet of crazy bad bike-ped infrastructure.


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