Why COGs Matter

Since last Fall, Better Bike been pressing the Westside Cites Council of Governments (COG) to take a more active role in active transportation policy and planning on behalf of its five member cities and constituents it represents. The time is right, especially considering the observed increase in cycling on the Westside; a cultural shift seems to be in the making.

On the other hand, our small share of commute trips by bike (about 1%) means that even modest gains would highlight our embrace of new modes of travel. As bumper-to-bumper traffic saps productivity and puts a sour face on our famous Southern California quality-of-life, it won’t take much to double that 1% and more.

With a transportation revolution in the making, shouldn’t the COG be on the right side (as they say) of transportation history in the making?

While the COG workplan (adopted last Fall) tips its hat to cycling and the COG earlier this Spring inaugurated a bicycle planning coordination effort (see the staff report) so far the issue’s been taken up only at the staff-level (and the COG has a single staffer). It’s the only substantive bike-related initiative on the agenda).

Since the COG’s Transportation and Sustainability committees are where the transportation policy action should happen, but where it’s not actually happening, cyclists need be concerned. The COG needs to hear from cyclists that walking and biking (aka ‘active transportation’) is the smart choice for the Westside – a message they’re not getting at present.

The recent COG Transportation committee meeting proves the point. The committee met Monday (6/6/11 – see attached agenda) to, among other things, consider “bicycling planning next steps” (agenda item six). Better Bike was in the house to learn which ‘next steps’ the committee would take on the effort. The problem was that Better Bike arrived a fashionable half hour late in order to clear housekeeping agenda items #1-5 and so we missed the bike item discussion completely. Must not have been much of a substantive discussion. Then the meeting wrapped up fifteen minutes later (after only 45 minutes) – more brief than a Starbucks sit-down. Yep, that’s despite the many important transportation issues facing the COG at this juncture.

If the COG transportation committee needs issues to chew on, I think that LA-region cyclists can offer sound reasons to engage bike planning across the Westside and even provide some good ideas to get the committee members going. (Read more about the recent Transportation committee appointments made in May.)

Should Cyclists Be Concerned?

There are many reasons for cyclists to become more actively involved in COG business. First, the COG is a political body that wields influence over big policy issues. Super agencies like Metro, Caltrans, and the Metropolitan Water District routinely send representatives to the COG because they know that it’s important to get local officials on board with proposed policies like rate hikes. They chat up the committees and PowerPoints and hand out material. Now, COG members don’t vote directly on Metro or Caltrans policies. But the COG member cities and this body do swing weight.
We need to bring our organizing mojo to the table and open a policy dialog with the COG’s Transportation and Sustainability committees (which share oversight of bike-related issues). After all, if the COG is on Metro’s to-do list, it should be on our to-do list too.

Second, big agencies shape the terrain of regional transportation but local government craft the contours with transportation-relevant policies. Look no further than land use, where local governments often encourage development adjacent to rail. Leveraging public investment in transit, transit-oriented development (TOD, aka the ‘Transit Village’) organizes mixed-use and residential development around stations where accessible rail promises to move more people with fewer cars.
We must be involved in this discussion and work in concert with local government if we want to shift mode choice from the car to active transportation options like walking and biking.

Local governments, for example, may liberalize zoning to permit higher densities and otherwise provide incentives to developers (like relaxed parking requirements per unit) to encourage development. Now these incentives can be a boon to developers and good news for cyclists (if done right) but it causes no small amount of contention in the neighborhood, and local governments can use the political cover that a pro-bike advocacy organization can provide. Local governments need our political support as they make politically-painful short-term local land use decisions that can change the game.

Third, the COG is an under-utilized vehicle for finding consensus at the level of the sub-region. We cyclists cannot afford to overlook the role that the COG can play in establishing baseline policies (or at least guidelines) for member governments that would discourage auto use and encourage alternative means of personal mobility. We need the COG to step in as an intermediate political voice for post-auto transportation solutions, rather than have it sit on the sidelines as localities pursue their parochial agendas. Look no further than Beverly Hills to suggest the consequences of inaction.

Our shared objective should be, of course, moving the collective consciousness to the tipping point where cars become less relevant as the transportation choice. That in turn means that automobile interests are less powerful as a policy lobby – the gift that keeps on giving to transportation advocates. Let’s get the COG on board this campaign.

What’s Hamstringing the COG?

The irony of the COG is that this body seems to have overlooked its own capacity as a political actor, which would include communicating to constituents the benefit of policies that serve the public interest and defending against local parochialism. It’s a political body that neglects to to campaign. Rather the COG seems to view member cities as its only constituents, rather than recognize the larger public that it represents.

COG homepage comparison
Comparison of Westside COG homepages between 2006 and 2010. Not much change here!

Indeed the Westside Cities COG failed to meet even the most basic tenets of Web 2.0: sharing its business with the public.
Until last Fall the website was nearly moribund, for example. It had hardly evolved at all over the prior several years. Key documents were not updated. Meeting notes were not made available for the full year prior and web links to four out of five member cities returned 404 error pages.

COG comparison of site pages, 2008 and 2010

Refer to the screen captures at right comparing the succession of homepages between 2006 and 2010 (above) or the side-by-side comparison of site sections between 2008 and 2010 (left).
Today the COG board nor committee members still aren’t identified and the advocacy ‘toolkit’ the COG issued for building support for COG initiatives returns a 404 error today.

Not surprisingly, it’s a rarity to see a stakeholder in attendance at one of the COG’s midday meetings. For a body that could have a key role to play in transportation advocacy, it seems to all but have turned its back on the public it serves.

What’s the Problem Exactly?

Casual observation suggests that the COG’s mission is not to engage the public but rather to safeguard the parochial interests of member cities. Committees seem to generally follow the COG lead: rather than engage transportation problems to find solutions, the committees do what they did at last Monday’s meeting: receive an agency presentation and enjoy the provided refreshments.
The COG is under-staffed. With a budget of $120,000 the COG is not going to be undertaking heavy-duty policy analysis, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t drive change instead of gird against it. It can be done; the Southbay Cities COG is deeply involved in the development of that sub-region’s bike plan.

Why not the Westside COG? Given the congestion problems afflicting the Westside and the many complex projects underway, the COG needs a mobility/sustainability coordinator to help member cities move bodies with less friction at greater savings over the longer term.

What Can We Do?

We in the cycling community must engage and advocate for such a position lest we continue to allow our transportation needs to take a backseat (as it were) to issues that only concern COG member cities. Why not…

  • Attend a Westside COG board meeting. The COG board meets every odd month (next on July 21st) while committees meet every even month (next in August). Drop in wearing your bike helmet and fashionable active-wear and tell ‘em that Better Bike sent you.
  • Attend a COG transportation committee meeting. Our next opportunity comes in August (the next even month), but as that’s the dog days of summer we shouldn’t expect too much…perhaps even a canceled meeting.
  • Read the COG workplan. With the upcoming COG meeting on July 21st the new fiscal year begins – which is a good time to suggest to the board how it can better address the transportation issues that you care most about.
  • Contact your own COG representative. Is one of your council members an officer, on the board, or on a committee? Get to know that member’s staff and bring your concerns to the COG too.
  • Become involved in the COG’s Bicycle Plan effort [Better Bike coverage]. We hope to include policymakers in the upcoming meetings, and it’s important that we show the cycling community cares. Better Bike will keep you apprized of the next meeting day & time.

Check the Westside COG meetings page and mark your calendars. But you may have to take a half-day off, because our COG don’t meet in the evening.