A Veneer of Democracy

Not long ago the San Francisco city government proposed “improvements” to a two-block neighborhood by the ocean near my house. The neighborhood doesn’t need any improvements except maybe repaving the main street (Taraval Street). But since there was money available, it was divided up among the 11 city districts and our supervisor (like a city council member in other cities) scheduled public meetings, supposedly to decide on how to use the money. I went to each of the three meetings, and argued (without much hope) that we liked our funky salty foggy neighborhood just as it was.

After the meetings resulted in virtually no change to the banal and useless proposals originally presented by the city engineers, the district supervisor sent me an invitation to another set of meetings, this time about the city budget (“Budget Town Hall”). I responded with the letter I am now posting as a rant.
A bulb-out is a curb extension used to reduce traffic at an intersection and narrow the area pedestrians must cross. It is suitable for intense traffic areas not found in our neighborhood. You can stand in the middle of the intersection at 46th and Taraval, site of two transit stops, any time of day or night, and see only an occasional car approaching in any direction.


Dear Supervisor T_______,

I have to tell you that my experience with the Taraval Streetscape meetings has left me with very little appetite for more such meetings. It seems pretty clear to me that the Taraval meetings were intended to put a veneer of democracy on decisions already taken in City Hall offices. I’m not sure I want to lend my support to this process again.

I emphasize that I am not complaining that the outcome of the Taraval Street plans was not what I would have done if it had been my decision to make. Of course I am only one person and by no means entitled to have my own way. But it would be hard to overlook that a person would need a microscope to detect any difference at all between the original plan put forward by DPW [Department of Public Works] and the final result. It was exactly the same except in a few trivial details.

I am a lawyer and have studied government all my life, and I know there are two axioms that almost never fail. The first is that you can’t fight City Hall. And the second is that whoever sets the agenda controls the meeting.

So DPW was given money to play with, and the District Four office cannily snagged $1.6 million of it, and so there was all that money that had to be spent. DPW rolled out a plan using the same tried and true elements it always uses – plantings, bulb-outs, parklets, “gateway elements,” and so on. We were served up a plan and then allowed to vote on tiny adjustments. Do you want your gateway element in the middle of the street, or 30 feet further south? Letting people vote on questions like that is a way of making sure DPW gets a gateway element no matter what, because that’s what they want – whether it is at point A or point B doesn’t matter. In the end DPW did get just what they wanted, except now there is a neighborhood seal of approval and the City can say it was democratically decided. I’m not participating in that again.

I am not disappointed, because it is just how I expected the process to work. I am not angry, because what would be the point?1 It’s just government being government. I am not even demanding that you do anything. It is what it was fated to be from the time DPW took out their pencils and their standard planning kit and drew something to use up the money. But it still induces enough disgust that I will not participate again.

This is how I knew for sure the fix was in. At the third meeting your landscape architect, who led these meetings, was saying yet again how great her bulb-outs were. She pointed out yet again, as she had been doing all along, that they would “calm traffic” and provide “pedestrian refuges.” Anyone who has spent half an hour in those two blocks of Taraval Street, which I assume includes her, and has walked down the center of Taraval Street, deserted of cars as it usually is, has to know that there is not enough traffic there to calm, and no need for any refuges. Nevertheless we get the bulb-outs anyway, not because there is the slightest need for them in our street, but because they are a standard feature of DPW planning, and DPW knows how to build them, and the money is there to be spent. This caused the remaining scales to fall from my eyes and allowed me to see even more clearly than before that the whole series of meetings was really a charade – the plan was always going to be within 2% of what DPW cooked up before any meetings at all were held.

I repeat: I am not angry about this – it is the way government always acts. But I am not fooled, and really cannot lend my name to more of the same, over the budget this time, and allow my participation to be used to call it democracy.

Yours truly,




  1. Actually I was angry.