Planning Toolbox

Council Meeting

Planning is a highly complex topic. This complexity can allow progression towards an outcome that may not be in the best interests of a city.

This guide is designed to alert elected officials to areas that may be subject to pitfalls if the right questions aren’t asked.


Elected Officials, Planners & Advisory Committee Members
Should Always Remember…
  • You live in a bubble, surrounded by expert advisors who may benefit from receiving grants or progressing agendas for other groups and interests.
  • It is your duty as a public servant to make the effort to get outside this bubble and understand residents’ genuine viewpoints.
  • Advocates routinely attend meetings (sometimes they can be paid advocates, or attendees giving the appearance of support may actually be financially incentivized)
  • Paid lobbyists routinely attend meetings
  • Residents rarely attend meetings, they are busy and getting on with their lives
  • Residents are trusting you to represent and serve them
  • Residents outnumber advocates and lobbyists hundredfold
  • Residents hold the votes to get you re-elected

Top 10 Planning Pitfalls

Mayors, councilors, planning commissioners and advisory committee members can increase their effectiveness by understanding common planning pitfalls, and knowing what questions to ask…

  1. It Reduces Greenhouse Gases – So We Must Do It to Save the PlanetSave the Planet
    The word “sustainability” has become a mechanism for seeking unquestioning approval. We are confronted with facts that can be misleading about car emissions being the greatest source of CO2 emissions for the town or city that we live in. What is overlooked is that the car usage is what 98% of people use to get around - to work, school, shopping… it represents economic activity.

    The theory behind this argument typically runs along the lines that transit is cleaner than cars therefore anything we can do to get people to switch to transit will help save the planet. The reality is that cars have overtaken transit emissions on all but the most heavily used arterial routes such as trains into concentrated employment centers such as Manhattan, BART and Caltrain in San Francisco. Transit can be effective but only when buses, trains and trolleys are nearly full of passengers – such as at peak time on arterial routes. But not everyone needs to travel directly along an artery, and the more transit mode changes that occur the more inconvenient and the more likely the car will be chosen. Beyond these arterial routes ridership drops and passenger miles per gallon drops and transit emissions increase.

    Questions to ask:
    a) How much will this project cost to abate the emissions of 1 ton of CO2?
    (Tip: to be cost effective the answer should be in the $100 per ton range, possibly a little higher as lower hanging fruit options are being addressed – see page 8 of this McKinsey report)
    b) How realistic are ridership figures? (emissions should be based on per passenger mile; a bus with 2 passengers emits more CO2 than even a large SUV; to keep up with a modern 45 mpg hybrid car carrying the average 1.67 occupants, a 5 mpg hybrid bus must carry about 15 passengers at all times, more when “deadhead miles” are considered.
    c) Has the CO2 emissions of cars at the midpoint of the lifespan of the project been considered? A train locomotive may have a 30 year lifespan and the line require 4 years to build; so a fair comparison must consider car emissions in 19 years time. Consider that the average car today gets 23.6mpg or 39 passenger mpg, and that this figure increases by approximately 1mpg a year or more.


  3. manipulatedIt’s Better than All the Alternatives We Considered, So We Must Do It
    Often alternatives that are presented can be artificially manipulated. The sin of omission can be used to make a desired alternative the most attractive.
    Questions to ask:
    a) What alternatives could have been considered that weren’t presented and why? (E.g. buses, do nothing, fewer housing units, lower densities or heights)
    b) Who selected the alternatives, did they have any biases?

  5. Claims of Reducing Traffic Congestion
    Often the claim sounds true, but the reality can be easily concealed in obscure statistics. Take the Anaheim trolley for example. Someone unaware of what to look for might easily take away from the report that the trolley reduces traffic. However only upon careful scrutiny of the  Environmental Impact Study for the Anaheim streetcar  (page 26, table 3.13) does it become evident that the trolley decreases the traffic capacity of the highway by 287 cars per hour per direction.Questions to ask:
    a) What is the impact on traffic congestion?
    b) Compared to alternatives what is the impact on traffic congestion?

  7. The Plan Bay Area EcosystemBiases and Conflicts of Interest
    The article “Disenfranchised by an Ecosystem” highlights just how incestuous the relationships in planning, policy making, designations (e.g. PDAs) and associated transportation and housing grants can be. Often planners and planning commissioners can hold critical knowledge to guide elected officials to an outcome, this can be subject to abuse.

    It is important for decision makers to understand when there is a bias or conflict of interest – a planner, planning commissioner or consultant seemingly offering expert neutral advice may serve another organization that has an interest in the outcome, or they may stand to benefit from increased business.

    Sometimes advocacy groups can incentivize attendance at council or policy meetings. These advocacy groups can receive funding from the government organization pushing for policy adoption. This can give the false appearance of public support – where advocacy groups can crowd the room outnumbering (unpaid) residents and artificially giving an appearance of extensive grassroots support.

    Questions to ask:
    a) Ask experts (including existing long serving public employees) and consultants – do you represent or are you affiliated with any organization that may have an interest, commercial or otherwise (e.g. advocacy) in the outcome of the decision?
    b) Do you belong to the boards of any advocacy groups?

  9. Green WalletDesignating Neighborhoods for High Density – Cost Exceeds the Benefit
    Most cities badly need transportation grants to address severe or sometimes acute problems. Policymakers are using grants to guide cities towards multi-modal transit; but for many suburban cities this can lead to a futile exercise of trying to entice the middle class out of convenient cars onto inconvenient transit.Today we are a seeing policies that entice cities to volunteer neighborhoods for significant high density development through transportation grants. However what may be overlooked is (i) the grant will only cover a tiny fraction of what’s needed to address current transportation issues and (ii) the grant will result in the addition of development that will further exacerbate the burden on transportation in the area.

    Questions to ask:
    a) What is the likely revenue from grants?
    b) What will it cost to address current transportation issues in the neighborhood?
    c) What additional burdens will be placed on transportation issues?
    d) Is this designation the vision of the community?
    e) Does this designation come with any obligations or expectations?

  11. The Tucson Streetcar

    Streetcars have high walk-away costs if they prove economically unviable

    Walk- Away Costs of Alternatives
    The 21st century has seen an over-fixation on fixed guideway rail projects. Typically these projects are much more expensive when they fail compared to an equivalent bus system.

    Questions to ask:
    a) Compared to alternatives (e.g. bus) if this project fails what is the walk-away cost?
    b) If this project fails (e.g. ridership doesn’t achieve goals) how easily can the purchased transportation be re-purposed?


  13. high-densityDensity Bonuses
    When zoning, especially in California, what may initially seem like an acceptable density for a project or zoning can through density bonuses get rapidly out of hand. This KMTG reference guide provides a useful primer on California density bonuses, especially the table on page 3. Through such bonuses an acceptable 20 units per acre can easily become over 30 units per acre.
    Questions to ask:
    a) What is the maximum density with bonuses that could be built?
    b) What is the likelihood that a developer will get a density bonus (noting that billion dollar community foundations have become very active helping non-profits build housing with a high percentage of affordable units)

  15. Public Outreach & Consultation?Community Workshop
    Unleashing a surprise on those you represent can lead to significant public opposition, and make dialog considerably more difficult downstream – it can rapidly descend into time-consuming damage control.It is vital to conduct outreach and get neighborhood buy in early in the process, and adhere to an open and honest process.
    Questions to ask:
    a) Did the number of housing units / heights discussed in meetings reflect what was written in the plan?
    b) Was the messaging to the public specifically clear that what was being intended was high density housing, that could add a number of units with a specified number of storys? (E.g. the outreach was not misleading)
    c) If there was a workshop where the public was asked to choose from alternatives were all appropriate alternatives presented? (E.g. was a no change alternative presented)?
    d) Was the outreach proportionate to the impact? E.g. if 300 residences would have been notified for one homeowner building a small kitchen extension, then how many residences should have been notified for a 5 story 200 unit apartment building affecting sight-lines and traffic for 1/2 mile?

  17. Visioning Suddenly Becomes a Specific Plan
    Sometimes planners or advocates may claim that a plan is no more than a vision. However it is very easy, especially in the complex planning process, for just a few words to be changed in a long document, and the document to be enacted to turn a vision into a specific plan.
    Questions to ask:
    a) Will there be clear public outreach and a clearly identified milestone where there will be a council vote before any vision becomes a specific plan?

  19. Unrealistic Car Parking & Trip Reductions in Suburban Locations
    “Transit oriented development” advocates that building high density housing near transit will significantly reduce car trips per unit from the standard 6.72 to 4.5 trips per day. However this can be based on a number of assumptions:
    - that major employment centers can be conveniently reached by direct transit in under 20-30 minutes
    - there there is limited free parking in the immediate vicinity
    - that residents are likely to switch from using cars to transitHowever if a building is comprised of largely luxury apartments, is in suburban or exurban location, offers plentiful free parking or requires changing transit modes then the impact on trip reduction may be insignificant. Robert Cervero, who conceived transit oriented development refers to this as suburban bias.A great example of where TOD did not fit in a suburban neighborhood is explained in this article on “TOD – A Square Peg for a Round Hole“.It’s also important to understand new legislation such as Senate Bill 743 (covered in this Planning for Reality article)which when combined with new approaches to calculating impact such as the draft published by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research all but ignore impact on traffic intersections and parking. These policies can create a dangerous combination in a suburban area where there is a high dependency on cars.
    Questions to ask:
    a) Will a substantial number of units be luxury apartments/rented at a price where new occupants will more likely drive?
    b) How long will it take to travel on transit to major employment centers (population 250k+)? If it’s over 30 minutes then trip reduction may be low.
    c) When traveling on transit to a major employment center do travelers need to change transit mode? (Even a single change of mode can substantially reduce transit usage and negate claimed trip reduction)