Monday, January 31, 2011
When I hear the words "Madison" and "world class city" in the same sentence I reach for my BS Meter
Madison is a lovely mid-size Midwestern city with many amenities. Many of us love it, and it's not hard to see why. Is it a "world class city?" Not as most people would use the phrase outside Madison. Real world class cities don't need to call themselves "world class" The world does that for them.
When applied to Madison, "world class city" is a sign that hype is being committed, that someone is trying to sell something. When I hear this happening, I reach for my BS meter. "World class city" is the kind of empty phrase completely drained of meaning that George Orwell dissected so memorably in Politics and the English Language. And it's not harmless. As Orwell warned, sloppy language goes hand in hand with sloppy thinking. All too often, when hype is taken literally and not thought through, bad policy is the result. (Much like the way the similar phrase "world class facility" seemed to hypnotize people and cloud their minds during discussions about the Overture Center.)
When I read about Mayor Dave's plan to commit $300,000 in taxpayer funds to the B-Cycle LLC bike share program in partnership with Trek, my first thought was "cool!" After all, Trek would invest a lot of money, the program seems to work in other cities, and bike-sharing is a great idea. Then I saw the telltale words in his proposal, "world class city."
The BS Meter started to buzz, and I began having second thoughts: Why Trek? Has the mayor been unduly swayed by a major fundraiser who also accompanied him on a bike study trip to Europe? Why no RFP? Why do we need to jumpstart this thing with $100,000 from the emergency fund? And since we're talking about public land for the bike kiosks, isn't it possible to find a vendor for a program like this that would actually pay the city money for the rights, rather than asking for money? What's the rush? Why not get some more input, follow the normal process and consider some more vendors?
I'm sure Mayor Dave believes in his proposal, but do we have to take his word for it? Paul Soglin also thinks bike-sharing is a great idea, but doesn't like the idea of locking into this without more discussion and an RFP. Brenda Konkel has posted comments by both Dave Cieslewicz and Paul Soglin at Forward Lookout.
The City Council takes this up tomorrow. It would be really great if they could discuss the proposal without the phrase "world class city" coming up once. Might be a first.