Bicycle Commuting

I’ve generally enjoyed commuting the roughly eight miles to and from work on my bicycle three or four days a week through the summer.  I like the exercise, gas savings, and time to think that the 45-minute roundtrip affords me on a regular basis.  While I am far from perfect in obeying traffic rules, I believe I am better than the vast majority of other cyclists I encounter during my rides.

Yesterday, I was whizzing down Highway 99 toward my home when I noticed an oncoming cyclist going the wrong way in the bike lane.  Fortunately, no cars were following me; and I was able to swerve onto the highway to avoid a collision.  True to my pledge in an earlier blog post, I simply yelled “wrong way” to the offending rider and pedaled down the road without removing my hands from my bike.

I routinely see people riding against traffic, riding on sidewalks (most common offense), blowing stop signs, and otherwise doing things that endanger themselves and those around them.  My greatest sin is not always coming to a complete stop, but I have decided that I stop more often than most cars.  It’s no surprise to me that our red light cameras commonly catch people failing to make complete stops on right turns.  It seems we have generally gotten out of the habit of making complete stops which may explain why there are so many accidents at controlled intersections.  A recent letter writer to the local paper referred to the situation as “bicycle anarchy.”

Albany also has a problem with safety equipment.  I think the ratio of heads to helmets is about five to one, and I have noticed a distressing number of people riding at night with no lights.  The good news is that we don’t seem to have many serious bicycle accidents; or, if we do, I’m not hearing about them.  I think the primary reason is the relatively small number of people who ride bikes and our comparatively light traffic.  We have some busy streets at various times of the day, but I have rarely experienced delays or traffic problems either as a cyclist or driver.

Next week, Oregon’s annual Bicycle Commute Challenge begins; and I’m looking forward to my third year as a participant.  Last year, I was able to claim a 100 percent rating for riding my bike on the days when I was in town.  We have people who biked many more miles, including some who commute from Corvallis.  Troy Mickelson in the Police Department has done a great job of organizing our participation in the Commute over the past few years, and we’ve done well as an organization.  My best advice to those who might be considering joining this year is that an Albany bicycle commute will be surprisingly enjoyable if you are safety conscious and willing to obey the rules of the road.

The Cost of Bad Government

We often hear comments about the high cost of government while seldom seeing a thoughtful analysis of the value received for the investment made.  The August 23 & 30 edition (it used to be a weekly) of Newsweek carries a small article entitled “The Professional Class Flees Russia.”  The story describes how as many as a third of Russian businesses are being shaken down by dishonest law enforcement officials working with organized crime to gain control of legitimate businesses.  The result of this corruption is that more than 20,000 educated Russians sought political asylum in the European Union last year while others sought refuge in the U.S.  It’s not surprising that people who have a choice choose to live and invest in a place where government is generally honest and reliable.

Later in the same issue of Newsweek, the magazine lists its picks for the best countries in the world.  The U.S. comes in at number 11, behind Finland at number 1, but ahead of Germany and the U.K. at 12 and 14 respectively.  I disagree with the list for a variety of reasons, but I do not find it surprising that nearly every country in the top 25 is a democratic republic.

Speaking of lists, a group called “The World Taxpayers Association,” places the U.S. total tax burden at 25th among developed nations, behind (not surprisingly) almost every country ahead of us on the Newsweek roster of “The Best Countries in the World.”  Only Japan, which ranks number 9 on the Newsweek list, is reported to have a slightly lower tax burden than the U.S.

Regardless of some skepticism about lists and the difficulties of comparing tax systems, I believe there is overwhelming evidence to support the conclusion that good government is a good investment and that bad government is a very difficult burden to overcome.  In a speech in the House of Commons on November  11, 1947, Winston Churchill said:

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Governance is not easy when you consider that government is asked to reconcile the interests of large numbers of people and make decisions that render the greatest good for the greatest number.  Democracy as we know and practice it has done a better job than anything that preceded it, but it has not flourished without resources.  While there is surely a point of diminishing return where further investment produces no appreciable benefit, there is also a threshold requirement for good government.  The danger of not reaching that threshold is the corruption, incompetence, and failure causing Russian professionals to leave their country every day.

Defining Success

I think part of the appeal of sport competitions is that in almost all cases there is a clear winner and, consequently, little room for dispute about what constitutes success.  Few people would argue that the New York Yankees had a bad year in 2009 when they won the World Series or that Italy’s World Cup soccer victory was somehow a failure.  Similarly, businesses can usually claim success when they are profitable, particularly over an extended period of time.  In general, cities and government lack commonly accepted measures of achievement, making it difficult to decide whether citizens are receiving fair value for their tax investment.

Albany is trying to address this shortcoming by participating in the International City-County Management Association’s Performance Measurement Consortium and by actively trying to achieve standards set by independent rating organizations.  Our budget and financial reporting, for example, have received the Government Finance Officers Association Award of Excellence for decades; and the Public Works Department is pursuing accreditation by the American Public Works Association.  Our goal is to achieve or exceed meaningful quality standards that translate into cost effective service to Albany citizens.

Finding the right things to measure and then documenting and analyzing them accurately is often a difficult and complex task.  The City’s accounting system and budget process are good examples of the effort and resources required to meet necessary standards.  Just as we cannot choose to stop following budget law because compliance is not cheap or easy, we should not ignore the need to measure and evaluate our performance.

Trust in government is apparently at an all-time low in the United States at a time when government effectiveness may be at an all-time high.  Local governments have better trained employees, better equipment, and generally higher standards than they did a generation ago; yet support continues to erode.  Setting and meeting high performance standards offers hope that government can regain citizen trust.  The situation in Bell, California, where the city manager, council, and other officials received unconscionable salaries over the past decade or so, would be much less likely to happen in a city where standards are set, achieved, and communicated to the public.  No system will eliminate dishonesty, but its likelihood can be reduced by effective performance measurement.

Performance measurement is also an essential tool to drive improvement.  Changes in data over time or comparisons to other organizations often provide clues for being able to do things better.  This data does not replace judgment; it informs it.  Advances in medicine have, for the most part, not occurred by accident, but by rigorous study and collection of information.  Government needs to learn from this example to drive improvement.

I doubt that Albany will win a world series or score a major victory over Corvallis in a government competition anytime soon.  We are, however, receiving recognition for innovation and transparency in collecting and communicating information.  I believe our ability to let our citizens know, with more than just our opinions, that we are achieving high standards of performance will help build and maintain the trust essential for thriving local democracy.