The planning professions work in a grey zone between expertise and activism, and managing these competing impulses is one of our hardest tasks.
As a transit planning consultant, I don’t worry much about being perceived as an advocate of transit in general. Experts in any field are expected to believe in its importance. But I do try to keep a little distance between my knowledge about transit and the impulse to say “You should do this.” A good consultant must know how to marry his own knowledge to his client’s values, which may lead him to make different recommendations than he would do as a citizen, expressing his own values.
Often, I use this blog and its comments to refine my own thinking about transit in the abstract. This is part of how I cultivate my own expertise, but it is easy to mistake what I say for activism. When I say, for example, that some of the widespread claims about the superiority of rail over buses are cultural feedback effects, I’m not thinking like an activist or advocate; I’m thinking theoretically, like a philosopher. To me, this is a crucial skill for a consultant who’s going to have to marry his client’s values with his own expertise.
Philosophical or scientific training attunes you to the difference between prescription (telling people what they should do) and description (describing reality as it appears to be). In their purest form, prescription is the job of ethics, while description the job of science and metaphysics. A great deal of human speech, especially political speech, is a mixture of description and prescription, often one pretending to be the other.
In the planning world, prescription is the job of citizens, leaders, and advocates, while description is the work of professional experts like me. Obviously, this has to be a conversation. The expert has to ask the community to clarify its values based on the actual tradeoffs presented by reality, and the community has to respond. And as that goes on, both sides need to be clear about their roles, and respect the role of the other.
Partly because of my science and philosophy training, I tend to police the prescription-description boundary in my own thinking, and dwell in the space of pure description more than many people do — certainly more than most activists do. A lot of regular readers of HT share that training and that inclination, and some don’t.
For a critique of the futility of living your whole life in this descriptive mode, watching and describing the world but never doing anything, see Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But the opposite is also futile. An ethical system devoid of curiosity about objective reality devolves into pure egotism, such as that of the tyrants currently falling across the Middle East. Tyrants — whether they lead a nation or an office clique — are people who sift reality and see only what suits their ethical narrative (which, at that point, is really an egotistical narrative) and who forge echo chambers of people who help each other do that. At the core of the tyrant’s stance is a childlike egotistical wail: “Why doesn’t everyone do as I say? I see so clearly what needs to be done!”
And yes, everyone has an inner tyrant, including me. I try to describe that tendency in myself, so that while it will always be in the room of my mind it’s not usually able to set the room on fire. In fact, that’s exactly why I’m so careful about not letting my descriptive thinking turn too quickly into prescriptions.
Streetcars, for example. Nowhere in this blog have I said that cities shouldn’t build streetcars if they are sure that they want streetcars. Some streetcar advocates hear me saying that because they are dividing the world into pro-streetcar and anti-streetcar camps, and I’ve said things about streetcars that don’t sound like enthusiastic advocacy. I’ve made some descriptive observations about problems raised by the American streetcar revival movement, and I’ve also noticed situations in which streetcars are inferior to buses in their ability to actually get you where you’re going, like this one:
I would like people to know about these issues so that they make better decisions about what to advocate and why. That doesn’t mean I want them to decide not to build streetcars, but it may mean, for example, that in deciding whether to support a streetcar, you might need to care about whether it will be in mixed traffic. It may also mean being very clear, when you’re advocating a streetcar, that you’re not getting anything faster or more reliable than a bus can be. Again, I say this not because I think cities should or shouldn’t be building streetcars, but because you shouldn’t be deluded about what you’re buying, and what purposes it will really serve.
I have vivid memories of San Francisco Transportation Authority meetings in the early 1990s when the Third Street light rail was under debate. Activists from the neighborhood had turned out in droves to support the line, but when you actually listened to their testimony, some were talking about “we need rapid transit,” while others were saying “we need rail to stop in every block where it will strengthen our businesses.” I knew, as an expert, that while this whole crowd appeared to be on the same side of the issue at hand, half of them were not going to get what they thought they were advocating. They were not going to get a project that served their values.
I may also point out that if you think purely about “extending your rail network” as though your bus network is irrelevant, you can do serious damage to your existing transit system. For example, in a high-frequency grid, if you break one line of the grid into three consecutive pieces because you want rail in the middle but buses on the extremeties, you may suddenly force many new connections to a degree that could quite possibly will reduce the overall level of mobility in the city. That thought is relevant, for example, to several cities’ streetcar plans, and to the Crenshaw light rail line in Los Angeles, and to the Gold Coast light rail line (at least its first phase) in Australia.
And yet, sometimes I do sound like an advocate — about transit in general, about protecting transit from traffic, and about congestion pricing. Am I just falling off the wagon when I say those things?
Well, all scientists (by which I mean broadly “people who try to describe without prescribing”) have this problem. Sometimes the scientific work of description discovers that something needs to be done if we want to survive and prosper: Banning DDT, addressing carbon emissions, correcting perverse pricing signals, even building a transit line. If you’ve followed any of the conversation around climate change, you know how uncomfortable trained scientists can be when they’re required to speak prescriptively. Their credibility (not just to their profession but also to themselves) has depended precisely on not doing that. It’s like telling a recovering alcoholic that after all the disciplined work of recovery he’s done, the future of humanity now requires that he start drinking again, just a little.
All I can say is that I feel that discomfort and try to manage it, by marking, as clearly as I can, when I’m prescribing and when I’m describing. And there are also issues (like climate change) where, quite frankly, practically all experts seem to know what needs to be done to achieve the outcomes that everyone seems to want. I feel that way about congestion pricing. It’s just not that hard to explain, to a reasonable person who’s familiar with the idea of supply and demand, that as a motorist you are going to pay for scarce road space in either time or money, and that it’s not unreasonable for some people to choose to spend money to save time.
I do what I can to distinguish between description and prescription when I’m writing. But frankly, we all need to do the same work when listening. If your first contact with transit politics is in the context of a fight about whether or not to build a particular rail line, you’re going to hear prescriptive voices on both sides, citing data that’s been selected to match their point of view. You’re also going to hear descriptive voices treated as prescriptive — which is how some streetcar advocates perceive my comments about streetcars. One of the most basic disciplines that you can cultivate, as an advocate or leader, is to try to hear descriptive information as descriptive. This may require you to consciously suppress or bracket the emotional reaction you have, as an advocate, when you first hear it.
Really, none of what I’ve written about streetcars is about streetcars, except insofar as the American streetcar revival movement is a excellent example of a descriptive point that seems important to me. The point is that “it’s possible to spend a lot of money on transit lines that don’t improve anyone’s mobility.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that. I am saying that before you that, you should understand this point, so that you’re sure that the line you support does what you want it to do.
That’s what responsible experts do: they help you implement your values.