So we all want to write New Years posts about resolutions we should make — mostly resolutions we could have made last year and will probably make again next year. To me, this is a good time to make conceptual resolutions — not about what we’ll do, but about how we’ll think, and especially what questions we will ask. Two years ago, for example, I suggested a resolution against binary thinking — that is, to reject any formation of a problem that is “either-or” or “us vs them” or “win-lose”.
For 2016, let me propose a resolution that’s a little more concrete, maybe a little easier to bring to bear in any situation.
Whatever room I’m in, I resolve to ask “Who is not in the room?”
In other words, ask: What real points of view, and real dimensions of the human experience, are not represented in this conversation? How could their absence lead us to make a bad decision even with the best of intentions, and how do we compensate for that?
Why this? Because in many parts of society, including urban planning, the rooms in which decisions are made are getting smaller and less diverse, and that can make for worse decisions, no matter how well-intentioned the people in the room are. What’s more, creating a diverse room is harder and harder, because people are just less interested in spending any time in rooms with people who don’t share their experience — either physically or online.
So it is easier than ever, in this historical moment, for us to forge a seemingly complete society of people who think just the way we do. Not just on the internet, but also in physical space: Because I live where I do, and go where I go, I tend to meet people like me. Every day, I sadly scan my Twitter feed seeking some sentiment that isn’t just reinforcing my own beliefs. I have this reaction because I want to live in the presence of the real, and this constant emotional reinforcement of my opinions is the opposite. It makes me feel like a CEO or elected official who is only told what staff thinks they want to hear, and who therefore ends up completely unaware of what’s actually going on.
We can all identify urban planning disasters that arose from only certain people being in the room. One thing that happens in small rooms, for example, is that people agree too quickly that an ideal implies a technology or product. Tools are so cool that we mistake the tool for its purpose. For example: “freedom means cars which means more highways,” (even if that leads to freedom-destroying congestion). But another example is: “urban redevelopment means rails in the street, but done fast and cheaply, which means streetcars” (even streetcars that don’t function well as transit, because they are stuck in traffic or don’t follow real patterns of demand).
I suspect transit consultants notice the small-room problem more than the average professional does, because in our field we don’t have an organized circle of professionals who reinforce each other’s habits and ways of thought. Architects and traffic engineers and developers and emergency services planners spend lots of time in rooms with people like them, in conferences and professional organizations. But transit planning isn’t an especially recognized and accredited profession. Many powerful people have no idea that it even exists as an expertise. So transit planners don’t spend much time in rooms where everyone shares their professional knowledge and assumptions.
Like anyone, though, we notice decisions that were made in our absence. Decisions about street design (often arising from small-room project definitions like “add a bike lane”) may inadvertently wreck the transit operations. Ditto decisions about land use — such as putting a transit-dependent land use (medical center, senior center, social security office) in a transit-inaccessible location because the land was cheap there, and then expecting transit to run an expensive empty bus just to get to that remote location. (Businesses make those decisions in small rooms too. Sometimes they really do move from a downtown office tower to a remote business park, and then ask the transit agency: “Hey, what happened to our transit service?”)
The larger reason transit planners tend to notice small-room problems is that transit is intrinsically a win-win proposition with a long-term payoff. In fact, the longer-term your view, the more win-win it is. The most successful transit services of all — rail rapid transit in big cities — work because of the huge diversity of people who find them useful, and because they’ve had a chance to pay off in the long run, by helping the city grow around them. These are the consummate win-win services, not just because there are so many riders from every part of the society, but because so many people benefit from the economic, environmental, and social opportunities that these services create.
But it’s politically hard to develop those kinds of services, because so many people assume that all issues are win-lose. An elected official will cut short my briefing by asking: “Who are the winners and losers here?” And let’s admit: Most of us sometimes like winning in ways that require there to be losers. If we didn’t, nobody would care about sports, or relish the drama of competition.
But if you need there to be losers, then you need there to be people outside the room. And that will prevent you from designing transit to do what transit does best, which to provide liberation and economic prosperity to a vast diversity of people.
So this is good advice in any field, but it’s really important when hatching transit ideas: Look around you in your meeting room, or professional conference, or party of like-minded friends, or online forum, and ask: “Who isn’t here? And how would this issue look different if they were?”