You Can Get Human Transit by Email Again!

The email subscription function on this blog broke unexpectedly late last year, but we believe we now have it working again.  At the right end of the black bar above, just click the icon that looks like this.  It’s between the envelope and the magnifying glass:

If you’re on your phone, click “Navigation” at the top of the screen and you’ll find the same icon, between the envelope and the house.

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Microtransit is Eating Science Fiction

A while back I wrote about Ada Palmer’s glorious science fiction series Terra Ignota, which I really do recommend to anyone with the slightest interest in philosophy, politics, or history.  But I called out one feature of her world that made me crazy: the fantasy that globe-spanning supersonic driverless flying Uber would enable people to make daily trips of thousands of miles.  These would abolish the constraints of geography (we’ve been promised this before) to the point that geographically bounded nations no longer made sense to anyone, and a fascinating new polity would be born.  This technology, as Palmer imagined it, was so flexible that you could take such a car from Chile to Paris and land right next to the preferred door of your destination, without tearing down half of Paris to create all this landing space.

This is less surprising if you attend a tech conference and realize how completely the tech elite has bought the idea that fixed route transit, like big buses and trains, is soon to be obsolete.  For many otherwise smart people it’s just a given that we’ll eventually all be in driverless cars that make different stops based on who’s traveling, and that in their highest form would always go nonstop, even though all those cars would never fit in anything we’d recognize as a city.  People have even gotten into The Atlantic proposing to drastically reduce the capacity of the New York City Subway by remodeling it along these lines.

Well, now I’m in the midst of Malka Older’s intriguing Infomocracy trilogy, and am sensing a trend.  This future Earth has the same flying cars (she calls them “crows”) although it’s clear here, as it is not in Palmer, that they are expensive to use.  For those who can’t afford them, though, there’s something like demand-responsive transit or “microtransit“.  In an early scene, we watch a man crossing Japan and notice the ruins of the Shinkansen, as though the new airborne services have abolished one of the most space-efficient (and therefore liberating) passenger services in one of the densest places the world.  When I try to make sense of this I can only assume that in this hyperconnected and hyperinformed world, there’s just not so much need for travel anymore.

But then I hit this, in Chapter 2 of the third novel of the series, State Tectonics:

The next morning, Maryam boards a commercial crow for La Habana.  It’s usually a good bet, since there are only a few possible stops between Doha and La Habana, but they get stuck with a stop in Praia, another in Montserrat, and three in eastern Cuba, and the journey is two hours longer than usual.

Demand-responsive transit has even replaced airlines, and it sounds like hell.  Everybody is riding little flying buses that make unpredictable stops on unpredictable paths, arriving at unpredictable times.  I would much rather change planes at DFW than ride a service that lets me stay in my seat but whose arrival time can vary by hours, not due to a disruption but due to the service working as designed.

Once she gets to her destination city, though, things are even worse:

Even once they arrive there’s a long line for municipal public transport crows, so Maryam takes a taxi.

It’s not quite clear what a public transport crow is, but the long line is a good bet that it’s more like a demand-responsive van than a fixed route bus, which means that its capacity is very low and it therefore generates lines at its stops whenever demand is high.  If there were a fixed route with a suitably big vehicle, all those people could board at once, though they might make some (predictable) intermediate stops and they might, when they got off, have to do a little bit of walking.  There may be crowds on fixed transit, but there usually aren’t long lines to board.  That’s the genius of true high capacity that comes only from a vehicle that doesn’t make a separate stop for every customer.

It’s remarkable how even science fiction writers whose values seem progressive just assume that the future of transport is so atomizing, inefficient, and unscalable.  Again, both Palmer and Older may be imagining societies so socially stratified that only an elite minority even use “public transport crows,” let alone taxis.  But it may also be that there’s just something demand-responsive in the air right now, something that makes it seem inevitable that the most space-efficient and energy-efficient transport services in the world are destined for the dustbin as soon as we get flying cars.

Science fiction futures are never built solely on science.  There are always gaps filled by the author’s imagination.  Both of these writers have done brilliant work, but it would just be nice to see more writers imagining different futures for urban transportation.  Because this one isn’t going to work.

UPDATE:  The author Malka Older replied on Twitter: [Her sentences flow across breaks between tweets so I’ve taken the liberty of formatting it all as a paragraph and adding links.]

since you tagged, I’m going to guess you’re interested in discussion, & clarify: transit is like that in the book not because I think it should be, but as a consequence of the fragmenting of polities. There are a lot of excellent results from the microdemocracy I describe but cities in particular lose a lot of economies of scale (often partially mitigated with coalitions) & ground transit in particular suffers from needing to cross multiple jurisdictions with separate governments.

This is exactly right. Older’s books are premised on a globe-spanning system of “microdemocracy” where the largest government unit is 100,000 people: a mid-sized US/Canada “suburb” or a UK/Australian “council”, for example.  In a big metro area these units are too small to lead the formation of an effective regional transport network — or to provide water, power, or most other urban services.  Older goes on:

Air and sea become more important. In book 3 we see an effort to revive long-haul trains, but it’s still something of a novelty. Also btw crows are a lot slower than Ada [Palmer]’s flying cars, slightly slower than today’s airplanes. My new book [The Mimicking of Known Successes] has more trains.  Although I think the coolest train system I’ve seen lately is in Annalee Newitz’s new book, The Terraformers. There’s a whole section on designing public transit. Also there are moose with gravity nets.

Moose with gravity nets!


My First Questions to ChatGPT

At the moment, everyone is playing with ChatGPT, the new open-access Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool that is able to write remarkably clear prose in a range of styles. You can play with it here.

I knew it had passed all the easy tests, so I tried to throw it into the deep end:

So I think: OK, this isn’t intelligence. This thing isn’t thinking about the topic. It’s just collecting relevant scraps of chatter from the world, sorting the chatter into boxes, and giving me a tour of the boxes. Doing that requires some pattern-recognition skills, but it’s not thinking in the fullest sense of the word.

Only the first of the three paragraphs is an answer to my question. After that the program is just riffing. If this were a high school paper it would get a middling grade for lack of focus on the topic.

But the first paragraph is on-topic, and it’s evidence of how thoroughly Uber and Lyft have succeeded in owning large parts of the bandwidth of public chatter.  Roving the internet, and lacking any other reference points in reality, ChatGPT has decided that since the “Uber is public transit” meme has been so effectively amplified, that must be the most interesting definitional issue.

So let me see if I can be smarter than the computer. This, which I just wrote, is an example of actual thinking:

The term “public transit” (“public transport” outside North America) has long been used to denote passenger transport services that allow many people to ride in the same vehicle even though they are not intentionally traveling together, or even going to the same places. The term is usually limited to services traveling within an urban area or for similar short distances; long-distance intercity services are not included in the typical usage. Finally, these services are open to all paying passengers, and are thus “public,” regardless of what mixture of public and private sector is involved in providing them. 

This definition is an attempt to describe actual usage.  In other words, when people say “public transit” they almost always mean things that meet this definition and not things that don’t.

However, where public transit is a popular idea, there is an understandable impulse to extend its definition to adjacent concepts that a speaker wants to promote. So you will sometimes hear that taxis, Uber and Lyft should be called public transit, even though they are designed to transport only one travelling party at a time.

It is easy to say that this extension of the definition is just wrong, because strangers sharing a ride is a common feature of all public transit as the term is traditionally used, and that’s not what these services are.

But of course, definitions are never right or wrong. They are not facts but conventions. A sufficient consensus around any definition will make that the truth, because words have meaning only through how they are used.

A better argument against extending the meaning of public transit to include taxis, Uber, and Lyft is that the resulting term would no longer correspond to public transit’s reputation as a solution for important problems. Many of the most important benefits of public transit, especially around emissions and the efficient use of urban space, arise only from public transit carrying many people in the same vehicle.

From this point of view, extending the definition to cover taxi-like services can fairly be described as dishonest. Promoters of these services want them to be called public transit because public transit is seen as a good thing, but if these services don’t actually provide the outcomes that most people associate with public transit investments, then those people have been misled.

This is thinking.  It goes beyond the journalistic formula of “some people say this and some people say that.”  Instead, it looks into the actual issues at stake, and considers what definitions are for.  It is also narrowly focused on the task of definition, as distinct from just throwing out a lot of chatter about adjacent questions, as ChatGPT and mediocre student papers will do.  Finally and most important, it risks being wrong.

To verify this, I asked it an even more focused question:

ChatGPT correctly states that the two terms are largely equivalent. Then there’s a paragraph of nonsense trying to make distinctions based on modes. It thinks trams are part of the UK definition but not the US one, but that’s only because the word is different (tram in UK, streetcar in US). It has never heard of a ferry being called public transit in the US, so it clearly needs to spend more time in San Francisco. In short, the chatter in the world about public transit is heavily about modes, so ChatGPT assumes that must matter somehow to the question of definition.  As with the taxi question, it is mistaking amplification for meaning.

Then the last two paragraphs are completely off topic — just as the last two paragraphs of the previous answer were.  They’re about public transit, but I didn’t ask for a summary of all the differences between the US and the UK.  I asked about the meanings of the two terms, “public transit” and “public transport.”

So again, this thing writes great mediocre student papers, and its prose style is good, but it’s not ready to use philosophical concepts, such as definition, in its own thinking.

To check this conjecture, I asked:

For now, I guess that’s my answer.

Gig: Graphics for My Updated Book

I am looking for a freelancer who is good at drawing simple explanatory diagrams about public transit concepts.  I need these diagrams for two uses: in our firm’s reports and also in the new edition of my book Human Transit.  This would be work for hire and our firm would retain the copyright on the images, though of course you could use your work as samples.  You would get illustrator credit in the book.

The images need to be greyscale, not in color, and suitable for print as well as web use.  I anticipate needing about 20 images, with the work ideally done mostly in February and early March 2023.

Location?  I would prefer that you be in North America, South America, Europe or Africa for reasons of time zones.  It will be harder for me to collaborate with someone in Asia or Australia/NZ.  If you are in the US, UK, or Eurozone it will be easy for us to pay you. Wherever you are, we will pay you in one of those three currencies and paying you needs to not involve a lot of hassle for us.

We already have a library of images but I think some of them could be clearer and/or more attractive, though clarity must never be sacrificed to attractiveness.  Images must always contain their own explanations, because a report or book must make sense to people who only scan the section titles and look at the pictures.

Here is a graphic that I feel pretty good about, explaining the concept of access:


This one, on the ridership-coverage tradeoff, also works well for us, although the blue is too faint.

(For more on this topic see here.)

Could these be sexier, more like “what an architect would draw”?  Sure, I’d love to see examples of that, but remember, the book will be black-and-white, although I may later ask for color work for other reports of ours.

To apply.  Hit the email button (it’s on the black bar above, and looks like an envelope.)  Please put “Graphics job” in the subject line.  Give me:

  • a resume/CV
  • some samples of work you’ve done that’s similar to what I’m describing.
  • An hourly rate.  In addition, please tell me: If I’d hired you to do the above images from scratch, given the basic idea, how many hours would you have spent?

I will look at submittals as I get them. I’d really like to get this person on-board well before February 1, so if interested, submit now. Please share!






Just “Prioritize Ridership”: Is it That Easy?

Matthew Yglesias thinks more carefully about transit than any other US pundit I’ve encountered at his level of celebrity, so his takes are often useful.  Today, he has a very broad one, called “American transit agencies should prioritize ridership over other goals.”  He begins:

Why does the United States struggle to create cost-effective rail infrastructure? Why do non-NYC American cities have such a hard time attracting mass transit ridership?

On one level, these are deep and complicated questions. But one thing I want to say to the growing community of people who are interested in them is that American agencies don’t deliver on these goals because this country’s high-level governance constructs don’t say they should deliver on them. Of course you won’t find a grant guideline that specifically says “don’t focus on delivering high ridership at an effective cost.” But wasting money is really, really easy when nobody is specifically telling you not to.

His piece spans a huge range of issues, from rail construction methods to bus service planning.  I agree with him about rail: We can do it cheaper by making stations more functional and less palatial, as long as we plan enough capacity.  On service planning, though, I think he oversimplifies in a way that lots of well-intentioned urban policy wonks oversimplify, so it’s worth unpacking a little.  There are two issues with saying “just prioritize ridership.”

  • Ridership is not very predictable.  That’s why, in our work, we prioritize access to opportunity instead.  Actual ridership is affected by lots of unpredictable external events (pandemics, economic conditions, etc), but access to opportunity is the constant thing that transit provides that is the foundation of ridership. Access is also important for a bunch of other policy reasons.
  • Low-ridership service is sometimes justified by policy goals that matter to people, including, in some cases, racial and social equity.

Yglesias cites my work on the ridership-coverage tradeoff:  In service planning, a ridership-maximizing network doesn’t go everywhere and serve everyone, because it goes where the most riders are and runs fast and direct enough to be useful to them.  So a ridership goal is in conflict with goals variously described as “leave nobody behind” or “meet the needs of low income people (wherever they are)” or “we pay taxes too so we should get some service.”  All those impulses lead to predictably low-ridership service, which I call coverage service.  I explain why this conflict is unavoidable here.

You will never hear me say, as Yglesias does, that ridership should be the only goal of a transit service, and not just because I’m a consultant who facilitates conversations on the topic.  I won’t say that because the decision is genuinely hard, and there are some good policy reasons for coverage services.

The suburbanization of poverty in many cities has increased the number of low-income people and people of color living in suburban land use patterns that are just inimical to public transit.  Those areas have fast roads that are unsafe to cross, no sidewalks, disconnected street patterns that obstruct walks to the stop, road patterns that require buses to make crazy loops, etc.  A strictly ridership-based approach would not go to a lot of those places, but will put lots of service in dense inner cities that happen to be increasingly gentrified.  The result can be something that is measurably inequitable by both race and income.  In other words, sometimes, in some common geographies, there’s a ridership vs equity tradeoff.   (We have some unpublished work on this for a major US transit agency that we hope to release soon.)

So when Yglesias says …

Now again, I’m happy to concede that across the entire possibility space, you could imagine a situation in which one route maximizes ridership but a slightly different version maximizes economic development goals or equity goals or environmental goals. But those divergences would in practice be either pretty rare or pretty small.

No, this is not an imaginary situation, and the divergences aren’t always small.  In our recent work for Portland’s TriMet, the agency articulated twin goals of ridership and equity, which led to a network that provides low-ridership coverage, but only only in low-income and minority areas.  Obviously, low-income and minority people generate ridership all over the network, so ridership and equity goals overlap more than they differ, but they still do differ significantly.

There’s a long-term, high-altitude view where Yglesias is right.  High-ridership services tend to create positive feedback loops with urban development that encourage even more ridership.  Smarter development could also reduce the need for coverage services over time.

But that’s not the altitude and timescale where most transit decision-making gets done, especially in service planning.  Those decisions are made by local elected officials or their appointees.  The problem is not just that people are yelling at them to defend their bus stop, although they are.  It’s that on a policy level, it’s just not always true that the high ridership network is the high-equity network.  That means that hard decisions have to happen.  I’m there to help boards reach those decisions, not give them the answer.

Transit Executives Muse about Equity, Inclusion, and Post-Covid Priorities

Paul Comfort, Conversations about Equity and Inclusion in Public Transportation, Comfort Consulting, 2022

Paul Comfort is a transit evangelist (his term) and the former Executive Director of Maryland Transit Authority, which covers greater Baltimore.  He’s become known especially for his Transit Unplugged podcast, which interviews transit industry leaders (including me).  He is, as you’d expect, an upbeat guy, keen to talk about successes, build morale, and help agencies learn from each others’ experience.  And while his audience is mostly transit professionals, it can be interesting for advocates to listen in on these conversations.

This new book is a collection of his interviews, mostly with the people leading major transit agencies in the US.  The book certainly does touch frequently on the title’s topics, equity and inclusion, but it’s also just a good overview of how many leading figures in the industry are seeing their situation in 2022, as we begin to sort out both the legacy of the George Floyd protests and the “new normal” of working life and travel patterns post-pandemic.

The book is a good tour of what’s on the minds of the industry right now, at least in the US.  (One Australian leader is interviewed, but she talks mainly about hiring and workforce diversity, not transit policy or operations.)  Zero fare programs, demand-responsive transit, and customer service innovations all come up repeatedly.  Now and then, you’ll also get hints of debates about the definition of success.  How much does ridership matter right now?  What do communities really want from their transit agencies?  And to come back to the title: What is equity, and can we measure it?

Obviously, senior executives know how to sell their agencies, so some of what you read will sound like vague feel-good pitches.  You may be frustrated that so few of these leaders dig into the details of policy and planning problems.  (Noah Berger of Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, in northern Massachusetts, is a fun exception).

But even then, it’s good to see what transit leaders are being expected to do, in the political situations they find themselves in, to sustain support for a transit system.  A lot of what senior executives do is storytelling:  Most are talking to a public, and a decision-making elite, that doesn’t know much about transit, doesn’t use it themselves, and that wonders why they should care.  You have to connects the facts to people’s deepest longings for themselves and their community.  It’s interesting to watch how some different personalities do it.

When Buses Are Free but Trains Aren’t

I’m in Bloomberg CityLab with a piece on the dangers of applying free fares to buses but not to trains in the same city.  Key quote:

When we encourage people to get off trains and onto parallel buses, both kinds of transit lose. Buses are smaller, so they run out of capacity at a lower level of ridership. This requires the transit agency to put out more service — buses that could have been used in areas away from train lines where they provide the only mobility.

I go on to challenge the “buses are for poor people” assumption, which both equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on.

To many, buses and trains symbolize positions in the class struggle. Equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on this view. The equity advocate will say that we need to focus on buses because poor people use them, while I have heard elites argue (often in private) that we should neglect buses for the same reason. Most obviously, when developers and other elite urbanists argue that transit-oriented development requires rail, they are understandably privileging the view of people who are in the position to buy market-rate urban real estate. Those fortunate folks are especially likely to say, openly or not, that they would never ride a bus.

But in an urban transit network that’s trying to give everyone the greatest possible access to destinations, rail and bus services work together, and many trips involve both. You use a train for longer trips along corridors with high demand. To travel in lower-demand areas, or to make many shorter trips, you take a bus. Sometimes you ride the subway for part of the trip and a bus for the rest. An efficient and therefore liberating urban transit network encourages people to think about the total network, and to use buses or trains according to which is better for each part of their trip.

Anyway, the whole piece is worth a look.

Welcome Your Advice on the Second Edition!

So I’ve just signed a deal with Island Press to do a second edition of Human Transit, expected out near the end of 2023.  A lot has obviously happened in the history of public transit since book came out in 2011, including real things like the pandemic, unreal things like the hyperloop, and some things that are real but overhyped, like microtransit.  So in addition to updating examples and graphics, I plan at least five new chapters:

    • Why does transit matter?  A simple explanation of the unique role of transit in the city, and how it relates to all the other transportation options.
    • The Wall Around Your Life.  This chapter explains the idea of access and is mostly content from this article.
    • Against Specialization.  This chapter would emphasize that transit succeeds when an extreme diversity of people find it useful: diversity not just of race/gender/age but also of trip purpose.  This explains why demands for specialized services, which transit agencies receive all the time, usually lead away from the best networks for everyone.  The chapter would caution against elite projection, argue against the binarism of choice vs captive riders.  This is also where the connection would be made to equity/justice frames.
    • Flexible or Fixed?  A review of the demand response service options, largely from this article.
    • Should we Redesign our Network?  How to recognize when a network needs redesign, and how to think about that.

Still, it’s a new edition rather than a new book because at least half of the book doesn’t need updating.  After all, much of it is talking about geometry, and that doesn’t change.

But I’d love to know what you think!  If you feel like perusing the book again, I’d welcome your thoughts, ideally organized by chapter, about what I should edit.  You can email me by clicking that envelope up on the black bar, or just leave a comment.  If your comment turns out to be really useful, you’ll get an acknowledgment.




“Transit Unplugged” Interview with Me

Paul Comfort’s Transit Unplugged is a podcast for transit industry professionals.  He just did a two-part interview of me, where we talked about how our thinking about transit goals, and our measures of success, need to adapt to the post-pandemic world.  It’s in two podcasts

Part 1, from 7:10 to 22:10. (Ends at a moment of suspense!)

Part 2, from 8:03 to 18:10.

Hope you enjoy!

The Tyranny of the “Community”: Transcending the Public Meeting

My job as a public transit planner requires a lot of public engagement, as it should.  In the projects we do for transit agency clients, mostly around bus network redesign, the task of seeking public feedback is at least one third of the project budget.  But public outreach can be a frustrating and anti-democratic process, especially when it happens in public meetings.  Aaron Gordon’s excellent piece in Vice explores what’s wrong with this grand civic ritual.

The problem with community feedback is not the concept itself, but the way it is executed. We do it too often, for too many things, for too long, and in the wrong manner. We ask the wrong questions of the wrong people and use the answers in the wrong way. Professionals and politicians have so far been afraid to admit there is a problem outside of private conversations, because it can seem anti-democratic and even anti-American to appear opposed to the town hall ethos of local control.

His article is mostly about urban development debates, dipping into transit now and then.  As a transit planner, I can confirm a lot of his insights:

  • People who come to public meetings are very unrepresentative of the population, so if the government simply obeys them, that is not democracy.
  • While we have plenty of regulations telling us to have public meetings, but not explaining why.  What questions are we supposed to be asking?  What are we supposed to do with the answers?  What is the correct relationship between public opinion and professional expertise?
  • We don’t have a definition of success.  Anyone who disagrees with your recommendation will say you didn’t do enough outreach.  How much is enough?

But Gordon makes one observation that doesn’t translate to transit well.  In debates about what to build in a city, the classic meeting-dominating character, captured in this immortal McSweeney’s satire, is older, whiter, and more prosperous than the general population.

In my experience, this is true of debates about transit infrastructure, but not in debates about transit service.  When we are working on a redesign of a bus network, and the plan doesn’t have an obvious infrastructure impact, the vast majority of fortunate people just don’t care.  No matter how profoundly we are transforming access to opportunity in a city, most fortunate people, including most elected officials, only care if we propose to build something.  (I can’t begin to express how frustrating this is.)

So the public meeting on a transit network redesign tends to be dominated by current users of the bus service.  These folks are not whiter or wealthier than the general population.  Many depend on the bus service.  Now they have been told that their bus route may change, sometimes by people spreading incomplete information.  They’re used to their route as it is, so they assume any change is bad.  So they make the considerable sacrifices needed to go to a public meeting and speak up.  And like many people with their backs against the wall, they often scream.

I don’t blame them.  If I were in their shoes, and had been told what some of them had been told, I would do the same.  But this makes it hard to work through things with them, to explain, for example, why the trip they make is still possible, and maybe even better, even if it’s changed in some way.  Transit planners do this hard work all the time, customer by customer.  And still they get a lot of abuse, which sometimes causes good ones to leave the profession.

Gordon doesn’t mention the most fundamental bias built into the entire public outreach process.  It takes a lot of time.

Time-consuming outreach processes are biased against people who are busy.  If you wonder why your bus is so slow, it may be because the people who are in a hurry, and would benefit from it being fast, don’t have time to go to public meetings. They’re too busy.

So people who come to public meetings on transit tend to be in one of three categories:

  • People who have spare time in their day, mostly retired or unemployed people.  This is why, although people who comment on bus network changes aren’t necessarily whiter and wealthier than average, they do tend to be older on average.
  • People who are being paid to be there.  These are spokespeople for powerful interests.  There aren’t usually many of these, but they can be very assertive.
  • People who feel so threatened that they have taken the time even though they don’t have much time, like the folks I’ve described above.

These people are important, but the majority of potential transit riders are not in any of these groups.  The majority of riders have jobs, families, and other complex commitments.  If they find a couple of spare hours in their day, you can’t blame them for watching a movie instead of going to a public meeting.

So in our practice, we put as much emphasis as we can on web-based feedback systems that use people’s time more effectively, supplemented by in-person outreach that focuses on populations at risk from exclusion by this method.  (To reach those populations, we go to them where the are: interviewing them on the transit system for example.)  We also do stakeholder workshops and focus groups, where smaller invited groups of people, selected to be representative, have the opportunity to talk more deeply with the planners, so that they can better understand the consequences of their choices.  To avoid the hassle of travel we encourage virtual meetings and not just physical ones.

But the most important issue is: What question are we asking the public?

We hate asking: “Here’s what we’re thinking of doing. What do you think?”  That question polarizes people, supporters vs opponents, in ways that make it hard for them to learn or think.  Instead, we ask: “What are your priorities?”  “If we could have more of this or more of that, which would you prefer?”  When we do go to the public with a single map, we don’t just ask “What do you think?”  We ask: “Notice the priorities being expressed here; do we have them right?”  This recent work in Portland is a good example.

This approach also expresses a coherent division of labor between expertise and community input.  We want a community to tell us what they want us to do — what goals they want us to achieve, and with what priorities among those goals.  With that input, we can draw a plan and show how it expresses those priorities.

Do enough people engage with these policy questions?  No.  Does everyone like the resulting plan?  Of course not.  Are there still angry public discussions? Of course there are.  But usually, when we do it this way, a critical mass of decision-makers remembers the conversation we had, and they see that the plan expresses what was decided then.  So usually, with some changes, some kind of plan moves forward to implementation.

Do you see a better way?