comment of the week: “expertise as a human being”

Danny sees the deeper theme in my post on the difficulty of figuring out how far people are willing to walk to transit.

I have run into analysis situations like this before. After factoring in psychological bias, demographic trends, purchasing behavior, opportunity costs, and incentives, you end up with an answer that is so complex that it isn't even worth mentioning to anybody. And then everything changes the next month and your analysis is worthless again.

And of course, everybody out there has a theory backed by their own expertise as a human being. And everybody is qualified to say what makes them choose one or another usage pattern. Unfortunately, we tend to extrapolate our own preferences onto others, even though we rarely actually have the same preferences as others.

Randomized controlled trials will work wonders, but for that to happen, people have to be open to the possibility that their favorite theory is wrong. Unfortunately people rarely do things like that…and when they do accept that their theory is wrong, they only do it implicitly after being forced into accepting some other theory by competitive pressure. Its a sad state of affairs.

I'm always struck by how often even highly educated people explain their view of a transit issue by reference to their own experience, as though everyone experiences things the way they do.  Just the other night, for example, an accomplished architecture professor told me that she would ride trains but would never ride a bus.  She preceded this by emphasizing that she knew nothing about transit except what she experiences as a customer, which I later realized was maybe a subconscious way of claiming to speak for all people at that level of expertise — clearly the majority in most cities.

Although she would never claim to speak for anyone's experience but her own, she presumed she was part of some larger consensus on this question, which made her experience possibly relevant as a basis for public policy.  Watching the larger mass of transit debates, it's always striking how quickly "I would never ride a bus" turns into an unverified claim that "most people would never ride buses."  Most of us want to feel that we're part of the majority, however invisible or repressed.  At another point on the spectrum, you'll hear the same pattern, "I feel x, therefore most people feel x," in claims that transit is an effete distraction from real people's needs because real people (like the speaker) want to drive their cars. 

So I can share all of Danny's reasons for declaring it a "sad state of affairs."  Still, we all get out of bed in the morning, despite it all …

18 Responses to comment of the week: “expertise as a human being”

  1. M1EK April 26, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    It’s more defensible than what transit planners do, which is, following your same stereotypical language above, assume that anybody would ride the bus if they weren’t just biased against it (in the process ignoring your own advice upstream about how people, in aggregate, tend to actually make relatively efficient decisions for their own situations).

  2. Paul Clapham April 26, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    I just finished reading a book called Everything is Obvious (Once You Know The Answer). One of themes of the book is that people are far too prone to taking a convincing story about some phenomenon and interpreting that story as the reason for the phenomenon. Whereas in reality the reason might be something else entirely. Or more likely there might be numerous factors, including plain old randomness, which serve as reasons. Or the description of the phenomenon might be completely false, but people can still produce reasons why it’s true.
    You might like to have a look at that book in your spare time.

  3. Beta Magellan April 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    I’ve heard political scientists refer to this as “Me the People” (usually when referring to pundits who assume their own biases are shared by the vast majority of the population).

  4. Tom West April 26, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    I’ve run into the opposite problem – I present nice empirical evidence backed up by hard data, and people don’t get it. I offer up a narrative based on an individual’s experience and what needs to happen for that individual, and suddenly everyone’s nodding in agreement.
    More generally, these two problems have the same underlying theme: people relate more easily to personal experience than abstract data.

  5. Anne April 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    @Tom West,
    I completely agree.
    Isn’t that where the role of “experts” should come in: helping ‘we the people’ (to quote the above used Americanism) to understand how that empirical evidence backed up by hard data relates to decisions they need to make with it?
    And the truth, as you pointed out, is that you need both (as in the Malcom Gladwell book “Blink”). Because overly restrictive criteria used to gather that hard data and empirical evidence can oft times be abused and made to look like the evidence is drawing conclusions it really isn’t. So it’s incumbent on the recipients of that hard data not to just ‘trust’ that empirical evidence blindly because, well, it’s complicated and too hard to explain.
    After all, look where that got the residents who live near Fukishima.

  6. David in Ottawa April 26, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    Well I’ve seen pretty much the opposite occur too. That’s where transit planners feel that they can dismiss citizen and user concerns and ideas because “they’re not experts”.
    There’s far too much in the way of transit planners/engineers (because they’re always engineers and never planners) proposing infrastructure “solutions” to problems that they haven’t properly done a site visit on. In all too many cases, they can’t even articulate the problem they’re allegedly trying to solve because they haven’t ridden the bus to experience the problem first hand.
    A recent example in Ottawa’s west end was the temporary Baseline Station. Baseline Station used to be an at-grade “island” station requiring buses to criss-cross each others’ paths. As Baseline is a major hub, this facilitated the transfers that Ottawa’s vaunted single-seat ride system is supposed to eliminate. Its temporary replacement is an all-too-typical four-lane side-loaded at-grade station with a central median to prevent people from crossing, but a lot longer than normal to accommodate all the bus traffic. What this means in practice is that transfers are now a royal PITA because people have to walk an enormous distance in one direction to the end of the platform, cross four lanes and then walk another enormous length in the opposite direction. There’s a Facebook page complaining about it (see ‘I hate the new baseline station’ for more info on what’s wrong with it, and no, I had nothing to do with that page). But of course anyone who had the temerity to point this out was summarily dismissed by the “experts” who seem to think it’s acceptable to design transit infrastructure without using it.
    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at all this. Not too long ago I was interviewed for a position at OC Transpo. During the phone call before the interview to set it up, I was told – without prompting from me – the best way to get to OC Transpo HQ by car and where I could park it. I went by bus.

  7. Lucre April 26, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Is there something of the pot calling the kettle black in your analysis of the tendency in terms of a personal anecdote about the architecture professor? Are you extrapolating your own experience with highly educated people presuming they are part of some larger consensus to presume that your experience is part of some consensus?
    Sorry, couldn’t resist ;D

  8. Tomtakt April 26, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    The unfortunate reality of working in transportation is that because everyone interacts with and partakes in the transportation system, in some way, everyone feels he/she has an expert opinion, despite often lacking a basic understanding of many fundamental transportation concepts. Nobody would try to tell a mining engineer how to design their mines.
    That said, it shows the great responsibility of those working in transportation because the decisions they make can have an effect on so many. We can’t afford to make biased assumptions (as was so often done in the past).

  9. Multimodal Man April 26, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    I’m always struck by how many non-bus riders people speak out for the working poor (ie those for whom the bus is exclusively targeted in their mind). In making service cutbacks they would rather see routes cut evenly (as if equity was measured against routes, not people) rather than frequency concentrated where the poor is concentrated.

  10. JJJJ April 26, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    Yeah, people love feeling that their experiences = all experiences.
    Jarrett, you encounter this all the time with the whole bus thing.
    My local bus runs every 30 minutes, uses diesel, is loud, and is unreliable.
    ALL buses run every 30 minutes, use diesel, are loud, and are unreliable.
    So when people live in a city where 100% of buses are diesel, the idea that you can have an electric bus never crosses their mind, which is why so many people associate combustion engine with buses. And that in turn, leads to arguments like “buses are bad because they’re loud and smelly”. No, internal combustion engines are loud and smelly, being a bus has nothing to do with it.
    Likewise, because THEIR local bus stop is a broken sign, and their local train station is a 1920 masterpiece, they assume that ALL bus stops must suck, and ALL train stations must be amazing.

  11. Zoltán April 27, 2011 at 4:13 am #

    And let me offer up my own personal anecdote about buses and trains.
    My local bus runs every 10 minutes from the end of my street, and uses modern diesel buses.
    My local train runs every 30 minutes from a station 600 metres away, and uses noisy, rattly old diesel trains. It is often very crowded, and I can rarely find a seat.
    I catch the train, but only because it’s cheaper – I see it as an inferior option, and I’d use the bus if I were better off.
    What has my personal experience told us? That good quality transit is good , and poor quality transit is bad. I think we can all agree on that.

  12. Vincent April 27, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    I hate riding local buses. I’ve ridden express buses in the recent past, and would have no qualms about riding well-designed BRT. But local buses? No.
    But I will readily admit that this is due to my personal experience. I’m a middle-class guy with a variety of transportation options, including a car and reliable trains. More the the point, I did a lot of bus riding as a high school student in the suburban area of New York where I grew up. I actually have a degree of fondness for these memories, as it they were my first experiences wayfinding on my own and felt kind of adventurous. I think they contributed to my sense of independence and willingness to explore new places on my own. But I also remember that the bus was a terrible, horrible way to get around. It would regularly take an hour-plus to get somewhere that, driving, would take 15 minutes.
    As I got older and started spending more time in the city’s congested and transit-rich core, I rode the subway often and realized that local buses are usually SO slow that you’re better off walking. I do wonder if the new SBS lines are any better, but I’m skeptical because they don’t have a dedicated ROW.
    So if I actually need to get somewhere, I’m not riding a local bus. I will ride them when traveling, provided I’m not on a schedule and have a good map of the system, though.

  13. Anne April 27, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    Let me throw in another word that, in my experience with transit planning thus far in Toronto, sits right alongside expertise: “paternalism”.
    Although I know I’m stretching the original point made in this post, I believe that “expertise as a human being” gone wrong is a concept that applies to the experts as much as it does to the public. And ‘paternalism’ is, in my opinion, where that happens.
    In my own industry (IT systems), there is a high degree of standardization and established best practice frameworks, with myriad controls, quality measurements, etc… The requirements for large scale trading floor or medical or telecommunications systems are frequently as complicated as any transit system I’ve seen. So when I first encountered what I assumed to be transit planning gone wrong I immediately went looking to find what those standards and industry best practices were in the transit planning (&/or urban planning) world. I’m still looking.
    Instead, what I overwhelmingly found was not just a system run by “experts”, but a system run by paternalistic experts that don’t necessarily have the interests of their ‘children’ at heart. Their public consultation processes were perfect illustrations of EngineerScotty’s insightful comments some weeks back about rent-seeking and self-aggrandizement:
    Furthermore, in transit planning circles, there seem to be little or no ‘standardized quality measurements’ for use either by the public, public officials, or riders to use to determine when transit projects have gone ‘off the rails’ (so to speak), or standardized ‘controls’ to push back when they have.
    Also, from what I’ve seen so far, very little in the way of standardized ‘development’ processes, including a serious lack of inclusion of relevant stakeholders. I’m always completely dumbfounded when I read transit blogs and hear versions of “it’s too complicated to explain to stupid users who all think they’re experts”. You DO hear that in IT systems planning. But I’ll let you in on a secret. When you hear that, it’s always by the types of groups Scotty was referring to. Your system will NOT go in on budget or on time and will be a nightmare (and an expensive nightmare at that) to maintain. And, surprise surpise, only that group who told you “it’s complicated” will be knowledgeable enough to ‘keep’ (woops, did we say keep? We meant ‘do’) the job. In professional groups, if the users are not informed as to how the best practices work, there is always an up front education process that informs them so that they become – wait for it – equal partners.
    That transit “planning” process I encountered is what drew me to this blog in the first place, because Jarret’s Manifesto envisions transit planning that, if not completely devoid of paternalism, at least doesn’t use it as the driving force or raison d’etre.
    For what it’s worth, the commenters in this blog, for the most part, seem to be much less infected with the disease of paternalism than on other transit blogs.
    So, I’m a rider, not a planner. Uninformed, not stupid. Hoping to become better informed: to replace my ‘expertise as a human being’ with plain old fashioned objective knowledge. Looking to arm myself with enough knowledge to effectively support the ethical members of your profession, and to push back against the rent-seekers. Would love your suggestions as to where I should start.

  14. GMichaud April 27, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    The art of building a city is different than theory. Art relates to living in the city and the integration of public space with the transit system.
    Competing art projects are different solutions to a problem.
    For instance, a national transit policy, including local and bullet train routes and their connections is a design solution addressing oil and energy concerns. It is not a theory.
    Art trumps policy, a strong design has to be the ultimate goal of any transit planning that serves the interests of its citizens. By definition a well designed transit system is people friendly.

  15. EngineerScotty April 27, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

    I’m glad you liked my prior observations–you might find my latest screed over at Portland Transport interesting (or not). I’m also an IT professional who is a transport geektivist in his spare time.
    The comparison between transit planning and the IT field is interesting. As you note, IT and software engineering has an established (albeit growing) body of best practices and professional standards and expectations… and many shops and practitioners who ignore them. This sort of sloppiness is not tolerated in the mission-critical fields you mention, but much commercial and bespoke software development is waylaid by the same forces that can undermine public works projects–conflicting goals, unprofessional practitioners, unskilled management, inadequate funding or time to complete the task, and all sorts of political interference (including from hostile entities trying to sabotage the project). The problem you site–inadequate customer input–is often the least of the problems. (As are transit planning consultants, who are often tasked with making sense out of a big mess).
    Much research in user-centered product development methodologies has been done–but only a few companies (Apple being an often-cited example) actually bother to follow through. At many companies and on many projects, schedule and budget are king, and user feedback that requires fundamental design changes is often ignored. Likewise, as Alon has noted, transit users are often consulted for important questions like station artwork, but not so much for the big items like “where should the line go”?
    That said, some sort of “paternalism” may be in order; particularly when the how is being considered rather than the what. Just as a software development team wouldn’t convene a customer focus group to design a system’s architecture (“should we use a Microsoft solution or a LAMP stack for the back end, Mr. User?”); there are many aspects of transit planning best done by professionals. (And these professionals should act as such–being somewhat knowledgeable about the state of the art some time in your career is insufficient). However, the community–whether represented by elected officials, or via direct participation, should in many cases get a bigger voice in the “what”.

  16. Alan Robinson April 28, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    Paternalism in planning is a very old problem. Either the vision of politicians or the vision of planners has often trumped community needs. Haussmann, Robert Moses, and to a lesser extent Janette Sadik-Khan, all have or have had a vision for transportation to which planning processes were imposed on communities.
    Unfortunately, paternalism is politically expedient, as this is how many people define a strong leader. However, there are ways to bring in good decision making. In Canada at the moment, this definition of good leadership is recognized an election issue. If we work to encourage inclusive planning, and education of the populace, paternalism can be discouraged.
    Of course, education can be a tough sell.

  17. GMichaud April 28, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    @EngineerScotty while it is no doubt better for “professionals” to bring solutions to the unwashed masses, the process of inclusion is important as you state.
    In the end even paternalism is not as important as viable solutions.
    Transit planners have a real opportunity to come up with exciting solutions and overcome previous prejudices about transit.
    This means moving past Haussmann, Moses et al. although one can argue their solutions captured public imagination on a large scale.
    The failure is the lack of a sustained challenge to conventional wisdom. In other words, the need for new solutions is great, yet that need is unmet. The heavy burden of oil and even beyond to livable city designs represent a weight upon America that is not discussed.
    Transit professionals are failing. Are they afraid of being like Haussmann or Moses? The public is just waiting to be convinced.

  18. Alon Levy April 29, 2011 at 2:31 am #

    In non-English-speaking countries, they frequently do have standards. There are standards for rolling stock, allowing planners to design lines around off-the-shelf mass-produced trains. There are standards for clockface scheduling, schedule slack, and so on.