seeking the steve jobs of transit

From Rob, who appears to have long experience in the transit business:

I've often wished for a Steve Jobs of transit. Someone with a vision of how it would work if "it just worked", and the dedication to make it so. Most transit is a huge compromise in service design, operating performance and customer communications, and its biggest challenge often is the willingness of its users and fans to overlook those compromises uncritically. We accept too much that we shouldn't.

I've known people I think are like Steve Jobs; maybe not as confident or charismatic, but systems-oriented with a keen awareness of how customers experience is affected by how transit works – and I find they are rarely in charge. We put people in charge who know about management and organizations, not the ones who have a laser focus on how to produce a product that delights the customer, or at worst works as expected without [the customer] thinking too hard about it.

This is not a critique of the organizational and management expertise that transit also needs.  Steve Jobs had great managers without whom his work would have been impossible.  The real challenge is to form mutually respectful partnerships — and ideally friendships — between great organization managers and creative, strategic thinkers like Jobs.   The key to building these winning partnerships is to accept that almost nobody is a really great manager and a really great creative strategist.  The two skills can fit together like lock and key, but only if they choose not to be intimidated by each other.  You have to have the confidence that your partner, by exercising his skills, isn't diminishing your very different skills.  In fact, he's implicitly praising them.

These partnerships happen now and then in city planning, and often in consulting on the planning side.  But is your transit agency even looking for them?  Some are.

28 Responses to seeking the steve jobs of transit

  1. EngineerScotty October 8, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    I’ll probably get yelled at for this observation, but here goes anyway:
    While we haven’t had the Steve Jobs of transit (and given transit’s role in the larger urban ecosystem, that isn’t probably an appropriate analogy–would Jobs be Jobs if Apple’s only great innovation was an MP3 player?), we have had a Steve Jobs of urban design.
    Robert Moses.
    The point isn’t that the two men are comparible stylisticly, or in the merit of their works. (Apple’s products are quite good, even if their legal and business tactics frequently make Microsoft look tame). The point is that in both men, you had a talented visionary who also enjoyed near-absolute power in his domain.
    Many companies have talented engineers, visionaries, and designers in their ranks. Precious few have then in the office of CEO, however. A oft-repeated story in American high tech is the startup who hits it big making excellent products–and then loses its way when the founders are replaced at the top by professional executives. Apple foundered significantly when Jobs was off making first-rate animated films, and a sugarwater salesman was in the top job. But when Jobs returned, he had near-absolute control of Apple’s operations, and was able to insulate the company from the vagaries of Wall Street.
    Switching to the field of urban design–in the vast majority of US cities, power is too decentralized for a Robert Moses to arise. Many of the political machines that permitted Moses and his ilk to impose their views on a city are now gone, and urban design and planning is typically an act of democracy, not of greatness handed down on high. And Saint Jane teaches that even wishing for such a thing is fallacy–large social systems are far more complex beasts, and far harder to control, than are purely technological products and systems such as personal computers, MP3 players, and wireless telephones.
    It’s good to hope that transit agencies, and urban planning departments, find leaders with both excellent political skills and excellent technical knowledge (or at least the ability and confidence to delegate the latter, as it is far easier to delegate operational and technical activities than it is to delegate political activities). But wishing for this skillset is not wishing for a Steve Jobs. Jobs didn’t have to play politics–he was the boss at Apple, and it was his way or the highway. While he was lauded as a visionary, he was also frequently criticized as a mercurial and tyrannical boss, who wasn’t above telling entire departments that the products they collectively produced were shit.
    And that’s not something I think we want building our cities.

  2. Jarrett October 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    @EngineerScotty. Yes, Robert Moses. But you could also add Janette Sadik-Khan. These days, similar personalities (Andres Duany, Jan Gehl) tend to become consultants. But Rob is right; there are many inside transit agencies, but they’re sometimes vaguely resented simply because they have ideas that not everyone is having.

  3. Frank October 8, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    I was going to say Moses as well. Moses and Jobs were goth good at finding the right levers of power and exploiting them. Jobs, it’s said, used Apple stock as poker chips: a way of exerting leverage against people who got in his way. Moses built parkways because he happened to have control of the parks department.
    You have to have two things: (1) a vision and (2) the right people who trust in you (or are afraid of you!) to let you see that vision through. Jobs had trust at first, because he was coming back in ’97 as the founder and because, well, Apple had nothing to lose at that point. Later he earned trust through success.

  4. Aidan Stanger October 8, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    I nominate Chris Green.

  5. EngineerScotty October 8, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    Speaking stylistically, it sounds better to say that Moses is the Bill Gates of urban development–both Gates and Jobs had tremendous power at their disposals, and were able to dominate the fields of technology for the better part of a generation. Many find Jobs vision more humane than the corporate software which was Microsoft’s forte, but in many ways the two men are similar.
    JSK probably doesn’t have enough power to merit comparisons to Jobs (or Gates for that matter)–she depends entirely on Mayor Bloomberg for her power base.
    To complete the SW/urban design analogy, the equivalent to Jane Jacobs is probably Richard M. Stallman.

  6. Clark in Vancouver October 8, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    “The two skills can fit together like lock and key, but only
    if they choose not to be intimidated by each other. You
    have to have the confidence that your partner, by
    exercising his skills, isn’t diminishing your very different
    This could be said of so many fields and so many areas. In a larger philosophical view, nature and humanity is full of diversity and all the differences are our strength. Political or social movements that are based on shutting out those that are different are weaker as a result.

  7. Stephen Smith October 8, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    Seems to me like the political restrictions on US transit planners, even aside from subsidy/land use limitations, would kill any Steve Job-like reforms before they even got started. It would be as if Apple were forced to manufacture all products domestically, bulk up their iPhones phones to survive a 8-story drop onto a concrete surface, and then not allowed to make any big labor shakeups and certainly not allowed to address the 200-300% overstaffing at factories and stores, not allowed to raise prices outside of the politically acceptable range (remember how much iPhones cost when they came out?), and not allowed to fire anyone unless they endanger lives or break a law.
    In fact, just about the only thing US transit and Apple have in common is that they pay well, and everyone’s got a guaranteed parking spot.

  8. Danny October 9, 2011 at 4:55 am #

    Excellent comments from EngineerScotty and Stephen Smith.
    At first they seemed to be mutually exclusive opinions, but I think I agree with both of them. Any politician, whether elected or appointed, with the level of power as Steve Jobs within his or her own domain, scares my pants off. And then again, even if we had people with the talent of Steve Jobs, they still have to mash their way through an army of legislation, regulation, and legacy culture. Jobs basically started from scratch…I don’t even think Jobs could manage to push a strategy through that mess.

  9. Beta Magellan October 9, 2011 at 8:13 am #

    Although I’m working for incomplete information, I saw Clarence Marcella, the former GM of Denver’s RTD, speak at a conference and was quite impressed. He was an excellent speaker, really selling the case for key accomplishments during his tenure (contracting out bus operations, the T-REX and FasTracks rail expansion projects) and explaining how he navigated them through the a sometimes hostile political climate. That said, while keeping labor costs from outpacing inflation and completing major extensions on-time and on-budget through design-build are pretty big accomplishments in the transit world, Denver’s overall mode share more comparable to places like Milwaukee and Detroit (which, unlike Denver, have neither urban rail nor population growth) than Portland or LA. Furthermore much of Denver’s light rail is closely tied to expressways and park-and-rides, limiting the potential for further growth near some stations. There are also problems of repeatability—Pace (Chicago’s suburban bus operator) outsources its services in much the same way as Denver, but has been suffering ever since its contractors discovered oligopolistic pricing, something which hasn’t occurred in Denver. So, even if you are able to provide service on-time, on-budget, and are an excellent salesman for your agency, it’s still entirely possible that structural factors (urban form, demand for peak-period commuter services) will limit how much you can accomplish.
    Finally, one of the big differences is that in many places there isn’t a perceived demand for transit. Jobs didn’t invent the mp3 player and smartphone, but but he entered growing markets which he quickly came to dominate (except for the personal computer). Not only is transportation structurally different—it’s public infrastructure—but the demand isn’t nearly as clear. Most political decision makers don’t take transit (and those who do seem to take it for show—ahem Bloomberg ahem) and many see it either as a welfare service/budget drag or a place to rack up achievements in concrete. Here in Chicago, we therefore see Emanuel take an aggressive stance on bike infrastructure—a relatively inexpensive way to lay a lot of infrastructure that shows he cares about the city—even as it becomes apparent that he’s probably not going to address many of the CTA’s issues (especially disappointing since his appointee to the CTA’s presidency has a record of containing costs and improving services in the park system). As Aaron Renn recently noted, according to the TTI Chicago’s transit services basically pay for themselves in terms of positive externalities, yet even in the American city with the fifth-highest transit mode share there still isn’t the political will to do much to improve it.

  10. Christopher Parker October 9, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Yes, Chris Green. His tenure at his various posts was relatively brief — but impactful.
    In the US you have Matt Rose and Wick Moorman who run freight railroads.
    Southwest’s Herb Kelleher
    In an earlier generation we had founders of various systems . . .

  11. CityBeautiful21 October 9, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Sorry, but a Steve Jobs in transit in the US is generally impossible. Steve Jobs never had to get his annual budget approved by a constantly changing group of neophytes who don’t ever use his products and were added to the board for reasons having nothing to do with the company. He was always able to offshore production of lower-level labor intensive tasks to save money and invest in higher-order outcomes.
    When Apple went to get money loaned to them, their banks were always less fickle than Congress.

  12. GMichaud October 9, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    I think the problem is that people are not freeing themselves from the constraints of their world. Solutions do not depend on constraints, that is what made Steve Jobs great.
    To me most of city and transit planning is “professionals” announcing the limitations before a solution is considered. Everything is limited from the beginning, An ultimate solution is impossible.

  13. cph October 9, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    I was going to say Henry Huntington….
    Maybe John Fenton of Metrolink–he seems to be coming up with new ideas (express trains, bike cars, etc.) that former Metrolink heads never thought much about….

  14. Andre Lot October 10, 2011 at 12:04 am #

    A key aspect that interferes with possibilities of innovation in urban transit (and a lesser factor on intercity transportation) is that, contrary to Apple products, you can’t stay clear of them if you don’t like how they are designed, priced and how is their user experience.
    If person j buys an iPad 3.47, that doesn’t interfere much with your experience of only using a regular phone, or a Blackberry, or relying only on computers connected to the Internet – to a point.
    Catastrophic market failures of electronics usually mean they didn’t sell well and the companies will have to bear losses and offload products at knock-out prices.
    Transportation, however, can’t afford to be given so much room like it were the latest gimmick. I’m all pro-innovation, I wrote somewhere else that I believe firmly on some sort of completely automated PRT system in the future and so on.
    However, I doubt any city in any democratic country would give a free hand for somebody to act without any accountability on its whim and genius vision. Maybe some entirely new, privately financed city could be build that way.

  15. Andrew October 10, 2011 at 1:15 am #

    Putting Steve Jobs and transit in the same sentence is an oxymoron. Jobs never really was a big fan of transit very much, he was the one who wanted to build a huge business park on the old HP lands near I-280 in Cupertino, with little transit service other than a handful of Apple-operated buses (which probably wouldn’t have carried a terribly large percentage of employees). The Valley is notorious for its terrible bus service and a light rail system that hardly anyone uses.
    Probably a shame since Apple could sell a lot of iDevices if people could surf the internet instead of turning a steering wheel watching for idiot drivers. Oh well.

  16. CityBeautiful21 October 10, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    GMichaud- in my area, we could definitely increase ridership on transit if we would stop valuing providing service to those who have no other mobility choices so much. Should we change our values?
    If so, how would you recommend a city “free” itself from this constraint in “this world,” since this world is where we need the transit service to function?

  17. EngineerScotty October 10, 2011 at 9:47 am #

    Speaking of Richard M. Stallman, he pees on Steve Jobs’ grave here.

  18. Eric O October 10, 2011 at 11:40 am #

    “Vaguely resented”? Will these “visionaries” include Darrin Nordhal or, uhm, …Gensler Architects? If the Steve Jobs comparison holds, these folks primarily care about emotional experience of the transit product.

  19. Danny October 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Wow. Richard Stallman is one of the most bitter people I have ever met/heard/read. Nothing could ever make him happy about anything.

  20. Alon Levy October 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    That may be so, but what he said about Jobs is correct. Computers are free: you can develop, sell, and buy computer software without owing anyone anything. This is not true of iPhones, which require everything to have Apple’s approval.

  21. EngineerScotty October 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    While Stallman is indeed bitter (many in the open source community openly dislike him for many reasons), he has quite a few reasons to dislike the business model Apple has used in the IOS ecosystem (IOS is the operating system in the various iWhatever devices; but not Macs). Bill Gates, even in the headiest days of the Microsoft monopoly, didn’t attempt to limit what software could be installed on a PC running Windows.
    A fundamental tenet of the Free Software Foundation, and the broader open source movement, is that the owner of a computing device should be able to do anything (legal) he/she wants with it. The iGadget business model (and technological measures), on the other hand, prevents users from installing software not distributed through the Apple Store. While some view this as a good thing–Apple is fairly good at keeping malware off of the devices–Apple also blocks the installation of programs that it feels editorially offensive, or which might compete with its own offerings, etc. This includes a de-facto ban on installing free software licensed under Stallman’s Gnu Public License. (You can get around all of this by jailbreaking your device, but then lots of other things may not work.)
    This also enables Apple to collect a 30% tax on all for-profit Apple applications; Microsoft never attempted to collect similar fees on third-party Windows developers, other than the fixed costs of its development tools). Apple’s recent conduct in the courtroom (albeit much of it started after Jobs started relinquishing power at Apple as his health declined)–essentially trying to ban devices running Android based on some dubious patents– also far exceeds anything Microsoft ever tried when it was the 800lb gorilla in computing.
    Apple makes good stuff. But if they keep this up, they may actually make me miss the M$ monopoly.

  22. Danny October 10, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    I’m an open source contributor and advocate as well, and I’m not much of a fan of Apple either. I understand the philosophy behind free software.
    What I don’t understand is why Stallman has taken the stance that proprietary software must be eradicated from the earth. It is hostile and non-productive.
    IMO, it is also the reason why the GNU project and FSF have been left behind in the world of free software. The Apache Foundation, Open Source Initiative, and even for-profit entities like Canonical, Red Hat, and Mozilla Corp have all outpaced the FSF for the last decade in terms of software production, quality, and innovation. In the end, proprietary software is being drowned out by high quality free software…not the cantankerous rants of an old hippy.

  23. Alan Howes October 11, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    Getting back to the original question –
    I can’t really comment on a North-American-Transit-Jobs-equivalent, but over here –
    I would nominate Brian Souter, co-founder of Stagecoach. He does have a genuine belief in public transport, and has made a very significant contribution to the (admittedly patchy) growth of PT patronage in the UK since deregulation.
    But I can’t see him working in any typical “Transit Administration” environment.

  24. Doug October 11, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    I would not want to live in the city where Steve Jobs created his own transit system. True, that system would be incredibly innovative. However, it would intentionally not connect with other transit providers or modes, and would refuse service to any location or person Mr. Jobs disapproved of.
    No, I would want to live in some other city where opportunistic planners borrowed some of Jobs’ ideas to build transit systems that were perhaps slightly less innovative but that allowed anyone to use them for whatever they wished.

  25. Rob October 11, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    I was on vacation while this wonderful conversation was going on.
    I wrote my Steve Jobs post casually after dinner and a glass of wine – so let me try to be more succinct. Steve Jobs was demanding of those around him to deliver a product that delighted its users, and that didn’t require a masters degree to use. Transit is a product, and in every city it needs someone to *care* about how it all comes together as a package. We need to care about how the net result of our efforts affect our customers. And most of the time the transit manager’s job is more focused on satisfying the concerns of competing fiefdoms within their bureaucracies, and reacting to the whims of local officials. Managing organizations is important, but to be excellent, someone needs to take control of the product and demand that it excel. That’s all I was trying to say.

  26. EngineerScotty October 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    I agree with you… and point out that in current US politics, there aren’t any involved in transit or urban planning with that kind of power to implement a vision. The one example of someone who DID possess that sort of power for a while–Robert Moses–used his power for destructive ends.
    If there is a project in governance that calls for a Steve Jobs, it is the fundamental reform of government itself–and I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. The government structures we have in place, at least in the US, are nominally designed to drive consensus and compromise–in theory these are good things, in practice these permit malicious parties to rent-seek by throwing wrenches in the works unless their demands are meant. But the alternatives are likewise fraught with peril, as examples such as Moses, or much infrastructure development in China, teach us.
    In many other parts of the developed world, governance is arguably better than it is in the US. Perhaps this is just due to populations with more progressive values (or at minimum, a political culture which is more suspicious of the mingling of politics and commerce); perhaps it is due to structural differences (such as shorter election cycles, public campaign finance, stronger political parties, etc.).

  27. Rob October 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    My thought coming into this discussion wasn’t about a political leader given the free range to remake the landscape from whole cloth; I was thinking about a more mundane scenario, where a transit general manager would drive an agency towards a service vision that delights the customer. To me that means tackling reliability and operational efficiency issues directly to provide consistent headways and schedules; and designing services, facilities and communications that make service intuitive and easy to use. It means putting the pressure on partners (the people who operate streets for example) to enlist their participation to provide the product, and setting expectations for staff to demand excellence and reject excuses.
    Someone should be riding herd. But transit managers tend to see themselves as mediators instead, trying to make everyone happy, trying to lower expectations rather than exceed them. That’s all I was trying to say. Those are things that usually remain in the realm of the GM, and the political world is more focused on big capital projects and the equity of service distribution — things that rarely affect the customer directly.

  28. Art Busman October 24, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    The main reason there are no Steve Jobs in transit is because no transit director will ever make a billion dollars, and no transit planner will make the millions that really talented software engineers and developers make in bonuses. Perhaps if we contracted transit planning to private firms, their CEO’s could make millions. There would be public outcry if a transit director’s salary was $1 million/year. Unfortunately, that’s what you get with government workers, and while you argue that there are really talented, geniuses out there who are not driven by money and would take a government job and salary, they would not for a second put up with the half-rate middle managers with inferiority complexes who try to control them and punish them for being innovative and creative. While this is not the case for every transit agencies, it’s the norm not the exception. Just look how long it has taken transit to jump on facebook or create apps for iPhones. There are probably more non-government companies and individuals who have created transit apps than govt ones. Sorry, but the government model stifles genius and creativity on top of having no bonus pay and a salary ceiling. Just ain’t gonna attract any geniuses any time soon, and I would argue Moses was not Jobs or a genius or anything but an a**. If you want centralized planning, the one fine example who created the Autobahn built up German’s military is Adolf Hitler.