From the NYT obituary of Steve Jobs:
Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”
This may sound blunt and arrogant, as fast-moving minds often do, but Matt Bai expands:
In other words, while Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer, he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand specific solutions, just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk. This is what’s commonly known as leading.
This point has great relevance to transit and urban planning generally. Citizens express their desires lots of ways, but few of those expressions tell planners exactly what to do. "Research," as Jobs uses the term, probably means a very broad process of perceiving what customers are actually doing, how they're responding to existing products — many other sources apart from asking them what they want. It also means relating those desires to the some sense of what's mathematically and physically possible. The synthesis of these inputs requires a certain amount of science but also a certain amount of inspiration or instinct.
You can ask a citizen anything, but the trick is to figure out if the frame of reference you're using is the one that actually matters to their decisions, and even you get only part of your answer. Often we ask questions that express the questioner's interest rather than the citizen's. (In the extreme form, this becomes push-polling.) For example, suppose we ask: "Should we build light rail or a busway here?" Well, not everyone is interested in technology-choice questions, and from those people we'll get low-commitment answers that don't mean much. Some people are happy to say "no opinion," while others feel compelled to state a view no matter how faintly they may feel about it. These vagaries of mood or temperament make a huge difference to research outcomes, especially when the question isn't stated in a way that engages what the citizen actually cares about. (In focus groups, peer pressure makes "no opinion" less of an option, but that doesn't give me any more confidence that the right question has been asked, if indeed there even is a right question.)
So I would rather ask the public big questions about what they think transit is for, and what it should be trying to do. "Do you see transit in your community as primarily a social service for people who can't drive? If so do you think it should remain in that role?" "Should transit serve every bit of the city, or focus on areas where it can carry high ridership?" "Here are five possible goals that transit could focus on; what do you think should be the prioirty among them?"
But most importantly, we in the transit business have to think, not just analytically but in a more humanistic way that's open to inspiration and flashes of insight.
Because we have to take risks, and while you can analyze risks forever, only inspiration gives you the confidence to take one.