“shockingly neutral”: my first sort-of negative review!

WalkerCover-r06 croppedAn intriguing take on Human Transit from Josh Stephens at the California Planning and Development Report concludes with this striking thought:

Much of Walker's technical discussions aren't any more riveting than they sound. And yet, it is, on the whole, … a surprisingly un-tedious exercise in armchair planning. Walker loves and believes in public transit, but his awareness of the costs and tradeoffs render him a shockingly neutral advocate (if such a thing is possible). On the one hand, Walker is trying to encourage stakeholders to advocate for better transit systems. But if you read him closely, you might end up with mental gridlock (while actual gridlock grows all the worse).

I can accept being nonriveting — this isn't Stephen King — and am happy to settle for "un-tedious."  Otherwise, I treat this critique as a badge of honor.  To me as a consultant, few epithets are finer than 'shockingly neutral.'  Yes, my book is about helping you and your community think about the real choices that you face.  And yes, to make those choices, you in your armchair (and your community in the real transit planning process) must think about what you want, and sometimes about which of two things you want is more important. 

I'm sorry if that gives some people "mental gridlock", but functional human beings and communities do this all the time.  Everyone understands the process of budgeting when money is at stake.  Transit simply requires the similar kind of hard-tradeoff thinking in some other dimensions, including street-space, service priorities, etc.  My book also makes budgeting decisions around transit much easier, because it helps everyone understand exactly what they are buying or sacrificing.

Once, years ago, I was working with a community's elected officials to help them reach a consensus on how they want to balance the competing goals of lifeline coverage vs higher ridership.  (The former goal produces a little bit of service everywhere and the latter produces a high-intensity network only when demand is high. See Chapter 10.)  We were having a contentious public meeting on exactly this subject, with the electeds debating each other and the public inserting a range of useful testimony.  The electeds were going to have to vote. 

We took a break, I went to the men's room, and suddenly one of the electeds was at the adjacent urinal.  He whispered: "Hey Jarrett, I know you don't want to say anything out there, but really, what do you think we should do?"

As a citizen I'd have an answer based on my values, but I wasn't a citizen here.  I was here to help a community make its own decision. So my private answer was the same as a public one.  "No!  This is not a technical question. You have to balance your priorities between two things that you value, just like you do when you're budgeting.  This is a chance to express your values, so asking me to tell you what to do is like asking me to tell you who you are."

Obviously, once you've chosen what you want, your consultant will start telling you what's required to deliver that outcome, and in that mode the consultant may sound like an advocate.  But that only happens once the client — you, your community, your electeds — have stated their desires clearly in an understanding of the tradeoffs they imply.

Sorry.  Life's full of hard choices, for people and for their communities.  If it gives you mental gridlock, put down the book or step out of the meeting.  Breathe fresh air, study a flower, or look at the stars.  But sooner or later, you'll decide, or others will do it for you.

5 Responses to “shockingly neutral”: my first sort-of negative review!

  1. Daniel Sparing July 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Jarrett, maybe this an acceptable place to mention that I recently finished the book which was an excellent read and will remain a useful handbook, just as I expected based on this blog.
    About being neutral, you are being tricky and you know that. You offer well-defined choices to the policymakers/readers, such as high frequency vs. complexity etc. etc., but finally, in the last chapter, you reveal which of each choice pair are characteristics of World class, high ridership transit systems. — As a transit advocate, one would thus really have a preference in these questions, but it is a smart tactic of yours to make the client articulate these choices.

  2. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 14, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    Daniel.  Thanks so much for the compliment, but I wouldn't use the word "tricky"!  The whole book says that you get to make choices and that choices have consequences, and the epilogue is no different.  You don't have to be a "transit metropolis" if you don't want to be.  I perceive the global market to be saying that there's an increased demand for that, but the markets say all kinds of crazy and mixed things, as you'd expect of something made up of so many people.   Others argue that the future is in small cities where there's room for everyone to drive.  What I do know is that decisionmaking is, fortunately, still very decentralized in most of the world, so communities will differentiate based on their values and the market will reward them if those values are popular with enough of a population.

  3. Barry Watkins July 14, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    The neutrality in consultancy takes a while to master, especially when you work in a field that you’re passionate about.
    Many clients expect us to share their beliefs, enthusiasm and predetermined positions on the projects which they invite us to assist on. And when a project has clear benefits – those ‘no brainers’ that we sometimes work on – that enthusiasm can be contagious.
    But for me the biggest challenge can be to tell a client that their idea simply isn’t feasible. Even feasibility studies, the intent of which is to determine whether a project is viable or not, usually come from a position of wanting to prove that it is. The emotional response of some clients when you inform them that, in your professional opinion for which they have paid, their idea simply doesn’t stack up, can range from disbelief through to betrayal.
    A good consultant tells their client want they need to hear. But many consultants seem to feel obliged to tell their client what they want to hear. And this is where so many bad investments of public moneys begin.

  4. Danny Howard July 16, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    If ever you are Knighted, you could be “Sir Jarrett, the Un-tedious”

  5. Nathanael July 17, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    So, did the guy who asked you the question in the bathroom express his values? Or did he have no values and vote to do “none of the above”? 🙂