a leading bureaucrat on the need to take more risks

Here's a very worthwhile three minutes of Washington DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning on risk-taking and failure.  Her discussion of Capital Bikeshare, which failed in its first incarnation and succeeded in its second, is an incisive challenge to the bureaucratic mind, and it's directly related to transit improvements.  

Whenever we try to improve transit systems, we often find — especially in network redesign — that a whole lot of big changes have to be made at once.  What's more, they're irreversible.  Network redesigns are so big and impactful that you can't just "try" them and undo them if they don't work.  By the time you've done them, the previous status quo is irrecoverable.

So they're big risks.  And most people — especially most groups of people working together such as Boards and committees — don't like to take risks.  The deliberation process in government often seems designed to shrink every initiative, so that all strong transformative moves shrivel into hesitant "demonstration projects," if they survive at all.

Tregoning's story here is basically that the first bikeshare system failed because it was too small, too hesitant, while the second one succeeded because it was far bigger, bolder, riskier.  Many of the government cultures I've known would have decided, based on the first round, never to try bikeshare again.  It took courage to say that maybe the lesson was that some things just can't be done as tiny demonstration projects.  You have to build the courage to actually do them, at the natural scale at which they start to work.

Transit network redesign is exactly like that.  It's hard to do in hesitant, reversible phases, because it's all so interconnected, and because a network doesn't start to work until it's all there.  

Thanks to Melanie Starkey of the esteemed Urban Land Institute for pointing me to this! 

17 Responses to a leading bureaucrat on the need to take more risks

  1. Rob Fellows February 2, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    I think this is an important point. Why bother having vision, high expectations and all the other attributes of effective leadership if you don’t also have the nerve and drive to risk achieving them?
    On the question of scale, I’ve been amazed by the seemingly sudden appearance of hundreds of CAR2GO smart cars now ubiquitous on the streets of Seattle, apparently dropped from helicopters overnight. The scale and style of implementation seems like a game changer for car sharing. Now I can find a car nearby with my phone, grab it, drive it and leave it at my destination, so car sharing provides a utility it didn’t at a smaller scale. I’m looking forward to trying it! Really, I just noticed these cars all over my neighborhood for the first time last week.
    It’s going to be really interesting to see how this development scales further (if lots of people flock to using it), and what effect it will have on travel behavior and urban design. I’m guessing it could affect auto ownership, certainly fuel use and emissions, and – by pricing by the minute – nudge people towards using cars only for the trips where they add the greatest value.

  2. Jim Moore February 2, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    Great lesson. A major reason why cars were a success is that the street networks already existed.
    The same lesson applies to a city’s on-street cycling network as it does for transit networks. It just won’t be successful with an incremental *strategy*. This is where Clover Moore (Mayor of Sydney) gets it but the politicians and planners in every other Australian capital city don’t (Jackie Fristacky in Yarra in Melbourne being an honourable exception.)

  3. Erik Griswold February 2, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    Indeed the network does not start to work until all is on place, but I am also intrigued at how often the obvious extension to a more useful interchange is not implemented. Case in point, extending Santa Monica BBB “Rapid” 7 from the western terminus of the old P-Pico LARy. streetcar to the western terminus of the LA Metro Purple Line Subway. This occurred circa 50 years after the streetcar had been replaced by a bus and circa 15 years after the Wilshire/Western station. Now this was impacted by a, IMHO silly, “noncompete” law; but now that it’s in place, the network is far more useful due to the better travel times to Downtown L.A. (and connection to L.A.’s Union Station) facilitated by the Purple Line versus the LA Metro bus route (30/31) that replaced the P-Pico stretcar.
    Another example is the creation of obvious crosstown routes. Like Seattle’s Route 8 which did not exist until the mid-1990’s and yet is today one of the most utilized.

  4. Erik Griswold February 2, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    A citation for my above post. I hope you will read it Jarrett as it is interesting what impacts transit planning in Los Angeles County!

  5. Erik Griswold February 2, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    Er…helps if I actually paste in the link!

  6. Rick Jelfs, Vancouver, BC February 3, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    Can anyone blame governments, their various agencies, boards, commissions and bureaucracies for being risk avoiders? The level of vitriol generated by any hint of failure or alleged waste of tax dollars would make anyone risk-averse. Ms. Tregonish touches on this when she states failure means ending up on the front page of the local newspaper. However, she later states this may be a positive step because nothing can be learned without failure. Unfortunately, we seem unwilling to accept public sector failure as a learning experience that can lead to better, more successful, initiatives.
    I’m reminded of a Canadian politician who once stated, and I’m paraphrasing, – Someone in the public sector with 10 initiatives and and 1 failure is a ‘bum’; in the private sector, 10 initiatives and 1 success is visionary.

  7. Andre Lot February 4, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    @Rick Jeffs: I don’t think public service and private sector should be held to the same standards. After all, one is operating on taxes, other on shareholder equity.
    I’m willing to accept certain very high-risk, future-centered public enterprises might fail, such as development of new weapons, space program, basic science research. Failure on those areas is acceptable.
    Now giving transportation agencies a blank check to experiment and try all sort of things, that is something I’m opposed to, because it makes no sense.

  8. Cfweckenmann February 4, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    Taking risk is especially important for transit planners. The status quo network in most cities in the US is just not good enough – nowhere close.
    But blowing things up is a very difficult thing to do, particularly for transit. Change always means winners and losers. The winners are the potential riders who will seep in over time. The losers are the existing riders who gush out. Facing that reality takes resolve – almost a stubbornness. And that you don’t find much in public sector decision makers.

  9. EN57 February 5, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    In cities where transit mode share is low (like Portland or Canberra), the social, political and economic risks of major network redesigns are also low. If transit gets stuffed up, a large majority of the population won’t even notice.
    In cities where transit ridership is relatively higher (like Toronto or Sydney), major network changes are riskier because of the sheer numbers of people likely to be affected. Transit planners can still be bold and take risks – but to gain political support, the risks need to be carefully calculated with all the big customer issues already known and accounted for before bringing the proposals to the public. Planners need to PROVE that there will be signficantly more winners than losers. Concepts and theories alone just don’t cut it when the stakes are high. In some cities (or parts of cities) there will never be political support for a big bang approach, with incremental changes over many years being the only way network change can happen.

  10. Jack Horner February 6, 2013 at 2:15 am #

    @EN57: ‘with incremental changes over many years being the only way network change can happen’
    The inner west of Sydney out to about 8km is pre-world-war 1, shaped by the original tram network, relatively high population density (for Sydney) – and has an incrementally developed bus network which is a dogs breakfast.
    Very prospective for increasing transit use, you might think, especially as the government recently committed some hundreds of miillions of dollars to renovate a former goods railway in the area for light rail.
    Reviewing the surrounding bus network as part of the light rail project would appear to be a no-brainer.
    It was never done and AFAIK there is no intention to do so. It’s much easier to spend half a billion on a well defined engineering project than to think intelligently about the future of the total network.

  11. EN57 February 6, 2013 at 6:47 am #

    Jack, It’s fine to redesign Sydney’s Inner West bus network – but you have to be able to demonstrate that the new network can be physically implemented, and will actually perform better in terms of patronage and passenger travel times than it does now. Otherwise you risk alienating huge numbers of dedicated customers in one of the best public transport areas in Australia, and making the system less attractive overall to the many new-users coming into the area every year.
    Current bus routes in the Inner West link a string of major destinations such as Norton St, King St, RPA, Sydney Uni, Broadway Shopping Centre, UTS, Central Station and Sydney CBD – that drive high levels of patronage and frequency 7 days per week. There’s nothing intelligent about breaking some of the most frequent and best performing bus routes in Sydney if you can’t really guarantee that the new system will be substantially better for customers.
    Two likely issues with the Inner West Light Rail line are that it doesn’t go near most of the major destinations in the Inner West; and that it takes a circuitous route to the City via the top of Pyrmont, making it a slow and indirect way to get to the City. I’m sort of wondering if lots of people would want to transfer to the Light Rail and whether it would be wise to restructure the buses around it…
    In meeting people’s travel needs, I think it’s important to be responsive to demand and the way people want to flow, rather than overly-obsessing over idealised network structures and neat-looking maps. But I would agree that there’s always room for improvement in terms of network simplicity and legibility.

  12. Ian J February 6, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    @EN57: In Sydney how can the public know whether the current network is “responsive to demand and the way people want to flow” without access to journey data and an understanding of the planning principles underlying the current network. That is assuming the current network has any principles underlying it other than “this is where the trams ran 60 years ago” which seems to be the basis of most of the routes.
    Your assertion that the inner West routes must be doing well because they are “some of the best performing bus routes in Sydney” precisely illustrates the confident embrace of medoicrity that bedevils much public sector risk-averse transport management. Given the strong transport potential of the area, shouldn’t they aim to be some of the best-performing bus routes in the world? And what do you mean by “best performing”? I assume you are not including average speeds or journey time reliability in your defintion of performance.
    As you say, the Light Rail line doesn’t go where most people want to go and can only have a minimal impact on most people’s journeys. So why didn’t the people planning Sydney’s transport system (if such people exist) not point this out to the politicians before they stumped up hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money? But given that it is being built, the buses should at least link with it properly (no, it should not replace the buses for journeys to the city, but it could provide one north-south link in a grid-type network for the innner west).
    Of course, neither the buses nor the light rail connect to the Cityrail network either, and transferring between them carries a substantial financial penalty, but there seems to be a total lack of interest in resolving such issues.

  13. EN57 February 7, 2013 at 4:00 am #

    @Ian J: No problem at all with planners taking risks on big bang transit network redesigns, but politicians need to be convinced to go ahead – and they don’t throw dice with their political futures. Risk-happy planners taking a reckless approach with scant regard for what already works, and with inconvenient details airbrushed out, will certainly turn the politicians right off – and you’ll have to put up with the “confident embrace of mediocrity” for a long time yet to come.
    (By the way, Sydney’s 21% public transport journey to work mode share is not at all mediocre – just ask Melbourne or Canberra!)
    Where there are serious numbers of people being affected (like in inner-Sydney), the risks are huge – and you’re right, they are worthwhile taking. All I’m saying, is that you have to do a lot of work to mitigate the risks to ease the public and politicians over the line. If you can’t actually guarantee at least faster or more reliable journeys to work, it starts to become a problem.
    You might try to imagine what it would be like to engage with an angry public when tens of thousands find out they will no longer have direct services to the City, with some having to transfer up to three times to get to work under your “grid-type network for the Inner West”. The risks may very well be worth it in the end – but what actions and what compromises do you need to make to get it over the line and see it through to fruition?

  14. Ian J February 7, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    @EN57. I agree that the process has to start with political leadership. In fact politicians do sometimes throw dice with their political futures – the decision to go ahead with light rail on George Street in Sydney is a good example of a high-risk strategy with potentially great rewards, but also great risks since it will involve more people having to transfer (and has already come under political criticism from the Opposition for this reason). Transport planning in Sydney has been a horrible mess for so long that the penny is finally starting to drop that the political risk in not doing anything is greater than the risk of doing something some voters won’t like.
    “Tens of thousands find out they will no longer have direct services to the City” need not be the case – a grid network could be devised such that every East-West route in the inner West passes through the CBD.
    The lazy habit of pointing only to other Australian cities as comparators is part of the reason for the ingrained mediocrity in Australian transport planning. Frankly, pointing to Canberra (a city of 300,000 people) as evidence that Sydney is some kind of public transport paradise is risible. By global standards 21% journey to work mode share is indeed very mediocre for a city of Sydney’s size and it is also mediocre compared with the past. Journey to work share in 1976 (ie still within the era of mass car ownership) was 30%. And note that most of that 21% is rail travel, not bus travel (and bus and rail are in competition in the inner West).
    I am not arguing for an approach that does not make compromises and I agree that it is hard work, but sometimes a big vision is actually easier to argue for than a set of small changes that annoy existing users without providing any bigger picture of benefits or an improved future.

  15. EN57 February 7, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    Thanks Ian, The reason for bringing up mode share was to try to highlight the size of the risk, not to say that things are currently all OK. My original point was that the higher the mode share, the higher the risks of major network change – and that planners need to take account of that. The issue of turning vision into reality is a difficult one.

  16. EN57 March 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    Following up on agencies taking risks – TransLink has devised bold proposals to introduce a frequent interchange bus network in South East Queensland, Australia. Unfortunately, political support for the changes seems to have disappeared.
    Jarrett, do you have any ideas why both city and state politicians might have backed away from these network initiatives – which so many transit advocates enthusiastically support? Are there any lessons here in how big network changes should be handled in big cities, where these sorts of political situations can occur?

  17. Jarrett March 26, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    EN57. I believe the Brisbane issue is mostly about long-standing conflict between City and State (i.e. TransLink) staff regarding who should be doing network design. The City staff has a much more conservative, change-averse view than the regional (State-controlled) agency. As the Premier of Queensland is a former Brisbane Mayor, it would not surprise me if he was still sympathetic to City staff views and overruled his Transport Minister as a result. I doubt it had much to do with the quality of the state proposals, in which some of my Australia/NZ colleagues (though not I) were involved.