Why We’re Used to Some Outrage at Network Redesigns

Here are some things that happen whenever a big bus network redesign is first proposed to the public. They are happening in the Dublin network redesign process right now, but to some degree they’ve happened on every project I’ve done over my 25-year career.

  • People assume that the plan is more final than it is, so they feel they need to gather forces in angry meetings and attack us, when in fact we want their detailed comments so we can address them.
  • We consult the public about the plan and they tell us, as we’re consulting them, that we’re not consulting them. (This is an understandable consequence of the previous point; people assume they’re being told when in fact they’re being asked.)
  • People say that while we’ve consulted some people, we haven’t consulted everyone in the right way.  (This is an understandable complaint, and often a valid one, but we will always get it no matter how much consultation is done. People rely on so many different information sources, and need things explained in so many different ways, that reaching everyone the right way is a potentially infinite task.)
  • Some people hear only that “there won’t be a Route 54” and begin holding rallies to “Save the 54,” without knowing or caring what service is proposed to replace the 54.  (Sometimes we’re just changing the number!)
  • Media headlines often inflame this confusion, with headlines about bus lines being “scrapped”.
  • People attack the whole plan because one local detail isn’t right.  (Many of the details that people are outraged about in Dublin are fixable, now that we have heard about them.  That’s why we’re consulting you about it now, to help us get the details right!)
  • Unions representing bus drivers, understandably seen as experts in some circles, will often put out their own messages tied to their own interests.
  • People attack the consultant.  (It’s not the first time my tiny 10-person firm has been called “corporate.”)
  • Some sympathetic person explains to me that people in their city or country are just crazy in some way, and I assure them that no, this is what happens everywhere, from Russia to the US to New Zealand, when a proposed network redesign comes out.  Because what everyone is doing is completely understandable in their situation.

Here, for example, is a deep dive into a current network redesign in Canberra, Australia (which I helped lay the groundwork for years ago).  You will see all of the themes I’ve listed.

What’s happened next, in all my projects, is that we collected the comments and fixed what was fixable, which turned out to include most of the details that had most inflamed people.  In most cases that addressed enough concerns that the plan moved forward and was a success.  It solved the problems it was meant to solve, and once people got used to it many of them discovered that it wasn’t as bad as they thought.

That doesn’t always happen, though. Sometimes elected leaders panic at this point and stop the plan, leaving all of the existing problems in place.

For me, there’s a reason to be happy about all the controversy:  It means people care.  The least controversial projects I’ve done were in very car-oriented places where few people (and no powerful people) cared what the buses did.  I would much rather be dealing with controversy.

The key thing is not to panic when we hear outrage at this stage of the process.  While was it was especially inflamed by misinformation in Dublin’s case, it’s a normal phase in the conversation.

And again, that doesn’t mean we’re not listening. The whole point is that we are listening, so we can make the plan better.

[Note: I will be mostly away from the internet, until the 20th August.]

14 Responses to Why We’re Used to Some Outrage at Network Redesigns

  1. Steve August 12, 2018 at 5:09 am #

    We’re at the other end of it here in Wellington, NZ at the moment, with teething problems following the roll out of the updated network, but similar complaints and actions, possibly not helped by the super long time between design and implementation. What do you make of this and the inevitable calls to go back to the old?

  2. Randy August 12, 2018 at 8:37 am #

    Part of the problem may be that in some places hearings are just seen as a formality. In Atlanta it’s pretty usual for feedback to be completely ignored unless there is a raucous scene at meetings and/or local press coverage. Thus people learn to treat “consultation” as a mostly-final design that must be attacked if there is any chance of getting changes. It’s not fair that y’all get the short end of that, but it may be a contributing factor.

    • Jack August 13, 2018 at 12:11 pm #

      Randy, I think this is spot on. People don’t believe that they are really being consulted, even when told, because they are used to the public hearing/input process being procedural, rather than genuine. I often feel that way about FTA’s public comments prior to public rulemakings. You know what they are planning to do, and it feels quite rare that anything substantial changes through the public input process. They just come up with a general reason to say no.

      I also think this comes from the reality that while in a democracy power is with “the people”, it is not with “the person.” The vast majority of citizens actually have very little individual voice when compared to a large agency or government structure. While they may be listened to, what they ask for is very often (and legitimately) not followed because it isn’t in the best interest of the group as a whole in some manner. Therefore, even while being consulted, people know they personally are unlikely to be able to change anything, and this is a frustrating feeling when it affects their life quite a bit.

  3. Morgan Wick August 12, 2018 at 7:17 pm #

    It might help if you presented multiple options and didn’t obviously favor one over the other. Lend less of an air of finality to the proceedings. On the other hand, any changes common to all the options might have *more* of an air of finality to them.

    • Jarrett August 23, 2018 at 7:14 am #

      We almost always do this, but we weren’t scoped to do it in Dublin. Instead, we laid out conceptual alternatives a year ago and collected feedback on them.

  4. James Garner August 15, 2018 at 11:23 am #

    I’ve worked at places where the public hearing phase was just seen as a bureaucratic hurdle (Asheville, NC) and places where all comments are taken seriously and integrated into responses (Pace Suburban Bus). It may take a while, but when you take the public process seriously, and do far more than just hold a public hearing at the end of two years or work, the public and the press also take you more seriously. When both sides listen as well as speak, constructive things get done early in the process. Following the spirit of constructive engagement pays off.

  5. Albaby August 16, 2018 at 7:16 am #

    I think the above posters are correct – if this keeps happening to you, perhaps there’s something about *when* and *how* you choose to engage with the public that could use changing.

    For example, here’s your description of the Dublin process:

    “For 18 months, our firm has been working with National Transport Authority of Ireland (NTA) to develop a redesign of Dublin’s bus network. We studied every bus route, drew hundreds of maps of data and ideas, and spent a week locked in a conference room with experts from NTA, the bus operating company Dublin Bus, and staff from the local governments. Once we had a rough plan we spent more months refining and analysing. It’s been a long voyage to this point.

    The plan is now released for public comment. ”

    That is *not* a process that is designed to meaningfully respond to public input. It’s pretty clear who you are treating as the meaningful stakeholders (the folks from NTA, the bus company, and government staff who got to spend a week with you early in the process), and who you are *not* treating as meaningful stakeholders (the public, who doesn’t get consulted until you’ve done a year and a half worth of work baking those other stakeholders’ core preferences into the bones of your plan).

    If that’s representative of the approach you take, I’m not surprised that members of the public react the way they do. After 18 months, they *know* that the only comments that will be heeded are things that tinker around the edges, and that any choices that might require substantial work to undo have already been made without their input.

    • Mike August 17, 2018 at 1:23 pm #

      You need a proposal to start with. If you just ask people what they want out of the blue, they’ll give a lot of incoherent answers and “I don’t know”s, and not realize what they really want. But if you show them a concrete draft, then they can compare it to the existing service and perhaps start envisioning another alternative.

      My local agency had three rounds of drafts on a particularly large and extensive bus restructure. The first proposal offered two alternatives: a major restructure and a tiny restructure. As hoped, people favored the major one, although they quibbled about certain neighborhoods or the loss of certain routes. The second and third proposals were heavily influenced by the feedback. The first proposal was really to focus people’s attention on deciding what they want and what’s realistic for a revenue-neutral restructure. Jarrett has done similar multi-part rounds which started with “What kind of service do you want?”, essentially an abstract version of alternatives A and B (no specific routes yet). That would get at more of what you’re asking for. I don’t know why Dublin didn’t start that way, or maybe it did, or maybe the local officials rejected that approach. In any case the problem seems to be “People assume that the plan is more final than it is”. In some cases the hearing is just pro forma, especially if it’s immediately before a council vote and it’s unrealistic to expect legislators to change their minds at the last minute (nor does it give enough time to vet the change). But Jarrett wouldn’t be involved in anything like that, or holding it up as an example here.

      • Jack August 20, 2018 at 5:42 am #

        I’m not sure you do need a proposal to start with. The first meeting with the public can very much be a completely open, we just want to hear your thoughts on this topic type of meeting. People like seeing the agency come in with no preset agenda. It’s absolutely true that many of the comments will be of such local or personal preference that they are not helpful, but there can be some genuine insight into the community’s thinking and you might be surprised by some thoughtful input. Additionally, it does much to help people feel they are being included seriously and early, so that later on in the project, when a proposal is on the table, they feel like part of it and not like they are being included at the last minute.

        Finally, this initial meeting is a good time to tell people the general project timeline, including when you expect to come back to the public throughout the process for more input. That helps put people at ease that they will have a chance to look at and comment on a proposal before it’s approved, and can make things run more smoothly. Just like safe driving, being predictable and signaling early are important.

    • Jarrett August 23, 2018 at 7:13 am #

      But we did do a first round of public outreach, in the form of a web survey that was answered by almost 1% of the population of Dublin — a very high rate for such surveys. It happened at the crucial time, when we needed input on what the priorities of the plan should be.

      I am not sure of all the ways that NTA publicized it, but if the word hadn’t gotten out to a lot of people we wouldn’t have gotten so many responses. It’s described in Chapter 6 of our full report at busconnects.ie.

      No matter how much consultation we do, someone always says they weren’t consulted. Fifty years ago this was easy: get into about 10 key media outlets and you’ve reached everyone. People look at so many information sources now that getting the word to absolutely all of them is an infinite task.

  6. Pete August 20, 2018 at 3:58 am #

    I’m interested to see how the Dublin network redesign eventually pans out Jarrett. Being so close to home it will inevitably be covered in the UK bus journals.

    There could be similar opportunities for you in the UK now that the new “Metro Mayors” have bus franchising powers. Most promising could be Greater Manchester:


  7. Jeff Wegerson August 20, 2018 at 7:09 am #

    Participatory democracy is a pretty mature field. I see versions applied to various government areas. Our school board holds elections to create citizen run local school councils. Our park district creates advisory boards at the individual park level. Our police create regular police district level forums to encourage community input. And most recently some aldermen have set aside large chunks of money for Participatory Budgeting that involves the community in creating, designing and promoting for ward level voting, permanent capital spending projects.

    What is interesting about all of those efforts is that the people who choose to involve themselves find they must become educated about each area in order to make informed decisions. That education tends to come from city “bureaucrat” experts who are paid to do work in those areas.

    But missing in action here where I live is any similar level of on-going community involvement from the Department of Transportation or the Transit Agency. So to me it would behoove your company, Jarrett, to immediately propose the creation such a participatory, open to anyone willing and able to put in the time, board or committee, right at the start of the process to redesign the bus system.

    In addition, to accommodate those with the interest but who lack the time, create a system of trusted representation between the interested and the able to participate. I believe that much of it is about creating new lines of communication where none exist.

  8. Adam Short August 20, 2018 at 8:18 am #

    Stakelholder relations is a tough thing. Projects that are really well-funded (generally those that involve a corporation realizing big profits at the end) hire expensive stakeholder-relations firms to manage the entire process. Smaller projects with limited resources in general cannot afford this (although it’s something to look into – K Street has a billion of these outfits.)

    In Richmond it seems to have been handled pretty well. Most of the complaints I’ve heard are in one of two classes – one class involves the fact that our walkability here is not what it should be and therefore people who used to get dropped off closer to their destination are really struggling to get where they are going, and the other is motorists who just hate buses.

    The project so far seems to have been a big success, though. The buses are full and as a cyclist i am really appreciating riding in a city where some consideration has been given to the fact that buses and bicycles don’t interoperate well.

  9. Ross S August 21, 2018 at 1:54 pm #

    I missed this while I was away in Europe on holiday—great message! The feedback really is most helpful in fine-tuning the network to where it needs to be.