A New Years Letter, with Unsolicited Advice

This is our little consulting firm’s New Years letter to the world …

Friends, Clients, and Colleagues,

Jarrett's photoA New Years Letter is supposed to wish you all the best while talking about all our own wonderful news. We have some news, and I’ll share it below. But I also want to think with you about how to face a decade that could be the most challenging of our lives.

As we do transit plans in many cities, we’re hearing a lot of hope and a lot of anger, but we’re also hearing a word that I didn’t hear much a decade ago: emergency.

We have the “climate emergency,” an endlessly blaring alarm that unites all natural disasters into one. My Australian friends spent New Years Eve fleeing from 50-foot walls of flame. Young people come to our meetings asking what this thing we’re discussing will do for the climate, by which they mean: “Am I going to have a world to live in?”

But problems of social justice and inequality also look more like emergencies now. I spent much of November in Chile, watching “the most stable country in Latin America” explode in rage and chaos about an economic system that had been considered perfectly normal the week before. Social inequality, however you define it, is a potential emergency every bit as much as climate is.

Emergency is a frightening word. It says: “Do everything differently now, or else,” but people who just try to “do something” often do the wrong thing. Our challenge as a profession is to figure out how all these ringing alarms should affect how we do our jobs, and how we talk about them.

Most of us work in big organizations with complex webs of bureaucratic requirements and processes. We all spend time complying with rules, rather than solving problems or creating opportunities.

Most of those rules have purposes, and I am not calling for open rebellion against them. But to people outside our profession, it can look like we’re performing slow and mysterious rituals while the house is on fire.

So here are some new year resolutions we’re taking on as a firm. Maybe they’re useful to you.

  • I will act as if what I’m doing matters, because it does. Transit is a key tool that can ease many of the crises that are triggering fear and rage, so how you do your job is affecting the world. That’s true whether you drive a bus, design a bus route, audit compliance, or do any other of the thousand things that keep our industry running.
  • If something doesn’t matter, I will stop doing it and stop telling others to do it. Those of us who create procedures have a special responsibility to make sure that everything we tell people to do is actually helping make things better.
  • I will help people understand. Practice explaining what you do and why it matters in plain language. Transit is a widely misunderstood topic. We must be patient and clear in helping everyone see how it works, so that they can make decisions whose consequences they can see.

This, at least, is what we’ll try to do.

Our good news is that we’ve been fortunate to see our work improving people’s lives, and thus making transit more resilient and effective. We led the design process for networks that are now operating in Houston, Columbus, Indianapolis, Richmond, Anchorage and now, just last week, San Jose and Silicon Valley in California (VTA). Auckland, New Zealand’s spectacular public transit renaissance includes a network redesign that I worked on in 2012, and that finally rolled out last year.

We just finished our work on a giant redesign project in Dublin, our first job in the European Union, and we hope to see it on the street in a year or two. Right now, we’re in the midst of network design projects in Miami, Kansas City, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Chattanooga, and Alexandria, Virginia, among others.

But bus network design isn’t all we do, and 2019 was a year of branching out. We are doing more long range planning, including the Tucson Long Range Transit Plan this year. We’re helping universities and private companies think about transit. We’re providing crucial professional advice on land use plans, too many of which are done without deep thought about transit. We’re advising on a range of policy questions, helping people understand how decisions that are about other things determine whether effective service transit service will be possible.

So that’s our news. The new decade will be full of challenges, but I hope it’s also full of happiness and rewards for you. Let us all keep learning from each other.

Sincerely,

Jarrett Walker

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