Tuesday, March 20th, 2012
[ Here’s part three of Alon Levy’s series on cities and consensus. Again, I’d encourage you to check out his blog Pedestrian Observations. He continues to provoke in his thinking, such as in his recent post on how transit agencies are forced to pay for highway projects – Aaron. ]
The death of Steve Jobs has led to impromptu discussions about the nature of his genius, causing some to call for a Steve Jobs of transit. Human Transit quotes such calls in comments and tries to strike a balance between good organization and singular vision; Market Urbanism tweets that it’s impossible only because of public control.
Instead of this fantasy for someone who will have enough power to make transit great, let us step back and ask what makes transit cities work. It’s not really vision – the inventions that have made transit more useful in the last few decades (for example, the takt and the integrated timetable) are so distributed that it’s impossible to assign them a single inventor or even agency. And in the US, the last true visionary of urban transportation, Robert Moses, had about the same effect on the city he ruled that such visionaries as Stalin and Mao had over their countries.
The absolute worst quote one can invoke in the field is Henry Ford’s apocryphal claim that if he’d asked customers what they’d wanted, they’d have said faster horses; Ford may never have said that, but he believed something along these lines, and as a result lost the market to General Motors in the 1920s. People tend to project the same attitude, with far more success, to Steve Jobs: he saved Apple from ruin when he came back, he saw potential in Xerox’s computers that nobody else did, he focused on great design above all. Some of this is due to the cult of personality Jobs created around himself, unparalleled in the industry; a better assessment of Apple’s early growth comes from Malcolm Gladwell, who dispenses with Great Man histories and talks about innovation as an incremental process requiring multiple different business cultures to get anywhere.
In cities, there really is a need for consensus rather than autocratic vision. The reason Moses was so bad for New York is not just that he happened to be wrong about how cities should look. Roads were not his only sin, and on one account, the use of tolls, he was better than the national road builders. No; he reigned over a city that to him existed only on maps and in models, routing expressways through blocks with the wrong ethnic mix and depriving neighborhoods of amenities in retribution for not being able to complete his plans. Because he was insulated from anyone who could tell him what the effect of his policies was, and had no effective opposition, he could steamroll over just anyone.
The reality is that any Steve Jobs-like autocrat is going to act the same. Moses did it; Janette Sadik-Khan is doing it, delaying even popular projects in Upper Manhattan because of the perception that it’s against livability; Jaime Lerner did it, moving pollution from Curitiba to its suburbs and slowing but not preventing the spread of cars. In contrast, Jane Jacobs’ own observations of her struggle are the opposite, focusing on consensus and participation and crediting “hundreds of people” with saving the West Village. Everything I said about consensus and cities and about democratic consensus applies here.
The same is by and large true of transit. Although the subject is more technical, the role of experts is similar to their role in urbanism: answering narrow technical questions (“does the soil allow this building type to be built?”, “how much will it cost to run trains faster?”), helping people see tradeoffs and make their own choices, bringing up foreign examples that local activists may not be familiar with. They’re just one of several interest groups that have to be heard.
I think people who ascribe invention to great individuals finding things consumers didn’t even know they wanted are projecting the history of the 19th century to present times. At the time, invention was done individually, often by people without formal education. It was already fairly incremental, but much less so than today, and was portrayed as even less incremental since to get a patent approved the inventor had to play up his own role and denigrate previous innovations. Since it was not done in the context of large companies or universities, the corporate culture issue that Gladwell focuses on didn’t apply. The economy, too, was understood as a process involving discrete inventions, rather than a constant rate of growth, as Andrew Odlyzko’s monograph on the Railway Mania discusses in chapter 15.
We no longer live in such a world. Fixed-route public transportation has existed since the 1820s. Practically all innovations within transit since have been slow, continuous improvements, done by large groups of people or by many individuals working independently. Even implementations of previous ideas that became wildly successful are rarely the heroic fit of a mastermind. The few cases that are, such as Jaime Lerner’s dirt-cheap BRT, indeed spawn rants about democratic consensus and raves about vision and fast decisions.
In contrast, I do not see any mention in mainstream US media of the role of Swiss consensus politics in the backing of the Gotthard Base Tunnel or in SBB’s 50% over-the-decade growth in passenger rail traffic. If there’s a story about Tokyo or Hong Kong, it’ll be about skyscrapers and development, not about their collective decisions to restrain car traffic while rapid transit was still in development. And while China’s rapid expansion of transit and high-speed rail, at much lower cost than in the US, has gotten much media coverage, scant attention has been paid to Spain even though its costs are lower and its expansion is nearly as rapid.
What’s happening is that people imagine single heroes to do what is really the work of many. Alternatively, they romanticize autocrats, even ones who were unmitigated disasters, such as Moses. Even stories about consensus and social movements get rewritten as stories about great people, for example Jane Jacobs, or more broadly Martin Luther King. It’s an aesthetic that treats everything as a story, and in the 19th century, it often was: in other words, it’s steampunk. The difference is that steampunk artists don’t wish to return to a world in which women have to wear corsets. And in similar vein, people who imagine benevolent, visionary dictators should not try to confuse their fiction with reality.
Also by Alon Levy:
Cities and Consensus (first part in this series)
Democratic vs. Elite Consensus (second part in this series)
The Urgency of Reforming the Federal Railroad Administration
This post originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on October 11, 2001.