Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Consensus and Vision by Alon Levy

[ 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.

Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture

11 Responses to “Consensus and Vision by Alon Levy”

  1. Tom Gonzales says:

    You are doing an excellent job of articulating things that I have been coping with and struggling to understand in my own process of learning how transportation and transit-related government decisions are made in this country, as well as how they are conceptualized and talked about. Keep it up!

    Unfortunately, after having living in Germany and exploring what the Swiss are doing, it just seems to me like complete madness here. There is no understanding of the importance of the consensus-building process, only on the final outcomes. Dialogue always seems to gravitate to “benefits” of decisions rather than the reasons for those decisions.

  2. kantor says:

    I can relate a lot to Alon since we have several things in common; we’re not from the USA (he’s from Israel, I’m Italian), we both are in mathematics and we both did graduate work in the USA. The only difference is that I am much older than him…

    And I could not agree more with Alon about his distrust for autocrats, even the good ones, if any; consensus is the only way to go. And not for merely ethical reasons (I’m not a huge fan of the democratic process myself) but rather for practical ones, the main being to build something that lasts.

    Very often the visions of an autocrat do not survive his lifespan and/or his loss of power; and when they do (as in Robert Moses case) they are often reviled and perceived as a blight.

  3. Ken says:

    Alon’s recent postings nibble around the edges of my as-yet-unexplored dissertation topic — whether consensus and other democratic institutions can successfully manage networked infrastructure investments. Implicit in consensus is compromise. But 80% of a transportation investment often won’t yield 80% of the benefit. In fact, it may yield none of the benefit; a bridge that fails to span the final 5 feet may represent a 90% compromise, yet deliver absolutely no benefits. Real-life examples are more subtle than this exaggeration, but just as real. Who hasn’t seen a rail project that for some legitimate reason — cost, environmental concerns, neighborhood preservation — doesn’t go where it *should* go (from a systems optimization perspective) but instead goes where it *can* go, and as a result fails to live up to the vision/ridership/performance originally promised? It could be that transportation system projects should be subject to a binary process — yes or no, built it completely, or don’t build it at all. Any public investment is going to generate some level of opposition. What is the threshold that should authorize a project?

  4. stlplanr says:

    Imagine a city where no additional streets or highways were funded. How would you then envision land use?

    Development could still retrofit and improve existing streets, but capital projects would be focused on the localized return on investment.

    Transportation projects should have always looked at the value-capture of the project. But the silver lining of the debt crisis is that cities can now look to densifying and enlivening their existing fabric.

  5. kantor says:

    I think that appeasement, rather than consensus, leads to compromise. Building a consensus does not mean to compromise with special interests in order to get something; to me it means involving the largest possible number of people (including those who oppose ..) in the decision process.

  6. John Morris says:


    Here we have the mentality that got us where are today.

    The assumption of course is that only good projects get forced through, when the reality is often the opposite. Bitter opposition is often a good clue to major flaws in the project.

    In the end, some level of consensus has to be reached anyway for any substantial success.

    What’s the point of building a transit line if a large group of riders don’t decide freely to ride it? What’s the point if local zoning laws and popular opinion prevent dense land uses along the line?

    It actually seems pretty common in the U.S. that projects are “sucessfully” rammed through without building the deep cultural support they need to bear fruit.

  7. jjs says:

    @ John Morris: you say “Bitter opposition is often a good clue to major flaws in the project.” That’s sometimes the case but unfortunately it can also be misleading — and used as a tactic for self-serving ends. Sometimes “bitter opposition” is mostly manufactured — by powerful interests in some cases, but other times by interests seeking power. I recall the “bitter opposition” of a small organization called LVEJO to the Chicago Transit Authority’s Pink Line service proposal in 2004. This opposition, widely played up in the press, was effectively against doubling transit service levels on two west side rail lines that had previously seen decades of ridership decline and lower service levels than other CTA lines. Yet the press at the time didn’t question the opposition’s case and just went along with the story “if CTA is in favor of it, it must be bad.” Now, nearly 8 years on, ridership continues to grow impressively on both of the affected west side lines and the “bitter opposition” would be revealed as nothing more than an opportunistic ploy for attention — if anyone cared to follow up on the story.

  8. John Morris says:

    Just in NYC in the last few years there have been two bitterly opposed projects.

    Atlantic Yards, which has halted almost all housing construction after being unable to obtain financing, most likely leaving a huge hole in the ground.

    The new Yankee Stadium, which built 9000 parking spaces with municipal bonds which are now likely to default.

    In both cases, opposition was a clue to deep flaws in the projects.

    Let’s just say, the more force is required the lower the chances, the original plan is sound.

    I will say, honestly that in three posts, Alon doesn’t bring up enough specifics to really discuss, one way or the other.

    Small, tactical urbanist projects like closing off a street, changing trafic flows, installing a bike lane and the like may be fine to just do since they can be easily reversed.

    In the case of transit, the big factor in success is related to zoning and land use. It’s best to sell the basic concept on a pretty broad level.

  9. John Morris says:

    I can’t help think there is a common denominator in many of the examples of consensus Alon brings up.

    Israel, Hong Kong and Japan in the post war years were either very small or relatively small and poor countries when many of their key decisions were made. Switzerland is also a small country. Perhaps a relative lack of resources and size helped to get people on the same basic page in terms of thinking.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    See, Israel is not a consensus country. Far from it. It was a dominant-party country for its first 30 years, democratic in principle but with immense concentration of power among party apparatchiks. The infrastructure projects built then were based on centrally planned national goals, such as “Spread the population around,” “develop the desert,” and “build up the military,” on which ordinary people were never consulted.

    Since 1977 it’s had a system of two-party rule, with coalition governments, but the power relation between the government and the people is still the same. While the coalitions are overall quite weak, the system gives the Prime Minister disproportionate power in the cabinet, and there’s no direct democracy as in Central Europe. The budget is subject to a law that lets the finance ministry unilaterally strike out any item it dislikes, such as public housing or subsidized preschool. Major social and political decisions are done by fiat, with little public consultation, as long as the coalition can keep its small partners happy with their kickbacks. That’s not consensus; that’s British-style unitary government with coalitions.

    The consensus that’s sprouting in Israel is bottom-up, and comes from a protest movement, which does what I wish Occupy Wall Street could do. It doesn’t have power yet – none of the parties cares, except for two small ones with a brand so weak that protesters who carry their signs cover up or tear out the party name.

  11. Excellent post. I quibble only in the idea that experts are an “interest group”. Experts who are mainly concerned with asserting claims for their own profession are indeed an interest group. But those who simply bring citizens into constructive contact with documentable facts of life have a crucial role in the consensus process. This kind of expertise is also distinct from “facilitation,” which tends to manage conversations but not care about their degree of connection to reality.

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