Consensus and Vision

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.


  1. Beta Magellan

    I think a lot of the desire for a transit Steve Jobs comes from two things, both of which come more from the operations side of the equation:

    1. Jobs steered the turnaround of Apple’s brand—in many American cities, the brand of transit is very damaged and advocates often have a hard time explaining that it can be more than a welfare service.

    2.Especially post-turnaround, Apple had a reputation as being particularly consumer-oriented. In many transit agencies, riders’ interests often take a backseat to payroll and political directives.

    Of course, charismatic leadership can only go so far in either of those cases—not only do you have to worry about autocratic tendencies, but there’s no way you can assure that every post-turnaround general manager will be equally effective. Competence needs to be built into the structure of the organization—strong leadership can help engineer a turnaround but it won’t necessarily make one last.

    • Alon Levy

      Fair enough. I think it’s normal to want a turnaround like that of Apple in the 2000s, and although I don’t fully buy that it was just Jobs’ return, I realize he had a large role to play. It’s an interesting point, though, that the main revival was in brand.

      The issue is that transit is not tech, even when it’s run successfully like a business. Good culture is so much more important, good political and social environment in the host cities is crucial, and the potential for gamechanging innovations is small.

  2. anonymouse

    I think this is one area where the distinction between capital construction and operations is very important. Robert Moses was a builder, and indeed someone with a Jobs-like vision and the power of eminent domain can be tremendously destructive. But on the operations side, things are quite different, and I’d say that the most destructive force is accountants and bureaucrats who don’t understand how the system works or what its users want.

    Wouldn’t it be great to have someone with a ruthless focus on delivering the best passenger experience? Someone who can pay attention to the crucial little details that can make the difference between a rider experience and a “I’ll never take the bus again” one. Someone who understands the operation well enough to get the absolute most out of the resources available, and who knows what can be cut with minimal impact to the overall system. Someone who can demand the ruthless operating discipline to keep things running smoothly, and motivate the employees to actually deliver it. And someone who, when the agency does get some capital funds, can find the little investments that make a huge impact to the customer experience.

    Caltrain could certainly use someone like that: someone who can have great ideas (like weekend express service) and deliver them, without heavy lobbying from riders. Someone who can make the trains actually run on time, and cut the padding out of the schedule as a result. Someone who can figure out how to get electrification built right now, with the money available, instead of sitting on top of a plan with an ever-increasing cost estimate that keeps not getting funded. Someone who can wring the most out of the existing tracks and trains until the electric trains start running. I think the key to Jobs’ success was not just vision, because there’s no shortage of that, and not just a good understanding of what customers wanted and how to design for that, but also the ability to put all that together into a product, and then make and sell that for a profit. And that’s something I think we need more of in the transit world.

  3. Wad

    There will never be a Steve Jobs of transit because the environment of public transit and the kind of environment that gave a rise to Steve Jobs are mutually exclusive.

    For one thing, neither Steve Jobs nor Apple were bound by civil service laws. Jobs didn’t have to worry about just cause to fire an employee; if he was feeling like Caligula that day or just wanted to randomly turf someone to make a point, he could. In the public sector, any put-upon worker could initiate a grievance procedure and it would be the manager’s burden to prove guilt.

    Second, the culture of public service doesn’t lend itself to the organization culture of the technology world. (This is also a warning that one should not extrapolate the success of one field into the context of another; there’s no Moore’s Law for agriculture, but that doesn’t mean its because the ag field is doing something wrong if farmers cannot double the “processing” power of soil every 18 months.) The knowledge and feedback loops of bureaucracies are oriented around adherence to rules and regulations, which favors stasis. Can another field’s culture be imbedded into a bureaucracy, and is it desirable? (For instance, would you want your transit system overhauling its route network every year?)

    • Beta Magellan

      I think the structure of American transit bureaucracies is the main reason transit geeks are fantasizing about a Steve Jobs-like figure who could miraculously cut through the organizational coagulate and bring about something better. You’re definitely right that many also see emulating tech as a way towards a transit turnaround (look at the Perkins + Will video Jarrett eviscerated a few months ago), but all in all it’s mainly (as illustrated by Anonymouse’s comment) just a broader desire to see a more customer-oriented transit management style, which often means emulating other, more successful transit systems rather than emulating tech.

      Waiting for a savior figure probably isn’t the best way to go about this, though.

  4. ericorozco

    You can in every project based area of human endeavor create a little nook reserved for the brainiacs and innovators and ruthless aesthetes, whatever they may do to keep services and facilities exceptional and advancing, if not reconfiguring every once in a while. I’m thinking of the way some cities create public-sector urban design departments to help craft the agenda for public realm projects. These folks are given the conceptual development and work in partnership with the streets and utilities people to work out the details. It’s an effective “trimming of the fat” process while not sacrificing the intention. The difference here is that the designer is given some negotiating power, so there is a natural competitive relationship created between the advocates of stasis and advocates of change. It is a useful rivalry. Where you need a Steve Jobs is to keep the vision sharp and make the departments work with each other. (I think this is what Mitchell Silver has managed to create in Raleigh.)

    Let’s not forget that transit improvements, like all capital and service improvements, are incremental because every city is different. When it comes to such projects, you need a Steve Jobs for every city. The innovation begins with the public realm and that is a ruthless given. It helps open up the endeavor when you think of transit improvement as an important piece of the larger urban design prerogative to create a more liveable and active city. Where innovation happens is in the interaction between transit and other areas of human endeavor. I don’t like the term “Transit Oriented Development” because it is too delimiting with the prerogative. Instead I prefer to use the term “Transit Supported Urban Design” because it helps open the project up to a greater market of potential outcomes and does not lose the greater city. Transit Supported Urban Design keeps the network in mind.

  5. EngineerScotty

    While I like Robert Moses (I don’t), I was utterly unaware that he slaughtered millions of New Yorkers.

    (Just as most analogies comparing mainstream politicians in modern democracies to Hitler are inappropriate, likewise for the other great monsters of history).

  6. Danny

    I think the main motivation behind the obsession with a technology superstar is that public transit authorities think that technology is the only way to actually bring improvement. All the really good ideas to improve transit are just too anti-status-quo for their tastes.

    • Jarrett Walker

      I don’t think this issue is about technology. Jobs was a superstar around leadership and imagination. Technology is just one way to express those skills, and in the transit world, the big problems are not technological.

  7. Rob B.

    I’m not sure I’d call Janette Sadik-Kahn a Moses-like autocrat. Most of her work has gotten the approval of community boards, and came after years of advocacy by neighborhood groups calling for bike lanes, traffic calming, etc. The main objectors are the out-of-office bureaucrats who feel like they deserved extra consultation given who they are. I’m echoing Streetsblog’s multipart analysis of PPW, but I think it holds true in other neighborhoods of NYC as well:

    • Alon Levy

      What’s happening on PPW is not really the same as what’s happening elsewhere. The bike lane was controversial in Chelsea. Upper Manhattan rejected a few of her proposals for bike lanes, leading her and her defenders to write off the area as pro-car and ignore it in subsequent years; as a result, CB 11 had to beg multiple times to get the bike lanes on First and Second extended to Harlem, NYCDOT’s original proposal being to only extend them north to 34th. The 34th Street Transitway was done poorly, suffered from a huge spate of NIMBYism, and was never modified along lines that would mollify one (out of many) NIMBY concern, regarding a BRT lane next to the curb, even though median running is best industry practice.

      The essence of JSK’s tactics is to talk to the parts of the community that already agree with her, and pretend that this is outreach. Occasionally, the community really does agree with her. More often, it doesn’t.

  8. Jarrett Walker

    I feel a certain mellowness about this dispute. Great transit leadership embraces the consensus process, but great vision is about building a story strong enough that it pushes past inevitable self-interest of powerful parties. I’m all for both. My emphasis in the post Alon cites was that you need partnerships of the necessary skills, but that strategic and creative thinking must be part of that partnership.

  9. Danny

    Looking on recent events, it seems like the transit world could gain a lot more from a Dennis Ritchie than it could from a Steve Jobs.

  10. Nathanael

    I’m kind of down on consensus, because it can cause total failure — there are times when you need a group of leaders who are willing to steamroll over opposition.

    But I’m thinking of times when the leaders already *have* supermajority support, and already *have* talked to the opposition and attempted to meet their concerns, and have been met with sheer unreasoning hostility. Autocratic steamrolling should come only when and *after* the attempt to gain consensus fails to achieve consensus but does achieve a supermajority. It should be done in situations where afterwards most of the opposition goes “What was I so worried about?”

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