After I criticized Cuomo’s Genius Challenge earlier this year, I saw some comment, I think on the Manhattan Contrarian, to the effect that even if the winning proposals suck the idea of the contest is still good because the MTA needs fresh advice. The argument is that a sclerotic organization like just about every state or local government agency in the US needs to be shaken up using outside ideas. The American private sector, which is very productive, is a good source of ideas, according to this line.
This notion is unfortunately wrong. Outside advice is useful, but leveraging the success of American business is not possible in transportation. Outsiders need a lot of grounding within the field to be able to contribute (and this includes myself). In some cases the best single source of fresh advice is not even from the outside, but from internal planners who the political appointees ignore.
The tyranny of the org chart
Aaron Renn tells a story from when he worked in management consulting: after years of leading projects advising other firms, he was tasked with improving the managerial efficiency of the firm where he worked. His ideas were ignored, because the organization chart said that he was middle management, and so senior management didn’t have to do what he said. When he consulted for other firms it was not like this, because consultants have titles that deliberately obfuscate the fact that in their own firm they are middle management, and thus senior management considers them peers outside their firm’s org chart and listens.
What’s more, many of the consultants’ ideas come from conversations with lower-level employees. The low- and mid-level workers pitch ideas that their managers ignore because of the tyranny of the org chart, and the consultants then take the better ideas, rebrand them as outside advice, and sell them to the people at the top. Employee resentment toward consultants often hinges on the fact that consultants take credit for ideas they heard from grunt workers.
A lot of transit reforms in the United States have this flavor. TransitCenter relies on best industry practices for its recommendations, but in some cases it learns what these practices are from passed-over planners. When I talked to Zak Accuardi last year about measuring punctuality on urban transit, he explained the concept of excess journey time to me, but then added that he learned from conversations with NYCT planners that this metric exists and is used in London and Singapore.
The bus redesign Eric and I have been working on has some of that, too. We have a lot of our own ideas, coming from independent research, but we’ve talked regularly to some of the mid-level planners for sanity checks. In particular, while we got the idea for a Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel bus route between Red Hook and Lower Manhattan from a railfan, I talked to one of the bus planners at NYCT about the idea and was told that the planners were already thinking in the same direction.
When consultant advice is not based on laundering internal ideas to avoid getting stuck in the tyranny of the org chart, it comes instead from best industry practices. What a consultant needs to know is how the successful players in the relevant industry work. This is more than a simple laundry list of practices: there is a range of different options that work (Swiss and Japanese rail practices are not the same), and a dazzling array of local circumstances that can make some options a better fit for a specific client than others.
As it happens, NYCT is led by someone who is familiar with some better practices: Andy Byford, who has experience working in London, Sydney, and Toronto. He can be assumed to be familiar with the best English-speaking practices; Transport for London would not be my first choice for best practices worldwide or even Europe-wide, but it’s better than anything else that speaks English and is far better than anything in the United States.
It’s worth noting that it’s important to understand not just the best practices themselves but how to implement them. I’ve noticed this with various reform ideas that rely on European rail successes: there’s a reasonably deep bench of Americans who understand how some features work in London, but practically none who understand how they work in Paris, Madrid, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, or Prague.
This is a clear-cut case of where outside advice would be valuable to American transit agencies. However, the snag is that there is no reason to expect the American private sector to be able to dispense any such advice. The bench of multilingual Americans is shallow, and a disproportionate share of those are second-generation immigrants who are heritage speakers of a language but often can’t read technical materials in it. What I know and what I’ve learned about best practices has involved talking to railfans from other countries who speak English who tell me about how Switzerland, Japan, Czechia, etc. work.
One of the themes I’ve been harping on since this blog’s early days is that public transit is 19th-century technology, and as such its corporate culture is one of incremental tweaks and not revolutionary changes. In this situation, it’s very difficult to come up with good ideas without very solid grounding in the domain. It’s nothing like tech, where people could invent their own platforms and succeed by first-mover advantage (did Amazon really need to know the bookselling business in the 1990s?).
This does not mean there is no room for new ideas. On the contrary. Old industries like public transit, cars, household appliances, and agriculture are full of innovation. But they are less likely to involve the personal brilliance of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos and more likely to involve copying something that works elsewhere, optimizing an existing platform, or tweaking something to be incrementally better.
In particular, the way Cuomo set up the genius challenge set it up for the failure that it turned out to be. The judges had no domain knowledge. They were mostly drawn from the tech world, and could not judge a proposal on its actual merits, only on its perceived merits. The winning ideas have the same relationship to innovation that truthiness has to truth.
How to get the outside advice the MTA needs
The MTA’s sclerosis is not universal within the agency. It most acutely afflicts the top brass, especially the political appointees, who are there to shield the governor from criticism rather than to run public transit properly. The lower-level planners are often much more up to the task. The remaining gaps in MTA effectiveness come from ignorance of best practices elsewhere, in particular in places that don’t speak English.
Were the MTA to ask me how it can adopt outside advice better, I would tell it to ignore gimmicks and definitely not try to look to American business-class saviors. Instead, I’d recommend the following action items:
- Invest in better HR infrastructure to hire better people faster (today the process takes months and discourages people who can obtain private-sector work), and make sure to regularly promote people who have good ideas rather than leaving them to stew in a middle position for 10 years. If it’s impossible to get senior management to listen to underlings better organically, then restore the employee suggestion box, which at least levels mid-level planners’ and line workers’ status.
- Hire a small team to investigate and implement best practices. The team should report to the head of NYCT directly and should preferentially comprise people with extensive rest-of-country and rest-of-world experience, with an aim for a broad coverage of languages spoken, ideally including Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Chinese, most of which are fortunately represented by substantial immigrant communities in the region. The people on this team should interface with transit planners around the world in order to develop new ideas.
- Interface regularly with academics and researchers, such as Bent Flyvbjerg and his work on cost overruns, Carlos Daganzo and his work on modeling optimal transit networks, and David Levinson and his work on travel behavior. Answers to empirical questions like “what is the transfer penalty?” may change over time, and it’s easy for an organization to unwittingly use data that’s a generation out of date.
- Take more planning in-house, in order to develop institutional knowledge. In effect, this would give the MTA an acute problem of having to assimilate a vast quantity of knowledge today, instead of a slightly less acute problem of assimilating knowledge every 10 or 20 years when it discovers it’s fallen another step behind.
Building the institutional infrastructure for good transit is not easy. It’s tempting for Americans to rely on the private sector, through design-build bids, outsourcing design to consultants, and flashy tech challenges, but for all its prowess, the American private sector cannot solve transportation challenges. Higher productivity in transportation can only come from a better public sector. Outside advice that helps the MTA be more efficient is useful insofar as it helps the agency assimilate best practices and generate new ideas, and implement them. But if it aims to supplant public planning, it’s unlikely to succeed; Cuomo’s genius challenge hasn’t.