I know I’ve been on hiatus in the last few weeks; here is the continuation of my series on institutional factors in public transportation. I have harped for more than 10 years about the need to learn best practices from abroad, and today I’d like to discuss the issue of who gets to learn. Normally it should be a best practices office or various planners who are seconded to peer agencies or participate in exchange programs, but the United States does things differently, leading to inferior outcomes.
The American pattern is that senior officials revel in junket trips while ordinary civil servants are never sent abroad. Any connections they make are sporadic: if they go to Europe on vacation at their own expense then they are allowed to attend professional conferences. This is the exact opposite of how good learning happens. A few days of a junket trip teach nothing, while long-lasting connections at the junior and middle levels of the bureaucracy facilitate learning.
This is connected with the issue of downward trust. When I confront Americans with the above pattern and explain why it is problematic, the response I get is always the same: senior officials do not trust junior ones. This is often further elaborated in terms of low- versus high-trust societies, but it is not quite that. It’s not about whether people trust their leaders, but whether the leaders, that is the layer of political appointees and senior managers, trust the people who they have parachuted to oversee. If they see themselves as mentors and guides and their charges as competent people to be coordinated, the institutional results will be superior to if they see themselves as guards and scourges and their charges as competitors.
New York City Mayor-Elect Eric Adams, for example, spent much of the second half of this year flying over to Europe to experience urbanism outside the United States. He is not the only elected official to have done so. Mike Bloomberg reveled in his personal connections with Ken Livingstone in the 2000s, leading to his attempt to import London’s congestion pricing system into New York.
Below the mayoral level, senior officials engage in the same behavior. They fly to the Netherlands, France, Denmark, or any other country they seek to learn from for a few days, experience the system as a tourist, and come back with little more knowledge than when they left but a lot more self-assurance in their knowledge.
This is called the junket trip, because to the general public, it’s viewed as just a taxpayer-funded vacation. It isn’t quite that, because at least the ones who I’ve spoken to who engage in such behavior genuinely believe that they learn good practices out of it. But realistically, it has the same effects as a vacation. Spending a week in a city where you are an important person meeting with other important people who are trying to impress you will not teach you much.
My pedestrian observations
I would travel regularly before corona. Some of my early blog posts are literally called Pedestrian Observations from [City], describing my first impressions of a place; the name of this blog comes from a photo album I took in 2011 a few months before I started blogging, called Pedestrian Observations from Worcester.
Those observations were always a mixed bag, which I was always aware of. Overall, I think they’ve held up reasonably well – my pedestrian observations from Providence were mostly in accordance with how I would experience the city later after I moved there. But there were always big gaps; in my Providence post, note that in my first visit to the East Side I named Wickenden and South Main as the major commercial streets, missing the actual main drag, Thayer, which I only discovered during my next visit.
The same is true of transit observations. Shortly before corona, I spent a week in Taipei. I took the MRT everywhere, and was impressed with its cleanliness and frequency, but there isn’t too much more I could say about the system from personal experience. I could only tell you how it deep-cleaned the system in early 2020, when people thought corona was spread by fomites rather than aerosols, from a report sent to me by long-term resident Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism. I knew construction costs were high because I looked them up, but that’s not the same as personal experience, and I only have a vague understanding of why, coming from both Alex and papers I would later read on the subject.
In Berlin, at a queer meetup in 2019 on a Friday night, months into living here, I was expressing worry around midnight that I might miss the last train. One of the people there chided me. I was working in the transit industry, broadly speaking – how could I not know that trains here run overnight on weekends? I knew, but had forgotten, and I needed that person to remind me.
Secondment and exchange
The short junket trip reveals nothing. But this does not mean learning from abroad is impossible – quite to the contrary. The path forward is to take these trips but go for months rather than days. There are journalists who do this: Alec MacGillis, a Baltimore-based journalist, spent months in Germany to study how the country is dealing with economic and environmental issues, and when I met him toward the end of his stay, he could tell me things I did not know about the coal industry in Germany.
Within Europe and East Asia, there are exchange programs. DB sends its planners abroad on exchange missions for a few weeks to a few months at a time, not just within Western Europe but also to Japan and Russia – even in those countries enough people speak English that it’s possible to do this. The people who take these trips are ordinary middle-class civil servants and not a class of overlords; the locals who they interact with are their peers and will correct them on errors, just as my queer meetup friend corrected me when I forgot that Berlin trains run overnight on weekends.
This program must also include routine connections at conferences. These are short trips, but a planner who goes on one makes connections with planners abroad and hears about advances in the field, from a peer who will have a discussion as an equal about their own experience and expertise. Over many trips the attendees can then figure out patterns to travel, notice changes, and come up with their own suggestions. This is no different from the academic process, in which research groups across multiple continents would regularly meet to discuss their work, and form connections to produce joint papers.
This way, it’s possible to learn details. This includes consumer-level details, similar to how I learn a city by taking public transit there many times and finding out hidden gems like Berlin’s timed transfer stations at Mehringdamm and Wuhletal. But this also includes the back end of how planning is done, what assumptions everyone makes that may differ from one’s home country’s, and so on.
The United States has done this before, by accident. Veteran and planner R. W. Rynerson has long pointed out that first-generation light rail in North America, covering such systems as Edmonton, Calgary, San Diego, and Portland, was planned by veterans who’d served in Germany during the Cold War and were familiar with ongoing trends here. Army tours of duty abroad last years, and soldiers are often happy to extend them to offer their families stability.
This way, American light rail bears striking similarities to the German Stadtbahn concept. It exhibits convergent evolution with tram-trains, modified to avoid track-sharing with mainline rail. The vehicles used were developed for German Stadtbahn systems, and the concept of having a streetcar system that runs faster than a traditional streetcar came out of this history as well. However, the generation of vets has retired, and today American planners no longer keep up with European advances in the field. Civilian connections through conferences, secondments, and exchange programs do not really exist, and the militarization levels of the 1960s and 70s are a thing of the past.
When I confront Americans with the distinction between valuable but uncommon long-term, routine international links for ordinary engineers and planners and worthless but all too common executive junket trips, the excuses for the pattern all fall into the same family: executives just do not trust their workers. Senior management in this industry in the United States views the people they oversee as little devils to be constantly disciplined, and never supported.
Based on this pattern, the peons do not get professional development – only the executives do. If tabloid media criticizes European conferences as vacation trips then it is used as an excuse to prohibit civil servants from going, but somehow the executives still go on junket trips, figuring that someone at Eric Adams’ level can just ride out the media criticism.
Likewise, the civil servants do not get to develop any knowledge that the executives don’t have. If they come with prior knowledge – say, Hispanic immigrants who work in New York and keep abreast of developments in their country of origin – then they must be broken down. They are peons, not advisors, and the layer of political appointees parachuting to oversee them are scourges and not mentors.
I focus on mentorship because good advisors understand that their advisees’ success reflects positively on them. In academia, professors who successfully place their students at tenure-track research positions are recognized as such behind the scenes and the rumor mill will inform new students that they should seek them out as advisors; there is a separate whisper network for women to discuss which advisors are abusive to them.
And this mentorship requires a minimum level of downward trust. Academia, for all of its toxicity and drama, has it, but somehow the American public-sector planning field does not. This is especially bad considering that the American public sector has set up its benefits system to ensure that people stay at the same workplace for life, which environment is perfect for investing in the junior employees. And yet, senior management does not deem $60,000/year planners with lush pensions important enough to pay $1,500 to send them to a conference abroad.
A high-trust environment is not one where the broad public trusts the elite. Germany has a culture of incessant complaints about everything; every middle-class German is certain they can do better than the state in many fields, and regrettably, many are correct. No: a high-trust environment is one where the elite trusts both the broad public and its own subordinates. This is what European public transit agencies have to varying extents, the ones that are more trusting of the riders generally having better outcomes than the ones that are less trusting, and what American ones lack.