The Solution to Failed Process isn’t More Process

The US Department of Transportation has an equity action plan, and it’s not good. It suffers from the same fundamental problem of American governance, especially at the federal level: everything is about process, nothing is about visible outcomes for the people who use public services. If anything, visible change is constantly deprecated, and direct interference in that direction is Not What We Do. Everything is a nudge, everything has to be invisible. When the state does act, it must do so in the direction of ever more layers of red tape, which at this point are for their own sake.

Case in point: a 12-page PDF with many graphics and charts manages to fit in two giant red flags, both with serious implications for how USDOT views its mission. They showcase a state that exists to obstruct and delay and shrugs off social and developmental goals alike. The action plan should be dismissed and replaced with an approach that aims to dissolve anti-developmental institutions and favor action over talk.

Contractors, or users?

Most of the document does not concern itself with how to be more equitable for the users of public transportation in the United States. It doesn’t talk about racial differences in commuting patterns – it says poor people spend more of their income on transportation (as is the case for other basic staples) but ignores the issue where 61% of American public transport commuters are racial or ethnic minorities in a country that’s 62% white.

What it does talk about is the needs of contractors. The US has special programs for disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs). In contracting, this is called MWBE in New York – minority- and women-owned business enterprise. New York requires 20% of contract value to go to MWBE, and since construction is an oligopoly owned entirely by white men and there is no interest in breaking said oligopoly, everything goes through a web of subcontractors to satisfice the law while driving up costs for the end users; one source at the MTA quotes a 20% premium to me just from the subcontracting web caused by this and other special restrictions.

In anti-left American media, the black slumlord who complaints that it is racist to levy fines on him for violating building codes is somehow a sympathetic figure, in preference to the people with the misfortune of living in one of his 100 apartments. Similarly, when Americans speak about income mobility in their country, they center the origin stories of billionaires, most of whom grew up comfortably upper middle-class, rather than whether a working poor person has much hope to ascend to the middle class.

It’s the same with the focus on MWBE. MWBE are not socially relevant. There is no social or developmental purpose in creating a class of business owners shielded from competition – in this case, federal contractors – and then trying to diversify it. Most people are not business owners; most people work for someone else and to get to work they need to commute, and for women and minorities, this is disproportionately likely to be public transport. The path forward is a federal repeal of all MWBE laws and their replacement with preemption forbidding states to enact similar laws. Federal power should dissolve failed local arrangements, free from the need to kowtow to local power brokers who have limited power beyond the local level and none at the federal level.

Process for the sake of process

Community meetings in the United States are a failure. The action plan recognizes this problem, and even begins to understand why:

* Public meetings are a common public involvement strategy, but can be inconvenient or impossible to attend for some. Physical meeting locations may be inaccessible for some, including those with disabilities. Virtual public meetings are inaccessible for people without internet access or computer literacy.

* Various methods may be needed to allow people with diverse circumstances to have a voice in decisions that affect their community. Adaptive engagement strategies can be a resource-intensive but valuable endeavor that is responsive to specific community needs, including different language and cultural backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the solution wants to accrete more process for its own sake. There is no positive use for a community meeting; the defenders of the process in multiple American cities, when I challenged them on this point, could not name to me a single useful thing that came out of them. But the negatives are numerous, and not fixable through multilingual meetings:

  • The times at which meetings are held tend to privilege people who can take time off during work hours – the same class of already overprivileged business owners, comfortable housewives, and retirees, to the exclusion of people who work for someone else.
  • Community as a concept is exclusive; in Cultural Theory terms, egalitarian systems tend toward strong boundedness and this is inherently exclusive in ways that market- and state-based systems lack. Outsiders who attempt to attend community meetings report being verbally harassed for not looking like the typical attendee, for example if they are much younger.
  • Community meeting dynamics favor loudness and adversarial agitation. Social media has the same problem, with a growing body of published work about the effect of online harassment on people, disproportionately people from disadvantaged background. Yelling is believed to get results, and the idea that the state should punish it to let other voices than that of the biggest blowhard be heard is treated as so ridiculous that in popular culture it’s put in the mouth of a junta member.
  • Local community is not relevant to how most people live in metropolitan areas. In New York, only 8% of workers work in the same community board that they live in (and even same-borough commutes are only 39%); the other 92% and their dependents socialize in citywide networks rather than locally. And yet, community boards, representing those 8% with local ties, are taken as closest to the people.
  • People with limited English proficiency need not just government services in the relevant language but also relevant information. For example, Chinese immigrants receive information out of Chinese networks, which are not especially local to one specific Chinatown, but are often pan-Chinese or pan-Chinese-American. With much thinner sourcing than is available in English, they can form opinions about the issues most in the news, which tend to be national, but not about local issues. This is something every intra-European immigrant gets very quickly – it’s easier to find someone who speaks the same language with opinions about Annalena Baerbock than someone who speaks the same language with opinions about Bettina Jarasch, let alone any borough-scale politician (I do not remember a single conversation within queer Berlin spaces about borough-scale politicians).
  • Local knowledge, to the extent it even exists, is not important, but the community meeting foregrounds it. Long-timers insist on talking about the history of every parklet and mural and shop and not about jobs or rents or public services; the community meetings elevates their concerns above memorizing sports statistics or similar trivialities.

The community meeting as a source of knowledge for the state to use or as a source of informal or formal power is a social stain wherever it is tried, and the impacts disproportionately fall on women, the young, minorities, queers, and immigrants. And yet an equity action plan that understands at least some of the problems created by the process cannot bring itself to recommend its abolition in favor of top-down state action, informed by the academic research of ethnographers to create universal design standards. No: it is recommending even more process. Process cannot fail; it can only be failed. Fair outcomes are out; endless red tape with all talk and no action is in.


  1. Matthew Hutton

    So basically you’re saying that community meetings are dysfunctional and people should use stuff like to make them less dysfunctional?

    I also think a lot of the stuff people bring up on the doorstep such as traffic, potholes and anti social behaviour are local issues.

    • Alon Levy

      Maybe? What I see works is a process in which when a marginalized group makes a claim, it is treated as a universal claim and studied as such. So inclusion for people with disabilities should not be done through holding local meetings every time but through doing academic research on their needs, using ethnographic techniques (which are sadly too low-prestige outside radical spaces) alongside quantitative ones, and using it to develop standards. This is thankfully how things are largely already done, but only for people with visible physical disabilities, hence uniform standards for ramps, elevators, etc. This should be the template for inclusion for people who don’t speak the language, queers, underbanked riders, racial minorities, women, and so on.

      Local knowledge doesn’t really help here. Take, for example, the issue of traffic. “This intersection has traffic” is not important knowledge; traffic is a systemwide problem with cars, and junction-by-junction interventions tend to just move slowdowns down the line but not remove them. So even for something very local like traffic, there’s no local knowledge, only local ignorance.

      • Matthew Hutton

        My personal experience with meetings is that if they have up to about a dozen people that the traditional techniques work well, however with more people than that then these sorts of advanced techniques allow you to get much greater value out of larger groups.

        With regards to a transit project I’d expect the community engagement to be about countering the negative externalities of the construction and working out the best location within the community for the stops and/or exits etc.

  2. fjod

    What’s your alternative for engaging with people who live near, or may use, infrastructure? I also don’t think community meetings are particularly useful in eliciting feedback (as far as I’m aware, they aren’t really used where I am) but wondering which other option works best in your view.

    • Alon Levy

      Depends on what for? If it’s about users, then user surveys and paid focus groups are good; San Francisco did it once for a neighborhood plan, randomly selecting residents and then paying them to participate for a day. At the scale of the New York City Subway, it’s not expensive to run focus groups, and even make sure to run some special focus groups for various disadvantaged groups, and use them in conjunction with ethnographies, larger surveys, census data, etc.

      The difference between this and what USDOT is proposing is scale. So for me, if I want to know how queer New Yorkers use the subway, and the MTA is willing to listen to my advice, I will prescribe hiring 2-3 professors of gender or queer studies to advise and also do a few citywide participation surveys, and then publishing the results in TRB or another appropriate journal for everyone else to peruse. And then maybe Chicago can do the same, informed by the results from New York to tweak. Queer ID is pretty global so there should also be some critical work from abroad for sanity checks. It shouldn’t take more than five cities to produce enough literature that there is no longer a need to do further outreach for a while. It’s fine to come up with standards, reference the work that led to them, and move on to other things. Subsequent work can be valuable for tweaks and for seeing whether it’s still valid as the world changes over time. But there’s no need to redo the work for every project.

      • Matthew Hutton

        I’m not sure surveys gain much more diversity than having a meeting on a weekday evening – especially if the meeting is a hybrid meeting so you can attend online and perhaps to watch a recording afterwards and send in feedback with a survey.

        Minorities are always going to be less likely to fill in a survey than the communities establishment figures.

        • Henry Miller

          Surveys get a very different group of people: those who fill out surveys. They may or may not overlap with those who attend meetings.

          Surveys can be targeted and return rates analyzed so we know who fills them out. We can give more weighting to the few surveys from a group that normally doesn’t fill them out. We can give people incentive to fill them out who normally wouldn’t. We can send people to your door if not enough people fill them out.

          There are other ways to do a study as well. Self selected people who attend a public meeting are generally bad, unless you are trying to get the group of people who will vote and tell others how to vote (people who attend meetings are somewhat more likely to be involved in politics).

    • Nathanael

      I’m all for the “publish the draft and ask for comments” process; I think, for all its flaws, that this aspect of the EIS process actually works well. Good comments come in along with the bad. Responsible planners listen to those comments.

      The *meetings*, by contrast, are terrible. Meetings are exclusionary, specifically filtering for people who can show up at a particular time and waste a whole lot of time.

      “We’re publishing our draft and requesting comments” works just fine for public engagement.

  3. Jonathan Monroe

    I think the value of local knowledge also depends on whether the decision makers can all be assumed to know the basic stuff that is true everywhere. Even if local consultation is done right, any local knowledge an American transit planner acquires is more likely to hurt (by being an excuse not to acquire the global knowledge they don’t have) rather than help (by supplementing global knowledge they do have).

  4. Matthew Hutton

    It’s also worth noting that quite often in my experience challenging customers merely give you lots of useful feedback. So you ignore that at your peril 😃. Of course the village crank still probably needs to be ignored at least sometimes!

  5. Tiercelet

    I’d like to add an additional angle–community meetings are inherently reactionary, not just because in practice they privilege the well-off and retired, but because by their very nature they privilege people who are already allowed to live in the community. Most development is aimed at expanding the number of people in a community–either directly (through housing construction) or indirectly (by fixing its problems, thus making it more desirable), so a big part of its benefits are going to accrue to people who don’t currently live there. But those people have no voice at all in a community meeting structure. In fact they’re exactly the people that the community is currently organized to exclude.

    And obviously very few communities rush to sign up for a deal that says “benefits accrue to outsiders, costs accrue locally.” Hence every community meeting is necessarily just an occasion for local NIMBYs to pull up the ladder after themselves and/or stand astride history yelling stop.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, and this is especially bad for housing. For transport it’s supposed to be less relevant, because newcomers have similar transport needs to existing residents for the most part. However, you’re touching upon something even in transport – newcomers tend to move to the neighborhood qua a place in the city, so our transport needs are for citywide access; for the most part this is also the case for existing residents, but those 8% who work in the same community board that they live in have different needs and are severely overrepresented in the current process.

      • Matthew Hutton

        I disagree. It is possible to allow local communities to discuss housing as long as they are forced to accept additional housing as a premise and that they can merely choose where it goes.

        The most powerful region of the UK is the south east of England. And in the planned election redistricting the south east will gain 7 seats due to the new house building and the resultant population increase across the region –

        I suspect this is due to the neighbourhood plan – a conservative policy. This policy insists local communities allow new housing but gives them freedom to decide where it goes – it also means local communities get (slightly) more money from new housing developments and also adds a lot of bureaucracy.

        Semi anecdotally when canvassing in this region I have heard almost no complaints about housing.

        • Alon Levy

          It is possible to allow local communities to discuss housing as long as they are forced to accept additional housing as a premise and that they can merely choose where it goes.

          This is the situation in New Jersey. The result: suburbs only permit apartments in the most peripheral parts of town, inverting the usual structure of density, and ensuring that affordable housing is not paired with affordable transport.

          • Matthew Hutton

            In the UK it’s done at a parish/town council level which typically have about 5000 homes or fewer – and I’m not aware of much gaming of the system like that.

            Difficult to go into more detail publicly.

          • Matthew Hutton

            If you mean that existing single family housing close to train stations should be demolished and replaced with apartments.

            Well that’s going to be hard in a democracy unless you are prepared to pay a significant price premium (maybe 50-100%) to buy people out.

          • Alon Levy

            Upzoning means developers have the right to do so if the owner agrees. It’s not a compulsory purchase. (But also, French landowners sell for a 30% premium.)

          • Eric2

            You don’t have to forcibly demolish anything. Just make it legal to build up and a significant percentage of landowners will choose that option. That’s good enough.

          • adirondacker12800

            It depends on which way the winds are blowing in the New Jersey Legislature and State Supreme Court. They’ve only been wrestling with it since 1975. Depends on the town too. Also depends on your definition of suburban.

      • Tiercelet

        Agreed that it *ought* to be less relevant for transportation, but you’ve documented the exact same mind-set there in e.g. Rep. Pressley’s response to the Green Line extension; the “change nothing” attitude shows up even among the 92% of existing residents who do work outside their community board.

        I think the ongoing grind of our housing shortage has provided very fertile ground for what you described in your Cultural Theory article as the fatalistic tendency. Given the way American cities at this point have no real mechanism to ensure that existing residents get to stay in any area that sees desirability improvements, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that even change for the better winds up making things worse.

        • Matthew Hutton

          I think the question is why can’t transportation improvements be sold to existing residents? And is this an america only problem where car culture is even stronger than Europe.

          • Luke

            I think because there are no positive examples of transit working on a large scale in the U.S. outside of New York, and “New York” has all sorts of connotations for most people in the U.S. Americans don’t consider themselves “city people” even if the suburbs they live in depend on cities for their economic livelihood. So, “transportation improvement” is not a believed-in thing; the assumption is that more people will only mean more traffic. I don’t know if that’s an America-only error, but I’d believe it’s worse here.

      • Henry Miller

        > because newcomers have similar transport needs to existing residents for the most part

        This is false. Existing residents already have habits in place that work for them. It will take a lot to get them to change. New comers don’t have habits in place. They need to find the best route to work. when you leave your house do you go left or right? Long term residents know the local traffic and so know new residents will need to try both way because often the correct answer is the opposite of the direction their destination is.

        If you have good transit in place the new comers will try it as part of learning how to get around, and set habits around transit. It is much harder to change those habits around people who have lived there for years. Thus even transit needs to ask what do the people who might move here want. While it is similar to the old residents differences are important. Sometimes you can even encourage people to move to a neighborhood for their transit.

        • Matthew Hutton

          Ok so the existing residents benefit from their house prices going up if you improve the transport. But you have to sell that to them.

          • Tiercelet

            The existing *homeowners* benefit from their house prices going up (while simultaneously complaining about “changing character” and trying to lock in single-family zoning, if they’re in a single-family area). Anybody who’s a renter–or even homeowners’ children in many cases–is hosed.

            And US coastal cities rarely have home ownership rates above 50%; it’s usually more in the 30s.

            So it’s not surprising that many people see improved desirability as just building nice things for the people who’ll displace them.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The difficultly is even if home ownership is 35% that’s probably 60% of the voters.

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