Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Transport in Cities: Plan A is Not Working (1)

The goal of today's column is provide an opening statement and then to invite short contributions (200 words or less) from our international colleagues around the world as to why "Plan A" is not working in the transport sector of our cities.

Why is this? The response almost always given is that there is not enough money for doing it right. For my part I have serious doubts about this.

We would like to see if by putting our heads together on this here in this forum we can together usefully pinpoint and question some of the broadly shared preconditions of policy and practice in the sector, not in order to criticize or cast blame but rather to see if through our collective efforts we can help come up with some positive ideas for near-term improvement.

A bit of first background to get us started:

Any fair-minded person who looks around the streets of our cities as things stand here halfway through 2009 has to be struck by the fact that our transportation arrangements are in very rough shape in almost all cities worldwide .

This is not to say that there are not many people, programs, groups and institutions out there trying very hard to do better. It is just that the bottom line, whether functional, economic, environmental, or social, is highly problematic and actually crumbling in almost all cases. This is highly troubling, especially because there are in fact many things that we can do in order to improve performance in many places and at many levels.

What can we do to work our way out of this situation? Well what about starting by taking a few steps back (yes, that is right, back!) in order to see if we can spot some basic patterns here, the idea being that once we have this in view we may be able to put our fingers on a couple of key pressure points that may permit us to reverse some of these downward trends.

Primary building blocks of Plan A dysfunctionality: The first is surely the fact that we are so busy trying to put details after detail right that we do not recognize that there is de facto something like "Plan A" going on at all -- which, if we did get this message, would almost automatically lead us to start to think about something else . . . Call it "Plan B".

Plan A is in almost all cases a pure example of "in the box" "problem-solving". To the innocent-eyed outsider it appears to be a clear case of surrender to the trends and the conditions which create them. Here are couple things which strike this observer about Plan A:

* It is overwhelmingly inertial, i.e. in most areas it accepts trends and constraints rather than challenging them directly.
* Focuses largely on infrastructure.
* Treats supply as if that were the main key.
* Broadly accepts existing institutional arrangements.
* Consistently ignorant of, or alternatively fails to give full scope to, the critical externalities.
* More concerned with products than services.
* Weak on people in all their varieties of conditions and needs.
* Offers abundant excellent explanations as to why anything more far-reaching, radical, and eventually powerful is not possible.

In a next article in this series I propose to get these issues in more detail. But for now let me be leave the word to you and invite your comments and suggestions.

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