Philosophy, grad school, and a challenge to ‘BRT’

December 20th, 2013

Apologies for the slow posting here lately…grad school has been swallowing an outrageous amount of my time the last couple of weeks. I do have some interesting things in the works though, so I’ll just whet your appetites until they’re ready to fruit before leaving you with some methodological musings.

But I may also blame the slow posting on a rapidly developing understanding of my approach to such problems as the ones I’m trying to address through this blog. My rational side says I need to be positive and empirical, adding nuance and evidence to the general discussion of transit in Cincinnati, but the less rational sides of me want prankishness and a negative reproach to the nonsense I see going on all around me, particularly about ‘the streetcar’. As much as I want to tear down the populist John Schneiders and John Cranleys I want to take the high road and pretend that I might thereby climb high enough to avoid them. But would I then still be able to see the ground to which I must ultimately return for food and shelter? I’m torn. I wonder if a positive approach which strives for intellectual rigor first is more than an acknowledgement that practical political change in Cincinnati is hopeless (in the short term at least) and that my personal prospects lie in a different context with different values. Am I seeking validation from a group of elite critics and experts, popularly ignored, or actually trying to change a system largely run by demagogues and their uninterested employees? Is a synthesis possible?

4 responses to “Philosophy, grad school, and a challenge to ‘BRT’”

  1. Neil says:

    From my experience, remain positive. Cincinnati is one of the most bitter and jaded cities I’ve ever experienced in my life, its one of the reason why so much vitrol is going around. Staying positive and being consistent with that which is extremely tough to do down there sometimes is the best medicine for that place. Good luck.

  2. Tim Bender says:

    Transit, as it turns out, is an incredibly complicated public service to develop and administer. Think about all the places that are doing transit well. You’re probably thinking about the same 5 places I am, and there are sill a lot of things they can do better.

    Nobody likes hearing that they are sh!t at their job. Organizations I’ve worked for employ a small share of people who work because they need money and healthcare coverage, and usually a much larger share of people who are passionate about the service and their community. The latter carry the burden of success, and most places don’t have capacity to get everything done even if everyone showed up on Monday morning ready to give 100%.

    You are right to be frustrated by what you see around you. It’s my honest opinion however that every stupid thing you see is the genesis of a group of very smart and passionate people coming together to solve a problem while balancing the many competing values of the community. knowing and respecting you as an advocate and a professional, I think you might have a different attitude if you were party to some of the decision making processes that create the stupidity you see.

    Think about the Southbank Shuttle. Do you know how many iterations of routing and branding TANK went through before finally landing on the current (and no joking – wildly successful) product? maybe 1 major change each year between 2007 and 2012. Each year the conversation was the same: the fare, the routing and the branding are holding the route back. Only when the service was about to be eliminated because it was pitiful did they decided to make a “risky” move and lower fares to $1.00 and get a lighter vehicle to solve the routing / RSB bridge issue, and brand the service so that it didn’t look like a regular bus. They knew these were options years ago, but at least it’s done now.

    I get so much energy in my job from pointing out the absurd, but to play the long game I have found success in choosing my battles. Remember when you came to me a few years ago asking for the API for TANK’s CAD/AVL data b/c you wanted to create a killer app (which I’m sure you would’ve) and I basically said ‘no’? I hated doing that, but the reality is that there is just one guy there who does IT, and he’s swamped making sure every single piece of electronic equipment at TANK works. I’d pushed him on that same topic years before you came to me and it was pointless. At the same time I was on the phone with the state of KY 8 hours a day for weeks because they were holding up one of my projects because of the possible presence of an endangered clover. As a transit professional you’re never going to solve every issue so you have to prioritize.

    In transit change takes forever to happen and it’s usually by an overly complicated process involving too many people. I’m no longer with TANK, but I have to say that they are about as lean and direct as you could hope for a public agency. 5-6 people make 90% of the decisions for development. Those 5-6 people are some of the brightest in the industry. We made (positive) changes rapidly, and those things that went out on the street that weren’t amazing – we knew it going in, but it was a compromise that we found offered the best outcome for everyone.

    If you life journey leads you to a career in transit you will be off-the-chart successful. You just have to take a different approach in pointing out the failures. It’s ok to call a turd a turd, but you have to remember someone is responsible for that turd, and that person probably has feelings and almost definitely takes his/her job seriously. And people who point out too many turds start losing the respect of their coworkers, and thus their effectiveness in the workplace. It’s a thin line that we walk.

    PS I’ve never ever created a turd before :-)

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Tim, Your comment gives me hope.

      I’ve worked with barely enough organizations to imagine well how a lot of things that I criticize came about. I’m on the cusp of seeing them, the administrative decisions at least if not the plainly political ones: the little metro plush buses and the huge delay on everything remotely IT related. I can even respect that and appreciate how those plushes for example could be money well spent if it gives some people a laugh and makes them work just a little bit harder because it lets them see that their boss has a sense of humour or something.

      But that is the inside perspective. It’s the small part of my imagination that spends time on the inside of an agency that can see that. The outside part of me, or lets just call it me-as-actually-lived sees a little plush bus and thinks about how much it cost to make(at least $1,000, I’d think, including design time). Did it cost more than a decent transit map might have? No. But that combined with the sparsely attended press event with 10+ staff members on hand and the little custom tote bags? That surely cost at least as much as I would have quoted for months of work on something that I would pour my heart into, and that I’m absolutely positive would have a bigger, much bigger positive impact on the way people see and use transit. Seriously, they did this event and they still don’t even have an up to date system map almost half a year after major changes, even for that very same route that they’re advertising(expensively) halfway to the moon! And can I get any information on when this new system map is coming out? Of course not, because everyone is actually properly busy. Can I get information on how well things are going generally? Not really. Partly of course because I don’t know who to ask, partly because they wouldn’t tell me anyway, and mostly because I feel like a huge bother when I ask the same people over and over again. (I realize I’m surely holding myself back here, but that is the restraint you’re talking about, no? Does a public records request not waste time and make me seem like an unhelpful ass?)

      So what am I to do? I feel like I’m trying to help an agency that already has “enough on it’s plate, thank you very much”. There really is a huge wall up around the whole thing, both of them. And the worst part is that I understand this from their perspective too! They properly should have reasonable walls to keep the average meddlers/citizens out…but then they’re not really hiring anyone either so there’s just no way to get involved beyond engaging in slightly hyperbolic shenanigans and trying to be heard through their defenses. The hard part here of course is that I don’t even know who if anyone is listening and what if anything they’re getting from things. I see these actual transit people at best once a year and only in passing. I’m an outsider.

      Gina asked me, when I was interviewing to fill your old position(the only one I’ve seen properly open in years by the way, and I’m totally paraphrasing): “What about the blog? What about when you’re privy to something sensitive? And of course we wouldn’t want you using it to undermine decisions we’ve made as a group.” I think I answered something like: “Of course I’d never do something like that. It wouldn’t be appropriate or professional.” But I’ve actually thought a lot about that question and I realize that I wish I’d answered it differently. If I actually had a job in transit and I thought people might be even half hearing me, there’d be no need for this blog; it would be perfectly superfluous. I’d have no need to shout any more because I could do so much better just by speaking softly.

      All I really want is to talk about these issues with people who understand them deeply, understand them myself, and move forward with what we discover together in the best way possible. I truly want to be a part of that mad process of making real transit! If I can find out how to get a seat at the table I’ll take it without hesitation; I may never be heard from again. Only perhaps noticed indirectly ;-)

      …But then isn’t that how all the people I’m trying to talk with are acting? How does one stay open to new ideas and people while protecting an organization (reasonably) from public eyes? Perhaps this is more of a management question than I’m qualified to muse on for now.

      But again, and seriously, thanks for your comments. The thought that smart, thoughtful people like you actually care about the same things
      I do really keeps me going.