Reflections on Foshay

Framing Regional Development

I was asked to talk to the Metropolitan Council on April 4 about their “Regional Development Framework“. This is what I plan to say.

The goal of the region’s planners, and of the city itself, is to Maximize Accessibility. Cities (metros) have one purpose: To reach more things in less time. These things include jobs, friends, mates, security, supplies, and so on. If you do not wish to reach these things, you should not live in a city.

This has two aspects:

Where can we put More things (land use) and

How do we ensure we spend Less time (transportation).

Transportation and land use cannot be treated in isolation, the need to be arranged relative to each other.

There are a variety of strategies to try to achieve this goal.

  1. Adaptability.

(Un?)fortunately the future is uncertain. When the street grid was laid out in the 1800s, no one seriously planned for the automobile. It was nevertheless adaptable. In contrast, when the Metrodome went up in the 1980s, it was intended to be flexible (to support multiple sports in one facility) yet it will barely last 30 years in useful service, it has not adapted to changing circumstances.

The flip-side of flexible is design to fit and customization. The Metrodome was not custom, and hence could not out-compete potential custom-designed stadiums.

Identifying what technologies are adaptable (can be modified to be used for things that were not intended or at least not the first intended use) and what are flexible (can be used as intended for multiple things), is a challenge, but not impossible. This is an exercise seldom undertaken. Similarly deciding where to be standard, and where to be custom and fit-to-suit in advance is hard, but necessary. Bespoke designs generally require much greater benefits than flexible designs, as they have no other use.

  1. Resilience, Reliability & Robustness

As we learned in 2007, the I-35W bridge was structurally deficient and fracture critical, and so once one element failed, the whole bridge did as well. Fortunately, the street network is not critical in the same way. When one link failed, people adapted well, finding alternative routes or destinations.

Networks do have vulnerabilities (selected choke points) which both need to be made more resilient and less likely to fail, and need redundancy in case they do fail.

Transit services are also vulnerable to strikes (e.g. 2004). We have basically one provider (and its unions). There are more reliable ways to organize. Multiple providers, contracting, franchises, etc. are strategies that the Metropolitan Council should seriously consider. It is unusual in the US, but typical elsewhere in the world where transit actually works.

  1. Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is.

We know some things about changing technologies. While we cannot fully anticipate what those changes will be, we expect the future is not like today. Yet essentially none are acknowledged in planning and forecasts, which assume technology and behavior are quite fixed. This leads to next strategy:

  1. Scenarios not Forecasts

The future is uncertain. Despite best efforts, forecasts have been terribly inaccurate. There are “black swans” everywhere. We need to consider a large set of possible outcomes and plan for those rather than one “expected value”. This reduces risk, enhances reliability, robustness, and resilience.

  1. Reinforce Success, Cull Failure.

We need to be active Darwinists. If a strategy is successful, do more of it. If it is unsuccessful, stop throwing money at it.

Resources are scarce. Money, time, energy, effort spent on losing strategies cannot be spent on better ones.

Admit failure (at least of your predecessors). Not everything the Metropolitan Council has ever done is a success. You are not the Pope.

  1. Recognize Lifecycle

All technologies go through birth, growth, maturity, and decline stages. Plan accordingly. Do not invest in expensive capital projects for mature technologies. Learn to manage instead. For decades we have climbed down Mt Transit and up Mt Auto. This means we have changed our urban form to one centered on people relying on transit to one relying on the auto. The more we climb up Mt Auto, the farther we are from the peak of Mt Transit. We cannot easily go back (nor should we necessarily do so). What is our next technology, what has peaked, what is truly growing?

  1. Flatten Hierarchies (“The City is not a Tree”)

Connections allow multiple paths, reduce vulnerability, and increase interactions. At a spatial level we see this with Cul-de-sacs, which put all their eggs in one basket. If the entrance to a cul-de-sac is blocked, the residents are cut-off. In contrast a more robust network has multiple pathways, no one can be cut-off with a single disruption. This is not just a prescription for transportation networks, but for a whole range of policies. This reduces risk, enhances reliability, robustness, and resilience.

  1. Information everywhere

Information wants to be free. Stop making it expensive. Parking regulation signs have more information density than the typical Bus Stop sign. In order to feel comfortable traveling everywhere, I need to have ready information at my fingertips or eyeballs about where and how I go next. I have to have confidence this information will also be available at my destination. Information increases usage. Providing a service that no one knows about as useful as not providing the service at all. About 1 percent of Twin Cities trips are by transit. There are many reasons for this. One of them is information.

  1. Incentives Matter

People, firms, governments, respond to incentives. Structure the game so the incentives align with ends. Examples follow:

A. Loans not Grants
What about a Metropolitan Investment Bank rather than Grant programs? Lend money to communities who want to do things (infrastructure, buildings), on the condition they pay it back over time (from user fees, value capture, etc.).
Local governments will only do things that are worthwhile. Chicago is doing something like this.

B. Full Cost Pricing on Development
Suppose new development had to pay their share of the full capital costs of public facilities required to serve it?
This is equitable and efficient.

C. Full Cost Pricing for Travelers
Suppose travelers had to pay for the pollution they produce and the congestion they impose on others?
They would travel more efficiently, better use infrastructure, be less peaked.

D. Capturing the Benefits
Suppose infrastructure providers could capture the land appreciation that results from their investments.
There would be more investment.

Are these things difficult?

Yes, and that is why you are paid the big money, to make difficult decisions. These are worthwhile things, that will improve the efficiency of the region, lower costs, enhance services, upgrade the experience of users, and reduce both failures and the consequences of failures.

9 thoughts on “Framing Regional Development

  1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    I'm curious – when you see reports that seem to suggest walking or biking is increasing, or that Hiawatha ridership is up, does this suggest that these modes have started a completely new life cycle, or have these modes already peaked and any increases we're seeing now are just noise, or people responding to subsidies in reasonable but unsustainable ways?

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      @Reuben. It is hard to say in advance whether it is a new lifecycle or just noise. The last 3 or 4 decades of transit use indicate that is mainly noise. Overall, transit share is not really (or substantially) increasing in most of the US.

      On bikes, see… which indicates not much increase nationally (a large increase relative to the base, but not relative to competing modes). Selected cities see much larger share increases of course, but this kind of change would need to keep going for a few decades before you could say it is really on a new lifecycle.

      So for a major transportation mode, it should be on its way to capture a large of its potential market to say it has a new lifecycle. What share of trips could be on bike vs. are on bike. If "could be" is X and "are" is >.1 X and increasing at an exponential rate, we might have confidence to say it is on its way. The potential market needs to be carefully considered, but maybe for bikes it is something like all work trips and some fraction of non-work trips less than 5 miles as a reasonable test.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      @Andrew The presentation is for the council itself, which I guess makes it non-public, though I am sure staff will be there. I am talking at Committee of the Whole meeting April 4 at 3:30 PM in Council Chambers.

  2. Faith

    Good list. I agree that Resilience, Reliability & Robustness is important, but I would hesitate to use London as an example. There are no longer any city-wide strikes due to different providers as you note, although a person can no longer buy a single ticket from one side of the London to the other due to the different providers. When visiting my cousins who live there, I got to hear about the privatization results: fewer strikes are good, but rail reliability is not so good due to lack of maintenance.

    The London buses seem to be the only part of the privatized system that works because of local regulation – which does not exist for buses in the rest of the country or for rail. Googling "London rail privatisation" yields a lot of negative results about the high cost of trips, crowding (my cousin was lucky enough to sit on a camp stool in the aisle for an hour on her way to work every day!) and maintenance issues. Privatization of the Tube did not work and the government had to buy out the private firms. (Transport Politic:… It seems like it’s easier to get the multiple providers approach wrong that right. Makes me think of #5 on your list: admit failure.

    Metro Transit could benefit from a focus on resilience, reliability & robustness. It seem that changing funding streams from MVST to a more stable source would help more than trying to set up a multiple providers contracting system that may or may not work. Contracting could add substantial risk if the regulatory framework is not set up right. It would be fantastic if the transit network could be more reliable with buses within +/- 1 min (not 7), more frequent service and no stacking. I hope the arterial bus study is a step in the right direction!

  3. David LevinsonDavid Levinson


    Agreed that the buses work and the privatization of the rail network was a disaster. Christian Wolmar has a nice book on that: Down the Tube: The Battle for London's Underground (2002), ISBN 1-85410-872-7, which was written before the bankruptcies. I personally think it is insane to do construction on all the lines simultaneously but only over-night, rather than shut one line down at a time and overhaul it completely. He has a statistic that the lawyer fees on the privatization were 400m pounds, and they still got it wrong.

    WRT single tickets. That is what Oyster is for, and yes if you transfer you have to pay, unlike MetroTransit, but on the other hand, farebox recovery is much higher in London than Minnesota.

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