You can talk about “Essential Services” in one of two ways:
The first way is as a commodity, as a necessity of society or as a basic provision of life. More often than not, these essential services take the form of monopolies and organized cartels. They’re necessary and useful, but rarely ever pleasant.
The second form of essential services are seemingly unnecessary services that go so far above and beyond the call of duty, that improve your well-being so greatly, that raise the bar so high; they become necessary accoutrements—they become an essential part of your life.
An emergency room, a public transit system and the police are essential services in the first sense that they are some of the bare minimum of services any responsible society needs to function.
Dropbox, on the other hand is an essential service in the second sense—it makes our lives infinitely easier, better and more pleasant to the extent that it becomes a regular part of our world; that it becomes essential.
Too often, public transit is the former, and not the latter.
That occurred to me on a recent business trip. As regular readers know, I spend a fair amount of time in Switzerland for personal and professional reasons. And when there, I use a prepaid cell phone.
On a recent morning sprint to the train station, I realized that—owing to a long weekend where all the stores were closed—I hadn’t topped up my phone and was desperately short of credit. As a foreigner, my provider’s online web portal doesn’t accept my credit card, so I was used to going to the supermarket to top it up.
Now normally that wouldn’t be a problem, except I was travelling to a city I had only been to once (three years ago) and had no idea what my train connections were and had not time to go to the ticket counter to request a schedule.
How wonderful, then, to learn that the train ticket vending machine also allowed me the option to purchase credits for my cell phone on the network of my choosing. And here’s the kicker: Instead of issuing a confusing receipt with a seemingly endless code to add credit to the phone, I instead received a simple text message informing me that my phone had been credited as per my request and the balance would be charged to my credit card.
In other words, the train station method of buying cell phone “guthaben” (as the locals call it) was a more pleasant, convenient and intuitive method than other more traditional means. It’s also a heck of a lot more convenient than standing in line at the grocery store.
There’s nothing “essential” about a train station ticket vending machine that allows you to buy cell phone “guthaben.” Life goes on without it and I’m sure I could’ve managed enough mangled German to figure out how to get where I was going. But here’s the thing:
The service was so good, so useful and so surprisingly intuitive that it became, for me, essential in the time it took to complete the transaction (roughly 15 seconds). That’s an Essential Service of the second variety.
Public transit needs to stop thinking of themselves as essential services of the first variety (read: monopolies) and instead start reimagining themselves as Essential Services of the second.
I was recently at a friend’s 30th birthday party back in Toronto and I was flying solo. I was at a table of old friends.
Maybe I should rephrase that. It was a table of people who were old friends of each other’s. I was the odd man out. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them. No big deal.
The topic – as is typical in congestion-plagued Toronto – shifted to transit and the typical debates over buses vs. streetcar vs. light rail vs. subway.
Now in situations like this I have to be careful. I’m not going to jump up and down with the word “gondola” frothing at my mouth because that would just be strange and awkward.
So I generally just keep that information to myself and instead flex my transit nerd credentials by demonstrating how Toronto’s new light rail vehicles and lines aren’t actually light rail . . . which is what I did.
Out of no where a man at the table piped up with this idea he’d read about in some paper (probably either here, here or here) about using ski lifts as public transit.
No word of a lie, he turned to me and asked “so does that, like, work?”
An hour-long discussion ensued with most people coming around onside.
Sometimes the most satisfying part about my work are tiny, wonderful moments like that.
No matter how great your numbers are, if you can’t get anyone to read your feasibility study, then your project isn’t feasible. Full stop.
It’s a paradox, yes. A feasibility study should not inject itself into the feasibility process. It is supposed to be cold and impartial. The numbers and the analysis should speak for themselves. But we know that’s not the case now, don’t we?
To some planners that may sound shallow and glib, but it’s not. Those planners are likely to argue that their analysis and numbers are all that matters, nothing more.
Perhaps that was true at one time, but not so much any more.
Of course sound analysis and rigorous number-crunching are important – but they’re only part of the battle. The reason? Nowadays almost everyone’s analysis and number-crunching will be sound and rigorous. Everyone’s got Wikipedia and Google Earth and Microsoft Excel and Whatever Beta 2.0.
You’re not going to score points for sound analysis and good numbers. You’re going to score points for how you communicate not what you communicate. You’re going to score points for crafting work that advances a project an idea or a philosophy – presuming, of course, that your analysis is sound.
In other words: Your study and project is competing against every other study and project. We don’t tend to think of reports, studies and projects in those terms, but that’s the reality. Your studies and projects are competing for government and business dollars. And the way one accesses those dollars are through the attention-span of the decision-makers.
So next time you finish your study, take a second to look at it and ask yourself a very hard, very honest question:
If you hadn’t been the one to write it, would you even bother to read it? Would you bother to pick it up out of a pile? Would you even know that it existed?
Verisimilitude refers, quite simply, to fictional works of art that don’t replicate reality, but instead create an approximation of reality that feels realer than actual reality.
TV shows built around lawyers, crime and courtrooms are notorious for this. CSI, Law & Order and Matlock have implanted in our collective popular consciousness an understanding of our legal system so divorced from reality you might as well just put it in a bikini, photoshop it, and slap it on the cover of Cosmo.
Ditto with television shows about doctors. Doesn’t matter that the world portrayed aren’t true or even really very accurate. The stories they tell feel real and credible to the people watching them and therefore take on a truth of their own.
So what stories are people telling about your transit agency? You can bet they aren’t good.
Too often we’re telling stories about how crowded the subway was.
Too often we’re telling stories about how late the streetcar was.
Too often we’re telling stories about how rude the bus driver was.
How often have we heard the tale about Benito Mussolini who, despite being one of history’s most despicable villains, is still remembered for miraculously making Italy’s trains run on time? That story – which isn’t true, by the way – isn’t about Mussolini. That’s a story about how the only thing capable of making Italian trains run on time is fascism.
Or how about the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). TTC service quality has degenerated so much so that it’s become Torontonians’ de facto excuse for tardiness of any kind. You could walk into work, drenched in sweat, wearing bike pants and a helmet and everyone in your office would believe you if you moaned about how the TTC made you 45 minutes late.
The TTC has become the Toronto commuter’s equivalent to the dog that ate their homework. The only difference being that no one believes the dog ate your homework but everyone believes the TTC is solely responsible for ruining your day.
It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of transit functions perfectly well for the vast majority of users for the vast majority of time – that’s even true for the beleaguered TTC. But those bad experiences we have – and the stories we tell about them – build up and begin to craft a reality in the public’s mind that influences their willingness to use the system.
Ninety-nine trips out of a hundred could go perfectly, but it’s that one trip that we’ll remember. It’s that one trip we’ll tell everyone about. Statistics don’t mean a thing.
That’s verisimilitude in action.
Transit agencies don’t seem to worry much about what stories people tell about them – or if they do, we don’t see it. Ditto for most government agencies and large corporations in general. Why would they care? Their monopoly positions confer upon them the power not to care what stories people tell.
But a monopoly isn’t a right – it’s a privilege.
If you’re in a monopoly position, you have the greatest obligation of all to care about the stories people tell about you. You’ve gotta’ find a way to get people telling positive stories about you because if the only stories people are telling are negative, you may not be in a monopoly position for long.
In city building, there’s perhaps no greater challenge than what we here like to call The Phase 1 Dilemma.
The essence of the problem is this:
Finding $50,000,000 to fund a ready-made and demonstrably profitable project is (relatively) easy.
Finding $50,000 to develop, study and analyze said ready-made and demonstrably profitable project is (virtually) impossible.
(Substitute whatever numbers you think appropriate — you get the picture.)
The reason this is a problem and not just an annoyance is that to get to Phase 2 and 3, you typically need to go through Phase 1. Yet funding typically only exists for Phase 2 and 3. It’s a paradox.
The matter gets complicated further still as going through the study process doesn’t guarantee that a strong project will result. What if the numbers come back bad? What if the fundamental idea behind the project turns out to be sour?
Relatively speaking, this isn’t as much a problem in the private sector as in the public sector. As private sector players have a vested interest in developing ready-made and demonstrably profitable projects, they’re far more likely to take on the risk associated with going through the project development process. Think about the pharmaceutical industry: Vast sums of money are spent there with only a small percentage of the products and ideas bearing fruit – yet still they spend the money.
You also have young start-ups and people lower down the value chain willing to invest considerable sweat equity in such study, research and development in the hopes of realizing future rewards – but again, that’s tends to happen at the private sector level.
In the public sector realm, solving the Phase 1 Dilemma can be difficult beyond belief, greater still if you’re dealing with a Pre-Phase 1 Dilemma.
As the behaviour of our electorates increasingly force our politicians and policy-makers to act with a degree of risk aversion that borders on the absurd, the availability of resources to develop new public sector projects in the city building industry is as rare as ever.
Meanwhile, the lack of clear vested interests and profit incentivization further dilutes people’s willingness to assume the risk associated with project development. And the sheer volume of stakeholders competing for scarce funds to develop projects only dilutes motivation further.
Which in turns leads us to the No City Wants To Be First Problem — a situation whereby city building becomes a conservative act of doing as everyone else does and shunning all but the tried-and-tested.
Ironically, however, doing as everyone else has been doing doesn’t quite seem to be working out as planned. Despite having more than half the world population defined as ‘urban,’ our cities are increasingly bankrupt, congested and polluted.
Perhaps it’s time we dedicate some time and energy to solving the Phase 1 Dilemma?
A couple weeks back we were doing some research and needed some numbers on ferries. Knowing we have a few readers from Seattle Transit Blog, we fired off an email asking one of their regular contributors for help — after all, Seattle has a massive fleet of ferries.
A couple emails back-and-forth over the course of an hour and we had the info we needed.
Then a week ago we had some transit-related questions regarding London, England. Similarly, we knew we had a few readers from London Reconnections so we fired off an email asking a couple of their contributors for help.
Sure enough, a couple emails back-and forth over the course of an hour and we had the info we needed.
We do the same thing. If people have a couple of questions about gondolas or cable transit, we happily answer as best we can – within reason, of course.
The point is this:
Over the last decade the internet has democratized the act of giving. Generosity of the sort I just described – of communication, community, information and research – would largely have been impossible in an era of long distance charges, fax machines, couriers, and overnight mail.
The business of city building is largely one of communication and community. Sure, it’s also the stuff of concrete, steel, and glass; but none of those ‘hard’ resources are required if you can’t first marshall the ‘soft’ resources of communication and community to develop your given project.
Fifteen years ago you had a reasonable excuse not to be generous with communication and community — after all, communication and community were expensive commodities. You couldn’t afford to give it away.
But nowadays that’s all changed.
Since you can find practically any information, or connect with multiple people who know the information, it makes sense to make friends, not enemies. You could hold on to your knowledge and your time. You could withhold communication, or give someone the run around, but then you’d have to be prepared for the same treatment next time you need that crucial information tidbit from someone across the world. Quid pro quo is now the order of the day.
You can’t shirk your obligation to be generous anymore. And that’s a good thing.
Ostensibly, I’m supposed to be something of a specialist in the (cough) art and science of using ski lifts as mass public transit.
Would it surprise you, then, to learn that for the vast majority of my life I hated skiing? Seriously. It terrified me. If I’m honest with myself, it still kinda’ does.
People who know me well know that I’m a bit of a klutz. I accidentally injure myself frequently enough that it ain’t no thing. As a child, I was in and out of the emergency room so often, they might has well have named a ward after me.
So frequent and regular were my trips to the ER that during one visit, the doctors and nurses escorted my mother out of the suture room so they could ask me out of earshot if she beat me and if they should call someone to help.
And before you ask, no, that wasn’t a joke. That happened.
So you can imagine how excited I was when at the tender age of 9 my cousins announced their desire to take me skiing at their local hill. Thrilled, I was. I made sure my mother had the paramedics waiting on stand-by.
Don’t ask me what the name of the hill was because I can’t remember. But what I do remember is that it was a hill – not a mountain. The Netherlands is hillier than this place. This hill was so (to use the kindest word possible) modest that it didn’t even have a need for chair lifts. Simple platter pullswere enough to service the entire place. At the time I was certain that even I could handle this.
How wrong I was.
The skiing itself wasn’t the problem. I was uncoordinated and generally pretty awkward but I could get down the hill without incident and rather enjoyed the experience. Getting up the hill was an entirely different story.
You wouldn’t think that the lift would be the hardest part of a skiers’ journey, but for me it was.
For those who don’t know, a platter pull is nothing more than a wobbly, spinning disc you tuck between your legs and let pull you up the hill. It is a remarkably simple invention which a three-quarters-drunk chimpanzee could master in under four seconds. I mean, you don’t even have to leave the ground! You’re literally just being dragged up a hill! But for my 9 year old self, the platter pull was a complete enigma.
Something about sitting instead of leaning or whatever but I just could not for the life of me figure out how to sit my butt down on that stupid piece of plastic and enjoy the ride. Instead I’d trip, fall over, get generally all tangled up and find myself face-first down in a snow drift. And it happened constantly.
My most common memory of that day therefore had nothing to do with skiing. All I truly remember is having my snowsuit-clad body dragged repeatedly out of a snowbank by an irritated lift attendant while being gawked at by snow-and-spittle-faced pre-teens annoyed by my incompetence causing the stoppage of the entire lift until I was rescued and propped back up on a device I was certain to fall off of again. That’s right. My clumsy foolishness wasn’t just a detriment to me. No, I was ruining the fun for everyone. Not just me and my family, but strangers too. They knew it and I knew it.
As the sun set and the night skiing lights flickered to life, I retired to the lodge, returned my rented gear and proclaimed the drinking of hot cocoa to be a far superior sport than the carving of fresh powder. At least there – mittens safety-pinned and dangling from my jacket sleeves – I was unlikely to disturb or bother anyone else. And no one’s ever objected to the intoxicating smell of warm milk and chocolate.
I literally never skied again.
For over 20 years since, whenever I was presented with the chance to ski, I made up all kinds of excuses to avoid it. They weren’t excuses, of course. They were lies. But that was just semantics.
I’d say I didn’t know how to ski because I lived in an area without skiing. That was a lie.
Toronto has several ski areas within two hours’ drive. Are they great ski areas? No. But they’ll do in a pinch.
I’d say I didn’t have the money to go on class ski trips with my friends. That was a lie, too.
I’d been working part-time jobs since before I was legally allowed to do so. If I wanted to, I could forego the latest instalment ofSonic the Hedgehog or the new Batman movie and find the cash to hit the slopes with friends. And if I couldn’t find the money, my folks would’ve found a way to make it work if only to get me outside and moving.
Or I’d say I didn’t have the time. Lie! Lie! Liar!
I don’t even have to explain this one because we all know it so well. We all say this because it’s so convenient and believable but we all know it’s false. If I wanted to I could’ve turned off the reruns of Family Ties, got outside and made the time.
Eventually I stopped with the excuses altogether. They were inconvenient and laborious. When one needs to explain a philosophical stance, the argument’s already lost. Instead, I needed something simpler. I needed to stop explaining and simply state unequivocally why skiing was wrong.
So I simply crafted a line against the sport itself.
Whenever anyone asked about skiing, I’d simply scoff and state that “nailing oneself to a plank of wood and jumping off a cliff isn’t a sport – it’s suicide.” I used that line repeatedly because it worked to end any questions full stop. It was the ultimate defence. I’d reframed the question entirely. The problem wasn’t with me; it was with the skiers and their stupid, dangerous, irresponsible hobby.
And now today I’m known as the guy who says you can use ski lifts as public transit. Fate, it seems, has a particular fondness for irony and hypocrisy.
But as a result of my work (and my engagement to an avid skier) I decided a few years back to finally man-up and learn to ski. My return to the slopes was in the Swiss Alps with my fiancé and closest friend. And on that day the bunny hill was closed. . . due to avalanche.
Right. So that’s how they roll here, I thought. They put the children in the shadows of avalanches. These guys don’t play. That’s when I began to long for that little useless hill back home in Ontario.
But still I sucked it up and went to where the grown-ups go, but I didn’t like it. I protested. I sulked. I swore and cursed and said things that will prevent me from ever being accepted into any major or minor religion ever again. I probably (definitely) even cried a little bit. The entire experience was humiliating, terrifying and miserable. I fell and I fell and I fell some more. To put it in perspective: The first trip down the hill took 90 minutes.
But the second time took only 15. And – praise be to God – there were no lift incidents.
Over the last few years I’ve gotten better. I now ski regularly. Poorly, mind you, but regularly. And get this: I love it.
It still terrifies me on a regular basis, but I’ve gotten used to that. A colleague of mine – sympathetic to the idea of a ski lift specialist who can’t ski – taught me that the way to ski without fear is to tune out the terror by singing Neil Diamond songs to yourself.
No one can be afraid when they’re listening to Neil Diamond. That’s her theory at least – and it’s a one I happen to know from personal experience is right.
Learning to ski in your thirties isn’t a thing I’d recommend to anyone. It’s awful. Everything in your body and mind resists it. You fear embarrassment, you fear failure and you fear incompetence. You watch the six-year-old girls and the sixty-year-old men whooshing past you and all you feel is how unbelievably far behind the pack you really are. You’re a grown man whose competent at things – lot’s of things! – but you’re no good at this one thing and you hate it because of that. You hate the fact that in order for you to actually enjoy this thing, you’re going to have to suffer and spend far more time than you’d like looking like a complete and total idiot. Your mind rebels against the entire experience with almost violent psychology.
Oh, and your body will bruise and ache more than you can possibly imagine.
But you get over it.
For me the most important lesson in all this has been that you have to get over it. Fear, shame and embarrassment only get in the way of doing the things you want and need to do. That may be the tritest thing I’ve ever written, but it’s true. I’d allowed my embarrassment of (barely) falling from a lift when I was 9 years old dictate my entire philosophy towards winter sports right through into adulthood. That was stupid and juvenile and I wish I’d never given into that fear. But I got over it.
So now I’m writing this from the reception area of my physiotherapist – waiting to get treated for a ski accident.
A couple of months back I took a fall that messed up my right shoulder pretty bad. Not bad enough to be permanent, but bad enough to warrant mentioning. I was riding one of my first black diamond hills and I hit a bad patch of snow on a ninety-degree turn I had no reasonable hope of making. I’d never fallen so hard in my life.
When I went to the hospital for treatment, literally every patient in the room was getting treated for ski injuries – and the first thing out of the doctor’s mouth upon seeing me was “Welcome to Switzerland.” That sort of goes to demonstrate my point about this not being the safest sport in the world, but I digress.
I did some damage to the ligaments and rotator cuff and the doctors say it will still take several months to heal properly – but it’s a common enough injury that I needn’t worry about. And strangely I don’t.
Sure my shoulder still hurts and it sometimes makes working hard. Admittedly, I don’t do my physio exercises as often as I should. But the therapist is kind enough to pretend that I do. So at the end of the day, it’s getting better. It’s all good.
And all I really care about is if it will be better in time for next year’s ski season.