What it Takes for Cities to Practice Adaptive Leadership

By Kate O'Brien

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for the monthly Global Mobility Research blog series with Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on coaching, capacity building, and facilitation, Kate supports change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

Robert Cervero, Professor Emeritus at University of California at Berkeley, recently spoke with Kate O’Brien by phone to discuss his body of transit and mobility research and writings he’s amassed over the course of his 30-year career. Recently retired and traveling the world, Robert continues his studies and offers speaking engagements on these issues. Robert spoke with Kate from his home in San Francisco.

 

In your journal article making the case for opening up America’s marketplace of mobility options given our increasingly diverse traveling public, you suggest that American cities would create more sustainable futures if they were to lead more adaptively, especially as it relates to transit. Tell me more about this concept.

I actually wrote a book about twenty years ago—called Transit Metropolis—in which I asserted the concepts of adaptive cities and adaptive transit. I reflected upon that work more recently in a journal article I wrote at the urging of my colleague, in which I called again for more flexibility on the part of American cities in shaping their transit agendas. Given the significant ecological footprint created by the urban transport sector, cities need to be proactive about accounting for and minimizing their climate impacts. This means, among other things, observing and responding to settlement patterns, demographic shifts, and other ecological design considerations across the urban landscape.

 

Tell me about what adaptive city leadership looks like in practice.

Adaptive cities are analytical. Their leaders set a balanced vision for the future of the community, and then collect and study data, continually look for patterns, and use that information and analysis to inform long-range planning and infrastructure investments to realize that vision. Through an ecological transit lens, this can mean minimizing carbon-intensive practices that induce climate change, such as inefficient overuse of fossil-fueled vehicles. Unfortunately, what we often find in municipal leadership is the exact opposite; right now, over 90% of American motorized trips are made in private cars. Passive leadership on transit enables sprawling development patterns, which exert a large ecological footprint. No doubt, many cities feel pressure to build or maintain their tax base, but a “land development at any cost” approach creates scattered, low-density development that can make public transit challenging. An adaptive city uses its vision to guide land use patterns in ways that are proactively oriented toward sustainability. These places are constantly examining what’s taking place on the ground, and responding in systemic ways that promote efficient use of resources and minimize their waste and impact.

 

In your writings, you suggest that paratransit is something that people in many other countries and cultures use with great frequency, and something US society should embrace more widely. Talk about how paratransit—what you also refer to as microtransit - could help reduce the number of car trips in American cities.

Right, in many other parts of the world, paratransit use is far more widespread, especially among working class people. Paratransit is transit that is offered in small vehicles. It is demand responsive, uses flexible routing, and typically happens in privately owned and operated vehicles. So, it mimics the private car in many ways, but the great thing is, when supply and demand are balanced, more seats are filled per trip, so there’s greater efficiency in resource use there.

We’re in the midst of a market shake-up right now in our society. We’re in the smart phone era. Interestingly, even as millennials are growing into their peak earning potential, fewer of them wish to drive private cars, and they continue to embrace car sharing and other technology-based applications to support their lifestyles. At the same time, immigration from places where paratransit is widely embraced continues.

All of this means our society is evolving, and our populace has an opportunity to grow into acceptance and use of more demand-responsive transit. Transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, and models such as carsharing, are beginning to help shift perceptions and norms here in the US with their point-to-point services. Our society increasingly celebrates diversity in terms of its cuisine, so why not in terms of its transit? I am hopeful our society will come to utilize more flexible thinking in terms of its transit over time.

 

Is there a downside to creating diverse transit offerings?

Well, the paratransit sector accounts for some 15-20% of employment in cities across the Global South, so it’s a means of income, often a “side hustle”, for many people. This is alluring, of course, but only up to a point. In many places, especially across the Global South, government has had a difficult time regulating paratransit, and sometimes because of the side hustle aspect, there becomes too much supply, causing a glut of vehicles and congestion on the streets.

We’ve seen this in places like San Francisco—people travel great distances into the city to drive for Uber or Lyft because they can make so much more money per trip than in small cities or rural areas. And there have been few regulatory measures, such as limits on curb availability for transit vehicles, or requirements about data sharing, to control for this over-supply problem. Local government in San Francisco has long been open to new entrepreneurial innovations, which is a hallmark of this community, but the short-coming has been the lack of regulatory oversight, which has inhibited proactive analysis of transit supply and demand. Other places should be learning from what’s happened here.

 

Not all U.S. cities are like San Francisco. Can what has happened there translate to other communities, especially to smaller, non-coastal cities and towns across the US?

I mentioned earlier that poring over data and responding to the trends observed in that data are hallmarks of adaptive cities. That’s true no matter where you may be talking about. A big challenge to the adaptive approach is the need for good, accessible data. Transit providers like Uber and Lyft are privatized tech companies, and they’ve not been known for sharing their data.

By nature, the tech industry is extremely averse to sharing of proprietary data, driven by the desire to maintain the most competitive edge. And right now, there are no federal requirements for those companies to share their data. Few cities have access to data about use of these transit services, even though they’re important to transit users and widely used on the ground, and even though that data would be especially important for determining if and how those services are meeting transit user needs, and whether other transit offerings would complement them. Few cities require private transit providers to share their data, and that’s a real missed opportunity.

 

It sounds like local government and planners have an important role to play in holding the line with these private tech-based transit providers, in order to assess how to proceed with implementing climate action plans.

 Exactly. Cities should be courageous in mandating data sharing from transit providers, using carrots and sticks as needed. Cities should be learning from one another’s experiences—how communities are regulating these companies, how to mandate private companies’ provision of data. Cities need data to analyze, but not just any data will do. City leaders need to know what exactly to ask for, what to insist on, especially in terms of data format and functionality, so it can be useful to planners and researchers. Local governments should remain open to diverse transit offerings, but should instill some regulatory constraints so it can study what’s happening, proactively manage supply and demand, ensure more efficient use of resources, and create a smaller ecological footprint.

 

What would you tell young people aspiring to make an impact on these issues?

It’s actually an incredibly exciting time to be a transit researcher and planner. Observing, responding to, and shaping change is what the research and planning fields are all about. Planners are uniquely positioned to help cities plan and adapt for more sustainable futures. The regulatory landscape in cities hasn’t always been seen as a positive—for example, zoning and environmental protections at all levels of government have been viewed as constraints. But they are critical in charting our path into the future.

In my observation, planning students are increasingly compelled by the intellectual challenge of systems thinking. I believe this is exactly what’s needed right now, as we need to address our climate impacts while also managing increasing social and income disparities, designing and enacting policies that are inclusive, minimize displacement of low-income people, and assure equity for the greater common good.

Discussion

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2 Comments

  1. Insightful article. We have a chance with the advent of autonomous vehicles to take data analysis and transit utilisation to a new level,

    Reply
  2. This probably happens with Councils of Government organizations, but I would like to see transportation providers, users, experts, and policy makers from each county get together to brainstorm and identify transportation gaps and innovative ideas.

    Reply

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