How 35 Years Can Be Too Quick For Big Transit Investments
Here’s a glimpse into the secret warren of consultants who track enormous transit projects. These consultants run alongside the engineers and landowners, interviewing frustrated bureaucrats and measuring opaque data. I got to see a scholar in the group last night, and I share his conclusion because it distills the subtle opportunities and hulking inefficiencies in the transit market.
Harry Dimitriou, head of the prestigious Bartlett School of Planning at University College London, evaluates major transit investment by interviewing participants in open-ended discussion and then feeding the interviews through analytic software. He’s given this treatment to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link connecting England and France and intends to apply it to projects from Abu Dhabi (where NYU has started a sister campus) to New York.
He told a pack of unregenerate transit nerds (we look just like ordinary citizens) at NYU last night that his outfit, the Omega Centre, strives to remind politicos and investors that they need to carefully assess a transit project’s context before choosing where they put it or how it runs. And he reminded the group that context involves the sorts of jobs a project can create or destroy, the ecological factors likely to change while the project develops, and the forces competing for the project’s money.
Cut through the jargon, and this finding speaks urgently to green-minded investment. What developer wouldn’t bid furiously for the chance to build on a rare, clean site next to a high-speed rail link that runs to an airport? Conversely, what retailer would want to advertise the expansion of a subway system that’s attracting exploitative contractors and misplacing stations?
Moreover, for investors, the way a project’s champions define “sustainability” decrees the kinds of businesses a project is likely to attract. If a public authority backing a transit project wants to protect local jobs, that invites one flavor of entrepreneurship. If a public authority wants to make a statement with a radical new technology, that invites another.
The bane for those of us outside the consulting vespers, of course, is that opinions vary among stakeholders on what a transit project should do. And these are stakeholders – mayors, authority heads, sultans- unaccustomed to having to revise their views. “You can have 100 versions of a project’s story and nobody is lying,” said Dimitriou.
The key takeaway, Dimitriou said, is that “there’s universal harmony that early planning is critical.” Amen. But like sound financial regulation, early planning never prevails over opportunistic rhetoric, cronyism and political frippery. And in the absence of early planning, Dimitriou said, project managers should learn to think “holistically,” about financial and ecological and social outcomes. Ideally, he said, they should learn to think like entrepreneurs.
And they must learn, like Silicon Valley leaders have learned, to see busts as chances to build new products. “Some say a delay is not a failure, because a project may need time to breathe,” Dimitriou said. As populations and climates change, “rushed decisions” on green issues pay off poorly for everyone. If a 35-year transit investment needs an extra year, attentive businesses can find openings to provide services and technology to connect cities around the world.
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