June 24, 2016

Transforming City Transportation Landscapes Through Policy: An Interview with Harvard Professor Diane Davis (Part 1)

Diane Davis is the Charles DyDiane Davis Photoer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism, and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). She leads a project funded by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF) called “Transforming Urban Transport –­ The Role of Political Leadership” (TUT)” that identifies actionable knowledge drawn from case study analysis of eight different cities around the world — Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Seoul, Stockholm, and Vienna — where leading actors have successfully introduced policies that fundamentally transformed their cities’ transportation landscapes.

How can a city know if the timing is right for any specific project to be implemented until there is a clear outcome that looks like success or failure (maybe even both)?

Finding the ‘right’ moment to act is as much an art as it is a science; and knowing how to identify the appropriate moment for promoting an idea will depend heavily on what Charles Tilly once termed “political opportunity structures.” Yet cities are hardly able to cherry pick the ‘right’ moments for intervention. They often need to respond to the exigencies of politics or emergent controversies, suggesting that conflicts may provide propitious moments for advancing a given transportation policy. This may sound paradoxical, because conflict is often seen as disabling more than enabling.

However, in Stockholm, Mayor Annika Billström was compelled to move forward on congestion charging in a moment of intense political discord. She had made campaign promises not to implement congestion charging, but then, after her election, had to backtrack due to political pressures. Ultimately, Billström “saved face” by introducing a trial rather than a full-blown policy; by skillfully managing the trial’s implementation so as to bring key private sector actors on board; and by strategically timing a citizen referendum so it would follow only after Stockholmers actually experienced the full-scale experiment.

The Stockholm case also demonstrates that even without clear signs of success, cities can still move ahead with new policy ideas if they incorporate trials, interim projects, and other such provisions for policy learning and adaption. As the full-scale congestion charging trial unfolded smoothly, with a noticeable decrease in traffic and congestion and lack of negative externalities on alternative links and roads, the majority of Stockholmers began to change their views, thus making them potential allies for future policy implementation.

What are the conditions that set the ground for good timing?

We might say that good timing is partly a convergence of historical and contemporary conditions that show a proposed policy to be both feasible and desirable for a specific political moment. In the Stockholm case, this included policy precedents accumulating over time, worsening traffic congestion and environmental problems accompanying urban expansion at the regional scale, and growing political pressure.

Stockholm, Sweden

Equally, good timing is the creation and product of a certain momentum by key actors willing to take risks to get things done. Mayor Billström moved forward with the congestion charging trial and carefully timed the local referendum to be held after Stockholmers experienced a full-scale experiment. With sustained decreases in traffic volume and congestion and growing public approval, the city expanded the coverage area as well as toll charges. In hindsight, the initial decision to introduce the congestion charging trial appears well timed, but the cumulative measures that followed to major effect make it noteworthy in the first place.

How can the “politically plausible” be fully known unless something is tried? 

Some of the most significant transport policy actions have been undertaken in conditions of political implausibility.  Transportation policy advocates need to take risks – most of which are bound to be politically controversial, expensive, and as-yet untried. Knowing this, an obsession with political plausibility can be the enemy of invention. However, when the political plausibility of a proposed change cannot be fully known in advance, certain mediating factors become critical, at least in democratically governed cities.

Take Los Angeles County’s successful 2008 passage of “Measure R”, a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation. In preparation, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) updated strategic projects and draft spending plans, which provided technical and financial analyses to develop Measure R. Elected officials helped craft the policy package and fundraise for the referendum campaign. Additionally, Move LA, a transportation-oriented coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, and business organizations, worked with Metro and elected officials to propose the ballot measure, design its content, and campaign for its passage.

Likewise, in rolling out NYC’s Livable Streets initiative, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan forged co-productive relations with advocacy organizations like Transportation Alternatives, made use of interim projects and adaptive policies to temper public opposition and demonstrate feasibility, and partnered with private firms and neighborhood-based organizations to expand program capacity, for instance with the bike-share program and plaza conversions.

That livable streets initiatives were rigorously planned and implemented with engagement from non-governmental entities, as well as justifiable in terms of quality of life and economic development benefits, enhanced their political defensibility. As in LA, the Bloomberg administration also utilized the media, the mayor’s website, and polling data to anticipate, gauge, and effective respond to public reaction. As the end of Bloomberg’s final term created uncertainty about livable streets, Transportation Alternatives helped reframe the initiatives as part of a broader safety-oriented agenda, which was subsequently embraced by the de Blasio administration.

This interview is part of a partnership series between ITDP and Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF).  In this series, we will feature interviews with researchers from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program. Look out for part 2 of this interview, coming soon. 


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