Design Better Mass Transit with Systems Thinking

As U.S. cities grow more gridlocked and Millennials adopt mobility services like Uber out of desperation, transit becomes a crucial social good. Without the ability to easily move people and goods, cities become paralyzed. We need a way of designing better transportation systems.

Billions Lost on Failed Mass-Transit Projects

Recently governments have suffered high-profile failures in delivering mobility for some of our most crowded cities:

  • In 2010, New Jersey cancelled building a new commuter train tunnel into New York City. A half-billion dollars of construction went to waste.
  • In 2015, Baltimore scrapped a $2.9 billion rail project. Some citizens charged racism because the project benefited African-Americans in low- and middle-income neighborhoods.
  • Today, Honolulu is years behind schedule and billions over budget on a rail line to alleviate traffic.

These projects are worse than doing nothing. They spend serious money and get nothing done. In the process, they disrupt lives, neighborhoods and businesses.

I live in the San Francisco Bay area. There’s a good chance I spend 80 hours a year stuck in traffic. I ride the overcrowded and aging BART trains when I can. I dream of better ways to get around.

Designing Better Transit With Systems Thinking

Clearly, better thinking needs to go into designing better transportation systems. This CityLab article on future-proofing train station designs gives a glimmer of rationality.

Urban planner Caroline Box of UNStudio has worked on giant rail projects for diverse cities such as Doha in Qatar and Arnhem in the Netherlands. Bos practices strong systems thinking in several ways:

  • She makes connections between the parts. Bos saw that city bus systems must mesh with the city and regional rail lines coming into stations. Without this seamless service between home and platform, ridership suffers.
  • She recognizes the broader system. Her market research showed that only 40 percent of people at a major train station are there to take a train. Her designs focus as much on public market and meeting space as on transportation needs.
  • She acknowledges change over time. She saw that over time shops and kiosks pop up in transit hubs. These often block sight lines and change traffic flows. Her plans include space to accommodate commerce without jeopardizing the function of the space.

Is It Too Late For Large Transit Projects?

System thinking helps you think through design challenges clearly and thoroughly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily speed up massive transit infrastructure projects. Maybe bigger isn’t better.

The systems thinking habit of incrementalism or successive approximation encourages sequential change. Make a small change, measure the result, and see if the system is moving towards the goal. It may be time for smaller transit designs instead of big public works projects. Bogota, Colombia create bus rapid transit instead of commuter trains. For me, a faster bus connection from my house to the nearest BART station would mean I could ride the train more easily. That’s a small step in the right direction without spending billions of dollars.

What changes, big or small, would improve the social good of mobility for you?

(Image by Grendelkhan under Creative Commons license)

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