May 4, 2004 - From the August, 2003 issue

California's Public Transportation Systems Have Failed to Adequately Plan for Regional Growth

Looking through the window of automobiles stuck on parking-lot freeways in rush hour traffic, a regional mass-transit network appears painfully out of reach to many Southern California residents. Many people seem to view the region as geographically prohibitive of such a solution, or believe that the funding just isn't there. Alan Hoffman, Principal at the Mission Group, is not one of these people. In this interview he provides his take on why state and regional officials have failed to adopt or implement effective regional transit policies and how they can improve.


Alan Hoffman

From the professional viewpoint of the Mission Group, is there a state transportation policy or even a regional transportation policy in place today that has promise for the San Diego area?

Not that I'm aware of. The question is, what are we trying to accomplish? My focus is on developing effective public transportation systems and the associated road infrastructure that can best serve and channel regional growth. I don't see anything that I would call an effective policy in place. An effective policy would require a higher standard of planning than that being used with current transit projects in San Diego.

What policies would make the most sense for your region and for the mobility challenges the San Diego area faces?

I'm not certain that the major issue begins with policy, except as it relates to the quality of the planning. The San Diego region is an example of the failure of transportation planning. Any policies that would improve the quality of planning would likely produce better results for the region by improving the effectiveness of the policies already in place. The question then is whether what we're funding is necessarily the right thing?

You refer to the "quality of the planning." What do you mean to suggest by that?

San Diego generally substitutes "project management" for effective planning. What that means is that projects may be poorly conceived, but well-executed, with a significant "community involvement" component. But as author Joey Green once put it, "a stupid point well-conveyed is a well-conveyed stupid point."

Recent transit planning studies in San Diego have been characterized by major errors of system design, operational cost estimation, capacity estimation, system performance targeting, and design of the customer interface. Put in other words, the projects that surface are often "second-best" solutions that don't really solve anyone's specific problems, and that cost as much or more than solutions that could have generated higher ridership and greater impacts on shaping urban growth.

Describe for our readers how region's like San Diego could better manage their transportation planning?

There are really four processes that need to synchronize if you are going to achieve what James Heskett of the Harvard Business School calls a "service breakthrough" in the realm of transit.

First, we need a transit strategy built on a more mature understanding of the market. Though San Diego spent a quarter of a million dollars on a detailed market research study, the actual results of that study-literally, a set of choice models-has largely been ignored, though transit planners use the language of that study to justify projects that often run dead against the actual findings. At least one goal of any transit strategy must be that of identifying how and where transit can gain a competitive advantage over the automobile and hence create a transit system that will appeal to much larger number of people and permit development to occur in places that right now are pretty much locked out because of legitimate neighborhood concerns about traffic and parking.

The second process that needs to occur is leadership-key elected officials deciding that this region needs a more effective transit system, and making this a political goal.

The third thing that needs to happen is at the management level. Currently, the transit industry differs from most other service industries in that it largely ignores market rules. Over the last thirty or forty years, the transit industry in California has, with some exceptions, evolved into a social service arm of the state, funded primarily to provide basic mobility services to people who can't drive for one reason or another. The transit industry does not understand how to create and deploy competitive services-it doesn't have the training, orientation, or experience. So leadership, upon adopting a better strategy, needs to assemble a management team with cross-industry experience in designing and deploying competitive services.

The fourth thing we need is institutional reform. You can't ask our regional transit agencies, which are at root social service agencies, to suddenly become market players-they're not structured to do that. In no transit agency that I'm aware of in California is there a department of research and development. The influence of the marketing function on system design practically does not exist. That calls for a tremendous amount of institutional reform. Some cities have commissioned business strategy firms, not transportation engineering firms, to develop business models for how transit should be planned and operated, with innovative and positive results.

Some might argue that your recommendations are unreasonable in the term-limited political environment in which Californian's live. Is there the capacity to take on these issues, these multi-year and sometimes even multi-decade transportation challenges, when our elected politicians are only serving four, six, eight, twelve years in office?

In Bogota, Colombia, for example, in the late-1990s, then-Mayor Enrique Penalosa, former head of the Arthur D. Little management consulting firm office in Colombia, made the development of an effective regional transit system his top goal. For years, traditional transportation planning firms had been recommending that Bogota build a metro-some of it underground, some of it above ground. The first line was projected to cost $2.5 billion, and the entire system would take decades to build out.

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Penalosa wanted something done immediately-a rail system would take too long to build and would be too expensive. So he decided to build a bus-based rapid transit system called TransMilenio. They converted the centers of their major boulevards and freeways into exclusive "transitways," putting stations every 500 meters (1/3 mile). They then created a mix of services wherein some buses stop at every station, some (designated as expresses) skip stations, and some begin or end off-corridor. From the time Penalosa decided to pursue this "bus rapid transit" strategy to the time the first line opened was just three years. The system has been open for two-and-a-half years now and, because of the low capital cost, they are able to add 10-to-15 miles a year to the system. Ridership is now up to over 1.15 million per day. They plan to have full build-out of the 235-mile system by 2015. The total price tag of the entire system will be $2.5 billion, approximately what a single metro line would have cost them, except it will be carrying close to ten times the ridership-and at an operating profit, too.

Given the fact that Colombian elected officials serve a maximum of one term, there was pressure to get things done quickly. The mayor who succeeded Penalosa, Antanus Mockus, fully supports this strategy, because he is going to be able to open 40 or 50 miles of lines in his term. His successor will do the same. That's just good strategy.

In a July 2002 interview with Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland, OR) he said, "We have a unique opportunity with the trifecta of transportation re-authorizations: the surface transportation act, aviation reauthorization, and Amtrak. There is a chance to link these important transportation and infrastructure opportunities. For instance, Amtrak, surface transportation, and aviation all could have inter-related components linking freight with passenger movement while adding additional air capacity." What are your thoughts on the possibility of holistically linking infrastructure and transportation related funding streams to produce the kind of regional mobility and quality of life that you call for?

It sounds good in theory. The question is, what do you really do in practice? It's true that too much of our transportation infrastructure is curiously misconnected or disconnected. Major transportation centers-airports, train stations, major bus transfer centers-should be designed to work with each other and support each other. We don't necessarily have that, and the planning certainly doesn't require that to happen.

Again, let's return to the practical question. As you've indicated, practicality is of importance. You use international examples , but what are the obstacles and disincentives to adopting the principles that you've articulated here in California? Especially in Southern California?

That's a very good question. I think some of the problems are a result of the poor quality of transportation planning. For example, the director of planning with the former MTDB was not even trained in transportation systems analysis. So, rather than being able to do state-of-the-art planning, you have institutions that have evolved certain ways of doing things, and that are not accountable for poor planning choices.

Why is the public not demanding better and coordinated planning? Are they misled by the way the questions are asked or the way the press covers transportation? Why is there not a drumbeat in support of the principles you've articulated?

There are several factors involved. Number one, most people can't imagine something we don't already have. I know this from research I've done with focus groups. Most people simply cannot imagine what this region would look like with effective transit.

Number two, we have an institutional problem. Our institutions have evolved as social service agencies that operate in mostly a political context. Most of the management decisions are handed off to boards of directors, which are made up of elected officials who were not elected specifically to serve on these boards. For many of these people, this is not a full time job, and they may not have policy staff to help them, yet they're sitting there watching pre-packaged presentations and essentially making management decisions. There are no real hearings or the kind of forums where technical and strategic issues can actually see the light of day.

Boards of directors need to play an oversight, not managerial role, setting policy goals and objectives and then measuring management's ability to achieve those goals and objectives. Our transportation decisions-the "big bucks" decisions-are made by appointed boards whose actual members may have been elected by the tiniest fraction of our region's residents. They may not have the time and the energy to devote to truly understanding these problems and to understand what they should be requiring of management.

When you look to the future, is the glass half-full or half-empty when it comes to transportation planning in California?

In the short term, the glass is half-empty. For example, in San Diego based on current planning, our transit agency is going to be undertaking quite a number of missteps. They're making major strategic errors that will close out certain opportunities, hindering their capacity to do the right thing in the future.

Right now, the greatest hope for California is what's happening outside of California. As more cities follow the example of cities like Bogota and begin to develop truly cost effective and customer focused solutions, people in California will start to notice and wonder why it's not being done here. Eventually, someone is going to realize that this is a problem of our own making. Really, what it takes is just some courageous political leadership to point out that we've got a broken transportation planning system in place. We're asking the wrong institutions to solve our problems. We need political leadership willing to focus on developing effective strategies and to pull in people who understand strategy-the management consulting firms, people who understand the behavior of markets. That's not as hard as it sounds. The biggest difficulty is just for someone to say, "Hey, I'm going to do it."

The bottom line is, we're planning, just in San Diego alone, to spend about $10 billion on transit infrastructure over the next 25 years. If we're not willing to re-examine this process and take a hard look at how we've been doing things, we should just save our money.

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