What do you think the mayor is thinking about when you walk through the door this morning to talk to her about that very important transport issue?

When I or anyone else with a transportation issue burning in the front of our brain, walk into City Hall  to talk to the mayor about the important topic which bring us into her office, here is what we implicitly assume is her dominant preoccupation behind these exchanges:

If only it were so.

However if we took the trouble to have a good look at her appointment book for the week or the groaning pile of documents on her desk, we would see quite a different story emerging  It turns out upon inspection that there may be some significant differences in the way the good mayor and I are approaching the matters we are hoping to discuss and get a mutually satisfactory decision on this morning.

Here, more likely than the above, is what the mayor has in mind when she welcomes us into her office.

Hmm, that is a kind of complicated situation, with a lot of competition for her attention.. (BTW, how long did it take you to actually locate the transportation function in this diagram?  Lower right if you missed it?)

Well if that is the turbulent context of daily  life in City Hall, what would it be reasonable to expect the mayor to be concentrated on most days when it comes to transportation matters. My guess is that the mindmap in this case would look something like this:

Given the more than full plate of issues and concerns that demand her daily attention, it would be unrealistic in most cases for the mayor to be thinking of much more than this, basically keeping the ship afloat and staying out of trouble.

But when transport-related concerns do come to the fore, well our fictive mayor is prepared as necessary to expand the horizons, more likely than not with an issues horizon perhaps something along these lines:

But in nine cases out of ten what we run into is basically  a maintenance philosophy,  logical enough if we consider that a well-run city is closer to a business with accounts to keep than an experimental laboratory with a boundless checkbook.  As part of this, the mayor’s staff and on-call resources are primarily concerned with the specific technical, operational and economic issues that are encountered within each of these areas.

Now please, dear reader, do not take this as an intended criticism of the way our cities are run. It is rather, more or less, the broad picture which I have run into in my work with most cities and transportation practices and policies over the  last several decades.

What’s the point? The point is . ..

The Politics of Transportation

If we, as would-be agents  of change, will take the time to understand that the transportation function can possibly occupy no more than a couple percent of the mayor’s time and attention, it may help us to work out and  present our ideas in a way that will appeal more to the overall job and concerns of the hard-working people occupying the important decision-making positions in our communities.  And at the same time allow us to achieve one small step after another to advance the sustainability agenda, in our city, in our sector and in all the rest.

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Editor’s note: A vote for Open Systems

If you look just below, in an attempt to give an idea of the extent of the challenges which our mayors face in their cities when it comes to getting full command of the “transportation function” of their cities, we have developed what we call a “mind map”, basically  a thinking exercise in the form of  a quite extensive collection of selected key words and phrases which are together intended to give an idea of the “big picture” of the issues and ranges of competence to which our mayors must somehow have access in order to make wise decisions in the face of the transportation challenges of their city and all these complex interrelated issues.

In this case we have come up with a collection of some 400 key  words or phrases, which cryptically identify a quite large range of  transport modes, old and new, social values and  strategic goals, needs and constraints, concepts and tools, targets and measures, policies and hopes — all of which germane to the challenges of first understanding and then working with a New Mobility Ecosystem.

We think of all this as comprising an ecosystem, because in fact it is, at least if we define an ecosystem is a community of living and non-living things that work together. Ecosystems have no particular size or shape. What they have is that they somehow encompass bring together a combination of entities and multiple degrees of interconnectedness. The study of ecosystems mainly consists of the study of the processes that link all these together elements.

Think of this. If we considered each of these words/concepts as a node, and then drew lines linking each to the others which relate in various ways, we would have something similar to a diagram of a large brain with nodes and synapses linking and lighting them. Without pretending expertise in neurology, I think of this as an illustration of what I would like to call a  social brain.

And this in a rather large nutshell is what in my view the main building blocks of a New Mobility Ecosystem looks like today. (Sorry but in order to read the small print items on the figure it is necessary to blow up this image to at least twice the size you have here — and that will happen if you click the image.)

To conclude for now, what in my view is the main lesson to be gleaned from this exercise?  It comes in two steps.

The first is to acknowledge that it is going to be quite impossible for any mayor and city administration to have on board and at their service the level of expertise and detail that is needed to cover all these many and diverse bases. That’s the first step, which brings us to the second.

And here is where we have to become aware of the enormous potential of open planning and policy making.  In any city there are going to be a certain number of citizens and groups who have if not full immediate expertise at least considerable curiosity and even experience in quite a broad range of these key areas.   In my view this argues strongly for local government to reach out and involve actively the fullest possible range of citizens and participation in ALL phases of the process of transportation reform and improvement.

Moreover, if the people and groups within the  community understand that they are going to be listened to and their ideas at least seriously considered and selectively implemented, their expertise and competence will grow in steady bounds.

When it comes to transport, mobility and access,  open beats closed every time.

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Francis Eric Knight Britton is an American political scientist and sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest book, "Better choices" focuses on the subject of environment, equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions . * Current information: @ericbritton * More at: http://wp.me/PsKUY-2p7

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One thought on “What do you think the mayor is thinking about when you walk through the door this morning to talk to her about that very important transport issue?

  1. Hi Eric. Just to let you know that I forwarded a link to this post to a colleague this afternoon. He is arguing that ‘sustainable transport’ is an ‘elephant in the room’ within the circles of transportation decision makers. I argue that it is only seen as an elephant by some of us, and the others would not really acknowledge that it exists. Your clever demonstration of what is driving the Mayor’s thinking came to mind. Thanks, it was good to read the post again.


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