A Mayor’s-Eye View of Sustainable Transportation: Politics as the art of the possible

no excuses sir 2The letter that follows is, as you will quickly surmise, not an actual communication from one elected official in one case, but rather a composite, a distillation of experience that I have had over these last years of trying to push the sustainable transportation agenda in many parts of the world, almost always in conjunction and in dialogue with mayors and other city leaders.

As you will see, it is not that they are uniformly adverse to or not interested in the concepts behind sustainable transportation and sustainable cities. It is just that they have a great many other things on their mind, including staying on top day after day of the considerable challenges of managing their city — and, in not very long, running once again for reelection. This is the political reality of which those of us who would be agents of change must be aware, that politics is the art of the possible. Now let’s turn the stage over to our mayor:

Office of the mayor

Dear Professor Britton,

It was a very good experience for us to have shared this last week with you and if I have to make an apology for the fact that I was unable to meet with you more than two times, and quite briefly at that. I have heard from my Deputy Mayor, our Commissioner of Transport and the number of the people and organizations with whom you met during your stay here that this was for us a creative and indeed quite an eye-opening experience. But I do have a few questions.

And while I realize that your expertise is in not some specific area of technical transportation but rather the broader challenge of the politics of transportation, and within that strategic planning, I thought it might be of use to you if I spent a few minutes explaining to you how the challenges that you  advise us on  look from the vantage of a busy mayor.

The key word here is “busy”. All that concerns transportation or mobility is of course extremely important to our community, but it also has to take its place in line with my other concerns which are numerous and extend to such certainly not less important areas as public security, education, public health, sanitation, economic development, law enforcement, community relations, law enforcement, local job creation, our work with associations and other local groups, and my long list goes on.

So in this respect the transportation aspect of my work is just one among many, meaning that I only have so much time and energy to be able to devote to creating the kinds of outstanding programs that your work in the field of sustainable transportation highlights and make so obviously important and desirable.

But here is the reality: from the vantage of mayoral politics, my first goal has to be to ensure that the system we have is “good enough”. I realize this might seem to you to be a low level of ambition, but believe me if the only thing we do is to ensure that it is seen as our citizens and voters as “good enough”, that is already a considerable management challenge.

But it’s very complicated

In your sector only, we have roads and streets that need to be properly maintained, lighting and signage that are keys to safety, laws and traffic ordinances that need to be respected, local buses that need to be safe and run on time, adequate parking provision, taxi drivers and labor unions to negotiate with, new demands in terms of safe cycling and cycle parking, provision for transport of the elderly and handicapped, pedestrian facilities that we need to improve as well as maintained, . . . and believe me, Eric, if we are able to be “good enough” in all of these areas, it will not be without tremendous effort in quite some expenditure on our part. “Good enough” may sound like a weak excuse or as a retreat from excellence, but believe me when you are at the wheel it is your basic goal.

There is a second institutional factor which becomes evident when I get to thinking about the kinds of reforms and improvements that you are suggesting — and that is while individual bits of your good recommendations can in fact be achieved within some months or at most a year or two, the broader framework  we need to develop to know to have a consistent world-level policy about everything we do in the sector takes a bit more time. My unbudgeable reality is that I am elected to office on the basis of a four-year mandate . Now four years may sound to like a lot to you, but let me tell you is that it is not enough to achieve deep reform in any of the sectors that constitute my obligation to the community. It just is not long enough.

In order to move from what you call an UNsustainable transportation system to one that is in terms of the criteria I understand a sustainable one, is no trivial task. It takes not only technical expertise and an ability to sell the ideas to not just one or two groups that happen to like them but to the entire spectrum of often conflicting opinions and interests that constitute our community. I often remember the words of the German social reformer and politician Otto von Bismarck, now one and a half centuries ago, when he said “politics is the art of the possible” (die Kunst des Möglichen). That’s the hard world in which I live and work every day.

And while I am not ducking responsibility here, nor lowering my enthusiasm for getting started with a certain number of the measures and reforms you are suggesting, I do have to make the point Eric that any mayor anywhere wishes to do something extraordinary importance to his community will find difficult to fully achieve in just one four-year mandate. At the very least one needs for, and in the best of possible worlds, according to me, a six-year mandate would be just the ticket to create the basis for turning this big ship around and getting it moving in the right direction.  Failing that, twice-four will have to do the trick, and for that I have to be sure to get reelected.

Looking ahead

But before I leave you on this and get back to work, I do want to thank you for all you did in the course of your short week with us in taking contact to in seeking views and recommendations from such a large number of groups and concerned citizens, not only within the community but also within my own administration.

You opened my eyes especially on the latter. There has to be something to be said for someone who looks at this with a certain level of experience and independent perspective, and who takes the time to concentrate on one very specific challenge that I and other mayors across the country face. I have already heard from a number of these groups who have indicated that they are ready to work with my administration to achieve some very specific things, and I know that this would not occur if we had not had the advantage of our visitor and friend from Paris.

I propose this. Let us now see if we can get to work on some of these projects over the course of the coming months,. And if you schedule permits invite you to come back next year at about this time, and spend another week with us and tell us how you think we are doing. You can be sure that your average mayor, and here I describe myself, does not have time for this kind of important task, so it is good to know that we have friends who can come on over and help us out from time to time.

With all good wishes from and for our beautiful city,

The Mayor

(not signed upon request of the sender)

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For more World Streets coverage of a mayor’s-eye view of sustainable transport, click here. https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/category/governance/mayorlocal-govt/

About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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