This week, we've invited Strong Towns members to respond to a series of questions on Nassim Taleb's book, Antifragile. You should really read the book (it's a big inspiration for Strong Towns thinking), but if you haven't, you'll still find it easy to jump in on these topics and conversations, based on the second section of Antifragile.

The following is Strong Towns member, Zvi Leve's answer to this question:

Politicians and city staff have a terrible agency problem; their proposals -- by their nature -- benefit the proposer more than the residents that will pay for the proposal. Yes, a new park or roadway can benefit everyone, but it will reflect most favorably on the people that made it happen. What are other ways in which the agency problems manifests at the city level and how can we overcome this?


Photo by joevilliers

Photo by joevilliers

In Book II of Antifragile, Nassim Taleb elaborates on why “we are fragilizing social and economic systems by denying them stressors and randomness.” His definition of modernity is “humans’ large-scale domination of the environment, the systemic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors.” We can debate whether human technological ingenuity was first applied to weaponry or agriculture, but it is clear that technology has long been a driving force in enabling our domination of local environments.

Technological and organizational advances brought about by the industrial revolution have increased the pace, scale and scope of this domination to such an extent that humans have now become a true force of nature (see for example the prologue of John McNeill’s book Something New Under the Sun : An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World).

An ‘agency ’ or ‘principal-agent’ problem occurs whenever a conflict of interest arises in a decision-making process and one side is in a position to be able to ‘impose’ a solution on the other. This is essentially the definition of ‘government administration’ (the agent) in any form of society (the principal) as Woodrow Wilson so eloquently described in his 1887 essay on ‘The Study of Administration’.  Governments have a keen interest in stable and predictable growth, but Taleb contends that, “We hurt systems with the very best of intentions by playing conductor.”  Bureaucracies, like individuals, are guided by self-preservation and are inherently conservative. On the one hand, politics has always been about balancing competing interests, while on the other hand, politics is also the art of the possible.

In the fascinating book The Planning Game, Alexander Garvin notes that government agencies play a variety of roles: “Local government in America is usually a mix of public and private entities, appointed and elected officials, and tenured civil servants and staff who serve at the pleasure of those officials.” It is common to think that this bureaucracy can magically bring about the changes specified in their plans but in reality ‘government’ is just one player in a ‘planning game’ which is made up of multiple actors. Public officials can create regulations and incentives, but these do not necessarily generate action.

How do governments navigate competing interests? For example, given that streets are usually ‘public space’, how do we decide how that space should be allocated and used? Streets can function as both places (see the Project for Public Spaces' essay, "Streets as Places: How Transportation Can Create a Sense of Community") and circulation corridors.  Should the movement of certain types of vehicles (trains, buses, cars, bicycles) be prioritized? Should space be allocated for on-street uses such as parking, or reserved for bus or bicycle lanes? Who decides on the allocation of space and who pays for it?

Below are a few examples from Montréal which demonstrate the wide variety of scales and actors involved in ‘the planning game’:

Regional Rail Project

Réseau Électrique Métropolitain  (REM in French). This is an initiative of the new infrastructure investment division of the Caisse de dépôt et placements du Québec (CDPQ), the provincial pension fund manager. The CDPQ Infra business model aims to foster effective execution of major public infrastructure projects. It allows CDPQ Infra to generate commercial returns while the government continues to be responsible for identifying proposed projects, determining the public interest to address, and approving the solution to implement on the basis of the options proposed by CDPQ Infra.

By creating bureaucracies, we put civil servants in a position to make decisions based on abstract and theoretical matters with the illusion that they will be making them in a rational, accountable way.
— Nassim Taleb

The provincial government created enabling legislation to offer the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec the opportunity to use its expertise to benefit Québec, to invest in tangible assets, and to implement global best practices to execute work on time and on budget. The ministry of transportation of Québec (MTQ) created a list of major infrastructure projects where an institutional investor role would be appropriate. CDPQ Infra responded by proposing an even larger metropolitan scale electric light-rail train network project

Given that the CDPQ actually does have access to massive amounts of money and project management expertise, this highly ambitious project seems to be on a fast-track toward implementation. There are still numerous questions about the project and its financing. Taylor Noakes, a journalist who has been writing about transportation and urbanism issues in Montréal for decades noted that, “Pension funds financing infrastructure development is a smart solution to the problems that come with electing unimaginative, austerity-driven governments and expecting them to ‘do more with less’.”

This example highlights the inability of provincial and metropolitan governments to realize large scale public transportation infrastructure projects. Taleb notes that, “The story of the nation state is that of the concentration and magnification of human errors […] By creating bureaucracies we put civil servants in a position to make decisions based on abstract and theoretical matters, with the illusion that they will be making them in a rational, accountable way.” Given that public transportation projects are generally not expected to be revenue generating, should institutional investors who are entrusted with managing public retirement funds be financing such projects? The CDPQ is also a major real-estate investor, and the potential for land-value capture around the stations of this project are significant.

Protected bike lane next to a park

And on a completely different scale: We had a municipal fight over an all-season protected bike path and parking spaces, which resulted in a sidewalk being removed. This busy, short-section of bike path needed to be enclosed by a concrete barrier in order to permit adequate snow removal during the winter months. The original plan had been to remove car parking along one side of the street in order to expand a very busy bike path into a protected bike path with a dedicated site which would be kept clear of snow in the winter months (the number of all-season cyclists is growing in Montréal).

A compromise solution led to an absurd outcome. (Photo by Zvi Leve)

A compromise solution led to an absurd outcome. (Photo by Zvi Leve)

This infrastructure project had been created and approved by the central city’s active transportation department.  The location of the project is in the Plateau-Mont-Royal (PMR) borough of the city, which is a very popular urban neighborhood that is undergoing significant gentrification pressures. The borough has a very progressive local administration which is aggressively promoting active transport, whereas the support for the Montreal Mayor and his party comes from more distant car-oriented suburbs. The PMR has seen many vociferous ‘debates’ about parking policies.

After work on the bike-path expansion project began, the local commercial street’s merchant association realized that close to fifty on-street parking spaces (in a residential area) were to be eliminated. The merchant association expressed their concerns about the loss of parking spaces to the Central City administration while lobbying local residents to also express their concerns. These concerns attracted media attention and the City Mayor abruptly intervened to stop the work and find an “alternative solution."  Note that this project had already been through an extensive planning process, a formal tender for services, and was now in the construction phase when the work was stopped.

I happened to cross paths with the borough mayor as he was riding home from a meeting with the mayor the night in which he found out that the project was being halted. He was furious but had not yet decided how he and his administration would react to this disappointing change of plans in which contracts were broken and penalties were to be paid. To make a long story short, this project became a political hot potato, with the central city and the local borough administration exchanging barbed criticisms of one another.  In the end, both the protected bike path and the car parking were preserved, but the sidewalk in the park became essentially a wide curb which is not practical for anyone except children who want to pretend that they are walking on a tightrope. Even worse, the new bike path has a deviation where the original project was halted and the revised version continued, and this has made winter snow removal problematic (which was the entire reason for this ‘upgrade’) and also led to a narrowing of space for cyclists at the intersection – exactly where more space is most important!

In Chapter 7 of Antifragile, "Naive Intervention," Taleb writes “in praise of procrastination”  which may have been a more appropriate response in this scenario. He notes that there is a risk associated with any intervention and that we tend to “over-intervene in areas with minimal benefits (and large risks) while under-intervening in areas in which intervention is necessary, like emergencies [...] There is an element of deceit associated with interventionism [which is] accelerating in a professionalized society”. It is much easier to sell “look what I did for you” than “look what I avoided for you”, although in this example there is some of both: we built a protected bike lane, and we saved the parking!  

Bicycle signal at a busy intersection

By North American standards, Montréal is very much a ‘cyclist city’ but we like to joke cynically that this is *in spite* of our cycling infrastructure, not because of it. Yes we have had bi-directional bike paths since the 1970’s but bi-directional bike paths are now recognized as being inappropriate for urban settings. Our cycling network has never responded well to utilitarian cycling needs, and certainly has not kept pace with ever-increasing demand, particularly since the launch of our Bixi Bike-Share System. We need wide one-way protected bike paths with plenty of room for passing, and we need a continuous well-connected network (i.e. using the arterials) which allows people to get to their destinations. Planning of the city’s cycling network is done by the central city’s active transportation division, but local boroughs are responsible for bicycle parking (a serious challenge) and have some discretion to add to the network, typically by painting bike lanes and other traffic calming measures.  

In recent years, the design of a number of major cycling projects has proven to be woefully inadequate for cycling demands.  For example, one-half of a busy traffic artery going under a rail viaduct was recently allocated to exclusive cyclist use. In the past, single lane interventions of this type have been allocated to cyclists, but this particular location was a crucial choke-point between the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood (see case-study above) and the rapidly growing (and gentrifying) areas of Rosemont-Petite-Patrie. The project ostensibly aimed to link together four separate sections of cycling infrastructure: an in-site bi-directional bike path on the PMR side, a heavily trafficked multi-use path along the rail corridor, and two bike-lane networks; one heading east along a street with heavy-vehicle traffic (buses and trucks) and another ‘bike-boulevard’ along a residential street which runs parallel to a major commercial artery.

Photo by Zvi Leve

Photo by Zvi Leve

Here is a project video (in French) produced by the city describing the context, and the before/after.   It is worth noting that in the project video, there is very little bicycle traffic, but the reality has proven to be quite different! Even before the project was finished, cyclists and pedestrians were flocking to the new ‘protected passage’ in great numbers. To the cyclist community it quickly became apparent that there were some severe design flaws with the project. The City agreed to hold urgent talks with members of the cycling community and did make minor alterations to the project design, but there are fundamental flaws which have never been addressed – such as the large number of cyclists who actually ride on the major arterial which does not have any dedicated cycling infrastructure.

As the project has attracted ever increasing numbers of cyclists, problems with the design of one crucial intersection have become increasingly apparent. The city has installed a dedicated cyclist light at this intersection, but it has only compounded the confusion. The city has had to resort to the use of police to ‘force’ cyclists to follow what is a terrible design. At numerous other intersections where dedicated bicycle lights have been installed, similar problems have arisen; the number of cyclists is far greater than the number of vehicles, yet the amount of space and time allocated to cyclists is insufficient to meet cyclists’ circulation needs, so many people choose to ‘ignore’ the dedicated infrastructure.  In the photo above, the only thing preventing the cyclists from safely crossing the street is the presence of police who are directing the signals for *car traffic* and not for cyclists. The city now assigns police to enforce ‘unnatural’ road conditions.


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About the author

Zvi Leve is a transportation modelling expert whose interests focus on the linkages between transportation, land use, and sustainable development.  With an educational background in economics, statistics, operations research and urban planning and many years of international experience he brings an ideal blend of technical and creative skills to projects.   His PhD research on “Using parking pricing policy as a travel demand management tool” highlighted the importance of price signals in system performance.  When he is not spending his time evaluating the implications of large-scale infrastructure projects, he can be found promoting human-scaled cities and active transportation. He is active in numerous community groups dedicated to rethinking the role of transportation and the built environment in our lives.