Friday, July 9, 2010

The power of consensus

My recent post about sunsets has attracted a number of comments, mostly relating to my argument that park-and-rides are not the answer. When I wrote that post, though, I was thinking more generally and just used the park-and-ride issue as a convenient example. I had a couple of other necessary evils and unsustainable goods in mind.

One idea that's been coming up again and again is consensus. The most striking recent example comes from Barbara McCann of the National Complete Streets Coalition, who visited Copenhagen for the Velo-City conference, and observed that "what is most remarkable in Europe is not a single engineering technique, but the political consensus that Complete Streets are a fundamental tenet of transportation system design, construction, and operation. From this consensus spring a whole host of facilities, policies, and attention to detail that results in a system geared to travel by people, rather than vehicles."

It's not just complete streets: Yonah Freemark observed a pro-transit consensus at work in Paris, and Dave Olsen found one in favor of both transit and complete streets in Hasselt. Certainly if we had a consensus in favor of moving away from cars and towards transit, cycling and walking we would be able to get a lot done.

I get the feeling that Jarrett Walker has been dancing around this issue as well when he talks about railways vs. democracy in India, or funding transit in Chicago.

It also comes up when people talk about Mike Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan and Marty Markowitz, and in the past about Bob Moses and Jane Jacobs. The authoritarian Chinese and the military dictatorship backing Jaime Lerner in Curitiba have both acted to boost transit. How much consensus did any of these people have, and how has it affected their achievements?

It has also come up in this excellent episode of This American Life where Ira Glass and Alex Blumberg compare New York, Jamaica and Barbados. I think this should be required listening for anyone interested in financing government services in a tough economy. What I took away from it is that at one point Jamaica and Barbados were both at the place where New York is now. The Barbadian political, labor and business leaders worked together to forge a consensus, and their economy is prospering. The Jamaican leaders continued to attack and point fingers, and their economy got worse.

There's no question that consensus is a big help in accomplishing your goals. But is it the only way? The only sustainable way?


BruceMcF said...

One tricky part of a discussion about consensus is that everyone says, "let's form a consensus" and then most often, "around my idea".

We can point back to a consensus as an indicator of success, but it is a very open question whether you reach consensus by trying to reach consensus on anything ... it may be that the easiest things to reach consensus have embedded in them big chunks of conventional wisdom, and if the chunks come from conventional wisdom that has outlived its usefulness, are then going to lead to failure down the track.

Perhaps the path to consensus by getting a critical mass of people together agreeing on a first priority, and then finding ways to form a coalition with others who have different priorities, in order to get enough clout to get something established that does in fact work, with that success being used to build the consensus.

That would be a process with the actions and consequences as part of the process of the consensus building, allowing obsolete conventional wisdoms to be shaken out by experience.

Alon Levy said...

In Switzerland, one of the reasons transit works is that there's consensus around it. The stable consensus governments ensure a steady stream of funds; this contrasts with the US, where every time a state's partisan control changes, all older plans may become void or unfunded.