The Easy Way to Fix Your City's Transportation System

It comes down to carrots and sticks.

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Ok, so it's impossible to achieve a perfect commute, let alone build a perfect city mobility system. People in cities do not necessarily agree about what the perfect system would look like, nor do most citizens spend time thinking about what creating this system would actually entail. City residents also have very different mobility needs: they have reached different points in their lives, reflect different cultural backgrounds, live in neighborhoods with multiple street types and land use patterns, and take very different routes to work.

Yet as cities in the 21st century grow again (and are projected to grow at a much faster clip in the next 30 years), everyone from mayors to Department of Transportation commissioners to developers, entrepreneurs, advocates, and activists are trying to figure out the silver bullet to our transportation woes. Is it a streetcar line? A bus rapid transit system? More bike lanes? Allowing ridesharing services to proliferate?

The truth is there's no silver bullet. But cities can still do a better job providing mobility than they do now, and they can start by focusing on the "sticks" and "carrots" of transportation. That means improving alternative transportation options on one hand, and creating disincentives to driving alone on the other.

The Carrots

People often try to engage me in an argument as to whether streetcars or BRT systems are "better," because I pushed both in different cities. Part of me relishes these arguments, and I’ll often participate to some degree, but I also find them futile. Cities are complex ecosystems with varying transportation needs that are context-sensitive. Neighborhood type, time of day peaks, age and physical ability of citizen population, mix of retail options available by distance, historical land-use patterns — all these and many other factors influence the urban travel network.

I have spent my career thus far trying to provide people with layers of options to choose from, and to lower the friction and costs associated with using the options that "we" want them to use. (The options and the "we" have been slightly different depending on whether I was in the private or public sector, but the same rules apply.) This strategy is incredibly effective in the long-run. When people make their own change, it is more likely to stick, as it has in Washington, D.C., and I think will in time in Chicago.

Of course, like any living breathing organism or ecosystem of organisms, a transport network knows no stasis. By definition it is in constant flux. Did I mention that people generally don’t embrace change, particularly when it is forced upon them? This is another reason to put the options in front of people, to entice them with the cost-benefit and ease of use approach, and to let them decide what is best for them at that moment in time. This is the carrot approach.

A great example is the Capital Bikeshare program, which we launched in 2010, overcoming a lot of obstacles including placement issues and funding challenges. Someone has to go out on a limb and say "let's do this," and luckily I had an amazing mayor in Adrian Fenty and city administrator in Dan Tangherlini who embraced the challenge (they also launched the SmartBike DC bike-share pilot, which was a big help). The result was a form of super low-cost, fun, zero-emission, effortless bicycle transport that gives people another great transportation option.

Capital Bikeshare. Image courtesy of Flickr user Elvert Barnes.

The Sticks

With transportation, as in many facets of a person’s life, you have to give people great carrots if you're also going to follow with the equally important behavioral inducement of a stick. I do believe in the importance of using disincentives to stem single-occupancy-vehicle use, but I often come at it from a different mindset than other officials. I like to ask: How can I provide a carrot that adds so much value that people don’t mind the stick? Or, put another way, how can you meld the carrot with the stick so it’s more palatable?

For example, when we wanted to raise rates and extend parking times in Washington, D.C., it was in the context of a massive upgrade to facilities. People were so sick of crappy 1970s meters, which were often jammed with paper clips and broken when you parked, but (to their chagrin) unjammed and accompanied with a parking ticket when you got back to your car. The DDOT team conducted pilots of eight different meter configurations, as well as street sensors and pay-by-phone systems, so we could see how they functioned in the real world and get public and DDOT employee feedback on how the different systems worked independently and as part of the unified city system. This “participatory government” approach is key to crowd-sourcing the solution and getting people to embrace the change. Also, by running a pilot and getting real-world feedback, we were able to realize a significant return-on-investment for taxpayers.

D.C.'s many broken parking tickets. Photos courtesy (left to right) of Flickr user Daniel Lobo,

After the pilots we replaced our outdated meter stock with low-cost solar powered meters that accepted credit cards and communicated with our servers when they were broken. We integrated a pay-by-phone option that triggered a green light on the meter via wireless for a seamless and effortless customer experience. We upgraded the devices for our traffic enforcement personnel so they would never issue a ticket to a user who had paid. Finally, with industry input, we reconfigured freight parking by lengthening and adjusting placement of loading zones. We also set the stage for next-generation mobile and prepayment via permit options for large companies like FedEx and UPS, which is going live this summer — thereby being useful and friendly to suppliers making deliveries which eliminated a lot of double parking citywide.

So when parking rates went up by 25 to 50 cents here and there and we extended payment hours in the business districts from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., it was not so controversial. People were sick and tired of having to carry change, encountering broken meters, and getting unnecessary parking tickets. In some sense we made it both easier and harder to park in Washington, D.C. But parking revenue is up by approximately 60 percent since 2010, turnover is improved for retail, congestion is better, and motor vehicle registrations are down in the District by 6 percent,  while the population is growing by 1,100 people per month. That’s an example of a stick, enclosed in a carrot, that I consider a win.

The Lessons

So there are a few key lessons to take to heart. The first is that improving transport systems comes down to "change-management" — meaning the way you make the change is as important as the change itself if you want it to have permanence. Another is that in changing the way people move, transportation sticks and carrots should ideally work in harmony, and can often complement each other. Yet another is that services that add value to the city and the customer experience are a great way to bridge the carrot-stick divide, especially compared to just "raising prices," and can also result in much higher revenues. Last, encouraging and facilitating public participation in major transportation decisions via pilot projects is a great way to engage the community and get buy-in for a plan. This isn’t a formula for a perfect transportation system, but it’s certainly a recipe for a more perfect one than exists today.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Top image: connel /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Gabe Klein, an Urban Land Institute visiting fellow, was head of the Chicago and Washington, D.C., transportation departments. He helped build Zipcar as a vice president from 2002 through 2006 and regularly consults with cities and private companies on shared transport systems.