July 07, 2016

Transforming City Transportation Landscapes Through Policy: An Interview with Harvard Professor Diane Davis (Part 2)

EcoBici bicycle sharing system in Polanco, Mexico City

This is Part 2 of a two-part interview series with Diane Davis.  Part 1 can be found here.


Diane Davis is the Charles DyDiane Davis Photoer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism, and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). She leads a project funded by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF) called “Transforming Urban Transport –­ The Role of Political Leadership” (TUT)” that identifies actionable knowledge drawn from case study analysis of eight different cities around the world — Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Seoul, Stockholm, and Vienna — where leading actors have successfully introduced policies that fundamentally transformed their cities’ transportation landscapes.


Your research looks at cities retrospectively, but can your same framework apply prospectively to cities looking to implement world-class projects?

The historical, institutional, and socio-spatial factors shaping the urban dilemmas of our cases vary. Nevertheless, this grouping offers shared takeaways for implementing world-class projects. Building on the idea of “right timing,” major transport innovations can grow out of conflict and crisis moments alongside trials, interim projects, and incremental efforts, but they require effective planning and management to create transformative momentum. To implement world-class projects, one needs an effective planning apparatus and leaders who can mobilize teams of technical experts to push forward visionary ideas. 

Team ITDP at Capitol Finish
The US Capitol

The presence of key champions willing to take risks and committed to getting things done is critical. At the same time, leadership is rarely embodied in one individual or organization, but rather the effective fulfillment of needed roles and functions as they arise, in some cases by coalitions of actors, collaborative partnerships, or even political competitors. Strategies for advancing policy innovations are highly contingent on the local institutional context as well as the type and stage of intervention, and scientific data and evidence are no panacea to real world dilemmas. Yet several of our cases speak to the value of incorporating data—from public polls and surveys, observational exercises, and GPS and monitoring equipment—to guide decision-making.

Transport policies and programs gained broader public support and political buy-in where they were connected to other issues — economic growth, environmental sustainability, urban livability and quality of life. Proponents who understand the problem and solution constitute but a minority in democratic contexts, which requires appealing to popular conceptions of the good city and the good life.


Change management versus building political consensus is often referenced as the source for how successful projects get implemented.  Which approach do you think has worked more readily?

Change management and building political consensus are not binary or dichotomous, but rather, deeply interrelated and complementary. Between 2002 and 2007, Seoul Mayor Myoung Bak Lee demolished two major downtown expressways and restored the historic stream underlying the site as the centerpiece of a linear park, regenerated Gangbuk central business district, and overhauled the bus system. The Lee administration deployed a number of change management strategies: aligning the incentives of key decision makers, reorganizing the transport planning bureaucracy into two streams, publicly proceeding with the highway demolition project while keeping plans for the bus overhaul hidden, and forming a series of citizens committees to move forward with bold and contentious decisions.

Insadong St.- Seoul, Korea
Insadong St.- Seoul, Korea

While the city’s approach to change management thereby sought to mitigate potential resistance, it nevertheless met mobilized opposition from affected bus operators, property owners, and political interests. To build political consensus, the mayor personally visited stakeholder groups to hear requests, while the citizens committees helped reach mutually agreeable solutions. Hence, the change management strategy maximized the City’s room to maneuver, while consensus building helped the City overcome political impasse and fully realize its policy aims.


Is there an approach that is more applicable to booming versus shrinking cities?

All of our case studies are set in booming cities because population growth and sprawl cause escalating public demands for urban transport and mobility services. Having said that, we have also studied innovations – like New York’s street-making initiatives – that can be applied to declining cities as a way of economically invigorating downtowns while also achieving mobility aims.

In drawing lessons for both contexts, the issue of territorial management and coordination becomes central. Successes is owed to strategic planning and policy implementation at the regional scale. Although such findings derived from research on booming cities, such coordinated efforts are equally (if not more) critical in managing mobility challenges in declining cities — especially if meeting evolving public needs and demands remains a priority in the face of shrinking public fiscal capacity.

Designated lanes for Mexico City's BRT system- Metrobus
Designated lanes for Mexico City’s BRT system- Metrobus.

For shrinking city-regions, institution building may seem less pressing. Even so, sometimes transportation policy change will enable institutional change, rather than the two being either-or. Our research on Mexico City’s BRT showed that the introduction of a far-from-novel policy measure was innovative and transformative precisely because it changed the institutional arrangements. That is, BRT’s impact institutionally—curbing the powerful jitney cartels and enlarging the public sector role—may have been even more significant than its impact on mobility, at least if one thinks about the immediate mode share implications for a city of nine million residents.

Whether in booming or declining cities, scales of action must match the existing footprint of urbanization, and institutions will continue to play a key role in urban development trajectories and as such, merit greater attention for the purpose of unlocking more transformative pathways and futures.


This interview is part of a partnership series between ITDP and Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF).  In this series, we will feature interviews with researchers from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.

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