Who’s the Expert?

There has been a lot of post-election punditry from advocates on all sides about why Austin voters voted “no” on the latest rail proposal. What we find interesting is that the “no” on rail vote says very little about what voters do want, and there is still a complete disconnect in the conversations about what that might be. Here’s an example: in January of this year KXAN posted an informal poll on Facebook asking “Should taking public transportation underground in Austin be the next step? How would you improve the city’s public transportation system?

The question got 247 responses that show the radical diversity of interests, presumptions, experiences, and expertise people have on the topic. Here are just a few samples [grouping of similar response topics is ours]:

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The dialogue about our next potential transit investment didn’t get any closer to consensus for a specific proposal as groups formed to oppose the Prop. 1 plan but not transit and traditional pro-rail and anti-rail groups weighed in. The people voting also had a range of reasons why they opposed or supported the Prop. 1 measure (scroll down to the 7:30 pm voter interviews). How can traditional planning processes ever succeed when most people don’t have time to follow the whole planning process and come into the discussion with radically different presumptions, expertise, and interests?

Maybe as we begin discussions about a “Plan B,” we can also start an “Approach B.” We love that Joseph Kosper, CEO of Ridescout, hosted a “mobile conference room” on MetroRapid three days after the election to talk with bus riders and City leaders alike about what a Plan B should look like. We also love that civic leaders like Colin Pope, Austin Business Journal editor, proposed changes we can all make right now in an editorial that ran the day after “rail failed.”

Of course, there will need to be technical and policy constraints, but innovation is smothered when all those constraints are stacked on the front end. There are clearly a lot of individuals passionate about solving transportation challenges. Maybe it’s time to encourage them to take the lead, to experiment, innovate, and see how they fare in building consensus for our Plan B. Give Austin’s leaders from various sectors a chance to build small innovations and connect with people to learn what they want and will use. This might be a better approach for Plan B than having transportation professionals trying to direct the public’s interests and energy.

So what’s your role going to be?

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