Greater Greater Washington

Experts should make technical decisions, not policy

From the WMATA governance debate to the 2030 Group's transportation report, there's been a recent push from business groups to convince elected officials to stay away from making decisions and instead leave the policymaking to "experts." That's dangerous.


Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

If you want to get cable TV, an expert cable installer knows which pieces of equipment you need and how to set them up. But the cable guy shouldn't decide how many premium channels you want. That's your choice. The reasons to get certain channels are about what kind of TV you like and how much time you want to spend watching it, not the technical issues.

The same goes for transportation and development. Our nation decided to aggressively build a car-oriented, suburban society after World War II. We created engineering and scientific disciplines around figuring out how to do that: roads of a certain size, freeways spaced a certain distance, cookie-cutter houses and shopping centers that were easy to build quickly in any town anywhere.

If someone has been building these elements of infrastructure for 30 years, we could call them an "expert" on building that stuff. But should they alone decide what kind of towns we should build?

People are overwhelmingly saying, wait a minute, this isn't what we want. Housing prices in walkable areas like Logan Circle, Ballston, or Silver Spring are high and still rising because a lot of people want to live there but there isn't enough supply. We have lots of single-family, detached, suburban homes but not enough apartments and townhouses a short walk from shops, parks, and transit.

People are sending clear signals through their housing choices that they want walkable urbanism. Yet most (but not all) professionals working in the field are locked in to the ways they've been trained and the way they do things. That's where we get the crazy traffic engineer adherence to "standards" even when they make little sense, as this Strong Towns video so effectively parodied.

There's an important role for experts in identifying specific steps to implement a policy. Parochial political concerns become dangerous when making small-scale choices that can enrich indviduals, where the danger of corruption becomes strong. But when it comes to deciding the big picture, overarching directions, we need officials who listen to residents, not just make decisions based on how they've always done things.

The Washingtonian analogues of those experts are the ones Bob Chase and Rich Parsons consulted on their study that aimed to tell leaders what the regional transportation priorities should be (and coincidentally mirrored those priorities they were already pushing for). I spoke with Chase and Parsons last week, and they were adamant that they were just trying to find out the views of experts, devoid of politics.

They said they wanted "a pretty balanced, professional objective study about what works and what's not working well," to "take the local jurisdiction and state perspective out of it." In selecting their anonymous experts, they said they were "looking for people who take the politics out of it, and "intentionally selected people very senior, with 20 years of experience."

That doesn't change the fact that the questions guided people toward megaprojects, and that there's plenty of evidence the list had an exurban bias. Besides having a small number of people from DC, Chase and Parsons refused to tell me which counties the "experts" lived in.

But even had their sample been broader, there's a problem with saying that senior engineers should set transportation priorities. I'd definitely prefer an engineer with 20 years of experience to design a new road or transit line over someone who lacks a professional degree. I'd also prefer to have them tell me how much it will cost and what hydrological problems might arise.

I'd even welcome their input on where to put a line, but we shouldn't be setting priorities just on that basis. A transportation engineer is not responsible for thinking about the merits of different growth patterns, or their effect on people's health and happiness, or on the environmental costs.

Remember, Jane Jacobs got regular people to step up to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway when the "experts" were saying it was necessary. All of the conventional wisdom in the urban planning field at the time held that the road was the only way to make New York work in the modern age.

Should decisionmakers disregard input from the 23-year-old college grad who has a job at PriceWaterhouseCoopers but doesn't want to live in Fairfax County because there aren't walkable places with an urban vibe? What about the 75-year-old in Aspen Hill who's finding it harder to drive, hates that she has to travel 30 minutes to the Pike just to get to most kinds of retail, and wishes she could live in Bethesda but prohibited by expensive housing?

The Board of Trade has been pushing WMATA and local jurisdictions to excise elected officials from any decisionmaking authority on the WMATA Board. Sure, it's the experts and not the elected officials who should decide which contractor is best suited to replacing the broken track circuits. But I want officials who listen to riders to decide whether to cut weekend service. By a strictly performance-based metric, that service is relatively poor at cost recovery, but its benefits to the region go far beyond WMATA itself.

Now, with their survey of anonymous "experts," Chase and Parsons are going to be pressuring groups like the Transportation Planning Board to abdicate their traditional role in setting priorities and instead choose the megaprojects their "experts" picked, which happen to be the same ones they were already pushing for.

They'll say, as they told me, that local officials are too preoccupied with the immediate interests of their local jurisdiction to think "regionally." Instead, decisions about how to spend billions in transportation dollars over decades should go to the professionals, who won't think about the big picture of regional growth but rather just move as many cars or trains as fast as possible as far as possible.

The TPB and other officials should reject this idea. The input of professionals is useful, but far more so when those professionals can attach their names to their recommendations and everyone can weigh them knowing the biases and interests each person brings with them. The input of other people is important too, and our elected representatives, even if imperfect, are the ones best situated to make those choices.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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This is a tremendously important point.

Let me make one small correction. pressuring groups like the Transportation Planning Board to abdicate their traditional role in setting priorities is misleading. The traditional role of the Transportation Planning Board is to staple together whatever they are handed by the transportation departments of Maryland, Virginia, and D.C.

by Ben Ross on Jun 21, 2011 12:53 pm • linkreport

I guess that means that the above ground Dulles metro station should be the one chosen because the politicians prefer the lower price, rather than going with the non-elected MWAA board's choice of the underground station?

by OhioExile on Jun 21, 2011 1:01 pm • linkreport

OhioExile: Yeah, I think if I had been on the board I would probably have voted for the above-ground one. As long as they make the connection to the underground moving walkway really direct (no walking around a zillion corridors, just have elevators and escalators directly to it) then it would be fine.

by David Alpert on Jun 21, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

Yeah, this was pretty much why most of the criticism of Gabe Klein was so off-the-mark. Sorry, but the last thing you want as a DOT head is an "expert". There's an equally silly critique of Rhee that found her lacking because she didn't have 20 years experience as a school teacher/administator.

by oboe on Jun 21, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

What is worse is when we have fools like Chris Zimmerman who think they are experts.

by TGEoA on Jun 21, 2011 1:16 pm • linkreport

Or when we have great elected officials like Chris Zimmerman who don't let themselves be cowed by experts and instead push for what they and the people of Arlington (TGEoA excepted) want.

by David Alpert on Jun 21, 2011 1:23 pm • linkreport

You mention that the "experts" writing this report likely "won't think about the big picture of regional growth but rather just move as many cars or trains as fast as possible as far as possible."

Another danger when relying on engineering "experts," especially when anonymous, is that most of the "very senior" engineers with at least "20 years experience" are likely connected to engineering firms that get business by building large things.

So it's not just that the "experts" are thinking about how to make as many cars as possible, they're also thinking about the type of things that bring business to their industry.

by thm on Jun 21, 2011 1:27 pm • linkreport

People are overwhelmingly saying, wait a minute, this isn't what we want. Housing prices in walkable areas like Logan Circle, Ballston, or Silver Spring are high and still rising because a lot of people want to live there but there isn't enough supply. We have lots of single-family, detached, suburban homes but not enough apartments and townhouses a short walk from shops, parks, and transit.
................................

Housing prices for single-family, detached dwellings are still rising too though.

by Fitz157 on Jun 21, 2011 1:29 pm • linkreport

Fitz - Prices of single family homes are still rising in walking distance of Bethesda and Silver Spring. They have dropped tremendously in Prince William, Charles, and Frederick Counties. (Granted, they may have bottomed, but they went way down.)

by Ben Ross on Jun 21, 2011 1:39 pm • linkreport

Invalidating the criticism of Klein by pointing out how it was more beneficial that he wasn't an "expert" does not seem logical.

By the same, invalidating the opinion of those who criticized Rhee for her lack of experience in both running a classroom and a school district that led to her running DCPS also does not seem logical.

Your arguments would be more sound if Klein and Rhee performed at a level that an "expert" could/has not. As of today, there is not enough evidence to support the conclusion that they outperformed "experts" in the field. So criticisms of them based on the aforementioned points isn't silly or off the mark. At this point, we can judge them by what they did in relation to their predecessors.

by HogWash on Jun 21, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

The Board of Trade has been pushing WMATA and local jurisdictions to excise elected officials from any decisionmaking authority on the WMATA Board.

The purpose of this is to promote the same goal of accountability that you promote here.

The BOT is saying elected officials on the WMATA Board haven't produced the kind of accountability we expect. Instead, it's better to have a strong CEO accountable to the Board and a Board accountable to elected officials.

This sounds convoluted and counterintuitive but BOT's point is the effect will be more accountability, not less.

I see this as a very reasonable position. It puts performance accountability in the hands of the politicians who appoint the Board Members, like the Governor. This is where it belongs. It delegates responsibility to dedicated people who can be evaluated by their performance on this one issue. Remember, we don't all vote in the same governor or mayor elections.

A serious downside to having elected politicians serve on WMATA's Board is the broad portfolio of most elected officials. Look at why Brown is stepping down from WMATA's Board. There are other, pressing demands on his time and voters don't hold him accountable for his WMATA performance.

by WRD on Jun 21, 2011 1:50 pm • linkreport

Experts should inform policy decisions, but policy makers should listen to these experts and think about the greater good instead of political gain.

Now you have a point David, but I also think that experts have a long term view which politicians do not have.

Political appointees are just appointees, not experts in their field. As such it would be very dangerous to undermine the impact and the importance experts have on providing policy advise.

I would argue that policy decisions for the greater good need to be formed thanks to the input of politicians and experts. Removing one or the other would in my opinion increase the likelihood of mistakes being made.

by Vincent Flament on Jun 21, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

Ah, "experts". I always love a good evaluation of technical expertise by those who have all the scientific training of a 9th grade biology class. Experts aren't magical wizards. At best they're people that have studied a topic to the edges of the current limitations. Sometimes that makes them correct, sometimes that exposes the inherent weaknesses of the "science" involved; they will tell you the sky is green, coddling idiots is beneficial, and vaccines cause autism. At the end of the day though, the problem isn't with experts, it's with the general public's absurdly bad scientific training in school.

I often find myself screaming at the tv/radio when some news organization pushes out their latest "expert" as if finding a single person with the appropriate degree and an ability to spout BS amounts to a valid argument. The type of person who gets into media is typically the last person you want framing a debate and selecting an "expert" representative. With no formal ability to recognize BS, the "expert" with the best BS gets the most coverage. But, that's what you get in a sound bite world with a liberal arts education that focuses on validating feelings rather than validating results.

Science should be science and public policy should be public policy. The best technical decision is not always the best societal decision, but as an electorate we need to know when we're going against the optimum solution and accepting a 'good enough' solution. There are some human factors that simply can't be effectively quantified, but that doesn't mean that policy makers get to hide behind bogus interpretations and illogical extensions of results. The most damning thing that we do today is hide data that contradicts our preconcieved agenda rather than simply owning up and saying, I've seen the data and I'm not going to change my mind.

That's leadership and that's ownership.

by ahk on Jun 21, 2011 2:09 pm • linkreport

Lets just be honest here. You don't like the decisions of "their" experts, and instead would rather replace them with the views of "your" experts.

If this report had been written by some train and cycling "experts" we wouldn't be having this discussion.

by freely on Jun 21, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

@freely,
the problem would still persist. the "experts" were selected from one specific viewpoint with an agenda concerning the future of transportation. If they picked a cross-section of "experts" with multiple viewpoints, then any consensus formed, if at all, would have more weight to it.

by cmc on Jun 21, 2011 2:32 pm • linkreport

@Alpert

I agree with you that experts should advise and elected officials should make policy decisions, but calling Zimmerman "great"? He's great in his own mind I'll grant you.

He was a TOTAL failure during his Metro tenure, and is only going to screw up Columbia pike with his ill conceived trolley.

by TGEoA on Jun 21, 2011 2:38 pm • linkreport

Ben Ross wrote:

Fitz - Prices of single family homes are still rising in walking distance of Bethesda and Silver Spring. They have dropped tremendously in Prince William, Charles, and Frederick Counties. (Granted, they may have bottomed, but they went way down.)
....................................

I don't think those areas are comparable to Bethesda and Silver Spring. What about Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and Loudon?, since they have more in common with Bethesda and Silver Spring in regards to proximity to DC.

by Fitz157 on Jun 21, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

@Fitz:

I think Ben's point was that the question of whether prices of single family detached dwellings are still rising in dense walkable areas (e.g. "within walkable distance of Bethesda or Silver Spring") is irrelevant to the debate about what sorts of policies we should be pursuing. Those houses are anomolies--there is no realistic public policy to build such homes. That's because walkability is a function of density.

A SFH in a relatively safe middle-class neighborhood where you can walk to a decent commercial strip is as rare as a pink unicorn.

by oboe on Jun 21, 2011 2:57 pm • linkreport

TGEoA: Zimmerman is why we had no Metro service cuts last year. He's partly why we now have transit directions on Google and Bing and all those mobile transit apps, because he's the only one on the Board who understood the issue when staff needed to be told it was okay not to control the data with an iron fist.

The list goes on.

I know, I know... you have a vendetta against him, and I think you started commenting here just to criticize Zimmerman. But how about some specifics about what you don't like? Just throwing around blanket attacks doesn't persuade much.

The Columbia Pike streetcar seems to be a very positive step. We're working on some posts about the planning around that corridor, by the way.

by David Alpert on Jun 21, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

Excellent observations.

I'd go one step further: the very assertion that someone is an "expert" is typically self-serving. This was the topic of my doctoral dissertation. Technical professionals are not equipped to make the trade-offs that professional representatives of the people are experienced making. Though elected officials are far from perfect, we are better off with them hashing out what is at stake than leaving it up to people who are only willing to comment anonymously.

by DDDL on Jun 21, 2011 3:35 pm • linkreport

oboe wrote:

I think Ben's point was that the question of whether prices of single family detached dwellings are still rising in dense walkable areas (e.g. "within walkable distance of Bethesda or Silver Spring") is irrelevant to the debate about what sorts of policies we should be pursuing.
.......................................

It is relevant though because Alpert wrote "We have lots of single-family, detached, suburban homes..." He is the one comparing condos/townhomes in high density areas (Ballston/SS/LC) to SFH's in the suburbs.

by Fitz157 on Jun 21, 2011 3:35 pm • linkreport

Zimmerman is responsible for non-service cuts last year? Is that documented anywhere other than his own press statements?

Because of Zimmerman's "expert" experience -- which apparently consisted of mostly riding on European systems he tried to micro-manage operations. Which he had no business doing in the first place!

A director's job is to provide oversight and develop policy. Not micro-manage the ops guys. Some of them literally threw a party when he quit. What did Zimmerman do about cost control and long term finances? Nothing on the former and not much on the latter.

And since you are planing some posts on the gentrification of Columbia pike, I hope you include some reasonable cost estimates. So far the County has been refusing to release any realistic data.

by TGEoA on Jun 21, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

+1 to Vincent Flament

I think David draws too bright of a line between policy decisions and implementation decisions. The reality is far more like a continuum. Likewise, the decision-making process involves policy shaping implementation that is guided by the experts, but the experts also inform policy.

I get that this 2030 Group proposal isn't all that great, and its certainly not transparent - but I think this particular critique is a bit of an overreach - both in the description of the status quo (again, more of a continuum than discrete entities) and in the application of this case (critiquing the role of 'experts' in general, as opposed to the role that some select experts played in this particular report).

by Alex B. on Jun 21, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

I think one of the breakfast links summarizes it all:Brown's top priority: Chocolate milk: Kwame Brown pushed hard to restore chocolate milk in DC schools at last week's confirmation hearing for Kaya Henderson. Why? A first grader presented him with some research on the matter. Oh, and the dairy lobby has been pushing for it. (DC Food For All)

We can't let first graders set the policy on chocolate milk in school lunches, despite their expertise on the subject.

by Jasper on Jun 21, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

@Oboe: "A SFH in a relatively safe middle-class neighborhood where you can walk to a decent commercial strip is as rare as a pink unicorn."

Unless you meant to add "detached" but forgot, I live in a pink unicorn in a rather large herd of them: single family houses -- rowhouses, but SFHs all the same -- in walking distance of Eastern Market and Barracks Row. I believe you live in another member of the same herd, if maybe on the fringes of it (in terms of walking distance).

(As it happens, my house actually has a distinctly pinkish tinge because of the particular history of its sometimes-painted brick. The horn seems to be invisible, though.)

by davidj on Jun 21, 2011 4:07 pm • linkreport

TGEoA: On non-service cuts, we documented it constantly as the issue was going on. Arlington was the first to step up with "Fair Share for Metro" while Maryland was saying they'd like to cut funding and DC was waiting to see what the others would do.

On micromanaging, I wrote a whole report about not micromanaging so I won't defend any micromanaging, but perhaps you can cite some examples.

During this same time most people thought that Metro had huge problems with customer service, declining service quality and general ineptness. More people wanted the Board to kick some butt. Zimmerman was the only one who told Metro staff what everyone was thinking, that they needed to do a better job? No surprise some people there were happy to lose him.

Zimmerman also pushed to end some micromanaging, like the practice of having the Board actually review resumes for senior Metro officials instead of just letting the GM/CEO hire whom he wants.

by David Alpert on Jun 21, 2011 6:50 pm • linkreport

As a veteran planner at two MPOs (neither of them TPB), I have to say the biggest challenge in getting elected officials to make transportation decisions is that most of them don't care about transportation. It's not one of the top things they're hearing from their constituents about, so it's not something they expend a lot of energy educating themselves about. At the end of the day they are the ones who have to vote and be held accountable, but sound decision-making by them requires a strong hand from "experts" in a number of fields (multi-modal transportation planning, land use, air quality, energy, social work, etc. - not just highway engineering, and not just from professionals who are nearing the end of their careers) and, most importantly, the public. Citizens are finally starting to speak with their dollars in terms of the housing stock they buy, but until there's a critical mass of citizen involvement and pressure on politicians to get transportation (and land use) right, large scale transportation planning decisions will continue to be made based on popular beliefs about both policy and engineering that are 30 or so years behind the times. Get out there and protest your local MPO/transit authority/city or state DOT!

by Bad Planner on Jun 22, 2011 11:42 am • linkreport

"Our nation decided to aggressively build a car-oriented, suburban society after World War II. We created engineering and scientific disciplines around figuring out how to do that: roads of a certain size, freeways spaced a certain distance, cookie-cutter houses and shopping centers that were easy to build quickly in any town anywhere."

-------------------------

"cookie-cutter houses" are not exclusively U. S. suburban by any stretch.

I've seens LOTS of look-alike houses and - apartment buildings - in DC. As well as in New York and every other dense city, here and abroad.

by ceefer66 on Jun 22, 2011 3:17 pm • linkreport

Such as those on the old Catholic Sisters property to the northeast of CUA and the Red Line, IIRC built during the 1980s.

by Douglas Willinger on Jun 23, 2011 2:46 am • linkreport

The politics around the WMTA and their new rails is laughable--people wanting to apply scientific studies, others wanting to save a penny, and then those that are just NIMBY in many disguises. Take the Dulles Airport stop. The basic question is whether to put the station at the terminal for convenience and to encourage use or to put it a half a mile away so that workers that live around the airport might take the train to work (as if they don't themselves work at the terminal). Stupid. How helpful would the National Airport stop be if it was simply left over in Crystal City?! Put the stop at the terminal, anything less is a joke. Further, putting the cost burden on the toll road is foolish and will starve the project into failure. That road is already overpriced and stripping it of funds and drivers will only lead to a degraded, poorly maintained road.

by Matthew Weaver, PMP on Jun 26, 2011 9:32 am • linkreport

@Matthew Weaver,

You make some good points.

An underground station close to the terminal is the only sensible option. Bad enough that the Silver Line is in reality a combination Tysons developers' boodoggle and Reston/Herndon property value enhancer with a Dulles Airport station thrown in as an afterthought. And it's already a stretch to imagine people hauling enough luggage for a cross-country or international trip schlepping all the way out to Dulles on Metro - after likely changing trains. Putting the Dulles station far out near the parking garages pretty much guarantees hardly any travelers will us it.

As for the Tolls Road tolls, one only has to look at New York to see what happens when roads are used as cash cows for funding transit. Tolls constantly increase and road maintenance becomes non-existant. NY's Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and Port of NY-NJ Authority facilities have the highest tolls in the country and are in terrible shape. And the transit fares increase whenever a new union contract is negotiated.

We can look for the same thing to happen with the Toll Road and the Silver Line. The Toll Road, once in excellent condition, is in now bad shape, appearing to get worse every year. Once the constant toll increases begin - and they will - even more drivers will use Route 7 as an alternate. Eventually there will be pressure to widen the portion of Route 7 between the Toll Road and the Loudon County line. The people in the expensive neighborhoods along that route are going to really love that.

by ceefer66 on Jun 27, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

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