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Provisional Solutions, not Provisional Leaders

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

One of the things I mentioned on Tuesday with regards to Bobby Ware and the direction CDOT needs to take bears explaining a little more.  One of the most important aspects of running a business in the private sector is the notion of "agility."  If a business can't adapt to changing times, they'll go the way of the buggy whip.  Disruptive technologies like the car at the beginning of the 20th century or the internet at the end drove many businesses under and produced new titans of industry.

What does all this have to do with CDOT?  Like businesses, cities have to adapt to changing times.  Cities need diverse economies, a large pool of human capital, and a willingness to try new solutions.  Chicago has the first two and that sets us up to at the very least survive the current upheaval.  But if we want to thrive in the next generation like we're capable of, we're going to have to be creative.

Unfortunately, everything about the way a municipal democracy works is at odds with agility and creativity.  Elected politicians are loathe to try anything which would raise taxes or would not show direct benefits to their constituents before the next election.  Appointed leaders may have more freedom, but not if they're constantly afraid for their job like a struggling quarterback looking to the sidelines wondering when the coach will send in the backup--and certainly not if they're only labeled as an "interim" leader.

That fear also prevents departments from doing much of anything without a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Engineering Assessment (EA).  I'm not advocating for starting big new projects like the Circle Line or the Congress Parkway redesign without sufficient study first.  But not everything that CDOT does is so large-scale.  Really effective change can come from trying all sorts of smaller projects on a provisional basis (say, 3-4 months,) and then determining their future


Projects like bulb-outs at big intersections can shrink the width of the street and also force right-turning cars to slow down because of the tighter turn radius.  Temporary curbs like the ones above (photo courtesy of the MV Triangle Blog) can be installed before taking the time and expense to build out the sidewalk.  Or consider giving pedestrians (and bikes) a leading green--this is a change CDOT can make unilaterally at a handful of trial intersections before deciding whether and where the project should be expanded.

Even--and I almost hate to say this--social media can play a role here.  Even if CDOT (or CTA, for that matter) cannot take immediate action on an issue, making it easier for citizens to inquire about an issue and generally opening up the conversation can only be a good thing.  Currently you see a crop of reporters who will solicit questions from their readers and then take a couple to the powers that be.  In this day and age, we shouldn't need a middleman to be able to communicate with our government, and government should not be able to hide its inertia.

So how do we fix this? It's incredibly simple.  First, Mayor Daley has to find someone who both shares is vision for what Chicago can become and has the gumption to go after it.  Secondly, the Mayor has to give him enough rope to hang himself.  Scrap the "interim" title, make a big deal of the power you're investing in CDOT, and then promise yourself you won't even think about judging their work for at least 3-4 years.  And then we the people must have the same type of patience to not go screaming to an alderman every time something changes on our block.  Give yourself a chance to adapt to the changing face of our city, and then work with the powers that be improve things.



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