Friday, May 11, 2012

In internet age, ideas still travel slowly

We're all very familiar with the idea that if a volcano blows in Indonesia, a plane crashes in Paraguay or a riot breaks out in Helsinki, news of the event will reach every corner of the globe in a couple of hours. The world is of course connected and news can travel quickly.

Theoretically, ideas can travel as quickly as news, and yet it seems that it isn't the case. Indeed, new ideas, which may be fantastic, well-proven concepts, can take years to be spread and accepted.

When it comes to adopting proven best-practices, that's a huge roadblock.

Two things inspired me to write this post. One, is the announcement that the New York City bike-share system will launch this summer and be sponsored by Citibank. What caught my eye was the parade of articles about the concept that followed the press releases. The second thing that inspired me to write this post are the songs I heard on the radio today. Those two concepts might seem unrelated, but they both show how ideas still spread slowly.


With bike share, New York has been following the exact same media pattern we saw in Boston in 2009-2011. Boston, naturally, was mirrored in London during the same period. Both of course were simple repeats of what happened in Washington a year earlier. The same can be said in many, many other cities.

If you followed the introduction of bike-share in any of these cities, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you've been following it in Portland, Chicago or San Francisco, then you may have noticed the first phases. If you want a sneak peak, just read through anything that came from NYC press this past week.


Basically, bike-share is not a new concept. 3rd generation bike share has been out in force since the summer of 2007, when Paris unleashed the world's biggest system. That system has been mimicked successfully in city after city around the globe. But it doesn't matter how successful it has been in Paris or dozens of other cities, when the concept is "introduced" to a different city, it's always the same.

The comments tend to reflect the following:

It'll never work! No one will ride them! Only tourists will use them! It will be a boondoggle! There will be so many accidents, injuries or deaths!! If people wanted to bike, they'd have their own! There will be rampant vandalism! It'll cost too much!

And so on and so forth. You should know exactly what I'm talking about because every single city boils down to the same sets of (bad) arguments. And in every case, the media and the people ignore the fact that the EXACT same lines were repeated in 2011, 2010, 2009...etc in countless cities across the world.....and in every single case, the comments were off.

If you DO point it out though, there is a common answer.

"So what. We're (New York City/Boston/Chicago/DC/Mexico City/Rome/Denver/San Francisco). We're nothing like (Paris/Boston/London/DC/Mexico City/Rome/Denver/San Francisco). What works there won't work here"

But it does, every damn time.

The hoards of unbalanced tourists that will cause havoc in the street in New York, and ride straight to their death? The size of injuries will probably be very similar to that of Boston, DC, London and so on. As far as I know, the number of deaths or serious injuries can be summed up with the number zero. Traffic chaos? Sure, will be around the same as every other day. Lack of use? Absolutely, just like no one rides the train.

I get it; every city is super-unique....except when they're not. They're still people making the same choices, working similar jobs, trying to get to similar places.



It doesn't matter how connected the world is, it doesn't matter how EASY it is to look up if the scheme has been successful in other cities before, it's always the same. Those making the comments act as if we're still in 1820 where a program 100 miles away effectively doesn't exist because word doesn't travel.

Why don't the people writing articles about potential vandalism, injury, lack of use etc think for a second "hm, I wonder if I'm the only person in the world who has ever been brilliant enough to come up with these potential obstacles? There is a chance I might not be. I should look to see what was said and done elsewhere".


I really do wonder why so many in the media, which pride themselves on research and investigations fail to do the most simple of searches.


What bothers me most about this is that when ideas spread so slowly, it makes it very difficult for other cities to adopt best practices.


We see this over and over again.

Look at "sharrows" painted on roads. They were common in Portland for many years, and they began being used around the country. But even after many major cities had successfully installed them, there were huge barriers to others following suit.

For example, both LA and San Francisco organized expensive and time-consuming "studies" about sharrows. There was no need; Portland could have been taken as a multi-year field study. But no. It had to be done again.

I guarantee if someone were to propose sharrows in Fresno, for example on the Gettysburg bike lane project which lacks bike lanes, the city would say "we don't know if that would work, we need to study it".

I know that's exactly what would happen, because when I asked the city to consider back-in angled parking on Broadway, I was told it wouldn't be done because it was unproven, even though countless cities have proven it's safer and more efficient. It doesn't matter. Like all those other cities, Fresno is unique, and what works there won't work here....


The list can go on. If you live in ANY American suburb, and the city proposed or recently built your very first roundabout....I can recite the article the local paper or TV station produced without having ever read it. I guarantee they interviewed a concerned neighbor that was sure there would be many accidents. I would bet that a local politician was outraged at the congestion that would obviously occur. Of course, like in every other suburb where those points were raised, that never happened.

Change can be scary. However, part of that fear can be relieved by simply looking to see if a concept has been tried elsewhere and if it has worked. It's also important to see if the same concerns were raised and if they were also unfounded.

But how can those ideas be spread if innovation still travels so slowly?


I will have a follow up post looking at social networks and music, and the fact that even when people pro-actively share things, it can take a very long time for stuff to spread.

2 comments:

  1. I like your posts, but I especially love this one. I've encountered this phenomenon many times, and it's nice to have something to link to to explain it whenever the next instance occurs.

    The most recent example in San Francisco was the JFK cycle track. The media interviewed drivers who said it was terrible and at first it was (drivers were parking in the cycle track), but that's what happened elsewhere, yet the reporting was doom-and-gloom without any mention of the same treatment in other cities.

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    1. That's a good one as well. A cycle track was supposed to be put into Boston's north end, and even though NYC has a bunch of them "it will never work here!"

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