Syndicate content

metropolitan planning

Washington’s Metro — the costs of carelessness

Brian Levy's picture

This is the second post in a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post reveals how multiple layers of government and inattention to quality controls leads to deterioration in performance.

June 22, 2009 WMATA Collision
June 22, 2009 accident on Metro's Red Line
For those who are so disposed, finding instances of government dysfunction can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But the resulting back-and-forth cycle of blame, defensiveness and recrimination can be a dangerous distraction from the crucial task of  getting public agencies that play a central role in our daily lives to work better. Take the example of Washington’s Metro.

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenge of public management. This year, Washington’s Metro seemed to be a good case to choose — barely a week has gone by without one or another crisis of Metro management making it into the headlines.

The Metro case demonstrates vividly the costs of carelessness in our discourse about government. (In a complementary blog post, I drill more deeply into how this ‘Great Gatsby’ government discourse works. ) But it also points to a possible way forward — how a combination of public entrepreneurship and active citizenship potentially can be leveraged to foster a sustainable turnaround of performance. (For additional detail on the recent Metro experience, here is a link to an article published in the Washingtonian, a few days after I taught the case at SAIS.)

In the beginning, Metro looked like a success story. It opened its doors to passengers in 1976; its 117 miles of track, over 215 million trips per year (and up-front $9.3 billion capital investment) made it the second largest system in the United States. Washingtonians came to expect a streamlined, comfortable, reliable, and aesthetically pleasing commute. In 1987 and again in 1997, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority won ‘Outstanding Achievement’ awards from the American Public Transportation Association.

But beneath this success something else was incubating.  By 2001, the key management tasks had become routine operational ones – but Metro’s long-time (1996-2006) general manager, Richard White, was not one to sweat the details. “He was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill…He drove to work….He was part of the regional dialogue about highways and land use and everything else….[he] didn’t spend much time mingling with the rank and file”. The system began to decay. In 2006, the Metro board terminated his contract, three years early.

Urbanization reviews: connecting the dots between urban geography and economic development

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
Over the last 5 years, the World Bank has conducted a number of in-depth, systematic analyses to zero in on the specifics of urbanization in its client countries. These so-called “Urbanization Reviews” pay special attention to the linkages between urban geography and economy: Where do people live within cities? Where are the jobs? How do residents move around cities? How do they move between cities? How does this affect cities’ economy as well as their country’s overall development?

In this video, Marisela Montoliu Muñoz, World Bank Director for Urban Development and Disaster Risk Management, provides a sweeping overview of the Bank’s Urbanization Reviews, and explains why a better understanding of the urbanization process is critical to helping countries grow sustainably and maximize their economic potential.

Click here to view a list of Urbanization Reviews that have been completed so far.

Clogged Metropolitan Arteries

Otaviano Canuto's picture
Bad conditions of mobility and accessibility to jobs and services in most metropolitan regions in developing countries are a key development issue. Besides the negative effects on the wellbeing of their populations associated with traffic congestion and time spent on transportation, the latter mean economic losses in terms of waste of human and material resources.

Learning, Labbing and Loving It: When Cities Come Together to Learn

Victor Vergara's picture

Participants of the Global Lab on Metropolitan Strategic PlanningOn April 19th, the Annual Regional Assembly of the Regional Planning Association (RPA) of New York looked some what different. In the audience were representatives from 10 cities and World Bank staff. RPA was launching the 4th Regional Plan for the New York region, and other cities were there to listen, learn and bring their own experience to the table. Why metropolitan planning and why New York? What brought this group together and how does peer-to-peer learning bring a new dimension to the process of learning? How does it influence better outcomes and a rich iterative process of evidenced based learning? Let’s start at the very beginning.