Time to piss off the bike riders: a lesson in unintended consequences.

I wrote this in response to a debate on Facebook a few days ago regarding whether or not urban bicycle riders should be required to wear helmets (a lot of people think that they shouldn’t be required because the inconvenience may discourage people from biking for urban transportation.  Kind of messes up the hair.)

As you may recall from the book, my husband Dave is a long-distance bicyclist, and he had a pretty awful accident a couple of years ago.  So I knew that I had a gut-level bias on this topic, and I initially resisted commenting because I knew that wasn’t objective on that issue.  But as the debate continued, I became worries that there was a significant blind spot developing in the discussion: the statistical odds of someone having a big wreck somewhere, and the political and cultural fallout on the urban biking movement that has a good chance of resulting from that.

As I reread this, I thought that the issue demonstrated something that I had grappled with in the book: the power and the risk of blindly pursuing a strategy without critically thinking about (and addressing) the potential unintended consequences.  This blind spot, this lack of critical self-review, has led to case after case of massive, damaging unintended consequences, to the point where I suspect that the urban professionals of the next two to three generations will spend much of their time undoing the damage of our past good intentions.  The greatest risk I see to many of the evolving urbanist movements is a disturbing tendency to pursue the same ipso-facto, all we have to do it X and everything will be fine, thinking that gave us much of our current design and policy indigestion.

Do recall that this was written as a Facebook post, so it’s not great literature.  But I’d be grateful for your feedback.  I’m well aware that I have blind spots, too.

____

Ok.  This is way too long, but I’m seeing some overly simplistic responses here that worry me–and if they’re indicative of anything, could spell trouble.

 

One anecdote does not equal data, but I think that the assumption that bikes are slower than cars and thus safe, and that brushing aside reasonable safety issues to try to get more people riding for transportation looks like asking for trouble.

Here’s the anecdote:  My husband is an experienced long-distance bicyclist.  He regularly does 30+ mile rides that take him down city streets, suburban roads, all sorts of places where you have to be a pretty experienced biker to navigate.  So his expertise level is close to the top of the chain of what we see in urban biking.  Two years ago, he was riding on a dedicated bike trail– a rails to trails, no obstructions.  Few people on the path, early morning.  He’s riding along, not racing.  He turns his head to thank the one guy passing him for giving the usual “on your right” warning, catches his front tire on a pebble, flips over his handle bars and smashes his shoulder blade into pieces.  That’s not an injury I’d recommend–it took over a year to get him anywhere near back to normal.

But here’s the really scary part:  If he had not been wearing a helmet, he would have landed on his brain stem.  He’d be either a vegetable or dead.

The unavoidable fact of the matter is that you ride a bike because it enables you to go faster than you could on foot.  Basic physics says that the higher the speed at which an object is moving, the more force it takes to stop.  That means that if you’re moving faster and something makes you stop suddenly, you’re going to experience more force in the impact.  If I trip and fall down while running, I’ll probably get hurt more than if I’m walking (I’ve got plenty of experience with both!).

Increase acceleration, and it’s simple math.  And as long as people are biking in environments that also include other people, dogs, garbage cans, street signs, potholes, pebbles…people are going to have bike accidents.

That by no means indicates that people shouldn’t bike–all the other benefits are huge–but it does mean that there is some risk–it might be less than some other kinds of activities, and again there are huge benefits–but pretending that bike riders in a city have no more risk of serious injury than a pedestrian doesn’t make sense. A helmet law isn’t the same as wrapping people in bubble wrap so that no one gets a scratch.  It’s more like an air bag: relatively unobtrusive guard against catastrophe.

Safety do-gooding aside, here’s a practical concern:  If urban biking advocates resist reasonable regulations to protect people from catastrophe (not bubble wrap) there’s a big risk to the movement of a backlash or loss of credibility when a bad accident (for whatever reason) does occur.  Press coverage of one ugly wreck could easily push elected officials to say “see?? See?? We can’t encourage bikes!!”  Which of course is the opposite effect from what cities need, or what anyone here wants to see happen.  That certainly could undo any increase in biking that might be possible because people don’t have to mess up their hair.

 

From the Good Ideas File: Knowing the cost in Reno

A lot of people have been weighing in on the debate over the Tesla incentives deal with Nevada, but I wanted to share this article as both a valuable insight into what exactly that deal included and as an exceptional example of how to make those costs transparent, tracing out the potential impacts clearly and about as objectively as possible.

Unfortunately, or perhaps necessarily, that clarity is coming from the newspaper doing an outstanding job of fiscal reporting, rather than from the economic development people.

 

Take a look at how the Reno Gazette-Journal lays out each of several elements of the incentive package:

Tesla factory rendering

From Reno Gazette-Journal

1) Description of type of incentive (loan, grant, infrastructure, etc.)

2) Estimated cost of incentives; conditions and requirements on Tesla in order to get it.

3) What rules have been changed compared to the way these programs typically work, and

4) Bottom Line Impact — not just on the state, but the potential cascading impacts on other industries, local communities, etc.

Now, I’m not privy at all to the negotiations, and I know barely anything about Nevada’s incentives programs, so I’m going to be quick to say that I have no idea whether the facts here are accuate or not.  That’s not the point of sharing this with you.

 

What I do want you to notice are two underlying lessons here:

1) Economic development incentives don’t exist in a vacuum.  If you give money to a business, that is money that is going to have to come from somewhere or not be available for something.  It’s an opportunity cost.  Pure economists understand opportunity costs as a basic element of how economics works.  It’s the principle that we sometimes sum up as There’s No Free Lunch.

Economic development people too easily forget or sidestep that — or write it off as someone else’s problem.

No wonder economic development is developing a credibility problem.

 

2) More the case now than ever: if you don’t disclose the tradeoffs, if you don’t demonstrate the costs and the benefits for all your residents and businesses and elected officials and the world to see, someone else will do it — and they will not do it the way you want.  This article talks about the costs, but it doesn’t address how those costs weigh against the value of the expected benefits.  I’m sure the economic development minds who crafted the deal know a lot about the expected benefits.  But because they did not themselves lay out the costs AND the benefits, someone else did it, but without that second part.  Which does nothing but make it look like a costly rip off for everyone else who will be affected.

 

Now, you might think that this wouldn’t happen in your state or community because, frankly, we’re not used to seeing this level of local journalism in most parts of the country anymore.  But the thing that has really changed is that anyone with an Excel spreadsheet and a decent command of Google searching can put this research together in a couple of hours.  You have a whole hell of a lot of those types around.  And they can put their findings across to more people than read your local fishwrap before you know what has happened.

So, let’s be pragmatic (cynical, even): You gotta lay it out.  You have got to make a case for the costs and the benefits of any incentive, whether it’s a local loan or a Tesla deal.  And you gotta do it, and do it clearly, and do it honestly, and do it well.  Otherwise, someone else is going to do it for you…or to you.  Guess it depends on you.

 

Big kudos to reporter Anjeanette Damon and the Reno Gazette Journal editorial staff for one of the best pieces of government finance reporting I may have ever seen in a general interest newspaper.  

From the Good Thinking File: Are Deal Incentives Killing the Economic Development Profession?

Readers of the Wise Economy Workshop may recall some mutual interviews and content-sharing between me and Ed Burghard of the Strengthening Brand America platform.  I’ve admired and appreciated Ed’s marketing and communication mastery and his determination through his American Dream efforts to get economic development practitioners out of the dead end of thinking that recruiting businesses and counting jobs are good enough work to say that you’re benefitting your community sufficiently to earn your salary.  As Ed articulates so well in pushing the American Dream Index as a better measure of whether economic development efforts are actually working, the goal isn’t simply to get more.  It’s to build a community’s economic health.  And if you look at the American Dream Index, it’s clear that on those measures, a lot of us have a whole lot of room for improvement.

From cdn.history.com

Ed has been particularly concerned about the impacts of mega-deals, like the Nevada Tesla incentive cornucopia — and he’s pinned down something that I tried to say in the book: the incentives arms race threatens to render the economic development profession (and economic development professionals) irrelevant. 

 

You need to read what Ed wrote, especially if you work in economic development, but also if you do planning or administration or whatever  – or if you just give a damn about the future of your community.  Incentives use, proper use and misuse impact every other part of what we do… as well as our credibility with and relevance to

note the blue ahead. From Forbes.com

the public.

 

A lot of economic development practitioners are talking about how to reboot the profession.  But we’re running out of runway for talking.  We have to refocus this work on the factors that make communities work, that make them economically healthy and resilient.  That will require not only new tactics, but new core skills, a more nuanced understanding of how communities and regions actually function economically, an openness to experimenting and incremental change and a long-term worldview.

 

Perhaps most of all, that will require all of us who work for and care about communities to take a stand, to get to work undoing the shoot-what-flies, build-it-and-they-will-come, we’ve-got-money-to-burn false assumptions that we taught those elected officials that Ed complains about.  Yes, politicians have a self-interest in easy answers and claiming easy victories.

 

But we let them think that’s OK.  And we’re the professionals.

Time for us to step up to the plate.  Thanks for the reminder, Ed.

Reviews of the Local Economy Revolution

I’ve posted a couple of the reviews that the book has received on Amazon here before, but I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the whole collection.

Here’s what your colleagues have said (names removed to protect the innocent!)  If this piques your interest, you can get your own copy in digital or hard cover right here.  

 

I have heard Della speak as several conferences and will always go to one of her sessions if at all possible. Now you know my bias. I have only met her at conferences though.I saw that her book had come out and I needed a book to read while traveling to a meeting. I read the book on the flight and thoroughly enjoyed it. I look at several things that are going on in my own community and I can see how it would be very useful to share this book with the new director of the Economic Development Corporation, or maybe members of the City Council. The Mayor and City Administrator could benefit from the ideas expressed here. Other City Department Directors might grasp where I am coming from if I could get them to read it. Maybe we should do a book club around this.This is not a how to book unless you are looking for a book on how to adjust your view point. Della explains why we need to make those adjustments but doesn’t try to tell us what those adjustments will be. Each community will have to determine those on their own. Her use of common language and metaphor should make it possible for those of us who are professional planners and economic developers to explain the concepts and why the change is necessary to those we work with.
If you’re passionate about making better places, especially places that have seen better days, you’re going to enjoy this book. Della’s a triple threat with experience in planning, economic development, and public engagement and the book provides valuable perspective on all three fronts. I finished feeling reconnected to the “what” that is the work, the “why” that it the purpose behind it and walked away with some new ideas on the “how” front. Most importantly, I finished feeling pretty brave and ready to tackle the hard stuff.
Most such attempts in creating a new future start on the far side of the chasm providing some vision of a shiny city on a hill, too often with no real means of crossing the span and, more often than not, no real grounded connection with this side of the chasm. This is where Della excels by taking what could be multiple complex concepts and making them not only more comprehensive, understandable and approachable but also initially, potentially addressable. It will get more complex and difficult but Della provides a good foothold to begin the ascent.
First let me get my bias out of the way. I have known Della for about 15 years and she has shaped many of my own thoughts regarding economic development in our many conversations.I found this book easy to read and more importantly an easy tool to communicate with people who may not be focused on economic development every day (i.e. politicians, city managers, other departments, community residents). You will find in this book many ideas and concepts that will challenge you to think differently and help others to think differently about your local economy.The book doesn’t sell snake oil or other one time fixes. That is the central point. One time fixes have had a poor record and in some cases cause more harm.For anyone wishing to explore a new perspective regarding economic development, or needs a tool to help communicate a shared perspective to others this book is a must read.

Economic development is the heart of urban planning–cities live & die as their economies change & adapt. Yet the soul of economic development is the unique spirit of your city. Della Rucker gives us a conversational series of essays–part blog, part extended TEDx–challenging us to look more clearly at planning & development in the trenches.
Do you have a review of the Local Economy Revolution?  Be sure to channel your inner Roger Ebert!

More on an Entrepreneur’s Story: follow up on Functional Formularies

Just a quick follow-up on this Labor Day (in the US) from the video I posted a couple of weeks ago about one of the alumni of the Bad Girl Ventures accelerator that I participated in.  How’s this for good economic development news?

 

Functional Formularies, makers of Liquid Hope, the first and only whole food, all-organic feeding tube meal, announced a $1.6 million investment raise, secured only two days after opening the funding round. In the past year, CEO and founder Robin Gentry McGee has seen production double, warehouse space triple and her employees grow from one to six. To trace the rapid success of her company means to go back almost a decade.

 

Bold text above is mine.

Two points that I want to highlight here:

1) conventional wisdom in some circles around here was that this business could not get funded and stay in Cincinnati.  The small amount of angel and venture capital – type investment here has specifically focused on software technologies, and there didn’t seem to be any room in their equation for a business that makes stuff.  I don’t know where this round of funding came from, but this appears to point to an increasingly valuable learning: conventional venture capital is not the only way to fund a business expansion. Especially if you can build a business that people value, the venture capital hype in the entrepreneurship magazines does not represent the only option.

2) Right now the firm employs six people.  Yes, I know some of you say: yawn.  Not exciting.  But this is how the Mega Businesses all got their start.  One product becomes two, six, eighteen.  One warehouse quietly becomes two, then eight, then worldwide.  Employment grows in the same manner.  It’s small potatoes, until it’s not.  This is what real economic growth looks like.  And Bad Girl Venture’s investment, that helped get Functional Formularies off the ground, was… a $25,000 loan.  Pretty good ROI to the region so far.

Make sure you read the whole story of how Robin got started and grew.  And think for a minute about who in your community might have this kind of potential in hand. It might only take a small push to help get them going.