The Wiki Way To Improve Your Message

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, November 16, 2009.]

We’ve all been reading about wikis for a few years now.  A wiki is a collaborative web site that allows people to make changes to a common document.  The most famous and successful wiki is Wikipedia [www.wikipedia.org], which is a global encyclopedia on almost every imaginable topic – more than three million articles in English alone.

In 2006, the CIA and fifteen other agencies in the intelligence and security community launched Intellipedia, an internal wiki to share information.  Similarly, the State Department, as part of its public diplomacy efforts, created Diplopedia.  

There are lots of uses of wikis in government, which I’ll explore another time.  But I want to focus on an unusual use – marketing.

While we don’t often admit it, many governments engage in what looks like marketing efforts.  Tourism promotion bureaus and, more generally, economic development offices do a lot of marketing to encourage people to come to their location.  Health departments engage in a form of marketing when they encourage residents to exercise and follow other patterns for good health.  Parks departments try to encourage the public to take advantage of the public recreational opportunities they provide, which also looks like marketing.

What all these efforts usually have in common is that they approach the development of their marketing messages in a traditional way.  They sit down together, come up with what they think is the best message and then blast that message out in a variety of ways, hoping for the best.

They may conduct a survey to find out what people want to hear, but usually they can’t afford to do so.  Surveys, though, too start out with the view of the people who design them – much like the way the marketing materials are started.  It’s very much an internal effort.

There have been a small number of attempts to do things differently.  For example, the major developer of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, encourages people to tell them why they love the place.  See http://www.welovesteamboat.com/You can send videos, pictures and stories for a chance to win up to $10,000.   This helps the developer to identify the right message.

Steamboat.jpg 

The theory behind this approach is that your residents, your customers – anyone whom you are aiming your marketing message at – are the people who can best tell you what makes a difference to themselves.  And this is where wikis come into the picture.

Instead of just going from the marketing message straight to its delivery on a large scale, why not try to use a public wiki to refine and modify that message so it says what they want to hear.  This is as simple as posting the marketing materials you’ve developed and letting the public change them.

If opening a wiki to anyone seems too adventurous, then maybe send invitations to a particular part of the public.  For example, in economic development, ask the businesses that came to your area to go to the wiki.  Ask people who actually came to your area as tourists to write what they would tell others to encourage them to come.  Get people who have gone hiking on your trails to add to the description of how wonderful your parks are. 

In case you’re worried that a public wiki could be defaced, it’s worth noting that most wiki software provides for various controls.  Even Wikipedia has its editors and controls to prevent things from getting out of hand.  But they seldom do.  Most people are pretty responsible and other users will help police the website.

And the cost of doing this?  Very little.  There are several good wiki software packages available on the Internet that are free, including the one that Wikipedia uses.  Give it a try – you may be both surprised and pleased by what people tell you are the reasons they use your public services.

PS. For more information about Diplopedia, see http://www.state.gov/m/irm/ediplomacy/115847.htm

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Calculate The Benefits Of Telework

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 16, 2009.  Since then, the Federal government has enacted a law enabling its employees to officially use telework.]

Telework is getting a fresh look because the factors that make telecommuting attractive are converging from various directions. 

Telework is a green strategy in both meanings of the word: (1) saving money and (2) doing things that will help reduce greenhouse gases and sustain the environment. 

First, in the current very tight — even dire — financial circumstances of local and state governments, public employees are being asked to accept pay-less workdays, no salary increases and other budget cutting measures. Telecommuting is one way to help employees to reduce their costs of getting to work that will not add anything to your budget.

Telecommuting also helps save money by reducing your costs for operating your buildings. While statistics on this subject are not yet generally available, I can draw upon the experience of Cisco. Converting the employees in one building in San Jose to a less office-oriented work pattern resulted in reduced building costs — a 40% reduction in space per employee and 55% less money spent on IT infrastructure and cabling. And the employees were happier and more productive.

Second, there is also an increasing emphasis in governments not only on developing new policies to sustain the environment, but also to set an example by operating in a greener way. Telecommuting helps reduce greenhouses gases by getting vehicles off the roads, especially during rush hour. (And that again reduces local government costs by reducing highway maintenance.)

Sun Microsystems [now part of Oracle] has had a telework program for 10 years with more than half of its workforce at home or in flexible work spaces. The company found that office equipment consumed twice as much energy in a Sun office as in a home office — 130 watts per hour versus 64. But that was not the greatest factor in greenhouse gas reductions. Employees who eliminated the commute to a Sun office also slashed their carbon footprints, with commuting accounting for more than 98% of each employee’s work-related carbon footprint; running office equipment made up less than 1.7% of a person’s total work-related carbon emissions.Of course, you will want to tally up the benefits of telecommuting for your particular area. 

Fortunately, a pair of dedicated telework experts have made that easy for you by creating a telework calculator at http://undress4success.com/research/telework-savings-calculator/. (While you are there, you might want to take a look at the Undress4Success.com home page for a variety of other telecommuting resources.)

The Telework Calculator has data for every city, county, region, Congressional District, and State, so you can see the results just for your area. There are a couple of dozen metrics, including savings to your government and your employees, as well as the reduction in greenhouse gases. You can even play with the assumptions behind it, such as what percentage of workers could easily switch to telecommuting. Their estimate may be on the high side.Much of the work that government does is especially suitable for telework. 

The Federal government, which has been developing its telework expertise for years, has found that 52% of its employees are eligible for telecommuting. You can find more Federal information at http://www.telework.gov and from the Federal-private sector partnership, the Telework Exchange at http://www.teleworkexchange.com (which also has its own telework calculator).

At the State level, Arizona has led with telework in the Phoenix area. See http://www.teleworkarizona.com for more information. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance has used this approach to create what is in many ways a virtual, but much more responsive, agency.

Bringing this discussion back to your policy making role, you can use the Telework Calculator to measure the value of telecommuting in your area if every public and private entity ran a telecommuting program. Last week the folks behind the Telework Calculator released a study in which they added up the numbers and suggested that, if telework really took off, “working from home could save United States consumers $228 billion, add $260 billion to companies’ bottom line.” 

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Smart Communities Can Do Something About The Recession

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, May 11, 2009.]

This week the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) is holding its annual awards ceremony in New York from among the top seven communities around the world who have been the best examples of using broadband technology. While your community may not be in the top 7, many of you have some degree of broadband networks covering a majority of the residents in your area.

The theme is how the governments of smart communities can respond to a deep recession. I’ve been asked to give the keynote speech and so I thought I should devote this post to some of the ideas I’ll be presenting.

The overriding message is quite simple: take advantage of the data network that exists in your community. Using that network wisely can save money in the government, help your residents reduce their costs and even create more wealth in your community – which, of course, is the best way to get out of a recession.

Your government can save money in several ways. First, those organizations that have integrated the controls of their buildings and other physical facilities into their data networks have been able to achieve substantial savings. The State of Missouri, with a thousand buildings, has been able to reduce its energy costs alone by $20 million a year (about a $1 per square foot). 

You can get greater employee productivity by getting public employees out of the office so they can do their work, which is often in the field. The network lets them work where their tasks takes them – while managers can still observe and even participate in that work when necessary. While telecommuting has been a long standing program of many governments, it is time to think of mobile telecommuting instead.

The Internet and network connectivity you have also makes it possible to provide and to use the best, most cost effective software and services. If your government has strong IT capabilities, then offer these services to others so you can spread your IT costs over a larger base. If your government isn’t strong in IT, then use these services since they may be cheaper than trying to do it yourself.

Of course, readers of this blog will not be surprised that I also think that some paid-for government services can instead be provided for free by letting your residents use the Internet to help each other.

You can help your residents reduce their own costs, especially the time and money they spend in traffic and the money they spend on energy use. There are good examples of local governments offering all sorts of network-based services that reduce the time people spend in traffic. Some have even set up smart work centers, which eliminate the need for people to travel all the way downtown, but enable them to virtually participate in the workplace of their employers. You can also eliminate travel for your residents if government services are available over the Internet and on smart phones, instead of just in government offices. These services can now include videoconference meetings over the Internet and real collaborative interaction between public employees and residents.

Through the use of smart home energy controllers (and, beyond that, smart grids) your residents can save money on their energy use. In the Pacific Northwest, one recent trial found that just letting people use the Internet to know about their energy usage and to do something about that no matter where they were resulted in an average energy cost reduction of 10%.

In various ways, the investments that have been made in broadband have direct economic benefits. For example, one study found that every dollar in broadband investments yielded ten in economic growth. And broadband has direct impact on the growth and profitability of businesses. But you can help those businesses learn how to use the Internet better, even offering assistance with Virtual Trade Missions and videoconferencing. 

For many of you, the broadband network investment has been made. Now is the time to use to respond in recessionary times by reducing your government costs, your citizens’ cost of living and by ramping up economic growth.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Get The Most Out Of Your Construction Money

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, February 23, 2009]

Construction is a major expenditure for state and local governments. This is going to be the case even more as many billions of dollars will go into infrastructure from the Federal Recovery and Reinvestment Act. 

It’s also important to realize that construction costs are a major factor in projects that are not officially called construction projects. For example, over the last few years, many governments have invested in public safety radio projects or broadband projects. While these are about communications and technology, often the construction costs associated with these projects are larger than the cost of acquiring the technology.

So the key question is whether you are getting the most from every dollar spent on construction. The answer is that, if you just let the construction proceed as it always has been done, you are increasingly wasting money.

The construction industry’s productivity picture is below that of US industry, in general. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity in the construction industry has declined since 1968. Stanford University Professor Paul Teicholz reports that”construction work per hourly work hour has gradually declined – over the past 40 years at an average compound rate of -0.59%/year.”  But there is hope on the horizon. 

A few forward thinking architects, engineers, builders and computer experts have banded together to create a new four dimensional approach to construction projects, which goes by the name ”Building Information Modeling” or BIM. Despite the name, BIM can be used in any construction project – highways and sewers, for example – not just buildings.

BIM is still a developing technology and approach, so the most dramatic benefits are still in the future. Already, though, those who have used BIM have seen substantial reductions in costs and shrinkage of project schedules. 

Some have reported reductions of as much as a third over the traditional construction approach. A significant cause of these reductions is that BIM results in a reduction in claims for errors, which traditionally have meant costly rework and ad hoc redesign on the job site. Since BIM coordinates the work of all the trades on a job, it virtually eliminates the problems that ensue when, for example, electrical wiring and water pipes are put in the same place.BIM also enables the prefabrication of customized components. 

This gives you the savings of pre-fab manufactured buildings, without the need to conform to the manufacturer’s stock designs. For example, a 50 foot component wall could be built off site from the specifications and just be put into place. 

The US General Services Administration (GSA) has started to require firms who construct federal buildings to use BIM. Hopefully, State and Local governments will also start to require BIM of their construction bidders.

For further information about BIM, the best starting point is a 12 minute video that GSA prepared about their”Journey Into Building Information Modeling” at http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/gsa/ep/contentView.do?contentType=GSA_BASIC&contentId=24256– This video is part of a general GSA website devoted to BIM at http://www.gsa.gov/bim. It includes all kinds of publications that you might want to pass along to your public works or other construction staff.

The buildingSMART alliance is the organizational leader of BIM. Its ”focus is to guarantee lowest overall cost, optimum sustainability, energy conservation and environmental stewardship to protect the earth’s ecosystem.” http://www.buildingsmartalliance.org/

Wikipedia, of course, has an entry on BIM at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_Information_Modeling- An introductory article, ”Intelligent Design Through BIM” can be found at http://www.allbusiness.com/technology/software-services-applications-computer/11579683-1.html

© 2011 Norman Jacknis Permalink http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/7124259555/get-the-most-out-of-your-construction-money

Make Room For The Future

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, June 1, 2009.]

It’s not news to anyone that the Obama Administration’s stimulus program amounts to one of the largest public works programs since the Great Depression. During that era, the economist Lord Keynes was quoted as saying that workers should be paid to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up again because the wages the workers received would create consumer demand and so boost the economy. Today’s television pundits often forget that Keynes added that “It is not reasonable, however, that a sensible community should be content to remain dependent on such fortuitous and often wasteful mitigations when once we understand the influences upon which effective demand depends.” 

Whether or not you agree with the Keynes approach to fighting the current recession, it would seem that, other things being equal, it is better to spend the money in ways that build a foundation for future economic growth than to merely jack up consumer demand.

That is perhaps why President Obama calls his program the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So, as the stimulus funds start flowing to local and state governments around the country, the leaders of those governments should ensure that the money is treated as an investment for the future. If, for example, all we do is re-pave the highways of the 1950s, we will have wasted a tremendous opportunity.

Earlier this year, a paper prepared for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors – the people in local governments who deal with these issues – recommended a program that would make room for the future. They called it JULIET, for Joint Underground Location of Infrastructure for Electric and Telecommunications. 

The program suggests that local governments, thinking about the future, insist that conduit for these basic utilities be built into any highway/road construction. The report notes that this might add about $10-30,000 per mile in construction costs – a fairly small percentage of typical highway mileage costs. But it would save about 70% of the costs of deploying fiber networks in a community because the largest cost in such projects is not the technology, but opening up the roads and laying down the conduit. With the stimulus construction money, the roads will already be opened up.

The deployment of fiber networks doesn’t just provide high speed Internet services, but also offers an opportunity to build in smart management of infrastructure. That same conduit, which can be used to reduce the cost of getting a high speed fiber network into your community, can also be the backbone for a network of sensors that monitor traffic on the highway and even the condition of the highways and bridges – so your public works personnel will be notified when damage is still minor and less expensive than the big emergency projects that take you and your budget by surprise. 

That same conduit can also be the backbone for smart energy management and smart grids, which can enable the government and its residents to reduce their energy costs and greenhouse gases.Around the world, local government leaders have recognized that the future will involve broadband and the smart management of the public infrastructure. Both of these should be incorporated in the plans for any stimulus spending.

Sooner or later, the recession will be over. Then will come the reviews of each government’s performance. Will you want it said that your government spent the stimulus money just to revive the consumer sector of the economy or that you also took advantage of the opportunity to gain the additional benefit of laying the foundation for the future viability of your community? 

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Public Reviews Of Public Services

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 30, 2009.]

Measuring the performance of government agencies has been a hot topic among government managers over the last several years. Frequently, these performance measurement projects end up using lots of resources, with dozens of different measures and the computer systems necessary to manage all that data. But the odd result is that, with all these measures, what matters to the people who are served by your government is often overlooked.

The same thing was true in medical care, another service area of great personal importance to people. Then the Zagat folks entered the picture. Much like their website for reviews of restaurants and the like, in conjunction with the WellPoint health insurance company, they started a website where patients can rate their physicians.  [See, for example, http://www.bcbsil.com/company_info/newsroom/news/zagat_health_survey.html

Of course, Zagat isn’t the only such service. Amazon.com has been known for, among other things, reader reviews of books.

None of these Internet-based rating services – and there are many – is without criticism. The worry in the Amazon reviews is that they can be gamed for commercial purposes. With Zagat’s application of their review process to physicians, there have been criticisms about the lack of expertise of the reviewers. But both of these services can provide a perspective that the physicians or restaurants or authors or any other service provider couldn’t get in any other way.

Similarly, if the public gets a chance to rate public services, you will be able to learn things about those services that none of the internally generated performance measurement systems alone will give you. 

Where could you use this in government? Well, think about the services you offer, particular those that are used by enough people so that ratings might mean something.

How about ratings of:

  • each of your parks
  • each of the major roads in your area
  • each bus route or other transit service
  • each health clinic
  • each school
  • each library or library branch
  • special events that you run, whether holiday events or educational events

Just like restaurant reviews, which have many dimensions – quality of food, ambience, service, etc. – so too you could have many dimensions in any reviews of public services. Roads, for example, can be measured by the smoothness of the surface (the opposite of potholes), congestion, perceived safety, and clarity of signs.

You don’t even need to think all that hard about these dimensions because you can also let the public suggest the dimensions they want to rate services on.

And, based on the experience of the other reviewing services, there shouldn’t be too much concern about criticism boiling over. While there are the bad, sometimes really awful, reviews, in most cases people have good things to say. And their suggestions for improvements are well meaning. 

Of course, if there is some public service that you offer which garners extremely negative responses from a majority of reviewers, then you probably have a real problem – and it’s better to know about it early, before it becomes an election year issue.

Bottom line: unlike elaborate performance measurement systems, this is just a fairly simple website that can engage your residents and provide you with valuable information, inexpensively.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Fix My Street

[This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders on February 12, 2009.  I’m surprised more of them have not used either FixMyStreet or its American variation, SeeClickFix.]

With digital cameras and cameras within mobile phones, your citizens can be your eyes and ears. 

Don’t wait for a problem – or worse, a pattern of problems – to get out of hand. Encourage people to help you identify those problems fast. They can take a picture or even a video, identify the location and send it to you.

In tough financial times, this approach helps in a number of ways. It opens up the possibility of reducing staff who just go around looking for problems, since citizens would be volunteering to do work that you used to pay for. Some of these positions can be shifted to fixing the problems.  All in all, this should allow for a faster resolution of problems and more satisfied citizens.

It is, of course, conceivable that you might be overwhelmed by complaints. To handle this situation, you can explain on the site how you prioritize problems so people know what to expect. You might indicate that high risk problems or those in busy areas or those that are costly come first. 

You could even ask the person submitting the report to rate the problem against your criteria and then let other visitors to the site agree or disagree. That way, to some extent, you let public opinion help you determine the order in which problems are to be addressed. You could even copy some of the websites that encourage people to rank products, except in this case, they would be encouraged to rank problems. 

FixMyStreet – at http://www.fixmystreet.com – was developed by a British non-profit, mySociety.org, so that citizens can ”report, view, or discuss local problems (like graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs, or street lighting).” 

In the UK, a citizen files a report and the non-profit group sends it in to the local government. But you don’t need a middle-man; you could set up such a website yourself. And the FixMyStreet software is free (open-source) software, so setting it up is not expensive. 

Finally, while FixMyStreet focuses on these simple physical problems on a street, you don’t have to limit yourself to those kinds of problems, of course. Any kind of problem or incident could be reported.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, October 12, 2009.]

Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas.  (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)

I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects.  While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”

But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy.  It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.

It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:

  • Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines.  (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
  • Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
  • Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
  • Build the transit line and also run it.
  • Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.

One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.”  Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.

This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life.  Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies.  And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas. 

Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it?  Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.

I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history. …

———————–

History of the New York City Subway

The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.

In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.

In Kings County [Brooklyn], elevated railroads were also built by several companies. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT).  Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one eventually fell under BMT control.

In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.

The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.

The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway opened in 1904. The city contracted construction of the line to the IRT Company, ownership was always held by the city. The IRT built, equipped, and operated the line under a lease from the city. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Railway elevated lines in Manhattan and the Bronx for 999 years!

In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era.  Then the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT, formerly the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, BRT) was the rapid transit company which built, bought, or assumed control of the Brooklyn elevated lines.

The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City’s agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT.  The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Finished mostly by 1920, some of the new lines had trains operated by both companies.

The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under [four sequential] contracts to the IRT and BRT

The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System — that was not connected to the IRT or BMT lines. This system consisted of entirely subway construction with only one elevated portion.

As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony..

Only two new lines were opened [later], the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction.

In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City’s Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system.  After city takeover of the bankrupt BMT and IRT companies, many of the elevated lines were closed, and a slow “unification” took place, marked notably by establishment of several free transfer points between divisions in 1948 and a few points of through running between IND and BMT lines beginning in 1954.

A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines.

[But] Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.

Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m).  An BMT/IND style train cannot fit into an IRT tunnel (the numbered lines and the 42nd Street Shuttle). An IRT train CAN fit into a BMT/IND tunnel but since it is narrower the distance from car to platform is unsafe. Cars from the IRT division are moved using BMT/IND tracks to Coney Island Overhaul Shops for major maintenance on a regular basis.  Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved. Being able to do so would increase the capacity of Division A. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the portions of Division A that could not accommodate Division B equipment without major physical reconstruction are situated in such a way that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

[This was originally published on June 20, 2011 and it was posted on a blog for government leaders, October 12, 2009.]

Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas.  (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)

I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects.  While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”

But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy.  It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.

It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:

  • Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines.  (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
  • Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
  • Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
  • Build the transit line and also run it.
  • Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.

One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.”  Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.

This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life.  Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies.  And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas.

Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it?  Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.

I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history. …

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History of the New York City Subway

The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.

In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.

In Kings County [Brooklyn], elevated railroads were also built by several companies. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT).  Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one eventually fell under BMT control.

In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.

The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.

The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway opened in 1904. The city contracted construction of the line to the IRT Company, ownership was always held by the city. The IRT built, equipped, and operated the line under a lease from the city. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Railway elevated lines in Manhattan and the Bronx for 999 years!

In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era.  Then the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT, formerly the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, BRT) was the rapid transit company which built, bought, or assumed control of the Brooklyn elevated lines.

The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City’s agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT.  The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Finished mostly by 1920, some of the new lines had trains operated by both companies.

The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under [four sequential] contracts to the IRT and BRT

The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System — that was not connected to the IRT or BMT lines. This system consisted of entirely subway construction with only one elevated portion.

As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony..

Only two new lines were opened [later], the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction.

In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City’s Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system.  After city takeover of the bankrupt BMT and IRT companies, many of the elevated lines were closed, and a slow “unification” took place, marked notably by establishment of several free transfer points between divisions in 1948 and a few points of through running between IND and BMT lines beginning in 1954.

A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines.

[But] Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.

Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m).  An BMT/IND style train cannot fit into an IRT tunnel (the numbered lines and the 42nd Street Shuttle). An IRT train CAN fit into a BMT/IND tunnel but since it is narrower the distance from car to platform is unsafe. Cars from the IRT division are moved using BMT/IND tracks to Coney Island Overhaul Shops for major maintenance on a regular basis.  Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved. Being able to do so would increase the capacity of Division A. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the portions of Division A that could not accommodate Division B equipment without major physical reconstruction are situated in such a way that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis