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Culture. Policy. Breakfast.

January 19, 2015

If you paid attention to the coverage of Vision Zero in 2014, you may have noticed one of DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg’s most frequent refrains:

“One of my favorite lines comes from the former DOT commissioner from Massachusetts: ‘Culture eats policy for breakfast,’” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, “Culture is much more. You can change policy overnight. You can’t change culture overnight.”

Here it is again, in a different interview:

“Culture eats policy for breakfast,” said Trottenberg. “That’s one of my mantras in this business … meaning you can change policy, but culture is a more complex thing to change, and something that often takes more time and more effort.”

The phrase “Culture eats policy for breakfast” traces its roots to Peter Drucker, an influential Austrian-born business management consultant and author who died in 2005. Drucker actually said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too” but that lengthy quote has been adapted and simplified as it’s flown around the corporate world.

In any company, organization, or even social movement, there’s always a conflict between those who would implement sweeping change quickly and those who feel that a piecemeal, step-by-step approach is more prudent. If you’re the head of a large city agency with a direct impact on the lives of millions of citizens, striking a balance between these two competing philosophies is key, lest big and noble policy goals get destroyed by something as simple as bad timing or a small group of people who simply aren’t ready to change.

But something always rubs me the wrong way anytime I hear Commissioner Trottenberg repeat her line about culture, policy and breakfast. When I match it up against the absence of truly innovative and original bicycle projects from DOT in 2014 — most of the protected bike lanes installed last year originated under the Bloomberg administration — it seems that what should just be a catchy piece of business advice may actually be a core philosophy that’s holding the city back from taking biking to the next level. “Culture eats policy for breakfast” has become a self-perpetuating, defeatist mantra that ignores how far the city has come, where it wants to go, and who wants to take it there. It removes design and engineering as primary drivers of cultural change, defers too much to those who seek a kind of selfish comfort in the status quo, and has consequences for other important policy goals beyond bikes.

Here are what I see as the biggest problems with “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”

1. The last administration changed the menu. 

In the waning months of Mayor Bloomberg’s final term, an August 2013 New York Times poll showed widespread support for bike lanes, bike share, and pedestrian plazas.

Image via NY Times.

Image via NY Times.

Even as far back as March 2011 — the same month Neighbors for Better Bike lanes filed their Article 78 lawsuit to remove the Prospect Park West Bike lane — a Quinnipiac poll showed that 54 percent of New York City voters viewed the expansion of bike lanes as “a good thing.” By July that number had risen to 59 percent. In August, a Marist poll showed 66 percent of New Yorkers supported bike lanes. Again, this was in 2011, when New York Magazine asked “Is New York Too New York for Bike Lanes?”

The New York Times poll proved what many advocates and policy leaders had long known, that the media-generated bikelash that had dominated the headlines for years never matched the reality on the ground. “People are voting with their feet, they’re voting with their pedals, and they’re voting with their dollars,” former DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was fond of saying. Howard Wolfson, who had long gone to the mat for the Bloomberg administration’s livable streets agenda, gave this valedictory comment late last year: “At some point it became obvious that this was a popular policy, that people were using bike lanes, that Citi Bike was being used. (Emphasis mine.)

“Culture eats policy for breakfast” takes the momentum accrued under Bloomberg and runs the risk of squandering it. The language accepts the idea that popular policies are still up for debate. Even worse, it reintroduces a debate that was settled a long time ago.

2. There’s more than one way to define culture.

Consider the following quote from DOT Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs Josh Benson about the agency’s choice to install extra-wide parking lanes on streets with more than enough room to accommodate robust bicycle infrastructure:

People in the community might not initially value the importance of a street to the bike network until there’s some initial calming and the character changes,” DOT Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs Josh Benson said, citing Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights and 44th Drive in Long Island City as examples where DOT later converted extra-wide parking lanes into bike lanes. “People don’t necessarily envision a street as a bike-friendly street,” he said. “Once you make an improvement, people take to it and opinions change.”

Riverside Drive, for example, is a major cycling route both for points along the Upper West Side and for recreational cyclists heading to the George Washington Bridge. Safe streets advocates have been packing community board meetings on the Upper West Side on all manner of traffic-calming and bike-related projects for months, oftentimes outnumbering opponents by a lot. So who is Benson talking about? Not that one should ignore people in the local community who can’t or don’t want to envision the benefits of a complete street, but incorrectly or imprecisely defining words like “culture,” “people,” and “community” fuels a myth that New York still isn’t ready for bike lanes. It makes “Culture eats policy for breakfast” a self-fulfilling philosophy.

3. It diminishes the importance of past institutional experience.

The Vanderbilt Avenue traffic calming project mentioned by Benson above began with the installation of wide parking lanes in 2006 before an upgrade to class 2 bike lanes in 2008. With everything that’s changed since 2006 — The Ninth Avenue bike lane, the city’s first on-street protected lane, wasn’t installed until 2007, for example — the interim step of installing wide parking lanes to build community acceptance for bike lanes may no longer be necessary. After all, none of the doom-and-gloom predictions that preceded previous bike lane installations came to pass, so DOT should by now be well versed in swatting down most community board complaints, including those related to the loss of parking. (More on that later.)

4. It removes DOT as a prime agent for rapid culture change.

It’s said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The same might be said of livable streets. Endless community board presentations and tabloid arguments about whether or not New Yorkers will sit and enjoy themselves in pedestrian plazas tend to yield diminishing returns. Instead, the debate can easily be settled by setting up some traffic cones and buying cheap lawn chairs at a hardware store. As former DOT policy director Jon Orcutt recently tweeted, “If your policy changes infrastructure, it will change culture.”

5. It fails to fully seize the moral imperative behind Vision Zero as a catalyst for change.

Some cities justify the expansion of their bike lane network because it will attract young tech workers and help the economy. Fairly or not, many people only thought that Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan wanted New York City to be like Copenhagen. Not that these are bad reasons to build bike infrastructure, but they’re unlikely to satisfy longtime residents who think that young hipsters are coming with their bikes to take away parking spaces.

Vision Zero, on the other hand, arms DOT with a very powerful justification for reconfiguring streets. Ending all fatalities and serious injuries must trump petty concerns about small amounts of free parking spaces.

Of course, Families for Safe Streets has fully seized this mantle, changing the conversation and earning a marathon-like victory to lower to the default New York City speed limit to 25 mph. But Families for Safe Streets can’t fight every fight, especially since they have their eyes trained on some pretty big fish this year. It’s going to be up to DOT to explain at the community board level why some concerns simply don’t warrant serious consideration in light of the moral urgency of Vision Zero.

6. There are consequences to waiting for the culture to change. 

The most obvious consequence of deferring too much to some notion of a change-resistant culture is that people will die. While we’re waiting for “the community” to get used to seeing Riverside Drive as a part of the bike network, people on bikes are still using it, more exposed than they need to be.

There are other consequences, some small, some big. The mayor has set a goal of 6 percent mode share for bikes by 2020, just five years from now. It won’t be achieved with extra-wide parking lanes. And if the city can’t touch parking to stop people from dying or get more people on bikes, then good luck removing all the spots needed to install a real bus rapid transit line.

* * *

“Culture eats policy for breakfast” does not and should not mean that one drifts in the tides of culture, waiting the for the currents to change. I don’t think Trottenberg sees it that way either, and it was certainly important to concentrate her department’s efforts on the speed limit change and the arterial slow zone program, but it doesn’t follow that bikes needed to get the short shrift as they did in 2014. DOT needs to use its power for positive change as well as the moral imperative of Vision Zero to demonstrate that there is no daylight between pedestrian safety projects and bike safety projects. One contributes to the other.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, “Culture eats policy for breakfast” originated in the business world, so I thought I’d turn to the business world for a deeper look. Here’s Bill Aulet, director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, writing at Techcrunch:

Some may believe that culture cannot be “engineered,” and that it just happens. It is true that culture happens whether you want it to or not. It is the DNA of the company and is in large part created by the founders – not by their words so much as their actions. So the very decision to not try to create a corporate culture, or worse, to not have company values, is in fact your choice of what culture will prevail – and not for the better. 

“Culture eats policy for breakfast” is not a philosophy. It’s an observation. It’s advice, and, applied correctly, fairly good advice at that. But if it’s allowed to be the guiding principle by which DOT operates, then eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024 — just nine (!) years from now — won’t happen. Remember John F. Kennedy’s 1962 announcement that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade? And remember how we did just that in 1969? It took boldness, experimentation, money, and manpower. Vision Zero needs to be like the Apollo program, but for streets.

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14 Comments
  1. Franz permalink
    January 20, 2015 8:19 am

    Well written! Its amazing that BdB, “old lefty” has appointed such a corporate zombie spouting banal management spittle, when the billionaire plutocrat Bloomberg appointed someone who believed in organizing, work and tough decisions.

  2. BBnet3000 permalink
    January 20, 2015 9:42 am

    citing Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights

    Here’s a main problem: Viewing cycling infrastructure in increments more appropriate to walking than cycling. Vanderbilt runs from Grand Army Plaza to Flushing Avenue, and a large portion of that is sharrows only, which is particularly harrowing going uphill. Have we not managed to “change the culture” of Clinton Hill yet?

    This is also giving in to that idiotic “chicken and egg” meme, as if we have to wait for people to cycle on harrowing roads before we build the infrastructure that will make people feel safe cycling. That’s never going to happen.

  3. TOM permalink
    January 20, 2015 5:49 pm

    Polly Trottenberg labored for Chuck Schumer for five years.

  4. Ken permalink
    January 21, 2015 10:00 am

    Another monumentally great post, Doug. Should be required breakfast fare for all policymakers.

  5. January 21, 2015 3:10 pm

    I don’t even think it’s true. The link between policy and culture is enforcement and cognitive dissonance. If people like to do X, but X gets banned, they will continue to do X unless there is a substantial penalty. In that case, they will have to reconcile “I like doing X” with “I can’t do X for fear of a substantial penalty” in order to protect their sense of autonomy and free will. Hence, they will determine “I never actually liked doing X.”

    So the solution is DOT reform backed by strong NYPD enforcement (which is – apart from the current slowdown – happening). Strong enforcement changes culture. Weak enforcement maintains the status quo AND as people flout the law, turns the city into a joke.

    • TOM permalink
      January 21, 2015 4:13 pm

      If God-fearing law-obeying people trained to drive safely have been doing X for the last fifty years and then some how all are now denounced as dangerous criminals and to be penalized for what now feels only natural, it would give one pause. How did this happen? Drivers were expecting X to be increased only to agree with the current practice. The DOT has on its website a listing of city roadways where 100% of drivers have been driving above the posted speed limit. To me that says clearly that the posted limit was incorrect and to be ignored since all felt the road was safe for driving at the greater speed(conditions permitting). I like to do X and I get passed a lot, but I really can’t brake a habit that I was trained to do and now feels so natural after doing it all my life.

      Regarding “DOT reform backed by strong NYPD enforcement”, as I remember the Police Commissioner does not report to the Transportation Commissioner in the NYC municipal scheme(JSK forgot that once after the snowstorm and that resulted in ten thousand tickets for cyclists– not to be repeated). Of course they both work at the direction of the Mayor and there we must pay attention. The Mayor at present needs Commissioner Bratton more than ever. If in their efforts to have a happy and functioning police force they must make compromises, do you think they will have Vision Zero enforcement as part of the discussions?

      • January 21, 2015 4:57 pm

        “The DOT has on its website a listing of city roadways where 100% of drivers have been driving above the posted speed limit. To me that says clearly that the posted limit was incorrect and to be ignored since all felt the road was safe for driving at the greater speed(conditions permitting).”

        Well, there are two possible ways to look at it.

        1. The road can safely handle people driving faster on it and the speed limit is inadequate. (You’d have to look at crash statistics and other information to make that determination.)

        2. The road was improperly designed, allowing drivers too much comfort with fast driving and, as such, should be reengineered to make compliance with the speed limit more natural.

        Vision Zero probably would say the proper response is #2.

      • TOM permalink
        January 22, 2015 11:58 am

        Every road is improperly designed. They lack bumpers like those in bowling lanes for the inexperienced. That said, we really should be sure of ourselves before we dig up all our streets. For example, “road diets” replace three lanes with two, two lanes with one. Those new lanes are 12-feet wide which is now seen as perfect for not slowing speeders in urban areas at all. That’s progress! For today at least.

        I’m surprised the ‘highway lobby'(contractors, unions) isn’t pumping cash into the ‘bike lobby’, or are they?

        Did you see the NEWSDAY analysis of the school speed camera justification last month? Seems that the cameras that were to save school kids from being killed within a quarter mile of a school by a speeding car came with a guarantee of success. NEWSDAY could find no prior instance of a child fatality within a quarter mile of a Nassau school on school days. The Nassau County legislature then unanimously cancelled the program(with a monetary penalty for the county). Fool me once(in Albany); fool me twice…

  6. larryshaeffer permalink
    January 21, 2015 6:00 pm

    how “bout this one, “design (vertical/horizontal deflection) eats speeders for breakfast.”

  7. January 22, 2015 10:12 am

    From my reading of the interviews where Trottenberg uses the aphorism, the culture she is referring to is the pathological impatience of the New York City motor vehicle operator. She uses the phrase to point out that reducing speeds and achieving Vision Zero goals will not happen promptly upon implementation of a 25-mph speed limit. The culture of rude and reckless motor vehicle operation has to change as well.

    This represents a pretty abrupt shift from the Iris Weinshall days, when the DOT was trying to appease drivers.

    I don’t agree with your point number 4; Suggesting that culture is more powerful than policy is a smart way to signal that change will require sustained effort in many areas, and Trottenberg addresses this explicitly when she describes aggressive driving as a “culture.” that needs to be changed.

    You are obviously correct when you point out that DOT is not linking the expansion of the bicycle lane network to Vision Zero. I will surmise that on De Blasio’s initial evaluation of the DOT were the words, “Wasted effort and political capital on infrastructure projects with little overall policy effect.” I doubt that Mike Bloomberg sees the Bicycling Magazine article designating NYC as America’s best bicycling city as validation of his tenure as mayor.

    • TOM permalink
      January 22, 2015 11:44 am

      “Pathological”? Tell us how you really feel.

      This was not a shift from Iris days, but a shift from Henry Barnes days–fifty years ago.

      Also, I think if you looked back at their achievements JSK didn’t install any more miles of bike lanes than did Iris.

      And, Giuliani gets the credit for the Master Plan.

    • January 22, 2015 12:07 pm

      “From my reading of the interviews where Trottenberg uses the aphorism, the culture she is referring to is the pathological impatience of the New York City motor vehicle operator…”

      Jonathan, thanks for your comment. We don’t disagree. That is definitely the context for the quote in the Brian Lehrer interview, for example. My only problem with Trottenberg’s repetition of the advice is that it seems to represent a larger philosophy of caution for caution’s sake. Sometimes it pays to be aware of the culture and play it safe, at least for the time being. Sometimes it’s more effective to nudge it along. Finding that balance, as I mentioned, is tricky.

      • January 22, 2015 2:53 pm

        Perhaps if Commissioner Trottenberg reads your blog, she would post something like this:

        We can plaster bus stops with ominous billboards, establish slow zones on every block, and build out all the bike lanes and pedestrian plazas we desire, but the focus of all these efforts must be on changing the toxic motoring culture of New York City. As the saying goes, “culture eats policy for breakfast.” So long as vehicular mayhem is condoned by casual use of the word “accident,” so long as vehicle operators maintain their absolute sense of entitlement to the entire roadway, so long as drivers treat every pedestrian as an interloper on their precious turf, we are not going to achieve the goal of Vision Zero. Under my watch, my department will not be satisfied with policy or topographical changes, we will work directly to change the toxic motoring culture.

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