So Much to Do: Sadly, so much time

Time is not on our side. And that earth-shattering insight works in two directions.

The most obvious is the situation most of us face each day, with ever-expanding to-do lists colliding with obstinate time frames. Same old days, with the same old number of hours in them.

But here’s the deal with a to-do list: What makes it useful is the degree to which it ranks tasks. And the way you decide what rises to the top of the list is to have a pretty good idea what will happen, in what sort of time frame, as a result of you choosing one thing over another. The problem is, your confidence about what will result from choices depends on how quickly the consequences of the choices unfold.

You know, it’s the old cause-and-effect thing. Hot stove, ouch. One martini, two martinis, three martinis, floor.

The devil's in the duration: Too much time to be smart.

The wider the gap between cause and effect, the lower the confidence level for choices and the less dramatic the sense of urgency. Unfortunately, the most important stuff often takes the longest time to figure out and the longest time to mount a response and measure impacts. Which means that too often there’s just too much time to be smart.

What got me thinking about this lately is the haggling over raising the ceiling on the U.S. debt in the short run and committing to strategies to lower debt in the long term. What’s keeping the sides apart is that the consequences of whatever actions they take or don’t take fall outside the time frames in which political players – and citizens, for that matter – operate. The link between choices made, intentionally or otherwise, in 2011 and impacts on a thousand different components of the U.S. economy and Americans’ daily lives is obscured by the length of time it will take for those impacts to be felt.

There goes the sense of urgency.

When it comes to big, complex challenges like this, our famously inefficient democracy is robbed of the advantages of learning from cause and effect. We’re flying blind. That sometimes works out , as Winston Churchill is reported to have observed about Americans being counted on to do the right thing – after having tried everything else. The problem comes when the cumulative effects of not-so-clever choices become bigger than our capacities for correction. When that happens, we’re back to the more familiar problem with time: Too little of it to do too much.

In planning practice, we see the cause-effect gap complicating attempts to reverse long-standing transportation policies at the regional and local scales, even when the guys at the top have bought into new ways of doing business. Despite evidence that the approaches will work and despite commitment from some thoughtful folks in Washington and in state capitals, the synaptic delay problem messes up efforts to integrate land use planning with public health, the environment, affordability, aging in place, community agriculture and economic development strategies. The effects of choices in all those categories seem too distant to trump more immediate worries like unemployment and the housing bust. We sympathize with those who are trying to get likely climate change impacts into the discussion, but that’s an even tougher challenge.

While we tend to think this failure to calculate future impacts has mostly to do with shortsighted leadership, it’s probably more complicated. There’s evidence the shortsightedness is hardwired into us by evolution, which equipped us well to focus on immediate threats but no so well for long-term planning.

So how do we get around that limitation when it comes to community and regional design?

The most successful strategy I can think of is strategic alignment. Look for chances to do something obvious fast, and make sure it plugs directly into policies that serve a larger purpose over time. Illustrate the principles of a Big Think strategy with a no-brainer project that quickly connects problem and solution and provides a foundation for moving on to a higher level of complexity over a slightly longer time frame. Keep the principles at high altitude. But find something at ground level to prove their viability.

Time might still embarrass us. But planning paralysis is worse.

–Ben Brown


  1. Regrettably, I think the failure to engage in relevant and accurate long-range planning at local or regional (much less state) levels is due to a corrupted institutional environment encompassing both public and private sector entities. A short-term focus (and a narrowly-focused internal or personal risk/benefit assessment) among the general pubic may stem from deeply-embedded behavioral traits arising from our common genetic history in some respects as the author describes, but not among those in the upper strata of government, business or industry. The highway program which is now almost a century old has enabled too many individuals and institutions to achieve a dominant and exceedingly well-connected political presence in most states and at the National level as well, and continued business as usual is their primary interest.

    This group of institutional actors figured out long ago how to benefit from construction of roads into new areas that were previously unserved through property acquisition, when prices were low far in advance of the actual concept approval or construction decision(s), and they learned from the early days how to monitor the formal highway planning processes (now broadened substantially) and gather relevant business intelligence available to guide their actions. While individuals are mortal, familial lineage and indefinite corporate survival have propagated and sustained the knowledge and practices, and the accrued financial gains become additional replenishment capital for new acquisitions in the next “play” in advanced land markets as well as securing political support and favorable outcomes.

    Regardless of the downstream course of action which is actually played out over time — anywhere from holding those properties long-term and ultimately becoming the build-out developer to some shorter-term asset management position resulting in its subsequent sale as-is in a chain of “flipping” transactions — the far-advanced land market activities initiated by such actors during the early planning stages of transportation facilities will have provided the initial nudge which started those lands on their course towards ultimate conversion and development under the inducement of whatever new project or system plan component is under deliberation within any given particular region.

    The technical capabilities associated with state-of-the-practice methods and tools in transportation planning and forecasting have now integrated land use and transportation in an interactive, bidirectional econometric relationship for both metropolitan and statewide geography. Since the first transportation planning models were developed in the late 1950’s for Detroit and then Chicago, the spatial distribution, type and intensity of future land use has always been a major component, and it is the failure to accurately produce THAT specific land-use forecast which I think is the key to understanding why so much sprawl has occurred since NEPA was enacted.

    The inaccuracies in the forecast land use naturally rendered the eventual traffic forecasts (used for justifying project environmental clearances and system plan adoptions) far below what actually transpired with the induced development, and as such, the forecast traffic volumes in the future year were invalid in each and every state and MPO throughout the country until about 15 years ago. Before then, the actual traffic volumes on almost any network consistently exceeded any forecast volumes in the relevant design year across pretty much all transportation planning models in use. However, the TLUMIP (Transportation Land Use Model Improvement Program) effort funded by the US DOT in Oregon during the early- to mid-1990’s produced the first true integrated model that was officially approved and adopted for making decisions state and local transportation decisions involving use of Federal funds, and it immediately had major influences on regional highway construction decisions because of the implications for land use patterns and development service requirements.

    Ohio and some other regional MPOs have developed or are in the process of developing such integrated models, but most States with strong legacy institutional cultures in their DOTs and highly intertwined linkages among the state’s political, economic and social elite (where those same actors reside) have resisted any effort to develop truly integrated models. It isn’t because the individuals are incompetent or technically obsolescent, but I think rather it’s because the upper-level institutional forces on both the public and private sides are trying to preserve the longstanding “game” they’ve been playing in the background for many decades for as long as is possible.

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