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July 06, 2009

A New York NextGen Metaphor

When spokesmen, rhetoricians and salesmen announce – hey, there’s a new technology that's going to set us free, those Luddites infatuated with the status quo are just trying to keep their own good thing going, this is just featherbedding by their Union – well, the public doesn’t know which experts to listen to. It comes down to competing stories, because the public isn't qualified to judge on technical grounds. Is it Who do you find believable, or is it Who's told you the story that you most want to believe?

One of the things that I've learned is that when change is profitable, change will have prophets. When there's no industry profit in maintaining the status quo, then there'll be no advocates for the status quo. When they say "we need to replace the whole system", look for who profits from the change and then consider their spokesmen anew.

You’ll remember that we said that airplanes are a lot like cars when they’re on runways (which are roads for airplanes). When airplanes are landing and taking off, they’re two-dimensional. In aviation, runways are the constraints.

A New York State of Mind

When we talk about New York airports, we're really talking about Newark, LaGuardia, and Kennedy. And why is that? Because they're all owned by the same corporation, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ( Remember that - there's a corporation that owns all three airports. In fact, if you go to their website, you'll see this cute little logo on the right. If you click on that logo, you'll see PANYNJ's webpage titled, "Next Gen Now!"

Once Upon a Time...

Here’s a little story that may explain why NextGen won’t solve the problem of New York's airport congestion.

Let’s say you’ve got a city – why, let’s call it Gotham. You can only drive in or out of the city via three bridges – the GWB to the west, the VNB to the south, and the TNB to the east. (Work with me here.) Every day, 5.8 million people want to drive across those three bridges, in and out of the city. They do this in cars, vans, buses, and trucks. There is no control over who can come in, where they come in, when they leave - it's completely up for grabs.

Almost six million people drive into the city in the morning. At 4:00 am, the bridge system is happy, peaceful, and underused. At 5:00 am, the system is operating effectively – no delays. At 7:30 am, traffic volume exceeds the capacity of the bridges. The highways (which have more lanes than the bridges they feed) start backing up. Delays. Congestion. Frustration.

The Gotham Bridge Authority (GBA) is not uncaring. They don’t want to see delays. They experimented with off-peak pricing, making the bridges free during off-peak hours and collecting double fares during busy hours, but that seemed to have perverse and unintended effects.

They implemented one-way tolls, so that drivers paid a double fee in one direction and no fee in the other - this made things better, but there was still congestion. They implemented EZ-OnePass, but when the demand grew high, the bridges were still clogged.

A think-tank visionary comes along and says, “We’re going to equip each vehicle with a CB-radio. Armed with this technology, drivers will be able to communicate with each other, learn about delays, and reroute themselves. The Market can solve this problem”.

A partnership executive comes along and says “We’re going to put a GPS in each vehicle so they can reroute themselves efficiently, and in fact these fancy GPS units will receive real-time traffic reports so drivers can make informed choices.”

Reporters covering their press conference were wondering who Adam Smith was; the two advocates talked about him and his invisible hand a lot, but he never appeared. Probably a wonk consultant.

The public found the proposal persuasive. Everytime traffic backed up, they used their cellphones to call Chuck Schumer. Senator Schumer ranted and raged about how Gotham deserved only the best. And so it came to be - everybody had to buy a GPS and a CB radio for their car. The local electronics industry was booming.

The Moment of Truth

And yet remarkably, on a Friday afternoon at 5:30, you still can’t drive across the GWB, TNG, or VNB without significant delays. If it’s snowing: Fuhgeddaboudit.

Does any New Yorker believe that if every driver had a CB and a GPS, that traffic congestion over the George Washington Bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and the Throg Neck Bridge would go away? Does anybody believe it? Because that's the pitch they're hoping you'll believe about airplanes.

Those three bridges in our story are just like the runways at JFK, EWR, and LGA. They’re the constraints. All the cars have to pass through the bridges. All the planes have to go through those runways. All the CB radios, TomTom GPS's, datalinks and ADS-Bs aren’t going to significantly change that reality. NextGen will do nothing to resolve airline congestion at Kennedy, Newark, and LaGuardia.

But they'd like to sell you some gizmo's if you're buying.

What Happened?

New Yorkers clamored for an investigation; they'd been told that the technology and Adam Smith would solve their problems. They'd all bought CB's and fancy GPSs, and in fact some people who couldn't afford them had stopped driving and rode the bus. Why was there no significant benefit?

The Post discovered that one advocate was paid by a series of grants from the Citizens Band Advocacy Group, a market-based think tank funded by the manufacturers of CB radios. The Daily News reported that the other advocate was funded by the TomTom Group, a future-focused think tank financed by a series of grants from the GPS industry. The Times reported that they both had grants from the Gotham Bridge Authority, who it seems had a vested interest in their monopoly over access to Gotham.

If you stood in the toll plaza during rush hour and spoke with a commuter, sitting in stopped traffic with his CB and GPS, and asked him who was at fault, you'd probably hear that the villian was a consultant named Adam Smith, who'd gone into hiding and disappeared. Nobody could find him. There wasn't any sign of him or his invisible hand.

And they all lived, happily ever after...


Brian said...

Excellent metaphor!! I think Robert "Bob" Poole should be made to read this out loud in front of everyone three times. Maybe it would get through his thick head!

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