Innovation and good ideas require a few bad ones in between

Failure should most definitely be an option

This article originally appeared on Klumpentown

Today I want to talk about something that people try to avoid, and why it needs to exist even in the transportation realm: failure

I have been involved in improvised comedy shows for a number of years now, and of the many lessons it has taught me one stands out as perhaps the most important: you need to fail, and fail gracefully. Embracing failure is one of the pillars of how to be successful at improvised comedy (and, I would argue, many other aspects of life), and it has completely changed the connotation I place on the word. I’m going to be using the word ‘failure’ a lot in this post, so I thought it important that we were all on the same page about how I feel about it. Failure: it’s a good thing

In most civil engineering fields (structural engineering, manufacturing, even safety) failure of a system or structure is usually self-evident, and a lot of time and effort is put into making sure a building won’t collapse. Design of structures revolves around identifying failure, embracing that as an option, and then mitigating it as much as possible.

Finding Failure in Transit

With transit planning and engineering, failure is tricky to find, and difficult to define. Transit systems don’t really collapse like buildings, where experts sift through the debris and identify critical structural errors that lead to the failure. There are countless metrics (even just defining what “on time” is) that can be used to measure the performance of a transit system, and all of them have their pros and cons. Often, transit failure as perceived by the public is a compiled collection of grumblings on Twitter, rants on blogs, anecdotes and a few aggregated numbers like “total percent of vehicles late”. In fact, on an individual level, transit cannot be exactly what everyone needs at the same time. Transit is understood – generally – as an important system, but failure of a transit system is manifested in small problems and growing resentment, especially when the system needs more money to critically improve.

Another thing that makes finding failure in transit tough is discerning operational failure from planning failure. The former tends to happen on a much shorter time scale, and often occurs at the whim of lady luck, while the latter is a systematic problem in the way things are designed and may only become evident after a long period of operation. The trouble is that planning failure can often manifest itself as recurring operational failure, and operational failure can easily be falsely attributed to poor planning. Finding the important, systematic failure in the noise is difficult. Good planning and research acknowledges the randomness and operational failure that is almost certain to occur occasionally, and comes up with strategies to mitigate it.

I’ve been told that a large  part of understanding, researching, and improving public transit is articulated in a quote by Leonardo Da Vinci: saper vedere; to know how to see. As a passenger, when things aren’t going as planned, I try (and encourage you to try) to decide if the problems are systematic or random. If they’re systematic, describe it to your transit system (in 140 characters if you wish) – that information is very useful.

The good thing about the lack of critical failure in transit is that problems can be found and corrected without catastrophic (and often deadly) results. It is still important that we embrace failure as an option and seek it out in order to make these systems better instead of becoming complacent with what we have because it’s not completely terrible. There’s always room for improvement.

In any plan, we look for problems and for failure, but we have to be willing to accept that there are things we cannot predict. This is not a reason to try new things, or do it right.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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