Saturday 19 March 2016

Is Leadership Political Or Professional?

Leadership is an interesting concept and if I was an expert, I'd be writing management books. This is one take on the subject.

This post is inspired by JobRot following a debate on Twitter (yes, that) on why don't professionals simply refuse to build crap (cycling) infrastructure which itself (as best I can remember) stemmed from a discussion on why professional institutions don't show leadership. The point was made that despite knowing about concepts such as induced demand and the health impact from non-active travel modes, why do professionals still push road-building schemes? Perhaps it's a touch of cognitive dissonance, perhaps they really don't care, perhaps they disagree. Is it any different to health professionals who smoke?

With this in mind, I also read the Chartered Institution of Highway's & Transportation's "Transportation Professional" magazine this week which featured its usual monthly poll called the "CIHT 100"; that is 100 institution members who answer a question to give a snapshot of members' position on a subject which is also linked to an article where one person supports the "yes" answer and one person supports the "no" position. This month, it was East London river crossings;

Now to be clear, this is a poll of member's views and not a reflection of Institution policy (I'll come back to that later). I did find the result interesting as I thought the "no's" would be higher and so 42% is a win as far as I am concerned! 

Let's take a step back. We often see politicians and professionals being accused of lacking leadership, but often, this is because the person making the comment disagrees with the position being taken. Take a local authority seen as anti-walking and cycling by pro-walking and cycling campaigners. The accusation will be levelled that for active travel, the councillors and senior officers running the authority show no leadership on active travel. 

They are right of course, but this is often tempered by the fact that the "leaders" may actually be disregarding active travel in favour of private car journeys and car parking. I have heard politicians state that they have been elected by people who want the freedom to use their cars and so they have a mandate to facilitate this freedom. There will be many of my peers who completely agree with the position and in their work, enabling this freedom will be at the forefront. I know that local authorities have policies promoting active travel, but even those with really strong policies can end up ignoring them in the face of pressure or the at the behest of the decision-makers.

For those working in such an environment, you may have high principles in favour of active travel and this will be supported in policy terms, but your job is to facilitate the political direction and position (up until the point it is illegal a very sage boss once said to me). For consultants, life can be more difficult as they are there to do the client's bidding. Good consultants will show what things could be, but ultimately, you get paid for doing what the client wants. Principles are a great thing to have, until they hit you in the pocket. Unless you are financially self-sufficient, I'm afraid that the reality of life ends up with compromise. We therefore should not confuse principles with leadership.

Returning to the CIHT poll. I don't know, but I would expect most members responding to have a fair grasp of the arguments, it is just that some completely agree with the idea that such roads should be built for private car journeys and accommodating active travel is a nice to have, but not really important. Many transport professionals will be driving to work, getting free parking, getting mileage for business trips and they simply don't know any different. Yes, their design guides will talk about "vulnerable road users" and "non-motorised users", but consideration of walking and especially cycling will be bolt-on at best.

Organisations such as CIHT are member-led. They have full-time staff, but policy comes from the council and the technical panels, with trustees dealing with the charitable side of things. This is no different to countless member-led organisations. Bodies such as the council are elected by the membership and as with any election, we choose people who reflect our views and therefore we give a mandate for leadership of the institution. This is the same as local authorities and the government of the day and we essentially get the representation we deserve. Ultimately, the leaders will be the ones who step up for election, rather than staying at home muttering.

Back to the river crossings. On the recent Transport for London consultation for crossings at Gallions Reach and Belvedere, TfL is reporting 90% support (full report here). There were 4,450 respondents and so TfL will be emboldened to proceed as they are with the Silvertown Tunnel which will start to go through the formal procedures this year. 

The current Mayor supports these schemes as do some of the candidates for the May election. The Mayor feels he has a mandate from the electorate, there is a positive response to the initial consultation. TfL staff and their consultants working on the projects will know full well what the implications might be in terms of induced demand, pollution, severance and so on. Some might agree with the schemes, some might not. A pragmatic position could be that some will do their damnedest to make sure that active travel is included knowing full well that the politicians want the crossings built anyway. 

I might fundamentally disagree with these schemes, but I have to recognise that leadership has been given to ensure their progress. Of course, the same Mayor and organisation has shown leadership (belatedly) in building some of the World-class cycling infrastructure we can see in London now - it's not simple is it?


  1. It is different to health professionals who smoke because the latter do not provide their patients with cigarettes (or perhaps cigarette lighters might be a better analogy).

  2. Thinking about movement of motor traffic in city centres, LA California has motorways in the city centre, some over a dozen lanes total (for the two directions), and still they have congestion. The Dutch manage to have smaller motorways outside the city centre and have less congestion. I see a pretty strong correlation. Might be worth a mention when you do blog posts that correlation is not causation.

  3. "The point was made that despite knowing about concepts such as induced demand and the health impact from non-active travel modes, why do professionals still push road-building schemes?"
    I know this sounds like a broken record, but once again our experiences of this nation vary considerably depending upon where we are from and where we work. We live in a country - England - where London (and I am aware there are many 'Londons'), but London as a whole, gets over £2700 per head spent on it for its transport needs. My own region, Yorkshire and Humberside gets one-tenth of that, £200 per head, and the poor sods in north-east England get a massive £5 per head. With this disparity, where London is seen as getting its cake and eating it, any crumbs that end up in 'the regions' are welcomed - if its going on roads, so be it - believe it or not they are still needed outside the capital.
    I would love to spend the next twenty years of my career designing high quality, inclusive pedestrian and cycle friendly transport infrastructure - basically remaking the urban realm in our northern cities - if only out of enlightened self-interest. But on what little we get, if it comes down to a choice between a big-ticket project like Sheffield and Manchester being linked by a road which doesn't close after the first flurry of snow, versus making either (or both) into paragons of active travel, it's the road that'll get the funding.
    After all it's not like the sainted Dutch are averse to putting down the odd bit of bitmac solely for motor vehicles.

    Andy R

  4. And another thing... ;-)

    Engineers design and build what we are asked to design and build. We are not architects. AECOM (and btw other civil engineering consultancies are most certainly available), don't design a new motorway on the off-chance and offer it to Highways England or a Local Authority for their admiration and hopeful adoption.

    Insofar as 'leadership' is concerned this means we aren't in a powerful position. We can and should advise clients - including HE - on what's best for all road users, but in my opinion that's about as far as it can go from us, ultimately we're the piper but the client's paying so they call the tune. In fact I'd argue it's activists who should be taking the lead much more. As PoP and a few notable other groups point out cyclists are voters and it is voters who can influence and lead both local and national politicians.

    And finally. On the subject of engineers and what we should and shouldn't be doing. Whilst my participation in this and other forums hopefully shows that I am very sympathetic to the needs of cyclists (and peds) sometimes I just see talking shops, where engineers are only mentioned to be vilified for our ignorance or our apparent callous indifference to human life. How many who criticise the profession have actually spoken to engineers outside what can be the bear-pit of consultation meetings? Spoken calmly about what they actually want and how they think we could get there. As part of our continuous professional development we recently invited a local cycling activist (thank you CEoGB) to give a talk to a group of mainly highway engineers and which subsequently led to an interesting discussion. Going forward I have no doubt that cycling will be much more to the forefront of those designers minds when designing schemes. Our firm is certainly not alone in organising CPD sessions like this, so I would ask those who talk so passionately on these forums to try offering to give a talk to your nearest highway engineering consultancy. You might get rebuffed - or you might find a curious and receptive audience who could make your best allies (if nothing else you may be surprised by our almost human appearance).

    And relax...

    Andy R

    1. Very good points, well made. I think some campaigners all too easily slip into the blame-the-engineers approach and fail to miss that what is being designed is at the wrong end of where their pressure should be brought to bear. Groups such as CEoGB are taking a more pragmatic stance, but maintaining a purist approach to infrastructure. I know some people who support them are frustrated that they are not more "campaigning", but I find their more critical friend approach far more helpful.

    2. There is a lot in your comment which is undeniably true, but the third paragraph is a cop-out. If it wasn't UK highway engineers coming up with these designs, then you can be certain that the politicians and `clients' (almost always permanent civil servants and associated QANGO spivs, surely?) wouldn't be able to do so themselves---practically all of them are functionally innumerate and lack even the most basic of engineering skills. The problem is often that these latter groups monopolise `leadership' from a position of vast ignorance, incompetence and sociopathy---aided and abetted by highway engineers who really ought to know better. This is why I have previously described them as mercenaries.

      I have to agree with Anonymous (2016-03-19 14:25). Most engineers do not have anything approaching a Hippocratic oath---and the highway variety are towards the bottom end of the scale when it comes to professional ethics, IMO. As someone who has spent part of his working life in the field of safety-critical software, I resent you and Ranty trying to imply that all forms of engineering are equal and painting this as a `hard-done-by engineer vs. truculent campaigner' diatribe.

    3. I am registered as a chartered engineer with the Engineering Council and so as equal as any other similarly registered engineer, regardless of their field. My professional memberships include being responsible to codes of ethics and engineers are complained about and do get booted out of institutions and lose registration.

      There are lots of people employed doing engineering work who are not registered at any level, but there is no exclusive protection in place that engineers have to be qualified (other than anything an employer specifies).

      In terms of safety critical work, I assume that people such as yourself do not have to worry about the political and public spectra impinging on your work. You need to realise (at least in my experience) many people on the street as it were are only bothered about being held up in their cars because of congestion or are moaning about the lack/ cost of parking.

      I think your anger is being poorly directed.

    4. Disappointment, not anger.

      The Hippocratic oath reference was in response to your `health professionals' comparison and Anonymous' reply. But, yes, something similar does apply in safety-critical work. Of course politicians (or those holding purse string levers in the private sector) and the public (customers) like to have their say. When they try to coerce you into providing something obviously or demonstrably dangerous, the only proper answer is `go forth and multiply' or similar. That is why you will search in vain for a doctor who will advise you to take up smoking or push to increase the supply of cigarettes.

      I am well aware that large swathes of the public just want endless pandering to their motoring addiction (and for the bill to be sent to `someone else'). That in itself is not a good reason to facilitate their cravings, just as it isn't with tobacco lobbying. There are lots of chartered and unchartered UK highway engineers gleefully rubbing their hands together at their part in furthering Maggie Thatcher's `greatest motorway building programme since the Romans'. All you can really say about the chartered ones is that they pay their membership fees.

  5. An engineer like you will find a way to design just about anything. And even if the UK engineers have absolutely no idea how to design a Dutch cycle track, they put buckets over their heads and hit themselves in the head with hammers, you can go and hire a few of the engineering staff from a city like Den Bosch or Leeuwarden to come here, ignore everything in the UK's design standards that are not essential to keep because to do otherwise would be against the parliamentary laws and regulations, and do whatever they would do back home, in your UK example, with the only changes that happen is that the signage, markings and signals will be UK standard, that the traffic goes on the left hand side of the road and that signs will be in mph except for the dual unit restriction signs. The engineers show and tell the UK designers what they do, why their engineering rationale and guidebooks say what they contain, and how to use the data in these ways.

    I think that would be a good example for how it would be possible to get something Dutch. David Hembrow also finds that Ligtermoet and Partners is one of the few companies that he would be willing to carry ads on his blog for as they produce apparently high quality enough consultancy. So they may be an option.

    Of course the main problem in the UK are the standards, guidance and to some extent, the regulations that engineers have. It feels like it would be wiser to do what you've done before and it feels like you've only had cars as a serious mode of transport so why not just do the status quo as easier? There is also no legal obligation to provide high quality cycle tracks so because funds are (currently) limited, you want to make as many cheap improvements with shared use paths and converting puffin crossings to toucan crossings as possible so that you have money for cars.

  6. Attitudes can change over time. 100 years ago, it would be incomprehensible to see a woman doctor or people having sex for fun being accepted by society. It used to be seen 10 years ago as if nobody would ever tolerate anyone using marijuana by the government, now in Colorado, they've done that. We changed from bicycles, horses and trams to cars in only a few years, maybe 10 years to make a full societal change in the UK, probably less. Once, thinking that you were going to have surgery without pain wasn't something that you could imagine being possible, now, nobody would accept it if someone who had access to anesthetics were to have surgery without it, we couldn't imagine such a torture. Once, being anything other than Catholic in the UK was never even considered by most people. After the king had his divorce, it became all the rage. All you need is enough dissatisfaction with what we have. Martin Luther radically changed Europe for better and for worse in just 10 years or so. Why couldn't we do the same for things that aren't even as personal as religion?