Image from Island Press.

Gabe Klein, former transportation chief in DC and later Chicago, has just published a book, Start-Up City. We’re pleased to present a few excerpts. In this one, Gabe talks about how the best plans can collect dust unless leaders push to turn them into reality.

After launching [a set of signs that read “Building a new Chicago” for taxpayer-funded projects,] I decided to make a second, blunter version of the sign to hang in my office. My version read simply: “Getting Sh*t Done.”

Each day, I reminded myself of what the mayor would really say behind closed doors, and what our actual goal in the new administration was—to serve the people of Chicago, and fast.

Chicago, like most American cities, had a room chock-full of old plans. With dusty, yellowing pages, most of these plans were decades old and often bore witness to some of the great, unrealized ambitions of my predecessors.

There was a plan for a light-rail project from the 1990s quashed by the sitting governor; a plan for the Bloomingdale Trail dating back to 1998; and an ambitious, but largely unimplemented, bike plan from 1992 entitled The Bike 2000 Plan: A Plan to Make Chicago Bicycle-Friendly by the Year 2000.

We still had a long way to go. Each of these had become stale reminders of how bureaucracy fails itself and its citizens. Today, many of these projects would cost three to four times as much to complete, but due to a lack of political will or foresight or both, all of the social and economic benefits are encapsulated in spiral-bound books collecting dust in the CDOT library.

Plans matter, but so does implementation

We can talk, we can plan, we can talk some more, we can shelve a plan, and we can create new plans, but if you don’t get it done, then it didn’t happen, right? This is no slight to the planning field—quite the opposite. It’s a recognition that moving quickly from conception to planning to engineering to building is hard. Implementation is painful.

It’s also true that planning is an important exercise, and not every idea should be taken to fruition. But it is possible to get things done quickly, even as you trudge through the bureaucratic sludge of city government. If I didn’t see my work implemented (or at least construction started) during my (or my boss’s) tenure, I felt a sense of failure, and ultimately, so will the people you serve.

There are a couple reasons to be obsessed with speed of implementation. The primary reason is that we have no time to waste. With seemingly insurmountable environmental problems created just since the Industrial Revolution, compounded by an ever-expanding population, and a culture that accepts an unacceptable death rate on our streets, the time to act is now.

Also, we need to be realistic about political time frames. The first year a mayor is in office is the best time to strike with a public- or private-sector innovation in your city. By the fourth year, lame-duck syndrome can set in, and/or it’s all about re-election. If you want to get it done, time frame is key or you may lose support.

There’s a new urgency to get things done

The public sector, and specifically city government, has experienced a resurgence. Led mostly by large cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC and a new cadre of mayors with a national profile, such as Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Adrian Fenty, and Rahm Emanuel, as well as mayors of smaller cities such as Portland, Seattle, Austin, and beyond, local governments have increasingly become the engines of innovation and experimentation in this country.

In the transportation field, cities increasingly set the tone for national and state-level policies, and, in spite of far too limited resources, are delivering new and better services to their constituents.

[Meanwhile,] the private sector, especially in the transportation arena, has ignited a trend toward consumer-oriented, on-demand, and easy-to-use mobility platforms. New technology and analytics-driven companies have sprouted to connect people and places with more flexibility, and are introducing competition with the old twentieth-century business models.

Other services are springing up to provide multimodal information, helping traditional transit become more intelligible and responsive, and in the process, more efficient and consumer friendly. Publicly led, public-private partnerships like bike sharing show that government still has the power and willingness to innovate and plays an important role in facilitating change where the private sector would not go it alone.

In spite of these trends, the chasm continues to grow between the public and private sectors on many fronts and in many places. This gulf stems broadly from divergent cultures, but also from the unmet challenges of change management, a lack of experience and knowledge about the opposite side’s perspective, and a persistent skepticism of the capacity for government to efficiently serve the taxpayers.

The city of tomorrow, and the demands of the future citizen, will not be constrained by narrow political windows and interests. We have learned over the last few years in government to make change, or have change happen to you (Uber, anyone?). I believe that the rate of change we will see in our cities due to exponential technological innovation over the next 5, 10, 25 years and beyond is almost inconceivable to us at this point. So the organizational alignment may get harder to achieve, not easier, and we don’t have time to waste.

This excerpt has been edited for length. You can purchase Start-Up City from Amazon. See Gabe Klein speak and sign books on November 4 at the National Building Museum at 12:30, that night at BicycleSpace in Adams Morgan at 7:30, or at Upshur Street Books on November 24th at 7 pm.