Are You an Incrementalist or a Completionist?

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

A lot of arguments in the world of progressive street design these days aren’t between good and bad. They’re between better and much better.

For example, better:

Kinzie Street, Chicago.

And much better:

Jodenbreestraat, Amsterdam.

This comes up again and again in the endless and usually fun arguments the bike-oriented Internet is always having with itself.

Here’s a tweet from one high-profile urbanism consultant, annoyed by the Green Lane Project’s willingness to praise protected bike lanes that put both directions on the same side of the street:

And the spirited response from our friend and co-founder Randy Neufeld, a longtime director of Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance now at the SRAM Cycling Fund:

Who’s right?

Here’s another tweet, from just this week, that struck a chord with us:

For those of us focusing on strategy, it can be a tough balance. And once you’re looking you’ll see it everywhere in the bike world, from the different approaches of the NACTO and AASHTO bikeway guides to the tension between bicycle drivers and infrastructurists (both of whom are actually united by a skepticism about white stripes of paint). The question is: How much imperfection are we willing to settle for on the way to something better?

It’s OK for different people to have different answers. In fact, this 12-year-old blog post about corporate management makes a useful argument that these differences are good.

Here’s a passage from the post, by veteran blogger Rands in Repose, with emphasis added:

There are two distinct personalities when it comes to devising solutions to problems: Incrementalists and Completionists.

Incrementalists are realists. They have a pretty good idea of what is achievable given a problem to solve, a product to ship. They’re intimately aware of how many resources are available, where the political landscape is at any given moment, and they know who knows what. They tend to know all the secrets and they like to be recognized for that fact.

Completionists are dreamers. They have a very good idea of how to solve a given problem and that answer is SOLVE IT RIGHT. Their mantra is, “If you’re going to spend the time to solve a problem, solve it in a manner that you aren’t going to be solving it AGAIN in three months.” …

How does anything get done with Incrementalists and Completionists arguing about degrees of rightness? Well, first, limber Incrementalists can switch teams. They’re opportunists and when they see that acting like a Completionist is a good move and, more importantly, it’s an achievable move, they’ll step up to the Completionist plate. Once they’re there, it’s likely they’ll engage a Completionist to do the heavy lifting, but the Incrementalist will drive because THEY CAN SEE THE PLAN FROM SOUP TO NUTS. This is a big deal for Incrementalists because they normally can’t see past their next meeting… getting them on-board with the “big picture” gives them a sense of foundation they don’t usually have.

Conversely, effective Completionists know when to let the Incrementalists poke around and do their thing … because they know it’ll help with their Completionist agenda. This, too, is a big deal because Completionists spend much of their lives shaking their heads, staring at the floor, muttering, “Boy, could they fuck this up more?”

A healthy population of both Incrementalists and Completionists is essential to a corporate agenda. It’s not only because they both represent groups that “get stuff done”, it’s also because they are going to argue, but it’s the argument you want your teams to have. It’s not “Should We or Shouldn’t We”, it’s “Let’s do this thing, let’s make sure it gets done, and let’s make sure it get’s done right.”

We love this schema from Rands (who is still blogging hard, by the way).

This way of thinking about our arguments isn’t going to resolve them. But maybe it helps us make the most of them.

Alki Avenue SW, Seattle.

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18 thoughts on Are You an Incrementalist or a Completionist?

  1. I enjoy following Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen from time to time (I especially love his TED Talk on how problematic Helmet Culture is and I love sharing it with people), but I do find his Tweets above a bit funny as much of even the newer stuff being celebrated by Copenhagenize is Better, not Best. Take, for example, a typical unprotected Danish intersection that is now a…typical unprotected Danish intersection but with flashing lights. Celebrated by Copenhagenize below:

    David Hembrow is spot-on pointing this out:

    “Much the same situation as before, but with added flashing lights ? If the existing situation was good enough then the lights would not have been tried. This is a story of failure, not of success. Instead of this band-aid measure, why didn’t they simply copy a much superior and more convenient design of junction ?”

    Having lived in the Netherlands and visited Denmark I’m in Camp Hembrow on this one. The data support it as well:

    As for bringing stuff to the US, I’m all for pushing for as best practices as possible. In an ideal world we’d take concepts from CROW and adapt them as needed to fit US requirements (ADA, etc.). But, yeah, I do think it’s telling that even with the not-total-best practices that, say, NYC has implemented they’re still *so much better* than what they replace that while not up to CROW standards are still yielding really positive results in terms of safety and modeshare improvements:

    However, there *are* instances of more or less adapting CROW concepts:

    (though CROW would rightly insist this protected bike lane be a bit wider)

    Still looking forward to seeing how the Dutch intersections Davis is considering play out:

    While not the 100% Best Practice of a roundabout cycletrack I think the following style of design is still a Much, Much Better and on a pragmatic basis could fairly easily be adapted to many US intersections:

    As for the cost thing, at least in Davis’s case the above style of protected intersection design is the *cheapest* intersection redesign scenario they’re considering (note: illustration from a Photoshopped theoretical retrofitting of a Portland intersection but it’s the same concept as Davis is considering).

  2. The problem is we’re compromising before even proposing a “best” type solution. We’re being “incremental” without any opposition forcing us to be incremental and without any plan for later upgrading in any event. See the original (2007-8?) wide protected bike lanes in New York and compare them to the later narrow single-file ones (2009-12?) where passing is always awkward and generally in the door zone. Its more than just the lack of funds for separate signal phasing: they’re a lot less comfortable to ride in even away from the junctions. The expensive capital constructed parts of the Allen Street bikeway in New York are narrower and worse than the original cheap paint-and-plastic-sticks part!

    As for two-way cycletracks that are on a regular street grid: these are just a bad idea for so many reasons. So many conflicts, more difficult navigation and limiting local access for people biking. When they run along a park or shoreline or other natural boundary, fine, but they’re quite poor on the street especially where they have to connect to normal (separate direction) infrastructure. Same goes for center-median bikeways which should only be used in limited circumstances (like Delancey Street in New York where the entrance to a bridge is in the center median).

  3. The problem is we’re compromising before even proposing a “best” type solution. We’re being “incremental” without any opposition forcing us to be incremental and with future upgrading very unlikely in any event.

    See the original (2007-8?) wide protected bike lanes in New York and compare them to the later narrow single-file ones (2009-14?) where passing is always awkward and generally in the door zone (sadly even the wider originals encourage slower cyclists to ride down the center rather than stay to the right).

    Its more than just the lack of funds for separate signal phasing: they’re less comfortable to ride in even away from the junctions. The later expensive capital constructed parts of the Allen Street bikeway in New York are narrower and worse than the original cheap paint-and-plastic-sticks part! They got the money and wasted it. What sort of incrementalism is it when the increments are getting worse?

  4. Of course, just because you say that a best practice has been established doesn’t actually mean that a best practice has been established…

  5. True, “best practice” is meaningless unless backed up by metrics and data. If Design A in situation X consistently yields the best metrics on certain criteria such as safety increases, modal share increases, speed, compliance with road laws, etc. compared to Design B and Design C etc. in situation X then it should be the best practice adhered to the next time situation X comes up again.

  6. That’s just Mikael Colville-Andersen being his usual smug self. Move along, nothing to see here.

  7. Well. I started biking regularly about 15 years ago, when the Hudson River bikepath was put in, because it got me about 2/3rds of the way to work without weaving through scary car traffic; at that point, I was one of a tiny few non-messengers/delivery people who biked regularly in NY.

    I know we have a -long- way to go before we have anything like the infrastructure of Copenhagen, say (where I have also biked–I worked for Nokia for a while, and was back and forth to the Nordic countries a fair bit). But I’m astonished at the progress in both NY and SF (where I lived for 3 years — coming back to a NY with vastly better bike infrastructure than when I left in 2011).

    I’m a pretty fearless cyclist, and have, and continue, to bicycle on some pretty scary streets sometimes (try bike commuting in Santa Clara, as I have), but the direction of change is obviously positive, and I appreciate it. The Allen Street bike lane sucks? Yes, it kind of does — but it’s better than no bike lane. The unprotected bike lane on 8th Street in SOMA sucks? It’s a whole lot better than commuting on 8th Street with -no- marked bike lane, as I used to.

    “Don’t make the best be the enemy of the good” is a pretty good heuristic. Yes, protected, decently wide lanes that minimize points of conflict with traffic are better; but get what you can on the ground, and work to improve it over time.

    No, we don’t have “8 to 80” infrastructure in many places — but I can now (in better weather) get my daughter to school via bike, with only a couple of blocks mixed in with traffic; I wouldn’t even have contemplated that 10 years ago.

  8. The problem is less with incremental solution and more with haphazard implementation without some master vision or master plan.

    If cycling is to become some relevant choice on mobility in a whole metro area (like they are in Copenhagen or Rotterdam, for instance), and if we are talking on increments of whole percentage points on cycling share of trips, not only moving from 0.15% to 0.30%, then a long-term vision is needed.

    Then, there is the issue of how to deal with limited possibilities: to create a good network with smaller coverage (segregated bike paths with intersection control and physical separation from street etc), one that can be accessed comfortably by children, older people – not only the active-fearless-Spandex-crowd, or to spread resources thin all over the place in the form of sharrows, disconnected unprotected bike lanes that suddenly end near overpasses or junctions etc.

    It is the same dilemma Jarret Walker discusses when he writes about structuring transit networks on very financially constrained scenarios – do you pick a core network that will work well for those living or working near it, or do you spread all services thin on slow routes (transit-as-last-resort) that reach every neighborhood.

  9. Yes, US designs can and must improve, and Dutch (not Danish) designs are way better. However, Dutch designs are way more expensive (to rebuild curbs, add bike signals, and relocate utilities) and require much more political backing (to remove car lanes and parking). As a result, I’m fine with adding less-than-perfect bike lanes that are politically feasible now, but still dramatically increase the bike mode share, until there is more money and political power to support more intense interventions.

    Also, it’s really easy to call for expensive, politically challenging designs when you live in a place with a 20% bike mode share. When US cities start getting to 7 or 8 percent mode share, we’ll be much more able to push for better designs. Finally, Mikael Colville-Andersen should probably focus more attention on mediocre bike lane design when he lives (which has ample numbers of cyclists to support better designs), rather than criticizing the good people who inherited auto-centric cities with 1% mode shares and are struggling hard to overcome 80 years of neglect and outright hostility towards bicycling.

  10. The cost thing is irrelevant when we’re talking about new-builds. I am up to my eyeballs in Draft EIRs and planning documents for new projects that want to stripe a 6-foot bike lane next to the 6-lane arterial, even when there is plenty room to start with 10-foot cycletracks from the beginning.

  11. A good bikeway network does not require a cycletrack on every street. A good bikeway network relies on a backbone of cycletracks (mainly on arterials, maybe some collectors), bike lanes that connect to them, and traffic calmed streets everywhere else. I agree that a vision is necessary, but it doesn’t really have to be separate to still deliver decent results. Something as simple as updating standard street sections to include a cycletrack or bike lane if certain warrants are met or otherwise employ traffic diversion methods to keep those warrants from being met. That way, an area will still get a minimum grid just as a matter of design instead of people having to fight for scraps.

  12. Yeah, that’s such a wasted opportunity!

    Another obvious, crucial opportunity is when streets come up for planned repaving/upgrading and/or road diets.

    If you’re planning to totally redo a road anyway, why not do it right? A good example of shooting for mediocrity is what’s currently planned for the 6th St road diet in SF:

    They’re already taking the trouble to remove car travel lanes and some parking only to…paint a conventional Class II bike lane (aka Second-Class bike lane). In this dense neighborhood of SF that means even before the paint has fully dried it’ll be a shiny brand-new Double Parking lane.

    Really, SF? That’s not 8-to-80. It’s not the stuff of Vision Zero or 20% bike modeshare by 2020, either.

    We could and should be aiming so much higher.

  13. ARGHHH!!!! Alki Ave!!! Why do you insist on showcasing some of the worst cycletracks ever created! Narrow, crowded with pedestrians everywhere, and some very dicey driveway crossings! No offense to Seattle because I’m sure the people at SDOT would freely admit that site constraints along Alki limited their design options. Again, it is far from ideal.

    BTW, you need to be both. I always say go for broke till a point. Don’t forget we live in a country with some very powerful enemies that do all they can to thwart mass transit that makes giving over so much street space to bicycles in other countries possible. Time for the Greenlane Project to start living in that reality and show some better American cycletracks, please!

  14. I can’t wait to see a true Bike Street in the US, with appropriate visual cues:

    The US version of this would probably have:

    –> continuous green super sharrows, like this one in Oakland, but taking up the full width of the street and bidirectional:


    Btw that stretch of fietsstraat above happens to remind me of spatially similar streets right here in the Bay Area:

    (along Caltrain corridor in downtown San Mateo)

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