A Little-Things Agenda

Josh Barro’s review of a new book about America’s physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, etc.) touches on the idea that “small thinking can be a virtue, because the history of infrastructure is a series of experimental and incremental improvements.” The book under review “brings an eye for the little things: what kinds of guardrails are best, how roads can be made safer through better signage, which paving materials last longest.”

A little-things agenda is not sexy, as is highlighted in the discussion of one of the most disastrous public works projects in recent history: The Bay Bridge in San Francisco-Oakland:

Petroski devotes one chapter of his book to the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened in 2013, nine years late and $5 billion over budget. “With uniqueness also come uncertainties — of complications during design and construction and of cost,” he writes. Replacing an old bridge with seismic problems could have been done fairly easily and cheaply by building a simple viaduct. But politicians wanted a “signature span,” and for a variety of aesthetic reasons they chose to build a single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge — a relatively rare design. The proposed bridge would be the longest of its kind in the world.

But self-anchored suspension bridges lack the massive anchorages at each end that are typical for suspension bridges. Instead, the cables would be anchored to the deck itself. Because of the desire to add a cantilevered bike lane, the bridge would also have to be wider on one side than the other.

This combination of specifications led to a variety of unforeseen complications. The addition of the asymmetrical bike lane required a counterweight, which would increase the load on the bridge cables, which would pull on the deck, which therefore had to be built stiffer to resist the stronger pull. But the stiffening would make the deck heavier, further increasing the load on the cables, requiring further stiffening, and so forth.

These shifting specifications added greatly to time and cost, obliterating the justification that had led politicians to choose to build a new bridge in the first place: that it would cost about the same amount as retrofitting the old span to be safer in earthquakes. And in the end, the single tower wasn’t built quite upright, and the technique used to straighten it after construction weakened the steel rods inside it, calling into question how seismically sound it was anyway.

Politicians aren’t drawn to megaprojects just because they believe the initial rosy cost projections and therefore underestimate the risk of complications. They also see an opportunity to build their legacy: It’s more fun to say “I built that bridge” than “I retrofitted that bridge.”

In this case, the hubris of politicians and civic leaders got in the way of a less-sexy and less-complicated plan.

There’s a lesson for business leaders in here, too, I think. So many new initiatives at companies are big, bold, sweeping, inspirational. You rarely hear a CEO announce to his or her employees a “yearly theme” or new cultural initiative that focuses on the corporate analogs to “making sure the signage is still up on the roads” or “putting down lane markers that won’t come off when snow plows drive over them.” In other words, initiatives that are small and incremental but perhaps surprisingly impactful — e.g. shaving 15 minutes off every scheduled meeting, or double-checking every email to a customer to make sure the tone is just right.

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