May 14, 2024

The original version of this article was published in the April 2024 edition of the Florida Puerto Rico District ITE newsletter.

Disruptive What…?

Developed by Clayton M. Christensen in 1995, the notion of Disruptive Innovation became a forward-thinking way of creating a business environment that enhanced affordability and accessibility for all users of a feature, device, process, or system. It’s not just about building a better mousetrap; it’s more about providing access to almost everyone.

I couldn’t help making the connection between Disruptive Innovation and Complete Streets & Vision Zero. That is, as transportation professionals, we aim to provide safety, accessibility, and mobility for ALL transportation users.

I had the pleasure of listening to a recent tech conference interview with Mr. Jensen Huang, President and CEO of NVIDIA Corporation. Mr. Huang, an electrical engineer by profession, said, among other things, “…that key performance indicators (KPIs) are more about process, rather than predicting results.” KPIs are lagging indicators; you find out that the ship has sailed after the ship has sailed. Mr. Huang’s approach has been to investigate patterns that are early indicators of future positive results.

The problem with us humans, in this shop online world, is that we tend to be an impatient lot. Mr. Huang’s patient and contrarian approach to investigating early indicators has made NVIDIA the emperor of chip technology. For example, focusing on innovation with transformative influence that his company’s chips and related systems would have on technology and artificial intelligence, Mr. Huang has taken his company from $1.00 per share in 1999 to over $900.00 per share today – that’s an 89,900% increase in 25 years (not investment advice). The result: one of the most profound disruptive innovations of our time!

The “S” Curve is Your Best Friend.

Think of any item, invention, or process – anything! I can assure you that its development likely had an “S” curve associated with it. Slow to start, followed by fast growth, then slow growth, ending in zero growth and maturation. The expert in the particular field is typically entrenched in the slow growth, slow adoption trench.

Remember Blockbuster? When Blockbuster was asked to partner with Netflix, they said no. “Why should we, after all, 15% of our net earnings come from late return fees.” Blockbuster who?

Understanding the “S” curve can mean early adoption of complex solutions, including transportation safety. As most readers know, Complete Streets & Vision Zero applications play a key role in reducing fatal and serious injury (FSI) crashes. These combined systems help planners and engineers create chain of pearls solutions, that work together to help change people’s lives – permanently.

The expert in a particular field is typically entrenched in the slow growth, slow adoption trench - the beginning of the "S" curve.

We Really are Making a Better Place!

As transportation professionals, we want to participate in our practices with a clear view of serving ALL transportation users, based on the local context. The innovations that these partners are deploying are beginning to make a difference. For example, on a national level, the Fatality Rate per 100 Million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fell by about 4.5% in the first nine months of 2023. That means that 1,445 law enforcement phone calls were not made to unsuspecting grieving families.

Progress is being made!

These courageous innovators have collectively implemented almost 1,800 national and 85 Florida/Puerto Rico Complete Streets programs, respectively. They also created 60 national and five Florida/Puerto Rico Vision Zero programs/action plans, respectively.

The Safety Superpowers at Work

Many of these transportation safety solutions involved the implementation of the “spectacular seven” safety features such as Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs), Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs), crosswalk visibility enhancements, raised crosswalks, refuge islands/mid-block crossings, Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons (PHBs), and road diets or lane repurposing projects. These features have grown to include modern roundabouts, transportation equity-based services, Safe Streets For All grant opportunities, and the Safe Systems Approach, to name a few.

Crosswalk with rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFBs)

The “spectacular seven” safety features - Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs), Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs), crosswalk visibility enhancements, raised crosswalks, refuge islands/mid-block crossings, Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons (PHBs), and road diets or lane repurposing projects - are examples of disruptive innovations that are making our streets safer.

The Rules Should Serve the People!

Has this ever happened to you?

You want to get to the bookstore (remember those?) across the street. You’re facing six lanes of high volume/high speed traffic. No worries, you will cheerfully proceed towards the traffic signal which is only 874 feet away. Of course you’ll walk to the signal, wait 180 seconds for the walk signal, cross an additional 80 feet and then walk back 874 feet only to find out that the last copy of Moby Dick has been sold. As Yogi Berra once quipped, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” No wonder nobody walks anymore – thank you Amazon!

An example of disruptive innovation is the mid-block crossing. There used to be a time when the term “mid-block crossing” was basically a four-letter word. Fortunately, and despite crossing warrants and criteria, more and more engineers are courageously recommending such features, wait for it, even if these requirements are not always met – egad! This act is in itself, by applying more “human factor” indicators, is a form of disruptive innovation, feeding on its successes with users wanting more. As noted earlier, the creation of a chain of pearls of consecutively placed elements eventually gets the motorists’ attention: “Hey buddy, we mean business.” We don’t say the “halo effect” for nothing you know!

A Call to Action – Let’s Get Fired Up.

As transportation professionals, both in the public and private sectors, we are changing lives, and creating better places for all. With Vision Zero as our goal, we are making strides. The cities of Hoboken, NJ and Alexandria, VA have proven it can be done – zero fatal crashes over the past seven years in Hoboken, and in 2023 for Alexandria!

Be bold and break through the conventional mold. Disruptively innovate something by getting fired up and be a superpower – help turn the needle back and embrace Zero.