October 6, 2020

Tipping Points in Transportation: Searching for the Secret Sauce



Post by Noam Maital, Waycare CEO

It has been two decades since the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known book about the paradox of social change titled The Tipping Point. In it, Gladwell discusses why most change goes unnoticed, until a certain instance triggers what he calls, “the tipping point” – the time at which minor changes precipitate paradigm shifts that can no longer be ignored.

Humanity has recently fallen over the edge of one of these tipping points. COVID-19 started small, but each new infection brought us to the point of an outbreak, which snowballed to a full-scale global pandemic. Much like how the grains of sand build up in an hourglass until a single additional grain causes the hill to topple.    

Gladwell’s book caused waves of new thinking, in fields as distant as marketing and public health. After the world has suffered from the heavy impact of a global pandemic, is there any way to fight back and initiate a positive tipping point? And if so, what is the secret sauce? How do we change snails-pace change into rapid, value-creating change? For example, in transportation? What is the recipe for the secret sauce to change the world?

Gladwell’s book gives us the ingredients- there are three. Here they are, in the context of mobility.

1: The Law of the Few:

Sometimes referred to as the  80/20 principle, the Law of Few is an idea that in social groups, most of the work is completed by a small portion of the group. A handful of people with rare social gifts can lead massive change – at times, simply by example, at other times by persuasion and political skill.

Throughout the US, public transportation is deep in the red ink, with massive losses, and a collapse in ridership. Today, many people are reluctant to potentially risk exposure on public transit, despite transportation officials’ best efforts to clean cars and protect riders. The virus compounded the existing decline in ridership, leading to a negative tipping point – a rapid sudden decline in ridership.

Would the ‘law of the few’ apply, if for example, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and his City Council, or New York Mayor Bill Deblasio and his Council, regularly rode the subway? If celebrities and sports stars did so?  Which ‘few’ could decisively change public perceptions of the safety and convenience of public transportation, and bring them back to old patterns?  Could a relatively small group of riders create a tipping point? Gladwell identifies three key tipping-point leaders: Connectors, who are at the center of large networks and are widely known;  Mavens, who are respected for their knowledge (e.g. public health experts);  and Salespersons (strong communicators, like New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo).

2: The Stickiness Factor

 The Stickiness factor refers to an urge for people to pay attention; for example, a memorable message that catches on and spreads, almost like an epidemic. “Make your Magic” was a Sesame Street mantra, led by Elmo, who explained regularly how we can do anything we set our mind to. Or, Nike’s mantra, “Just Do It,” or ironically, a United Nations mantra, “Build Back Better,” that led rebuilding efforts after tsunamis and tornadoes, and now, after the Corona pandemic.

What mantra might become viral and bring back public transportation riders? An environmental message? Comfort? Convenience?  The key here is a “user perspective” – deeply, empathically understanding the needs of those who use public transportation, and finding ways to enhance value-creating features.

3. The Power of Context:  

The third ingredient is the power of context. Environment, situation, and context can affect how impactful an idea is. What is going on in the world at a particular time can change public perception, enabling greater urgency to act.

Part of transportation’s context is the growing rate of traffic congestion, as former public transportation riders embrace private cars. There may be a certain threshold of congestion that could bring back at least some former bus and subway riders. What changes could be made to public transportation that will win back riders? How about free ridership for a limited period (tried in Worcester, MA., and other cities)? Free coffee and doughnuts in stations? Newer subway cars?   

We are also standing on the precipice of a much larger context, to mobility and public transportation – a global climate crisis. A decade ago, climate scientists identified nine climate tipping points, climate change sites where snail’s-pace change suddenly could transform to rapid, sudden change.

  • Loss of Arctic sea ice
  • Loss of ice at the Greenland ice sheet
  • Dieback of the Boreal forests
  • Thawing of Permafrost 
  • Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation
  • Droughts in the Amazon rainforest
  • Die-offs of warm-water corals
  • Loss of ice at the West Antarctic ice sheet
  • Loss of ice in the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica

More than half of the climate tipping points identified a decade ago are now “active” – they are happening and they threaten human civilization. Arctic ice and glaciers are melting; the Amazon rainforest is shrinking; coral reefs are dying, and at alarming rates. 

Vehicles and their emissions are an important contributor to this rise in According to the EPA, the transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. It is a moral and ethical imperative to address these tipping points before we reach the point of no return, which is fast approaching. A positive tipping point for public transportation is a reasonable response, one of many needed to combat global warming and the negative tipping point of the climate crisis.

Like modern technologies, tipping points can be forces for good, for our wellbeing – or for evil, for destruction. Let us all find ways to harness positive tipping points, for instance to move people back to public transportation. 

The best way to fight a negative tipping point – the climate crisis or a pandemic – is to create and drive toward a positive tipping point, or many of them. The secret sauce in this recipe for change is in fact not secret, nor is it easy to ‘cook’, but at least, it offers hope. If not now, when? 


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