Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Grand Central's Centennial: New Light on Wicked Problems

 Bill Gates has this OpEd about the solving world's toughest problems and why measurement makes a difference. Says he: 
"In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal ..."
Perhaps measurement and commitment can be enough ... as long as it's not a wicked problem. Policy wonks often use that term to describe an interlinked nest of dilemmas that resists all straightforward solutions. Thoroughly wicked examples from today's headlines include international drug trafficking, medical cost control, and runaway global warming. 

Why so wicked? Entrenched interests lie deep inside. Such interests are happy with the current situation, and they know how to scratch up would-be reformers. It's why B'rer Rabbit loved his patch of thorns.

Athough the phrase hadn't been invented in 1903, “wicked problem” described a set of hazards growing up around a railroad terminal at 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan. Even so, regulators, engineers, and the New York Central came together to craft a world-class solution. Just as visitors marveled at shafts of sunlight through the high windows, Grand Central threw new light on breakthrough problem-solving. (Photo © Royal Geographical Society, London, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library)

The lessons are still useful one hundred years after the complex opened in February 1913. It wouldn't have happened without an unreasonable man, a brilliant and self-taught engineer by the name of William J. Wilgus.

As of New Year's Day in 1902, Grand Central Station was the principal railroad station in Manhattan. Traffic was growing by the year but there wasn’t room to squeeze in even one more track outside the building or another platform inside.

While the big ground-level railyard cut apart the neighborhoods and the steam engines showered the neighborhoods with ash, New York Central refused to do any more than renovate its station to pack in more passengers. The station was profitable but posed many risks to passengers, trainmen, and nearby residents.

Things began to change on January 8, 1902, when one steam engine in a tunnel leading to the station smashed into another train that had stopped. The incoming train’s engineer couldn't see the danger signal for all the smoke and steam. All the papers covered the fatalities in horrifying detail, and the New York City Council, working with the state legislature, ordered that operations at the station shift from steam power to electric. The city gave the railroad five years to finish the job.

At this early stage, just making the sudden switch from steam to electric power would be a huge headache. Certainly no reasonable person could have expect the railroad to triple its workload by choosing to tear down its newly renovated station and to rip up the half-mile long railyard to the north so it could be put into a big hole. And to restore the streets. And to keep daily traffic moving through the station even as it was torn down and rebuilt. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Fortunately for posterity, William Wilgus was simultaneously unreasonable and pragmatic. Born in Buffalo in 1865, he had risen to the position of chief engineer and vice president of the sprawling Vanderbilt-owned railroad network.

In one remarkable September afternoon, eight months after the rail disaster, Wilgus sat down at his desk and listed all the biggest problems facing the railroad and its station. In a few hours, with one Eureka moment after another, he arrived at an elegant solution: not just a win-win, but a win-win-win.

Wilgus started with the bitter fact that government was forcing the railroad to do something it hadn't wanted to do: shift quickly from steam to electrical power. While that seemed a bad thing for the railroad's bottom line – don't Ayn Randians tell us that all government mandates are outrageous? – Wilgus saw that shifting to electric power might be a good thing. Maybe a great thing. Why? 

Electric power opened up entirely new options. One option was putting buildings on beams over the railyard, since the occupants wouldn't be smoked out by steam engines. But why not sink the railyard below street level and put the new buildings at street level instead? Wilgus realized that if he took the railyard deep enough to split the underground rail traffic into two levels, and added loops around the new station, this would greatly improve the traffic flow. Before the sun set that day, Wilgus drew a plan that would meet the government deadline, more than double the station’s passenger capacity, transform midtown Manhattan, and turn a liability to an immensely valuable asset.

Wilgus advised the railroad executives that if they erected stout columns and beams between the tracks, these would form a foundation for skyscrapers above the railyard, standing along Park Avenue. Land developers would pay to construct the buildings but write annual rent checks to the railroad, which would cover costs at the new Grand Central Terminal.  

The excavation required blasting a pit as much as 70 feet deep, which brought a bit of the Panama Canal into midtown New York. The excavation proceeded one “bite” at a time, moving from Lexington Avenue on the east to Madison on the west. This required tearing up the permanent track, stripping away the soil to expose the bedrock gneiss and schist of Manhattan Island, so they could blast it loose. The pit then filled with massive and complex steelwork to support the two-layer track, along with the streets above. All told the railroad created 15 acres of artificial ground over the hidden railyard, propping pavement and sidewalks and trees atop two miles of steel framing. This is what the new streets looked like before skyscrapers filled in the holes:

Wilgus resigned in 1907 after a dispute with the railroad, but before leaving he helped devise a system of ramps, service windows, and rooms that separated commuters from long-distance travelers, and those arriving from those leaving. It eased the pedestrian flow so well that people-moving solutions crafted at Grand Central can be seen at malls and airports today.

The new terminal opened just after midnight on February 2, 1913, to much fanfare. Even as rail traffic diminished after World War II, it survived each economic crisis because New Yorkers valued its beauty aboveground and efficiency underground.

So, New Yorkers, during Grand Central's centennial look beyond the magnificent building at street level and see the deeper lessons. The usual way to tackle a wicked problem is to use reasonable approaches like a direct attack with legislation that fills in all the unhappy details, or else to try and buy out the problem with huge public subsidies. Much of the time, even most of the time, such reasonable approaches fail. 

Grand Central Terminal, the miracle at 42nd Street, suggests that sometimes we need the unreasonable. When I was in law school we studied the “reasonable person” standard and that's fine for Contracts and Criminal Law, but I like to think of Grand Central Terminal as a triumph of the unreasonable man.