A Little Audacity Goes a Long Way
This is a different kind of success story. It’s a story that has everything and nothing to do with redesign. It’s a story about vision, with seeing the impossible become possible—not in a glamorous Chris Angel sort of way, but in a “real” people way—people with real challenges to both their finances and their lifestyle.
So often in my work with Coleman Associates I see ordinary people—just like you or me—approaching patient care and social services with a passion to make things better. Unless we share our vision every chance we get, hold steady when we begin to falter, and keep ourselves and our team focused on our goals, our passions quickly drain away.
Well, then, since this story isn’t about healthcare or redesign, why include it here? I include it because it is a Success Story of a different kind and it touches on the fervor we bring to this tough industry every day.
I live in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. My house is fourteen blocks from the mountains. Fourteen blocks from a vast network of hiking trails that lead up to peaks that reach more than two miles above sea level.
Rachael, my five year old, and I were out walking last week under a spectacular crescent moon. It was one of those moons where you can see the little arc of light outlining the “dark” portion of the moon. Rachael was so pleased to announce that she could see “the part of the moon you aren’t supposed to see.” Interesting perspective. Then she pointed about two inches below on the side of the mountain and wanted to know whose house that was with its lights shining brightly. I told her I didn’t know and then we began to point out dozens of houses lighting up the hillside.
She asked me why we couldn’t have a house up there on the mountainside and I struggled with a reply. It’s happening all the time here in the West—houses are springing up in the most majestic of places. Colorado is home to the Great Sand Dunes; the beautiful green Colorado River snaking through red rocks and cliffs of striated fossils; and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a canyon of sheer black walls far narrower than the Grand Canyon yet more spectacular as its walls reach up 1000 feet higher than the Empire State Building. Colorado has undoubtedly some of the country’s best hiking and skiing anywhere. It’s the beautiful west, low in population and rich in nature.
Of course, everyone wants to be that lucky person with the house on the mountainside with the incredible views, but we all can’t. It’s just not possible. If I could, I’d stop urban sprawl and protect this beautiful scenery—but that’s not possible either.
But, this isn’t an article about urban sprawl. It’s an article about how I was able to change something in my life that was important to me. It involved getting people to stop driving their cars and instead walk, ride their bikes and use public transit in my neighborhood. And this experience has been revelatory in how it applies to other things in my life and work (but more about that later).
Denver/Boulder has a transit system called the RTD. Now, while the RTD is not in the same league as the New York City subway system, it’s better than having everyone get into their own car and drive by themselves to wherever they are going. But everyone in the West really likes their cars. We like to jump in to drive around the corner, down the street or to the other end of the neighborhood. It’s the West and we drive everywhere, whether near or far. But, cars pollute and they make noise and use up resources; they hit each other and children and pets and bicycles; and they insulate us with our stereos and our cell phones and keep us from talking to our neighbors. Getting people to use public transit in the West is a monumental task, largely because it’s sooo much easier to drive. To make public transit more appealing, many companies in Boulder offer free annual transit passes to their staff. But taking the bus is not sexy—in fact, it’s a colossal pain in the butt, even starting with something as simple as getting your picture taken for your annual pass.
If you don’t qualify for a free annual pass, then you have to scrounge around to find the $1.75 for each local ride—you have to have the exact change. Or if you want a “convenient” monthly pass, you have to go to an inconvenient location and buy it from a frequently surly cashier. It’s not set up well and pales in comparison to NYC’s Metrocard kiosks and slick card scanning system. Our system feels as though it was designed to keep out all but the most determined riders. (Does this ring a bell for you? From my vantage point, it’s scarily similar to ambulatory clinics and social services systems I work with all across the country.
RTD gets government subsidies and makes a profit each year. But they have no competition and therefore have little incentive to improve their services. The wait to get your photo taken can be an hour or more, and when you get to the front of the line, the person at the photo booth can actually send you away if your form is filled out in the wrong color ink or if your slip was issued more than thirty days earlier. It’s like if they can exert power over you in some weird way, they do.
Now, you can draw whatever parallels here that you want—I certainly have. I’ve seen so many clinics and social service organizations that run in precisely this same way. They have no real competition, they receive government support and yet they have lost their passion to make it easy for people to use their services. They simply do not care if it’s a hassle.
So, anyway, I wanted to help my neighborhood use public transit. This felt like something I could make happen. So, I attempted to call RTD. The first time I called, everyone was at lunch and no, I couldn’t call back later—I was at lunch too. Next time I called, I got a message that the voice mailbox was full. Foiled again. I emailed and my email bounced back. Irritated but still determined, I called again and again. Again I was struck by how familiar this whole experience was so far—how unresponsive and infuriating bureaucracies can be.
Finally I got through and learned how we could get public transit passes for everyone in my neighborhood. The system works like this: They ask you how many houses are in your neighborhood—mine has 123. Then, they do magic math and give you a dollar amount—a very high dollar amount. More than $10,000K for my neighborhood. How could I come up with that? At least half of the people in my neighborhood already get a transit passes through their employers and wouldn’t put in a penny, and for the other half of us, most find the transit system too onerous to even give it a shot. Good grief!
If I wanted this to work, I’d somehow just have to collect enough money or no one would get a bus pass.
Slightly depressed, I called the city, thinking there must be subsidies for neighborhoods—after all, public transit is good for everyone. In a rare moment of gratitude for property taxes, I was thrilled to hear the city would help out with a 50% subsidy. Now all I had to do was eek more than $5,000 out of about 60 neighbors. I asked for one bit of advice before I hung up… how do you do this? I was told that you can either ask for donations from each household ($5K in donations?!?) or you can charge each household a set amount (say $5000 divided by 123). But if you do the latter and if a few households refuse—and some always do—then you don’t get enough money and you don’t qualify. It doesn’t matter to RTD if 15 people or 1500 from my 123 houses wanted a pass, RTD would charge $10,000 for unlimited passes for the entire neighborhood. Bottom line, if I wanted this to work, I’d somehow need to collect enough money in total from the 123, or no one would get a pass. And we’d be back where I started.
So, knowing what I needed to do, I grabbed an envelope and a clipboard and my daughter and I started knocking on doors. I knocked on all 123 doors. I introduced myself and my daughter and I told my neighbors how I had seen them in their yard, or had seen their kid outside or had seen them walking their dog. I told them that if they stopped using their car, we would not only know each other’s names, we’d also know each other’s kids’ names and dogs’ names. I explained my vision for fewer cars in our neighborhood. I got turned down a lot. Some people didn’t trust me to take their money and return with a pass in a month or two if I collected enough money—I admit it did sound a bit far-fetched. Others “don’t take the bus” because they preferred to drive to the market across town, even though the bus only takes 5 minutes more.
I found I really had to win people over. I actually heard myself explaining to people why the grocery market on the bus route was as good as any in town and how the dry cleaner on our route is a decent guy—his daughter is in my daughter’s class at school and they’re nice people who need to put food on their table, too. The money began to trickle in. But there were many more doors to knock on, more people to talk to
The night before the funds were due, I had almost $5000 and I felt like George Bailey in the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life. Neighbors were coming to my house asking how much we had left to collect and writing checks or pulling another $20 bill out of their pockets. By the time I took it all to the bank the next day, I had $60 more than I needed.
My hope was to build my neighbors’ trust in me and to acknowledge our collective victory as a neighborhood.
I could have kept that money—to cover my time going door to door or the receipt books I had bought and the notices I had printed to put in doors of absent residents. Instead, I got $60 worth of singles and I gave each household $1 along with their pass. My hope was to build their trust in me and to acknowledge our collective victory as a neighborhood. It worked! Over the remaining few months of 2008, I collected almost $700 more as skeptics decided to join in and participate. That was $700 to apply to the following year—this year, since the passes are only good for one year.
It turns out that RTD, like everyone else in the world, is facing budget cuts this year. Our rate for annual passes has increased by 19% for 2009. And to make things worse, Boulder can afford a much smaller subsidy this year. So, I was confronted with collecting more than $9300 from the same 123 households that could barely come up with $5000 last year. I almost cried.
This year, though, something different has happened. Neighbors have rallied neighbors and they have started to really own this thing that last year seemed so strange. It turns out that a lot of folks are using the pass and driving less and they are willing to pay more than they did last year. One guy hasn’t started his car in over two months and another woman is thinking of selling her car—she prefers not to drive, since she can get everywhere she needs to go on the bus. Most of us though, just drive a little less often and that helps too.
Last week I turned in $9380 to RTD to qualify us for this year’s passes.
I really just wanted the world to be a better place.
It’s been an amazing change for my neighborhood. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t thank me for having set up this system in which we all use alternative transportation just a little bit more. People have gotten to know one another and I have had more and more neighbors over for dinner because we have a real community going here.
When I started this, I really just wanted the world to be a better place, a more neighborly place, a safer place for all of us and our families. Who knows when it’s gonna be your sister and brother-in-law who need a little hope and a system that works a little bit better. I’ve learned so much from this experience. In every job we do, we can be so much more successful when we all pull together to get the work done. When we don’t, everyone misses out. More importantly, we have so much power when we give our absolute best in every situation—including the one right in front of us, no matter what that is.
So, the lesson I’ve learned? Go ahead, be audacious in your life!
Written by Melissa Stratman