Sidewalks and Speed Bumps

written by Kat Bair
8 · 01 · 23

I recently had dinner with an urban planner who worked in transportation for the city government. I asked her how work was going, and she mentioned that upcoming local elections were throwing everything into a spin. 

“Oh, are parts of your work impacted by the elections? How do local politics and road planning intersect?” 

Everything I do is about local politics.” She explained that everything from the position of bike lanes to laws around jaywalking and zoning regulations were deeply informed by people’s understanding of the purpose of government and who people believed the government existed to serve. The decisions about speed bumps and sidewalks made by lawmakers, in turn, shaped our neighborhood and how the people in it lived. 

It might seem like I am making the decision to walk to one coffee shop over another when I’m pushing my kids in a stroller, but in reality, that decision was made years ago in a city planning meeting when someone decided to put nice sidewalks and bike paths along one street, and not on another. 

As we innovate and build organizations, we have to ask ourselves: 

What are the sidewalks and speed bumps of our work as organizational leaders and innovators? What decisions and patterns of ways we live and work make some pathways more obvious and some more difficult? And vitally, do those structures reflect our values and what we desire for our organizations? 

If you want your coffee shop to be a community gathering place, but once people are inside, there are no tables but a quick to-go line, you are creating a “sidewalk” that doesn’t align with your goals. If you want to be a resource for working mothers, but you close at 5 or don’t have anywhere for children to play during appointments, you are creating a “speed bump” to your own success. 

Look around your organization and ask yourself: 

  • What assumptions do we make about our intended users?
    • What do we assume about their mobility, ability, working hours, and financial resources? 
    • Do those assumptions match the people we are called to reach?
  • What options do we make easy?
    • What is the path of least resistance in engaging with us? 
    • Is it the one we intended? 
  • What options do we make hard?
    • What barriers stand between us and those we hope to serve? 
    • Are there physical, financial, cultural, linguistic, or other hurdles?

If you have trouble seeing those patterns, recruiting an outsider in the form of a friend, a colleague, or a consultant can help make the invisible visible and, vitally, help you align those structures with your desired outcomes. 

Once we understand the architecture of how we work and live, we can actually make choices that help shape that architecture. We can decide where we want to place sidewalks and speed bumps in such a way that honors our mission and purpose and make better alignment not only possible but natural. 

My conversation with my friend had me googling city council candidates, and my hope is that in small steps over time, by taking a more active role in influencing those decisions, I can help shape my community into the one I want to live in. My hope is that by looking around your own world, you can do the same. 

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Kat Bair

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