Expressway Syndrome  

Do any of you remember living through the creation of a new expressway? In the Chicago area, there are numerous expressways:

  • Lakeshore Drive                                                                        (1933)
  • Eisenhower Expressway                                                         (1955-1960)
  • Edens Expressway                                                                    (1951)
  • Kennedy Expressway                                                              (1960)
  • Dan Ryan Expressway                                                             (1960-62)
  • Stevenson Expressway                                                           (1964)
  • Tri-State, East-West North South Tollway, I-355           (1989)
  • Northwest Tollways                                                                 (1958)

Politics and business often combine to sell us stories with happy endings that rarely come to fruition. When an expressway is first proposed and sold to the public; the image presented is of drivers seamlessly merging onto well-maintained highway lanes, zipping along at the maximum speed limit in minimal traffic, and then seamlessly exiting to reach their destination. Everyone is happy and everyone wins!  

The reality behind this fantasy includes initial years of legal battles to procure the land and right of ways, followed by years of dirty and noisy construction that disrupts adjacent activities and closes multiple lanes of traffic. Then, for a brief time, the expressway operates close to projections and traffic moves briskly along and everyone is seemingly happy (except for the budget overruns, potential defects in construction, and neighbors exposed to new noise pollution, etc.). Inevitably, this early success brings more traffic and soon, at peak hours, the road is filled with bumper to bumper traffic and frustrated drivers. The increased traffic leads to the inevitable repairs, the repairs lead to more delays, more traffic, more frustration, more pollution, more expenses…

Of course expressways aren’t bad—they are necessary parts of our urban infrastructure, and they are functional as well as frustrating. My main point is that in order to move their constituencies to a “Yes” vote, politicians and business leaders feel compelled to create unrealistic expectations and goals. The political perception that change is difficult for most people may very well be true. However, the desire to gloss over challenging changes with fantasy narratives creates false expectations that inevitably lead to disappointment and disillusion.

For those of us who promote change in the building industry, perhaps it would be more useful to focus on educating our own constituencies (building producers and consumers) to understand the real benefits—and challenges—of the change. Rather than try to “maximize the profits,” it might make more sense to “optimize the balance between profits and benefits.”

As the pace of change in the building industry accelerates, competitive success will depend on the balance between the realistic expectations we give our customers during the marketing process, and the real benefits they receive from the final product.   

Happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment with our decisions and experiences is not an objective measurement, but merely the appropriate balance between objective reality and subjective expectation. 

Obviously, these are concepts that apply to all endeavors, not just building. But in the coming years it will be Building’s turn to lead the charge of change. We have had the opportunity to observe the successes and failures of numerous other industries as they have rolled out new disruptive processes, tools and products. We can learn from their experience as we start revving the engine of change in our own Building world..