How a design sprint produced a comprehensive plan to turn around one of the world's largest and most complex transit systems
How to rapidly develop a bold but credible multi-billion-dollar plan to solve a complex challenge affecting millions of people
A transit system in crisis
Decades of worsening gridlock, relentless use, and under-investment in infrastructure have taken their toll on America's largest transit system. In July 2017, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo declared transit in NYC to be in a state of emergency.
A design-based approach to strategic planning
In contrast to a top-down, internally focused strategic planning process, Bridgeable and MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) applied a design sprint approach, including co-creative stakeholder engagement and rapid prototyping and iteration of the plan. Our objective was to develop a plan in just over 6 weeks.
Embedding the customer perspective
The plan is grounded in the needs of customers. Consultation sessions were held with groups who are often under-represented, such as customers with disabilities.
Breaking down silos
A co-creative process open to all employees attracted in-person input from hundreds and digital input from thousands. Employees who would not typically interact participated and cross-pollinated their ideas; senior leaders whose functions are siloed worked together to prioritize initiatives.
Prototyping and iterating strategy
The plan was rapidly iterated at every step to ensure that it addressed stakeholder needs and was executable by NYCT employees. The plan was repeatedly reinvented, undergoing 29 iterations.
Framing the need for change, showing the rationale behind decisions, and simply presenting complex information were critical. Visualizations of subway improvement timelines drove understanding and support.
A clear, comprehensive roadmap
The Fast Forward plan articulates four priorities, including:
- A top-to-bottom organizational transformation - Widespread subway improvements to be achieved more than 4x faster than previously scheduled - An exponential increase in the rate at which the system is being made accessible to people with disabilities - Specific deliverables, time-bound commitments, and clear lines of accountability
Decisive impact for customers and employees
- Organizational culture change: The planning process modeled the agile approach NYCT needs to embrace in order to deliver its ambitious plan. The "Engage and Empower Employees" section outlines ideas identified by employees, including those that reduce bureaucratic hurdles. - Social good: As the plan states, NYCT "provides the most environmentally responsible and economically equitable way to move millions of people each day." The "Accelerate Accessibility" section was co-created with input from accessibility advocates and people with disabilities. - Customer value: Transit and customer advocacy groups identified needs and validated key elements of the plan. The "Customer Service and Communication" section addresses how NYCT engages with customers during their trip and communicates service alerts. - Financial value: The plan's argument for increased investment in transit garnered widespread support by clearly outlining where, why, and how funding will be used. The "Agility and Accountability" section includes new policies and processes to ensure efficient use of funds.
Fast Forward in the news
NYCT President Andy ByfordNew York City Transit Authority Andy Byford participates in a stakeholder co-creative session.
The Fast Forward planPages from the Fast Forward plan
Bridgeable's Fast Forward project teamSeden Lai, Josh Greenhut, and Stewart Dowdall (L to R)
A state of emergency
With 24/7, 365-day service, 472 stations, and 50,000 employees, MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) is the largest transit system in North America. It operates a vast network of subways, buses, and paratransit.
Decades of under-investment in infrastructure, worsening gridlock, and relentless use have taken their toll on this complex system. A series of high-profile incidents through early 2017 exposed an accelerating decline in the system's condition and reliability, along with a plummeting reputation and increasing dissatisfaction among customers, media, and other stakeholders. In July 2017, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo declared transit in NYC to be in a state of emergency. To address these problems, NYCT knew it needed to make drastic changes. It was clear that large-scale transformation was urgently needed across the entire transit system.
NYCT partnered with Bridgeable to develop a comprehensive plan to turn around the transit system in New York City in a way that garnered the buy-in necessary to tackle problems affecting over 2.4 billion rides annually. The challenge was to create an ambitious, detailed plan to dramatically transform NYC's transit networks and deliver a fully modernized, state-of-the-art service to all riders for decades to come.
Gaining input from customers and employees
In sharp contrast to the top-down, internally focused strategic planning processes more typical of larger organizations, Bridgeable and NYCT applied a design sprint approach. Our objective was to develop a plan in just over six weeks through co-creative, cross-functional stakeholder engagement and rapid prototyping and iteration.
Introduced in May 2018, the process involved multi-method stakeholder engagement, including one-on-one interviews, small group sessions, large-scale facilitations, and a digital survey. Strategic storytelling, graphic design, and visualization made a complex system with interrelated challenges understandable.
An open consultation process attracted input from over 4,000 NYCT employees, including more than 600 who participated live in an organization-wide Input Day and 3,600 others who contributed digitally. Employees who would not typically interact participated and shared their ideas, while senior leaders whose functions are frequently siloed worked together to prioritize initiatives.
To ensure the plan would be grounded in real customer needs, the team hosted facilitated sessions with key stakeholders that included multiple meetings with groups that are too often under-represented, including customers with visible and invisible disabilities, accessibility advocates, and labor representatives.
Prototyping and iterating strategy
The plan was rapidly iterated at every step to ensure that it both directly addressed stakeholder needs and was executable by NYCT employees. The plan's structure was repeatedly reinvented, and the final version of the plan went through 29 distinct iterations in just over six weeks of development.
The resulting plan, Fast Forward: The Plan to Modernize New York City Transit, outlines a compelling, detailed vision for how to solve a big, complex public infrastructure challenge that affects 5 million riders every day. It delivers concrete plans to improve service with specific deliverables, time-bound commitments, and clear lines of accountability. And it includes a top-to-bottom transformation of NYCT as an organization, with overhauled policies and procedures that increase agility and accountability.
Fast Forward promises sweeping improvements, including a top-to-bottom modernization of an organization employing 50,000 people, resignaling most of the subway system within ten years, a redesigned bus network encompassing all five boroughs, radically accelerating the pace and scope of accessibility improvements, launching a new open-fare payment system in 2020, and introducing thousands of new subway cars. The plan clearly outlines the reasons funding is needed and how it will be used.
Fast Forward's 10-year vision includes:
In the first 5 years:
- Completing a state-of-the-art signal system on 5 new lines, including new signals, modernized interlockings, and additional power where needed, benefiting 3 million daily riders - Making more than 50 new stations accessible so that subway riders are never more than 2 stops away from an accessible station - Completing state-of-good-repair work at more than 150 stations - Adding over 650 new subway cars - Delivering over 1,200 communications-based train control (CBTC)-modified cars - Redesigning bus routes in all 5 boroughs - Implementing a new fare payment system - Adding 2,800 new buses
In the following 5 years: - Completing a state-of-the-art signal system on 6 new lines, benefiting 5 million daily riders - Making more than 130 additional stations accessible, with the balance of all possible stations completed by 2034 - Completing state-of-good-repair work at more than 150 stations - Adding over 3,000 new subway cars - Adding 2,100 new buses
Importantly, a foundational component of the plan is a set of policies and processes to ensure transparency and efficient use of capital funds. While the plan has not yet fully realized its financial value, it has garnered support across the political spectrum, including from Governor Cuomo.
According to transit research and advocacy group TransitCenter, the shorter wait times, faster trains, and greater reliability committed to in the Fast Forward plan promise to deliver massive savings to riders in time and money:
How much time will New Yorkers save from the subway signal improvements in the MTA's Fast Forward plan? According to our new analysis, a single commuter traveling from the Bronx, Queens, or Brooklyn to the Manhattan central business district stands to gain days of their own time back over the course of a year….
Someone taking the train from Jackson Heights to West 4th Street, for instance, would save 26 minutes a day, which adds up to 110 hours per year. For parents, that could mean saving nearly $2,000 in child care costs. That's enough time to make breakfast for your kids in the morning or read to them at night. It's time someone could spend walking her dog in the evening, or fitting in that SoulCycle class. And that's 110 hours you won't spend fretting about whether you'll be late because your train was delayed.
Heralding a new way of working
Because customers were given early input into the plan and were also invited to validate key elements of the plan later in the process, Fast Forward speaks directly to their needs, reflects their perspective, provides a clear vision for improvement, and engages them in delivery. The planning process heralded a new way of working for NYCT by modeling the agile approach the organization needs to embrace in order to deliver its bold plan. The new design-driven planning process was a tool for culture change in NYCT as well, representing a new and different way of working for the organization. Cross-functional collaboration, open communication, and rapid iteration created a process that reflects what employees believe needs to be done to modernize both the transit system and their own workplace.
The six-week sprint also showed the value of co-creating with employees and customer representatives. The "Engage & Empower Employees" section of the plan includes a range of ideas generated by employees, including those that reduce bureaucratic hurdles, while the "Accelerate Accessibility" section was co-created with input directly from accessibility advocates and people with visible and invisible disabilities. The resulting plan goes beyond lip service and lays the groundwork for success.
"Highly impactful stakeholder engagement, strategy, and design. The end product—a comprehensive Corporate Plan—perfectly met our needs."
Andy Byford President, New York City Transit Authority
"Fast Forward is about . . . proving to everyone that the MTA is worth investing in, that any of the billions of dollars they might give to the transit agency from here on out won't be wasted. There is a plan, and it's a good one."
"As our fact sheets demonstrate, benefits for subway riders from funding Fast Forward are immense, and so is the cost of inaction in Albany. We can't spend another 40 years stuck with slow and unreliable subway service on a typical day, and paralyzing service meltdowns when things go wrong."