Breakthrough Projects Require Bold Dreamers

If you live in a big city, subways are a piece of the urban infrastructure you probably take for granted—until a strike or a mechanical problem reminds you that without these subterranean trains, getting anywhere can be next-to-impossible. In “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Build America’s First Subway,” author Doug Most chronicles the political, technical, and societal challenges that engineers, and the little-known sandhogs who dug these massive tunnels in Boston and New York, had to overcome to bring the first trains online more than a century ago. Most, a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe, told HBR.org what lessons managers can learn from this history. Excerpts:

How did you get interested in this story?

I used to be a reporter who covered transit and transportation issues. Boston’s subway was the first in America, and I was surprised no one had ever dived deep into how it came to be. As I started to research it, I learned that New York was building its subway around the same time. (Boston’s subway opened in 1897, and New York’s opened in 1904.) There were two brothers from Massachusetts, both powerful businessmen, and one of them was instrumental to the Boston project and the other to New York’s. So there was this amazing family link between the two cities, in addition to the massive cultural and physical changes the subways brought.

HBR has run articles about the overwhelming odds that big projects—say, the Big Dig, or the Boeing Dreamliner—will be more challenging and costly than anyone ever expects. Was this the case with the subways?

Boston’s original subway was very short, and it actually came in under budget at $4.2 million. But both projects faced big technical challenges. The world’s first subway opened in London in 1863, and it used steam-powered locomotives. They were filthy, sooty, and smoky, which is why no other city adopted subways for more than 30 years. They waited until electrification was perfected: Eventually one of Thomas Edison’s protégés designed the electric motor that was critical to the development of subways. The second big challenge was deciding how to build the tunnels. One way to do it is to literally bore a hole underground, which is really dangerous and tricky to do. Both cities decided instead to use the “cut-and-cover” method, where you dig a big trench, build the tunnel, and cover it over. I’m walking in New York right now, and as I walk over grates I can see the trains just below me—that’s because they used the cut-and-cover method, which resulted in very shallow tunnels.

Big companies and start-ups often find themselves in a race to bring similar products to market. Sometimes that time pressure can help spur everyone along; sometimes it can lead to sloppiness and mistakes. How did the rivalry play out in this story?

Both cities paid very close attention to the other, and officials from each city visited the other frequently. When Boston opened its subway, there was some jealousy and envy in New York. The two cities also shared some resources. Their chief engineers became friendly, and they consulted closely on the decision to use the cut-and-cover method to dig the tunnels. When New York needed to hire an engineer to get the tracks electrified, the head of the Boston project told his brother in New York to hire the brilliant Tufts graduate who’d done the job in Boston.  The projects also left a legacy in the field of engineering. The chief engineer on the New York project was William Barclay Parsons, who went on to found Parsons Brinckerhoff, a giant engineering company that worked on Boston’s Big Dig and is now doing New York’s new Second Avenue subway line.

What can managers learn from the way these two projects unfolded?

The biggest lesson is that it’s important to dream really big. When people started talking about subways in the 1800s, many observers thought it was a crazy idea. So a guy in New York decided, in secret, to build his own private subway. The vehicle was powered by an air fan—like a big pneumatic tube–and it only went 300 feet. But when people tried it, they were amazed, and began to support the broader idea of underground trains. Giant projects like subways require dreamers, and sometimes those dreams may not work out. But we need people like Elon Musk and others who are thinking really big, and we should take them seriously.

Today there seems little political will to do ambitious, life-changing projects like this one. Why do you think that is?

It’s important to remember it wasn’t an easy political sell back then, either. The votes to build the subways were close—there was a vigorous and fierce debate. Today there are a lot of impediments, including the costs, the disruption projects like these can cause to residents’ day-to-day lives, as well as to local businesses. To pursue big projects like this, people have to be able to think beyond the short term, and to imagine how it will affect lives in the long term. That can be hard to do.

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