Small Bets
June 14, 2016

At Strong Towns, we talk a lot about making small incremental improvements rather than always looking for the next mega-project. Why? Because everything we do has some a risk, and it is foolish to think otherwise. If Nassim Taleb teaches us anything, it is that we are more robust (and even anti fragile, if we are able to learn from our mistakes) when we have a pool of money to make many smaller bets with than a few larger bets. Rather than going double or nothing on one large megaproject, we should be making many smaller bets, where we can handle the fallout or undo what we did with little penalty if an individual bet goes south.

I am going to share some of the small bets that my city of Hoboken, NJ has been making. These are bets that are small enough, where if they failed, we could simply move on with no real harm to the viability of the city, and if they succeed, we can duplicate them elsewhere.

Sidewalk Widening

Hoboken has a walkway along our waterfront, but there is one part of the system that is interrupted by a piece of industrial property. At that point, you must detour around the industrial property on a very narrow sidewalk. While eventually it would be nice to have the walkway connect our entire waterfront, it is possible to do something to improve the experience today, so the city undertook an experiment where they trialled a wider sidewalk using cones and temporary fences.


The sidewalk experiment underway on Frank Sinatra Drive.

I like small experiments like these, because if it fails you can simply take the cones and fences down, and try it elsewhere. Fortunately, the city council deemed the trial a success and voted to permanently widen the sidewalk.

Crosswalk Bumpouts

Narrowing the distance of the 'danger zone' you have to cross makes walking safer and more pleasant. Unfortunately, the space between our curbs is often large, and moving the curb is expensive because of the elaborate drainage we have, but that does not mean we have to let our drains dictate our street layout or our safety. Just like with widening the sidewalk, we can experiment with bumping out the pedestrian zone to minimize the distance of the crossing.

A temporary crosswalk bump out in Hoboken.

If it works and people like it, we don't have to go the expensive route of moving the curb. We can repave that part of the street in a different material (New York City does it even cheaper than this by painting in sidewalk bumpouts!)

A crosswalk bumpout paved in gravel. It works great, and they did not have to move the curb or drains.

Wayfinding Signs

I was pleasantly surprised when one day I started to find these signs popping up;

A wayfinding sign in Hoboken to nearby landmarks with distances for walking and cycling.

I live in Hoboken, so telling a local already familiar with the area where 14th Street is is not that useful. But, I could imagine how useful signs like these would be if I were visiting a new area of Jersey City or Brooklyn, so I am sure these signs will find good use for people visiting Hoboken.

Community Art

I am not a fan of monotony, so I enjoy a little bit of artwork around the place. Hoboken recently allowed local students to paint murals over our drains.


A mural over a drain along Washington Street.

I would love to see us crowdsource more art from the community, giving students, professionals, and hobbyists alike room to showcase sculptures and other art pieces in public.

One of the best ways to add value to a street to make it more desirable and pleasant is to add character, and one of the easiest ways to add character to a street is to change up the materials.


On street parking was turned into a sidewalk (which now has tables and chairs that are not shown above), and the asphalt was repaved in Belgian blocks.

Hoboken has been making small improvements like this - replacing asphalt with Belgian blocks, block by block. I like this approach, because rather than apply for a grant to repave the entire length of a street at once, Hoboken has been doing it one block at a time. Let's say it happens to handle snow really badly, or too many women trip over the cobblestones with heels on, and we realize this was a mistake, we can just stop at the block we were on (and potentially reverse our experiment), rather than being too far in on the project with no money to turn back.

These are just a few examples of small incremental bets that my city is taking. I am far more excited watching these little incremental improvements pop up around town, than a new supermarket or the redesign of our main street (the final plans of the latter look awfully similar to how the street is today.) Small bets are an affordable way to incrementally improve the places we love. Small bets are cheap, they are doable, and we can get instant feedback from the community on their outcome before we over-invest ourselves in a megaproject. Every city should be looking at the low hanging fruit that they can use to continually improve themselves.