Let’s talk about another bridge.

It’s about a mile and a half north of the Queen Street Bridge.  Its official title is “The Prince Edward Viaduct System”.  It was completed in 1918, and like many public works projects of that time it was named after a royal. Its namesake, Prince Edward, was the Prince of Wales at the time; he was destined to become King Edward VIII. He was also destined to abdicate the throne and lived most of the rest of his life in exile in France (where he was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer). Prince Edward and his story feel like ancient history; maybe this is why virtually all Torontonians know it as ‘The Viaduct’.  These facts by themselves do not make this bridge important.

The bridge was needed to connect central Toronto with its eastern boroughs. It took a while for the general populace to warm up to the idea; the most contentious issue was the cost.  There were multiple referendums before the construction was approved in 1913. The Viaduct spans the 600 yard wide Don River Valley. The valley is a product of the last age of glaciation. What used to be a ranging torrent is now really just a creek; the present day Don River is only about 20 yards wide, gently flowing south towards Lake Ontario before it vanishes into the Toronto docklands. Again, these are interesting facts but by themselves do not make this bridge important.

A recent addition to the bridge is a structure called ‘the Luminous Veil’.   Despite the ethereal sounding name it has a sobering purpose – it’s a suicide prevention barrier.  Over the years people intent on committing suicide seemed drawn to the Viaduct, so much so that it became the second most common location in North America to commit suicide (the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has the dubious distinction of being the most common). The Veil has been very successful at preventing suicides at the bridge, but sadly the numbers across Toronto haven’t declined; studies have shown that people have found other bridges. The Luminous Veil is important for what it represents, but it’s not what makes the bridge important.

The reason it’s called a ‘viaduct’ is that the bridge is constructed of a series of concrete and steel arches that is reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. The road surface manages 5 lanes of traffic; underneath the roadway is a dual rail line that is used by Toronto’s subway system.  The Bloor-Danforth subway line runs east-west across the city; it opened in 1966. The Toronto subway system is not as extensive as those found in other cities like New York, London or Paris, but it is absolutely essential in helping the city function. Over 1.5 million passengers are moved by Toronto transit every day and many of them travel on trains that cross the Viaduct.

It’s not until all the facts are tied together that the significance of what the bridge represents becomes evident. Just to summarize – construction of the bridge completed in 1918. The design of the bridge included a capability for rail traffic. The Toronto east-west subway line opens in 1966.  What is important is this: The designers of the bridge incorporated a feature into the design a full 50 years before it was required.

They accepted the additional cost in order to create something that had no current utility but had an incredible future value. When the subway line was constructed the Viaduct required next to no modification to accommodate the subway. (Let’s give them credit – their names were Edmund Burke and Thomas Taylor.) 

This is in stark contrast to what happens today on the average business project. The goal seems to be to minimize costs at the expense of functionality; it’s been my experience that most people, especially business leadership, are much more comfortable with removing features in the name of cost-savings than they are with adding features and adding to the expense.

The word ‘expense’ is at the root of the problem. Money spent on change can be viewed as an expense or as an investment. Unfortunately in today’s environment the former view is predominant, and like any expense the preference is to make it as small as possible, or eliminate it altogether. Investments, on the other hand, have the goal of generating value – you are paying now for a potential future return.  I think what we need are more leaders who can see beyond the cost of change, and instead look at the value that it will generate, even if that value is not realized until sometime in the future. Although 50 years is probably too long a wait!

The future is notoriously hard to predict. There are no guarantees when it comes to organizational change; it takes a degree of courage to invest your company’s money (not to mention your reputation) on a course of action where the outcome is not certain. But the risk can be managed. Do your research. Be reasonable in your assumptions. Temper expectations. Have contingency plans.  Assemble a good team. These are all prerequisites – ignore any of them and you are no longer investing, you are gambling.

And let’s be honest – sometimes the investment doesn’t pay off.  The Rosedale Valley Viaduct is the next bridge in the system, and if you stand underneath it and look up you will see the same rail lines but you won’t hear the rumbling of subways.  These lines aren’t used; use of the bridge required a turn in the line that was just too abrupt for modern subways. They would have worked for streetcars (which is probably what the designers had in mind). In this case their investment didn’t realize any value; a new bridge had to be constructed to accommodate the subway.

What about you? Are your change initiatives considered an expense or an investment? Have your investments paid off? Feel free to share.

One more thing. Suicide is not a topic that most people like to talk about but talking can help. If you are suffering emotional distress or are in crisis and want to talk call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The number works in both the USA and Canada.

photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections via photopin cc

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