Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Op-Ed: Peter Wiederkehr on Encouraging & supporting transportation innovations

Encouraging & supporting transportation innovations within the US

Peter Wiederkehr, formerly director of the OECD EST! program for "Environmentally Sustainable Transportation", who is currently senior adviser to the Austrian government on transportation and environmental policy, picked up the phone this morning and called me in Paris to tell me the following (my paraphrase):

"Eric, I think you and your colleagues on that National Journal transportation expert panel are asking some great questions about international experience that the incoming Obama team and the US more generally will do well to know more about. There are, as you know, many great ones out there and this will surely be a fruitful and ultimately useful search for them. I am sure you will find a way to channel to them solid information on some of the best ones.

"But please tell them for my part that, based on my extensive experience with the OECD and other international programs that have had me working extensively over the years with US agencies and projects, as well as people from other nations, probably the most important single thing that our US colleagues could do for themselves today would be to look into the many successful pathbreaking projects inside the United States that have made their mark and paved the way in many important ways.

"The problem is that these projects are often not well known and not consistently or strategically supported by government policy either at the state or national level -- and that is a real pity because it means that, despite their hard work and successes at the local level, these projects and initiatives rarely end up being sufficiently well known to inform and encourage other communities and groups about strategies that work. Moreover, in many cases I have seen situations in which very small amounts of financial and other support could make a big difference for these projects which are leading or trying to lead the way. But that is rarely forthcoming."

What can I do but to agree to with Peter and pass on this message to all of you.

* * *

Taking this one step further I can share with you the observation that this matter of finding and supporting smaller projects and initiatives is one that few countries and institutions have been able to deal with effectively in just about any part of the world. Most of our institutions and procedures are geared primarily to working with small numbers of large projects. It is less confusing, cheaper, and the way they have always done it. I can appreciate that.

However given the nature of the transportation sector and the economic and environmental constraints we face today, there is every reason for us to find ways to encourage and support these local often smaller initiatives. Adjusting our routines and practices to take advantage of all these innovations that are so badly needed, despite the fact that they may be "inconveniently small for orderly processing" is certainly part of the challenge ahead.

This is problematic because in the world in which we live the future will belong to our ability to generate and make succeed very large numbers of often quite small and almost always very diverse projects and approaches. This requires an entirely different legislative, administrative, and financial approach. And behind all that a different mindset. Fortunately we have the communication tools and procedures that will allow us to deal with these new challenges efficiently. Now all we have to fix is that mindset.

I guess that counts for a lesson from "beyond our borders", as much as anything else we are likely to come up with here. Thanks Peter.

Kind regards,

Eric Britton, Editor

Contribution by the author to the world wide collaborative project “Messages for America: World-wide experience, ideas, counsel, proposals and good wishes for the incoming Obama transportation team”. See for latest version of this report of the New Mobility Agenda.

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