Thursday, January 8, 2009

National Journal Panel: How should the infrastructure stimulus be spent?

- by Eric Britton, New Mobility Partnerships, Paris and Los Angeles

- Prepared for the Transportation Panel sponsored by the National Journal. See footnote below and for details

The author argues first that the key to infrastructure is to concentrate our brainpower and resources on not physical objects . . . but on people and their varieties. On demand, not supply. On services, not products. On performance, not raw quantities. Second, that the transportation system we are lumbered with today has been designed almost exclusively by males -- and, worse yet, by and for males of a certain exclusive, privileged category of our society (including that most are full time car owner/drivers). As a result of this historic imbalance at the top, those responsible for public policy have failed to create a system which serves the majority of Americans in a full and fair way. To rectify this without delay, Britton urges that we immediately start to adopt a policy of gender equality in all transport planning and decision making processes, beginning with this distinguished expert panel. And in the process he argues for bringing in a greatly expanded skill set at the top to ensure better decisions and future performance. The new administration’s transportation team can do a lot to make this happen.

1. What is infrastructure? 2
2. Why transport in cities? 3
3. Who are we? (This panel) 4
4. Why the Year of the Woman in Transportation? 5
5. Conclusion and recommendation: 6

Before writing this piece, I gave quite a bit of thought as to how I can make the most useful contribution to these important discussions. And I have made the decision that probably the most useful thing I can do at this early stage in this process will be to swim a bit against the current here.

For starters I have two big problems with what I am seeing here by the way of policy counsel thus far. And so once I have sketched out for you my understanding of these briefly , I would like to go on to propose one big, if not remedy, at least a path toward a remedy or solution.

First let’s take a few steps back and look to see if we can spot some underlying patterns in all this.

1. What is infrastructure?

When I look at the twenty eight thoughtful contributions and recommendations for the incoming administration thus far logged under this question to the panel, the first thing that strikes me, right between the eyes, is that all but one or two of the people who have checked in on this topic thus far have interpreted the key word "infrastructure" as primarily a physical entity. So to an extent, this being a common interpretation of the word by many of those working in the transportation sector, the cards were a bit stacked in advance.

This is not only problematic, it is fundamentally biased against most forms of social and behavioral "infrastructure". However it is precisely these values that we need to bring to the fore when we consider a future in which virtually all of the historic patterns are being challenged. One thing we can say for sure about the future, it will be very, very different from the past. So let us make sure we are peering deeply into these foundation issues and making the fundamental adjustments needed if our transportation arrangements are to be sustainable, fair, and contribute to a healthy economy.

To get a better feel for this I ran a quick word-frequency check this morning of those first 28 contributions. Here are the handful of words that turn up most often and which, I believe, give us a fair feel for the focus and concerns of the group:

1. Infrastructure >100 references
2. Highways/roads/bridges –102
3. Aviation/Airport/airline/aircraft – 79
4. Trucks/trucking/freight/goods – 59
5. Energy/gas/oil – 53
6. Investment – 46
7. Billion – 46
8. Public transport/mass transit – 12
9. Marine/river/water/canal – 12

Interesting, and it sure does get one to thinking. For my part it certainly leads me to wonder if the physical infrastructure is really the appropriate starting place, when we have been asked to provide policy counsel for the incoming administration at this extremely important time and have an opportunity to change historic patterns and come up with something better. Let’s keep scratching.

2. Why transport in cities?

Let’s take this are our starting place since that, after all, is where the people are. Today more than 80% of all Americans live in or around our towns and cities. And that's where all those people move most in their day to day lives, which makes it to my mind the main target of transportation policy and practice, now and for the future.

In our collaborative work under the New Mobility Agenda over the last two decades, work which has been informed by the active contributions of transportation planners, academics, policymakers, activists, and those who create and operate the transportation systems themselves not only in North America but also in more than thirty countries around the world (see, we have consistently taken as our starting place not the physical underpinnings of the transportation system , but rather people and community. This leads to some very different results when it comes to public policy.

It really does matter what you take as your starting place. Just to give you a feel for what happens if we shift this basic focus, I ran the same 28 first commentaries through frequency counts for the kinds of people-oriented issues which my international and leading American colleagues believe to be the real starting place. We really cannot afford to ignore these issues at this time, especially given that we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine our transportation system.

Here is what I come up with:

1. Bicycle/Bike/Biking/Cycle – 16
2. Green – 12
3. Climate – 10
4. Congestion - 7
5. Bus – 8
6. Walking – 7
7. Injuries/death – 5
8. Sidewalk – 4
9. Pedestrian – 3
10. Urban – 3
11. Suburban – 3
12. Bus rapid transit/BRT – 2
13. Street - 2
14. Transportation Alternatives – 2
15. Child, children – 1
16. Land use – 1
17. Equity – 1
18. Multimodal – 1
19. Carshare/ carsharing – 0
20. Demand management/TDM – 0
21. Elderly – 0
22. Free – 0
23. Handicapped – 0
24. Interdependent – 0
25. Isolated – 0
26. Job creation – 0
27. Livable – 0
28. Needy – 0
29. Neighborhood – 0
30. Poor – 0
31. Public space – 0
32. Quiet – 0
33. Small – 0
34. Subway/metro – 0
35. Taxes – 0
36. Telecommuting/ telework – 0
37. Tram/LRT – 0
38. Woman/Women – 0

Hmm. Don’t you find this absence of attention to daily life concerns and practices highly disturbing?

If we have learned one thing about our sector over the last decades, it is that only a portion of the solutions of the transport related problems can be solved within the sector itself. This means that we must be aggressively inclusive in all respects. It means getting out of that box.

Fair enough, but how do we get from here to there? From where we were, to where we want to be? I have an idea which I would like to propose to all of you for your consideration and critical commentary. But first let us have a good look at our panel and then ask ourselves one more question.

3. Who are we?

This seems like a fair place to go next. Above, we have started to get our arms around the job to be done. Now we should probably take a few minutes to exchange ideas as to the kinds of people who are best qualified to get it done right.

Let’s start by considering our list of contributors thus far weighing in on this topic: 28 in all, of which 24 male. Oops!

This is no once-off phenomenon. It’s not just us. It’s more or less exactly in line with prevailing practices in our sector. Transportation policy and investments up to now has been shaped almost exclusively by males – and not just any males but males with jobs, more or less decent university educations, a full place in the community, and a generally serene view of the future. And oh yes, to a man, owners and drivers of cars. (A word of self-disclosure here: I have just pretty well described myself.)

Is this really the way our panel should shape up if we are to be up to our mission? Should we not shake ourselves hard right here at the start and set out to rectify this as quickly as possible ourselves, so as to be able to provide wise and balanced counsel to the incoming administration? I would say yes and yes -- and I am sure the majority of you will agree (but if you have any doubts just ask your wives and daughters).

If we take a people-centric view of transportation, and of the infrastructure whether physical or social, it is clear that what we need to expand our mix of "transportation insiders" so as to better reflect the complex realities of our communities and day to day lives.

How to rectify this imbalance? We could make this very complicated if we wanted to, but there is also a solution which is at once obvious, easy and ready for implementation as soon as we decide to do it.

Here is my proposal: Let us come together to make 2009 the Year of the Woman in Transportation and use that to set off the much needed transition process.

4. Why the Year of the Woman in Transportation?

How to move from this fine sounding idea to concrete operational reality? For starters we can take it upon ourselves to try to ensure full and fair representation of women in every transportation planning and decision forum we are involved in, starting with this fine panel.

As to exactly how to achieve this I am less clear at this point. I am tempted to say that either we have full gender parity or something close to it (say, no less than 25, 30% female participation or whatever is the threshold you propose), or the event gets canceled. But that may be too blunt a weapon for s situation as deeply inculcated as is this one. After all, our goal is not to please ourselves, but to win.

One great advantage of taking the full year of 2009 to grope with these issues is that by joining forces we will have the time and brainpower to be wiser about this than can be a single author writing on a single day.

However it works out however, I would hope we do not need yet another law to make this happen. But we will need a strong public commitment by leaders and a growing culture which accepts that there is simply no other way of going about this. (And if that doesn’t work, well there is always the law. No reason to be excessively timid about this.)

Surface parity, while a start, is unlikely to be sufficient. Many women who do get into key roles very rapidly begin behaving like or reflecting the behavior and values of men. Examples would be very dangerous ... but try to think of women in such powerful positions who HAVE acted differently to the males in previous or similar positions of influence and power. It’s just that the worldviews and values of our sector at the top are in general, very male! And this is precisely what we need to change to realize our very different future.

This forced, high-priority network expansion can open up another priority need that also requires rectification. Specifically it can help us to increase greatly the range of backgrounds and skills we bring into the various decision fora. This therefore gives us a golden opportunity to rectify some of the debilitating historical inadequacies in the sector that have led to its underperformance in so many areas.

So as we look to bring in more women, we need of course to bring in more expertise in the entrenched professional skills such as transport planning, traffic management, engineering, financial planning, technical modeling and the usual array of “hard skills” which have the front stage in the sector. But that is not enough.

But to get the job done right we also need greatly enhanced competence in such areas as environment, climate, land use, public health, cities, rural areas, community relations, demographics, local government, social services , behavioral psychology, education, childcare, job creation, poverty reduction, communications and all those other key areas of our daily lives which thus far have not received the necessary attention in the transport discussions and decision-making process. And in these, we need both women and men to enhance our understanding of these mission-critical issues and to inform policy and practice in the sector.

Now, is it that I really think that women are for some reason better, smarter or more noble than we Y chromosome-encumbered males? That’s not the point. Rather it is my experience that women often have a different view of the world in many respects. It is this differentness that we need to bring in and profit from.

However to give this full scope we need to go beyond the usual token representation. We need their strength. And we need their numbers. A scattered handful of females does not appear to suffice to force the change. Put enough women into a forum and they will keep us on our toes. I promise. (The key being the ”enough”.)

There is an analogy with our recent experience with the expanding role of cyclists in some of our cities. If there are none out there on the streets, few people even think about it. If there are a few, this makes no great difference. But once there is a strong quorum, strong presence, this starts to change everything. And not just for the cyclists. There is ample proof in this in city after city where this transformation has started to take place.

One important wrinkle on this is provided by a singing phrase of the Gender and Built Environment collaborative program at who advise us: “Don't treat women equally”. Hmm. Something I think that is important for each of us to think through for ourselves.

My own long experience of trying to achieve some form of decent parity in the projects that I have led under the New Mobility Agenda over the last two decades has shown to me that it is no easy task. Try as I have in the projects that I have led or been able to influence, we have rarely got anywhere near full parity. Shame on me. But now, on to the future. This is clearly a job for a team, for a crowd, for new leadership, for a new culture. That could be us.

With this I think we are ready to roll. And since we have such a terrific collection of thinkers and doers here, of such high reputation, what could be better than starting with this right now ourselves? To this end I invite each of you to reach out into and beyond your networks to find at least one qualified female colleague, especially those who have worked directly with less advantaged people, groups and communities, including in the developing world. Within a few days, weeks at most, we will have our balanced panel and surely some very different ideas and counsel for our new administration.

I will start making my nominations this morning. Please join me.

5. Conclusion and recommendation

I hereby move that we now make this a major discussion topic for this panel in the weeks immediately ahead. Ladies? Gentlemen?


The above was an invited contribution to an ongoing "insider policy discussion" sponsored by the National Journal In Washington DC , which has as its intention to provide counsel to orient and guide the incoming Obama administration on matters involving policy and investments in the transportation sector. This piece specifically in response to Discussion Topic: “How should the infrastructure stimulus be spent?” Which opens with the statement (Lisa Caruso) ::” President-elect Obama has made a hefty economic stimulus the first item on his legislative agenda and signaled that he wants a significant infrastructure component. How should the money for transportation infrastructure be distributed to maximize job creation in the short run while ensuring that the projects deliver the greatest benefit for the public? And who gets to decide which projects move first?”

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• To access the author's panel page:

• To contact the author: +1 310 601-8468 in the States or +331 4326 1323 in Europe. In either place for email or Skype: newmobility

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