Saturday, January 24, 2009

National Journal Panel: The Right to Mobility for All

International Lessons for American Transportation Leaders

“What lessons can America learn from the rest of the world in terms of transportation developments that are safe, efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable?”

Following two-part response submitted on this date by panelist Eric Britton (

Terrific question, thanks for asking it. And of course when I read it I, surely like most of the others on this panel, immediately hunkered down to organize my best thoughts on the subject.

But as I was sweating on the details, it suddenly occurred to me that I could report back to you on this far more usefully than in my own words. All it would take would be for me to step back and find a way to offer this bully pulpit to the thousand or so well-paced international colleagues with whom we regularly work and exchange ideas on just these matters under the New Mobility Agenda -- such that they can tell you what THEY have to share with us on this subject. So I thought, why not, let’s see what we can get a whole collection of ideas and inspirations from all these diverse people, and fashion them into a sort of . .

Mexican Christmas (“A piñata of ideas”)

To get the job done, I sat down immediately and drafted a round-robin email inviting them each to submit a SINGLE IDEA or concept together with up to 250 words of background and explanation. Thus far more than fifty of my distinguished world colleagues have already piled in with contributions, spanning a couple of dozen countries on all continents (except Africa so far, alas). I am now in the process of trying to put them into some kind of order to facilitate your consultation and use, but it is going to take me until the end of the week to get them to you in readable form. (In the meantime if you can stand the heat, you can view the latest draft entries at )

That process now well underway, I would like to conclude this first message with my own best single recommendation, putting it into the same basic form which all the others are kindly respecting.

* * *

The Right to Mobility for All

I would like to take a few minutes of your time here to explore with you a concept which we see gradually emerging out of the transportation dialogue in many parts of the world, one which increasingly is intersecting with and being shaped by considerations of environment, life quality, and social justice as well as serving the critical economic underpinnings of our cities and countries. The idea that people actually have a right to mobility is not one that is particularly high on the screen in the States today . But that’s why you’re asking us these questions, isn’t it?

You will see that this is an idea for our time. For our time right now! But it was not always so.

Why it is needed

For various reasons -- economics, age, health, location, impatience and a certain social blindness being among the most important -- we live in a world in which an increasing number of people, and not the richest and most powerful, are finding themselves systematically excluded from much of what would constitute a normal life: ranging from impossibilities of getting safely, at bearable cost and reasonably quickly to a place where they can find work, to get their shopping done, to meet with friends and family, to get to school or university, to get medical attention, yes to play, and to the full spectrum of daily life activities which all the rest of us take for granted. These people, this growing plurality, are under our present arrangements "transportation deprived".

How has this come about? And what if anything can be done about it?

As the growing prosperity of the 20th century took hold around the world, the idea, the widely shared goal, of having your own car has been considered universally desirable. It was a central part of the American dream and one which has been taken up by people around the world with enormous enthusiasm.

In that world of the past "everybody" understood that the best possible way of getting from your A to your B, when and as you wish to, was due up into your car and drive at your destination. So, reasonably enough, our systems of infrastructure, public expenditure and the rest have been geared around a, basically, car-based system. A car-based system for all. One striking proof of this is that something on the order of three quarters of all public expenditures have been and are being based on this model. And not only in America.

There was a time, not all that long ago, in which this seemed like a perfectly reasonable formula for an efficient and equitable life. Cars were cheap, energy abundant, distances great, roads free, the air fresh (enough), the population young, cities (relatively) small, land plentiful, parking not an issue (have you ever noticed that in movies no one ever has a parking problem?), and our planet boundless and without constraints.

But increasingly in many parts of the world, and of course in parts of the United States, this old formula for mobility and all that went with it has started to show its age. And among the major price tags of this poor fit of public policy and private reality are those being borne by a growing number of people who increasingly are being physically cut off from the mainstream of daily life.

And if you have not read or heard about much about all of this, it is because these same people are also out of the mainstream of communications. They are not a silent minority. They are, worse yet, a voiceless minority.

For a vast majority of Americans this concept of a "right to mobility" will probably be an unfamiliar, even uncomfortable idea. Certainly it is one that does not sit very well with a traditional culture imbued with ideas of individual initiatives as opposed to collective action. For this reason the concept has not thus far made much headway here. Yet!

Message from Europe:

By contrast much of Europe has traditionally been more sensitive to certain basic human rights for all, rich and poor, strong and weak, rights what are seen as indispensable building blocks of a civilized and just (and effective) society. The right to education for all. The right to food. The right to health care for all. The right of equality before the law. The rights to freedom of expression and religion.

Some of our more iron-willed conservative friends have been known to characterize this as an example of a "nanny state" gone amok, an “excessive desire” to protect. Or as one more right-leaning observer put it the day he heard that the US government under former President Bush was going to take an active role to work out some kind of policy to buttress America’s flailing banking system: "When I woke up this morning and read that in the paper, I suddenly thought I was in France ". (And of course to him that was certainly a very fine joke indeed.)

You do not have to come to Europe, get out and have a look for yourself

This may seem like an abstract consideration to anyone comfortably ensconced in a warm room with his own car nearby when he needs it. But if you step away from your office this morning and get out there to talk about these issues and problems with people who are older, infirm, unemployed, trapped in ghettos, living in outlying areas, rural, or just stone poor, your perception of the realities will undoubtedly be changed in a significant manner.

Which brings us to our proposed concept of the Right to Mobility for All. A deep and powerful concept which I and many of my colleagues in the United States and abroad would like to see more carefully examined and put into action by the incoming Obama transportation team. Because when you start to dig into it seriously, you are going to find that it changes many things, many important things, in significant ways.

But we also have to be aware of the "other shoe" of the Right to Mobility, and that is the nuts and bolts of the concept of sustainable transportation. Now over the last years significant progress has been made in both policy and practice in very practical ways about what this concept means and how it applies in very specific ways. While there are a number of places where you can turn for specific guidelines as to how to put sustainable transportation policy to work (you could try for example going to and search for "sustainable transportation"), one that I can recommend to you will be the details menu of strategic building blocks that can be found on the opening pages of the New Mobility Agenda which you can click to from here at .

These two concepts have to move forward together in tandem, and as you dig more carefully into the details and implications, you are going to see that this just might become an important part of the toolkit of the new transportation team.

Something familiar about this

To me there is something very familiar in all this. Back when I was a child in Mississippi, I can tell you for a fact that we did not give a great deal of thought to the concept of the "right to vote". Even the phrase itself was not familiar in most of our conversations, whether we were blacks or whites. Some of us voted and some of us didn’t. Not very many people made a big deal out of this. That was just the way it was.

But for those of us who have lived through the events of the last half-century, with all that has gone on to turn the concept of the right to vote to reality, the universal right to vote, we are well aware that we and our country are indelibly marked, forever transformed, by our collective commitment to the concept of the universality of the right to vote. We would not be where we are today if some people, some concerned and brave citizens, did not think that was something worth fighting for.

I respectfully propose to this panel and to all who may read these two pages that the concept of the Right to Mobility for All is one that deserves to be better known, more closely studied, and very shortly given its place in the law and in practice. And, if it has to be that way, one worth fighting for.

I hope this idea will be carefully considered and discussed at length in Washington DC and across the United States of America. We can send a signal to the world that we are back.

Eric Britton
Paris France and Los Angeles USA

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