Sunday, January 11, 2009

National Journal Panel: Tear down those walls, Secretary LaHood

Reinventing Transportation in America

Contribution to the National Journal Transportation Panel
- Eric Britton, 12 Jan. 2009, New Mobility Partnerships, Paris and Los Angeles

The greatest single challenge the incoming Secretary of Transportation faces will be to tear down the walls of the past that have worked to hold back the development of a more effective and more sustainable transportation system for the United States. The challenge facing the new team is nothing less than that of “reinventing transportation in America”, which is exactly what we need to do now. And in the process seizing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that.

But we understand that this is not going to be an easy challenge -- because the day Secretary LaHood walks through the door of his new office there will be an incredible number of people, problems, projects, details and interests clamoring for his attention. Many with projects "ready to go" -- but many of which must not be simply approved before making them pass through the critical tests which are outlined here. The real issue here and now, is whether urgently funding more-of-the-same projects will continue making things better . . . or worse. It’s important to scrutinize each proposal very very carefully.

This process of tearing down the key walls is likely to be the most important single initial decision that the new Secretary can make as he assembles his new team and prepares for the critical four years ahead. This, breaking with the past and redefining the future, is the one decision that will shape all the rest. With this in view I propose that we now put our heads together to gather our ideas and recommendations on the following ten-part action proposal for the leaders of the new team. I offer this to the panel as a starting point for their comments and refinements.

1. Modify the Mission: 2
2. The external walls: 2
3. The internal walls: 4
4. Learning from others: 4
5. Tighten timeframe: 4
6. Full cost pricing: 5
7. Innovation from outside: 5
8. Civil Society 6
9. Jobs 6
10. The gender imbalance: 7

1. Modify Mission:

This has to be the starting place.

The traditional focus of DOT and all its many agencies and branches has in a phrase been “to be good at transportation”, which de facto boils down to being historically seen as . . . good at highways, good at aviation, good at transit, good at railroads, etc. etc. And while that has yielded extensive, sometimes sensational results on the supply side, it is not at all the kind of approach which is appropriate to the very different conditions and constraints of the 21st century.

So what under these radically different circumstances should be the target for the new Secretary and his department? Let me at this point just step aside and address this challenge to the panel, and indeed to anybody else who is interested, including colleagues in the halls of the Department of Transportation, to help us work out some real guidelines for this extremely important step in what I very much hope will be the new policy of the Department.

My own preferred single priority candidate capable of guiding and shaping all the rest will be to focus policy on investments and measures that serve specifically to achieve major reductions of carbon-driven vehicle miles travelled (VMT), and this across the whole transportation spectrum. As it turns out traffic management and reduction is a near perfect surrogate for all the key objectives associated with issues of climate, sustainability, economics, energy and systemic efficiency, among others. You figure out how to drive VMT down and the rest moves along in the right direction with it. Or will at least if we are careful about it.

This is a very doable strategy, one which if we get it right will not only support but even enhance the economy of the nation, while at the same time providing more choice for citizens and more affordable and equitable transportation for all.

2. External walls:

Eliminate walls between transportation and all the rest.

Our point of departure has to be to understand that transportation is a means and not an end. This is so well-known that it almost seems unnecessary to state it, however we have all too often failed to recognize this in the past. Fortunately the means to rectify this are at hand. A critical look at our past failures to be sufficiently inclusive to create really effective policies and practices is a good place to start.

If we can self-criticize the performance and results of our transportation policy, thinking and performance over the last decades, the crux would have to be that our investment and other key choices have been made without sufficient reference to the broader context and issues that shape and are in turn shaped by decisions made in the transportation sector. This long list includes such critical under-pinnings as climate, environment, land use, value capture, energy, city and community development, public health, quality of life, job creation (but the right kinds of jobs for our new century), community relations, aging populations, 21st century economic realities, the special problems of the rural and urban poor, entrepreneurship, the need for bold experimentation, the untapped potential of IT, the beauty of America, and the list goes on. Our sector and the investments that are now going to go into can succeed only if we bring all of these factors to the table in the decision process in a way that has rarely been done in the past. All of the time!

The point needs to be made that in the past most to these issues and interests have been treated as “soft” and as such relegated to the outer edges of the decision process, if at all. That is a huge mistake. They are hard and central, and it is going to take ea reorganization from the top to bring this about.

I propose we recommend that Secretary LaHood and his team convene in the first months of taking office a high-level, high-visibility, cross-agency, cross-platform review and brainstorming process which will assemble around one table the best placed strategic thinkers from the following key agencies – to give them a chance to look together at what the challenges, responses and priorities really are from the necessary broader perspective. Obvious candidates for such a fundamental outreach and redefinition effort include:

• Department of Health and Human Services
• Department of Housing and Urban Development
• Department of Commerce
• Department of Education
• Department of Labor
• Department of Energy
• Department of the Treasury
• Environmental Protection Agency
• Federal Communications Commission
• VISTA, USAID and Peace Corps

It goes without saying that my listing here is personal and incomplete. And while I'm sure there are other players who should be brought into such a rethinking process, I would hope that the core group would remain relatively compact so that the key factors and players are going to really get their message through.

Let's look at one example briefly, health: The health impacts of transportation are many, notorious and for the most part strongly negative. And while these factors are at times brought into the planning and decision process, it is my contention that, along with the critical concerns of climate and sustainability, they now need to be brought right into the strong center of transportation policy and practice. Starting at the federal level, and hopefully by its strong example flowing out and influencing the sector’s practices at state, city and other key levels.

At the other extreme of the above lists you will see DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. By adding this agency to the group, my intention is to point up one simple truth of the future of our transportation systems, and this is the update are going to find much of the content of their success by becoming ever more aggressive users of the kinds of technology that DARPA has assisted and championed in the past. In the old days transportation was about metal boxes moving about on rails or roads, in the air or on water. Today while we still have the boxes and their supporting media, however the full versatility of performance depends on the extent to which they take full advantage of the kinds of information, communications, and logistics technologies that groups like DARPA and several other government organizations have helped jumpstart. There is plenty of room for that in the four years ahead.

More generally, we need to see a far tighter integration of government and research powerhouses into the mainstream of transportation policy and practice.

This would be an important thing to do now because here we are not only in a new century but in the opening phase of a period of new government ideas and initiatives. So now's the time to start to think far more broadly and far more strategically about the issues and choices now before us.

(Incidentally, if these meetings and exchanges are carried out in a way such that they are fully open to the public, through public broadcasting and the Internet, it can be argued that this form of citizen oversight can be one of the guarantors of the effectiveness of this important initiative. Inclusiveness of the public is part of the solution, no doubt about it)

Finally, it is certainly worth mentioning that there are a considerable number of projects and programs going on which are already trying to reach across these traditional lines and barriers to collaboration. These efforts need to be highlighted, reinforce, and support. They are the makings of the future.

3. Internal walls:

Eliminate walls within the DOT family.

By creating specialized agencies with specific modal and sectoral mandates, we have laid the base for a policy which at best is going to sub-optimize within each of those areas of competence. This chronic tendency to sub- optimization is endemic within the thick-wall structures (silos) that the most part today permeate and handicap the various agencies and programs.

I would also respectfully suggest that the continued existence of pretty rigid bureaucratic structures and routines within the department serves to stifle good ideas and new sources of energy that I and others have encountered at junior administrative levels within the various agencies. More facilitation of bottom-up flow of ideas and cross-agency collaboration strike me as appropriate for a 21st-century operation.

It is my guess that as the new LaHood team presses ahead with the challenge of redefining the mission of the Department in the far broader ways suggested here, it will begin to be clear how it will be possible to go to work on the task of thinning those walls. (It goes without saying of course that this is hardly the sort of job that can be handled from the bottom up.)

4. International walls

Eliminate walls between the rest of the world.

As much as it may hurt to say it, America is not among the world leaders when it comes to many aspects of transportation, and in particular when it comes to sustainable transportation.

There are many ideas and concepts which are doing heavy duty everyday on the roads, rails, and waterways in Europe and in fact in other parts of the world, which the US should be looking at far more closely. And when they pass the acid test adopted and adapted for effective application here. Our programs for international exchanges and joint work should be strongly ratcheted up as part of the new Department’s revised walls-down mandate.

There are international exchange and collaborative programs in the sector that are already out there and making their contributions, They should be made better known, multiplied and supported.

5. Tighten timeframe (2009-2012)

Mr. Secretary, it is my respectful recommendation that at least 50% of all investments and programs be geared to getting visible results within the first four years of this administration -- whether measured in terms of where and how dollars are spent, or in VMT changes or in trip pattern changes, etc. All these and more appear to be appropriate measures to see where we are heading and to measure changes.. And just because it concentrates attention on the four years directly ahead, this need not be a policy that throws away the longer-term future.

To the contrary by focusing attention on projects and investments which are expected to be sustainable (i.e. geared to the long-term) and achieve concrete results within this very short timeframe, it is reasonable to expect that once we have lived this very different experience and actually achieved these goals, we will have some rather different thoughts about the longer-term future and strategies that we do today.

The target and results period is 2009-2012. Let's focus and meet the priority challenges before us first. And then rich from this experience and our successes in really making a difference where it counts, we will be better equipped to tackle the most important long-term investments and challenges.

6. Full cost pricing

Eliminate the walls that keep out appropriate evaluation of externalities.

Let's get rid of the free riders all the way down the line? Any person or mode consuming scarce resources without paying a fair price for them needs to be reassessed and brought in a coherent manner into the Department’s new transportation and pricing strategy. Those of us who use our cars regularly and fly at the drop of a hat are famously not paying our way. Likewise the cost of goods transport is often heavily subsidized, and though this is very comfortable for us as consumers is definitely not part of a sustainability strategy for the sector. The key of course in all cases it is a matter of externalities which need to be brought into the pricing equation. This can and should be done.

The means for getting this important job done will be to mandate a cost-benefit analysis of any publicly backed infrastructure spending so as to recapture all “external economies” (such as windfall real estate price gains) as the first line of financing such investment.

In some cases the assessments needed to assure accurate pricing are both easy to do, where as in others, especially where there are many different types and levels of benefits, the calculations are more tricky. Still we know enough about how to carry out these exercises that there is no reason not to do so.

As we here all know, these readjustments are going to make big differences in people's choices of when, how, and where they travel. And that is exactly what is needed to create a more rational and effective mobility system.

7. Innovation from outside:

Eliminate the walls hindering innovation from new sources.

When it comes to transportation in and around cities, for a variety of reasons and contrary to what one might think we are "innovation-lite”. This is a trap which has come about through a long sequence of historical events which now require immediate attention and prudent rectification. There are a large number of barriers to innovation in the transportation sector, and these need to be re-examined and reduced so that new ideas and practices can start to transform the sector.

There is enormous scope, indeed urgency, for sorting out and prioritizing these potential innovations, and because we have not done as well in the past thus far we have been wasting a lot of real opportunities. Much but not all of the push to do ideas, services, and policies will come from beyond the traditional actors in the sector. We can expect when we begin to remove the barriers, that substantial part of this of this innovation will push will come from the private sector. But the private sector is not the only source of innovative ideas and successful implementations for the transportation sector, so we also need to bear in mind and support good initiatives coming from more transformational public agencies, NGOs, local groups and players, and others.

8. Civil Society

Eliminate the civil society wall.

Based on my experience both in the United States and abroad, one of the things that strikes me as a major shortcoming of present practices, is the challenge of finding a way to integrate the enormous knowledge, competences and energies of civil society into the transportation decision and action process. This is not an easy thing to achieve, in part because it is unfamiliar and as such very different from past practices; and in part because it involves working with a very large number of very diverse groups, interest, and working styles. It is a real challenge to efficiency and diplomacy to find ways to factor them positively into the processes that now need to be engaged.

But we sit today close to the end of the first decade of the century, and we have an enormous array of tools and procedures that will allow us to bring these groups into the knowledge building and implementation process. Indeed when it comes to actually implementing many of the new measures which are more consistent with the objectives of sustainability and social justice, these same external players will be extremely important part of this process.

Let me cite one example which to my mind every city and community in America needs to have a good look at, and which the new DOT team can get behind fast, effectively and at very low cost. A team of citizens in New York City have combined to provide a serious, consistent, and high visibility voice for citizen activism and collaboration. This is an example, a template if you will which any city can follow. Have a look at the site of Transportation Alternatives at Since 1973 they have been a persistent and effective voice in favor of sustainable transportation, bringing together thousands of New Yorkers and others concerned with these problems in their city.

In parallel with this another approach which is being effectively demonstrated also in New York City is the citizen-financed and highly effective Livable Streets Network (LSN) at LSN has created an online community for people working to create sustainable cities through sensible urban planning, design, and transportation policy. Their first high-quality citizen’s transportation blog, Streetsblog at aims to (and succeeds) to influencing policy in New York City. And beyond that they have developed a blog package, template, which is currently being put to work in other cities.

To my mind there are many parallels here with the successful campaign that was waged by incoming President Obama as he moved away from the old models of working with narrow corridors of interest and power to a far more inclusive style. It is my recommendation that in redrawing the structures and routines of the new Department, the Secretary and his team will do well to look hard at these lessons from the very recent past.

9. Jobs

Break down the labor wall.

We have, without necessarily wanting to do it per se, created high walls between jobs and the transportation sector. This has been a very costly error.

The key phrase in this ongoing shift has been "labor saving". On the one hand it has been a natural enough force for change, given the fact that in most transportation operations labor costs are the largest single item, accounting for two thirds or more of total costs. And as technology got smarter one of its primary achievements has been to reduce the labor content of the sector. Hmm. Given the importance of jobs in society as well as the economy, this is a trend which is worth at least seriously thinking about.

Likewise in our rush to privatize things with the idea that fast privatization is going to be too higher productivity and lower costs, we seem to lost sight of a number of important things that cannot be properly measured from a short-term perspective. So a longer-term view to understanding the real impacts of privatization, social as well as economic, as well as the effects that it has on the traditional public service function which is always been a very important part of the task facing sector, would seem to be called for as part of the overall of arrangements at the top.

But now we have an opportunity to revisit our transportation arrangements, thanks to what one can hope it is a bit of fresh air being brought in by the new transportation team at the top. This possible pattern break can give us a chance to be a bit more clever in a future in the way we combine the special talents and contributions that human beings can bring to a system or service, together with all of the smarts that 21st century technology puts in our hands.

In much the same way, many of the tasks that are associated with building and operating transportation system provide opportunities for combining immediate productive output on the one hand together, with carefully integrated programs of education and training that will permit us at the same time to upgrade the skill level and confidence of all of the individuals who constitute the transportation labor force. Think of it perhaps as the "Transportation University", a school without Ph.D.'s for sure but plenty of creative programs in which work and learning are concatenated in ways which leave us with a brighter, more competent, and more optimistic America.

Let's break down that wall.

10. The gender imbalance:

Eliminate the gender wall.

This particular transformative issue been addressed elsewhere in these conversations : the quality of our transportation choices and arrangements has suffered greatly from the historic practice of putting decision-making into the hands of a too narrow class of American citizens: for the most part male, educated, middle-class, and almost all car owner/driver's.

This is not a matter of trying to be politically correct or of kneejerk feminism. It is what I believe is the only responsible way to achieve a government that is “of and by the people”. Adequate gender representation and direct empowerment is a vital part of this process and one that we can address right now.

This forced, high-priority network expansion can open up another outstanding oversight in our present arrangements 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. Underperformance and abject unfairness.

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.

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”.)

One of my diligent Australian colleagues, Michael Yeates, offers interesting way of putting this with a question that I pass on to you with half a grin: "Dracula again in charge of the blood bank?" A bit violent I admit but the image is striking enough to remind us of the kinds of changes that are needed not only in terms of ideas and policies, but also in terms of the players.

More down to earth, here is what Swedish policy and law have to say on this subject:

“The transport system shall be equitable so that it covers both women’s’ and men’s’ transport needs and gives both genders equal influence over the transport system’s creation, shape and function. (To facilitate this goal, by 2010 no traffic/transport policy group will have less than 40% of its members from either gender.)”

I do think we can learn something from the Swedes (and the Norwegians, and the Finns) on this. It’s a bit about how many Americans have over the last couple of decades (and often to their great surprise) become something like color blind. The lesson of history is that once the whole thing is in place nobody even thinks about it any more (unless they walk into a conference or workshop of all (wo)men). That’s just the normal way to do things if you want great and equitable results in a great and equitable country.

* * *

Get this right and it could well signal the beginning of a major revolution in the transportation sector which just might turn out to be every bit as fundamental as President Eisenhower's Intrastate Highway Program that reshaped America (and by example so many other parts of the planet ) in so very many significant ways. Not all of them positive, as we now realize.

Beyond this, the fact is that attitudes and practices in the United States are observed very closely and often blindly copied by institutions and others working in other countries around the world. The American transportation example is an important one and we have every reason to make it one which is not only going to show the way to new thinking and better practices in the United States, but also to instruct and inspire the many other places in the world are looking to us for examples.

So rather than holding our heads and worrying about what India, China, and other nations are going to do in their transportation choices and practices to undermine life quality in their own backyards and destroy the planet at the same time, what about our stepping back and providing them with an example that they can understand, come to admire, and go about adapting and improving it for their own special conditions?

Leading by example, I believe it is called.

Eric Britton

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