Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What/who keeps holding back newmobility reform?

Eric Britton, Editor, World Streets, Paris, France

If you get it, newmobility is a no-brainer. However, while that is a great starting place, it is not going to get the job somehow miraculously done. We have a few potential sticking points here that need to be overcome first. Let's have a quick look.

After some years of talking with cities, and working and observing in many different circumstances, here are some of the barriers are most frequently encountered in trying to get innovative transportation reform programs off the ground, including even in cities that really do need a major mobility overhaul.

1. The Mayor/city manager: The mayor or prime city leader either: does not get it; feels that she knows the whole area well enough to require nothing else; does not consider this to be a matter of high priority; feels confident that his staff has this well under control, or quite simply does not have enough time to get her arms around it.

2. The City Council: Where you have city councils taking these decisions, it turns out that they are often much better at disagreeing then agreeing, at least when any unfamiliar , to them unproven, idea comes before them for decision. And yet, if we do not get some kind of consensus for change at the top this is never going to happen.

3. The city's transportation experts: The city's main transportation expert, team, may well not be interested in having any "outside help". Anything else is often seen as a challenge to their authority and expertise. So we basically have a turf problem.

4. Local consultants: The specialized consultants who already work in the sector in that city, or have contact with it, feel that they do not need any additional help since this is after all their job and specialty.

5. Local business groups, who the most part are firmly wedded to the idea of cars and car access (AKA parking) as being the key to the success of their businesses.

6. Transportation service providers: bus/transit services, taxis, school and special service buses, others -- tend to be the most part quite narrowly focused on their specific business area, often already under some financial duress, and thus for the most part not known to be open to new ideas or new ways of doing things. Including new and much broader partnerships with other service providers and actors in the community. This is not the case for all cities, but most operators are under such financial pressure that they have little or no margin for innovation or experimentation.

7. Public interest groups: Specific transportation, environmental groups (cycling, pedestrian, public space, emissions, quality of life, specific neighborhood groups, etc.) tend to be committed to their specific missions and far more often than not simply do not get together to create a global sustainable cities program, as indeed should be the case.

8. Local media: For reasons of their own, advertising revenues included, have rarely really bought into the sustainability agenda.

9. The "local car lobby". While there are financial interests tied to the continuing abundant unfettered use of cars in the city, including local auto dealers, any businesses that might be suppliers to the sector, parking businesses, the great bulk of this "lobby" is an unquestioned implied understanding that nothing should be done that would change your relationship with your car.

10. All of us: Doubtless the biggest single obstacle to deep transportation reform is a result of the fact that it deals with a highly visible area of public life in which just about everybody, from mayor to dogcatcher, feels that they have a high degree of implicit expertise in figuring out what works and what will not work in their city. . . because transport is something that they do every day and can see with their own eyes. This is the Achilles' heel of transportation policy, this very human tendency for just about everybody to feel that if they do it i.e. move around every day) this means they understand it. The trouble with this is that transport in cities is a highly complex metabolism of great systemic complexity that is far closer to that of the human brain than say another glass of beer. Thus one of the main challenges of deep transportation reform is to help citizens and decision makers come to grips with these challenges of complexity, without at the same time removing it from their role as active and responsible citizens and placing it entirely in the hands of centralized experts. There is a major communications challenge here. And a governance challenge as well.

* * *

How many potential barriers is that already, ten? And if you think of it in terms of your own city, I am sure you are going to spot most if not all of the above and yet others. It is thus the first challenge of anyone who wishes to advance the sustainable transportation agenda in that place to understand this difficult terrain and to figure out ways of coping with it.

For sure, it is going to be impossible to take on and convert all of these interests at once. But the fundamental concepts and potential of a 21st-century mobility system are such that if we take a strategic approach to dealing with these barriers, taking them on one at a time and with great patience and foresight, the policy agenda can be opened up and perhaps some first small victories can be achieved. Once this has happened, the rest will follow in due course.

Our best counsel for transportation reform: Start at the top and engage and work your way down this list patiently one by one. Build up your support base , and gradually expand it. Be known as a great and patient listener.

* * *
You may find some interest in reading the above in parallel with the strategic summary for new system planning and implementation of the New Mobility Agenda which you will find here –

Print this article