Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Op-Ed: Mikel Murga on Look beyond Transportation

As a Basque-American working in both Boston … and Bilbao, I would suggest to those in charge of Transportation, something very simple: Look beyond Transportation. This should lead to:

1) Focus on City Making, which should be specially palatable to President Obama. City Making addresses many of the basic issues driving the new administration: Education, equal opportunities, mitigation of income disparities, etc. All in line with the old dictum of “Stadt Luft Macht Frei”. But at the same time and from a transportation perspective, it allows to focus on above targets, and not just on functional benchmarks, because a city by itself fosters density of residence and density of jobs of services.

This translates in turn into the right environment to foster good public transport, good walking and cycling environment and good and attractive public spaces as meeting points for their citizens. This suggestion also entails the examination of suburbs in search of opportunities to create an urban culture through infill of its core area. This is an area where Europe offers many examples of such a level playing field for their citizens, clear economies of scale and more attractive public spaces

2) Adopt new indicators for the contribution of the transportation system, both positive and negative. These indicators should go beyond our current level of service measurements plus operating costs, congestion and external costs. The goal is to incorporate transport contribution towards savings of the household transportation budgets and new business efficiencies through agglomeration of economic activities, as two quick examples

3) Re-Balance the Transportation System, by leading a program as ambitious as President Eisenhower Interstate Program. This Interstate II would be based on High-Speed Rail, in order to decrease dramatically the current modal share of auto and aviation, thus mitigating the growing levels of congestion on both modes, decreasing external costs, and fostering new regional development based on the new rail infrastructure. This in turn will reinforce the economic role of our cities as they compete globally with other world cities which already benefit from efficient transportation systems. Notice for example the short number of years during which Spain has reached second place in terms of total miles currently planned, added to those under operation and those under construction.

4) Redesign every new transport project as a city making opportunity. Those choosing to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao are surprised by the quality of the city environment. The explanation lies on the fact that the new stations of the recent Subway and new Light Rail were taken as an excuse to create high quality public spaces and new high density residential and employment developments. This virtual cycle, which might include land value capture schemes, should be part of the evaluation of every new transport project in a multi modal context.

Mikel Murga,
Research Associate and Lecturer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
President, Leber Planificación e Ingeniería
Cambridge, MA and Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain

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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