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.

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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.

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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 –

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  1. 1. last week I watched online part of the testimony of a bunch of new urbanists before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee chaired by David Obey. So people like John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee, now pres. of the Congress of New Urbanism, testified.

    And they made the points about land use and transportation policy being linked and essential to address.

    After the finished, and John Norquist was summing up, the Congressman piped up and said "And Energy etc. ...." but in the way that he discussed it, I don't think he thought of energy policy as being a dependent variable derived from land use and transportation policy.

    In short, I don't think he got it.

    2. And in fact, I have been thinking of modifying/writing a post for World Streets about this particular topic, has to do with necessity of localities having an internally structured and consistent transportation and land use planning paradigm, and a transportation vision plan.

    This comes up in DC vis-a-vis Arlington County, VA. Over the past few years, ArCo has revised their transportation plan. What I really like about it is its internal consistency. The policies in each Element derive from and are consistent with the overall goals and policies expressed in the section on goals and policies. So you see how subelements of each element "cascade" from the overarching policies.

    So, what this means in the Parking and Curbside Management element is that precious street space is prioritized not for privately owned automobiles, but for use that is consistent with the goals focused on mode shift away from automobiles, especially single occupant vehicle trips.

    That means that on-street parking for car sharing vehicles and transit is prioritized over parking space for privately owned automobiles.

    OTOH, DC doesn't have a transportation vision plan, except as the collection of subelements listed in the Transportation Element of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan. DC has about 45% mode split (walking, bicycle, transit) for commuting--which is actually 50% higher than the mode split in Arlington County! and ArCo has extensive transportation demand management planning in place, unlike DC (on the other hand, DC has a transit supportive urban design/urban form that is unparalleled in the region). Probably about 40% of DC households do not own cars.

    But without that transportation vision plan, it's easy for Councilmembers to enter particularly stupid legislation.

    The latest is property tax abatement and other incentives for gasoline stations... The Councilmember who entered the legislation drives an SUV and has jokingly criticized the Mayor for driving a SmartCar...

    The Arlington County plan (and in the U.S., NYC and Seattle especially also have excellent local transportation plans), and the Arlington County Council--which in the DC region is the most enlightened, bar none, on transportation policy--demonstrates the necessity of having internally and externally congruent visions and policies.

    Richard Layman
    Washington DC

  2. I like it very much Eric, keying in of course on:

    "In-place transportation service providers: bus/transit services, taxis, others
    -- tend to be the most part quite narrowly focused on their specific business
    area, often already under some financial duress, and by and large 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."

    Because I work with transit providers and local planning agencies, this is the aspect of the problem that is of greatest interest to me. As much as I respect you, I disagree with the notion that most transit agencies are not open to new ideas and ways. Having worked with dozens, I know they are hungry for real chances to try new things.

    The financial duress you cite is long-standing. Public policy and resources barely keep up with existing route operations, let alone improvements. Transit agencies have a hard time looking out of the box when they can barely survive. It has come to the point where most of the people who work in transit agencies are behind the wheel each day, just to keep things rolling. They do the office work at night.

    Fire the planner and keep the driver has to be the result, which means the schedules deteriorate. The the result is that passengers are left waiting, sometimes for hours in the case of low-headway routes with drivers forced to decide between an early departure and some regular passenger down the line being late for work--the schedule was off to start with. Those waiting passengers, who might be expected to be the most vocal supporters of a fewer-cars policy, in favor of transit and other alternatives, are left so emotionally battered that they cannot bring themselves to speak up in favor of transit at all.

    I don't really know transit advocacy. But I hope to learn. Thanks for the help!

  3. Good ideas Eric ...

    But I suspect there is another factor that could be added ... not planning for the future aka not accounting for the consequences of actions taken today.

    Some examples would include air pollution, GHG, induced traffic, trying to beat congestion by building more roads, predict and provide modelling, oil shortages, etc ... and going back a bit, nobody anticipated the tens of thousands of people killed by cars or the health impacts of reduced walking in our daily travel "diet".

    As it applies to many of your points ... so perhaps it is just an addition to point #10.

    As British Prime Minister Asquith is reported to have said, a car "is a luxury that is apt to degenerate into a nuisance"... not a bad forecast given it was in 1907 ...!

    This tendency is still not a bad proposition to test any new product against.

    Michael Yeates

  4. Thank you Eric and Michael for such valuable insights.

    I would add that there are planning forces at national levels that are important.

    A rather good summary of one example of the national planning paradigm affecting transportation is given in the extraordinary work by Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues, available here (, in Chapter 9, "The Burden of Responsibility", section 2 "Laboratory Animals":

    'Apart from the regular bombardment of the senses through advertising and media portrayal of life-as-it-should-be-lived, corporate-government initiatives are undertaken on an enormous scale to shape consumer tastes. One dramatic example is the "Los Angelizing" of the US economy, a huge state-corporate campaign to direct consumer preferences to "suburban sprawl and individualized transport -- as opposed to clustered suburbanization compatible with a mix of rail, bus, and motor car transport," Richard Du Boff observes in his economic history of the United States, a policy that involved "massive destruction of central city capital stock" and "relocating rather than augmenting the supply of housing, commercial structures, and public infrastructure." The role of the federal government was to provide funds for "complete motorization and the crippling of surface mass transit"; this was the major thrust of the Federal Highway Acts of 1944, 1956, and 1968, implementing a strategy designed by GM chairman Alfred Sloan. Huge sums were spent on interstate highways without interference, as Congress surrendered control to the Bureau of Public Roads; about 1 percent of the sum was devoted to rail transit. The Federal Highway Administration estimated total expenditures at $80 billion by 1981, with another $40 billion planned for the next decade. State and local governments managed the process on the scene.

    'The private sector operated in parallel: "Between 1936 and 1950, National City Lines, a holding company sponsored and funded by GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California, bought out more than 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 cities (including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, and Los Angeles) to be dismantled and replaced with GM buses... In 1949 GM and its partners were convicted in U.S.district court in Chicago of criminal conspiracy in this matter and fined $5,000." By the mid-1960s, one out of six business enterprises was directly dependent on the motor vehicle industry. The federal spending helped keep the economy afloat. Eisenhower's fears of "another Depression setting in after the Korean War" were allayed, a US Transportation Department official reported. A congressional architect of the highway program, John Blatnik of Minnesota, observed that "It put a nice solid floor across the whole economy in times of recession." These government programs supplemented the huge subsidy to high technology industry through the military system, which provided the primary stimulus and support needed to sustain the moribund system of private enterprise that had collapsed in the 1930s.

    'The general impact on culture and society was immense, apart from the economy itself. Democratic decision-making played little role in this massive project of redesigning the contemporary world, and only in marginal respects was it a reflection of consumer choice. Consumers made choices no doubt, as voters do, within a narrowly determined framework of options designed by those who own the society and manage it with their own interests in mind. The real world bears little resemblance to the dreamy fantasies now fashionable about History converging to an ideal of liberal democracy that is the ultimate realization of Freedom.'

    with good wishes

    Aaron Thomas

  5. Dear Eric and Michael,

    I thought many times yesterday to clarify why your points about barriers are very valuable to me indeed: my thinking about transport involves much hope and optimism for making changes at the municipal levels, if and when national transport policies are pro-overconsumption/atomisation/car/etc. So it was both a welcome insight and a shock to read the list of 10 barriers even at the local level and the elaboration of it.

    Aaron Thomas


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