The major elements of America’s transportation infrastructure and policy frameworks are six decades old (or older in the case rail). We haven’t even kept up with the maintenance since then. In addition to taking care of what we have, we need to adapt to the changes in technology, culture and the economy that have occurred. Our policies haven’t been keeping up.
In Move, Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter explores how we got here and how we can move forward. We got here by adopting a defense-oriented policy that emphasized cars (especially interstate highways) and air travel, largely ignoring rail, public transit and intermodal development.
The path forward has several elements. First is a focus on mobility. Transportation infrastructure is a technical, bureaucratic realm of deep silos. Mobility changes the focus to moving people and products around communities and the nation in whatever ways make sense. Physical mobility and economic mobility are tied, and if we want to strengthen our economic leadership on the world stage, we need to break down internal policy barriers to advancing the way people move.
That means developing a national strategy. Of course, a rigid approach won’t work because we have varied nation. However, national priorities and frameworks can make room for regional priorities, adaption and leadership.
Money is always in issue. There are potentials in public-private partnership (PPP), and that can be arranged in many ways. America has a world-leading freight rail system that has very limited public investment. Airports are generally owned by governments, and attempts to privatize them have meet a cool response from possible investors. However, there are examples of successful PPPs in which there is something for everybody.
I already mentioned that technology has come a long way in the past several decades, especially in the realm of communication and data analysis. Some transportation industries, such as airlines, are taking advantage of the opportunities in new technology, while other are lagging. There are many ways our transportation system can be smarter, and we need sensible ways of incorporating technology in ways that are safe without losing out on the benefits through unnecessary delays.
This requires leadership and vision, especially in government. Politicians are often motivated by short-term wins, but mobility is a long-term investment. We need leaders who can see passed the next election and the boundaries of party.
Finally, citizen engagement is important. Plans can quickly fail if the people who are going to use, pay for and otherwise feel the ultimate effects of new transportation policies and infrastructure are not informed, involved and empowered to take action that works for them.
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