We live in a global economy, driven by multimodal transportation across the earths surface—land, air, and water.

This writer has tried to separate into shorter sections the social, economic, and environmental issues but found separating them was artificial and not real, losing or subordinating the inter-connectivity in the process. While disciplines are important and reasonable to separate out for “deeper dives,” separating them into categories defeats the purpose of a holistic or systems view. Thus, these issues are addressed as they appear—one ecosystem, or mobility ecosystem in this case, with related parts—in at least an attempt to reflect a systems view. Segueing from Part 9, it is also worth noting that without a functioning democracy we have nothing, including meaningful progress in the transportation and mobility space and all of the issues tied to it.

While the current Covid-19 Pandemic was not caused by our global transportation system that drives our global economy, there is no question that the pandemic’s rapid spread was a result. Similarly, the “cure” will be more rapid because of this same transportation system.

The pandemic has lost some of its acceleration as counter measures and vaccinations have taken place although there is concern over variants and a race for booster vaccinations occurs, similar to annual flu vaccinations. Still, more than 30 million Americans, or one in every 12, have been diagnosed positive for COVID-19 with over 550,000 deaths in the U. S. and nearly 3 million deaths globally, as of this writing. The expectation is that the total U. S. deaths will exceed 600,000 deaths by the end of 2021, before the pandemic is “under control” in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, estimates the actual number of Covid-19 infections may exceed 83 million in the U. S alone (CDC, 2021). Worldwide there are currently nearly 140 million recorded cases. (Wu and Chiwaya, 2020; Worldometer, 2021; Baker, 2021).

The year 2020 was the worst year for economic growth since World War II (Siegel, et al, 2021). Moreover, there was no “playbook” of how to respond economically as we continue to try and understand and plan for the future (White, 2021; Ross, 2021; Achenbach et al, 2021).  It has changed everything in our lives—how we work, how we shop, how we socialize, how we commute, how we travel, education, business, entertainment, the environment, the economy (Vasel, 2021; Reese, 2021; Lobosco, 2021; Stern, et al, 2021; Watson, 2021;  Dickler, 2021; Hughes, 2021; Wikipedia, 2021; Wikipedia, 2021; Parker, 2020; Spear et al, 2020; Pesek, 2021; Burns and John, 2020; Reuters, 2021; Bauer, et al, 2020; Patton, 2020; McKinsey & Company, 2021; Craven, et al, 2021; Entrepreneur, 2021; Davidson, 2021). The Pandemic persists even as vaccinations progress; new variants emerge; some states set aside recommended CDC measures, and a potential 4th surge emerges (Khemlani, 2021; Dearman, 2021; Rodriguez, 2021; Guenot, 2021; Dilven, 2021; Diedrich, et al, 2021; Murray, 2021). This is also changing how we think about cities, remodeling them in ways that could make urban life, and rural life, more attractive and sustainable (Goldsmith, 2021). More specifically, state department of transportation leaders recently discussed the impacts of Covid-19 on transportation (AASHTO, 2021). The “15-minute city” concept is emerging around the world—dwellers should have everything they need (work, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, shops, schools, healthcare, leisure) within a 15-minute trip, on foot or bike, from home (The 15-Minute City Project, 2020; Moreno, n.d.; Sisson, 2020; Harley, 2021). To be fair, there are also concerns about the 15-minute city with potential to increase inequality (O’Sullivan, 2021). Lockdowns gave working from home proof of concept, challenging the notion that cities need to be divided into separate areas for working and living. Many city dwellers experienced life with fewer cars and more bikes on streets and those cities will have to decide whether to make these “healthy streets” permanent (Whittle, 2020). A new smart city work philosophy concept is emerging for companies—smaller workspaces to meet all over the city, closer to people’s homes. The traditional idea of a city, one where smaller communities form around one central hub, is changing. Future cities may become vast urban areas made up of several smaller communities, each with their own center.

There is also the issue of communities holding onto some of the good things that have occurred during the pandemic (Descant, 2021). Besides the Herculean effort to develop and deploy vaccines, there are many other efforts that have been generated in these dark times. In another Herculean effort, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers led the conversion of  hotels and other buildings into needed COVID-19 hospitals. They also created an intelligent HVAC system that will likely find many uses in indoor spaces, and perhaps the transportation space as well (Carter, 2021).

None of this discounts the attractiveness of living and working in rural communities because there is much to like in these wide-open, needed spaces, that produce much of the food and other products we consume. Access is through mobility in all its forms. While agriculture is main stem in rural areas, the beauty of wild spaces has an important part in the United States, the world, our psyche, mental health, health of our planet and the life that it supports (Williams, 2017; Louv, 2011).

Even as we deal with this pandemic and its impacts to our lives and economy, there is need to learn lessons and prepare for the next pandemic, including in the transportation/mobility space (Wall, 2021).

The pandemic has caused us to rethink the ways we work. Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, predicts companies will much more begin to question taking a trip “just to discuss things,” reducing business trips by more than 50 percent. Home offices have grown exponentially, turning business meetings into video calls. This way of work is likely here to stay, reducing “office life” by more than 30 percent. (Entrepreneur, 2020).

As mobility emerges as a human right, equity, social and racial justice, equality, environmental justice, and mobility for the under served, disabled, minorities, communities of color, and poor are part of the core mission for transportation agencies. Moreover, as technology evolves and holds promise for improving lives, the digital divide must be closed and made accessible and affordable to all. This is an opportunity and will require strong strategic partnerships with private sector partners such as IBM, Apple, Google, Verizon, GE, and others. These necessary public-private partnerships might include joint committees, agreements versus contracts, and collaboration with other partners and stakeholders. Transportation agencies also would be well served by having offices or positions for experts in these areas and are well integrated into planning, design, construction, operations, and maintenance activities and collaborate with other partners, interests, and departments as appropriate. Updating the American Disability Act and related laws and rules must also occur.

The February 2020 ITE Journal is dedicated to exploring equity, what it means for transportation, strategies, how to put equity at the center of our work, micromobility to reach the under served, and how to make transportation systems better for all. This is a valuable resource for transportation professionals (ITE, 2020). There is evidence that transportation and mobility can help defeat poverty (Korman, 2021). There are also emerging tools and experience for measuring and advancing equity and social values (Fujiwara and Dass, 2020; Alexander et al, 2020; Citizens Utility Board, 2018).

Dorval R. Carter, Jr., President of the Chicago Transit Authority, received the 2021 Thomas B. Deen Distinguished Lectureship from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine Transportation Research Board (TRB). Mr. Carter was recognized for his leadership in the transit industry and legal community, and for spearheading significant advances in public transportation. His presentation, “Our Work is Never Done: Examining Equity Impacts in Public Transportation”, provides an excellent narrative for where equity has been and where it is going. His presentation, given as part of the TRB’s 2021 Annual Meeting on January 25, 2021, can be viewed via YouTube at: https://youtu.be/IBMgn5Ivm3c.

Environmental justice, similar to mobility, is emerging as a human right as it should. Its premise is essentially that all people deserve to live in a clean and safe environment free from industrial waste and pollution that can adversely affect their well-being. Those involved in creating and maintaining the mobility space must take responsibility for insuring this space is accessible, affordable, and with a clean and safe environment for all, including the under -served, minorities, communities of color,  poor, and dispossessed. In addition to strong environmental offices and positions, environmental laws and rules must be updated. The impacts of greenhouse gases can have impacts far from their source (TRB, 2021).

In 2020 during the pandemic, the U. S. saw a 10.3 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, the lowest drop in annual emissions since World War II. See Figure 11. (Larsen, et al, 2021). This was a result of an estimated reduction of 15 percent vehicle miles traveled (VMT) compared to 2019 and a 13-40 percent reduction in demand for primarily passenger vehicles and as much as 18 percent reduction in diesel in April and May. This also resulted in delays of many projects as transportation department revenues from fuel taxes cratered.

FIGURE 11. US Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by emitting sector in million metric tons CO2. Source ClimateDeck, Rhodium.

While this allows the U. S. to exceed the 2020 Copenhagen Accord target reduction of a 17 percent below 2005 levels, this should not be considered a permanent change in meeting the 2025 Paris Agreement target of 26-28 percent reduction from 2005 levels. In addition, the 2020 reduction has come at an enormous price to the economy and human suffering. Serious work to make meaningful structural changes must continue to improve environmental health and limit global warming.

Over the past year, the world has been fixated on the pandemic and its effects on our lives, and for good reason. But an even bigger threat could change the way we live in a less rapid but more permanent way—the climate crisis—an existential and intergenerational quality of life threat. The threats range from the profound to the more subtle (Guterres, 2018; Xu, et al, 2020; Roston and Wade, 2021; Deutsche Welle, 2021; Cassella, 2021). Transportation agencies are some of the largest land owners in the world with responsibility for the land, air, and water. As such, they play a significant role in fighting climate change.

Global warming has already forced an estimated 20 million people to flee their homes every year (Oxfam, 2019; Ropeik, 2021; Newburger, 2021; NOAA, 2021). Rising temperatures combined with population growth means three billion people — one third of the projected global population — could be living in “unlivable” conditions by 2070 (Fleming, 2020). The inevitable result will be mass migration to “climate havens,” or cities sheltered from extreme weather with the capacity to grow (McDonnell and Shendruk, 2020). Preparing for this future can no longer be put off, and heads of state, members of the scientific community, the private sector, NGOs and youth groups will meet to discuss the issue at the world’s first Climate Adaptation Summit in January 2021. As cities around the globe develop climate action plans (C40 Climate Leadership Group, 2020), expect to see more zero-carbon housing projects (C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Nordic Sustainability, 2019) and green belts replacing asphalt (Totaro, 2020). “The questions we should be asking is how to protect the most vulnerable residents,” says Greg Lindsay, Director of Applied Research at the nonprofit NewCities Foundation. “How to develop new carrot-and-stick approaches to steer people away from the highest-risk areas.” (Lindsay, 2020).

Florida is ground zero for sea level rise and the costs are rapidly escalating into the multiple billions of dollars. Miami is raising their roads two feet and others are preparing to abandon, roads, bridges, and homes (Mitchelides, 2016; Harris, 2019; The Weekly Staff, 2020; Carroll, 2021; Sea Level Rise.org, n.d.). Rising sea levels are threatening Route 1 through the Florida Keys. The costs of raising the roads will amount to $500,000 per resident according to an a narrative without reference (Latanision, 2020). Regardless, published reports state some roads would cost $25 million per mile to adjust for sea level rise (Brackett, 2019). Using that cost and that US1 is 113 miles long over the Florida Keys with an estimated population of 73,000, the cost would be about $40,000 per person. Regardless of which is more reliable, these costs will likely continue to grow and ignore other impacts such as abandoned homes and businesses, property being flooded and below sea level, and ultimately a cost the State of Florida cannot afford.

Florida is not the only location at risk due to the rise in sea level. New Orleans is a case in point where it has been below sea level for many years—protected by sea walls and gigantic U. S. Army Corps of Engineers pumps (Twillie, 2018; Prior, 2019; Dunn, 2020; Laskow, 2017). Add to this that by 2050 70 percent of the world’s population is estimated to live in large cities, and these cities are sinking, literally, under their own weight (Parsons, 2021; Koop, 2021; Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2018). The cumulative effects of storms, land subsidence, and urban cities subsidence could have dramatic impacts on life and the way we live, including transportation and mobility since they are never mutually exclusive from the built-natural environment. Soils have elastic and plastic properties. There is a propensity for cities to expand development through building new land with fill material, on wet soils, or adjacent to water bodies. Thus, it is relatively easy for these saturated soils to be prone to liquefaction, especially in seismically active areas. This is made worse by infrastructure, including roads and bridges, not being seismically designed or retrofitted (Chalmers, 2018; Oregon.gov, 2013). This writer is reminded of the many studies on the risks and catastrophes of building on permafrost, helping to better understand the built-natural environments, including before construction of the Alaskan Oil Pipeline  (Péwé, 1979). Engineering has limitations and we frequently learn as we go, or hopefully.

Climate change has resulted in billions of dollars in flood damage (National Centers for Environmental Information, Feb 2021; National Centers for Environmental Information, Jul 2021; Kann, 2021). There is also the threat of land subsidence that may affect 19 percent of the world population by 2040 (Herrera-García, et al, 2021).

There are yet other issues that are likely to have negatives impacts. As many as 572 airports are also threatened by global warming and associated sea level rise by 2021 (Yesudian and Dawson, 2020). A record number of hurricanes, wildfires and floods cost the world $210 billion in damage in last year, much of it due to global warming. There were a record number of disasters during 2020 which occurred in the U.S. (NOAA, 2021).

This does not even mention the many negative impacts to a healthy environment (some of which were mentioned in earlier blogs of this series) that we depend on and continue to emerge (World Wildlife Fund, 2021; Rosane, 2021; World Wildlife Fund, Feb 2021). There are also many negative impacts to our environment, including from global warming, but some may not be attributed directly to climate change (Burt, et al, 2018; University of California – Santa Cruz, 2021; PEW, 2020; McPherson, et al, 2021). .

The recent winter infrastructure crisis in Texas is indicative of the importance and cost of infrastructure upon which society depends. In many cases, the repair, replacement, updating, contingency planning and preparation has been deferred, delayed, and perhaps overtly ignored for decades. This has been made worse by the impacts of climate change (e.g. changing weather patterns, warming/acidic oceans, etc.). Millions of people have gone without power, electricity, heat, water, waste water services, transportation and mobility for days, in some cases weeks. Fish and wildlife have also suffered. This is largely avoidable, if not substantially mitigated, by relying on science and proactive planning. This catastrophe has also impacted other states and communities. This human catastrophe is a failure of leadership. It is a virtual certainty that we will see more of these built-natural environment catastrophes in the United States and around the world. And, it is the most vulnerable, poorest and least able to cope that will suffer the most. (Gonzalez, 2021; Giusti, 2021; Meier, 2021; Fowler, 2021).

Defining carbon zero by 2050 targets, as well as roles and responsibilities, is yet another area that must be clarified and is critical to addressing the challenges of climate change in the United States and around the world (Buddoo, 2021; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, 2021; Global Carbon Project, 2015-2020).

The Internet of Things, or IoT, holds promise to mitigate and improve other climate changes in other ways such as biodiversity and habitat loss (McClellan, 2020). Ecological bridges, essentially bridges over roads or other man-made structures, serve to connect wildlife habitat, connect and sustain gene pools necessary for healthy ecosystems (Hui Min and Pazos, 2015; Machemer, 2020). Otherwise gene pools become fragmented, exacerbating the challenges of habitat and species loss due to climate change.

While this author was a researcher at the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station, the Corps adapted a Wetlands Evaluation Technique developed by Paul Adamus for the Federal Highways Administration (Adamus, 1983). The valuing of nature has continued to evolve to the present. More recently, Dow Chemical Company and The Nature Conservancy developed a technique called the Ecosystem Service Identification and Inventory Tool that is available publicly (www.esiitool.com). This technique quantifies ecosystem services using a nature screen and a nature scoreboard to develop the business case for using nature in lieu of or in conjunction with other man-made systems. Dow has committed to generating $2 billion of value to nature, having achieved $500 million thus far. This system continues to evolve as do the efforts of private and public organizations in creating a sustainable world. On the horizon are what have been termed “stacked benefits.” That is, bringing together many partners, from up stream and downstream, so to speak, to pool resources and funding toward a greater benefit to the natural and built environments. This is part of Dow’s commitment to identify $1 billion in net present value through their Valuing Nature Goal, and work processes developed to support the goal, as well as challenges and successes in driving culture change (Polzin and Molnar, n.d.; Engineering with Nature, 2021). 

Recently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) intends to funnel up to $10 billion into preventing climate disasters, the most ever, preemptively protect against damages by building sea walls, elevating and moving flood-prone homes and businesses, and other steps as climate change intensifies storms and other natural disasters—“Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities or BRIC”. While this is an important step, it is doubtful this will be enough given the costs that climate change will exact. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers National Nonstructural Committee (NNC) has had a relocation  program from flood plains and other areas prone to natural flooding and that has met with some success but resistance as well (National Nonstructural Committee). There is a continuing discussion of resilience (Campbell, 2021). There is the idea of “seasteading”, houses and other buildings built on floating platforms that would rise and fall with the tides and changing sea levels (Cusick, 2020). Although this can seem a bit far-fetched, the Dutch have been doing this for 400-500 years. As with many things in our society including transportation and mobility, lower income families and the dispossessed are disproportionally impacted (Cusick, 2020).

There are also landscape designs emerging to protect cities and property as flood plains of rivers are shrinking, much of it led by the Netherlands, and have relevance to transportation infrastructure (Mossop, 2021; Rijkswaterstaat, 2019). Research also indicates promise for measuring risks and optimal rerouting of traffic during flash floods, minimizing exposure to motorists (Corns, et al, 2021). A lot can be learned from biomimicry as well (Fairs, 2021).

During the devastating 1993 Mississippi River floods the St. Louis District Engineer stated that “you cannot control Mother Nature.” That was true then and is true now. We can, however, work with Mother Nature, perhaps more as native and indigenous peoples did as they had little choice but to live in harmony.

The climate crisis is an existential threat. Roadway traffic alone accounts for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. As such, there are many opportunities for transportation professionals to have a positive impact in reducing and mitigating the climate crisis and associated impacts to our transportation and mobility system (Gates, 2021; Adler, 2021). Some examples (Plummer, 2021):

  • Rethink transportation grants
  • Make states measure emissions
  • Mandate cleaner vehicles (go electric)
  • Lend a hand to public transit
  • Push congress for new laws

Still other areas hold promise (Schapker, 2021):

  • Surface transportation authorization
  • Highway Trust Fund solvency
  • Project delivery reforms
  • Innovative financing

Most recently, Buttigieg and his modal administrators spoke to the AASHT0 Board of Directors on February 25, 2021 and spoke to the pillars that will drive federal transportation policy:

  • Safety
  • Equity
  • Economic Development
  • Climate Change
  • Breaking down barriers within the U. S. Department of Transportation, between other federal departments, and with state and local agencies

He and his modal administrators also discussed a variety of initiatives and potential initiatives such as environmental justice, jobs, a partnership with auto manufacturers to alert drivers of on coming trains, user-friendliness/less bureaucracy with smaller communities, a dedicated rail trust fund, increasing bus lanes, sustainable funding, a coordinated government setup on climate change, and others. (Cho, 2021).

These are all critical issues for the transportation and mobility space. These and other critical issues have also been reported elsewhere (see most recent TRB critical issues in transportation report).

Still, our society operates in largely economic terms so we must speak in those terms (Milberg, 2021; Wachs, 2011; Cramer, 2018). One recent example is from Florida, of which the state legislature requires a report on the economic impact of transportation investments (Florida Department of Transportation, 2020). Similarly, the Oregon Transportation Investment Act III first priority required by the state legislature was economic stimulus. That was measured in various methodologies including jobs created or sustained (HDR, n.d.).

Tribal Nations as native Americans have a unique status in our country as dependent sovereignties and they have unique challenges. As such, the USDOT and BIA programs at the federal level are important and must be reviewed for reasons similar to reviewing and updating the funding and allocation that is needed for states and communities, urban and rural, and in a partnering framework. Similarly, this is true for territories as they are American citizens as well.

Eventually, transportation and mobility should be addressed holistically in social, economic, and environmental terms on a routine basis, whether in planning, needs assessments, establishing priorities, or other processes. It is the only way to achieve a sustainable and healthy built-natural environment.

Engaging people is critical to success and all means must be exhausted in the effort, virtual as well as physical. Sometimes the process of making a decision together as a community is more important than the decision made (Couros, 2021). This will require significant outreach, public meetings, education, listening, and a sense of humor yet sober seriousness. The United States and world are filled with good people who want to live good, happy, and safe lives. It is only by engaging and educating people and working together that we will achieve the future we all desire. One recent example by industry was announced December 10, 2020, a coalition of 37 leading company CEOs (www.OneTen.org) has formed One Ten to hire and promote one million Black Americans over the next ten years into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement. As a meritocracy, we must find ways to yoke the intellectual talent and diversity of all Americans regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation or other differences.

There are many, many examples where effectively engaging people has been critical to success, as it is a part of virtually any successful venture. One example, the Nebraska Department of Transportation led a statewide safety summit that over a period of a few years reduced roadway fatalities by 50 percent. More recently, the Kansas City area is engaging people for ideas to reduce roadway fatalities and injuries (Mid-America Regional Council, n.d.).

We have a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure (Buttigieg, 2021), and in a post-pandemic world (Cisneros and Fulton, 2021).

There is much to do and there are many ideas. We need them. Still we need a strategy to guide and align these efforts. Transportation agencies have much in common around the world and state departments of transportation have had a dominant presence in the United States—safety, traffic control, infrastructure planning, project development, design, construction, and maintenance. Because of the rapid move to digital technology, one of the more promising services is cloud technologies or computing and its inherent flexibility, agility, scalability. It offers economies of scale through large, centralized server banks and services that provide hardware, software, and applications through the Internet vice the expense of having them on site. The risks must be weighed, but there appears to be considerable upside, to include improved customer facing outcomes vice “back room” or organizational business processes.

Some of the leaders adopting these technologies include toll agencies who are continually seeking ways to improve customer outcomes which include not only the physical infrastructure and traffic speed but paying tolls as easily as possible. As the move toward a mileage-based system continues, especially given Tesla, VW, etc., and increasing pledges of 100% manufacture-only of electric vehicles by 2035 by Ford, GM, and others, transportation agencies may be operating a lot more like a utility in the near future. As such, the experience of toll agencies may allow them to take the lead. Certainly other transportation agencies can learn a lot as this future evolves. The potential for people and freight to move seamlessly, easily, and without cash, through one multimodal mobility ecosystem is possible, if not highly probable or a virtual certainty. (Wehrmann, 2021).

As the mobility ecosystem continues to change, it is in a unique position to be a substantial help in improving society, the economy, environment, and people’s lives.

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