The idea of one seamless transportation system has existed for many years. Currently we have strong transportation modes, but one seamless transportation system is lacking. Over the past 100 years we have become a nation that is car-centric, and our system of roads, highways and interstate allow us largely to travel where we want, when we want. I count myself among the many that are car-centric. In spite of the negative impacts of this surface transportation system, it has driven our economy to be the strongest in the world. However, if we want to connect various modes—public transportation, airports, trains, marine and inland water navigation etc.—we are frequently left to our own devices in getting where we want, when we want. This can be inefficient, ineffective and frustrating. As an example, in many areas of the country public transportation does not connect to airports, train stations or water navigation. While several urban areas have developed these connections, there is still a long way to go.
Although infrastructure will continue to be important to add value by connecting these “edges”, digital technology can act as a valuable force-multiplier in bringing a multimodal system to an emerging intermodal system and finally to one seamless system. The value of connecting these edges adds enormously to our economy and quality of life. In many ways these “edges” reflect the richness and value at intersecting biomes, a fact known by ecologists for many years. The freight industry has long recognized that their business relies on one connected freight system. Otherwise, products would be delayed, not delivered and at times products would rot. A national freight program has emerged in recent years, bearing testimony to its importance. While there are still needed improvements in the freight system, the efficient movement of people has lagged. This is an opportunity to be seized.
Strategic planning to achieve one seamless transportation system is a collaborative affair with inclusive interests. There is no entity, to my knowledge, that is not dependent on some form of transportation. Our economy and quality of life depend on a safe and reliable transportation system. In fact, the history of human colonization, societies and economies on planet Earth could be told in the context of transportation with all of its components.
These are exciting and challenging times in transportation, with perhaps more changes in the next 10 years than in the previous 60, or even the previous 100. In spite of the challenges, including to find a replacement for the fuel tax, mobility is the imperative, not infrastructure, vehicles, digital technology or other elements alone. It is about convenience, quality and affordability, using transportation to improve lives. Thus, we are at a watershed moment in time that requires that we change the way we think and act to build one seamless “transportation ecosystem” that will save lives, save costs, reduce congestion, reduce pollution and mitigate climate change, create jobs, grow the economy and increase customer service and satisfaction.
The industry has been slowly moving in this direction for some time but has failed to realize any significant improvement in developing one seamless system. In a previous blog (The Future of Transportation…September 2015) I reviewed the history leading to the start of the interstate highway system. The general concept for an interstate highway system was created during the World War I era as a means for defense and to spur economic growth—the Pershing Map, named for General John J. Pershing. The concept for an interstate highway system was further advanced based on the experience of Dwight D. Eisenhower shortly after World War I where a transcontinental road trip took weeks, and then during World War II as he recognized the efficiency and speed of the German Autobahn. During the intervening 30 years there was general consensus as to what the interstate highway system should look like but there was no agreement as to how it should be paid for. The States did not sit idle then, as they are not now. Oregon invented the fuel tax in 1919 and within 10 years every state had adopted a fuel tax to build the infrastructure (roads) to primarily “get out of the mud”. States, including Kansas, Oklahoma and others, also built toll roads, just as the states and locals had built toll bridges for many years before, to increase connectivity and spur economic development. Finally, agreement was reached to adopt a federal fuel tax and fund the construction (not maintenance) of the interstate system through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. The evidence is overwhelming that the interstate highway system, and transportation in general, has improved our economy and quality of life.
The question now is will it take another 30 plus years to decide what our future transportation system should be and how to pay for it? This does not even include the needs of other forms of infrastructure for water, waste water, power etc. that our society has become dependent on.
Once again, I believe the evidence is clear that states are leading the way in further developing transportation and how to fund it. However, this time there are two other events driving this:
- Rapidly evolving digital technology and
- Increasing demand for collaboration, especially with the private sector
Technology, especially digital technology, is evolving at breath-taking speed. As such, the public sector is not well suited to rapidly adjust to these changes in technology. The private sector is much better suited and again, I believe, there is evidence that the private sector will drive much of the transportation future. We are already witnessing this with Lyft, UBER, autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, intelligent infrastructure, continuing to evolve intelligent transportation systems, drones, automated machine control, positive train control, just-in-time delivery services, Internet shopping and delivery, “big data” and resulting useful information, and other changes across all modes of transportation. Many of these technologies and businesses did not even exist a few years ago. This does not even contemplate other rapidly evolving technologies impacted by nanotechnology and other advances in materials.
Our societal values have also evolved. For example, we are much more aware of the risks to life and the economy from driving. Thus a safe transportation system is valued more highly than in the past. We recognize the impact that the built environment can have on our natural environment and the attention to maintaining and improving the natural environment has dramatically increased, largely since the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970. Other aspects such as societal justice has evolved. In reality there is no single solution to the way our society evolves, it is more a matter of weighing informed choices in decision-making. This has resulted in a relatively new field—sustainability—which “balances” our society, environment and economic interests.
The number of licensed drivers and privately owned vehicles is declining. Our society is aging as “baby boomers” move into “retirement” age, an indication of changing demographics. While oil is currently in abundance, it is not a renewable resource and the use of alternative fuels and more efficient vehicles continues to evolve. Debt is increasing, whether our national debt or the result of student loans. Wages are static. These only begin to portend some of the changes in our world, with little deference to the changing international landscape.
So, it is important, if not essential, to be as inclusive as possible when doing strategic planning. While strategic planning is more precise for the relative near-term, the long-term is much less clear. Perhaps the best we can do is to develop and be mindful of a “cone of possibilities” which so-called futurists propose. How many years a plan should be forward looking is open to discussion. However, strategic planning could be easily constructed along time horizons of a few years and up to 50 or more, realizing that longer time frames will be less certain with a point of diminishing returns. In my opinion, these strategic plans should be updated perhaps every five years based on how rapidly our world is changing.
While the visioning of a strategic plan is important, it is also important to identify next steps with specific and measurable performance measures and who is responsible for actions.
Since our economy and quality of life will be impacted by what we do, all citizenry interests must be represented to include pedestrians, bicyclist, motorcyclists, automobile drivers, truckers, rail roads, aviation, digital technology interests, ride sharing/taxi cab providers, public transportation, government, emergency responders (including fire departments and police), utilities, schools and academia, consultants, contractors, economists and economic developers, environmental interests, business owners, marine and inland water shippers, ports and others. While participation by these various interests cannot be guaranteed, outreach is necessary to solicit as much participation as possible. This must be balanced to avoid being “frozen” into inaction. The goal is for general consensus, knowing that complete agreement is rarely, if ever, obtained.
With these efforts, it is hoped that our societal buy-in for transportation strategic plans at the federal, regional, state and locals will advance our progress in developing one seamless system, using transportation to improve lives.
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