National Journal Panel: Has Mass Transit Finally Arrived? Part II

I have been getting some pretty rough treatment from some of my most distinguished transportation colleagues concerning my earlier contribution to this panel under the heading of “Has mass transit finally arrived?” (22 December, see http:// I have no doubt I deserved it, but let me see if I can respond here to their three main challenges.

• The first is that they assure me that my harsh words about the role of “mass transit” will serve to work against the important interests of improving public transportation at a time when it truly is a priority for public policy.

• The second is that I appear to be pushing the service concepts behind the new mobility agenda as a substitute for public transportation as generally practiced and understood.

• Third and last, they charge me with being unnecessarily contentious in my statements, and thereby running the risk of alienating many people and interests who after all should be part of the solution.

Let me comment briefly on each of these in order as part of the ongoing dialogue here:

1. The role of traditional mass (heavy) transit

Yes there is a role, an absolutely critical role for public transportation. Of course there is. But for transit to be fully effective this is going to take a lot of hard thinking and a pretty massive overhaul right down to its foundations.

My comments and recommendations here and in all my work are based on a common underpinning: namely that there is a relatively single central argument and focus behind all this. And that is my sincere belief that the primary goal of public policy in the sector over the coming four years has to achieve very sharp traffic (VMT) reductions across the map and those as fast as possible.

What we have to understand is that this is the only policy that will allow us to move from what we have today to a more responsible, sustainable, and effective transportation system. Sharp, rapid VMT reductions has to be the central acid test of public policy across the sector.

As you can well imagine this is going to prove very uncomfortable for many of the traditional transportation interests, which often are based on encouraging and supporting investments which in fact underwrite and expand vehicle movements as their basic underlying priority. This is the way in which we oriented public policy over the last century, and while it worked wonders in many cases, we are now very much aware of the limitations of this approach.

So what I’m saying is that if your favorite project or investment is going to lead to more vehicle traffic, then the responsible policy maker has to have a very hard look at it indeed. Some people, some interests are going to find this very uncomfortable, but what I can say is that there can be no wise transportation policy in which all of the traditional players find themselves equally comfortable. Comfort for all is not what responsible governance is all about.

This acid test leaves a very important role for public transportation in all its variants, though it also implies that if they are to be able to respond to the full challenge then the people responsible for them are going to have to be far more innovative and entrepreneurial in the future than they have been in the past. Pouring more taxpayer dollars into outmoded organizational structures and services is not going to give us the results we so badly need.

Again, the position is that where you have the good luck of having a mass transit system already in place, the challenge is not only to improve it in terms of its economic and operational efficiency per se, but also that you start to see it and integrated as part of a much broader range of mobility services. A variant if you will of the “no man is an island ” theme.

2. The role of new mobility services

My main point here wasn’t his that for most Americans today there is a no-choice situation when it comes to how they can get around in their daily lives. It’s a car or nothing. But this poverty of choice is not worthy of our great country and our great democracy, democracy being incidentally all about choices. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

The core of what some call “new mobility” is precisely one of choice. Americans should be able to choose from a variety of transportation arrangements and not be prisoners of the present car-or-nothing situation. Enhanced public transportation is going to have a critical role in the new multilevel mobility system, but there are many other proven ways of organizing mobility which can be developed and integrated into a multimodal transportation menu of many parts.

The common ingredients in the cookhouse of the new mobility agenda include innovation, entrepreneurship, participation, performance standards, and smart use of technology. And every city, every community, will draw on and put these ingredients together in its own way. Again, making their own choices.

It is often argued that when we start talking about things like demand management, restructured street access, BRT, fast-track LRT, carpooling, carsharing, cycling, public bicycle systems, shared taxis, improved support for safe walking, tele-solutions, integrated access systems, land use changes, and the like, that none of these are going to solve all our transportation problems by themselves. Correct! They are not in themselves “solutions”; rather they are parts of the solution, parts of the much broader package of services and choices which we are now in a position to make available to Americans in cities, towns and rural areas across the country.

The goal of public policy should be to support the diffusion of the best of these ideas and practices.

3. A contest of ideas

My reading of this panel is that it’s true usefulness to the incoming Obama team will not be as a collection of pre-set announcements of positions and recommendations even if they come from the quite wide range of interests and groups concerned . Of course it’s important to hear all the voices as part of the process of understanding the full range of issues that need to be grappled with. But rather as I see it, we have come together here under the common roof provided by our friends at the National Journal in order to put our heads together to see if we can come up with something that is more than the sum of the parts.

To get to this we need to engage a dialogue among all these interests and encourage vigorous debate. A real contest of ideas.

As I see it this is not a politically correct beauty contest from which all of the participants will go back home with identical first prize ribbons and an equal place in the public policy of the new administration. That might be comfortable but it’s my reading of the urgency situations that we currently are facing in this and other sectors that we need to make choices and in the process create a new and far more powerful and creative agenda for transportation in America.

I think that the issues and the outcomes are important enough for each of us to say what we really think. The best ideas will surely rise to the top.

So let’s keep going.

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