US needs a mobility moonshot

Urban transit, transportation tech are key

Fourth in a series

THERE WAS A BRIEF PERIOD, in muscular, post-war, auto-centric America, when the Democratic nominee for president would officially commence the general election campaign with a large rally in Detroit’s Cadillac Square on Labor Day weekend.  In 1960, as recounted by presidential campaign chronicler Theodore White, the “union men of Detroit’s assembly lines mass[ed] in thousands” to hear John F. Kennedy make the case that he, and not Richard Nixon, was the right choice to lead the nation to a New Frontier.

Detroit in 2016 is a shadow of what it was in 1960. Cities at mid-twentieth century did not respond to the values and aspirations of many Americans who turned away from them in droves, attracted by an idealized suburban life that, ironically, Detroit’s principal industry helped facilitate. In 1960 Detroit’s population was already declining from its peak of 1.8 million inhabitants in 1950, a decline that would continue unabated to the present day. About 670,000 people call Detroit home today.  That decline can be attributed to many factors, but it represents fundamentally a failure of federal, state, and local government, and a failure of the private sector that benefitted so much because of the hard work of the men and women of that city, to intervene in a meaningful way to prevent the gradual, systemic dismantling and decline of what was once a great urban center.

I have written before about the importance of reinvention and renewal to the long-term success of cities.  Cities cannot stagnate or run in place.  To remain vital and viable they must move with the times, while finding that sweet spot where historic legibility coexists with a sensitive reimagining of the public realm.  Paris is an example of a great city that has done this, through the virtual rebuilding of the city center by Baron Haussmann in the 19th Century, the construction of the imaginative La Defense business and cultural district in the last century, and this century’s focus on a more pedestrian and cycling oriented urban core.  Boston has had its own moments of renewal: filling in the Back Bay and, more recently, building the Rose Kennedy Greenway as part of the Central Artery Tunnel project.

Americans have long understood the importance of building economically robust urban centers and infrastructure projects to support and connect them.  In the early 19th Century, national leaders such as Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams promoted a variety of tariff and internal improvement programs collectively known as the American System.  The American System was a response to the dire conditions that the young nation faced, as told by Henry Adams in his landmark history of the Jefferson administration, a nation where “even the lightly equipped traveler found a short journey no slight effort,” where “four miles an hour was the average speed for any coach between Bangor and Baltimore.”  South of Baltimore, the situation was considerably worse: in the South, “the difficulties and perils of travel were so great as to form a barrier almost insuperable.”

In his inaugural address, John Quincy Adams spoke of internal improvements as “transcendently important,” and he advanced the American System despite Congressional pushback on its authority to appropriate federal money for national infrastructure improvements.  The argument over federal and state rights and powers, particularly the federal power to tax and pay for local improvements of national importance, was as robust in 1824 as it remains in some quarters today.  But the views held by Adams and Clay ultimately prevailed, and improvement came. A trip from Boston to Philadelphia by the only means available – a shared stagecoach – took Henry Adams’s great-grandfather John 15 arduous days in 1775.  Fifty years later, improved roadways reduced that trip to five days.  By the time John Quincy Adams died in 1848, the same trip could be made largely by rail and took under two days.

Two presidents stand out for demonstrating the importance of building a strong national mobility infrastructure. President Abraham Lincoln understood that the nation could not stand still even while in the middle of the Civil War.  He signed the Pacific Railroad Act into law in 1862, and commencement of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad began the following year.  It was completed in 1869, a true marvel and a testament to the confidence and commitment of both the public and private sectors at a time of unprecedented national crisis. By the time President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a special message to Congress in 1955, seeking its support for what would become the Interstate Highway system, most Americans welcomed a strong federal role in improving national mobility. In a nation that had made a fateful cultural decision to move away from cities and toward a more suburban lifestyle, a connected system of superhighways, funded in large part by the federal government, seemed the right, indeed the only, answer.

We now know how quickly this well-intentioned idea went sour.  The legacy of decades of federal and state investment in highways at the virtual exclusion of public transportation has painted our nation into a mobility corner.  Our urban centers, many of which are experiencing rapid growth, are constrained by transit systems that groan under the burden of decades of disinvestment and neglect.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton appear to share the view that a significant new round of investment in our transportation infrastructure is due.  Both candidates have discussed supporting something such as an infrastructure bank that would become a way to generate new revenue for mobility projects. This is welcome news, but only if the next president appoints and empowers creative people with 21st Century mindsets.  The last thing we need is a repeat of the 2009 federal stimulus program, with its ill-advised and uninformed focus on “shovel-ready” projects.  “Shovel ready” almost never applies to a transit project.  Thus the stimulus program’s driving force (which a few state officials, myself included, tried mightily to redirect) placed disproportionate funding emphasis on highway projects, many of which were sitting on a shelf not for lack of funding but because they were not really priorities.

Can the next president (and the next Congress) think boldly and outside the box when it comes to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure?  Our economy depends on our ability not simply to move people safely from origin to destination, but to do so in ways that respond to our times and our values.  That means a sustainable mobility system that is more carbon friendly and more transit-oriented than ever before in our modern history. It will require bold thinking, and we’ve had leaders who we can look to as role models. It was bold for Lincoln to build the transcontinental railroad in the middle of the nation’s bloodiest war, just as it was creative for Eisenhower to imagine a network of superhighways connecting every city, state, and region in this vast nation.

At risk of using an already over-used phrase, what this nation needs in 2017 is the equivalent of a mobility moonshot – funding that supports transformative ways of thinking about mobility. While the scale and diversity of the nation makes it impossible to fashion a one-size-fits-all transportation policy, the next administration ought to make urban transit, and transportation technology, two priority areas of investment.  Increased federal support for initiatives such as Bus Rapid Transit, funding for technology to introduce smart intersections across the nation (utilizing traffic signal prioritization systems that will improve mobility and public safety), and investments in strategic transit expansions directed toward encouraging modal shift – these are the kinds of initiatives that are vitally necessary to the futures of many cities.

Meet the Author

If the next president and Congress fail to act boldly and creatively, and revert instead to the same old approaches to transportation and its associated infrastructure, or if either Clinton or Trump embrace yet another one-off stimulus program, it might mean we will have lost the first half of the 21st Century to old think.  That is not the legacy either candidate should be seeking.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.

For the previous articles in this series, click here, here, and here for articles one, two, and three.