A La Mode

We need to look at economic and life-style questions when we decide on our next investments in infrastructure.
by | October 1, 2007
 

A friend of mine who is smart about such things says it's good to remember that Black & Decker isn't in the business of selling drills. It's in the business of selling holes. In other words, whether you're in business or in government, you're supposed to be producing solutions, not a specific product or path.

We are prone to committing a similar mistake in transportation. We forget that we are not in the highway, train or airports business. Our job is to move things and people for useful purposes. The method or "mode" chosen depends on what we're trying to accomplish.

The word "mode" is bandied about a lot in transportation circles, such as in "multi-modal hubs" or "mode of transport." It's a fancy word for a simple thing, basically the method or manner that we travel somewhere.

Most of us get very tied to our "modes." Transportation debates often end up as partisan food fights, with lovers of particular means of getting around hurling insults and accusations at each other in the form of selected statistics. Underlying it all is a relentless pursuit of government money. Theoretically though, we're all on the same side. We're all in the transportation business.

Late last year, Great Britain's department of transportation released the voluminous "Eddington Transport Study." It was a comprehensive evaluation of the country's transportation needs and priorities. The study was led by Sir Rod Eddington, a recently knighted Australian who was once the head of British Airways. The four-volume report, which is available online at http://www.dft.gov.uk/about/strategy/eddingtonstudy/, is one of those efforts that only Great Britain seems to attempt.

The study attempts to address many questions about transportation policy, most too detailed to get into here. But the general way the Brits approach the topic is worth mentioning. Rather than dividing the report into, say, air, road, water and train travel, and then addressing what is right or wrong with each sector, they start the report with specific problems to be solved, and only then look at what particular mode or modes of travel would accomplish that.

"Different modes will be best placed to achieve different economic, social and environmental goals in different circumstances," says the report in one typical passage. "Choice of mode should therefore be a second-order issue centred on the selection of the best solution and not a predetermined policy decision."

In other words, the study attempts to be "mode neutral" or "modally agnostic," to use a wonderful phrase from a new Brookings Institution report that cites the Eddington Study. "Transportation policy and program governance currently favors particular modes but is indifferent to substantive outcomes," says the Brookings report, "A Blueprint for American Prosperity." "We propose the reverse: a single minded focus on achieving the declared national priorities and indifference to the modal means of achieving them."

Transportation can serve many purposes. In the Eddington study, the central questions the authors are attempting to answer are: How can we grow our economy, and what part can improving or overhauling our transportation system play in that.

That's a good question. Transportation, particularly in improving links between major metropolitan regions nationally and internationally, can play a key role in improving the base for business growth.

But it's not the only question. We can also ask: how can transportation decisions enhance our quality of life, improve our environment or build up our fairness and equity as a society?

Different questions will produce different types of transportation investments. If we ask 'how can we have more compact, less sprawling communities," we might see a need for greater investment in streetcars and inter-city train service. If we ask, how can we have more pleasant and healthier communities, we might want to invest in bike paths and sidewalks. If we ask, how can we improve freight delivery, we might want to put our money in dedicated truckways and harbor dredging. If we ask, how can we have more conventional suburban development (and some people indeed might want that), we would invest in more arterials and expressway-style ring roads out beyond the growth edge.

The point is to tie transportation spending, whether by local, state or federal government, to an actual problem to be solved or thing to be improved. We shouldn't be indiscriminately building stuff for the sake of adding to our infrastructure.

I'm not aware of any government anywhere pursuing a pure modally agnostic form of transportation policy. But local and state governments and transportation professionals are beginning to at least consider the idea. It means moving beyond solving the latest traffic jam, which is a pretty limited purpose, and looking at transportation's larger effects.

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