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Move: Putting America’s infrastructure back in the lead

The following is excerpted from "Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead" by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Copyright 2015 by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Infrastructure that works for the 21st century could usher in a new transportation era for the nation and a renewed sense of national purpose, contributing to a bright future of shared prosperity. At least, that’s the hope. Consider all there is to be gained if we lift our sights beyond fixing potholes, decrepit bridges and broken rail track joints — all of which should be done — to reimagining how we move and the platforms we move on. We could empower pilots in the air, empower passengers on the ground and use technology to gain choices. We could enjoy people-centered cities and could have infrastructure for mobility that is technology enabled, safe and efficient, environmentally sustainable and opportunity focused.

Move rosabeth moss kanter book cover
For nearly six decades, America has neglected or underinvested in some critical aspects of transportation and infrastructure; fallen behind in international comparisons; generated some of the world’s best technology but lagged in applying it; ceded leadership in manufacturing for some transportation sectors; and let cities deteriorate and remain divided into rich or poor, often by race. The daily delays and longer-term delays in modernization jeopardize productivity and quality of life. America needs to move. Not simply for repair and renewal of aging systems but also for reinvention of transportation and infrastructure through exciting technology in the hands of every person, to help us all become more mobile, more easily and sustainably.

The result will be an America that works better for communities and businesses, creating millions of immediate jobs and opening numerous new business opportunities. It could enhance our stature in the world as we regain the lead and become the place everyone must visit to see how the future works. Even better yet is the human dividend in lives enriched. Infrastructure could be the Big Apple demonstration that America can solve big problems again; if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.

Sixty years ago, national defense goals shaped an infrastructure and transportation era whose legacy still defines American society. Today, we need a new national goal and rallying cry as compelling as the highways, the personal vehicles and a race to the moon. The 21st-century version could be a race for mobility. Its goal: to ensure that we are the most advanced nation in getting where we need to go safely, efficiently and cost-effectively, conveniently with access for all citizens, sustainably with reduced carbon and pollution, and best able to open new opportunities for jobs and development. And while we’re at it, we could reduce disparities by providing more people more access to those jobs and opportunities.

To get America moving toward building the national future we want with the infrastructure we need, we can focus on six arenas for action.

A new story: The mobility race

We need a new national narrative about where we are and where we can go. As I’ve found in working on change in other realms, sometimes the best way to create the future is to rewrite the story of the past. Infrastructure is something without ideology or party. Americans might disagree about how to pay for it or whether it should be handled nationally or locally, but for the most part it has no ideology or party. But it does have a history. It’s important to show the ways in which that history opened big opportunities for the economy and quality of life in the past and how that foundation can be built on.

This should be a story about mobility — how physical mobility shapes social mobility, how mobility is opportunity, how the haves benefit from access to mobility, how the have-nots are constrained by lack of it. We’re not just fixing infrastructure; we’re building communities and a nation. It’s all about mobility.

In any narrative, names matter. We should stop debating how to save the Highway Trust Fund. We should immediately rebrand it the Mobility Trust Fund and get new sources of funding for a renewed national initiative. The current trust already contains a small proportion of funding for public transit, so this, and any alternative federal funds, should broaden the name beyond the emphasis on highways. This name change would also make it possible to consider lines of funding for other forms of mobility and to find the synergies or links among them. And it would add an emphasis on technology. It might encourage links between the federal Department of Transportation and other departments. It could help the FAA and FCC — airlines and communications — develop joint strategies, given the vitally important role that information and communications technology will play in the future of infrastructure.

Every major issue facing American has a transportation infrastructure angle. A new narrative must always refer to these influences and effects. Every group and every policy should draw from the same narrative, even with variants for their own issue. The mobility sector affects safety and health — how long we live, how much we’re injured, how the air we breathe affects our health, how quickly first responders reach us in an emergency, how easily we can get to health care. It influences education — length of and accordability of travel for a good education, the learning consequences of wear and tear to get to school every day. For jobs and employment, the story is huge, in direct employment, indirect employment and economic spillovers from opportunities opened. Commercial impacts are numerous. Parking affects neighborhood businesses; delays or improvements at ports affects big businesses; employee commutes affect just about every business; and airlines and airports affect international trade opportunities, a big source of growth.

The new narrative should encompass the experiences of a single mother in Chicago who needs convenient public transit and the dealmaking CEO of General Electric who needs better smartphone coverage. We should stop talking about the issues in silos, industry by industry, one transportation mode at a time, public agencies separated from private enterprise. It’s all of a piece, all a connected (or less than optimally connected) system. Talking about it all together, in one story, makes it easier to remember that every national and regional conversation should include the complete range of actors and stakeholders. Not just a few people talking to others just like them, but the whole spectrum. That goes for the federal, state and local government too. All have departments of transportation, but the DOTs should be better connected. There should be liaisons of transportation to other agencies and a call for explicit collaborations — technology and innovation with road or airport planners, and more.

Education is vitally important to reach the potential for transportation, and that should be a central part of the story. It’s blindingly obvious that the workers of the future won’t be toll collectors, taxi dispatchers or parking lot space checkers in golf carts. The jobs created by intelligent transportation systems will involve data. The good news is that America recently ranked third in the U.N. International Telecommunication Union skills subindex. But that’s not good enough. There is still a shortage of data science skills in the United States to do the work that smart-everything demands. The massive volumes of Big Data require a sophisticated set of data manipulation and IT skills. This seems like an education problem, not a transportation problem, and it is. But the opportunities in smart roads, vehicles and networks will be constrained by the educational shortfall — another argument for an integrated national vision.

Baby steps in this direction must become giant leaps. The U.S. DOT’s Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Education Program, founded by former Secretary Rodney Slater to honor the African-American traffic light inventor and authorized by Congress in 2005, issues grants to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, focusing on transportation, with an emphasis on programs that serve women and minorities. Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., operates STEM-focused TransTech Academy, which offers technical skills training for bus, train and escalator maintenance and a pipeline to jobs with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. With Federal Highway Administration support, TransTech offers a pre-engineering curriculum with college credit to equip students to go to college in transportation-related fields. P-TECH-style six-year high schools in New York City, Chicago and beyond address Big Data skills and open doors to employment. Addressing the skills gap and the jobs problem are essential.

To educate and inform the public, the Federal DOT is already providing abundant information and indicators, as are state and local authorities. Like the census, these data tell the public what’s going on in their communities and regions, and how this compares with others. There’s more to be done. With the new narrative in mind and smartphones in hand, this should be enlarged to provide more national, state and local indicators driven by human concerns, easily findable in one place, since we never know what connections people will need to make. Usable information might include average commutes or distance and time to health providers by various modes, or the vulnerability of local roads and bridges, or the best deals on Uber or the best routes for Zipcar. For commercial uses, information could encompass the efficiency of ports and airports in moving goods. When looking up flight arrival times and delays, we should also be able to get information about ground transportation departures and delays. This is just a starting point. Perhaps cities or civic associations could sponsor community hackathons in every region, in which a range of organizations contribute data they wish to have and share.

The new narrative should not abandon what we have — we’ll still have cars; suburbia is still growing — but it should reframe the characters to rebalance the story and become a story about moving into  the future. Priorities should be clear. Rail and mass transit should play a leading role. Streets should be reinvented to make them people friendly. We should flip the emphasis in policies from suburbia to cities, from individual action to technology connections, from single modes of transportation to intermodal connections among them. And while we’re at it, we should revisit every policy created more than 25 years ago in order to modernize it and bring it up to date, such as international Open Skies agreements.

Infrastructure for mobility should be the new national defense strategy as well as our race for the future. If we’re stuck in traffic, we can’t be leaders in the world. Or if defense metaphors are not to the public’s taste, the story can use health metaphors. We must ensure that the circulatory system of society has unclogged arteries so that our national lifeblood can flow.

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