Infrastructure Week: Planning for a Resilient Future

May 18, 2018

The Oxford English Dictionary defines resiliency as, “1. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. 2. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.” And the American Society of Civil Engineers has, “the capability to mitigate against significant all-hazards risks and incidents and to expeditiously recover and reconstitute critical services with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy, and national security.”

Neither definition incorporates an additional element of resiliency that was discussed Tuesday morning at the Squire Patton Boggs Infrastructure Week panels on resiliency and automated vehicles—accounting for future changes. Planning for and building resilient infrastructure can minimize life-cycle costs if changes in technology, security threats, and transportation/land use patterns are all taken into account in the larger context of climate change and population shifts.

The example of the rebuild of the double decker Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco that fell in a 1989 earthquake shows planning for resilience taking into account public safety and health, weather, and the economy. By replacing the elevated road with a multi-modal at-grade roadway, the new project was stronger against future earthquakes, provided right-of-way for safe active transportation, and encouraged economic development. If building for resilience is defined as springing back in to shape, we end up unable to take advantage of chances to rethink for the future, as in the case of the San Francisco waterfront.

One major policy hurdle to overcome in innovative rebuilding is the Stafford Act, which authorizes FEMA funds. Not only does the legislation hold back design changes, but also because local governments tend to focus on rebuilding solely to deal with traffic concerns, appropriators often squash innovative ideas. The public also needs to be included in the decision-making and impacts of design changes: understanding modal transportation shifts and higher costs to save future dollars in maintenance takes intentional communication with local communities. In fact, Mayor Agnos of San Francisco lost his bid for reelection after the changes to the Embarcadero.

Today, we can foresee the rise of technology in transportation systems, and building infrastructure to stand resilient over the next thirty to fifty years should include considerations for technologies such as automated vehicles. The administration along with other members of the public and private sector have spent plenty of resources into planning for AVs, including developing guidance documents like Automated Vehicles 3.0. On Tuesday’s panel, the discussion highlighted the equity considerations to enable all populations to enjoy an automated world. The four specific equity concerns covered were:

  • Whether or not shared fleet deployment would be equitably distributed geographically
  • To what extent the public is being used as “guinea pigs” in technology development
  • What happens to current land value and quality of life both inside central business districts and beyond
  • Private AV ownership could exacerbate congestion through an increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and/or parking utilization in areas where it is more affordable

As for the first two points on equity, shared fleet deployment areas are already being hashed out on a local level, and testing and automation levels are being discussed beyond the SAE levels of automation that have been largely adopted, and are up for an overhaul.

Panelists agreed that the latter two points require much more extensive policy oversight than current proposed legislation addresses. Without a clear timeline for adoption of varying automated driving technologies or a full understanding of human behavior reactions to emerging driving technologies, developing land use and zoning regulations will be difficult. VMT fees is one common proposal (mentioned by Secretary Chao Monday morning, and recommended by Eno in Beyond Speculation) to dis-incentivize zero occupancy trips and longer commutes as well as to help raise revenue that the gas tax is no longer providing. Curb management (or shared use mobility zones) may help incentivize people to live, work, and visit places with scarce parking.

Estimating human behavior in terms of how people will use the technology-infused streets, what effects climate change will have on our infrastructure, and how populations will grow and move in light of changing economies, storm risk, etc. is difficult. But considering the future must be part of a comprehensive planning effort for building and rebuilding resilient infrastructure.

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