Local Institutional Reform as Catalyst for the Mobility Future

In February 2019, 24 transportation leaders, scholars, and executives convened for an Eno and Reason Foundation three-day workshop on Governance and Institutional Reform in Transportation. Discussions focused on the future of mobility in an environment with rapid change driven by technological innovation and deployment, yet limited evolution to the governance and institutions regulating the built environment. This piece is an exploration of local government’s role in the broader transportation landscape based on the experience in Atlanta, Georgia.

If the past decade of mobility tells us anything for certain, it is that the future of mobility in cities is uncertain. Since 2010, innovations in urban mobility have sparked a revolution in the options people have to move through the urban core. And by all indications, it appears that the rapid pace of change will continue – if not accelerate – with more urbanization, further electrification, increased rideshare options, and the prospect of vehicle autonomy. Change is afoot and cities will be at the center and must be ready to facilitate and manage this change.

Despite being the center of where population growth and mobility innovation will occur, cities lie on the periphery of transportation governance. Governance has long been slow to change and focuses on federal policy built for state objectives with cities serving as the recipient – rather than a focal point – of design standards, regulatory frameworks, funding opportunities, and mandates. It’s a governance structure not built for the 80% of Americans living in urbanized areas and is not poised for the future.

In addition to governance challenges, local government institutions are largely built on the needs of the last three decades rather than the change that will come in the next one. In Atlanta, where I work as the Mayor’s Senior Transportation Policy Advisor, we inherited an institutional arrangement built in silos and focused intently on maintaining an aging commuter-focused transportation network. Transportation was split across three different organizations sharing planning, capital project delivery, and maintenance responsibilities. Three leaders, leading three teams, with three plans, for one transportation system meant more of the status quo.

Atlanta is experiencing a period of growth and change that will likely set an example for sunbelt cities across America. We’re seeing continued economic growth, steady population growth with a heavy emphasis on the urban core, increased density, rising resident expectations, and ever-growing concerns on congestion. To many it feels as if we’re at an inflection point that will take Atlanta into a far more urban future. Left unchecked our future will be one with rising inequality, limited housing and transportation affordability, and few mobility choices for our most vulnerable residents. This is a future we cannot accept, but preventing the status quo means a different type of institution equipped to strategically use technology and innovation to improve lives via enhanced mobility.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Albert Einstein

In June 2019, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms changed the way we think about how we serve the city and announced the creation of Atlanta’s first Department of Transportation (ATLDOT). This institutional reform creates a one-stop shop for transportation consolidating teams from City Planning, Public Works, and Capital Projects under one roof, with one strategy, for One Atlanta. It’s an institutional reform that will better position us organizationally by:

  • Streamlining decision making processes and hierarchy to more nimbly adapt to change and innovation; and
  • Building more cross-functional teams and cultivating a talented workforce with interdisciplinary expertise to solve complex programs
  • Growing organizational capacity to deal with change and uncertainty so that innovations are opportunities to create more social good, not regulations to maintain the status quo
  • Embedding values into our resource allocation decisions to ensure outcomes serve a social good beyond transportation
  • Leveraging analytics and data-driven decision making to allow us to make the greatest impact with limited resources across competing needs

“Yet in transportation, institutional inertia, political headwinds, and entrenched interests work to prevent organizational change in the absence of clear incentives at various levels of government as well as the lack of congressional consensus regarding programs and funding.” Transforming America’s Transportation System, Eno Center for Transportation

Federal leaders may not be incentivized to overhaul transportation governance, but we have seen a different story at the local level. Our challenge is apparent and the call for urgency is loud each day in the community. Too much time is lost to congestion, too many lives are lost on streets not designed for people, and access to economic opportunity is deferred where mobility is denied.

While sweeping governance change may not be achieved overnight from the local level, institutional change can happen much sooner. Local transportation leadership can become a grass roots catalyst to more innovation, technology, and improved urban mobility nationally. A strong local institution with an accomplished track record of success can shine a light on governance changes needed higher up. In Atlanta we are laser focused on reforming our transportation institutions so that we can lead by example and stimulate state, regional, and federal governance reforms for better urban mobility in the new decade.

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