The People Behind Recent Transportation Innovation

Peoples-History-Cover2It’s become a common story: while transportation reform advocates continue to beat the drum to fully fund a renewed federal transportation program, a wholly different group of people push for local progress apace. This is not to discount the tremendous work required to remind lawmakers of the nation’s infrastructure needs. Yet those who have been in the arena for a while starting with the update (and subsequent 11 extensions) to SAFETEA-LU, the creation of MAP-21, and the ongoing debate about the differences between the Senate-backed DRIVE proposal and US DOT’s GROW AMERICA, know that some local communities cannot — will not — wait.

Over the last 10 years, as these broad policies were discussed, some cities broke away from the status quo and made transformative gains in transportation. Charlotte built a light rail line in the face of significant regional fragmentation. Pittsburgh put its bike network, if only de facto, literally and politically on the map. New York City built one of the first cycle-tracks in North America and pedestrianized some of its major, iconic intersections, the better to rationalize traffic flow and reduce traffic crashes. Denver’s regional council of mayors and its transit authority organized to win local funding for a regional transportation system, light rail and some highways included. These all happened with local initiative and innovation.

Given the lack of national policy and funding, how did these localities make this happen? Perhaps more significantly given the status quo in policy and funding, who made all of these changes possible?

That is the very question we set out to answer in “A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation,” a study funded by the Knight Foundation.

We surveyed the nation for cities that made progress against the odds. As we learned more about each locality, it became evident that each transformation required the backing and alignment of three sectors of society. Our study ultimately included the stories of six cities – Portland, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Charlotte – to illustrate the dynamics within and between each group of people involved in the change. It should be noted that not each city included in our study experienced the full alignment of the three sectors. Instead, the case studies offer an illustration of contrasts to show how some cities did better than others, depending on the status of their city leadership, the strength of their advocates, or the will of their agencies.

First and foremost, the cities that had the greatest and longest lasting transformations all have a civic sector that is resident-led, non-elite, and non-governmental. Cities with robust civic advocates who could frame the issue with wide appeal, build broad public support, and demonstrate the benefits of change experienced lasting impact. Advocates played a variety of roles: they communicated demands on behalf of a larger group of voters. They amassed technical know-how, to imagine how things could be different, in a technically realistic way.

Second, city leadership, primarily with the Mayor and heads of agency, is needed to prioritize transportation, create the mandate, facilitate inter-departmental cooperation (if necessary), and create a sense of urgency. Mayors particularly could highlight the benefits of transportation reform by casting them in a completely different way. It’s not about multi-modality; it’s about improving quality of life and providing more options. They could also create that sense of urgency that would spur the agency staff to follow through on change.

The third sector, perhaps the most unsung heroes of transportation reform, is the agency staff. Even if there is broad political support from the grasstops and the grassroots, agency staff is charged with carrying out the mandate. If there are no local precedents for what they’re pursuing – such as reclaiming parking spaces for mini-parks – agency staff are often tasked with finding a way to make it happen.

Design guidebooks go a long way in changing a culture of an agency, especially when it is co-created by the agency staff itself. New York City pioneered this strategy, creating the first city-focused Street Design Manual that also went through the wringer with the City’s lawyers. Subsequent updates continue to be staff driven and design tweaks are made as appropriate to local context. The National Association of City Transportation Officials took this strategy further to create the Urban Street Design Guide, now adopted as official guidance by the Federal Highway Administration and states and cities around the nation. There is no better way of ensuring that there is a wholly new playbook than having one designed by the very users who will be assigned to carrying out the designs.

In some of the most successful cities, city leaders may tap particularly knowledgeable advocates to join a public agency. They may also adopt some of the tactics that advocates have long employed, such as using paint for temporary demonstrations of changes on the street before seeking capital funding for more permanent installations. In effect, mayors and city leaders took a page out of the advocates’ playbook in order to innovate.

Furthermore, we learned from our study of Portland that state and federal policy change can reinforce local change – once the local direction has been reoriented. Portland traded in funding for a Mount Hood Expressway for long-standing funding of other local transportation projects, including public transit and new roads. The city was further aided by a state land conservation policy that drew boundaries around the city, effectively mandating more efficient use of land and prohibiting sprawl. Both of these effects propelled Portland down a very different path than cities in the rest of the country.

No city stays the same for long, and indeed, no change can be taken for granted. Today’s advocates in Portland lament the city’s lack of urgency and a sense of resting on laurels. The extremely popular plaza in New York City’s Times Square in New York City is now under threat of being converted to an intersection jammed with cars by Mayor Bill de Blasio, although he initially had continued the path originally forged by his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Pittsburgh has won regional and city coordination, state funding to maintain its transit system, and a growing group of savvy advocates interested in furthering multi-modal connections. Its upcoming challenge is implementation in light of the motivation signaled by its leaders.

We hope that our study shows that all cities can pursue change that shifts urban transportation away from cars and gives more preference to people. It’s not only a matter of policy and funding – engagement from the civic vanguard, city leadership, and agency champions is key to the success of any city seeking change.

Download the study.

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