Transportation Issues: The Same in Any Language

Cambridge Systematics

I recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Jakarta, Indonesia, where I spent nearly as much time flying as I spent on the ground. Thank goodness for business class! In my short time there, though, I had the opportunity to glimpse transportation issues from the perspective of a very different culture and place.

Having cut my “transportation teeth” in Kansas—a rural landlocked state—I was confident that the issues, particularly those related to freight, were going to look quite different on the other side of the world. While I knew that congestion was an issue in Indonesia, I, like most first-time visitors, wasn’t fully prepared for what I experienced. The traffic in Jakarta made the snarls common to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other congested American cities seem calm and orderly by comparison. Greater Jakarta is home to 28 million people and six million motor cycles. I’m pretty sure at one point my cab was surrounded by all six million of them!

However, as sharp as the contrasts were, I soon discovered that the issues common to transportation planning discussions in the United States were also front-and-center in this distant and very different place. More on that later.

I traveled to Jakarta at the invitation of Joe Schofer, Professor of Civil Engineering at Northwestern University. The invitation arrived in the form of an email with the subject line: “An invitation to travel”. He had me at travel. But as I read on I learned that the opportunity to travel also included being responsible for a half-day of instruction, so a little work, thought and planning were going to be required.

Northwestern’s Transportation Center was asked to provide a one-week executive program on transportation policy as part of the four-week Leadership Transformation in Indonesia program. The curriculum focuses on issues of leadership in the public service and came about as the result of a collaboration between the Harvard Kennedy School Indonesia Program and the Indonesian Ministry of Home Affairs, all supported by the Rajawali Foundation.

As the program started, I wondered whether my experiences with transportation would be of any use but as the discussion developed, I quickly realized there was no need to worry. The transportation concerns that were high on their list sounded familiar: how to deal with right of way costs that escalate well beyond the original budget. They wondered if we have environmental issues in the United States. What about archeology: was it ever a factor that delayed projects and how did we handle it? An interesting discussion had to do with pavement. One participant expressed a frustration with their pavement life and wondered what we did in the United States to get better results and longer lasting pavement.

The internal leadership questions even had a familiar ring. One participant wanted to know more about the cultural transformation I pushed when I was Secretary at the Kansas Department of Transportation. And of course, these local officials expressed frustration with their national government not listening to their concerns and usurping their authority. It was déjà vu all over again.

At one point, one of the particularly engaged participants, in all seriousness said, these probably aren’t issues for you in the United States are they? It was the first really crazy question that I had heard. “No,” I said. “You are very wrong about that. These are exactly the issues I’d be discussing in a room of transportation officials from the United States.” Turns out we might have been divided by our language differences but we were united through our transportation issues and concerns. Transportation issues really are the same in any language.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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