Thursday, April 14, 2016

Comments on the Research & Development Plan for the FAST Act

President Obama signs the FAST Act -photo courtesy of Alex Wong/Getty Images
Those of you who follow transportation issues in the US probably know that at the end of 2015 President Obama signed the so-called FAST Act (Fixing America's Surface Transportation). This measure authorizes $305 billion over a period stretching from 2016 to 2020 for a variety of modes and purposes. What you may not know is that the Department of Transportation is seeking public comment on the strategic plan for research and development called for by the act. 

The request consists of seven questions, which I list below along with my responses. As you will see, I focus on the enduring problem of a road-centric mentality that pervades the transportation planning establishment, primarily at the federal and state levels. At the local levels, where NACTO's (National Association of City Transportation Officials) mindset prevails, it's a very different matter due to demographic changes I discuss below.

If you find my responses useful, please use and share them as you like.

1. What research strategies and priorities should the U.S. DOT adopt to achieve the primary purposes cited in the FAST Act?
Too many projects are built using traffic and usage models that are based more on faith than on systematic, scientific research. In order to prevent the waste of limited taxpayer resources, a systematic inventory of the long-term (i.e.- at least 5 years) effectiveness of previous, similar projects must be required of agencies seeking FAST Act funds. This inventory study must be verifiable by both US DOT and independent observers. Projects that lack such support for their claimed benefits must be discounted.
2. How can the issues raised in the U.S. DOT document “Beyond Traffic 2045: Trends and Choices” be strategically addressed by RD&T activities over the next five years?
As the projection for population growth focuses on mega-regions with high populations, prioritization for any efforts must sift out areas outside of these regions. However, great care should be exercised to ensure that old assumptions about growth don't contaminate the process. In the case of growth of suburbs and exurbs in mega-regions, the standard warning on mutual funds comes to mind: "Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results." That is especially true now that the so-called Millennial generation is forsaking car ownership and the suburbs for life in downtowns. 
3. What emerging challenges or opportunities in transportation warrant additional Federal RD&T activities or investments?
Priority should be given to how growing central cities can be re-adapted for local commutes, as opposed to commutes from far-flung suburbs. These cities have street grids developed before the advent of the car, but they were adapted for motorist use throughout the 20th century. The challenge now is to figure out how to put them back in something like that earlier state, albeit with greater use of technology and consideration for environmental impact. This means pedestrian and bicyclist traffic needs will have to be addressed ahead of, or instead of, declining motorist uses.
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4. What current and planned RD&T activities sponsored by the federal government should be continued or revised in the future?
A quick review of the statistical analysis shows a bias towards an assumption that all road users are in a car. Examples can be found here:
In order to meet the challenge posed by a demographic shift towards urban population centers where heavy car use is impractical, this institutional bias must be eliminated. Otherwise, considerable taxpayer resources will be wasted on efforts that create little meaningful benefit.
5. What strategies could improve the cost-effectiveness of U.S. DOT research investments?
Reach out to the political and planning leadership within large urban centers. Coordinate with the US Conference of Mayors and NACTO. Their concerns will help focus US DOT efforts where they will be most useful, because they are at the center of the demographic shift I previously described.
6. How can U.S. DOT best coordinate its RD&T activities with Federal, State, local, private sector, non-profit institutions, and international partners?
While reaching out to individual agencies and groups would seem ideal, the odds are that someone will be overlooked. Boost US DOT's social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, or even Instagram) to get the word out about forthcoming efforts. The first step in coordination is to alert those you want to coordinate with, and social media is now a ubiquitous tool.
7. What knowledge gaps merit additional exploration by the USDOT?
Most transportation agencies have a generational divide between those in senior ranks who grew up in the suburban heyday of the car and those in junior ranks who know a different lifestyle. It is difficult, though not impossible, for someone who never has thought of pedestrians and bicyclists as a high priority to focus on their infrastructural issues. Such individuals must be retrained and tested so that they implement the new multimodal, Complete Streets paradigm.


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