Op-Ed: What/who keeps holding back New Mobility reform?

If you get it, New Mobility is a no-brainer. However, while the New Mobility Agenda is a great starting place, it is not going to get the job somehow miraculously done just because it is the only game in town when it comes to sustainable transport. There is plenty of competition for all that space on the street and  between the ears. We have a few potential sticking points here that need to be overcome first. Let’s have a quick look to get this exchange off the ground. After some years of talking with cities, and working and observing in many different circumstances, here is my personal shortlist of the barriers are most frequently encountered in trying to get innovative transportation reform programs off the ground, including even in cities that really do need a major mobility overhaul.

– Eric Britton, Editor, World Streets, Paris, France

1. The Mayor/city manager: The mayor or prime city leader either: (a) does not get it; (b) feels that he knows the whole topic area well enough to require nothing else; (c) does not consider the sector to be a matter of high priority to merit a major rethinking and reform effort; (d) feels confident that his staff has this well under control, or quite simply (e) does not have enough time to get his arms around it.  These are the rule; fortunately there are exceptions.

2. The City Council: Where you have city councils taking these decisions, it turns out that they are often much better at disagreeing then agreeing, at least when any unfamiliar , to them unproven, idea comes before them for decision. And yet, if we do not get some kind of consensus for change at the top this is never going to happen.

3. The city’s transportation experts: The city’s main transportation expert, team, may well not be interested in having any “outside help”. Anything else is often seen as a challenge to their authority and expertise. So we basically have a turf problem, and more often with a deeply embedded old mobility tilt.

4. Local consultants: The specialized consultants who already work in the sector in that city, or have contact with it, feel that they do not need any additional help since this is after all their job and specialty. (more like than not, once again, old mobility is their main game.)

5. Local business community, who the most part are firmly wedded to the idea of cars and car access (AKA parking) hold the key to the success of their businesses.

6. Transportation service providers: Bus/transit services, taxis, school and special service buses, others — tend to be the most part narrowly focused on their specific business area, often already under some financial duress, and thus for the most part not known to be welcoming to new ideas or new ways of doing things. Including new and much broader partnerships with other service providers and actors in the community. This is not the case for all cities, but most operators are under such financial and management pressure that they have little or no margin for innovation or experimentation.

7. Public interest groups: This is pure irony. Specific transportation, environmental groups, cycling, pedestrian, public space, emissions, quality of life, specific neighborhood groups, etc. — all for the vast part  tend to be committed to their specific turf and missions,  and far more often than not simply do not get together to create a global sustainable cities program, as indeed should be the case.

8. Local media: For reasons of their own, advertising revenues included, have rarely really bought into the sustainability agenda.

9. The police: Police in some cities regularly participate in transport and land use planning, and have been known to block needed actions in some cases, including infrastructure, policy, and law. Police also play a great role in how friendly our streets are; they can either protect and affirm the validity of walking and bicycling, or attack and negate it. This plays out in a wide number of circumstances and has a real effect on people’s lives and their travel behavior. (Thanks to Jason Meggs for the reminder for this and the next item on our list.)

10. Fire Department: The fire departments of most cities take their mission very seriously, and like the police are a powerful local force impacting on the streets in many ways, and can be very effective political groups.  All too often, though, they tend to show an inability to dialogue with and about new concepts. Erik Griswold has put it this way: “usually, they are the ones who will stop traffic calming, narrowing of roads or building built to pedestrian scale because they feel they will be unable to adequately service the area in case of an emergency. It is quite often the case that the local Fire Chief is more powerful than any other local city staff since he or she can quash a project based on “safety” and “response times”.”

11. Developers likewise could be using their great power to shift the structure of the city more. Developers have much to gain financially by reducing parking requirements, increasing density, and providing for a quality lifestyle without driving, but many have been slow to act on these opportunities. Part of the problem is financing in relatively uncharted territory (particularly in the United States), and the restrictions developers face, but there are countless cases where a development could be wildly different — and great leaps better — by the vision/choice of the developer.

12. The “local car lobby”. While there are financial and political interests tied to the continuing abundant unfettered use of cars in the city, including local auto dealers, any businesses that might be suppliers to the sector, parking businesses, the great bulk of this “lobby” is an unquestioned implied understanding that nothing should be done that would change your relationship with your car.

13. All of us:Doubtless the biggest single obstacle to deep transportation reform is a result of the fact that it deals with a highly visible area of public life in which just about everybody, from mayor to dog-catcher, feels that they have a high degree of implicit expertise in figuring out what works and what will not work in their city. . . because transport is something that they do every day and can see with their own eyes.

This last is indeed the Achilles’ heel of transportation policy, this very human tendency for just about everybody to feel that if they do it (i.e. move around every day) this means they understand it. The trouble with this is that transport in cities is a highly complex metabolism of great systemic complexity that is far closer to that of the human brain than say another glass of beer. Thus one of the main challenges of deep transportation reform — the only viable option available to us — is to help citizens and decision makers come to grips with these challenges of complexity, without at the same time removing it from their role as active and responsible citizens and placing it entirely in the hands of centralized experts. There is a major communications challenge here. And a very considerable governance challenge as well.

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Look, I am not trying to pick a fight. I am just trying to share with you certain patterns which I have observed in my work in a very wide range of cities and environments. Do you agree? We really do need to be asking more hard questions. Including of ourselves.

How many potential barriers is that already, twelve And if you think of it in terms of your own city, I am sure you are going to spot most if not all of the above and yet others. It is thus the first challenge of anyone who wishes to advance the sustainable transportation agenda in that place to understand this difficult terrain and to figure out ways of coping with it.

For sure, it is going to be impossible to take on and convert all of these interests at once. But the fundamental concepts and potential of a 21st-century mobility system are such that if we take a strategic approach to dealing with these barriers, taking them on one at a time and with great patience and foresight, the policy agenda can be opened up and perhaps some first small victories can be achieved. Once this has happened, the rest will follow in due course.

Our best counsel for transportation reform in your city: 

Start at the top of this list with your mayor , while simultaneously engaging and working your way down this list patiently one by one. Build up your support base , and gradually expand it. Be known as a great and patient listener.

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Some other postings on World Streets you might find useful in this context:


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One response to “Op-Ed: What/who keeps holding back New Mobility reform?

  1. Sorry to be cynical but i think your main obstacle is perception: people cannot be convinced to “see” they need “deep reform” or a “sustainable global program”–emphasis on global. Unless it smacks them in the kisser.

    Since all politics essentially are local until real need or emergency drives them beyond home boundaries, your variously listed elements, each with its own ax to hone, will cancel out anything less than truly compelling need (and even here, denial fends off dire). Otherwise, one constituency cancels another.

    It’s like the global warming “problem,” i.e., if it’ll take 50-100 years, why worry? Convince me it’ll happen next week and I’ll jump behind the catch-up squad and join the march–by which time it’s likely too late.

    Has it ever never been thus? I bike an average 10 miles a day in my routine pursuits on a FL barrier island whose town council mandated 20+ miles of bike path years ago since the major main drag in season often is a parking lot. Off season, people drive their cars.

    Even a tsunami of dread fails to move hoi poloi onto the progressive bike-path; a politico’s main concern is usually money. I sympathize strongly but you better switch to the lowest uphill gear you’ve got amigo.

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