The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 19, 2016

To make transportation more inclusive, invite innovation

May 19, 2016

Transportation has the power to unite, by connecting people to opportunities, US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said Wednesday in a discussion with Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell.

“We lay out our values when we lay out our transportation,” he said.

But transportation also has the power to divide, both figuratively and literally. Take 1950s Los Angeles, where Beverly Hills successfully stopped the construction of a freeway, but the poorer, largely Hispanic community of Boyle Heights did not—and now has to deal with the hazards posed by having a major interchange bisect their neighborhood.

“You see this in community after community, and what you see is that the common denominator in many cases is that these communities are low- income and nonwhite,” Foxx said.

Situations like the one in Boyle Heights are part of a larger pattern of transportation inequality. Low-income neighborhoods have fewer sidewalks, for example, and residents are less likely to have access to the transportation they need. The solution, Foxx believes, lies in changing the way we think about transportation, and specifically about financing transportation.

Since the 1950s, he said, the system has remained relatively unchanged: the federal government underwrites most of the highway system, and states are given small amounts of funding for maintenance. But that system may no longer make sense in a world where the younger generation is shunning car ownership and new technologies are emerging to get people from place to place.

Foxx proposes taking a broader view of transportation and funding solutions, not just highways. He wants to give local governments money to solve a transportation problem, and let them figure out the best way to do it for their residents. That might mean a road, but it also might mean a train, an app, or eventually driverless cars—a technology Foxx said the Department of Transportation needs to start building a framework for now. (Currently, 80 percent of Highway Trust Fund dollars automatically go to our roads.)

“We should start by defining the outcome we want and finding the best way to get there,” he said.

The department recently launched two programs to help cities and local leaders find new ways to solve their transportation problems. Foxx hopes these projects and competitions will generate more locally appropriate transportation solutions—and more innovation.

That innovation might help reduce congestion on the roads. Foxx pointed out that our highways are increasingly overused and undermaintained, and can’t support the growing population. To ensure mobility, we must look to other transportation options.

“Our young people are at risk for being the first generation that moves slower than the generation before it,” Foxx said.

Innovative transportation solutions may also require innovation in funding. Foxx sung the praises of public-private partnerships, though acknowledged the public appetite for such collaborations may not yet exist.

He hopes, though, to get the public more invested in transportation and in doing so to help them see the benefits of technology, flexible financing, and public-private partnerships. Foxx believes the best solutions will arise from communities deciding together how to address their transportation needs.

“Maybe then we can distribute the burden and create a situation where there are no zip codes in the country that are hard to get out of,” he said.

US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, right, speaks with Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute, on May 11, 2016. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute

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