Secretary Foxx Looks Toward the Future of Transportation
Transportation connects people, and connections provide opportunity. We use highways, railways, airports, ports, and transit systems to get to work, school, medical appointments, and social gatherings, and to move essential goods. The future of economic opportunity in the U.S. is intertwined with the future of our transportation system.
“I’m here to frame innovation within a human context,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who kicked off Volpe’s Future of Transportation speaker series. “I really want you to park the cool stuff for a second: the driverless cars, the drones, the NextGen, the ITS…I love cool stuff, I love technology, but the message I’m trying to get across today is that it all has to be people-centered. If it’s not, it could be technology for technology’s sake. One fear I have over the long term is that we lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish.”
Advancing the Transportation Conversation
The Future of Transportation advances the conversation that began with Beyond Traffic 2045, Secretary Foxx’s 30-year framework for the future. That report, and the Secretary’s remarks at Volpe on June 27, included a frank assessment of the challenges facing the U.S. transportation system.
“We’re facing a tsunami of change in transportation. We have population growth—70 million more people over the next 30 years,” Secretary Foxx said. “We have changes in where those people are coalescing. Many of them are coalescing around our urban centers, many of them are moving to the south and to the west, places that historically have been more dependent upon the automobile. That [demands] tremendous rethinking of how we deliver transportation.”
It’s not just population growth that will alter transportation in America, Secretary Foxx said. Freight dynamics are changing. Our bridges and roads will need to be able to handle larger shipping containers. Infrastructure needs are also evolving due to climate change, and resiliency is a key phrase in transportation planning. On top of this, new technologies are being developed at breakneck speeds.
“We’re going to have great disruptions in the way things get to us, in the way we get places, that all creates a need to rethink,” Secretary Foxx said.
Opportunity as the Driver for Transportation Innovation
While Beyond Traffic detailed the challenges facing transportation in the U.S., according to Secretary Foxx, it also left out something big: opportunity gaps are widening, and transportation professionals need to help close them.
There are growing disparities in health care between the rich and poor, and in educating and housing underserved populations. But those disparities are not the sole domain of the Health Department, Education Department, or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The transportation community must also own its role in closing opportunity gaps, Secretary Foxx said.
“We can build anything,” he said. “But what we’re building and who we’re building it for and why we’re building it is always where the debate is. If we endeavor to have a country that is connected, where everybody—no matter what zip code they come from—has a shot at the American dream, we have to come to grips with the fact that there was infrastructure built in the past that really ripped the heart out of some communities. There was infrastructure that was built to do that. As we build anew and as we repair, thinking about this now is really, really important.”
Major Challenges, Good Timing, Big Opportunities
This is a particularly good time to rethink transportation, Secretary Foxx said. Much of our transportation infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life, and the recently signed FAST Act legislation provides long-term surface transportation funding.
Smart planning, based on quality data and a sober assessment of where our transportation system is today, will come from a U.S. DOT that is flexible, recognizes trends, and closes opportunity gaps, said Secretary Foxx.
Take urbanization: it’s not just happening in cities. It’s also happening in suburbs and rural areas, Secretary Foxx said. Adding more lane miles to improve mobility would be an antiquated approach in areas that are urbanizing.
Take technological advances: big leaps in transportation in the past have revolved around new modes, Secretary Foxx said. From the airplane to the car to the train, new modes have revolutionized how Americans move. But the next great leap in transportation is going to be one that creates policy and financial structures that optimize the potential of all modes, Secretary Foxx said.
“[Beyond Traffic] is essentially calling our country to start making decisions about these things so that as we integrate technology, as we build at higher levels of resiliency, as we determine how to move goods better, smarter, cheaper, as we decide how to integrate this swelling population in tighter and tighter spaces, that we’re being intentional,” Secretary Foxx said.
Developing a Better Ear Through the “Citizens Academy”
A transportation system that meets the challenges and closes the opportunity gaps that Secretary Foxx discussed in kicking off Volpe’s Future of Transportation series will happen only if transportation practitioners listen closely to the people they serve, he said. And that’s going to require better communication on the federal, state, and local transportation agency levels.
“We have historically turned a lot of public input over to very technical folks who interact with the public,” Secretary Foxx said. “And unless you are what I call a professional citizen, it’s kind of hard to understand what it is that’s being discussed and how you can impact the process in a real way. If we’re going to meet the challenges of the future, part of what we have to do as a transportation community is develop a better ear, and we’re working to do that.”
To begin developing a better ear, U.S. DOT will host a “Citizens Academy” this fall at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. It will be an entry-level course in the transportation planning process, with people from all over the country coming to learn how transportation decisions get made in their communities. The aim, Secretary Foxx said, is to develop a curriculum that U.S. DOT agencies and state DOTs can adopt to help transportation practitioners and the public find common ground as they develop safe and efficient mobility for everyone.