U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has a favorite saying that he attributes to one of his public school teachers:  “Having no plan is a plan.”  Well, now the USDOT has a plan, or, as it calls it, a “framework,” to create the foundation for transportation infrastructure improvement for the next 30 years.  It’s called “Beyond Traffic,” a remarkably comprehensive analysis of existing data, expected trends, and policy suggestions for the entire spectrum of future transportation choices. 

On April 9, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) will host a forward-thinking conference  -“Transportation Transformation” – examining the role of transportation in a growing Massachusetts economy and its impact on real estate development.  A representative of the USDOT’s Office of Policy will kick off the NAIOP event by describing the Beyond Traffic framework and offering ideas on how the concepts reflected in Beyond Traffic could be applied to regional and local transportation planning efforts. Beveridge & Diamond is proud to sponsor this important event.

While it’s difficult to summarize a 300+ page document in one blog post, I’ll give it a go.  The over-arching theme could be this:  “Let’s make infrastructure investment decisions based on the reality of what is and what is likely to be, rather than simply based on short-term fixes to maddening congestion challenges.”

What are some of those realities?

  • We face an aging transportation system that desperately needs attention.
  • More and more Americans will be settling in “mega-regions” around the country, potentially exacerbating congestion in our already most populated cities.
  • Younger people will likely continue to drive less, and look to alternative means of mobility.
  • At the same time, the proportion of older Americans will continue to grow, placing greater demands on travel for work and leisure in that segment of our population.
  • Innovation will alter the way we think about commuting, from ride-sharing options, to increased telecommuting, to autonomous vehicles.
  • Our changing climate will demand that we stress adaptation for some of our most crucial transportation infrastructure.

Some of the data revealed in Beyond Traffic is no doubt sobering.  The U.S. population is expected to increase by 70 million by 2045.  Transportation costs will continue to be the second largest expense for U.S. households (besides shelter) and, at the same time, will likely remain the second highest source of GHG emissions.  We face a huge investment gap at the same time a political solution to long-term funding at the federal level remains a daunting challenge.

Yet, for every significant challenge, great opportunities exist.  Technological advances have resulted in a doubling of vehicle fuel efficiency standards.  Americans have much greater flexibility in how and where they work.  GPS technology tells us where we need to go, but can also be used to help us find parking spaces downtown or in garages more efficiently.  Autonomous vehicles can potentially allow even more vehicles to use our highways and streets, but do so more safely and efficiently.  (Never mind getting additional work done while your car drives you to your destination.)  Freight shipments will also become more efficient as automation connects ports to rails to trucks.

Beyond Traffic challenges all of us to confront how future policy choices could either complement or conflict with these trends.  While the USDOT stresses that this framework is not an action plan, it cries out for all of us to consider how to create such a plan.  Anyone interested in this topic should go to www.dot.gov/beyondtraffic to offer comments before a final version of the report is published later this year.