Transportation Silos

In a world that celebrates ‘systems thinking’ and ‘holistic problem solving’, one might think that the United States would be more advanced in how it facilitates and funds a complex problem like transportation.  While regional transportation organizations do exist, they typically oversee only the mass transit piece of the pie, separate from roads.

Seattle Transit Tunnel, Credit: Jason Rodriguez

What if our regional mobility was conceived, funded and managed as one system?

Perhaps we are witnessing the early stages of this shift locally in the Seattle metropolitan area through the February 2014 creation of the King County Transportation District.  The Washington State legislature created Transportation Benefit Districts (TBD) as a tool to raise funds for a city or region back in 1987.  Seattle created its own TBD in 2010.  It seems that reform may be necessary so that Transportation Benefit Districts are created at the regional scale to afford the most holistic planning and benefits.

TBDs could be step in the right direction, however until the funding structures at both the federal and state level begin to divert funds to this type of regionally scaled system, the silos that prioritize roads over mobility will be perpetuated.

“Faced with a given transportation need, state and metropolitan decision makers could choose to address that need with new or expanded roads, which would receive 80 or 90 percent funding from the federal government, or they could address the need with transit, which would receive far less funding, often as little as 50 percent.” (Ewing, 2008)

Creating more balance in transportation spending will open more alternatives for regions to fulfill their mobility needs.

Existing metrics and taxes that allocate and generate funding are another hurdle to a more comprehensive regional mobility system.  They contribute to congestion by incentivizing more vehicle miles traveled (VMT), using that metric as a basis for distributing Federal transportation dollars.  The gas tax is another form of revenue generation linked to roads and congestion, the more miles traveled and the more gas consumed the more revenue created.

SR 520 Bridge, Credit: Manuel Valdes

A continued shift to mobility and results based metrics is necessary to create a regional mobility system. Hurd & Hurd (2012) suggest performance metrics such as energy consumed per passenger mile traveled or people moved per mile of road to start to create incentive that foster mobility in more efficient, environmentally responsibly and sustainable ways.

By considering mobility needs at a regional level, each transportation dollar spent could provide more value to taxpayers.  This is an important efficiency that could reduce vehicle miles traveled, single occupancy vehicles, as well as free space for transit and freight.  By making this shift to a more holistic transportation model as a regional scale, dollars spend on mobility can produce results that are more sustainable.

Hurd, A-P., and Al Hurd. 2012. The Carbon Efficient City. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Ewing, Reid H. 2008. Growing Cooler: Evidence On Urban Development and Climate Change. Washington, D.C.: ULI.


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