How Can We Fix Transportation in America? Ask a 9-Year-Old

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The public is at odds with seemingly smart transportation proposals. But to move forward, we need to forget the status quo.

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When it comes to creating good public policy, an academic expert told the gathering of transportation officials, think like a nine-year-old.

You mean conceive massive public works projects made of Lego toys? Or give out free copies of the latest kids novel by Rick Riordan in return for raising sales taxes? Have members of the U.S. Senate address one another, "Hey, dude"?

Well, no.

"Nine-year-olds expect from technology things that we've only begun to think about, and they don't have the same status quo assumptions. 'Why can't I use my iPhone to pay tolls or why is there just one person in so many cars?'" said Charles Wheelan, an economist and public policy lecturer at the University of Chicago.

An Earth Day "transportation summit" of about 120 Chicago area transportation bigshots, and mediumshots, was held inside the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, a dazzling new piece of urban architecture resembling "a shimmering piece of quartz exquisitely inserted into a great stone wall, its faceted, folded façade of glass glinting in the morning sun," according to Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune.

It was glinting during a gathering that was a reminder of a frequent Grand Canyon-like gulf between  the public policy strongly favored by those truly in the know and the hesitation caused by public resistance and political timidity.

It's like the consensus among healthcare wonks as to why the current system is a mess and how it can be improved: a general accord that is at odds with the cable television and talk radio bickering in which "Obamacare" is hurled about as a snide pejorative.

When it comes to transportation, common denominators were underscored at the summit in a quiz taken by the attendees. With electronic clickers, they anonymously responded to a series of questions about national policy.

For example, how supportive would they be of a partnership allowing private firms to build and operate transit projects on behalf of their government entity? On a sliding scale, ranging from very supportive to very opposed, 78 percent were either very or somewhat supportive.

So how much would they like adding tolls to now-free roads to fund a specific, major transportation project? A slight majority, or 53 percent, would be very supportive and only 6 percent would be opposed.

Should we pay more to travel in a fast lane of traffic? A rousing 86 percent said yes. The same number liked the notion of hooking a transit-related tax, toll, or fee to some index, like the Consumer Price Index, so revenues would automatically grow.

But the public is so often at odds with the seemingly smart transit proposals, said Wheelan, because it's lost faith in the nation's ability to use tax dollars wisely in general and transportation dollars in specific.

There are other self-inflicted wounds, including a lack of overall transportation goals that citizens understand and buy into. If we had possessed clear priorities in most communities, the Obama administration's stimulus spending could have seamlessly turned to pre-existing goals rather than leaving most scratching their heads or just ignorant as to why certain projects were funded and others not.

There is also the traditional inability to give voters a sense of ownership when it comes to transit. Instead of just announcing a hike in tolls, say, one could convince them that they do own the roads around them. That might inspire appreciation for the benefits of raising revenues through higher tolls, in the process perhaps hitting up the millions of motorists who may pay little or nothing for using roads funded by a community's taxpayers.

Getting back to a nine-year-old's perspective, Wheelan alluded to more imaginative uses of technology. What if every new vehicle had a GPS and you were charged on toll roads, or even city streets, based on how far you were driving, what kind of car you were driving (a gas-guzzling, polluting Hummer versus a Chevy Volt) and what time of day you were driving?

It seemed sensible, even conceding a few potential privacy issues with mandated GPS gizmos everywhere.

Wheelan once ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's (and imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's) old seat but got nowhere talking about a carbon tax, which he feels would beneficially alter behavior when it comes to driving.

A carbon tax is another one of those issues that elicits agreement among ideological opponents like N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, and Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize winning economist at Princeton.

A few politicians may privately concede that a carbon tax is very good policy but grouse that they can't sell it politically. So it goes nowhere. But that's no great surprise, as reiterated by Randy Blankenhorn, the executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, a state-created agency that seeks to integrate land use planning and transportation for a seven-county Chicago area region.

When it comes to transportation, "How do we move the conversation forward? How do we talk about it? How do we sell it to a public that doesn't trust us? We haven't done a good job selling our story."

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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