The Importance of Transportation: Ryan Westrom, Ford Motor Co.

September 20, 2021

Last fall I spotted someone on Twitter observe that the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) isn’t as “important” as the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Immediately, as a transportation wonk, my back arched in disappointment. While I understand the point (that as the money flows, so goes value), I think this sells short the potential role of the DOT. Certainly, I could be biased as a transportation professional, but the longer I thought about it, the more I realized it’s inextricably linked to almost every facet of our life. There are few industries that matter as much! And I think that flies under the radar. As we examine the nitty gritty of President Biden’s infrastructure proposal and subsumed federal transportation bill, I want to share why transportation, and thus the USDOT matters to our overall economy, the environment, and overall wellbeing. Let’s take the chance to take a deeper look as transportation gains ink in 2021 due to these bills. Spoiler, it’s important.

  1. Transportation is fundamental to our economy and productivity. Transportation allows raw materials to move to factories and people to jobs. It allows us to travel and connect with others. It also creates jobs, both as new infrastructure is built and as systems are managed. By allowing access to economic hubs, transportation fosters the benefits of agglomeration for both cities and companies. Without transportation links allowing people and firms to gather together and resources to be shared, the outsized economic productivity possible as cities scale would not be realized.

    In fact, as cities grow, their economic productivity scales at 115%. Thus, for every 100 people a city adds, its economy expands as if 115 people had joined. Transportation is the lifeblood of our economy (metaphor intentional). Thus, investment in transportation is quite literally improving the economy for us all. [1]
  2. Transportation is fundamental to our environmental impact. How we move about has both direct and indirect effects on our overall environmental footprint. We can utilize low emission or high emission systems per capita. It’s our choice. These choices affect local environmental concerns like air and water quality to macro ones like climate change. Unfortunately, not all these wider costs are factored in, so what we build really matters due to the behavior it induces. We can only choose from what’s available. Quite simply, what we invest in transportation-wise sets our future environmental course, with real path dependency. Regulation and investment incentivizing more choices will have positive effects. [2]
  3. Transportation highly impacts our energy use and systems. The transportation industry has grown to be the world’s largest consumer of energy. To be more efficient, we must strive to utilize modes that move us together more and increase the use of greener alternative powertrains. Again, the choices we make in travel and the choices governments make in infrastructure can lead to divergent outcomes. [3]
  4. Transportation is fundamental to our health. There are both direct and indirect effects. For instance, research suggests you are unhealthier if you commute by personal vehicle, [4] and broader evidence suggests most of us don’t move enough. [5] Humans were made to walk. Removing daily walking from our lives is a large contributor to the obesity epidemic we face. The longrun effects of not moving enough are immense. You literally lengthen your life by walking. Yet, much of the nation lacks pedestrian infrastructure. People should be given the choice to walk or bike for every trip within their community. Our health is affected in many ways, including:

    – The health outcomes of people (especially children) living near major roadways of any type are significantly compromised. Particulate pollution leads to higher respiratory illness, more heart disease, and reduced IQ. These effects are felt disproportionately by minority communities.

    – Costs accounting for the public health epidemic wrought by diminished mode choice for daily mobility are staggering. Suffice to say, it would be cheaper for the country to build out its bike and pedestrian networks to induce daily movement than to treat the outcomes due to their absence.

    – Dr. Richard Jackson at UCLA has done great work documenting the public health ramifications due to the way we design transportation.[6] Overall, taking an exposome approach – one that measures all the exposures of an individual across the life course and the relationship of those exposures to health effects – may be requisite.

    Additionally, we must remember that vehicle crashes are a serious health risk as well. Further, crashes also perniciously target the most underprivileged communities, the very areas that are not seeing equitable access. [7] In order to help cities effectively reduce, and ideally eliminate, traffic-related crashes and fatalities, we must make investments in data and innovation that can support cities in their goals of designing safe streets for all users. [8]
  5. Transportation affects not just our health but our quality of life. The character of the place you live, where you work or shop, and where you play is shaped by the transportation systems in place. The streets of a city shape its character. This is because the space devoted to transportation in cities is usually the largest portion of public space in a city. The streets, sidewalks, and paths in a city are quite literally the largest piece of publicly owned land. How they’re designed affects how life feels. Streets make up 80% of U.S. cities’ public space, more than parks and plazas combined. Good street design, as articulated on the Our Living Streets website, recognizes their potential and provides spaces that elevate our lived experience.
  6. Transportation affects land use. Often this relationship is discussed the other way around, as (good or bad) land use affects transportation. But it flows this way as well. In fact, transportation often affects what land uses are possible. They’re inextricably linked. What a developer can build is very much limited by the transportation available. The types of housing they make available are related to how the transportation system is laid out. Yes, zoning matters. But often zoning matches the surrounding transportation network. Further, the quality of possible public spaces is dependent on the transportation adjacent. As well, some modes don’t scale to allow the density necessary to support commerce. Pent-up demand for urban-style housing can’t be met without transit.  Transportation decisions affect land use patterns. [9]
  7. Transportation affects our ability to connect with each other. This manifests itself in different ways, but together, the system of transportation available to any person in a given location affects their ability to access other people and places. The quality of social infrastructure available to a person is a product of their available transport choices. Access to shared spaces where connection across growing lines of polarization is fundamental to societal success, as Eric Klinenberg lays out in his book Palaces For The People. [10] Research by Raj Chetty of Harvard University suggests that your zip code remains one of the strongest influencers of your life trajectory as access to education, healthcare, food, or your workplace governs your access to opportunity, and with it, your potential. [11] The ability to connect (to people or places) is contingent on the transportation available where you are. In transportation, this measure is called accessibility. Spatial accessibility considers both mobility on the network and the distribution of places people want to visit.

    Transportation access thus should be a paramount metric for our infrastructure investment decisions. Physical improvements in accessibility bring social accessibility, which lifts the quality of everyday life and provides pathways for economic advancement for all. Government should provide not just enhanced mobility, but improved transportation access. To do so, it must measure the accessibility effects of transportation projects and prioritize access-increasing infrastructure accordingly.
  8. In large part due to effects from all of the above, transportation directly affects equity. Racial justice is not possible without equivalent access. Past transportation investment has not brought equitable outcomes across sociodemographic lines. Transportation infrastructure development transformed our cities with many positive outcomes but often with devastating impacts on low-income communities. Neighborhoods were divided by highways. Access to transit was limited for many. Equity was not kept. All too often, poor communities of color shoulder most of the burdens resulting from negative externalities associated with transportation systems. For instance, the poor health outcomes noted above fall disproportionately on underprivileged areas.

    If we ignore these effects in how we choose to invest, or if we are content to just maintain the status quo, we run the risk of locking in place the inequitable systems we have today and the people who must deal with this inequity. We must do better! And we can, as Veronica Davis, Director of Houston’s Transportation and Drainage Operations, shares: Equitable, just, and inclusive transportation systems are within our reach! By so doing, we come all the way back to economic productivity. Adding equity isn’t just about justice, it helps bring about a stronger, more cohesive, productive society. Including more people adds value for all. Transportation unlocks individual as well as community potential.

In conclusion, transportation (policy, investment, and design) matters. Janette Sadik-Khan declares: “Transportation policy is economic policy. It’s environmental policy. It’s equity policy. It’s about access—to healthcare, schools, jobs, and opportunities… If our transportation networks don’t work for everyone, then they don’t work for anyone.” [12]

How we build transportation matters. What’s in the transportation bill is important. I hope we’re beginning to recognize this. I think Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg does. He concludes: “We’re facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our infrastructure. Let’s make the most of it.” What the USDOT does is important! Do you agree?

Ryan Westrom, Head of East Coast Mobility Engagement, Ford Motor Company, provides a perspective on the importance of transportation and its impact on the economy, the environment, our health and overall quality of life.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @Westy33 .