Meeting the Challenges of Urban Transportation

Ask voters if they would support a 5-cent increase in gas tax to fund transportation infrastructure, and they will say no. But over time, they will quietly absorb a 25-cent or a 50-cent increase in gas prices even though the money is benefiting a foreign country and not their own.

These issues and more were covered in a SuperSession on urban transportation Monday morning. Moderated by retired Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, the panel included transportation leaders Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission; and Rod Diridon, Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute.

Mr. Heminger said that the San Francisco Bay area is typical of most other urban areas in the U.S. Its infrastructure is aging painfully, needing major rehab. Local entities will spend 80% of revenue just to maintain what’s there. But that still leaves huge shortfalls at all levels. At the same time, many U.S. urban regions are still growing, with new jobs, new homes, more freight, longer commutes and more congestion. It means that our challenge is to squeeze more productivity out of existing systems.

In the SF Bay area, planning organizations have created a Freeway Performance Initiative. Roving tow trucks now take care of minor accidents, flat tires, and stalled vehicles quickly so traffic can move again.  A high-occupancy toll network is in the works. Cities are encouraging more housing closer to jobs so pollution and long commutes are reduced. Cycling is becoming part of the transportation planning, as is transit for low income families. Expansions are planned for rail, bus, and ferry, with new transit hubs in San Francisco and San Jose.

The goal is to reduce congestion to 20 percent below today’s levels, to reduce carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels, to increase fuel economy to 54 miles per gallon, to increase the area’s share of zero-emission vehicles to 55 percent, and to increase telecommuting from three to ten percent.

One positive indicator is the growing interest in U.S. high-speed rail (HSR), although we still lag far behind the rest of the world. China is well into its HSR system, almost every country in Europe is ahead of us, and even Mexico and Morocco are planning their systems. 

Regarding its concern for climate change, the U.S. is far behind most of the world, including many Third-World countries. This is one reason so many contries are building HSR – not only for faster travel, but also because it is far less polluting per passenger mile than many other transportation modes. In the U.S, we are addicted to our cars, while the rest of world relies on bikes, transit, and HSR. Even our desire for free parking is problematic because it only encourages people to drive.

But the U.S. can change its attitudes about urban transportation. For those who are skeptical, it should be noted that cigarette consumption is down more than 50 percent since 1960, and recycling in California has increased six-fold since 1989, proving that it’s possible to reform ingrained habits.

Donna Maurillo, Communications Director, Mineta Transportation Institute

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