USDOT urges nation to think beyond traffic

By Chris McCahill

Last week, the USDOT announced Beyond Traffic—a framework for thinking about the nation’s transportation needs over the next 30 years. “As population concentrates around metropolitan areas around the country,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx during an unveiling event at Google, “it has implications on how much money we need to invest but also what we’re paying for with the money.”

Foxx has stressed repeatedly that this framework—released officially as a draft to encourage a national conversation—is about understanding and getting ahead of the challenges we face, rather than trying to recreate the past. Arriving roughly in conjunction with the administration’s transportation budget, this framework aims to move the discussion beyond a six-year horizon.

This long-term vision is not the first of its kind from the USDOT. Former Secretary William T. Coleman released a similar report in 1977 in which he addressed two key considerations affecting transportation at the time: the availability of liquid fuels and changing settlement patterns, which meant “declining urban densities, suburbanization and rural migration.”

As it was then, the nation’s changing landscape is still a key issue, but the specific challenges are quite different. Rather than accommodating outward suburban growth, this framework focuses on managing transportation capacity, reducing congestion, and providing transportation choices. Freight movement, climate change, emerging technologies, and funding are also among its key considerations.

According to Gene Conti, former Secretary of the North Carolina DOT and a senior consultant involved in the framework’s development, the research produced for NCHRP Report 750, Strategic Issues Facing Transportation, was crucial in framing Beyond Traffic. “The changes are profound in terms of technology, climate, and financing,” he says. “State DOTs need to be thinking in broader ways and helping inform the discussion as transportation’s principle deliverers.” They need to think of transportation as a multimodal system, he added, rather than as a set of distinct modes.

USDOT will also play an important role, Foxx has said. In addition to the responsibilities outlined in their draft framework—inter-jurisdictional coordination, fundraising, and the promotion of national objectives—the agency is engaging with mayors to spur innovative local investments. “We have the ability to pull together best practices and help local communities that are spending probably 70 percent of the dollars that are invested in pedestrian and bicycle assets even better,” he said, “so that they’re using the collective knowledge around the country to make those investments.”

The Beyond Traffic blue paper provides an overview of the framework and describes the key trends informing it. The full draft framework, however, offers a more in-depth discussion and a set of guiding principles and policy options to consider moving forward.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.