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Beyond Repair: Does America Need To Reinvent Its Transportation Infrastructure?

By Dina Gerdeman / / May 13th, 2015

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Any highway commuter who has wasted hours stuck in traffic can see the cracks in the United States’ transportation system, as can any airline passenger who has been stranded overnight in an airport. Yet while many agree that the need for infrastructure change is urgent, where is the sense of urgency to make these changes happen?

That’s one of the questions Harvard Business School Professor of Business Administration Rosabeth Moss Kanter asks in her new book, Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead.

“Given so many situations and factors that should arouse enormous concern, why is it so hard to secure public support for long-term infrastructure investments and get Congress to vote for them?” Kanter writes. “I think it’s a structural issue. Silos, narrow interests and fragmentation mute outrage. Perhaps we’re stuck not only with aging infrastructure but also with obsolete ways of talking about it .”

Rosabeth Moss Kanter addresses America's aging transportation system in her new book, "Move: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead."

Rosabeth Moss Kanter addresses America’s aging transportation system in her new book, “Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead.”

The railways, airways and roadways that make up our transportation infrastructure are aging and outdated, leaving a laundry list of problems. Kanter opens the book with some telling examples: The average American commuter spends a total of 38 hours sitting in traffic each year-which leads to 5.5 billion hours in lost productivity and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel. In 2013, 24.3% of U.S. bridges—64,000 in all—were identified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Delayed or canceled flights cost the American economy an estimated $30 billion to $40 billion each year.

The book goes on to describe the problems with the modern railway and airline systems, and looks hopefully toward the future of America’s roadways.

Because there was so much emphasis on highways, it drove out attention on rail ,” Kanter said in a recent interview.

Today, freight rail is a fairly smooth operation, but passenger rail has been troubled, Kanter said. High-speed rail plans have been developed in both Texas and Florida, but the United States does not have bullet trains or high-speed rail over long distances.

Other countries have done better: Japan has a high-speed bullet train network that covers 1,500 miles; high-speed rail has spread to most of Western Europe and the United Kingdom, as well as to Turkey, Russia and Iran; and China has the world’s largest high-speed rail network, covering more than 6,900 miles.

Instead, the U.S. has “one-size-fits-all tracks that are shared by freight, inter-city passengers and commuter rail operators,” Kanter writes.

The airline industry is full of congestion on both the ground and in the air and is relying on an antiquated air traffic control system. One of the problems: a lack of mobile communications connectivity. A pilot might check the weather by using in-flight wireless if it’s available on the aircraft, but might not find reliable coverage.

Kanter noted the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Transportation System (NextGen) technology, which will provide better navigation and tracking of planes—even allowing dispatchers and pilots to see which flights would be impacted by weather changes. With NextGen-enabled automated flight rerouting systems, airlines can minimize delays for passengers.

“In the air, the biggest story is technology,” Kanter said. “New technology will make the ride smoother, burn less fuel, reduce delays and reduce noise. We can’t change the weather, but we can have information about it and cope with it much better.”

Our airports also need work, she said. Nations in Asia and the Middle East are developing fancy, technology-enabled airports, while American airports are trailing behind in addressing core infrastructure needs. Getting to and from airports can also be difficult in many parts of the United States, unlike in Tokyo, where passengers can hop on a bullet train at the airport itself.

The Interstate Highway System got huge funding support in the 1950s, leading to the construction of thousands of miles of highways and turning the car into the preferred mode of ground transportation.

The Highway Trust Fund was also created, relying on gasoline taxes to feed it-and this remains the main highway funding source to this day. But now that cars are more fuel efficient and electric cars don’t depend on fuel at all, gas tax revenue isn’t going as far. During the summer of 2014, the Highway Trust Fund almost ran out of money.

Yet our roads still need work. Besides, new technology is changing the face of road construction. For instance, “instant bridges” can be built off-site and hauled into place in a few days, wreaking much less havoc on traffic than a lengthy bridge construction project.

Road sensors and other road technology are helping to improve safety for drivers. For example, Street Bump, a smartphone app created by the city of Boston, can detect potholes from the bumps cars experience on roads and send the locations of holes to the city.

“Wireless networks are making so much possible, whether it’s traffic management or finding potholes or re-routing traffic or high occupancy toll lanes where people choose to pay a premium for a faster road at peak travel times,” she said. “It permits roads to be dynamic. Soon roads will be communicating in a better way.”

Kanter, who is also chair and director of the Harvard-wide Advanced Leadership Initiative, sees the trouble with America’s infrastructure as a mobility issue, and she maintains that the U.S. needs leaders who are willing to develop innovative approaches for getting people from place to place—while also allowing people to reach the goods and services they need.

“We should be thinking not just about repair, which tends to be the conversation,” she said. “We should be thinking about reinvention. I’m arguing for more technology, better connections, and understanding how to design a system in which the parts augment and enhance each other.”

Kanter’s involvement in the infrastructure issue stemmed from a conversation in 2012 with former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, who argued that the country needed a strong transportation vision for the 21st century.

Kanter decided to spend 20 months taking a close look at transportation and infrastructure as part of the Harvard Business School U.S. Competitiveness Project, identifying pain points as well as recognizing promising prospects for the future. She gathered a team of talented researchers to help develop background papers and analyze the issues.

After reviewing nearly 100 reports from associations and think tanks, compiling numbers, conducting hundreds of interviews, and going on a variety of field visits, in February 2014, Kanter and her research team convened a national summit at HBS that included nearly 200 government and industry leaders, transportation CEOs, technology innovators and others.

“We had people from industries that really don’t talk to one another,” Kanter said. “They each have a piece of the puzzle. So we had this gathering of people across silos, and it was a chance to meet one another and really think of this as a systems problem.”

Kanter, who had already done some traveling to investigate infrastructure issues prior to the summit in February 2014, hit the road between March and the end of May, visiting some of the places that were attempting to solve problems. She looked at the issue on a national scale, but focused extra attention on Chicago, Miami and various parts of California, New York and Massachusetts.

For example, she visited a tunnel in Miami; traveled to Chicago to discuss the streets, bike-sharing stations and railways there; met with folks at the American Airlines flight operations center in Texas; and checked out some of the latest instant bridges.

And then she started to write.

“I wrote 10 to 12 hours almost every day over the summer,” she said. “What was motivating me was how important this is. I wanted to speak to the public, I wanted to speak to business people as employers, commuters and also people who depend for their goods and services on these industries, and then I wanted to talk to industry leaders.”

Kanter believes America, which was once on top of the world in its technological and infrastructure advances, became complacent at some point.

“Our infrastructure was once the best in the world after World War II,” she said. “It’s been deteriorating. We have reinvented all kinds of technology for the 21st century, but we haven’t yet invested in rebuilding and reinventing infrastructure systems in the United States. It’s an issue that matters to business. It matters to all of us in our individual lives.”

Although the problems can seem daunting, Kanter outlines in her book a variety of strong leaders and promising projects she hopes might serve as guides for the future.

For example, Michael Ward, chairman and CEO of transportation supplier CSX, has invested company money in repairing tracks. American Airlines pilot Brian Will is leading a movement toward navigation technology that can enable landings by gliding, which would reduce carbon emissions. Jose Abreu, former Florida secretary of Transportation, held onto his dream for a new tunnel under the Port of Miami for 30 years; after it opened in 2014, it led to an immediate reduction in truck traffic in downtown Miami. Atlanta and Detroit have plans for airport-passenger rail connections. And Chicago is planning to upgrade its bus system and ease rail congestion.

For all the kinks in the U.S. infrastructure, Kanter said she hopes readers will see the book as a hopeful call to action.

Kanter recommends seeking out leaders with a bipartisan transportation and infrastructure agenda; voting for bond issues and municipal levies; involving the private sector, since business leaders know that infrastructure is essential; and looking to mayors, governors, and other local politicians because they can get things done while Congress spins its wheels. “National is ugly, but local is beautiful,” she wrote.

In writing the book, Kanter made a point to look at the issue from the perspective of the people who use these systems, rather than policymakers or funders. What are businesses getting or not getting? How is it working for residents of cities? And how do you convince the public that infrastructure is worth investing in so people will rally around solutions?

“When I mention that I’m working on a book about transportation and infrastructure, many people want to tell me their tales of woe,” she wrote. “Their potholes. Their long commutes. Their awful flights. Everyone has a story, followed by a whine: ‘Why don’t they do something about it?’ (Congress, the president, the airlines). After listening carefully, I began to see another challenge: how to make the story about us, not them. Our roads. Our commutes. Our flights. Our environment. Another goal of this book is to provide one picture of our shared situation. Unless we see a common fate, it is hard to get consensus for action.” - 24/7 Support including Chat

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