Kirk T. Steudle: How Could Cities Better Connect All Their Residents to Economic Opportunity?

By Kirk Steudle

Director Kirk T. Steudle has served in a variety of positions at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) throughout his 27 year career with MDOT. In addition to his work today as director, he was the 2011-12 President of the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO). He is also the 2014 President of the Transportation Research (TRB) Board Executive Committee and the incoming 2014 Chair for the Board of Directors of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA).

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

How do you connect to economic opportunity? From my perspective, there’s one ingredient needed that’s so obvious it is often easily overlooked: transportation.

In order to connect to economic opportunity in the city – or really anywhere – you need transportation to get where you want to go.

What is economic opportunity? Is it a brand new job, a promotion, or the prospect of starting your own business? Is it a stop to buy groceries, fill a prescription, or to travel someplace you’ve never been? Is it attending school, taking a job training program, or an on-line course? Maybe it’s any combination of these, and more.

Maybe it’s the infinite, endless, churning combination of economic choices and activities that make the city such a vibrant, exciting and attractive place. Economic opportunity is not a single moment, a snapshot, a point in time. It’s an evolution, a path to be walked, a road to be traveled.

And through every step on that road of economic opportunity, transportation is not just a nicety, but a necessity.

That doesn’t mean transportation can’t also be nice – attractive, appealing – it just means that if you want to progress economically – as an individual, a community, a state or a nation – good transportation is a “must-have.”

When you’re on the way to that job interview, you’ll need transportation to get there. When you go to the store to pick up those groceries, transportation will have helped stock the shelves. Even as you sign up for that on-line class, remember that the computer you use, and the professor on the other end, wouldn’t have gotten to those places without some mode of transportation to get them there.

Transportation can open enormous economic opportunities, as history shows. Inland waterways brought the first commerce from seaside ports to the hinterlands, spawning prosperous towns in unlikely locations. The cross country railroad opened up new economic opportunities across the Midwest, and linked the east and west coasts of the country. Paved roads, which came about in Michigan thanks to the interests of the bicycling community, made it possible for travelers to get up out of the mud for an easier, faster – and certainly cleaner – traveling experience. The Interstate Highway System made it simpler not only to get to expanded economic opportunities, but to make new choices about where and how to live, how often to visit friends and family, and where to market products or vacation. Convenient passenger air transportation built on that mobility and allowed us to move even farther and faster, to a degree that most big business relies on heavily today.

There’s no denying that some of the transportation choices of the past had unintended consequences, and that there have been missteps on the road of economic opportunity. But that’s no reason to abandon the mobility that has provided so much prosperity over the past hundred years.

Today, my agency and so many others are working to address those old problems, and balance new solutions with the continued need for mobility. Context sensitive highway designs, complete streets efforts, transportation alternatives and safe routes to schools programs, “right-sizing” of freeways and arterials, greener and smarter vehicles, are all efforts to preserve the mobility we prize in a more sustainable way, with consideration given to all transportation modes and users.

These changes to the way we approach transportation solutions have the potential to further expand economic opportunity, by reviving neighborhoods and main streets, by improving safety, and by creating new products, new markets for those products, and – most importantly – new jobs.

Beyond that, we’re on the verge of new waves of transportation innovation that can expand our economic opportunities even further. Vehicles digitally connected to each other and to the infrastructure have the potential to dramatically improve safety, and to reduce the pavement “footprint” needed for traditional automobile infrastructure.  Autonomous, “driverless” vehicles offer the potential for an aging population to retain its mobility and extend its healthy economic activity for years. Efficient international freight containers traversing the globe offer the prospect of new markets in exotic places for our hometown goods and services. New and decades overdue transit opportunities in Southeast Michigan – the Regional Transit Authority, the Woodward Avenue Railroad, and accelerated rail from Detroit to Chicago – have the potential to unlock economic opportunities that Detroit and Southeast Michigan have not had access to for many years.

With all the exciting potential for economic growth that transportation provides, it’s a frustration for me that investment in infrastructure in this country lags far behind that of other nations, and that Michigan’s investment in transportation lags behind that of other states. Not only does investment in transportation open up access to economic opportunities, it also creates good-paying jobs.

How do you connect city residents to economic opportunity? To my mind, the answer is simple: Invest in transportation.

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