Governance of Metropolitan Transport: Power, Leadership, and the Essential Art of Building Lasting Alliances

By Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

What does it take to deliver a high-quality transport system across a metropolitan region, one that is socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and economically productive? This month Staff Writer Kate O’Brien spoke by phone with Måns Lönnroth, whose professional experience, first as an academic and later as a governmental operative, has given him a unique and valuable perspective on answering this question.

From my read of your Governance of Metropolitan Transport paper, you clearly have feet in both the theory and the practice of transport governance. Why was this paper so important to write?

For decades, economists, academics, and researchers focused on land use and transportation planning have been developing design guidelines, detailed models, and policy recommendations for improving transport systems around the world. And the fields of transport economics and planning have done much in the way of modeling and testing those assertions. But, from my perspective, there are limits to that existing body of work.

That’s why I wrote this paper. To bridge the research and the practice, I synthesized the many assertions that came out of an analysis of transport governance in nine Western European countries, three Anglo-sphere countries of Australia, the United States, and Canada, as well as the governance of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) in Latin America, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa. We examined transport systems and how they’re organized around the world, and interviewed both practitioners and researchers. With this paper, I aimed to draw out concepts that convey the reality that lies between.

In it, you wrote that “systematic studies of metropolitan transport governance from the political and/or social-sciences perspectives do not appear to exist.” How does this paper address that gap?

This whole project started because I saw that almost all presentations at the TRB [Transportation Research Board, one of seven program units of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] were about what to do to organize metropolitan transport. But there was very little about how to actually get things done. When I was visiting there, I actually asked the Chair of the TRB’s Executive Committee why, and his answer was “How is much more difficult than what.” And he was right.

As an academic who has worked in government, I’ve been closer to power than most of my academic cohort. I have observed power and how leaders navigate it. And because of this, I see a need to address the fact that governance of metropolitan transport is a dynamic enterprise that boils down quite simply to the art of political leadership. This, to me, is the elephant in the room. Where can we find examples of successful political leadership? How did these individuals accomplish what they set out to do? My objective with this paper was to develop concepts and language for transport governance leaders so they can observe, learn about, and better understand power.

What would you say is the single most important factor involved in effective governance of metropolitan transport?

I’d say the art of building political alliances. There’s a prevailing notion that politicians only do the things that will see impact within a single term. We need politicians who are skillful at forging strong relationships and alliances that can last long enough to get things done. All the serious work in metropolitan transport lasts decades, and there needs to be a host of economic and political actors involved. Leaders have to be focused on reaching our long-term objectives, together.

The key is forging strong, multiyear alliances across all those actors, and across all of their respective institutions. It’s shifting from a “chicken and egg” problem to a “circling the square” problem. “Chicken and egg” problems are what we all talk about, but that’s an either/or scenario. The trick here is doing many things in parallel, at the same time. So, it’s more “circling the square,” working at all four corners. It’s thinking and working at a systems level.

The only way to bring people along, and build those alliances across institutions, is to have a very compelling story. You need to be able to explain in a very convincing way why these things all hang together, and why we have to work together across many parts of the system. Why, what, and how all go together. If you can’t explain why the work needs doing, then you won’t ever get the chance to explain what the work is, or how we’ll get it done. That, in and of itself, is a very special skill that takes time and experience to develop.

As you were saying this, I was thinking about all the other things you contemplate in the paper. It really does seem as though everything hinges on leadership and capacity for building alliances.

Exactly. I highlight how the density of a metropolitan area’s population is necessary for a transport system to be strong and successful. A successful system is one whose leaders cultivate strong support from both urban and suburban middle class populations. Without all of those communities sharing the costs and filling the seats, the system just won’t work.

This is why I say that regions need a metropolitan transport system, not just an urban system. Living in city center is becoming ever more attractive, and ever more expensive. People living in these gentrified areas all depend on cheap services. The reality is that the workforce running the cafes and restaurants and daycare centers aren’t paid high enough to afford living in the more gentrified parts of a city, so they need to have transportation to and from the areas surrounding where cheaper housing is more plentiful. We might not be able to control the free market problem that causes gentrification, but we have a responsibility to control how we address its consequences. We don’t have to accept segregation as a consequence of gentrification.

Yes, and this also relates to the leadership and alliances idea. It seems that the private sector employers who need those workers should become part of the financing solution for a regional metropolitan transport system, right?

Well, we’ll likely need new forms of taxation to address that. It’s hard to pull it apart. It’s a regional issue that involves many jurisdictions. This is why it all boils down to politics. Someone needs to be able to formulate a decision to take on this issue, and then work to develop alliances that help keep it alive. I highlight taxation as another defining factor of transport governance. Taxation differs greatly from country to country. Some countries tax land, some tax income, some tax both. Some cities have taxation power, and in some places, states have taxation power.

Taxation is an essential part of the transport governance equation, and yet almost no transport academics are interested in it. The gentrification and segregation problems are not going away. Communities need regional solutions. Many people are ready to pay for it, and some places are trying to figure it out. Los Angeles County in California is a prime example. They’ve passed I think two or three referenda in support of the public paying sales tax to finance investments in its public transportation system.

This reminds me of the “things to watch” section of the paper. Such a great idea. Where do you see promise for better transport governance?

Efforts to integrate and unify all of a region’s mobility options under one single system are really exciting. This kind of effort would make the system so much more accessible to so many different people. At the VREF conference in Lund last spring, there was a presentation made by Carol Kuester from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was intriguing—this is the organization responsible for both bridges and tunnels in the Bay Area, an organization that is both a federal and a state organization. They collect revenues from both bridges and tunnels, so they have a certain amount of money to use.

The Bay Area has all kinds of new mobility solutions on offer: e-bikes, scooters, Lyft, Uber… and yet none of these enterprises are making money. They’re all dependent on venture capitalists who hope they will someday make money. So, what this organization is trying to do is to create one unified platform in which customers can use one single transport card for any option in the system. There are lots of places are thinking about this, but no one is doing it yet. The Germans come closest. The German transport system has some private operators and some public operators, but one unified ticketing system. They all share transport data, and they have been doing so since the 1960s and 1970s. This is key to the whole transport system. This, to me, is an important way forward.

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