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Featuring Beth Osborne of Transportation for America.

The Movement Episode 008: We Have Done A Poor Job Defining What We Want

Cohen: Josh Cohen

Osborne: Beth Osborne

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: Policy is one of those areas that means different things to different organizations.  I’m pretty confident that I’m taking a hard left turn compared to many other organizations as it relates to policy.  Instead of advocating for specific policies like, say, increasing the gas tax that would certainly benefit TransLoc’s mission to make public transit the first choice for all, I’m targeting what I actually think is more of a root cause, how to actually implement policies that will benefit communities.  My hypothesis is that the specific policy doesn’t mean a hill of beans if it can’t get implemented. It’s obviously not this simple, but I’ve felt that the human side of policy is easily overlooked in favor of the technical intricacies around statutory requirements.

So, with that said, I want to try and bridge that gap with our guest today who has a robust background in the statutory side of policy.  Our gest today is the Director of Transportation for America, Beth Osborne, who previously worked at the United States Department of Transportation and in Congress.  So, welcome, Beth.

Osborne: Thank you very much for having me.

Cohen: Well, I’m excited to have this conversation today and to learn a little bit more about your background and have a conversation here.  And maybe let’s start with your background.

Osborne: Sure.  My immediate past job before I was at Transportation for America was at the U.S. Department of Transportation where I was first the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and then the Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy.  I worked in, obviously, the secretary’s policy office, and in that job I was known for running the TIGER Discretionary Grant Program, which is one of the most popular grant programs in the federal government. We also were in charge of developing any legislative proposals, evaluating any legislative proposals that came out of Congress; any regulations that went through the department came through our office.  We also headed up the secretary’s Livability Initiative. I worked on increasing CAFE standards and safety issues and all kinds of things.

Before that, I was on Capitol Hill.  I worked for Senator Carper from Delaware.  Years before, I worked for a Congressman from the Pittsburgh area and Washington State.  And, as you mentioned, currently I’m with an organization called Transportation for America, which is a national nonprofit.  We work for a transportation system that safely, affordably, and conveniently connects people of all means and abilities to jobs and services through multiple modes of travel and hopefully does so with minimal impact to the community around it and the environment.  And we like to do this through multiple means but including technical assistance, research and analysis on a national level, and advocacy.

I would like to also mention that we have a membership program, so we’re not just a national think-tank that thinks big thoughts in D.C.; we try to truth test it with our members who are local leaders, transportation officials, chamber executives, people like that who are trying to make good, multimodal, strong, transportation decisions at the local level, and we want to make sure that what we’re working on nationally fits in with their vision, and we’re bringing the best practices to the forefront nationally.

Cohen: Wow.  It certainly seems like your prior experience in Congress or Capitol Hill and at the USDOT certainly sets you up perfectly to do the job that you’re doing now with Transportation for America.

Osborne: Well, I certainly hope so.  I think what it definitely does is it shows me the gap between a lot of the rhetoric and the practice in the program.

Cohen: Hmm.

Osborne: We hear a lot about what we hope to achieve with transportation investments, but there is often a pretty big gap between what we say we want and what the program actually delivers, and that’s something that became incredibly clear to me when I worked both on Capitol Hill and at the USDOT.  And I think it’s one of the things that Transportation for America does most, is bring that frustration that people feel at the local level, because the outcomes we’re getting are not quite the ones that we claim we want, to the forefront and hopefully push for state and federal programs and investments that get us a little bit closer.

Cohen: Just to maybe make sure I’m understanding that clearly; the federal government is setting out some policies or some standards or legislation, and then how that actually gets implemented and what the actual impact is at the ground level if you’re a transit agency CEO or a local mayor doesn’t always—you’re saying it doesn’t always fit, and that’s part of what you’re trying to reconcile now.

Osborne: That is exactly what I’m saying.  One example is I’m sure people have heard a lot about the desire to repair our crumbling roads and bridges.  That’s a phrase we hear a lot.

Cohen: Yeah.

Osborne: Well, our federal transportation program was designed to build an interstate system, a highway system.  And it’s really good at building new things; it’s not particularly good at maintaining those very same things.  So for all of the talk about repairing crumbling roads and bridges, there’s really nothing in the federal program that incentivizes that, and there’s actually a lot of culture and history that incentivizes building new while allowing existing infrastructure to continue to deteriorate.

Cohen: Wow.  I mean, I think that is emblematic of a lot of things that are going on right now.  And certainly it recalls to mind a conversation I had with a city manager one time. At TransLoc we were testing out some new technology, and we were trying to identify places to test it, and so I went to the city manager and was pitching this, and he responded in a very matter-of-fact way that I didn’t quite appreciate at the time but I certainly appreciate now, which is he said, “You know, look.  I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but we still need to get our baseline service taken care of, and I don’t want us to get distracted by a shiny penny when we really need to be investing in the day-to-day service that thousands of people depend on every day.”

And I think that’s just a really neat parallel to what you’re talking about there, which is, “Hey, we’ve got all these bridges and roads already that we need to take care of.”  And certainty in the transit world as well, as it relates to State of Good Repair and so forth, that we need to take are of that, let alone build new stuff, which I think people have an interest in, but we also need to make sure we’re paying for that stuff that we’ve already invested in.

Osborne: Well, and that’s a very challenging thing to do.  It sounds so obvious that we should be doing it, and yet in practice it’s very difficult.  That person that you cited showed great fortitude, frankly. It’s hard to take a position like that, because if you think about delivering a maintenance project, if I say I’m going to maintain this service, particularly a roadway, it’s probably going to involve cutting off traffic to be able to do the work itself.  And at the end of a great expense and what could be awfully inconvenient for the folks who rely on that road while it’s being fixed, at the end all you have is what you had before, versus if you build something new you can see how that is going to be automatically more exciting.

It’s not necessarily inconveniencing as many people when you’re building the new thing, and it’s brand-shiny new at the end; it’s something you didn’t have before.  So standing by a notion of maintenance, it’s unglamorous, and you don’t get a lot of praise for it. In fact, you get a whole lot of pretty nasty press for the traffic snarls caused by doing particularly roadway maintenance or taking buses out of circulation in order to maintain them.  But when you build the new thing it’s really all upside. So it takes a pretty strong leader to do the maintenance knowing that, and it takes a strong program pushing for the maintenance to help overcome that.

Cohen: Well, and I really think that’s the thrust of the conversations that I’m having, is that—I agree—I think it requires bold decisions and courage to make those calls.  And I ideally want to see more folks who are willing to make those tough calls. My wife calls those types of projects around our home “unsexy projects.” Right?

Osborne: Right.

Cohen: It’s like if you have to replace your HVAC or replace your roof or something like that.  That’s not a very fun project, because you’re not getting a new bathroom or something like that; you’re just kind of making the air-conditioning work during the summer, which is kind of important in North Carolina or Washington.

Osborne: Absolutely right.  It’s interesting; if you look at the rhetoric, it does seem to be pretty compelling to talk about rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges.  But, you’re right, when it comes to the actual project, that is the least sexy of all the projects. And we’ve got to figure out a way to connect that desire to do what’s responsible with actually delivering that result.  And right now all the emphasis is on doing the new, shiny thing as opposed to the hard, grinding, maintenance work.

Cohen: So it sounds like the incentives are off.  Right?

Osborne: Yeah.

Cohen: So I think you’ve done a good job of identifying that the incentives to do the bright, shiny thing are much more in the favor of especially elected officials and sometimes even appointed officials who have to answer all those nasty emails.  So how do we change that?

Osborne: You know, we could learn a lot from the way that the transit program is run, frankly.  And obviously the transit program isn’t perfect or ideal, but compared to the highway program it’s a lot closer to what we want.  If you think about what we do on the transit side, there’s a good portion of money that goes out to transit agencies for general operations and maintenance.  And that’s the formula funds that you depend on. It’s not enough to build something big and new, but it’s a contribution to maintaining the system you have. That’s what’s guaranteed.  And if you want to build something new, well, you have to compete a bit.

You come into a program we call New Starts or Small Starts, and you say, “Here are the ways that our project meets national goals, and it’s in statute what we want.  We want to see projects that support economic development and faster trips to jobs,” and there’s a whole list of things. So there is the overall benefits, but then you have to show that you can maintain and operate the thing we’re going to fund you to build.  And you have to make some showing that you can do that without sacrificing your underlying system. So it’s not, “I’m going to build this new thing and then let the rest of it fall apart.” “I’m going to build this new thing, and let me show you how I’m going to do that in the context of maintaining the overall system that I own now.”

On the highway side we give you a big, huge chunk of money.  We send out tens of billions of dollars a year to all the state DOTs, and we say, “I don’t know.  Spend it how you want to. Spend it on highways.” And so if a state says, “Well, what I’d like to do is spend it on a roadway I’m not sure people will use, I’m not sure I can maintain, and I’ll be letting other projects fall apart or maybe some rural roads fall apart while I try to keep up with this one,” we say, “Oh, that’s on you to figure out.”  It’s probably not the right model. So I think we could take some of what we’ve learned on the transit side and apply it to the highway side. Unfortunately, in transportation when someone raises an issue of good governance and good management the response is generally, “Great idea. Let’s apply it to transit.” I think we should apply it broadly.

Cohen: Why is that?  Why do you think that is?

Osborne: Because people like having a slush fund for highways, and they don’t want to be questioned, but there are a lot of people that question whether or not we should be spending money on transit at all.  So there’s a sense of, “Well, we’ll hold transit responsible because I’m not so sure I want to spend any of my money on transit, but all highways are good. There’s no way to ever spend a highway project badly, so go to town.”

Cohen: So it’s a little just put your head in the sand about that?

Osborne: Absolutely.

Cohen: Again, it goes back to incentives; it’s kind of perverse in the incentives.  Right? So the highway is obviously a lot more money compared to transit too, so it’s not only a relative kind of importance but it’s also an actual gravity as far as how much is actually being directed to those various places, especially when you consider that in many places these highway projects aren’t actually meeting the needs of the communities.  Right? So they’re filling up with induced demands shortly after they open. Right? So to me it just feels like there is a disconnect between what Joe Q. Public or Jane Q. Public wants and what those that either in a policymaking from a legislative standpoint or a policy-implementing standpoint from executive branch kind of standpoint.

Osborne: Well, we’ve done a poor job of defining what it is we want, therefore making it very hard for us to determine whether or not we’re getting what we want.  What underlies the program is the notion that we should have high-speed auto travel everywhere.

Cohen: Right, that’s the fundamental assumption.

Osborne: Yes.  You should be able to pull out of your driveway and start going 55 miles per hour to your destination, at all times of day, no matter how many people are on the road.  That is what underlies every decision in transportation. Most of what we do in safety is designed to make the roads safe at speed, even though the safest road isn’t a high-speed road.  So just recognizing that speed underlies every priority and maybe speed should not be the number one priority can get us to figuring out why there is such that disconnect.

We developed this program to build an interstate system.  It was President Eisenhower with a desire to build a system like the Autobahn that he had seen in Germany during World War II, and he wanted a system like that here.  And everything that our program is built on, it’s built on that concept of building these freeways with very high-speed traffic. So when you start designing a roadway one of the first things we look at is whether or not it’s going to be wide enough so that no matter how many people are on the road they can go super fast.  And there are a lot of consequences for taking that as the only priority in the system.

Safety is secondary to it.  First, we get the speed, then we get it as safe as possible at that speed, but what you get is you get throughways in areas that you want to be your destination.  That area might be where you want people coming to and stopping and creating a vibrant economic environment where people mill about and eat outdoors and shop and walk and participate, but if you’re goal is to zoom people through there your transportation is going to undermine that feeling by creating a highway though your main street.  And so much of our priority is based on the notion that no car should ever slow down, it’s hard to do the other things that come from creating areas where there might be people walking about or cars might be coming to as a destination and stopping. We don’t really think about origin and destination in transportation. We think about getting your car through there.

So I often think about the way we evaluate the success of a roadway.  If I put you in a car and you went around in circles but you were going in circles all day, never arriving anywhere but going at the speed limit, that is an A-plus roadway the way we evaluate success in transportation.  But if you get in a car and travel in traffic for five minutes, that is an F; that is an absolute failure because you were traveling slowly, in spite of the fact you arrived where you wanted to go quickly and safely.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, and I saw something the other day that talks about good congestion versus bad congestion.  Right? So good congestion being in a dense, urban environment where there is a lot of different, mixed-use people milling about.  It might take a little time to get where you need to go, but there’s vibrancy and so forth. That’s good congestion—right—because that’s economic activity and so forth.  As opposed to bad congestion, which is eight lanes of highway and bumper to bumper for 10 miles where that’s just congestion; that’s not net positive to anything other than those people theoretically were coming from jobs or to jobs or to a community of some sort of another.  So I do think there is something to that. Take me back though to how do we—so just you describing the inanity of it only being based on speed. You get that; I get that. How do we get others to understand how inane that is to only have that one factor as the determining goal?

Osborne: That’s a great question, and it’s easy and it’s not easy at the same time.  [LAUGHTER] We have to take advantage of the current funding issue, the fact that we are raising less money in gas taxes than we want to spend in the transportation program.  At the federal level we’re raising about $38-billion a year, but we have a program that’s authorized at $50-billion a year, and we have a gap to fill. That gives us an opportunity to question whether or not we are getting what we want from the program, because any time there is a gap to fill it means somebody has got to come up with new money, and that’s a hard thing to do.  That’s when you get to ask these questions.

But we have to recognize that because this program is trust-funded, if you pay your gas tax it doesn’t come through a process of annual spending or annual appropriations; it automatically goes into the coffers of state DOTs.  That means that elected officials don’t have to analyze the program on a regular basis, and in programs they don’t analyze on a regular basis they don’t have a lot understanding about. So we’ve got to break through that.

We’ve got to recognize that folks on Capitol Hill and even in state legislatures, they don’t really know what this program is doing.  And when I was at DOT we would regularly get questions from Capitol Hill asking us if we would fund a project in their state. We’d have to explain to them that the program that they had themselves authorized did not permit us to make funding decisions, that it was the state DOTs that made them.  They did not know this. So there is a lot of ignorance about how the program works, and it’s the downside of a trust fund that the program doesn’t require knowledge and evaluation in order to keep going.

Cohen: Well, it seems like that’s a connection there, again, with incentives because very similar to some of the work being done in transportation-demand management around instead of having a monthly parking pass where you’re incentivized to use it once you buy it, to make that into a daily parking pass so you kind of have to buy it on a daily basis so that you’re then incentivized to maybe use transit once a week because it’s not a sunk cost that you already bought that parking pass so you might as well just get the most out of it.

Osborne: Absolutely.  Yeah, and if you have to look at the transportation program on an annual basis, you might wonder whether or not you’re getting enough out of it to justify fighting for it on an annual basis.  On the other hand, when we’re trying to build projects of regional and national significance it can be very difficult to build them if you have to go and fight for money annually, so there is a push and pull there.  But I would argue at this point now that we have built out a national highway system maybe it is appropriate again to look at what we’re getting on a more regular basis and ensure that it is what we want. It’d be nice to have a national debate about what it is we expect to get from our transportation system and whether or not high-speed auto travel is the ultimate goal of the transportation system or whether or not local economic development is the goal and getting you to something not through something is truly the goal.

Cohen: Is that the role for Transportation for America?  Is that a role of the national conference of mayors, or is that a role of the legislators themselves or the USDOT?   Who should be kind of spearheading that national conversation around what do we want those priorities to be if not just the default, which has been speed for the last 50 years?

Osborne: I think our elected representatives absolutely should be leading this, but in the absence of that, groups like mine are going to push the issue.

Cohen: Yeah.  And certainly I know you work with a lot of elected officials to do that, so those groups are not necessarily separate; there is some overlap between them.

Osborne: Absolutely.  Like I said, we don’t want to just be thinking big thoughts here.  We want to work with the actual practitioners, and we do a lot of technical assistance with them to see if our ideas work out at the local level.  We take ideas from them and we promote them nationally. So a lot of what we do is we go look at the folks who are doing the most impressive and interesting work, learn about how they did it, and we try to tell others about it.

So, for example, instead of looking only at speed, the DOT in Virginia has been looking at how to measure access to jobs and access to services by all modes of transportation and measuring it on equal footing.  And it was something that they were told by statute to measure, but they weren’t quite sure how to do it, and instead of doing what a lot of departments of transportation do, which is say, “I don’t know how to measure that; it can’t be measured,” they said, “We’re going to figure this out,” and they did.  And we were a part of that, figuring it out.

So they’ve developed a way using GIS and using cloud computing to look at where people are located, where the destinations like jobs and banks and schools and healthcare facilities and such things are located, all the different routes you can take there by different modes, and by doing that how many jobs you have accessible within a certain period of time, all modes of transportation, how many banks and schools are accessible by all modes of transportation within a certain period of time.

And one of the ways you can address low accessibility, you can reduce congestion and speed up somebody’s trip, or you could give them a more direct route by maybe building a bridge over a railroad, or maybe you can add new transit connections or increase transit frequency or straighten a transit line or add a bike-ped connection or make it safer; or if the problem is access to certain services like maybe healthcare services, maybe it’s cheaper to bring the services closer to the people than to build a major transportation investment.  And by looking at multimodal access to jobs and services you can put all of those on equal footing and figure out which has the greatest benefit and which costs the least with the greatest benefit.

Cohen: I like that.  I think that’s a good model that I hope others will take a look at, and I’m sure your organization is helping to share the good news of that model.  Who else is doing a good job of making these hard decisions for the long-term?

Osborne: Well, there are a lot of good examples of people trying new and innovative and interesting things.  At the federal level one thing we tried was the TIGER Discretionary Grant Program where we allowed any level of government to come in to us with a project, and we didn’t ask them to tell us what mode of transportation they were building like most of the transportation program does.  If you’ve got a highway project, you come here; if you’ve got a transit project, you go there; if you’ve got a bike-ped project, you go someplace totally differently. With TIGER it was, “Bring me whatever surface transportation project you have, but tell me does it improve economic development, safety, quality of life, environmental sustainability, and state of repair.  And if it does two to three of those things really well and it does it better than other projects coming in and competing we’ll fund you.”

And I loved the model because it was outcome based and not output or mode based.  Again, it was outcome based and not based on who was proposing; it wasn’t better if it was a state DOT versus a locality; it didn’t matter.  And I liked it because instead of us regulating our way to a good result, it said, “Tell us the best you’ve got, and whoever has got the best, they get the funding.”  And what I found is American communities when competing are amazing. They can do all kinds of inventive, innovative, creative, smart things when to get money they have to beat out their neighbor.  Competition brings out the best.

Cohen: Or when they have to be creative about how to solve the problem.  Right?

Osborne: Yes.

Cohen: I think that’s another part of it too.  Right?

Osborne: Yeah, and it turns out that it’s hard to do things that are daring and unusual in a formula-based program.  But in competition where it will put you ahead of somebody else people are willing to try new things, and when they try them and they work, well, then that can come back and impact the way they do their day-to-day business as well.  So I think it brought out the best in communities, and I really liked seeing the impact of competition, and I’d like to see that more broadly in the program.

If you go to the state level, there are some really interesting things going on across the country.  Going back to our friends in Virginia, the very fact that they score every new capacity and expansion project according to their outcomes and then they look at the benefits and they divide it by the cost, you know, it’s singular in transportation.  And they look at it based on access to jobs, economic development, improvement of safety, congestion reduction, and such things; and they give it a score, and then they divide it by the cost. And so you could have a project that has a great benefit score, but if it’s got a huge cost, it’s overall score isn’t so great; and you could have something with small benefits but tiny cost that has a great overall score; and so it’s really looking for, you know, are you maximizing the dollars that are going into that project.  And I think that’s created much of the same sorts of positive reinforcement the TIGER program did.

Instead of telling people that you just have to have the most powerful legislator in your district in order to get funding, it says, “We’re giving out money based on who is accomplishing the most with the money,” and I really, really like that, and I really like attaching the investment to the outcome, which is kind of an obvious thing to say, but it’s a very rare thing across the country.  And we’re starting to see this more and more. We’re seeing other states really take a look at this and consider it especially as they’re having to go back to their taxpayer and ask for more money. When you have to do that, you have to also account for the way that your money is being spent, and that requires maybe a little bit of cleaning up what we’ve done.

Cohen: Sure.  Well, let’s wrap up here with the topic of change management.  I bring this up because I think this is an interesting time for transportation because, you know, you’ve alluded to some of the changes over the last 60 years or some of the not-changes as it relates to some of the values around how we’re giving out money.  But I think cities are now having to deal with all of these changes that are happening in their cities with scooters and dockless bike shares and Uber and Lyft, and so what that makes me think of is, obviously, dealing with change is hard just generally, and it’s especially hard when it’s really fast.  So I guess the question I would have for you is, what recommendations do you have for municipalities and regions as it relates to some of this change that we’re seeing in transportation right now, not necessarily related specifically to scooters and dockless bike shares and Ubers and Lyfts as much as dealing with change and how best to deal with that change?

Osborne: Absolutely.  It’s a really good question.  And it’s interesting, because the newer mobility services have gotten more communities to ask the questions we should have asked anyway.  We weren’t willing to talk about changes and things like roadway design and parking minimums and things like that.

Cohen: Curb space.

Osborne: And curb space and all these.  These were untouchable issues, but with new mobility it seems like we’re willing to have that conversation.  We believe that it has changed the ground a little bit, the ground game, and therefore we can reopen these difficult issues.  They really haven’t, but it’s great that people are now willing to talk about them. I think what I would say is we have the potential to fix a lot of the mistakes that we have made over the last 75 years or to double down on all of those mistakes.  And none of these new mobility services in and of themselves are good, and none of them in and of themselves are bad.

Cohen: Right.

Osborne: All transportation tools and mechanisms are just that; they’re tools and mechanisms, and they can be wielded beautifully, and they could be wielded like a cudgel, could cut communities off from necessities to create a great barrier between people and opportunity.  That’s how we built our highway system. We didn’t have to. You can envision a world where none of the highways went through central cities, where we had highways that went around communities like we ended up having to go back and build anyway because it turned out that building through the middle of towns just ended up filling them up.  We don’t want to exacerbate those mistakes with these new technologies.

So what I would say that cities should be doing is articulating what it is they want to accomplish, not even with transportation but generally.  If their goal is to create active, vibrant centers of life, you do that by having people. I remember the former EPA administrator said that pedestrians are the indicator species of a healthy economic environment.  That’s exactly right, and if you want people milling about and spending their money, you don’t build a highway through town, you build a main street through town where there’s accommodations for those people, safe places for them to be, and it’s a place that you come to; you don’t go blasting through.

There’s a lot of design and transportation investment decisions that flow from that one decision, but you have to make that decision.  And right now in transportation we really have spent decades making the decision that no one is ever looking to stop any place, they should just be able to go at high speed all the time, and that undercuts the desire to have these vibrant centers of activity where, yeah, the traffic might slow down a little bit because that’s your final destination and you do have to slow down to stop.  So I think not looking at new mobility as an end-all-be-all or a solution but another tool in the toolbox is going to be what is important. And if we view it as that tool and we stay focused on what our overall objectives are we will be able to align our systems and programs to accommodate them most appropriately and to shift for them.

But if all we’re looking to do is to have them and how they impact our society doesn’t matter, you can see folks attempting to change the way that their agencies are formulated in order to accommodate new mobility services that then aren’t deployed well.  And that would be a shame because it’s going to require the same amount of thought and effort and change to just accommodate new services with or without thinking about the outcomes. And I just encourage everyone to remember that it’s not going to get you out of the hard decisions; it’s just another tool for addressing those hard decisions.

Cohen: Beth, thank you so much for this.  I think this was just a really great way of connecting some of the themes that I’ve been thinking a lot about with setting vision and making hard decisions with some of the more tactical elements related to how our government funds transportation, which is obviously important, and we need both parts of those.  So I appreciate you taking the time to chat today, and I’ll look forward to seeing some of your work further with Transportation for America.

Osborne: It was great to talk to you.  Thanks for bringing me on.

Cohen: Thanks so much.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.