System at a Crossroads:
Rethinking Infrastructure and Mobility
The U.S. infrastructure system is at a crossroads, and a new approach – encompassing research as well as practice – is needed to move the system forward. Performance indicators like the number of hours that drivers spend on congested highways or that delayed travelers spend in overburdened airports are trending upwards, while the estimated backlog of deferred maintenance and repair spending is likewise on the rise.
Overall, the infrastructure system – actually a collection of interdependent though not always integrated systems – is simply not consistently and efficiently delivering the services, primarily mobility, that society and the economy demand from it.
The creative and thoughtful application of new “enabling technologies” to infrastructure systems – especially from the fields of information and communications – offers the potential to make substantial systemic gains, but a broadening and reorientation of research is needed to provide the knowledge and tools to seize these opportunities.
The difficulty of orchestrating a comprehensive response to this problem is compounded by the structure of the infrastructure enterprises, which are extensively fragmented along multiple dimensions. Authority is held by a mixture of local, state, federal, and regional – or metropolitan – agencies. It is divided according to modes (e.g., air, rail, highway, marine, and pipelines in transportation) and often it is further split among entities responsible for guide-ways and infrastructure, vehicles and rolling stock, system operations, and other functions. Information traditionally has not flowed easily across these boundaries, and decision-making typically allocates resources to achieve localized optimization with poor understanding or little regard for effects on long-term improvements in the larger system. Provision of mobility – and enhancement of its quality – is an issue requiring a comprehensive approach and participation of the many service providers and other stakeholders. Our failure as a nation to adopt such a coordinated and inclusive approach has been a major factor contributing, over the last several decades, not just to a lack of real progress, but also to an actual worsening of service provision by the systems at large.
More and more stakeholders are becoming aware of the shortcomings of the system, but too often the proposed remedy is to increase spending without rethinking the underlying strategy. This flawed thinking was evident earlier this year in the public discourse that surrounded the economic stimulus; much focus was placed on the condition and capacity of physical infrastructure systems, including many anecdotal examples of poorly maintained, deficient, or even failing assets. Physical infrastructure, however, exists to provide services like mobility to society, and there has been considerably less talk explicitly about improving these services than there has been about simply building or rebuilding infrastructure.
To assume that investment in fixing roads and bridges will solve or even significantly lessen our mobility problems is to underestimate dangerously the scope and complexity of the true mobility challenge. The crux of this task is adapting and, where necessary, expanding or replacing legacy systems to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century; to do so will require considering not only the physical elements of the system but also the institutions, policies, organizations, and other factors that constitute the infrastructure system and influence the level of mobility it makes possible.
To be sure, there have been a range of limited initiatives to modify various aspects of infrastructure over the past two decades, including some efforts to craft viable public-private partnerships and work on intelligent systems, but there has remained a deficit of political will to make the high-level decisions necessary to overcome infrastructure’s web of interrelated capacity, efficiency, and revenue problems and facilitate widespread improvement to mobility and modernization of the systems that deliver it. The challenges that the system faces are complex, and it seems not unreasonable to suggest that a paradigm shift in the approach is needed to successfully overcome them. When faced with such a challenge, this nation has in the past turned to science and technology, and these fields must undoubtedly be called upon again to modernize the systems and meet our mobility needs in this new century. We must not, however, rely on these disciplines exclusively.
Conventional wisdom tells us that, as a nation, we should invest more in research and development in infrastructure, but the nature of this investment will be vital to its success. Federal and state governments, industry groups, and other organizations have spent vast sums of money on research for decades, yielding mostly modest successes and incremental improvements, though the results have been decidedly unbalanced across infrastructures. For example, major advances in information technology have revolutionized communication and the infrastructure that supports it, but no parallel to this exists in other forms of infrastructure. Valuable though the countless incremental innovations in infrastructure have been, they have proven unable to keep pace with the rapid rate of change in the economy, demographics, and other external factors that shape the demand for infrastructure services and have failed to forestall continued worsening of congestion and other performance indicators. Recognizing the limitations of current approaches and devising improved R&D investment strategies to overcome them is imperative.
As suggested above, critically evaluating the mobility challenge and the full spectrum of possible research contributions is essential to moving the nation towards a more sustainable and better-performing infrastructure paradigm. We must ask ourselves what is working, what is not, and what priorities are likely to generate the sought-after outcomes most effectively. What might modern infrastructure systems, able to deliver mobility sustainably, look like? Looking to the history as well as the current state of our existing systems can provide insights. For example, the U.S. transportation system has developed – mostly haphazardly – over the past two centuries. It moves both people and goods and includes multiple modes of travel, notably air, maritime, rail, highways, public transit systems, and pipelines. To improve this system, we must look not only to the technologies and operations of the individual physical systems but also to the effects of the institutional and organizational structures that provide governance and management. Institutional jurisdiction is fragmented in multiple dimensions – along modal, geographic, and functional lines – and coordination among these is difficult to achieve.
The nation’s Northeast corridor – connecting major metropolitan areas like Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC – is an illustrative example. The corridor includes a mix of railways, sea lanes, highways, and air traffic routes that connect the cities, as well as a multitude of options for local travel within individual metropolitan areas. Governance and management of these systems involves the federal government, multiple states, and countless local or regional authorities, each with its own resources, goals, and incentives.
Much of the infrastructure is operating against the margins of capacity constraints and has been kept in operation longer than designers intended. Congestion has been a problem for years, but the constraints and complexities of the fragmented system have made significant improvements very difficult to achieve.
Altering the ways in which the various modal and geographic authorities interact may be an important element in improving the overall system performance, but overcoming the many barriers – political and otherwise – to such changes is no straightforward task.
Recent technological developments have given us tools that may facilitate new inter-organizational interactions and coordination, make new management approaches feasible, and ultimately enable fundamental systemic changes to improve mobility. Information and communications technologies have advanced rapidly for several decades and have transformed other industries. Their uptake in infrastructure systems, however, has been relatively unbalanced, and in certain infrastructure systems, such as transportation, very slow. Some transportation stakeholders have successfully applied various information and communication technologies to improve their own operations and management systems, and a few initiatives – like the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Integrated Corridor Management Systems – are seeking to leverage technology to enhance the performance of individual subsystems in limited geographic areas. These are important first steps, but the scope of application must be broadened significantly. Applying new technology within organizations and subsystems is valuable, but addressing infrastructure’s problems comprehensively means exploring the opportunities for using information and communication technologies to enable new strategies across many organizations and, indeed, system-wide. Maximizing the potential benefits requires looking for the best ways to align technologies, management strategies, and institutional structures. The nature of these interactions and the policies necessary to implement and optimize them are not well known, creating an opportunity for trans-disciplinary research to make a real contribution to mobility improvement.
As a nation, we must come to grips with the mobility challenge and re-orient the infrastructure enterprises to meet this challenge with holistic and sustainable solutions. This challenge is not unlike that which we are facing in the healthcare sector, and the response must be similarly comprehensive: not only using technology to improve what is already done, but also searching for ways in which it can support a new, better paradigm involving change in much more than technological systems. Investing strategically in mobility research will provide the knowledge, technologies, and ideas necessary to accomplish this task in the context of infrastructure, but we must ensure that our investments are shaped by the challenges of the future and not the problems of the past.