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TRB: Transportation’s Really Broken

26 Jan 2023 | Posted by | 6 Comments | ,

The Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting was held earlier this January in Washington, D.C. Despite claiming to be at the forefront of innovation, most of the conference avoided the truth: any system based primarily on moving cars as quickly as possible will leave many people behind.

Crowded convention center

Earlier this month, I attended portions of the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. Across all the conversations, committee sessions, and social events, there was significant discussion of using technologies like modeling, automated vehicles, and intelligent transportation systems to solve the most pressing problems in transportation. The overriding ethos of many panels was that through technological innovation and computational analysis, we could address the increasing congestion, worsening traffic safety, and drop in transit ridership that all persist as we get farther from the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This is how much of the transportation ecosystem—from engineers and planners to many private companies and public policymakers—has disconnected innovation from progress. Although many of the new technologies presented in and around D.C.’s convention center may be considered “advancements” by those who worked on them, they do not meaningfully advance one simple goal: to move people and goods where they need to go as quickly, efficiently, and safely as possible, with a variety of mobility options. 

The many innovations discussed at TRB seemed far better ways to avoid confronting the truth—that a system that requires 90 percent of the population to own a private vehicle will never be an efficient system—than serious attempts to ensure our transportation system works better for all.

This did not apply to all of the conference’s participants. Students like Evan Taylor presented posters looking not just at vehicular traffic, but bicycle and pedestrian traffic as well. Organizations like the Parking Reform Network hosted happy hours where they discussed local efforts to improve affordability and efficiency through tweeks to transportation policy. I personally was able to have a great conversation with two planners from Montréal’s commuter railroad, one of whom was presenting on on-demand transit efforts they were undertaking. Perhaps most importantly, even federal government officials didn’t kowtow to automobile autocracy. In the conference’s keynote, panel on roadway safety, and the release of a national transportation decarbonization blueprint by DOT, HUD, EPA, and the Department of Energy, prioritizing cars above all else was described as the obstacle to addressing crises of safety and sustainability. 

A panel discussion by state DOT leaders on implementation of the 2021 infrastructure law at the TRB Annual Meeting.

Part of the reason these points of view are exceptions to the rule are policy choices, many of which administration officials have limited wiggle room in implementing. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act did increase funding for passenger rail and complete streets to historic levels. But at the same time, it allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to worsen the same sprawl, pollution, and safety problems that rail and active transportation investments are supposed to fix. 

Policy isn’t created in a vacuum, though. If there’s any field where that’s true, it’s transportation, where a century of greed-oriented campaigning by the automobile industry and its allies has pushed protecting pedestrians from cars to the background. It has pushed transportation as a field to treat congestion writ large as an enemy, even though many industry professionals experienced the opposite at TRB. Congestion may not be pleasant coming home from the grocery store in a car, but in person it allows for the mingling in bars, impromptu run-ins in hallways and on street corners, and memorable nights at restaurants that give conferences, and cities more broadly, their value. In short, congestion can be a sign of inefficiency, but also of community. Whether it’s a crowded conference or a busy street, congestion can be a clear sign that we’ve created places where people want to be.

TRB and many of its participants have gotten used to instinctively adding vehicle capacity onto every individual problem the transportation system has—and destroying countless communities in the process—instead of asking what tools can move more people, more safely without simultaneously decimating destinations where they gather.

That also means that this status quo isn’t predetermined. During a TransportationCamp session on fighting freeway expansions, one employee at a west coast transportation consultancy described how there are efforts at their firm to make reconnecting communities projects an established team in their organization. The Complete Streets policy passed by Howard County, Maryland, in 2019—which will be reviewed in Smart Growth America’s upcoming Best Complete Streets Policy Report—explicitly described slowing down car traffic as a net positive for the community at large. 

At Transportation for America, our three principles are based on the idea that we already have all the tools we need to make sure our transportation system doesn’t divide communities, heat our planet, and kill our friends, family, and neighbors. We don’t need new technology, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need the will to better use the tools we have.


  1. Todd Litman

    1 year ago

    Thanks Giancarlo! That is a good summary of this year’s TRB and Transportation Camp.

    A key insight is that any corridor that experiences traffic congestion has enough travel demand to support non-auto modes – walking and bicycling facilities and public transit services – and these are usually far more efficient and equitable solutions than expanding roadways. Unfortunately, conventional planning exaggerates the benefits of highway expansions and underestimates the benefits of multimodal solutions; we must demand honesty in planning!

    I was pleased to see that a new generation of younger professionals is embracing a new transportation planning paradigm.

  2. First, i am an advocate for good “public” transit. However, I don’t see bold unsupported claims and accusations as helpful. The fundamental claim in this article is factually preposterous. Really an “efficiency” argument ?! Door-to-door travel times using transit take twice as much time as by private auto. Public transit trips cost society ~$4.00/mile, while private trips cost ~$0.73/mile on average. Public trips emit at about 11 mpg, while private trips only emit at about 31 mpg. I agree our road/car dependency needs to be reined in. But arguing for wasting more on mass transit is a bad approach, especially based upon “efficiency”.

    • Robert Moses Burns In Heck

      1 year ago

      lol please tell me you’re not a practicing planner or engineer

    • Joseph Freedman

      1 year ago

      The pandemic and changing work and commuting patterns DO require that we look at mass transit and bus routes, and the possibilities of smaller transit vehicles suited to fewer riders. SEPTA in the Philadelphia, for example, is studying reconfiguration of bus routes. However, private auto use in our metropolitan area depends upon devoting public space to parking, to streets, and to street repair. I regularly see vehicles parked at bus stops, double parked and parked at pedestrian crosswalks, and even parked on median traffic lanes. What is the true cost of this, particularly in slowing traffic and in imposing costs on others? I suspect that the costs of private auto travel are in reality quite high, so high that drivers unconsciously seek to transfer those costs to others.

  3. D Randolph

    1 year ago

    You forgot the cost of 40,000 lives lost each year because of our desire to go fast everywhere!

  4. Tom Palumbo

    1 year ago

    A lot of the numbers you have listed are misleading, and only apply to transit that gets very little use. A bus might get about 6mpg but if it averages 5-6 riders at any given time then that makes up for lack of fuel and $ efficiency, not to mention reducing traffic. Usually when I ride the bus there are 5-10 people, so I guess my city is doing a good job with this.