Get Out of Your Lane: How Transportation Leaders Can Shape the Road Ahead

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On November 28, National League of Cities (NLC) CEO and Executive Director Clarence E. Anthony spoke to 250 transportation executives at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Industry Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. Excerpts from his remarks are included below.

Transportation is much more than just a set of systems — it’s what connects citizens to every part of the community. It’s the way people get to work. It’s the way people transport their kids to school. It’s the way seniors get to doctor appointments. And it’s the way tens of millions of people were able to gather with their families for Thanksgiving last month.

We often talk about how good education and good health are the keys to success, but those things aren’t possible if people can’t reach the doctor or get to school. That’s where public transportation and organizations like the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) come in. Transit systems are the backbone of mobility throughout our communities, and it is on all transportation leaders — together with cities — to make sure that backbone is strong, adaptable to change, and created for everybody.

Whether it’s Chicago, where they’re working to ensure the safety of 1.6 million rides every week; or, West Covina, California, where they’re focused on sustainability and operating a 100-percent electric bus fleet by 2030; or, Houston, Texas, where they’re reinvesting in the bus system with new bus shelters. Transit agencies and cities are focused on strengthening our transportation systems to ultimately benefit people.

But it’s also important for transportation leaders to get engaged in their broader communities. That will take putting on their blinkers and getting out of their lanes.

They need to partner with cities on issues that impact their networks – issues that may not seem like transportation issues on the surface.

Issues like equity — or really, vast inequities in our communities. We have far too many people that don’t have access to jobs, housing or the opportunity to get ahead.  And when you look at these inequities through a racial lens, the disparities are even starker.

This challenge makes clear the need for reliable transportation that serves everyone in our communities — young, old, rich, poor, people of color, and people of varying abilities. If we don’t address inequities in transportation now, gaps in our society will continue to widen.

They also must be engaged on issues concerning our current job market and the changing workforce. The U.S. population is getting older and by 2030, every baby boomer will be over the age of 65, meaning that one in every five residents will be at retirement age. We know that the transportation industry will feel a significant impact from this shift, especially in cities such as Louisville, Denver, Toledo and Gainesville, where driver shortages are already impacting bus services.

At the same time, we also know that advancements in technology and automation will impact the types of jobs that people take on in the future. So as the transportation industry is developing workforce development programs, they must be mindful of the skills and education that will be required for the future workforce.

Transportation leaders must also be mindful of the opioid crisis that is gripping our country. It is impacting their communities and their workforce. In fact, failed drug tests among transportation workers have risen by 77 percent since 2006. Meanwhile, a number of transportation tragedies have occurred as a result of opioid and heroin use. It is critical that transportation leaders partner with local governments on this issue.

Another issue transportation providers should be concerned about is housing. Skyrocketing rents in many cities are driving people with lower incomes out of core downtown areas. That, coupled with the growing number of people who are just a paycheck away from homelessness, has created a persistent challenge for many communities across the country.

The good news is that some public transit organizations are already partnering with cities to improve access to housing in their communities. For example, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is allocating $9 million for a loan to encourage affordable housing near its stations. And in 2016, Seattle joined a number of public and private partners to launch a $21 million revolving loan fund aimed at building housing for low-income families near transit stations.

Transportation systems and transit allies have the unique ability to partner with their cities and the private sector to improve lives through housing. Every American deserves a place to call home, and we must work together to make that a reality.

Finally, transportation leaders must be concerned with the severe lack of investment in our nation’s infrastructure. As a country, we’re facing a decade of underinvestment to the tune of $2 trillion. When considering transit systems alone, we’re looking at $90 billion worth of needs.

City leaders are doing all that we can to address our many other infrastructure needs. But, we need a much stronger partner at the federal level to bring our country’s infrastructure into a good state of repair. It’s an issue that impacts our local economies, our public safety, and our ability to grow and improve our communities. We must advocate together on this issue.

City leaders and transportation providers are in the roles we’re in because we care about the people in our communities.

We care about public safety, about federal infrastructure investment, about housing, about the health of our residents, and about our future workforce. We’re concerned about creating cities that serve everybody.

But to do that, we must get out of our lanes, work together, and find solutions to our biggest problems.

We don’t sit in the seats we occupy because our jobs are easy. We’re in these roles because we care about the future of our communities and the people who move throughout them. I look forward to working together through APTA and NLC.

About the Author: Clarence E. Anthony is the CEO & Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter: @ceanthony50.