The Transportation Travesty with Beth Osborne

Beth Osborne has worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation where she served as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy and closely worked for Sen. Tom Carper (DE) as an advisor for transportation, trade, and labor policy and right now she is joining us as the policy director of Smart Growth America – an organization committed to urban planning and development and building better towns and cities.

In this interview, we talked in detail about the ineffectiveness of the US Transportation Department, what role is Transportation for America playing in helping communities park and commute better, and how COVID-19 has drastically affected the transportation industry all over the country.

How has transportation and parking space been affected by COVID-19?

We really see that during COVID, people are behaving differently because they are moving differently. The need to move is different than it was before. Now that I don’t commute, my new commute is generally to walk down the stairs to my basement, right? I can’t ride my bike, drive, or take transit there. And the impact is pretty big. In fact, we don’t see people really commuting much at all except for essential workers. When you look at the pattern of traffic in major communities across the country, there’s really no morning peak anymore. We have spent our entire history in transportation designing around the commute– which we never should have done. But it means that we’re not particularly well prepared to handle the other trips, which are the only ones really happening right now. It has profound impacts for a system designed to manage peak hour traffic which we don’t really have anymore. Both on transit and on our roadways, where we need parking is very different than where we used to.

What are the key initiatives that you took when you were working at the US Department of Transportation? What has been the effectiveness of the organization that is resolving today’s transportation concerns?

I spent five years at the US Department of Transportation Under Secretary LaHood and Secretary Foxx. The thing I worked on there used to be known as the Tiger program and it is now known as the Build program. It was designed as a multimodal competitive grant program. The overwhelming majority, if not almost the entirety of the program has been based on coming up with a political split of funds for different purposes, and not outcomes. But highways get 80%. Of that a certain amount, a tiny amount can be used for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Transit gets 20%. It’s not about what we will get for any of those investments.

It’s whether or not that is considered a fair and politically manageable allocation of dollars to different types of interest groups and modes. Tiger, now Build, put that on its head. It said I don’t care what the mode is, does it accomplish our priorities? Improving safety, economic competitiveness, livability, environmental sustainability, and the state of repair of the system are those priorities. So I’d say that’s the thing I was most excited about working on.

The reason I left was that we didn’t go after the real issue, which is the way our money is spent. It requires collaboration with Congress to update its approach from the current one. This program is really stuck in the 1980s and so is the Federal understanding from a lot of members of Congress. There’s not a lot of deep thinking around it. Transportation for America tries and encourages people to think a little bit more deeply about what we should be getting from the program, and how our investments impact others.

What is your role in Transportation in America? What’s the organization been doing?

Transportation for America is a national nonprofit focused on creating a transportation system that connects people to jobs and essential services, whether we’re talking education, the grocery, medical care, retail, parks, whatever it is, by multiple modes of travel. So that’s driving transit, walking, biking, whatever, no matter their financial means or their physical ability. We do our work through research and analysis of the existing system, how it’s working, how it’s not working through direct technical assistance to those localities, or state or regional entities or transit agencies that want to do what we’re seeking to do through our mission. 

In a city like Boston, land is extremely valuable because so many people want to be located in that area. How much of that space should we dedicate to the storage of people’s personal automobiles?

I would argue very, very little, which is why pricing those spaces is extremely important because those are incredibly valuable pieces of property. It helps people recognize the resource they are using and make more rational decisions. If we give away massive swaths of land to storage of everybody’s personal vehicle for free, people will use it wastefully. Because when things are free, we waste things. When they’re more expensive, we treat them with much more care. I think pricing things so that there can be a marketplace for them is a really important part of making sure people really want that extra space. So if you’ve got a parking space that you’ve already paid for, and your next visit is four blocks away. It’s an inefficient use of property and communicating very clearly in the market, that that community does not think its land is worth that much.

shujauddin

I’m your average upper middle class guy from Karachi, Pakistan who has witnessed shootouts outside his school, attended his best friend’s funeral and gorged on delicious Pakistani food at his secret crush’s wedding. Nothing to see here, folks. So to make sense of the crazy life around me, I graduated with an MFA in Screenwriting from Boston University and I can be found writing for films/TV, practicing my standup routine, fine tuning a copy or just trying to tell stories because stories connects all of us.

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