Let’s Assume Nothing

I have heard and seen commentators offer various perspectives on the lessons of the pandemic and our state and national response to it. Some involve public health, some focus on the economy, some on work-related communications and meetings (like my blog a few weeks ago), real estate, and so on. Most of us have come to the realization that many of the needed lessons won’t become completely apparent until we get past all of this in the months and years ahead.

However, one primary lesson from the pandemic is already crystal clear:

Assume nothing.

From a business, personal finance, resource activity, etc. standpoint, this means take nothing for granted. Or if you prefer an enterprise risk management (ERM) framework, it means to question every assumption you have, stress test those assumptions like crazy — using far broader confidence intervals than you may have previously considered — and so on.

RTA has always incorporated uncertainty and flexibility in our thinking and advocacy. Our consistent, pre-pandemic push for transit-ready, multimodal freeways – the core strategy underpinning our ongoing Freeway And Street-based Transit (FAST) network study – is a direct response to this flexibility mindset. We don’t know with certainty whether passenger or transit vehicles will become more automated or not in the next few years, or significantly more electric or not, or whether the vehicle mix will move more toward freight (e.g., trucks), visitors, commuters, etc.

What we do know is that free-flow mobility will be valuable across a range of potential future scenarios, and that such mobility – by creating multimodal freeway linkages and relieving local streets – will ensure accessibility and opportunity for rural and metropolitan areas alike. We will continue to incorporate flexibility and uncertainty in our thinking around freeways and streets, including transit, as we advance mobility projects with long lead times and challenging approval processes in an increasingly resource-constrained environment.

Let’s pivot to air travel for a moment. The RTA Airport Infrastructure Development (AID) task force did outstanding work this past fall and winter in support of expanding air service and facilities at RDU International, culminating in draft findings and recommendations. Their menu of options — conceived of and released in a pre-pandemic environment for North Carolina — even included a series of risk management elements such as having the airlines build and operate a possible future new “terminal 3″ to accommodate the then-torrid rate of growth, while mitigating the potential for an unexpected downturn in air service demand.

While the task force did not consider anything resembling the current 90%+ reduction in air travel in our conversations, I promise you that we will do so going forward as we continue our support of RDU and this region. We need to increase the breadth of our scenario planning mindset across all travel modes and priorities, and we will do so, and we will encourage our partners to do so as well.

* * * * *

When I was a consultant civil engineer in northern Virginia in the early 1990s, my first supervisor gave me guidance that I would summarize as follows:  “We are always making assumptions (explicit or implicit) in our efforts and analysis. We need to always ask ourselves this question:  ‘What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if our assumptions are incorrect?'”

More than 25 years later, that advice is as true as ever.


Let’s assume nothing, and let’s get moving.



Joe Milazzo II, PE
Executive Director
Regional Transportation Alliance


RTA is the voice of the regional business community on transportation

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