An opportunity to rethink mobility

In recent posts, we have spoken about a primary lesson from the coronavirus being to “assume nothing.” Transportation clearly falls in that category, with incomprehensible drops in air travel, transit usage, driving, and so on.

My reflection is that the transportation planning and development process — cumbersome and lengthy even during more stable times — is simply unsuited for volatile conditions such as these, or when we are experiencing a potential inflection point in the level or nature of travel demand.

So what can we do?

My suggestion is to honor three principles:

    1. Secure and preserve key corridors
    2. Future proof investments / build in flexibility and scalability
    3. Implement reversible pilots / set expectations

Principle 1 – securing corridors: Now would be a good time to secure vital rights-of-way, even if we don’t know precisely how they will be used. Unfortunately, securing a corridor is easier said than done, from both a financial and legal standpoint, but where it can be done it should be pursued.

Principle 2 – future proofing:  As we have seen, traffic and usage levels can vary widely in a pandemic. While the air travel drop of 97% was incomprehensible, we have still experienced large drops in other modes, including driving. As we think of improvements in any mode, we need to further expand our risk management and analysis, as we have noted in prior blogs.

Principle 3 – implementing “reversible” pilots: By this, I mean one that can plausibly be returned to its previous state:

  • Physically reversible to its prior condition, at reasonable cost, and
  • Politically reversible — clarifying at the outset of the pilot that you could go back to the prior state, and the political conditions and commitment is in place to do just that

To me, reversible pilots are the key to accelerating transportation improvements at the present time — they allow forward movement while minimizing risk — and these pilots will lay the groundwork for future success.

* * * * *

Here is a salient example: Many areas have experienced an increase in pedestrian and bicycle activity, while traffic volumes have decreased significantly – at least during commuting times – since the pandemic began earlier this year. Is this an indication that we should reallocate more space for pedestrian and bicycle usage and less to motor vehicle operations on certain streets and local arterials?

I believe we should be looking for opportunities such as these, but “what if I am wrong”? While there is no way to know for sure what the future will bring, we should be willing to attempt some pilots where the width of the traveled way is reallocated to different modes, as long as we set expectations up front that they could be modified or restored to the prior arrangement.

The bottom line is this:  while the pandemic may be debilitating, we can’t do “nothing” forever, and we also just don’t want to build in obsolescence with expensive projects that may not be justified going forward. We have an opportunity to rethink mobility, and “reversible” pilots should be at the top of our list.

Let’s get moving,


Joe Milazzo II, PE
Executive Director
Regional Transportation Alliance


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