Government Issues

Civic action, leadership key to transportation innovation, reform, study says

Posted on July 29, 2015

Portland Streetcar
Portland Streetcar

A report examining the history of transportation reform in six major cities finds that citizen-led efforts are necessary to achieve reform. The report studied recent innovations in transportation practice in New York City, Portland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Charlotte and found that local advocacy and civic engagement were a necessary prerequisite for revitalizing urban transportation.

In the past decade, several cities have transformed their streets by adding bus and bike lanes, creating new pedestrian plazas, and emphasizing the movement of people instead of cars. These changes were initiated and led by local-level advocacy, according to the report, “A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation,” released today by TransitCenter, a foundation that supports efforts to improve urban transportation, and supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

“Transformation happens at the local level, with civic organizations and transportation leaders who coordinate their actions and work together,” said David Bragdon, Executive Director of TransitCenter. “Municipal leaders should be bold in their attempts to innovate, and state and federal policy should encourage local-level innovation.”
Local transportation advocates and government officials have rebranded transportation reform as quality of life issues, allowing them to galvanize higher levels of local support.
There are three factors required in order to accomplish this type of innovation: a civic sector that is resident-led, non-elite, and outside government that can direct public support; a bold mayor and transportation agency head who have the vision and skills to manage this innovation; and a staff willing to challenge the existing culture within local government, according to TransitCenter data.
“Civic leaders stand up for bold ideas and support politicians willing to take risks. Elected leaders articulate strong transportation visions and inspire change across agencies. Agency leaders navigate desired changes through the bureaucracy and create new practices,” said Shin-pei Tsay, Research and Development Director of TransitCenter and the report primary author. “When one is missing, change happens much more slowly.”
Despite significant differences in the local conditions and history, all of the cities examined implemented innovative and lasting transportation policies, illustrating that any city can use bottom-up approaches to change transportation policy.
Based on the experiences of these six cities, TransitCenter recommends that transit advocates, policymakers, foundations, and anyone interested in transportation change:

  • Encourage civic organizations to emerge and reframe transportation issues as quality-of-life issues;
  • Reinforce public support through political organizing and leveraging technical expertise or data;
  • Bolster the courage of leaders willing to take on reform by connecting them with visible public support and a compelling communications strategy;
  • Position advocates on the inside to catalyze a reorientation of city agency and staff culture;
  • Perpetuate new norms by changing agency standards;
  • Create federal and state policies that recognize and reward small-scale urban transportation reform and tip the scales toward innovation.

 “TransitCenter’s recounting of how leading cities have changed the way they build and plan urban transportation shows how engaged citizens can set the stage for big shifts in our cities,” said Benjamin de la Peña, Knight Foundation director for community and national strategy. “Advocates and local leaders in these cities are at the forefront of this transformation. Less car-centric transportation that provides more options can help to improve the quality of life in our cities and give them an edge in the competition to attract and keep talent.”

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