Reframing infrastructure: It's really mobility

The latest political “cliff” crisis is centered on funding for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, specifically the Federal Highway Trust Fund. A quarter of American bridges are deemed structurally deficient, rail accidents exacerbate road congestion, mobile networks have variable coverage and airlines are desperate for next generation air traffic control to reduce delays and fuel burn. America’s elected officials must not only put politics aside and work together to invest in infrastructure, they should also modernize their frame of reference for infrastructure, with a focus on mobility.

I recently met with more than 200 top business, government and labor leaders who represent the automotive, aviation, telecommunications, computing, public transit and manufacturing sectors, among others, to discuss transportation and infrastructure for the 21st century. While these groups rarely meet, let alone advocate for the same issues, there was broad agreement that there’s something in infrastructure for everyone: mobility.

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More than the ability to get from point A to point B or the building of bridges and roads, mobility is about opportunity, or about connecting people to jobs, ensuring access to affordable goods, and enabling intrastate commerce and international trade. The mobility gained from a well-maintained infrastructure enables America to continually evolve and improve as a society. Investments that enable mobility will not only strengthen America’s business environment and our ability to compete globally, they will also improve our equity issues and shape our future economy.

Beyond the obvious—that a well-maintained infrastructure keeps us safe—an investment in mobility creates ladders of opportunity for middle and low income workers. The jobs most open to these workers are by and large face-to-face service jobs, which require them to get somewhere other than where the live. With low car ownership and a lack of other transportation options in their neighborhood, these individuals oftentimes don’t have the means to pursue economic opportunities.

Mobility is also key to the evolution of our overall economy. As history has shown, significant investments in mobility—including The Transcontinental Railroad, the Interstate Highway System, and the post-Sputnik space race—propelled growth as remote areas gained transportation connections and new economies were created.

To get America moving, elected officials, entrepreneurs and business leaders must take action:

  • Elected officials must change the name of the Highway Trust Fund to the Mobility Trust. The name is outmoded and the fund already overseas more than highways, including public transit. The Mobility Trust should shift from a focus on single transportation modes to inter-modal connections also include technology innovations (e.g., broadband) and other transportation modes, such as air and rail. Its broadened remit will help to align the fragmented infrastructure debate and develop a national strategy for a more "Connected America" with corridors for economic impact potential, such as North American trade via a north-south rail connecting Canada and Mexico or cross-state economic zones.
  • Rising entrepreneurs and young urban professionals must join the mobility movement. They increasingly don't own cars so have little interest in Highway Trust Fund debates, yet they are developing the future of infrastructure. Their parking apps, autonomous vehicles and car- and ride-sharing programs require an information-enriched infrastructure. Even in a world going digital, we still need physical infrastructure to support digital networks for remote work, to deliver goods ordered over the Internet and to have roads on which ride-sharing cars can safely drive. To attract entrepreneurs and emerging leaders to the dialogue, cities and states should provide publicity, seed funds, challenge grants and research opportunities.
  • Business leaders must invest in public-private partnerships to improve mobility. Take the new tunnel under the Port of Miami in Florida as an example. It’s financed by a private investment firm and is on track to be completed on time and under budget. Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz included the tunnel in a civic transformation vision that included arts and sports. Beyond the 6,000 temporary construction jobs, the real prizes will stem from dramatic cargo growth and development of downtown neighborhoods that had been gridlocked and polluted by truck traffic from the port. Private investment can be attracted when regional projects combine pain alleviation with a longer-term vision. Further, to spur private investment, cities and states should make available the information that users and businesses care about (e.g., commute times, buses to available health providers, conditions of local roads and bridges). When government data is more regularly available, public-private coalitions can set priorities and find synergies across efforts.

Our call to reframe the infrastructure dialogue around mobility, and on elected officials, entrepreneurs and business leaders to take action, is about closing the inequality gap and shaping new economies. Their action will have the added benefit of boosting U.S. competitiveness and our overall economy. The U.S. can regain its stature as the land of opportunity by emphasizing the purpose that animates infrastructure: mobility.

Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School. She leads “America on the Move: Transportation and Infrastructure for the 21st Century.”

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