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2009: The Year of the Woman in Transportation

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  • Eric Britton
    Dear friends, Directly below you will find an advance draft for an article which I intend to submit on Monday to a high-profile forum of transportation
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 18, 2008

      Dear friends,


      Directly below you will find an advance draft for an article which I intend to submit on Monday to a high-profile forum of transportation insiders who have been invited to provide ideas and counsel to the incoming Obama administration.  I think you will find that together with the short introductory note you have in hand everything you need to understand context, etc.


      In a way this is a message from many of us who have been discussing and exchanging issues and views on these matters over the last years, so I thought it might be appropriate to put it before you for your eventual comments and suggestions prior to "going public" with that on Monday.


      As always, your critical comments and suggestions will be very welcome.  I hope you find some interest in this and that you think that it is possible, if we put our heads together, to make important changes in our sector and in society more generally.  If we can make 2009 the Year for the Woman in Transportation, that will I think make a huge difference for us all.  Thanks for your patience and your views. Eric Britton




      What is this?

      The following is intended as my first invited contribution to an ongoing "insider policy discussion" sponsored by the National Journal , which has as its intention to provide expert (“insider”) counsel to guide the incoming Obama administration on matters involving policy and investments in the transportation sector for the years immediately ahead.  You can access the discussions at http://transportation.nationaljournal.com.  Here are three further references that may help orient you in this:

      1. The infrastructure discussions and recommendations:: http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2008/12/how-should-infrastructure-stimulus-be-spent.php
      2. My contributor profile: http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/contributors/Britton.php
      3. Links to feeds permitting you to follow discussions and new contributions.  http://feeds.feedburner.com/njgroup-transportation


      Your critical comments and eventual suggestions both on improving the readability and impact of the following are very much appreciated. Also, it would be great if you might have any ideas concerning where to take this next.  Eric Britton. Eric.Britton@...  Skype: newmobility Tel: 1 (310) 601-8468 or  +331 4326 1323


      Discussion topic, December 2008: How should the infrastructure stimulus be spent?

      “President-elect Obama has made a hefty economic stimulus the first item on his legislative agenda and signaled that he wants a significant infrastructure component. How should the money for transportation infrastructure be distributed to maximize job creation in the short run while ensuring that the projects deliver the greatest benefit for the public? And who gets to decide which projects move first?”                           -- Lisa Caruso, NationalJournal.com

      2009: The Year of the Woman in Transportation

      Eric Britton

      EcoPlan International – New Mobility Partnerships  

      Paris and Los Angeles

      Summary: The author argues  first that the key to infrastructure is not physical objects but people.  Not physical products but services.  Second, that the present transportation system has been designed almost exclusively by males, and, worse, for males of a certain exclusive, privileged category of our society .  And that as a result of this historic imbalance at the top, the designers have failed to create a system which serves the majority of Americans in a full and fair way.  To rectify this historic imbalance without delay, Britton urges that we immediately start build in a policy of full gender equality in all transport planning and decision making processes.  Beginning with this distinguished expert panel.

      Before writing this piece, I gave quite a bit of thought as to how I can make the most useful contribution to these important discussions.  And I have made the decision that probably the most useful thing I can do at this early stage in the process will be to swim a bit against the current here.  Let me try to clarify:


      I have two big problems with what I see here thus far, and so once I have sketched out my understanding of these briefly , I would like to go on to propose one big, if not a remedy at least a path toward a remedy or solution.  May we start with my first issue?  


      1.         What is infrastructure?


      When I look at the twenty eight thoughtful contributions and recommendations for the incoming administration thus far logged under this heading, the first thing that strikes me right between the eyes is that all but one or two  of the people who have checked in on this topic thus far have interpreted the key word "infrastructure" as primarily a physical entity.  So to an extent, this being a common interpretation of the word by many of those working in the transportation sector, the cards were a bit stacked in advance. 


      This is not only problematic; it is fundamentally biased against most forms of social and behavioral "infrastructure".   However this is precisely what we need when we are looking at a future in which virtually all of the past patterns are being challenged.  One thing we can say for sure about the future, and that is that it will be very very different from the past.  So let us make sure we are peering deeply into these foundation issues and making the fundamental adjustments which are going to be required if our transportation arrangements are to be sustainable, fair, and contributes to a healthy economy.


      Let me see if I can make this point with reference to what I found when running a quick word-frequency check this morning of those first 28 contributions thus far.  Here are a dozen of the words and phrases that turn up most often and which I believe give us a fair feel for the focus and concerns of the group:


      ·         Infrastructure  >100

      ·         Highways/roads/bridges  -102

      ·         Aviation/Airport/airline/aircraft    - 79

      ·         Trucks/trucking/freight/goods   - 59

      ·         Energy/gas/oil  - 53

      ·         Investment  -46

      ·         Billion   - 46

      ·         Public transport/mass transit  - 12

      ·         Marine/river/water/canal  - 12

      ·         Climate – 10

      ·         Congestion - 7


      Interesting for sure.  But also to my mind highly disturbing. 


      It certainly leads me to wonder if the physical infrastructure is really the appropriate starting place, when we have been asked to provide policy counsel for the incoming administration at this extremely important time and opportunity to change historic patterns and come up with something better.  Hopefully much better.


      2.         Transport in Cities:


      That after all is where the people are. More than 80% of all Americans live in or around our towns and cities.  And that’s where all those people move most in their day to day lives, which makes it to my mind the main target of transportation policy and practice, now and for the future. .


       In our collaborative work under the New Mobility Agenda over the last two decades which has been informed by the active contributions of transportation planners, academics, policymakers, activists, as well as those who create and operate the transportation systems themselves for not only across North America but also in more than 30 countries in all parts of the world (see www.newmobility.org), we have consistently taken as our starting place not the physical manifestations of the transportation system , but rather people and community. 


      To help with imaging and imagining this, consider the idea of carrying out a comprehensive social-technical audit of our cities and towns where BOTH safety AND convenience for people of all ages and abilities (i.e., not just motorists) was the criterion for assessing what else could be done.  This can be done, we know how to do it, and I would therefore like to suggest that this is worthy of closer consideration to create a consensus here.


       It really does matter what you take as your starting place.  And just to give a feel for what happens if we shift this basic focus I have also run the same first commentaries through frequency counts for the kinds of people-oriented issues which we believe to be the real starting place.  And we really cannot afford to ignore them at this time when we have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine our transportation system.


      Here is what I came up with this time around (and where no number is indicated that means there were zero references found for that word or phrase):


      ·         Bicycle/Bike/Biking/Cycle (16)

      ·         Walking (7)

      ·         Bus (8)

      ·         Mobility (4)

      ·         Sidewalk (4)

      ·         Pedestrian (3)

      ·         Bus rapid transit/BRT (2)

      ·         Transportation Alternatives  (2)

      ·         Child, children (1)

      ·         Land use  (1)

      ·         Carshare/ carsharing

      ·         Elderly

      ·         Free

      ·         Handicapped

      ·         isolated

      ·         Job creation

      ·         Needy

      ·         Neighborhood

      ·         Poor

      ·         Public space

      ·         Small

      ·         Subway/metro

      ·         Taxes

      ·         Telecommuting/ telework

      ·         Tram/LRT

      ·         Woman/Women


      Now I for one find this absence of attention to daily life concerns and practices highly disturbing.


      And if we have learned one thing about transportation over the last decades, it is that only a portion of the solutions of the transport related problems can be solved within the sector itself.  This means that we must be aggressively inclusive in all respects


      Fair enough but now how do we get from there to here?  From where we were, to where we want to be?  Well I have an idea which I would like to propose to all of you for your consideration and critical commentary.  But first let us have a look at the panel and ask us one more question.


      3.         Physician heal thyself!


      I would like to propose that as the first and really rather simple step in this direction to shake up the players and the priorities.  And we do not have to look very far to do it.  Let us have a look.


      We can get a helpful clue if we look closely at our list of contributors thus far waiting in on this topic.  28 in all, of which 24 male.  It is more or less exactly in line with prevailing practices in the sector.  Oops.


      Clearly we have to do a lot better than that if our charge is to provide wise counsel concerning the future, which by definition at this juncture needs to be very different from the past.


      So let me be a little bit more politically incorrect than that -- if that is possible -- and I might also add that my guess is that our population here is not exactly representative of America today.  At least not yet.  But, if we look at the sub-title of this discussion, namely "Our panel of insiders discusses key issues", it might be that the beginning of the solution lies in the title itself.


      If we take a people-centric view of transportation, and of course the infrastructure whether physical or social, it is clear that what we need to do is shift our population of "transportation insiders" so as to better reflect the reality of our communities and day to day lies. 


      How to rectify this imbalance?  We could make it very complicated if we wanted to, but there is also a solution which is at once obvious, easy and ready for implementation as soon as we decide to do it.  Here is a proposal that I will leave with you today, and that if I have any positive (or even negative in fact) reactions on this intend to come back to you here with a more detailed proposal about how to get this particular job done.



      4.         Let us make 2009: The Year of the Woman in Transportation


      I propose here with that all of us here break with the past by joining our voices to propose that 2009, the first year of this incoming and extremely important administration and cultural change for America, be celebrated as the first Year of the Woman in Transportation.


      To my mind this calls for a pattern break.  A big one.  And if the above is a critical part of the old pattern, the new one is quite simply to move away from that historic imbalance, that stasis which is keeping us from adapting and moving ahead.  That is to move to something very close to full gender parity immediately in all our councils of decision and planning.  Starting this forum.


      We must be aware however that surface parity while a start, is likely to be insufficient.  Many women who do get into key roles very rapidly begin behaving like or reflect the behavior and values, of men. Examples would be very dangerous ... but try to think of women in such powerful positions who HAVE acted differently to the males in previous or similar positions of influence and power. It’s just that the worldviews and values are in general, very male!  And this is precisely what we need to change to realize our very different future.


      Why should we do this?  Well for starters we should shake ourselves harder and in the process come to an explicit understanding that we have created a whole nexus of transportation arrangements that reflect the values of not only males, but, worse yet in this particular context, for the most part males with jobs, more or less good university educations , a full place in the community, and a generally serene view of the future.  And oh yes, to a man, owners and drivers of cars. Hmm.


      Much like the popular expression that you are what you eat, when it comes to transportation it turns out that you understand and accommodate best that which you do most of.  All you have to do is look around and you will see plenty of evidence of that.


      But is it that women are for some reason better, smarter or more noble than we Y chromosome-encumbered males.  Quite possibly not.  However it is my experience that women often have a different view of the world in many respects, not all women perhaps but most of those whom I know and have worked with and learn from in the past.  It is this differentness that we need to bring in and profit from.


      There are also I am told  a number of fundamental cultural, behavioral, and perception differences  between the sexes, but since I truly want to avoid the fate of Larry Summers when he lost his last job, I will not undertake here to venture such a qualitative analysis.  But it is relevant, and I will leave it for later for some of my better qualified colleagues to fill in this part of the argument.


      Now I do not pretend that this is going to be easy, or that it will be a magic wand in itself. But if we get it right, believe me this will get us going and going fast on the much needed new track for the future.


      I should say in closing that based on my own long experience of trying to achieve this in our work, trying to get something like full gender parity in policy discussions and projects in terms of having full and fair presentation of women in the various transportation panels, conferences, etc. has proven no easy task. Try as I have, I have to admit that , other than in one or two rare cases, we have never got anywhere near to full parity in any of our projects.  Shame on me.


      And since we have such a terrific collection of thinkers and doers here, in such a high public profile, what could be better than starting with this right now ourselves.  To this end I invite each of you to reach out into your networks to find at least one of your highly qualified female colleagues, including especially those who have worked directly with less advantages groups and communities including in the developing world.  Within a few days, weeks at most, we will have our balance panel and surely some very different ideas and counsel for the future.


      Indeed perhaps we should be reaching out beyond "our" traditional networks ... and THAT really implies creating an opportunity for "others" to step forward while "we" (males) step back a bit. Can "we" do that? "The Year of the Woman in Transportation" creates THAT opportunity, but could you, could I, could we support THAT?  For my part I am ready to start on this tomorrow morning.  (In fact I just started today.)


      One final excellent thing that this forced, high priority network expansion can help us achieve is to expand the range of backgrounds and skills which we need to bring into the various transportation fora, That is to say, this gives us an additional opportunity to rectify some of the other debilitating historical inadequacies in the sector that have led to its underperformance in many areas.  So as we look to bring in more women, in addition to the more traditional transportation circles, we need to bring in more expertise in such areas as behavioral psychology, community relations, social services , education, childcare, public health, job creation , poverty reduction and all those other key areas of our daily lives which thus far have not received the necessary attention in the transport discussions and decision-making process.


      Our future transportation arrangements are going to look very different from those of the past.  A lot of us are going to continue to own and drive cars, which is just fine.  But if you do the sums the great majority of our population would like to have a choice.  And that Is what the Year of the Woman in Transportation can be all about.


      I propose that we now make this a major discussion topic for the group in the weeks immediately ahead.


      Eric Britton,   18 December 2008

      Email: Eric.Britton@...

      Skype: newmobility

      Tel: 1 (310) 601-8468 or +331 4326 1323


    • Eric Britton
      Dear Friends, My contribution to the current National Journal s insider panel , whose goal it is to provide expert counsel to orient and guide the incoming
      Message 2 of 2 , Dec 20, 2008

        Dear Friends,


        My contribution to the current National Journal’s “insider panel”, whose goal it is to provide expert  counsel to orient and guide the incoming Obama administration on matters involving policy and investments in the transportation sector for the years immediately ahead, is now on line. You can find the full text at http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2008/12/how-should-infrastructure-stimulus-be-spent.php#1201951


        I might mention one point the article make. Specifically my proposition that  what is needed to create an altogether different perspective on these matters is not just to bring a couple of females on board, but to create a very strong plurality.  


        It’s rather like cycling in cities I would say. If there are no cyclists out there, no one sees a problem. If there are a few, it really changes little if anything. But when the cyclists start hit the street in real numbers, when they begin to populate the environment, things then have an entirely different momentum. And so, I believe, is the case with the impact of women in these largely male-culture fora. Once we get beyond that tipping point – what is it, 50%, 40, 30 ?? --  we find a very different situation as emerged.  And so I hope it will be.


        But there is an anomaly there, one that you can if you wish help us with.  In my piece I claim that as a first step this panel should immediately set out to create a far more balanced gender composition than that which they have at present, which is very male top heavy.  


        However as I look at the composition of most of our new mobility fora what strikes me immediately is that we are hardly better.  We are female-lite here, and the only way I can think of to rectify this imbalance will be to ask each person here to reach out to find a female colleague, policy maker, activist or concerned citizen whom we can then invite to join us and get on the side of new mobility for all.    I am sure it will make a big difference.


        Thanks for helping out on this. You’ll see. It will be worth it.


        Eric Britton




                                 The New Mobility Agenda


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