Making Cities Stronger

Infrastructure of today's urban areas needs overhaul

Cities have never been more popular. Currently, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. That’s up dramatically from 34 percent in 1960.

By 2050, it’s predicted that 64 percent of the developing world and 86 percent of the developed world will be urbanized.

There are many reasons why urbanization continues to gain momentum. One of the most important is the unique human trait of cooperation.

That’s the theory put forth in a recent issue of Scientific American magazine. According to the authors, we owe our evolutionary success not simply to brainpower, but to our ability to use our brains to cooperate with one another.

Without cooperation, cities and metropolitan areas could not function.

In the future, cooperation will be even more important because there are going to be a lot more of us living in cities. Urban areas growing at their predicted rate of about 2 percent per year will double their populations in just 36 years.

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Urban areas growing 2% annually will double their populations in just 36 years.

Of course, all this comes under the heading of growth and progress. But both are raising issues that demand elusive solutions.

Meanwhile, there is a toll being collected in everything from quality of life to strength of the economy.

Subpar Grades

Every four years, The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on the state of America’s infrastructure. The transportation portions of the 2013 Report lay out the degree of our dilemma:

  • Aviation: D
  • Roads: D
  • Transit:  D
  • Inland waterways:  D
  • Bridges and rail both outperformed – they got a C+

The Engineers Society says the sorry state of our surface infrastructure will cost the American economy more than $3 trillion through the decade.

So how do we improve? It starts with the work of metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs.  The long-range plans of MPO are what create the vision for transportation networks that support the growth and vitality of metropolitan areas today and well into the future.

Some of the most urgent work involves freight. To support freight’s needs today and into the future, federal funding should be increased to improve surface transportation infrastructure and ensure America’s competitiveness.

The Highway Trust Fund also should be maintained at sufficient levels to provide for a safe transportation network for commercial and public travel.

And a multi-modal freight program with sufficient revenues to improve intermodal networks is needed at the metropolitan and state levels.

With the average American requiring the movement of a staggering 57 tons of cargo per year – everything from new cars and trucks, machinery for factories, televisions, smart phones – our ships, trains, trucks, ports and roads are going to get a lot more crowded.

Learning Curve

Maybe if lawmakers and the public had a better understanding of the role of freight, it would ease the way to greater cooperation.

The secret to moving freight efficiently and economically is the ability to shift between modes. Today’s consumers don’t care how a product gets to them as long as it arrives on time, undamaged and at the right price.

The ability to move packages and freight through different modes – from air to truck, truck to rail or air to ocean – is critical to delivering goods in the most efficient, economical and environmentally friendly ways possible.

A focus on freight means a focus on logistics. While logistics can give us the most efficient route between two points, it cannot improve the underlying infrastructure that makes that efficiency possible.

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Until our nation’s infrastructure is upgraded, the gains we make in logistics will be given back in inefficiencies.

For that, we need cooperation. In the face of dwindling federal funds, we’ve seen signs of cooperation on a smaller scale among counties, states and regional authorities that have found ways to generate their own funding sources.

But upgrading our highways, airways, railways and ports at the national level is a bigger ballgame. And something only Congress and the Administration can do.

Meanwhile, MPOs must be seen as the place where the most important transportation issues are raised. MPOs need to make sure they’re talking to the right people.

And that those people are hearing them loud and clear – especially when it comes to the need for adequate funding, the need for faster project delivery and the need for local decision-making on projects affecting metro areas. Because until our nation’s infrastructure is upgraded, many of the gains we make in logistics will be given back in inefficiencies.

A third thing that’s important to understand is that weaknesses in our freight infrastructure won’t be solved by an improving economy or a patch here and a fix there.

This is a system that was built in silos and stitched together over the course of decades. Highways were built to connect with highways … railways with railways. Congress has tried to link them together, but it’s still a patchwork.

The failings of that patchwork are obvious to all of us: crumbling roads, collapsing bridges, eroding dams and aging airports. Congress, of course, is divided over how to fix it.

So what will it take to move freight transportation into the 21st century?

  • We must link different transportation modes together, moving from a silo-ed approach to one that is seamless … from a patchwork to a network.
  • We need greater centralized coordination in transportation policy, not a scaled back federal role.
  • We need to increase the federal motor fuels tax and index it to inflation.
  • Congress should consider alternative funding mechanisms, such as mileage-based user fee programs and tolling authority for new highway capacity.
  • We need the approval of several free trade agreements that are now on the table with negotiators in this country and elsewhere.
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All of these solutions are tied together by a single, critical reality. None is possible without cooperation.goldbrown2

 This article is adapted from a speech Gray delivered to the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations’ annual conference on Oct. 23 in Atlanta. 




Myron Gray is President of U.S. Operations for UPS. He is responsible for all package delivery and logistics services for the world's largest economy in the United States.

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