This year’s Transportation Research Board (TRB) was the first gathering since funds began rolling out in earnest from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). With the pandemic disruption to travel patterns and BIL funding in the background, conference attendees and panel sessions kept coming back to key themes throughout the conference — decarbonization and equity.
As Secretary Buttigieg said in his keynote address,
“Research and innovation will play an exceptionally important role in the decade ahead for transportation.”
But he and others were quick to acknowledge that the challenges transportation professionals faced were in many ways bigger than ever.
While panels and posters covered myriad topics, key themes emerged that will shape the year ahead in transportation planning and research.
We dive into the big topics in our TRB recap webinar. Watch it here.
It’s not about getting people from A to B as fast as possible anymore
It’s hard to say when it happened but there is no question that the transportation industry’s role has expanded. Questions of land use, economic development, safety, resilience, and climate impact all intersect with the transportation industry and must now be considered in tandem with any planning decisions.
As such the way we study our roadways and corridors is completely different from how it used to be — it’s no longer about counting cars at intersections during rush hour. Now we need to take an expansive look at the comprehensive uses and needs of the people using our networks. Even studying who is not using these roadways and why — raising questions of equity and segregation — are central to transportation decisions.
On the one hand, the data available to enact this work has never been more plentiful. But it also requires coming to thorny transportation questions with a set of hypotheses, and being willing to challenge those hypotheses with empirical evidence.
Transportation planners no longer have to work based on a set of assumptions about when people travel and why. Nor could they, given the way the pandemic has utterly disrupted travel patterns. But this also means that they are faced with many ways of looking at a problem. Significant analytical skills will be needed, and even a dose of humility, to ensure that agencies are identifying the biggest problem and then right-sizing the solution to that problem.
Decarbonization is not a buzz word
The centrality of decarbonization was threaded throughout much of TRB. We’ve heard it many times by now — transportation is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Now BIL funding has put EVs front-and-center as the lever that could help pull transportation emissions downward by putting significant resources behind charger installation. In addition, more incentives for EV purchases could further speed adoption.
To that end, StreetLight’s introduction of EV mode at the conference can help agencies learn and adapt to how EV driver behavior may differ from gas-powered driver behavior, whether current EV chargers are being installed where they’re needed, and whether there are gaps in how roadway networks support EV drivers.
Transportation professionals have other means of pursuing decarbonization beyond facilitating the EV transition, especially by investing in multimodal infrastructure. Here the subject of coordination across local and regional agencies came up often — and remembering that safety, in all its forms, is the most important responsibility of transportation agencies — not speed.
Equity must be threaded into every aspect of transportation
From procurement to infrastructure investment, equity is not a second order function for transportation professionals. As agencies look to unlock infrastructure funding, it’s clear that the equity impact will be central to the success of grant applicants. Data will be essential to making that case for how investments support equity goals, or redress long-standing disparities.
Agencies are tasked with “gathering the data to make the case on ways for transportation policy to be a powerful tool in the service of fairness and equity,” said Secretary Buttigieg.