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MPC Roundtable: Around the World in 90 Minutes

This conversation at MPC’s “Around the World in 90 Minutes” roundtable on Dec. 17, 2008, is a timely one.  New leadership at both the state and federal level have voiced a commitment to build smarter, not bigger, government, and make investments, not expenditures, in our nation’s infrastructure.  Today’s leaders are realizing that limited transportation dollars can no longer be wasted on projects that don’t provide a return.  We need sound investments that make the most of our resources. We also must identify solid funding streams to support the maintenance, operations and expansion of our transportation infrastructure.

In 2008, across the country, high gas prices and a weak economy shifted many Americans out of their personal vehicles and into buses and trains.  The U.S. Dept. of Transportation reported Americans drove more than 90 billion miles less in 2008 than in 2007. Meanwhile, national transit ridership shot up 6.5 percent compared to last year – the largest such jump in a quarter-century. While more and more people are discovering the cost savings and environmental benefits of taking mass transit, fewer drivers are filling up at the pump, resulting in a loss for the Highway Trust Fund of more than $3 billion. There must be another way to generate revenue that will make the right investments to solve our very real transportation problems.

“Around the World in 90 Minutes” packaged the best of transportation infrastructure from around the globe in a high-quality, engaging roundtable discussion. Jacques Gordon, global investment strategist for LaSalle Investment Management, discussed best practices in several Asian cities from a user, an investor, and a policy perspective. While he showcased the massive infrastructure investments made in cities such asTokyo and Beijing, Jacques also highlighted the mistakes of the Shanghai Maglev airport train, for example, that was built for show more than for its usefulness.  Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, discussed his experience in Stockholm, Sweden as a delegate of the Bombardier Peer Exchange this past spring. He highlighted Stockholm’s impressive connectivity between transportation, the environment, and land use goals. While what works in Stockholm may not be appropriate in Chicago, it is important to consider best practices that produce successful results. Mary Ludgin, director of global investment research at Heitman, provided an insight to Eastern European cities. She discussed the inclusion of residential and industrial uses to Minsk’s mixed-use developments around transit stops and Moscow’s challenges with traffic congestion as the catalyst for the city to consider alternative strategies.

Our international counterparts are making serious investments in their transportation infrastructure to address top priorities: congestion and climate change. Cities such as London, Stockholm, and Singapore are implementing congestion pricing mechanisms to relieve gridlock in their downtowns and generate a steady funding stream to invest in transit alternatives. Hong Kong’s Express Train allows travelers to check-in downtown before boarding the train to the airport, and Beijing continues to invest in its subway system to maintain its status as the “golden child of subways.”  Policies that alleviate congestion, such as in Stockholm, where large trucks are prohibited from entering the central business district, help cities around the globe address pressing environmental concerns while tackling traffic gridlock at the same time. Eastern European cities are benefiting from Soviet-era investments in transit, and are working to improve their existing mass transit networks to reach new housing developments and jobs.

The Chicago region doesn’t have the density of Tokyo or Singapore, the geography or mobility of Stockholm, or the clean slate of many Eastern European cities. However, the challenges to manage congestion, tackle air quality, and provide better accessibility for people remains the same wherever you go. The Chicago region can learn from these best practices and determine the best combination of strategies that will help the region achieve its goals.

‘Around the World in 90 Minutes’ was hosted by Charter One.

MPC produces a bi-weekly e-newsletter highlighting best practices from around the world in ‘Talking Transit’. Sign up at www.metroplanning.org/personalize.asp.  To learn more about MPC’s transportation work, contact Emily Tapia at etapia@metroplanning.org or 312.863.6047.

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