On January 25, 2011 President Barak Obama will deliver the 2011 “State of the Union” address to the U.S. Congress and the nation. The text of the speech has not yet been released, but reports are that among other things the President will call for are national investments to keep the United States competitive in the future global economy. The idea of investments is a very tough sell in the United States these days, as it is in some other parts of the world. Cutting spending and doing nothing but the bare minimum is the more popularly touted public policy.
As one who has worked with transportation policy planners on various projects over the past decade and half, I have become aware of the growing backlog of infrastructure needs in the United States, needs that apply to all transportation modes, from roads and bridges, to air traffic control systems and airports, to rail and port facilities. Much that was built in the heady days when America believed in the future is now in need of repair or modernization, and in addition we would benefit from new investment in infrastructure like high-speed trains.
Such investments require leadership commitment, public support, and a vision of what is preferred. The Futurist.com projects that I mentioned have all been, in one way or another, tied to the development of long-term vision. Recently we came across a report on a project that I had a role in, late in the year 2000, a report issued as the new Bush administration came into power in January-February 2001, ten years ago. This was a project of the US Department of Transportation, entitled Vision 2050: An Integrated National Transportation System.
As a report of the outgoing USDOT leadership to the in-coming President of another political party, the recommendations received a predictable reception, which is to say not much of a reception at all. For several years the report was available on various Federal Government websites, but access has gradually disappeared. So, we are making the report available here for everyone. Here’s the PDF. You can also find the report at archives located at Whitehouse.gov.
My role in the project was to design and lead one of three national workshops that brought together experts for several days of exploring future trends, possibilities, and recommendations for a long-term vision. In doing that work in the Fall of 2000 I met Mark Safford, then of the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, with whom I later worked on other projects, and who has also been a contributing writer here at Futurist.com.
Returning to that now ten-year old Vision, I am struck by several things. First, the vision was quite bold, and still relevant today.
- An integrated national transportation system that can economically move anyone and anything, anywhere, anytime, on time;
- A transportation system without fatalities and injuries; and
- A transportation system that is not dependent on foreign energy and is compatible with the environment
Second, the report argued that short-term, incremental, and piecemeal fixes to the transportation system, while needed, are not sufficient to build an integrated national transportation system. We really were trying to look at the whole system. This is an important point as we, in 2011, discuss global competitiveness simultaneously with an emphasis on budget cuts. Thinking systemically is more important that ever.
Third, it was in this project that I met a representative of the Rocky Mountain Institute and learned much more about the potential of smarter and lighter vehicles that could be radically safe and fully independent of foreign oil. The report emphasized the possibilities for intelligent transportation systems, virtual communication, electric personal transportation, and integrated modes of transportation.
Finally, going back to the report now I was reminded of a common experience with long-term vision. Even though the report disappeared into the archives under the new administration at the time, the act of putting a vision out there increases the conversation about the ideas, and makes the vision more likely to happen. I remember a city manager who told me once, several years after a community vision effort that I led, that he had merely “put the vision in a drawer.” Every now and then he would take it out, and wonder why they weren’t doing more to implement the vision. Until, one day, he took the vision out, re-read it and thought, “Wait a minute, it has all come true, we’ve accomplished the vision.” It was, he said, an illustration of the “mystical power of long-term vision.” I’ve always liked that. If you look at the three-point vision, above, you can see that we are working toward it, even when we think we are not.
The report was also featured in a small study comparing long term visions.