Big Think Interview With Joseph Sussman

A conversation with the MIT professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What is the single greatest challenge facing transportation these days? 

Joseph Sussman: People talk about sustainable development. Well, you can’t have sustainable development without sustainable transportation. And when we speak of sustainability we always bring up the three “E’s.” We have the question of economic development, we have the question of environmental protection and we have the question of social equity. The three “E’s.” 

And our argument is, the transportation system has to operate on each of those dimensions to be effective. So, building transportation infrastructure in a metropolitan area for example, or an intercity transportation system, such as say the interstate system here in the United States, is done to enhance mobility which is in fact done for the most part to provide economic development opportunities. Now of course, there are all sorts of social factors as well. People visiting family, people going to school, and so forth, but economic development is at the heart of what we’re trying to do when we make investment in the transportation systems. 

But that’s not our only goal. In today’s fragile environmental era, one has to be very concerned about the impact that transportation has on the environment, which is the second of the three “E’s.” Environmentally, we’re concerned about a number of things. We’re talking about clean air, we’re talking about clean water, we’re talking about global climate change with greenhouse gases being produced, and transportation is a player in all of those areas. One, pollution is caused by the operation of internal combustion engines, so are greenhouse gases. There’s runoff from roads into water supplies that causes problems in that regard as well. So, one needs to be quite conscious in making environmentally benign decisions when one makes decisions about how to design a transportation system. 

But finally, we have the question of social equity. The third of the three “E’s.” And the point with social equity is that if we are not in some way distributing the benefits that are created by transportation systems, the economic development benefits, if we are not distributing those across a broad swath of society, we argue that it won’t be a sustainable solution. It can’t be sustained for a long period of time unless people are sharing in the wealth that is being created through mobility. 

Question: What is the federal role and responsibility when it comes to tackling these transportation issues? 

Joseph Sussman: The question is finding the proper balance between the public and private sector. We have what are called public-private partnerships that have been in place around the world for many years. The U.S. has been relatively slow to adopt those, but the basic notion is that the public sector contracts with the private sector to build, for example, infrastructure and the private sector was responsible for borrowing the money to build that infrastructure, and then regains its own investment typically through some kind of tolling, some kind of user charge on that infrastructure. So the government has a little more flexibility since it’s not paying for everything upfront and depending on the particular circumstance, some have argued that the private sector will be inherently more effective and more efficient in providing those solutions. That’s a matter of opinion I sure varies from company to company and state to state. But certainly the role of the private sector is one that has to be taken into account. 

Question: Who should do what in the public and private sectors? 

Joseph Sussman: The other direction that’s very important with respect to who does what in the public sector and the private sector, is the question of advanced technology. We have seen in the last 20 years or so, for example, the advent of something called intelligent transportation systems, or ITS for the professionals which involves the use of advanced technology for sensing, for computing, for telecommunications, advanced mathematical algorithms, all of which can enhance the operation of a transportation network by being able to sense vehicle in real time on the infrastructure and also can be helpful in providing traveler information for people either using their cars or on public transportation, again, in real time giving them a sense of how the system is operating and what their best route from origin to destination might be. 

Now, these systems often have to be deployed by public sector organizations. And public sector transportation organizations tend to be rather conservative. They focus on the issues they are used to focusing on, for example, building and maintaining highways and less so on the issues of operating those highways in an efficient manner. 

So, we’re speaking here of the need for a institutional shift, an organizational shift, to be able to use those kinds of technologies because to use them, one needs to have public sector organizations that understand them and can help in their deployment. So we have, in transportation we always talk about capacity. What’s the capacity of this railway and of this highway? Well, we also need professional capacity. And universities like mine and others around the country work hard to continue to provide talented young professionals that go into the field with some of these more advanced ideas, but we recognize that takes a long time. So, many of us are involved in, if you will, reeducating through continuing education programs, people who are already 20 years out of school and want to learn about some of these approaches that can help them in their professional development, help the nation deal with the transportation issues that it is concerned with. 

The federal government has a special role. It is a facilitator; it is in some sense a cheerleader saying here’s where we need to be going. It needs to set the tone in terms of issues like safety and advanced technology. It needs to do research that can allow different kinds of technologies to roll out and it has to do that in a way that is consistent with the research being done in the private sector as well as the public sector at the state level. 

Question: How much should stakeholders be considered? 

Joseph Sussman: There are a variety of people with interests in the transportation systems. Obviously we have travelers; we have people who want their freight shipped from one point on the network to another. We have people who are interested in using public transportation. We have people that live adjacent to major transportation facilities like Logan International Airport here in Boston, the Boston metropolitan area. So, a variety of folks are interested in the transportation enterprise, but the way in which they measure its performance may well be very, very different. And we need to take that into account when we make transportation decision. 

Let’s suppose we are talking about adding physical capacity to Logan International Airport. We want to add runway capacity, let us say. For somebody living out in the suburbs of Boston, like me for example. We’re all for it. We think adding to the capacity of Logan is terrific, so we don’t get delayed when we are leaving for Chicago, we don’t get delayed when we are flying in from Los Angeles, the system will operate more effectively, more smoothly if we have additional capacity on those runways. But everybody isn’t necessarily feeling that way. If you live adjacent to the Logan property and you’ve got planes flying over your house all day long. Your view of additional capacity at Logan is not a very positive one. They feel people living in that environment and the Mayor of the City of Boston is included in that class, feel that maybe somebody else should take some of the environmental pain of having an airport. Everybody understands the need for the airport, but the question of whether it’s being spread out among the stakeholder community maybe less clear. 

So if we are able to develop a mathematical model to say, here’s what will happen at Logan if we add a runway. Here will be the improved throughput of Logan as an airport. Here are the effects on other airports around the region and around the country of Logan being a better node and the airlines are of course very interested in that. How often have you sat in an airport and your flight is delayed and you look out and the sun is shining beautifully, but you’re waiting for an airplane to come in from Chicago where it’s snowing. And so, the notion of the transportation network comes into play. 

Question: Is high-speed rail a feasible solution for our transportation issues? 

Joseph Sussman: Whenever my neighbors go on vacation or on business to Europe or Asia, I know when they come back since they know what I do for a living, they’re going to say, “Joe, why don’t we have high speed rail in this country. I just went to France, I just went to Germany, I just went to Japan, and everyone gets whisked around the country at high speeds in a very convenient way. We don’t have to deal with all the hassles of checking it at airports and so on and so forth. Why can’t the U.S. do it?” And it’s an excellent question, and in some sense there are a variety of answers that one could come up with, but the simplest answer is that, to date, we have been unwilling to pay within the public sector for developing these systems. The systems that I alluded to a moment ago, France, Germany, and Japan were all initially built by the government and the government of the United States has chosen to make its investments in other areas in highways and in air traffic control systems and the like. 

Now why is that? Certainly we have as talented a group of transportation policymakers here in this country as in those other countries. One of the problems is that from a size point of view, from a geographic point of view, this is a huge country. Much larger than any of the countries that I’ve mentioned. We’re 3,000 miles, 5,000 kilometers, coast to coast, and 1,500 miles, maybe 2,000 plus kilometers, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. These are huge distances. And if, in fact, we were to build high-speed rail on a national basis, it’s very unclear even if we were able to do that. And let me emphasize, I am not advocating that we do that. That high speed rail would take much of a bite out of, for example, coast to coast travel because even though you are going at 200 something miles an hour, you’ve still got to go 3,000 miles, and it’s a long ride. 

That said, there are many part of the United States that would be ideally suited for high-speed rail. And here we’re talking about corridors in which the distances are on the order of 500 miles or so, or less. And here we have an opportunity to compete quite actively with the airlines. So, we have, of course the northeast corridor, the Washington to Boston corridor, and even going further north and further south, in which we have the only system that, by any definition could be called high speed rail, and by international standards it’s really not at all. But the northeast corridor, very densely populated corridor would be ideal, particularly given the highway congestion on highway 95 going north and south, particularly given the congestion at the airports in the Boston area, the three metropolitan airports in New York; Liberty in Newark and LaGuardia and Kennedy, and in Washington with Reagan National and Dulles. These are congested airports. And one of the reasons they are congested is a lot of people flying back and forth on the corridor. If we were able to attract those people to a high-speed rail system, one could see tremendous benefits from the point of view of airline congestion, airport congestion, I should say, being diminished. So, that’s one obvious example. 

There are many others. You could have a series of corridors around Chicago; Chicago/St Louis, Chicago/Minneapolis/St Paul, Chicago/Detroit, and so on would be ideally suited from a distance point of view. You have the Texas triangle, which is the cities of San Antonio, Dulles, and Houston, all of which rank in the top 10 population-wise of this country and high speed rails zipping people around the great state of Texas would be excellent. Florida is another example. Florida, we talk about a system that can go from Tampa to Orlando, and then south to Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, as again, an ideally situation example of a corridor that would make sense for high-speed rail. And possibly, most important, and probably most advanced in terms of thinking is a system for the state of California. So, extending from the north in San Francisco down to Los Angeles and down to San Diego is a prospect, and even further north beyond San Francisco, it could extend in principle up to Portland and Seattle, Washington, and even into Canada, into Vancouver. 

Question: What are the challenges to implementing such a system? 

Joseph Sussman: The problem is political. It’s very difficult to; in fact, allocate large sums of money to one particular region of the country and not favoring the other regions of the country with this same technology. When the interstate system was conceived and began to be built in the middle of the 1950’s, in President Eisenhower’s administration, the notion was this would be an interconnection system for the whole nation; for urban, for rural, for everybody to get their piece of the action. Whether you were the state of New York, or whether you were in Wyoming, you were going to get a piece of the interstate action and get some benefit from it. I don’t know if the same is viable from a high-speed rail point of view. I don’t know if the case can be made. 

So, the problem is, you would have to invest in a relatively small set of geographical areas in the country to have it make sense and since, in this great republic of ours, the state of Wyoming with, I don’t know, half a million people has two Senators, and the state of California with, I don’t know, 38 million people has two Senators, so it’s very difficult to move forward unless the rural states have some benefit and one would have to work hard to characterize this as a benefit to them other than by an overall improvement in economic development for the nation at large. 

Now, President Obama is, to my knowledge, the first President of the United States who has ever used the word, high-speed rail in a sentence in a positive way. Something that could make sense, and in fact, it is quite interesting, his comments have reverberated around the country – around the world. This past summer, I was in Tokyo visiting the East Japan Railway Company, a company I have been doing work with for about the last 20 years, and I had my prepared talk and they said, “We hope you’re going to talk about high speed rail in the United States since President Obama is now speaking about it.” And I had a very similar experience in Portugal where we are also doing a lot of work in high-speed rail. When I went there to give a talk, again they aid, Professor Sussman, we hope you’re going to talk about the opportunities for high-speed rail in the United States. So, this country is still being watched as the world scratches its head and wonders why we don’t move forward with something that just seems to make so much sense. 

Question: Eighty-seven percent of travel these days is done by car. How could we help implement this behavioral change? 

Joseph Sussman: Behavioral changes are very difficult. On some dimensions I’m optimistic on others I am less optimistic. Certainly there are a lot of forces in place that makes change away from the automobile very difficult. The land use that has grown up around the cities, I mentioned sprawl, makes transportation by anything other than automobile very, very difficult. You can’t provide say heavy rail public transportation of the sort you have in New York City out somewhere in the suburbs. There just isn’t the volume to pay, if you will, for the extraordinary costs there are of building those kinds of systems. 

But, yes, there are ways of improving the system and improving behavior. We have this idea of congestion pricing in the transportation field, and this is enabled by the Intelligent Transportation System ideas that we talked about earlier. So, the notion here would be to use pricing as a way of changing people’s behavior, to make particular kinds of trips more expensive, particular kinds of trips less expensive to try to entice them into behaviors that would make sense from a systemic point of view. Make sense not only for them, but make sense for the traveling public at large. 

So, you know all about EZ Pass in New York City so one can electronically collect tolls as one zips by the tollbooth at speed without stopping. Well once we have that kind of electronic capability, one can change those tolls and one can do it not only at toll booths, but one can do it along the entire structured infrastructure and one can even start thinking about doing it with GPS so that one is monitoring the flows of vehicles and one is charging the drivers for using the roads as a function of the kind of car they are driving, for example, a less polluting car would be charged less. As a function of where they are driving. If they are driving in a congested area, we want to give them incentive to not drive during the congested period, we would charge them more. It depends on the time of day they are driving. If they are driving at the height of the rush hour, well that’s going to be more expensive then it will be to drive two hours before, or two hours after the peak hour. 

So the notion here is that by changing these prices dynamically as a function of time of day, as a function of location, as a function of vehicle type, that one can give incentives to drivers to make different kinds of decisions. So the notion her is that one can perhaps have a lower need, a lesser need, I should say, of building more infrastructure that is built for peak hour capacity by enticing people to drive at some time outside the peak hour. 

Now, that sounds well and good, politically it’s not quite so easy. One has questions, the third “E” in sustainability. The social equity questions. So, the well healed banker can maybe change his hours relatively easily and drive whenever he or she wants to get to work, where perhaps some blue collar worker says to his boss, “I’d rather get here at 11:00 rather than at 9:00 because it will cost me less to drive.” And his boss says, “We start at 9:00,” and that’s the end of that discussion. So, there are equity discussions that go along with it. But this idea of universal road pricing is in fact something that I believe will happen over an extended period, perhaps 20 or 30 years. But eventually, that’s going to be the way we pay for this infrastructure. Rather than paying it in indirect terms through things like the gas tax, we’ll pay for using the roads themselves. 

Question: What technology will help deal with those issues? 

Joseph Sussman: So, we have the question of different kinds of fuels that we might use that would be less polluting and fuels that would lessen our international energy dependency on unstable regions of the world, like the Arabian Gulf, for example, where our foreign policy is, to a certain extent, driven by our insatiable need for that fuel. One could see a change in the mix of fuels that we are using that would make us less energy dependent and perhaps create a less polluting system. But it’s going to be a long hard slog. Our land use patterns have been developed in a particular way, the idea of the American Dream of a house in the suburbs with some land and some privacy still exists in much of the country. Surely there’s been some modes flow of people back from the suburbs into the cities, which of course would be a good thing from a transportation perspective, but these land use changes are very long term and slow to happen. So, we have to work on some of these issues in the meantime, congestion pricing and technology enhancements and so on. 

Question: Are there any countries or cities that are on the path to getting transportation right? 

Joseph Sussman: Well, there are several, London, of course, instituted some years ago, perhaps five or six years ago now, congestion charging to enter the center of the city of London. They have their cordon and you pay – actually quite substantially, to drive into London. And that has had an effect on the congestion levels that have existed, and it has had an effect on the share of travelers that are using public transportation. So, London was the first major city in the developed world, if one excludes Singapore, who has been at this for 30 something years, but is in a different kind of political environment than a liberal democracy such as London. So, London can be a model for the large cities in, for example, North America. There are other cities in Scandinavia that have had good luck with these kinds of approaches. A more informed thinking about land use, less car dependent living patterns, and congesting charging to allow the system to reach some equilibration to allow people to pay less for highway use as a function for when they choose to use it, and therefore create less of a need for building of traditional infrastructure. 

So there are in fact, examples going forward. Many of those cities of course, I speak of London and Paris, many of these cities were developed before the era of the automobile. And if you look, in fact, in the United States, if you look at New York and Boston and Philadelphia, these were cities that were largely in place before the automobile became such an extraordinary factor within our transportation enterprise. So you look at those cities with very well developed public transportation and you compare them with Phoenix and Los Angeles that grew up largely in the era when automobiles were already quite common and you see a very different kind of pattern. So, it’s going to be a long pull to see if we can make some of these changes. But if one thing’s in a creative way technologically, if one thinks about transportation as a complex system and understanding it in that way. If one thinks about different institutional structures for managing the transportation enterprise that is more sensitive to the need of the stakeholders that transportation has, I think we can make good progress on all three dimensions of sustainability. I think we can continue to develop economically, I think we can create a system in which we are much more a steward of the environment than perhaps we’ve been and I think we can do something from a social equity point of view to make sure that the environmental impacts are shared equitably and the economic development benefits are shared equitably as well.

Recorded on January 20, 2010