A Road Map to Fix America’s Transportation Infrastructure

Why is America's transportation system so outdated, why should we care, and what can we do about it? Rosabeth Moss Kanter offers a road map to roadway recovery in her new book, Move: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead.
by Dina Gerdeman

Any highway commuter who has wasted hours stuck in traffic can see the cracks in the United States' transportation system, as can any airline passenger who has been stranded overnight in an airport. Yet while many agree that the need for infrastructure change is urgent, where is the sense of urgency to make these changes happen?

That's one of the questions Harvard Business School Professor of Business Administration Rosabeth Moss Kanter asks in her book published today, Move: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead.

"Given so many situations and factors that should arouse enormous concern, why is it so hard to secure public support for long-term infrastructure investments and get Congress to vote for them?" Kanter writes. "I think it's a structural issue. Silos, narrow interests, and fragmentation mute outrage. Perhaps we're stuck not only with aging infrastructure but also with obsolete ways of talking about it."

“We should be thinking not just about repair…We should be thinking about reinvention”

The railways, airways, and roadways that make up our transportation infrastructure are aging and outdated, leaving a laundry list of problems. Kanter opens the book with some telling examples: The average American commuter spends a total of 38 hours sitting in traffic each year-which leads to 5.5 billion hours in lost productivity and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel. In 2013, 24.3 percent of U.S. bridges—64,000 in all—were identified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Delayed or canceled flights cost the American economy an estimated $30 billion to $40 billion each year.

The book goes on to describe the problems with the modern railway and airline systems, and looks hopefully toward the future of America's roadways.

Railroad Woes

In the United States, rail dominated the transportation industry into the early 20th century. World War II gave a huge boost to aviation. And after the war, the auto industry took off with the building of interstate highways.

"Because there was so much emphasis on highways, it drove out attention on rail," Kanter said in a recent interview.

Today, freight rail is a fairly smooth operation, but passenger rail has been troubled, Kanter said. High-speed rail plans have been developed in both Texas and Florida, but the United States does not have bullet trains or high-speed rail over long distances.

Other countries have done better: Japan has a high-speed bullet train network that covers 1,500 miles; high-speed rail has spread to most of Western Europe and the United Kingdom, as well as to Turkey, Russia, and Iran; and China has the world's largest high-speed rail network, covering more than 6,900 miles.

Instead, the US has "one-size-fits-all tracks that are shared by freight, inter-city passengers, and commuter rail operators," Kanter writes.

Issues In The Air

The airline industry is full of congestion on both the ground and in the air and is relying on an antiquated air traffic control system. One of the problems: a lack of mobile communications connectivity. A pilot might check the weather by using in-flight wireless if it's available on the aircraft, but might not find reliable coverage.

Kanter notes the Federal Aviation Administration's Next Generation Transportation System (NextGen) technology, which will provide better navigation and tracking of planes—even allowing dispatchers and pilots to see which flights would be impacted by weather changes. With NextGen-enabled automated flight rerouting systems, airlines can minimize delays for passengers.

"In the air, the biggest story is technology," Kanter said. "New technology will make the ride smoother, burn less fuel, reduce delays, and reduce noise. We can't change the weather, but we can have information about it and cope with it much better."

Our airports also need work, she said. Nations in Asia and the Middle East are developing fancy, technology-enabled airports, while American airports are trailing behind in addressing core infrastructure needs. Getting to and from airports can also be difficult in many parts of the United States, unlike in Tokyo, where passengers can hop on a bullet train at the airport itself.

Road Technology

The Interstate Highway System got huge funding support in the 1950s, leading to the construction of thousands of miles of highways and turning the car into the preferred mode of ground transportation.

The Highway Trust Fund was also created, relying on gasoline taxes to feed it-and this remains the main highway funding source to this day. But now that cars are more fuel efficient and electric cars don't depend on fuel at all, gas tax revenue isn't going as far. During the summer of 2014, the Highway Trust Fund almost ran out of money.

Yet our roads still need work. Besides, new technology is changing the face of road construction. For instance, "instant bridges" can be built off-site and hauled into place in a few days, wreaking much less havoc on traffic than a lengthy bridge construction project.

Road sensors and other road technology are helping to improve safety for drivers. For example, Street Bump, a smartphone app created by the city of Boston, can detect potholes from the bumps cars experience on roads and send the locations of holes to the city.

"Wireless networks are making so much possible, whether it's traffic management or finding potholes or re-routing traffic or high occupancy toll lanes where people choose to pay a premium for a faster road at peak travel times," she said. "It permits roads to be dynamic. Soon roads will be communicating in a better way."

An Emphasis On Reinvention

Kanter, who is also Chair and Director of the Harvard-wide Advanced Leadership Initiative, sees the trouble with America's infrastructure as a mobility issue, and she maintains that the US needs leaders who are willing to develop innovative approaches for getting people from place to place—while also allowing people to reach the goods and services they need.

"We should be thinking not just about repair, which tends to be the conversation," she said. "We should be thinking about reinvention. I'm arguing for more technology, better connections, and understanding how to design a system in which the parts augment and enhance each other."

Kanter's involvement in the infrastructure issue stemmed from a conversation in 2012 with former US Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, who argued that the country needed a strong transportation vision for the 21st century.

Kanter decided to spend 20 months taking a close look at transportation and infrastructure as part of the Harvard Business School US Competitiveness Project, identifying pain points as well as recognizing promising prospects for the future. She gathered a team of talented researchers to help develop background papers and analyze the issues.

After reviewing nearly 100 reports from associations and think tanks, compiling numbers, conducting hundreds of interviews, and going on a variety of field visits, in February 2014, Kanter and her research team convened a national summit at HBS that included nearly 200 government and industry leaders, transportation CEOs, technology innovators, and others.

"We had people from industries that really don't talk to one another," Kanter said. "They each have a piece of the puzzle. So we had this gathering of people across silos, and it was a chance to meet one another and really think of this as a systems problem."

A Book To Reach The Public

Kanter, who had already done some traveling to investigate infrastructure issues prior to the summit in February 2014, hit the road between March and the end of May, visiting some of the places that were attempting to solve problems. She looked at the issue on a national scale, but focused extra attention on Chicago, Miami, and various parts of California, New York, and Massachusetts.

For example, she visited a tunnel in Miami; traveled to Chicago to discuss the streets, bike-sharing stations, and railways there; met with folks at the American Airlines flight operations center in Texas; and checked out some of the latest instant bridges.

And then she started to write.

"I wrote 10 to 12 hours almost every day over the summer," she said. "What was motivating me was how important this is. I wanted to speak to the public, I wanted to speak to business people as employers, commuters, and also people who depend for their goods and services on these industries, and then I wanted to talk to industry leaders."

Kanter believes America, which was once on top of the world in its technological and infrastructure advances, became complacent at some point.

"Our infrastructure was once the best in the world after World War II," she said. "It's been deteriorating. We have reinvented all kinds of technology for the 21st century, but we haven't yet invested in rebuilding and reinventing infrastructure systems in the United States. It's an issue that matters to business. It matters to all of us in our individual lives."

Promising Projects

Although the problems can seem daunting, Kanter outlines in her book a variety of strong leaders and promising projects she hopes might serve as guides for the future.

For example, Michael Ward, chairman and CEO of transportation supplier CSX, has invested company money in repairing tracks. American Airlines pilot Brian Will is leading a movement toward navigation technology that can enable landings by gliding, which would reduce carbon emissions. Jose Abreu, former Florida Secretary of Transportation, held onto his dream for a new tunnel under the Port of Miami for 30 years; after it opened in 2014, it led to an immediate reduction in truck traffic in downtown Miami. Atlanta and Detroit have plans for airport-passenger rail connections. And Chicago is planning to upgrade its bus system and ease rail congestion.

For all the kinks in the US infrastructure, Kanter said she hopes readers will see the book as a hopeful call to action.

Kanter recommends seeking out leaders with a bipartisan transportation and infrastructure agenda; voting for bond issues and municipal levies; involving the private sector, since business leaders know that infrastructure is essential; and looking to mayors, governors, and other local politicians because they can get things done while Congress spins its wheels. "National is ugly, but local is beautiful," she wrote.

In writing the book, Kanter made a point to look at the issue from the perspective of the people who use these systems, rather than policymakers or funders. What are businesses getting or not getting? How is it working for residents of cities? And how do you convince the public that infrastructure is worth investing in so people will rally around solutions?

"When I mention that I'm working on a book about transportation and infrastructure, many people want to tell me their tales of woe," she wrote. "Their potholes. Their long commutes. Their awful flights. Everyone has a story, followed by a whine: 'Why don't they do something about it?' (Congress, the president, the airlines). After listening carefully, I began to see another challenge: how to make the story about us, not them. Our roads. Our commutes. Our flights. Our environment. Another goal of this book is to provide one picture of our shared situation. Unless we see a common fate, it is hard to get consensus for action."

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Stuart Moring
    • Retired, ASCE
    It is remarkable that a deep thinker of the stature of Dr. Kanter has addressed our infrastructure crisis. But beyond,deep thought, she impresses me as a problem solver; just the sort of person to offer meaningful solutions to our problems. I look forward to reading this important new treatise on a major American problem.
    • Sandra
    • Finance, Neighborhood Health Agencies, Inc
    Read the headlines of the NYT today regarding the train derailment in Philadelphia.. 6 fatalities and numerous injuries.... a testimony to the need for improvement in our domestic rail system as well as our highways.
    • David Physick
    • Glowinkowski International
    A very prescient piece on a bleak day for US transport with the rail accident in Philadelphia and tragic loss of life that occurred.
    Investment, development and innovation are all key issues and, in reverting in history to Roosevelt's New Deal, are we seeking a Keynesian government funded solution or is it dependent upon the open market and a Friedman profit-based solution?
    Perhaps it is deeper than that; what we're considering are the respective 'duties' of state and individual. Collectively and collaboratively, we should be able to create a multi-modal, fully integrated transport system that is, first-of-all, safe, and pays its way without syphoning off cash into the pockets of a few modern-day 'robber-barons'.
    If the situation is so dire and it is as bad here in UK (and we only have one high-speed line, there is a massive debate about spending ?50bn on a second to shave off a few minutes' journey time between London and Birmingham) then what alternative funding options can be developed. In the UK, the PPI schemes used to fund building of hospitals have left those institutions with vast hang-over costs that have benefitted only the building contractors and not the patient experience. Repeat of this for the travelling public, the customer, needs to be avoided surely?
    • frank m. thomas
    • president, landmark restorations, ltd.
    Amen...finally...a common sense article that addresses the real issues; more important, allowing incompetent work crews at the city and state level to perform repair/replacement of the existing road ways should be addressed immediately.
    • Ian Bell
    • ESL Teacher in MSc Public Transport, University Cergy-Pontoise
    Whilst this book seems aimed at an American audience Dr. Kanter's contacts with transport leaders around the world show she recognizes how international the problems and solutions are.
    • AdeloVant
    • Retired, None
    As of 20150513, I perceive, the transportation infrastructure an economic-political problem for US. The more prescient (Doc Kanter, Thanks) solution would be the best road to follow, but politicians are more dogma absorbed than nation building focused. Until the politicians fear US, more than their extremist holders/plutocrats, I suspect no infrastructure improvements are probable. Yes, the economy and businesses would have a boom in building and innovation that would provide derivatives for over a decade, but politicians remain engrossed in their dogmatic limitations that cannot provide any actual value to US.

    I appreciate what was said by David Physick, there are many great minds in sync with Doc Kanter, but none are running for election to the US Congress. At +60yo, I do hope to see great innovation and human QoL environment advances, but presently US Congress Representatives are a pitiful bunch of churlish clowns (IMO), very few are leaders (maybe two in a hundred). I greatly hope 2016 will be a turnaround for US. The last three+ decades have been a nightmare for US and many others globally.

    After the last three+ decades, we need to rebuild like, Germany and Japan, did after a major war. Using Local and State surpluses for penitentiaries and political cronyism, and Federal surpluses for adventurist a/o dogma foreign wars needs to end. Urban and rural transportation, schools, public markets ... infrastructure innovative and disruptive building for US is long overdue and required in the interest National Security.
    • Steve Lucier
    • President, Deer Creek Fabrics, Inc
    "Perhaps we're stuck not only with ageing infrastructure but also with obsolete ways of talking about it"
    What a powerful understatement! Until we develop the language, we cannot even think about it in a productive way. All these are important, but WATER needs to be on everyone's mind.
    Reinvention is what made this country great and is the only way we can revitalize ourselves.
    • Mark Pomerantz
    • Founder, Worldshapers
    How about Monorails? You could check out the Seattle experience. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seattle_Monorail_Project
    • Tensingh
    • Retired military officer, Indian army signals
    Cost of democracy or cost of averaging out is what we are finding over a period of time. Democracy only brought us such infrastructure and the same is decaying it. Necessity in time domain and not sustaining the same is the root cause. We assumed such infrastructure would prevail but not necessarily against our assumptions. Thus kanter's effort may reboot the ailing infrastructure not only in the USA but across the world. Blame game is politics and the policy makers are tenure based. Who cares attitude set in or the next guy to do it. Attitude problem results in democratic unaccountability. People suffer and then who cares. People waste time and then who cares. Less productive and more fuel consumption but what next? The invisible hand works for democracy. That is cost of democracy. Out sourcing human capital remains additional adverse side effect.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Dr. Kanter has deeply analysed what ails the transportation infrastructure in US. She has drawn a contrast with China, Japan, etc., which have developed faster and safer modes of travel. As far as we in India are concerned we have all along been appreciating the systems in US because ours are in a much poorer state. Anyway, it will be great help if the problems specified and solutions suggested by the author receive due attention at the planning and decision making levels. Improvements are always necessary and hence need to be initiated to provide better facilities to the public.
    • Hugh Quick
    • Home, None
    I have been a great admirer of the USA, ever since living there all too briefly in the 1950s. Why does professor Kanter pick out transportation for special consideration. Surely it is the vigour and participation of American people in general which determines the success of the country. Since returning to the UK, which was a condition of getting the money to go there, I have tried to persuade my fellow countrymen that the USA is a foreign country and George III didn't 'lose' it. There was never the slightest chance that the USA would remain a part of UK. I think I might as well have saved my breath for all the effect that I have had.

    As I said, I am an admirer but that doesn't mean that I agree with all the actions your country has taken.
    • Mathews Daniel Kapito
    • Director, Notebook Solutions Mw
    Transport infrastructure has been, is and will always be a key to economic development, trade and industry. We can all agree to facts that America must not only repair but reinvent the infrastructure for long term benefits. Repairs will only slow development as technology is advancing daily.
    • John Louton
    • Retired US Foreign Service Officer, n/a
    As Paul Kennedy noted in his book, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers," the real problem is the US, like all its predecessors, is on the road to decline because it is addicted to wasting fortunes on military power while neglecting education, healthcare, its roads, railroads, airports, environment and all the other forms infrastructure takes. This is exactly the same path followed by the Roman Empire, France, Spain, England, Russia, India, China et al., throughout recorded history.

    Now, India and China are again on the rise as the US declines. One would have to be in hibernation with our political leaders not to know they are rising because the are spending their resources internally while we are bogged down in another Mideast conflict--a conflict that is centuries older than the US.
    • Hashmi
    • None, N/A
    Couldn't agree more with the author. The problem is that when we are trying to fight others' wars, wasting Billions if not Trillions to export democracy to countries that are not meant for democracy, waging undue wars like Iraq war, of course we will have to neglect welfare of our own citizens. Infrastructure is not only for the benefit of the citizens, it is crucial to trade and mobility. Hopefully our leadership will realize all that sooner than later.
    • Rozann Kraus
    • Founder, TROMPcambridge.org
    Bravo and thank you, Dr. Kanter, lending your experience and intelligence to address a truly crucial issue. Here on the ground, we truly hope to encourage environmentally sensitive means of getting from here to there. Within the community, it's a question of changing the culture. We feel entitled to get in our cars and go where we want; others (buses, cars, bikes, pedestrians) get in our way. Travel Responsibility Outreach and Mentoring Project hopes to educate people about the laws and safe considerations when travelling. www.TROMPcambridge.org.
    • Dennis Grimes
    • Retired Engineer, N/A
    Many good comments here, the bottom line is our leaderships not only in DC but in most states are run by people who are clueless. Prime example is congress's view on Amtrak ( our high speed train LOL) must pay for itself as does the auto industry pay for highways via fuel taxes. and yet the highway trust fund almost went broke (so does the auto industry really pay for all highway repairs ) a course not additional funding must be added . But I see the problem as much deeper in that the USA is going broke, because of poor leadership which has lead to poor trading polices which has lead to more money leaving the USA along with good paying jobs then comes back in. None of this will ever happen until DC does a 180 turn, where they start thinking about America first and the rest of the world second and then we will begin to fix the in infrastructure and real middle class jobs ( not big box store jobs). Construction jobs are only a fraction of wh
    at is needed, we need to rebuild manufacturing, high tech jobs also to help pay for rebuilding America infrastructure and stop outsourcing and looking for cheep labor offshore.
    • Jim Medlock
    • CTO
    Wonderful points and goals, however in my view, the author misses the sole seed of the problem: Corporate Greed and avarice. The profit margin for rubber tired corridors is far too high to let any other mode of transportation to take hold. Second: the absolute idiocy of the majority of politicians. If one were to solve those two issues, the transportation in the USA would flourish, lifestyles would increase, and USA would become #1 again. "
    'Till then, keep dreaming!

    Jim M
    • James Medlock
    • Retired Engineer
    To Mr Grimes and others;
    You are demonstrating the faulty thinking and views which not only causes but nurtures the degradation of this great society(s) (and nation).. That of personal apathy and misunderstanding of the society as a whole. The USA (as with other countries) is a Republic, not a monarchy. To that, you must first realize the politicians are just as they are labeled, "Representatives" not "leaders'. They must be treated as such by the actual 'leaders' which are the citizenry of the nation. To expect the headquarters (Wash DC or London..) to self reform, or "turn 180" is actually a "brain dead" thought, as with any organization or body, if left to their own wills, will go 'bad" and become completely 'self interested'. So I urge citizens to become involved in politics, let the Representatives know that someone is watching their actions, and if such are not acceptable, pull that rep out of office, quickly.

    I now relinquish my soapbox...

    Jim M
    • Lockard Row
    • retired make-it-happen person
    How can we succeed; turn the country around? Some clues:

    The US Senate has no members claiming in their resumes knowledge, experience, nor education in: science, technology, engineering, math, international relations, labor relations. Only two bachelors' degrees in economics, one in finance. So, voters, why such light-weights?

    China has more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined; they can get stuff to market days earlier than the US as a result. A lot of this is upgrades to old rail-beds. The US has no high-speed rail. China is negotiating (and even building) rail to get to Europe. This will be faster and cheaper than maritime shipping. It will nearly double the market for Chinese goods. Some of the Chinese leadership have backgrounds in STEM, international relations, knowledge of foreign cultures, finance. China has just launched 50-year bonds at only 3.99% interest; is there any other country that is stable and strong enough to do this? And, the bond-sale was oversubscribed by 2.49 times. The US is still buying up our own debt - a dog chasing its tail - a foolish situation to be in.

    Meanwhile, the US elects folks who divert the attention of the voters to women's rights over their own bodies; voting accessibility rights; the Middle East; old, already examined Benghazi emails; and police misconduct. Compared to the over-arching importance of our competitive position in the world, these are several rungs down on the ladder. Voters, it will again soon be your turn. But what choices will you have? More churlish clowns.
    • Paul Minett
    • Chairman, Ridesharing Institute
    It does seem that there is a problem with broken infrastructure. But the sex is in building new, and the best new to build is a mega project for all the sublimes each brings. So there is a double loss - funds taken for building mega new deprive maintenance and repair of the existing; and mega projects do not always live up to their promises, while increasing the future need for maintenance that we can already not afford.
    But when we start from the point of view that the issue is one of infrastructure and our need to fund it, we might be starting from the wrong place.
    As an alternative, how about we start from the point of view that the issue is one of how we use the infrastructure, and the fact that we use it in the dumbest possible way? Let's demand that nothing new can be built until the existing is being used intelligently, and by that I mean single occupant vehicles are rare rather than the norm during peak periods, and that planes are not half full of people who paid almost nothing for their flight.
    Starting at that different point of view might give us a much more effective set of answers, and even improve the competitiveness of the nation.