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The New Language of Mobility: Talking Transportation in a Post-Recession World

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, March 10th, 2011


Volume 2, Supplement to “Making the Case for Transportation Investment and Revenue”, produced under the National Cooperative Highway Research  Program, NCHRP 20-24 (62)A.

See also Volume 1, Strategies and Messages: Three Case Studies of Successful Campaigns to Raise Revenue for Transportation.

Overview: Red Light, Green Light

“Traffic makes me feel trapped…it deprives me of my time and my freedom.”
-D.C. Participant

When we began this research, we expected a rough road.

It would be hard to overstate the national mood against large government programs or new taxes right now, for any reason.

But we found there is a new way to talk about transportation that, if done correctly, can not only generate support for revenue increases, it can get  people excited about them. But first you have to acknowledge some fundamental truths:

  • Distrust of Washington and big government means all decisions need to be perceived as being made at the state and local levels – not federally driven.
  • The priorities of AASHTO and other transportation professionals are different from those of voters and taxpayers. So you must adopt language that is relevant to them, which means the traditional messages about maintenance and even relieving congestion simply aren’t going to be as effective right now.

To succeed, you must provide a vision of how things can and should be. Once, driving across America was the essence of freedom. You could move in a way not possible in other developed countries. But over time, as everything else has gotten faster, and cars still move at the same speed, transportation has become something that seems relatively restrictive. It hasn’t evolved with the times. It’s holding us back.

It is, in effect, a red light.

The solution, as far as citizens are concerned, is to make transportation more technologically advanced, more efficient. To increase the green lights they encounter.

There’s a word for this kind of free, unrestricted movement: MOBILITY.

Transportation experts commonly use the word “mobility.” But in an age of increasingly mobile technology, “mobility” may have a different meaning than it does within the professional community.

To succeed, you cannot address funding initiatives using the language of tax and revenue; it’s about the benefits of what those dollars will bring, and one of the most resonant benefits is the ability to be more mobile.

We found that if you effectively communicate the value of a smarter, more efficient transportation system that addresses the powerlessness and limitations imposed by the current system, then people are actually willing to PAY FOR those benefits. This is an important messaging distinction: People may not support “raising revenue” or taxes, but they are willing to “pay for” things that are important to them.

Your strongest message is one that capitalizes on a word the technology industry has turned into a synonym for freedom. We now have mobile phones and mobile computing that let us do in a park or our living rooms what we used to need an office for.

Mobility and technology aren’t the extent of the transportation story, though. People also want to know that it will be sustainable – both physically and financially. That it will be locally driven and guarantee accountable spending. That it will provide jobs and develop the economy. And they don’t want to hear about routine maintenance.

It’s important to note that the scope of our research was limited. We went to three major metropolitan areas (Charlotte, Denver, Orlando) where employment and the economy are doing relatively well, and where residents aren’t all that angry about traffic congestion. And while we also spoke to people in Washington, D.C., where traffic is bad, people inside the Beltway don’t always think like the rest of the country. These cities were chosen because, among other things, they are representative of much of the country. But we didn’t study any rural areas, or any areas hit particularly hard by the recession. For these reasons, it’s important to take these recommendations as a guide, and to keep in mind that crafting plans for specific states or metropolitan areas is going to require research specific to the issues and concerns of those residents.

With that said, we’ve developed a communications strategy that can be tailored to excite people across the country about the possibility of a better transportation experience.

The Five Keys to Transportation Funding
1. Sustainable mobility
2. Technology and modernization
3. Long-term local planning
4. Accountable spending
5. Jobs and economic development

Download full version (PDF): The New Language of Mobility Vol II

About the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
“The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is the voice for transportation and catalyst for organizational and technical excellence…AASHTO advocates transportation-related policies and provides technical services to support states in their efforts to efficiently and safely move people and goods.”

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One Response to “The New Language of Mobility: Talking Transportation in a Post-Recession World”

  1. Gene Bachelder says:

    Stonewalled Since 1962, Protection against worst weather conditions, safeguarding us from most disasters as oil depletion day is near 2032yr. How is our fields to be plowed or freight to be moved, when all the oil is used up? Adding some electrical cars and changing a few light bulbs don’t cut the mustard people. This has caused my own life to be at ruin.
    ANDREW GARAB, TIMOTHY O’ROURKE; NEW YORK TIMES,-“SOARING CAR CULTURE CLASH.” ENGINEERS; MR. CHAN ZHANG, WANG JANKA PLEASE SEARCH IT ON THE WEB! Guangzhua, China + 15 other cities has 60 gargantuan tunnel machines and China is investing $100 million per mile to restructure their failed transportation system as mass transit subways. Perhaps to replace the over congested vehicles, installate from extreme conditions, to prepare against oil depletion day near 2032yr. This city last year perfected 71 running miles of subway, projecting 83 miles this year, with 500 + more miles in the plans. This includes high speed and local tracks. GWB, UNEMPLOYED, NEAR DEAD, IN AZ., Yes WE CAN ENGINEER OUT OF THE PROBLEM. Please send a response. Also 4 better water & air. I’ve always cared about everyone, Anyone that Sais, “different is a Liar!!!” Have more info., but need hard address to send it to.
    Sincere listener- [email protected]

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