A Department of Mobility Is An Impossible, Necessary Change

Why We Need to Overhaul Our Departments of Transportation

I’ll get right to the point: we’ve been long overdue in the methods by which we carve the Earth for travel. We need to rethink the entire concept of a “Department of Transportation” and reevaluate the base assumptions with which we build infrastructure to meet the modern need. In case I’ve already bored you: we spend way, way, way too much money on expanding our roads solely dedicated to automobile travel. And while our desired movements shift generationally, the manner by which we build does not: we build for the speed and grace of automobile movement. Every other movement, whether it is or isn’t, feels ancillary. Trains, buses, bikes, and feet fill in the gaps between car movements; the 21st century, if we’re going to make it through, requires a radical rethink. 

Departments of Transportation—at the local, state, and Federal level—must all consequently flip the approach and prioritize mobility over mode; freedom to travel safely and with dignity must come first; the car, for its central role in the shaping of the American continent in the 20th century, must no longer be the dominant lens through which we approach infrastructure planning. 

A rebrand is, unfortunately, not enough. We can’t simply rename our infrastructure offices “Departments of Mobility and Access,” as friend of the blog, Jerome Horne, coined way back in 2019 —or anything remotely similar—and expect any process to change on its own, either overnight or over a century. We’re so deep into the established norms and practices of a car-centric society, that any one change—from planning, to procurement, to policy, to provision of service—will shift very little the manner by which we build. In effect, highway building, as the founding principle of many DOTs, has become the only principle. Think about the last time you interacted with a space that wasn’t fed through a filter that accounts for driver comfort, first, and maybe second. Even “Complete Streets,” the crumbs of the nuggets of many local and state policies toward mobility, continue to consider driver comfort under the big-tent ideology of safety and comfort for all users of all ages and abilities

Through the lens of the highway kingmakers, a street is complete when a three-thousand-pound metal death box is considered alongside the fleshy meatbags who, at times, walk, bike, or roll within inches of one another. Otherwise, the street is simply “walkable or bikeable,” and out comes the self-appointed motordom community, which is alarmingly, but unsurprisingly organized on the “gimme” mentality that’s seeped into American society, through media (when was the last time you saw an Super Bowl commercial for a bike or train product?), through education (drivers’ ed is what most teens snooze through, with the sole purpose of attaining a license to earn “freedom” to sit in traffic and search for parking), and through the expectation that the privilege to drive with vim and vigor anywhere, at any time, for free, is a divine right. 

Curiously, the Framers of the American Experiment didn’t include a provision for this right in the Constitution or the Declaration of Car Independence. Strange, isn’t it?

No, what we need is a national conversation about what a car optional society might look like no matter where you live, what your ability to travel is, and how much money you earn. I had an old boss who’d refrain, when prompted, “Access to a car shouldn’t be a price of admission to society,” or something like that. This is not going to be a short process, but it is an urgent need. For every, “I need my car to do x activity,” there’s an equal and opposite, “...but what if we reshaped our world so that. What the first clause is saying is, “I want my car to do x,” and what the second is saying is not “no you don’t,” but a, “what if there was another way?”

We’ll call this Buttigieg’s Law: for every stale take on mobility and access, there’s an equal and opposite fresh one.

Shockingly, despite my exasperated rhetoric, I’m not “anti-car.” I don’t think it’s a productive stance, though the “movement” has attracted lots of advocates who want to ban cars completely from our streets (probably not) or at least force them to pay for use of the services. On that note, I have an inkling that many planners and policymakers undersell just how dominant the car is in our culture and that the conversation will be a matter of time to have: a cursory high-level search of my favorite Census Table, S0801: “Commuting Characteristics by Sex” shows that, all else equal, you’re about 25x more likely to drive to work than you are to take any form of transit, and 30x more likely to drive than to walk and 150x more likely to hop in your car to get to work than to bike. 

This type of analysis is admittedly misleading because, since COVID-19 permanently altered the way we move to work, you’re now also 5x more likely to work from home than you are to take transit to work. As if our transit agencies, plagued with fiscal woes, needed another competitive market and reason for people to not take transit. 

Let’s recap: our current system has always been designed to prioritize car travel, I’m not anti-car, we need a conversation right now that eventually needs to lead to a revolution by which we totally deprioritize car travel with every additional dollar spent on infrastructure, and deep breath this task will be nearly impossible to get right in the appropriate time frame given the vice grip on which the general population, billionaire automakers, and our government policymakers and providers have all aligned.

It has to happen anyway. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” they said. Except when we’ve got a dying planet for our grandkids to inherit, if they even make it given our alarmingly high rates of fatalities along our government-funded roads.

What does a DOM do and do differently from a DOT?

The rebrand is half of what I’m looking to accomplish. Shedding decades-old poor decisions will take more than a name change to rehabilitate. A few important caveats: 

  • A DOM will still be responsible for maintaining the assets under its current purview. It will, however, be required to think critically about new assets using different and more modern criteria. 

  • At the state level, a DOM will work with its constituent partners (localities + MPOs) and push as much down as possible. The DOM should be responsible for Big Think, clearing federal dollars, and convening information across places. At the local level, a DOM will be responsible for responding to state needs, applying for state and federal funds, and convening with partners across the state. 

At its core a DOM prioritizes the traveler—the mobility unit of scale—over the infrastructure. It thinks about projects from a perspective of social return on investment; not quite a benefit-cost analysis, but not quite a free-for-all spend on projects it knows it can do but will now know better what it should do. 

Crucially, a state DOM will prioritize projects that protect the safety and encourage the dignity of travelers. It won’t complete a street, per se, but it will be required to build traffic calming elements wherever possible, not just wherever practical. It will consider the five speed limits when building any new roads: observed (how fast drivers are actually moving), posted (the sign), designed (including: the width of the street and the width of each lane, the surface, any curvature, traffic calming, etc.), stopped (how fast you’ll go before stopped by police), and killed (how fast you’ll die if hit). A DOM will focus on providing infrastructure for the most vulnerable.

A DOM will not only flex its dollars into transit, it will proritize non-motor-vehicle methods of movement. Every street will be a slow street, where possible, it will include protected, grade-separated bike lanes—as part of a strategic bike network. Sidewalks will be plentiful; outdoor eating will be pleasurable.

In our DOM, the motor vehicle is one of many modes; our DOM is pro mode choice. Our DOM is truly a transportation department of the people and, if need should change, its mandate is flexible and purview mobile. It’s right there in the name. 

What does a DOM look like?

Thankfully, within our city laboratories, a few ideas have circulated to relatively little fanfare—and to different levels of success. I am the fan who’s faring. Through a cursory search I found one city that actively calls its transportation department a “Department of Mobility,” or in Pittsburgh’s case, a Department of Mobility & Infrastructure, or DOMI. Like other DOTs, Pittsburgh’s DOMI is responsible for “...the transportation of people and goods throughout the City of Pittsburgh, and for managing the operation of and access to the public right-of-way (the sidewalks, curbs, streets, and bridges that make up our network).” DOMI also makes it very clear what its principles are: 

  1. No one dies or is seriously injured traveling on city streets.

  2. Every household in Pittsburgh can access fresh fruits and vegetables within 20 minutes travel of home, without the requirement of a private vehicle.

  3. All trips less than 1 mile are easily and enjoyably achieved by non-vehicle travel.

  4. No household must spend more than 45% of household income to satisfy basic housing, transportation and energy needs.

  5. The combined cost of transportation, housing and energy does not exceed 45% of household income for any income group.

  6. The design, maintenance and operation of city streets reflects the values of our community.

Safety is the number one priority; dignity two, three, four, and five; environmental justice six. No where in its principles does it mention typical planning or transportation principles like throughput, congestion, Level of Service, or other metric associated with building roads. 

I would venture a guess that many other towns and cities boast a similar department—principles and all—whether stated or implied through its practice. But Pittsburgh said it out loud. In design thinking, architects might say function follows form. 

Across the state, Philadelphia’s transportation department has expanded its purpose to include Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, is known colloquially as OTIS, and houses several different pieces of the infrastructure puzzle that collectively add to what could be a mobility department. It’s a different configuration from Pittsburgh, but I know the staff who work diligently at both offices are working toward the equity and safety goals as befitting of a modern mobility office. Again, the name is more of a reflection of the shift in purpose and marching orders.

I’m wading too far into semantics so let’s step back: what do Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have to offer the State DOT—PennDOT—if not a blueprint in principle for the great shift? It begs another question for another time: from where does the mandate for a state DOM come? Is it an act of Congress that directs USDOT to set certain standards or does the state aggregate the needs of its constituent parts into an agency that directs capital but responds to problems?

This is a longer discussion. I’m going to dive into the process and potential pitfalls of this transition over on Exasperated Infrastructures. In the meantime, what do you think of this idea? Do we need a rebrand and refocus of our infrastructure houses? Or is this all an exercise in futility?

Sam Sklar is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Sam is a transportation planner and writer. He's worked on projects all over the world that focus on safety, dignity, economic development, and environmental sustainability. For this publication his focus is on transportation and infrastructure policy. Sam graduated with a Master's in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design and a Bachelor's from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. He also runs the Exasperated Infrastructures blog.

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