What It Will Take to Fix America’s Crumbling Infrastructure
May 11-15 is national Infrastructure Week in the U.S., but don’t get out the party hats. It’s not a celebration. It’s more like a cry for help. Bridges are crumbling, buses are past their prime, roads badly need repair, airports look shabby, trains can’t reach high speeds, and traffic congestion plagues every city. How could an advanced country, once the model for the world’s most modern transportation innovations, slip so badly?
The glory years were decades ago. Since then, other countries surpassed the U.S. in ease of getting around, which has implications for businesses and quality of life. For example, Japan just celebrated the 50th anniversary of its famed bullet train network, the Shinkansen. Those trains routinely operate at speeds of 150 to 200 miles per hour, and in 2012, the average deviation from schedule was a miniscule 36 seconds. Fifty years later, the U.S. doesn’t have anything like that. Amtrak’s “high-speed” Acela between Washington, D.C., and Boston can get up to full speed of 150 mph only for a short stretch in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, because it is plagued by curves in tracks laid over a century ago and aging components, such as some electric overhead wiring dating to the early 1900s.
Numerous problems plague businesses and consumers: Goods are delayed at clogged ports. Delayed or cancelled flights cost the U.S. economy an estimated $30-40 billion per year – not to mention ill will of disgruntled passengers. The average American wastes 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. This amounts to 5.5 billion hours in lost U.S. productivity annually, 2.9 gallons of wasted fuel, and a public health cost of pollution of about $15 billion per year, according to Harvard School of Public Health researchers. The average family of four spends as much as 19% of its household budget on transportation. But inequality also kicks in: the poor can’t afford cars, yet are concentrated in places without access to public transportation. To top it all, federal funding for highways, with a portion for mass transit, is about to run out.
The situation is urgent. But where is the sense of urgency? That’s what I set out to explore for the Harvard Business School U.S. Competitiveness project. I put aside work on a book about leadership to tackle the infrastructure issue. Then I realized that infrastructure led me straight back to leadership, but of a bigger kind – leadership to look beyond one’s own business to think about solving big problems.
It’s often said that when the pain gets bad enough, people will support change. I’m not sure that’s enough. Change requires a vision of the future sufficiently compelling that people will overcome inertia and support investment. Change requires an awareness of common fate – that everyone shares a piece of the suffering but can benefit from contributing to improvements.
American strengths in innovation and entrepreneurship offer numerous possibilities for upgrading infrastructure, and the transportation sector numerous possibilities for exciting business investments, if leaders see the future. Revitalized cities can have people-friendly streets, smarter roads containing sensors to improve traffic flow and spot repair needs, vehicles that can prevent accidents, apps to summon cars or find parking as well as tell blind people when they’ve wandered outside the lines at a street crossing (I call this a seeing-eye phone). Data analytics, such as the Weather Company’s Total Turbulence package, can reduce weather-related flight delays by providing real-time weather data.
Cross-sector innovation is also promising. Oregon is running an experiment with a vehicle-miles-traveled fee to replace gasoline taxes for roads and bridges, which anticipates the spread of electric vehicles such as the Tesla that use roads but don’t buy gas. Collaboration via public-private partnerships can potentially tap diverse forms of funding, combine expertise, and make it possible to get public-buy-in.
Unless there’s strong public will that translates into votes, a Congress elected every two years can’t be expected to rally behind raising taxes to pay for big projects, despite the certainty that red states’ bridges can crumble as readily as blue states’. That’s why leaders need to pitch a big tent. Inclusiveness means making infrastructure a family issue and women’s issue. It often seems to be a man’s world, but outstanding woman leaders, such as former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, DSC logistics company CEO Ann Drake, MIT robotics lab head Daniela Rus, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, and IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, prove that cars are not just toys for boys, and women can become sought-after engineers.
Events like Infrastructure Week sound the alarm. Then leaders must step in to give people reason for hope. To succeed, leaders need inspiring visions, strategic thinking, openness to innovation, and change processes that involve coalition building and uniting constituencies behind common goals – the essence of leadership. It can come from corporate chiefs, enlightened officials, tech entrepreneurs, consumers, citizens, and activists who are informed and motivated to seek change. It’s time to move.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of pieces marking Infrastructure Week 2015 that will explore the role of leadership in fixing U.S. infrastructure problems.