Star Ford

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Comments to RITA on structuring ITS goals to ensure transformational change

on 2009 July 15

Abstract: It’s one thing to say we want transformational change, and quite another thing to structure a program to ensure that it happens. The built-in incentive for all players in government sponsored research is to string out the research money and keep the organizations afloat, without ever “finishing”, and this dynamic can put a cap on any real change that affects the stated goals. ITS has been around a long time, and despite all the important research that has been done, Americans still drive ever longer distances and are stuck in worsening traffic conditions, and the gains made in environmental, economic and safety fronts are marginal. The current proposed statement of goals and objectives would allow a research program to be devised that fulfills them to the letter, but does not represent any real change in the economy, the environment, or everyday life of Americans on any significant scale.

These comments are aimed at the structure of goals, objectives, and funding, to request that they be set up a little differently, to ensure that the ITS program is effective.

RITA Docket 2009-0001 – Comments on structuring goals to ensure transformational change

The following 5-page statement has been prepared and submitted by the team:

Stanley E. Young, PhD, PE
Advanced Transit Association, President
Research Engineer, University of Maryland
Center for Advanced Transportation Technology
301-403-4593
seyoung@umd.edu

Ian Ford
Ian Ford Software Corporation, President
Advanced Transit Association, Director
Albuquerque, NM
505 246 8490
ilf@ianford.com

Dennis Manning
Retired Highway Engineer
Advanced Transit Association, Director

Michael R Weidler
Transit User

General statement

It’s one thing to say we want transformational change, and quite another thing to structure a program to ensure that it happens. The built-in incentive for all players in government sponsored research is to string out the research money and keep the organizations afloat, without ever “finishing”, and this dynamic can put a cap on any real change that affects the stated goals. ITS has been around a long time, and despite all the important research that has been done, Americans still drive ever longer distances and are stuck in worsening traffic conditions, and the gains made in environmental, economic and safety fronts are marginal. The current proposed statement of goals and objectives would allow a research program to be devised that fulfills them to the letter, but does not represent any real change in the economy, the environment, or everyday life of Americans on any significant scale.

These comments are aimed at the structure of goals, objectives, and funding, to request that they be set up a little differently, to ensure that the ITS program is effective.

Goals

Public goals should meet the four “JAMP” criteria – Justified, Abstract, Measurable, and Programmatic.

  • Justified

A goal should be plainly justified by common sense, which means it is related to basic human needs such as safety, time, affluence, or peace. Not everyone will agree on priorities, but almost everyone will agree on a goal that is put in terms of human needs (at least in the area of land and transportation). For example, a goal to reduce time spent in traffic is clearly agreeable to the large majority of people, because it is a goal about time. Even if people don’t all agree on how important that is relative to other goals, or how much money it is worth to solve it, it is justified by a basic human need.

  • Abstract

A goal should be abstract enough so that there is more than one possible way to achieve it. For example, building a bridge is too specific of a goal; reducing the time it takes to access jobs and services is the actual goal behind building a bridge. When goals aren’t abstracted, innovation is less likely.

  • Measurable

A goal must be measurable enough so that we know if we have reached it, or to what extent. There are different ways a goal can be measurable. One way is using a target number of something, such as a number of tons of carbon monoxide emissions per year in an area. Another way is sometimes called “asset based”, which is to list a number of assets that a population would have, and set a target number of assets of the list that should be had to meet the goal. Another method is using surveys of beliefs or perceptions, which makes those things quantifiable. The target number, regardless of what kind of measure is used, should not be watered down to what is perceived to be practical, but should instead be the ideal. For example, the target for traffic fatalities is zero, even if that will never be achieved.

  • Programmatic

Finally, a goal should be “programmatic” enough so that we know if the program, policy, or expenditure that was supposed to meet the goal was responsible for meeting it. For example, the goal about increasing civic pride would not be programmatic, because after money was spent towards the goal, and the measure of civic pride changed by some degree, it would be impossible to know whether that particular expense was responsible for the change in perception. So, we would have to focus it more by geographical boundaries, population group, or some more specific aspect of the problem to solve.

The four categories of goals of ITS (three from DOT) can be evaluated by these criteria:

  • Safety, as measured by the number of accidents and deaths. This goals is justified by the human need for life. It is abstract because it can be achieved many ways. It is measurable because we can count the number of accidents that occur. And it is programmatic to the extent that the causes of accidents can often be known and those causes are usually linked to public policy and programs. Therefore the DOT goal of safety is excellent.
  • Mobility. This goal is related to the more general goal of “access”, the difference possibly being that mobility is about movement, while access is about reaching the employment, goods, and services that we need regardless of the amount of movement required. Moving for its own sake does not appear to be justified by basic human needs, but access is more clearly justified. The ITS proposed wording (“improvements in mobility that result in more sustainable and livable communities”) introduces new vague, unmeasurable terms. Mobility and access are both abstract because there is more than one way to travel. Mobility is measurable because we can count traffic. Access is measurable but less directly. Mobility and access are both programmatic to the extent that the available modes and land uses that contribute to access are public decisions. In conclusion, the goal of mobility is not an effective guide for public research expenditure because more movement is not necessarily better.
  • Environment, as measured by the impact of transportation on the environment. This goal is justified by the human need for habitat and a functioning ecosystem. It is abstract because there are many ways to reduce impact. It is measurable because we can count the emissions of engines, waste, etc., and the land occupied by transport uses. And it is programmatic because the emissions and other impacts are largely controlled by public decisions. However, the measurement aspect is open to interpretation since the goal does not state which impacts are to be measured. Overall this is an acceptable goal with some refinement.
  • Policy. This goal is not measurable because no target value or measure is given. Because it is not clearly formulated, the other criteria are not possible to comment on. It appears to be a placeholder to allow a funding category for non-engineering research.

Because of the problems above, I present here a modified list of goals, which all meet all of the “JAMP” criteria.

  • Safety, as measured by the number of deaths plus one-tenth the number of injuries. That is, one death is worth ten injuries. The target for the combined number is zero.
  • Access, as measured by a formula that sums disutilities of obtaining basic needs such as employment, food, and a few other retail categories. It could be applied at any scale depending on the program or population being studied – for example a neighborhood or state, or an age group or mobility-impaired population. This might be best measured by a calculation on existing land use data, calibrated by a survey instrument, and expressed in units of hours per year per household. The goal subsumes the goal of congestion relief without specifically measuring the congestion level of specific roadways. The target for the sum is zero; closer to zero is better.
  • Environmental goals, divided into three separate measures:
    • The amount of greenhouse gases released by transportation, normalized to tons of CO2-equivalent. The target value is zero.
    • The amount of health-related air emissions due to transportation, as measured by an index that combines several classes of contaminants. The target value is zero.
    • The amount of land occupied by transportation, in total area. This goal represents the fact that transportation uses are displaced habitat. The target value is zero.

Policymaking is not a goal in itself, so is intentionally left out.

An evidence-based contest for funding

In order to ensure that the ITS program is effective, the research chosen should be that, when taken together, has the greatest chance of changing the actual goal measures: fewer deaths, less time wasted, less CO2 emissions, and so on.

I would recommend deleting the breakdown of objectives and tasks, as well as the focus on connectivity, for the simple reason that these represent assumptions that may or may not be true. For example, it may or may not be the case that collecting real-time vehicle condition data is a cost effective way to meet environmental goals. Or, there may be many other ways to reach those goals, some of which are far more cost effective. These assumptions should not be built into the program, particularly because they appear to be merely judgments of a number of people in the field, rather than scientifically derived. If you believe they should be written into the program, then you have already decided what the answer is. But if we already knew the answer, why would we spend five years researching connectivity?

How do we go from abstract goals to research funding? It might seem that we need to break down the large goals into more manageable pieces, but it is in the process of breaking down goals into pieces that the greatest risk of program failure occurs. Thinking “outside the box” can only occur when there are no boxes. So we should not break down the goals into boxes; we should evaluate projects directly from the goals.

I suggest that the appropriate management strategy is by evidence-based contest. This is a little less predictable, and more innovation-based way than the normal grant making process. Proposals are considered on the basis of projections directly towards the overall goals, and it is the responsibility of the applicant to make a compelling case that the proposed project has a transformational potential on the goals. The DOT then publishes an independent analysis of the qualified proposals, stating for each the cost, risk level, and benefit level towards each goal. The “contestants” can submit clarifications, correct errors, or even argue why their competitors do not achieve the goals.

The key difference here is that proposals in an evidence-based contest may not stake their claims on derived assumptions, but must stake their claims on the justifiable, abstract, measurable, and programmatic goals.

There are several classes of risk that need to be taken into account when identifying the risk level. Ultimately a high level of risk is acceptable if the projected benefits are high, while a low level of risk is required for a proposal of moderate benefits. The risk classes include risk that the engineering won’t be practical, that there is no market, that the effort will be eclipsed by some larger effort, or it doesn’t address the regulatory framework.

Projects that should get attention

Under an evidence based contest, proposals that are bold, realistic, and comprehensive will get more attention, while projects that are piecemeal or too shy or pie-in-the-sky will get less attention.

As an example, a study to review different wireless payment prototypes, or a study of just one aspect of a wireless payment system would be too risky. While it is clear that it could be done, there is a high risk that it will be shelved and have no lasting impact. Instead the research should be awarded to someone who will carry it through to finalize a complete open-standards wireless payment system which could be adopted by state agencies and the existing vendors. The reason for doing this research would be to shift costs of driving closer to per-mile, to incentivize less driving, which will have an effect on all the goal measures. The DOT could reasonably project that, for example, 16 states would adopt the system and implement it on 8,000 miles of roadway, and the reduction in driving and driving speed would save 200 lives per year.

Another applicant could combine the above idea with a system that does toll payment and automatic variable fines for speeding, acting as an electronically enforced speed limit. Because of the higher value, perhaps 12,000 miles of roadway would be subjected to this and it would save 800 lives per year. The point is not to push this particular project (which is included for illustration only), but that the best possible options will never be inside the originally preconceived categories of funding. This shows why the outline of objectives and tasks should be deleted.

In the above two examples, it is not entirely critical that the 8,000/12,000 mile estimates are correct predictions of future events, only that they are analytically sound in relation to each other, so that they can be used to make a decision among options.

Some other projects possibilities that are likely within the ITS budget but which don’t fit into the narrow “Connectivity” theme are:

  • Demonstrate in revenue service a transit network composed of whistlecars (low speed cybercars that are called by web or phone), express-only mass transit corridors, and a fast-boarding payment system. The applicant includes a municipality that will cover mass transit costs and a cybercar developer who will lease hardware. A possible increase in local ridership might be from 2% to 12%, by which it would be possible to calculate the number of lives saved and other measures by the demonstration alone, and potential replications of the demonstration.
  • Provide technical and legal assistance, and failure insurance to a municipality or campus to implement a personal rapid transit (PRT) system from a vendor who has completed R&D. Because in this type of system, revenues could exceed costs after the pilot stage, private capital could take most of the risk, with federal assistance limited to the barriers to being the first in its class of service. As with the example above, ridership gains could be projected, and therefore the number of saved lives, saved time, and environmental benefits could also be projected.
  • Build an automated boring machine that would be suitable for constructing an evacuated tunnel under mountain ranges. While this has a higher risk than the ideas above and has a longer time frame, the benefits of air-speed travel at ground level could be great in terms of saved energy, emissions, time, and lives.

Summary

  • If goals are set using the JAMP criteria, and funding is tied strongly to progress towards those goals, then the ITS program cannot fail to make transformational progress.
  • On the other hand, if funding is only linked to the low-level box, which is in a large outline of loosely-linked goals and objectives, then it is only possible to ensure that the task is completed, but there is no guarantee that any transformational change will occur.
  • Bold and comprehensive projects that don’t fit in the preconceived boxes should be funded, when they can show a compelling case for safety, congestion, and environmental consequences.
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