Selling transportation: Travel in their shoes, and make it local

Whether you’re a cycling enthusiast, a concrete proponent or someone who touts transit, there are some common communication themes that are likely to make the job of talking transportation with your customers more successful.

Two important complementary reports help define a tact toward greater public understanding and support for our national transportation as a whole – not highways over pedestrians, or capacity versus dedicated bike lanes.  These reports – one from the Miller Center and one from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program – offer transportation experts a chance to step back from the day-to-day advocacy and consider a different way of approaching advocacy.

The University of Virginia’s Miller Center hosted a 2011 conference that gathered together some of the best minds in transportation policy. The resulting report, “Are We There Yet? Selling America on Transportation,” steers advocates away from the doom and gloom forecasts of crumbling infrastructure and declining national competitiveness. Instead, the Miller report suggests smartly two key ideas – stay positive and link local transportation investments to the national agenda.

The NCHRP report 20-24 (62a), “The New Language of Mobility,” took a look at the issue from the users’ perspective. The recommendations, developed from a set of focus group sessions, offers transportation insiders a different perspective on some of our most common language. For instance, the focus group participants wanted, and were willing to pay for, freedom and mobility. In this case, freedom meant the freedom to travel unimpeded where they wanted to go when they wanted to go there.

Mobility, on the other hand, was a complementary phrase that meant a desire to have seamless connections regardless of what mode they wanted to use. It was not a case of walking over cars, but a recognition that for a system to work best, all the modes needed to function as a system of connections that would be there when they were needed.

The focus groups also discussed sustainability, which in this case meant nothing about the environment or global warming but rather our overall ability to pay for and maintain a well-functioning transportation system.

So what does all this mean for the transportation communicator? A great deal.

It is so important that we periodically take a step back from pushing the plow and ask whether we are heading in the right direction. The Miller Center asked that question of the transportation insiders. The NCHRP report asked a similar question of system users. In each case, the information offered some interesting insights and perhaps some helpful course corrections.

It is also important to remember that words matter – especially when talking transportation.

And, perhaps most of all, we should remember that modal “competition” is a self-created contest. The end-user is willing to drive, bike, use transit or walk depending on a host of factors like the weather and how much time they have.

But at the end of the day, both reports pointed to one last important observation. Transportation is a personal, local decision – what’s in it for me?

Make the transportation funding debate about a specific list of projects or programs that exist their communities and you will find citizens all over America much more engaged.

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