A Road to Reality: Taking Transportation Myths Head On

Longtime readers of this blog know that its focus is on the practice of communicating about transportation. This blog does not attempt to take on the politics of transportation.

Gov. Rick Snyder (left) and MDOT Director Kirk Steudle discuss transportation investment during a news conference. Photo courtesy Michigan DOT.
Gov. Rick Snyder (left) and MDOT Director Kirk Steudle discuss transportation investment during a news conference. Photo courtesy Michigan DOT.

However, in writing about one it is sometimes impossible not to include mention of the other. While that is perhaps the situation here, the interesting strategy behind a particular Michigan Department of Transportation communication effort is worth noting.

The State of Michigan has been in a multiyear discussion of whether to increase funding for transportation infrastructure. That’s not a surprise. Many states and local agencies are in a similar situation.

The Michigan Department of Transportation meanwhile has been quietly taking on some of what it calls common “myths” related to transportation. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer. Transportation agencies should be about the business of communicating with the public, right along with operating, building and maintaining the transportation system. However, survey after survey shows that the public knows very little about the roads, bridges, buses and railways that it uses every day.

That’s why MDOT’s approach seems to stand out.

The MDOT web site, Transportation Reality Check, currently features discussions of six “myths” ranging from claims that Michigan pays the nation’s highest gas tax to accusations that its maintenance crews do a poor job of filling potholes. A video produced by MDOT staff accompanies discussion of each myth, as does a simple one-page fact sheet.

One myth even takes on a claim that Ohio’s roads are better maintained and built than Michigan’s, playing to the bi-state rivalry that is obvious to any college sports fan.

If your agency doesn’t see something of itself in the “myths” explored by MDOT, then it should be easy to cull Facebook comments, or even letters and email messages for your own list. The public has many, many assumptions about transportation and most of them are not terribly positive.

By taking on the misconceptions, MDOT is providing a public service. But it also is attacking the kind of insidious negativity that can undermine an agency’s credibility. Throughout the country elected officials have argued, “We’ll increase funding when the DOT improves its performance.” Yet, attacks on performance are not often based on facts, and the cynicism of elected officials and the public can lead to decades of under funding.

MDOT is taking a step forward by identifying the main arguments of its critics and offering measured, reasoned and fact-based responses. It is a different form of transparency that complements performance measures, anecdotal case studies and ongoing regular run-of-the-mill operational messaging — all intended to peel back the curtain of our transportation system to enable the public and elected officials to make better informed decisions about agency credibility and, ultimately, transportation funding.

How is your agency facing its critics. Do you have a list of myths that are commonly argued and discussed within your agency? If so, are you and your colleagues shrugging your shoulders or actively engaging in conversations that lead to better informed leaders and citizens?

It seems as if Gov. Rick Snyder agrees with MDOT’s approach. His administration is in the midst of a full-court press, pushing for increased transportation funding, releasing a new video this week profiling the state of Michigan’s transportation infrastructure. And, its supporting news release points directly to the MDOT “reality check” site.

Here is Gov. Snyder’s video featuring, among others, MDOT Director Kirk Steudle discussing Michigan’s infrastructure situation.

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Author: Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.

9 thoughts on “A Road to Reality: Taking Transportation Myths Head On”

  1. Myths abound relating to transportation. In tolling, people think the highways are paid for. A highway is never paid for and always needs maintenance. A highway also has a life span and needs to be reconstructed for safety and reliability. Another myth related to tolling is that it violates people’s privacy. Tolling agencies keep their information secure. Individuals carrying cell phones leave a trail of where they have been and using an ATM or credit card shows exactly where they have been, what they have purchased and when.

  2. Susan, I thought the video might be a little long, too. It works maybe better as a Rotary Club video presentation than a viral posting. But I thought it was well done and was very strong in its language.

  3. Great stuff, Lloyd. Unfortunately, Michigan is not unique in this issue as it is an issue throughout the country. And, it is not confined to our roadways alone. The US is in a real crisis when it comes to maintaining our aging transportation infrastructure. Kudos to Michigan for tackling the issue head-on.

  4. Love the directness of this Lloyd. Have you heard of any backlash from citizens/stakeholders (e.g., why is Michigan DOT spending money on “expensive” PR and videos rather than investing that money in better roads? I know this is a typical citizen response that happens sometimes when a DOT takes an inform and education program.

  5. part of the problems of transportation maintenance isn’t due to thier inability to maintain thinge, it’s thier ability o keep other departments frome taking there funds and using it on something that they don’t need or need less of.

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