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Worldchanging Interview: Nancy Kete on the Future of the American Transportation System
Sarah Kuck, 2 Jun 09
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Nancy Kete, a program director at the World Resources Institute, knows that in order to create the bright green cities of tomorrow, we must reimagine how we move about and in between them today. For decades, heavy reliance on the automobile has shaped cities globally, but arguably most dramatically in the United States. To reverse this trend and its harmful side effects, we need a new vision of transportation that will work both for those already entrenched within this system and for those who are seeking to replicate it.

Helping developing nations seek out and implement alternative mobility solutions is one of the main goals of the World Resources Institute's Center for Sustainable Transport, EMBARQ. Although the team spends most of its time working on transportation systems in places like Mexico, Brazil, India, and Turkey, they often use their research and experience to influence other political leaders from their headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Kete, who is a senior fellow and program director at EMBARQ, recently spoke out about the Obama administration's plan to dedicate billions of stimulus dollars to constructing high speed rail. Kete warns that high speed rail is not a silver bullet solution, and urges the administration to proceed with caution, careful planning and a holistic solution that reflects regional needs. I recently spoke with Kete to discuss this and other issues surrounding the future of transportation in the United States.

Sarah Kuck: What does transportation look like now in most U.S. cities? And where can we go from here?

Nancy%20Kete.jpgNancy Kete: In most U.S. cities, except for New York particularly and a couple of others, transportation is dominated by car travel. There are a few cities that have a significant amount of trips on rail or bus transit. And then there’s intercity travel, which is dominated by air at this point, with some rail depending on where you are.

But the question is where do we go from here? And I think the right way to think about this depends on where do we want it to go from here? What do we want it to look like? Do we think that today’s situation is OK? And if not, what’s wrong with it?

We know from a climate perspective that we really ought to be emitting 80 percent less CO2 by the year 2050, at the minimum. And then we want to ask ourselves, “If we wanted transportation to carry its proportional share of that, what would the transportation system look like in 2050 if it was 80 percent less CO2?” It’s almost impossible to imagine that system having the amount of personal travel and the same land use patterns of the sprawl we have today. Even if all the cars people were traveling in were zero carbon, with clean engines, or powered by solar electricity – at a certain point you have so many vehicles on the road and you only have a certain amount of land you can use for all that technological solution, so you have to start to deal with the combination of land use and transportation together. Which is were transit and planning come in.


SK: A few weeks ago, you commented on the Obama administration's plan for High Speed Rail. What do you think the future of high-speed rail should look like in the United States?

NK: The answer is, it depends. One of the issues is that our cities are farther apart than in Europe or Japan, where the high-speed rail has worked really well.

So we have to be careful as we use the stimulus money for high speed rail to put it on corridors where there are enough passengers to justify all that embedded carbon. It will be very carbon intensive to build the rail and the trains. If they go often and they're full, then it's good. But a train running empty between Chicago and Minneapolis would be a worse outcome than a car in a carpool lane with a couple people driving.

But that said, air travel itself is very carbon intensive. We need to carefully pick the corridors that are shortest ones or the ones that are likely to have the highest demand. There are some less carbon intensive ways to connect our cities. You can do that with high speed bus, but if you really want to use high speed rail to connect people faster even than bus could, you would want to concentrate on cities that are reasonably close together to make sure you are going to have the demand for it. And you are going to have to make driving alone or driving more expensive, make it reflect the environmental and infrastructure costs of supporting the driving economy.

SK: What advice would you give the Obama administration?

NK: Do some really careful demand estimations for each corridor, and start with the corridors where there is a certain density, and a high demand for something other than driving and flying. Prove out the concept with truly high speed rail, and then as people see the benefit of it, the demand for it in other places might increase.

In addition, we have to think about tolls and higher fuel taxes to discourage driving on the same corridors that have a lot of congestion on the road so that you drive people appropriately to the transit option. And then the third thing is, the U.S. has a growing population. You want to make sure that growth occurs along these corridors so that you have more density and more riders. Not just to get the riders, but so that you have your infrastructure and your demand in the same place because that’s the only thing that will make it cost effective and carbon efficient. And all that’s called planning, and planning has to become not a dirty word.

Planning, pricing and investment all have to align together.

SK: What do people commonly misunderstand about how transportation works in the United States?

NK: Most people don’t know how much it costs them to drive their own car. We have these externalized costs associated with owning the car, which we don’t pay every time we drive, so once we own a car and we’ve paid those costs, we only see the fuel costs. And when fuel is cheap it looks really cheap to drive our car, and that’s just on the personal side.

If we made it clearer, like with pay-as-you-drive insurance, and with fuel prices that more accurately reflected the cost of building and maintaining the road system and protecting the fuel supply, which is related to keeping peace in the Middle East and keeping our access to a steady supply of oil and all the environmental costs..if the driver paid all those every time he/she filled the tank, we would be paying much higher costs all the time and would make different decisions about how much we drove our cars.

SK: Would that knowledge of the real costs of driving make people more willing to support public transportation measures?

NK: We saw that when gasoline was $4 a gallon last year, ridership on public transport went way up. And then once the demand for public transportation goes up, customers who want to use it, who are citizens, will then want better service. When a lot of people started using it for the first time or went back to it last year that they realized that this is easy, it can be good, it can be convenient. But a lot of people realized too that they needed to increase the quality of it. And then you had constituents for it, for the first time.

That’s the way you get better public transportation systems: by increasing the demand for it. I just think the way human nature is, it’s not very likely that people who never use it are going to be very passionate supporters of it for somebody else.

SK: Do you have a vision for what intermodal transportation will look like in the future?

NK: It is the right vision. It is much more holistic than thinking about Bus Rapid Transit or rail, or even walking and biking. Many people live so far from their home that they can’t do it just with non-motorized transport.

The heart of intermodality is information. For example, a smart card will allow you to integrate your fare so you have an advantage for using multiple parts of the system. And then you use the IT section of the system – you optimize the operations part of the system to make it easy for the consumer to get to where they are going as fast as possible -- that’s linking communication information and transportation all as one system, which is all doable.

In many places, though, the operations are managed by different companies, so institutional change has to happen. If we don’t merge companies, then there has to be different incentives for multiple companies to want to be operated together, or to redefine the companies so that they are all under one operator. Those are not small changes.

Image Credits:
Homepage image: Flickr/Unexamined Life
Nancy Kete headshot: World Resources Institute
Sprawl: Flickr/Mark Strozier

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This is an excellent interview. I do, however, wish Ms. Kete had spent a bit more time interacting with the oft-stated objection that American cities are supposedly too far apart for European-style HSR. While this has some merit, as in her Chicago-Minneapolis example, there are numerous obvious corridors in which 200 mph trains would work well. Here is an example.

Paris: 12m
Lyon: 1.8m
Distance: 289 mi / 466 km
Chicago: 9.8m
St. Louis: 2.8m
Distance: 297 mi / 479 km

To which I add London – Paris and NYC – DC:

London: 14m
Paris: 12m
Distance: 289 mi / 465 km
New York City: 19m
Washington, DC: 5.3m
Distance: 227 mi / 366 km

A careful look at a map of the Midwest United States reveals many pairs of cities that fall into an acceptable range.

More notable is the intention of many American transportation planners to propose incremental improvements of rail transportation using conventional faster trains on existing rail tracks.

The benefits are a quicker start-up, lower capital costs, and encouraging a culture of train use. This is a useful beginning.

Posted by: Pat Lynch on 3 Jun 09

Thank you Pat Lynch for pointing out Kete's error about the comparison of the distances between US vs. European cities.

The phrase: "start with the corridors where there is a certain density" gives me concern because there is a widespread myth that the population density of most US states is too low for intercity rail.

There are European countries with low population densities that have successful rail systems. The population density along the Pacific Northwest Corridor (Oregon-Washington) has a relatively low population density, but it supports this successful rail corridor.

Ohio has a comparable population density to France.

States involved in planning rail corridors are way ahead of Ms. Kete. She should come up to speed.

Furthermore, it needs to be clarified that the Obama administration has defined three types of high speed rail: Emerging HSR for top speeds of 90-110 mph, Regional HSR at 110-150 mph, and Express HSR at greater than 150 mph.

Reality is, in most of the country, we are going to see a lot more 90 mph trains long before we see true European HSR. Getting to European HSR will be an incremental process. 14 states already support intercity rail services at 79-90 mph, and they are successful. Plans are already in the works to increase the speeds.

Posted by: ejd on 5 Jun 09

Three critical things that still need discussion: How close the stops will be. The cost of eliminating grade crossings(unacceptable for HSR) , and, perhaps most important How to prevent amateur terrorists from derailing the trains, which is all too easy to accomplish. JB

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 5 Jun 09

For an alternative view of transportation for the future, see A Structural Strategy for Global Warming and the Environment (Menu>The Strategy>Transportation).

Alternatively, look for the following link, Green Transportation: Hybrid, Electrical, and Hydrogen Vehicles, at the bottom of the page.

The site favors the improvement of public transportation but also argues that personal transportation will remain important and that the future would bring a reduction of car sizes to SPVs (single-passenger electrical vehicles).

Posted by: Pierre Champagne on 6 Jun 09

Great interview. Nancy Kete raises a good point about embedded carbon. Here in South Africa we have our own high speed rail being built at the moment - The Gautrain. The question is will we get enough people out of their cars onto the Gautrain? Problem is our urban design has encouraged sprawl, which means that in all likelihood your home or office isn't within walking distance of one of the ten stations. More on bright green South African cities on

Posted by: Rudolph van der Berg on 7 Jun 09

"Three critical things that still need discussion: How close the stops will be. The cost of eliminating grade crossings(unacceptable for HSR) , and, perhaps most important How to prevent amateur terrorists from derailing the trains, which is all too easy to accomplish."

1. Most intercity rail corridors to be built in the near future will be 90 mph. They will only need grad crossing improvements such as 4 quadrant gates or median barriers plus some grade crossing separations. If we get to the point of real high speed rail (speed over 110 mph), separate rights-of-way will be built, just like in Europe.

2. A variety of trains will serve the "emerging speed" corridors. Some frequencies will be Express or "Limiteds" with few stops, others will have more stops.

3. Amateur terrorists can do a variety of things to our roadways and our aviation systems too. Isolated terrorist incidents can happen on ANY mode of transport. If Europe can keep its rail network safe nearly all of the time, so can we.

Pierre Champagne: I'm glad this site supports public transportation. One thing we all need to get used to is that with the looming problem of peak oil, there is no combination of alternative fuels that will, over the long run, be able to continue support driving current levels. I agree that cars will not go away, but our future will be one of less driving.

Posted by: ejd on 8 Jun 09

One point missed by Ms. Kete; Transportation investments ought to serve existing riders efficiently, but transit lines also, like highways, serve as the framework for new development. After World War II, the US spent billions building an interstate highway network that abetted suburban sprawl; the billions spent on connecting cities to one another with high speed rail is a down payment towards fostering more vital, compact and centered cities over the next few decades. Express buses running down the interstates may prove an efficient way to adapt transportation to existing sprawl over the short term, but it doesn't necessarily encourage more sustainable land use patterns for new development going forward.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 9 Jun 09

Broken link for "Bus Rapid Transit or Rail".

Posted by: Raphael Dumas on 14 Sep 09

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