Expert Commentary

Harvard’s José Gómez-Ibáñez: Key insights on the future of transportation and infrastructure

Harvard professor Gómez-Ibáñez talks about research on subjects as diverse as transit in the developing world, electric vehicles in urban areas and high-speed rail.

Jose Gomez-Ibanez (Harvard Kennedy School)
(Harvard Kennedy School)

José Gómez-Ibáñez is the Derek C. Bok Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and its Graduate School of Design. As can be judged by one of his signature courses, “Transportation Policy and Planning,” the systems that people and societies have developed to move from place to place are central to his research. Gómez-Ibáñez has authored or co-authored dozens of case studies on subjects as diverse as transit in Jakarta, electric vehicles in urban areas, California high-speed rail, and the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system in Colombia. He is the author of papers such as “Prospects for Private Infrastructure in the United States: The Case of Toll Roads” (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2010) and “Private Infrastructure in Developing Countries: Lessons from Recent Experience” (Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, 2008).

For journalists, Gómez-Ibáñez’s work is of interest because of his respect for the data and his broad vision of potential solutions to transit-related problems. For example, in a rapidly growing city in the developing world, are the growing number of motorcycles a problem or an opportunity? Or, to reduce congestion and cut travel times, what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of a new subway line, bus rapid transit (BRT) or highway expansion? And what role can compact development play in holding down the increase in transit demand and thus congestion?

The following interview has been edited.


Journalist’s Resource: What are some of the current research projects that you’re working on?

José Gómez-Ibáñez: I have two areas of interest. One is the role of the private sector — public-private partnerships and the regulation of private carriers in infrastructure in general and transportation in particular. And the second is transport policies in rapidly urbanizing developing countries, particularly what cities can do and are doing about the tremendous increase in travel that occurs as incomes grow and as people migrate to the cities.

JR: What are some of the specific issues you’ve been exploring?

José Gómez-Ibáñez: In the first area I’ve been writing a monograph on “vertical unbundling” or “open access,” the idea that you can increase competition in industries that are normally thought of as natural monopolies — like railroads and electricity and telecoms and so on — by separating out the activities that are the hard-core natural monopoly and those that are potentially competitive.

For example, in rail transit the idea is to separate trains from tracks — tracks are the source of the monopoly and the trains are potentially competitive, so that you can have a track infrastructure provider, and then a bunch of independent train operators competing over the track maintained by the infrastructure provider. So you have the same thing going on in electricity by separating the high-voltage system from generators, and in telecoms, with content providers operating over the shared “last mile” of the systems. In general I’ve been sort of skeptical of this. On the one hand you get this increase in competition, but on the other hand you lose some coordination between the infrastructure provider and the firms providing the services over that infrastructure platform.

JR: The real-world experience with this seems less than clear. For example, in Britain they separated and then reintegrated rails and tracks, and France is in the process of doing the same thing.

José Gómez-Ibáñez: Britain had a big disaster. They separated rails and tracks and privatized the infrastructure provider, Railtrack, as well as the train operating companies, but they couldn’t get the regulatory incentives right. There were maintenance problems and some terrible accidents. Since then, they’ve essentially taken Railtrack back into the public sector. In the rest of Europe, they’re operating under European Union policy to force open access, and the evidence is kind of mixed. I used to be very negative on it, in part because of the British experience and in part because if there’s any mode that is suffering from too much competition, it’s railroads — you don’t have to separate trains from tracks to have railroads feel the heat from buses and airplanes and trucks and waterways. But there’s some evidence the competition is producing operating savings. For example, in Germany it appears that the costs of the subsidized regional services and commuter services have gone down around 20% since Deutsche Bahn [Germany’s national train company] was split up.

JR: Your second area of interest is transportation in developing countries.

José Gómez-Ibáñez: I mainly work in Southeast Asia. When you think about what the increase in travel demand is every year there, it’s daunting: In places like Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, the population is growing 2% to 3% a year and trips are increasing proportionally. On top of that you’ve got income growth. Trip-making is pretty income elastic, so that you’ve got perhaps 0.5% growth per year from rising incomes, and this in addition to the shift from buses to automobiles to motorcycles or whatever. That adds another couple of percent. When you add all these things up, you get the demand for passenger kilometers traveled or vehicle kilometers traveled growing on the order of 4%, 5%, 6% per year, and you compound that every year…. It’s clear you’re never going to build your way out of it.

In many cities there has been a dramatic increase in motorcycle traffic, so one of the questions you have to ask yourself is: How do you feel about motorcycles? I kind of like them: They use street space fairly efficiently, at least compared to an automobile, and more efficiently than some of these crazy minibuses that stop in the middle of the street to pick up or discharge passengers. But how you feel about motorcycles really depends on what you think the alternatives are. If you think they’re stealing all their ridership out of the buses, then it’s a problem for congestion and pollution. If, on the other hand, you think they’re preventing a big shift into cars, then they may be a more reasonable option.

JR: What about the impact of travel mode on urban development? Any time you have that kind of atomized transport, where the driver is making the routing decision, the result can be endless sprawl and congestion.

José Gómez-Ibáñez: The failure to charge the full cost of transport is the root of all problems. None of the solutions you can think of are going to make much dent as long as transport is underpriced. It costs you a tremendous amount to try and attract people out of their cars if it’s all carrots and no sticks.

JR: And here we sit in the United States, with our gas tax falling in real terms, and freeways being seen as free. For journalists, how can they better get these issues across to readers and policymakers?

José Gómez-Ibáñez: I think one of the things that’s interesting is that because the federal gas tax has been frozen since 1993 and there’s gridlock in Washington that has nothing directly to do with the gas tax but to which it falls victim, a lot of the interesting activities are moving to the states, including tolling.

JR: Are there particular sources for academic research that reporters or educators could go to, cite, read, learn more?

José Gómez-Ibáñez: There’s a large literature, but it’s not very accessible. One of the problems, particularly with telecoms and electricity, is that the issues are so technically complicated that it’s hard for an outsider to read the literature that the insiders respect. There are a bunch foundations like the Eno Center for Transportation that have no particular ax to grind, but the others — the Infrastructure Institute of America, for example, whose composition you can readily imagine, or the American Public Transit Association, and there are a bunch of Tea Party types.

JR: The Reason Foundation, which as I recall has never published anything positive on rail.

José Gómez-Ibáñez: But they’re the ones that came up with HOT lanes, so they get a little gold star for that one.

JR: Are there any academic journals out there that might be a little more accessible for reporters?

José Gómez-Ibáñez: The University of California, Berkeley, puts out a journal called Access that has short articles intended to be accessible to laypeople summarizing recent research on transportation in the U.C. system. And since California is the leader in everything, the state’s academics study a lot of good stuff.

JR: Who are the scholars working now that journalists should pay attention to?

José Gómez-Ibáñez: In any one industry, you can think of people. For example, Alan Altshuler and Marty Wachs in urban transportation. Steve Morrison in airlines. There’s a guy who’s the best empirical transport economist in my generation, a guy named Cliff Winston. He does very good empirical stuff, but it’s often presented with a strong dose of free-market ideology.

JR: Donald Shoup, at U.C. Berkeley?

José Gómez-Ibáñez: Sure, he’s like a laser on parking. Or John Pucher [of Rutgers] on bicycles. The issue is that Shoup and Pucher are advocates, whereas Marty Wachs and Alan Altshuler are open to rail as well as auto, for example. I agree with most of what Shoup says, but you won’t get as candid an account of the difficulties of implementing some of these things. He’s very articulate, and he tends to ridicule the critics of his ideas very effectively.

JR: In transportation research, what are some of the big unanswered questions that are floating out there?

José Gómez-Ibáñez: One of them is what the future of the automobile is going to be, and how we’re going to manage — particularly if we get serious about global warming — the environmental as well as the congestion problems cars create. And there are so many different things: the development of electric vehicles, self-driving vehicles; whether they’ll evolve and whether they’ll increase the capacity of our highway system, or even allow more car sharing; and the future of individual mobility. As income grows, the pressures for individual mobility are just tremendous. Lives get more complicated and people don’t want to waste time. So it’s striking, for example, how motorcycles have taken over in Southeast Asia, just decimating the bus systems. And the bicycle is a form of individual mobility, too.

Another big unanswered question is the possibility of coordinating land use and transportation. I don’t think we have a very good handle on how much controlling sprawl would reduce the need for travel. And there certainly isn’t the kind of political support for that, which I think is probably a mistake, particularly in these rapidly growing cities. They are establishing the patterns that they’re going to have to live with, for a long, long time. Everybody gives lip service to the fact that they’re coordinating transport and land use — it’s part of the transport and land-use plan in every developing city that makes one — but in the end the developers get to do what they want. And the city grows over its aquifer, and notions of compactness for travel and staying away from environmentally sensitive areas in the city and the water recharge area, or places that might flood are forgotten.

Finally, I think the future of long-distance travel is fascinating, not just airlines versus high-speed rail, but the total volume of intercity passenger travel. As people get richer around the world, the amount of long-distance travel they’re going to want to do for vacations increases. I think about how much carbon I burn, and how much I enjoy going to see new places…. You talk to people in our income bracket and class, it’s a big deal in their lives. So how are we going to manage that with environmental constraints?


Related resource: Professor Gómez-Ibáñez discusses the transportation and infrastructure challenges facing governments and societies in a short 2011 video interview. Also of interest is a 2013 study in Research in Transportation Economics, “Comparing the Fatality Risks in United States Transportation Across Modes and Over Time.” Among its findings: Between 2000 and 2009, on average 43,239 people in the United States died each year in transportation-related incidents. Transportation was the biggest source of all “unintentional injury deaths” (38%) and highways were by far the most common place of transportation fatalities in the United States (94%). The safest modes of transit were airlines and trains, and motorcycles were most dangerous.

Keywords: transportation, infrastructure, research chat, congestion charging, congestion, driving, cars, mass transit


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