Book Review – Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead

moveRosabeth Moss Kanter: Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead. New York, WW. Norton, 2015. 279 pages, hardcover. Available at the Burlington Public Library.

Burlington’s City Council is set to pass a budget for 2016 that features no increase in transit funding. As BFAST reminded citizens in a recent news release, the budget represents a decrease in transit funding once inflation is taken into account.

Content to follow their fiscal model of extravagant spending when it comes to useless baubles (the pier) and penny-pinching on essentials (transit and seniors), the majority on Burlington Council has evidently ignored books like Move.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a professor at Harvard Business School and is Chair and Director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative. She’s a prominent advisor to corporate CEOs and executives and serves on many boards and advisory councils. She’s been named one of the 50 most powerful women in the world by the Times of London.

While her book focuses on all kinds of transportation infrastructure, her take on public transit alone is worth reading. For Kanter, public transit is a tool for city building and for improving the prosperity of the city and its citizens.

It’s no coincidence, as Kanter points out, that the American cities with the least income inequality and the most social mobility are usually the ones with the best transit systems. A bad transit system traps people who can’t afford cars in a system where it can take literally hours to get to work. It limits their educational and job opportunities. It forces cities to increase their spending on supports.

Burlington’s City Council stretches credibility when it says it wants to run the city like a business, yet blithely ignores making one of the most important investments it can in the city’s people.

Some facts from Kanter’s book about the economic effects of transit:

• According to a 2014 study by Daniel Chatman and Robert Nolan, which studied more than 200 cities of all sizes, adding four rail or bus seats per 100,000 pupulation produces a 10% increase in the number of employees per square mile in the central city.

• A 10% increase in transit service leads to wage increases of up to $200 per year in the central city and bumps up the city’s gross metropolitan product by 1-2%.

• The American Public Transit Association estimates that every dollar invested in transit generates about four dollars in economic returns.

• A 2013 competitiveness survey by the Harvard Business School of companies in the US saw better transit as the biggest choice of where companies thought public money should be invested. Their reason: transit helps people get to work.

• In 2013, Americans took the most trips on public transit in 57 years. Transit ridership nationwide is up 37.2% since 1995, surpassing both population growth (20.3%) and vehicle miles travelled (22.7%).

Many remember that a large European company recently chose Oakville over Burlington for its Canadian headquarters because Burlington’s poor bus service would hinder potential employees from applying for jobs or getting to work. How many more companies have made the same choice when it comes to relocating or expanding?

Another folly of Council’s current thinking is their belief that we have to wait for higher population density in order to build a good transit service. Mayor Rick Goldring, in a recent address, outlined a vision somewhat similar to Toronto Mayor John Tory’s smart track plan: an LRT-type service which would piggyback on the electrification of the GO line along Fairview Street.

Kanter suggests a practical alternative to this utopian and unrealistic vision: improved bus service, including bus rapid transit, that can easily accommodate new riders because of the innate flexibility of a bus system and doesn’t become a money pit that serves only a portion of the community.

In only one chapter on public transit, Kanter could give the hidebound among our city councilors a lesson on why public transit is an investment, not an expense.

(reviewed by Collin Gribbons)

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