Yes, Let’s Build—But Let’s Measure, Too

To ensure that this infrastructure money is spent well, we must make use of game-changing data collection techniques to gauge projects’ impact.

By Laura Schewel

Tagged Climate ChangeequalityInfrastructuretransportation

President Biden has referred to the recent compromise on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework as “the most significant long-term investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century.” And while the majority of Americans support investments in transportation projects and policies that will make our communities more sustainable, equitable and safe, a consistent point of contention of the President’s infrastructure proposal has been the price tag. Lawmakers have questioned whether the White House’s targeted infrastructure projects would be cost effective. Others have asked how safety, sustainability, and equity goals will be achieved with such an extraordinary amount of taxpayer dollars on the line. If we are going to invest roughly $1 trillion in new spending toward transforming our nation’s transportation and infrastructure, we need to make sure we are doing it right.

Transportation departments large and small operate on limited timelines and constrained budgets, so efforts to measure the success of a project have historically burdened these offices with onerous reporting requirements and costs. As a result, these kinds of studies are very rarely done. But we can’t manage what we don’t measure.

Thankfully, advances in data collection and computing are changing the game. Machine learning and Big Data from mobile devices can anonymously track transportation patterns before—and after—a project is implemented, giving state and local governments the ability to quantitatively measure the performance of an infrastructure project for a fraction of the cost compared to traditional methods. Great examples include Minneapolis’s Met Council and the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission using Big Data to create granular measurements of transportation greenhouse gas emissions, and the Virginia DOT’s Smart Scale program, which incorporates new metrics on accessibility to prioritize projects.

It is exciting to see our elected officials recognize the importance of gathering and using data to inform future investments funded by taxpayers. The bipartisan bill released earlier this week directs the Secretary of Transportation to gather travel demand data and modeling to “evaluate the impact of transportation investments, including new roadway capacity, on travel behavior and travel demand, including public transportation ridership, induced highway travel, and congestion.” Given the size of the investment, we need to apply good government requirements like this to measure our progress on two of President Biden’s top priorities: combatting climate change and advancing racial equity. We can and should directly measure what we most care about.

The benefits of before-and-after studies are significant and directly actionable. By measuring and sharing this data with the public and stakeholders, we can achieve accountability and learn how to do better with future investments. Agencies that are responsible for measuring the results of taxpayer investments will have a framework for decision-making that is simply good governance.

When we build new highways, for example, we are promised reduced congestion, access to jobs, and more. With before-and-after studies we can track the effectiveness of investments to answer questions such as:

  • For which highways built in the past decade have such promises come true, and not come true? Did all communities benefit equally?
  • Where does adding a bicycle lane increase access to key services?
  • If people work from home, will their overall VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled) go down? Will it go down only for white-collar workers?

In Pasadena, California, where a four-lane road was turned into a three-lane road with a protected bike lane, residents had concerns that this alteration would cause slower travel times for cars. Their before-and-after study proved that the bike lane had almost no effect on vehicle speeds and encouraged more bike ridership at the same time.

By contrast, when the Katy Freeway in Houston, Texas was expanded from six to 12 lanes plus two new HOV lanes, the project cost almost $2.8 billion and was expected to reduce congestion significantly. Despite this massive investment, the before-and-after study revealed that the expansion failed to reduce congestion, and commute times are now up to 50 percent longer than they were before.

The Biden Administration and Congress are preparing to fund projects at scale that we haven’t seen since World War II. This determination to bring the country back to its innovative roots should be applauded. But with the public interest in mind, we need to prioritize accountability and transparency. By tracking taxpayer investments using the most advanced and timely methods of data collection and analysis to ensure we are making progress on the two major crises facing our country. If we fail to do this, we risk compromising the most important infrastructure investment of the twenty-first century.

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Laura Schewel is the CEO of StreetLight Data, a transportation data and analytics software company based in Richmond, VA and San Francisco, CA.

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