The global firm UPS can't lobby nearly as effectively as the local textbook shipper to fix a bridge that connects Kentucky and Ohio. That's what the UPS Public Affairs Vice President Thomas Jensen told me during National Journal's "Back to Business" conference last week. We talked about innovation in infrastructure. You can watch the whole program here.
Jensen said it all started when one of UPS's customers, a textbook company in Kentucky, complained that UPS kept moving their pickup times earlier in the day. First it was 5 p.m., then 4:30 p.m., then 4 p.m. Each change in time cut into the textbook company's ability to process and ship same-day orders. The problem was that UPS trucks were getting stuck in traffic on the bridge to Ohio, where the processing facilities were located.
"I said, 'We've got a problem,' and the customer said, 'It sounds like you've got a problem,'" Jensen said. "We redirected that organization locally." The textbook firm got a lot more traction with the local officials than UPS in lobbying to fix the bridge. As a bonus, the firm has remained involved in local infrastructure issues.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., calls this the "citizen infrastructure," a resource that officials can't ignore in making changes to a city's transportation system. (Although they sometimes try.) In Portland, where Blumenauer was commissioner of public works before he came to Congress, the city even created a transportation class for residents to design their own solutions to problems in their neighborhoods. The class has continued for years, and it has 1,400 alumni. That is one of the reasons that Portland has been able to create its robust transit network that makes use of a car genuinely optional.
"The key is a vision for what people want, having a broader vision of improving a community," Blumenauer said. "Does that soccer parent have to take 75 minutes or 15 minutes to get their kid to practice? Or God forbid, could they get there on their own through biking or transit?"
Atlanta's BeltLine project—an interconnected network of bike trails, walkways, and streetcars—was one of the winners in National Journal's Innovators project, a selection of 50 problem solvers that Washington can learn from. BeltLine Chief Operating Officer Lisa Gordon said the grassroots citizens' network for the BeltLine has been integral to the project's success. "You have to have a vision for the future that people have helped build," she said.
Gordon said getting citizens involved to the extent that they will support a massive infrastructure project requires lots and lots of outreach, with officials repeating the same concepts over and over again. And that's not enough. "You have to have early success. We have built parks. We have built trails." Now that parents can teach their kids to ride bikes in a park, rather than on the street, they are willing to support further efforts, she said.
What is the value of a citizen infrastructure? What do people really need to know to become more involved? How do "real people" influence the infrastructure debate? Does it work better for local debates, or can the citizen lobbyist also influence the national debate? Are local officials doing a good enough job of educating citizens about the choices they have in their communities?