Harvard Professor On Reinventing American Transportation

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Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wanted to write a book about leadership. But every time she left her house, she couldn't ignore America's ailing transportation system: congested roads, crumbling bridges, slow trains and endless air traffic delays.

It's a subject that's hard to miss — from the winter breakdown of the MBTA to those pot holes you hit every day on your commute, to the deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia.

Kanter says it hurt her patriotic pride when she rode on Shanghai's super fast and efficient subway system. Why can't we have trains like that in America? So, instead of writing about leadership, she wrote about transportation. Her new book is "MOVE: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead."


Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School and chair and director of Harvard's Advanced Leadership Initiative. Her new book is "MOVE: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead." She tweets @RosabethKanter.


On what the Amtrak derailment told her about the state of America's trains:
Rosabeth Moss Kanter:
It told me two things...One is that we have the ability to do better, but we weren't using everything that we have. So, that's really important to know — that we could have a better, brighter future on every form of transportation, but the fact that there wasn't the automatic positive train control installed [was a problem.] It also told me that we have a broadband problem, because there were some issues with the wireless network. So, we can't just talk about trains by themselves. We have to talk about telecom and lots of other things and that were too siloed. It also told me that we still haven't addressed the fact that there are too many curves, because of tracks laid out a century or more ago. And then, it told me something else. Because so many people said, 'Yes, but we shouldn't invest — the government shouldn't put money into it because they'll waste it.' And that was very disturbing. That wasn't as disturbing, of course, as the deaths. That was truly a tragedy. But, it was people accepting the status quo because they didn't trust investment in a better future, when we could do it differently."

On the disconnect between innovation in the U.S. and transportation systems:
"Take the driverless car. Mercedes is actually deploying it a little bit more because of a different kind of regulation and attitude toward innovation, but Google is the leader at the moment in driverless cars, although every auto manufacturer is thinking about it. So, we do have the technology. The smartphone has the potential to revolutionize transportation, particularly on the roads, but also trains [and] airplanes, but we do have some barriers to deploying our own innovations...I was at the [American Airlines System Operations Control Center], I thought that was the coolest thing. And pilots told me they want to use their cell phones, they want to use a tablet and it took a long time for the FAA to come along with that. So, some of it is, we're not as collaborative. We don't deploy innovations as fast, but we have the technology...The tech entrepreneurs have to be at the table in all of these discussions. They generally aren't. It's the old established companies plus government officials, more bureaucracy, rather than getting those feisty, innovative, imaginative startup people who have ideas."

On investments in transportation:
"Every country, even the ones I've...been saying have better [transportation infrastructure] than ours, every country subsidizes passenger rail and mass transit. It doesn't pay for itself on the tickets, but those lines can be profitable on an operating basis if they're attractive enough to attract riders — it's the capital investment. So, where are we going to get the capital investment?...If we think about that, our national budgets — federal budgets — don't separate out capital investment from yearly allocations. Any company in the world would separate those out. So, we do need different ways of talking about this, and we also have to think of these things as a national asset. It's how people get to work. It's how many children get to school. It's how we get to health care appointments. If we think about it that way, maybe we can change the conversation."

On management issues in transportation:
"I also believe good management is totally essential, and if we had other ways of thinking about how we do it, what materials are being used, there's a lot of entrenched industries that think we should only be using concrete, when I've been hearing from people since I've been on tour with my book, I've been hearing from people who have new materials that are lighter, easier to deploy, innovators will do that. In terms of mismanagement of funds, that's a public oversight issue regardless of who does it. If we turned it over all to the private sector, we'd also have mismanagement as we had with privatizing the Chicago Skyway, the Indiana Toll Roads — we can't privatize our way to a solution. If there isn't public oversight and if we don't have an outcry and think about efficiency in doing this — because it's our lives that are affected by how well this is done. I don't think the average American has really thought about highways and how they're built. I'm hoping we get this conversation going."

On transportation in Massachusetts:
"Clearly, with the T this winter, some management problems, some arguments about how bad they were or not. There are some financial and governance problems and so we have to think about these agencies as, not just backwaters, but something that everyone should want to have managed as excellently as possible. But the other thing is we've also starved some of them for investment funds to refurbish, to reinvent, to use it — however, Boston and Massachusetts may be in the lead again because the mayor's office, the new urban mechanics, they're creating apps, including my favorite — StreetBump...that's like only the beginning of what we might be able to do. And so, that's why I say the tech entrepreneurs have to be at the table and each one of these problems that resurface, there is a solution. We do have to set priorities and say, which are the areas that we tackle first? And we have to show the public that something works or they won't have any faith that we can do anything."


WBUR: After Derailment, Congress Debates Lifting Amtrak's Damage Cap

  • "Democrats are moving to raise the liability cap on Amtrak accidents, which was set at $200 million 18 years ago. They say the cap prevents full compensation for last week's derailment in Philadelphia."

WBUR: After Meeting MBTA Riders, Baker Urges Lawmakers To Act On His Proposed Reforms

  • "Keeping up pressure on senators resistant to his MBTA reforms, Gov. Charlie Baker met with three transit riders Monday morning and used their experiences to pepper his calls for action."

This segment aired on May 20, 2015.


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