Reinventing the Wheel

Collaboration, Transportation, and Our Shared Future

Michael Sussman, President and Founder

In 1995, I began studying the infrastructure investment strategies of industry, government, and society. Since then my company, Strategic Rail Finance has coordinated financing for freight railroad projects in 35 U.S. states. In 2007 I founded OnTrackNorthAmerica, a non-profit transportation policy and planning organization, to share what I have learned for society’s benefit.

What caught my attention in 1995 was the declining use of freight railroads and trains in favor of freight highways and trucks – despite the inherent energy, capital, and space efficiencies of rail transport. I wondered: why do we continue to invest the lion’s share of public and private capital toward less efficiency rather than more efficiency?

So I have devoted my business and non-profit organizations to turning around the economic principles that we have been relying on to advance major infrastructure systems.

While working in transport finance, I have witnessed the impact that the current model, based on competition, has had on efficiency and progress. Relying on competition as a regulatory principle for building and operating infrastructure systems is insufficient, outdated, and unsustainable. Ask 33 miners in Chile how they all survived 69 days trapped underground in 2010, and they will tell you how quickly they shifted from individualism to collectivism. It was the second day; right after several men ate three days of the entire crew’s rations. They learned, as we must learn, how to coordinate and collaborate. We have to share well to live well on this planet of limited resources.

Our civilization is in danger because we have allowed population growth, industrialization, and natural resource development to overwhelm our environment and force us into unsustainable patterns of land use. You only need to read the news to see the many ways in which we are running out of clean air, water, and space.

We can address these issues by improving the way we invest capital in industries, regions, countries, and systems. Fortunately, we can learn all we need to know to transform our outdated strategies into lasting solutions from one single lesson: our predominate investment in roads, not in rail.

Place your hand on a steel rail after a 100-car train has just passed and feel the lack of heat. Friction is low when a hard steel wheel rolls over a hard steel rail. Consequently, the wheels last for hundreds of thousands of miles and the rail lasts for decades. Even then the rails and wheels are reformed and reused. This limited friction means that hauling heavy weight and people over rails uses 1/2 to 1/4 the amount of energy while producing fewer emissions than comparable movement over roads.

And in a world of limited space, moving goods and people in railcars linked together in long trains is a huge space-saver. It takes 3½ trucks to move the goods of a single railcar and a 27-mile convoy of trucks on the highway to move the goods of a 1-mile train riding on its own right-of-way. Isn’t it time for common sense here?

Here’s how I look at things: Redirecting the world’s capital flow from inefficiencies to efficiencies will turn our budget challenges into smart investments and our communal fate from struggle to prosperity.

This is economics that people can embrace, because it stands on the fundamental use of the age-old invention – the wheel – and it takes advantage of the wheel’s relation to weight, movement, surface friction, energy, efficiency, and the environment. Use the wheel efficiently for moving heavy weight and people over land and we take a major step in the direction of creating a sustainable, well-functioning world. Continue to overuse the wheel under single vehicle trucks on rubber tires over rough concrete and asphalt, wasting land, fuel, air, and our shrinking supply of space, and I would argue that we are headed for a calamity.

By getting this use of the wheel going in the right direction it’s easy to see that benefits will flow to the rest of the transport system, the economy, and the environment.

But we aren’t heading in that direction yet, despite the recent upsurge in attention to logistics and infrastructure. Florida demonstrates the ongoing problem in its June 2014 state-of-the-art Freight Mobility and Trade plan. In 2011 rail hauled only 9 percent of what trucks hauled in the state. That already low share is planned to dip to 8 percent in 2040. Over this same period Florida’s population is projected to increase from 20 million in 2011 to 35 million in 2040.

This is about much more than which transport mode “wins” modal share. If we continue to talk about winning and losing in this way, we’ll preserve the narrow view of the world that sees everything as a competition for individual gain. In reality, pursuing more intelligent approaches leads to all modes enjoying higher productivity and profitability. So what do we mean when we say intelligent approaches?

From experience, we know that creating optimal systems requires a new mindset about planning for and implementing transportation investments. What we see today are public-sector transportation plans that are mostly reports and projections based on past trends. The intelligent transportation planning we need should guide us toward a new horizon of possibilities. And turning possibilities into results requires a bias toward action that includes broad participation and consensus building.

To meet these urgent needs, OnTrackNorthAmerica is leading a campaign to transform planning from reports and projections to “Transportation Action Plans”. These new action plans feature:

Stakeholder participation from conception to implementation,
Economic, commercial, and financial “business” plan elements,
Land use and environmental impacts,
Metrics, benchmarks, and targets,
Action steps, responsibilities, and commitments; and,
Alignment of private sector business plans with plan targets.

The action planning process we’ve designed can lead to an equitable and sustainable future, rather than a mere extension of the past. This shift requires a clear-eyed understanding of one commonly-held myth about land transportation. For years we have been saddled with the comparison between the “flexibility” of trucks and the fixed nature of trains. The story goes that trucks are more flexible than rail because they can go anywhere, while trains can only go where there are rail lines. It’s a false comparison. Ask a truck driver how they like driving across a muddy field. Trucks go where we build roads and trains go where we build rail lines. Understanding this clearly puts us back in command of a fundamental design question: where do we want to build each transport component and how do we want them to connect?

We can overcome the limiting design assumptions of the past and shift into whole-system-based, objective planning. That’s the only way we can build transportation capacity that contributes to the development of sustainable communities.

It is time for this new level of coordination, collaboration, systems thinking, and imagination. You are invited to weigh in with your thoughts, commentary, and passion and together we can create a future wherein everyone prospers.


Michael Sussman
President and Founder
OnTrackNorthAmerica, Inc.

After you have typed in some text, hit ENTER to start searching...