VHB’s Thought Leaders Blog connects you with our nationally recognized professionals and their insights on industry trends impacting today’s business environment.

Bigger Ships in a Shrinking World

October 25th, 2011 Tom Phelan No comments

The freight transportation industry has undergone revolutionary changes in the modern world, including construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 and Panama Canal in 1914. These massive projects helped to shrink the world of waterborne travel by reducing distance and travel time between Asia and the major consumer markets of Europe and the eastern U.S. The canals, coupled with the increasing use of larger vessels in the shipping industry and recent advances in computer and telecommunications technology that have reduced the influence of national borders, have been important elements in the globalization movement that has become the predominant trend in human and industrial development in recent decades. The Panama Canal expansion, scheduled for completion in 2014, is yet another seminal project that will shape the course of goods movement in the U.S.

Many experts in the shipping industry believe that the Panama Canal expansion will have its greatest impact on U.S. Gulf Coast and Southeast ports. Ports situated north of Cape Hatteras such as New York/New Jersey, Norfolk and Baltimore tend to have business models oriented more towards European trade and trans-Suez routes between Asia and North America. And yet public agencies and port authorities up and down the entire east coast have made substantial investments in recent years in anticipation of the ripple effects of the Canal expansion across global supply chains. The combined cost of these projects, from deepening channels and raising overhead bridges to terminal expansion and inland road and rail system improvements, likely exceeds the cost of the Canal expansion itself by a wide margin.

These ongoing changes have been driven by the inexorable search of cost savings throughout the supply chain for a consumption-based economy, in terms of reduced labor and material costs and improvements in efficiency through ever-growing economies of scale in the production and transportation processes. Can we continue to adapt to meet the seemingly endless chase for these improvements in efficiency and scale, driven by an insatiable appetite for consumer goods from all corners of the globe? What is the next “great leap” in freight transportation in the U.S., who will lead it, and who will be positioned best to take advantage of the financial and human development opportunities it offers?

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Integrating Market Realities into Your Community Plan

October 25th, 2011 Bob Ballou No comments

This was the topic of a session at the recent Southern New England APA conference. I was a panel member with several folks from RKG Associates and our session’s focus was on the role that market research plays in developing community plans and visions, specifically how an understanding of the market can guide planning and minimize surprises.

During the Q & A we were asked how a town should respond when developers bring forth proposals that are not in concert with the community’s stated vision.  In other words…what happens when the market changes and subsequent proposals are out of synch with an often long and costly visioning process that has community support?

There is no right or wrong answer here. As the public participation pendulum has continued to swing and the planning process has become more protracted, a market cycle can be missed. There are certainly other factors that can have an impact, particularly in complex projects such as Westwood Station in Massachusetts. The end result is that a community may find itself at odds with the realities of the next market cycle and must find a way to balance the need for tax revenue with the desired character and quality of its’ vision plan.

Some towns may be in the fiscal position to “hold out” or take a more proactive position such as writing down the cost of land to sweeten the pot…but most will find that their fiscal position doesn’t afford that option. When the town’s vision is for a compact, mixed use, vibrant pedestrian center and in the end the result is the very thing they didn’t want, the community may feel that planning process let them down and valuable trust may be lost.

As planning consultants, how can we better prepare ourselves and our town clients for the “worst case” scenario?

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Demographic Forces and Changing Cities

October 24th, 2011 Janet Jenkins 2 comments

This past week I attended the Rail~Volution conference in Washington, D.C. and heard a fascinating and inspiring plenary speech by Dr. Manuel Pastor on demographic changes happening in the United States. Pastor is a professor at USC, where he serves as the director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (read his distinguished biography here: Dr. Manuel Pastor). 

What I really took away from his talk was the impact that changing demographics are having on the way we live in our cities and how we, as transportation planners, can respond. He focused particularly on the continuing growth of the Latino population. Pastor remarked that with family sizes that are, on average, larger than those of white families, and because of a preference for living in cities, Latino people are and will continue to be a growing force in our cities. Latinos also, he said, do not typically follow the have-kids-move-to-the-suburbs pattern that white Americans typically follow, and finally, that new immigrant arrivals disproportionately use public transportation. These factors all add up to the “new” smart growth, where cities are built for the people already here, rather than the ones we want to entice to come back. Latinos, Pastor remarked, tend to vote in favor of environmental initiatives more than other ethnic and racial groups. This support, along with population growth, reveal the Latino community as those who will help propel forward our planning for great urban environments that are walkable, bikeable, and transit rich.

Pastor made me realize, once again, what I love about being a transportation planner. It sure isn’t about building bus lanes and bikeways just for the sake of infrastructure itself; it’s to create more livable communities for the people who want and need to move through their community safely, efficiently, and with enjoyment. And as the demographics of our cities change, planners must be more culturally aware in the manner with which we respond.

Steve Jobs

October 19th, 2011 Bob Ballou No comments

The technological landscape of the computer world is way outside the comfort zone of one who has spent the bulk of a career expressing ideas and concepts by drawing with a pen and coloring with markers… but when I heard of the passing of Steve Jobs, I felt a real sense of loss. An entrepreneur and innovator with a keen mind for business, Steve Jobs also understood that good design matters.

Anyone who has ever purchased an Apple product has in some way responded to this. It is more than having the latest gadget… it’s also the attention to design and the simple, clean elegance that separates Apple from competitors… from the product all the way down to its packaging. Steve Jobs understood that the time and thought and money spent on design adds value. Perhaps because he was neither a programmer nor an engineer he was free to bring about a marriage of computer function with the art of design. He understood that through design he could carve out a niche in the marketplace, attracting customers willing to pay more for the beauty of the design as well as its functionality.

I can’t help but think that there is a lesson here for all of us whose work is touched directly or peripherally by design. VHB has, over the last five years, made a significant investment in its future by adding new firms and talent to its considerable resources. Among these new professionals are a host of planners and landscape architects, all with a vested interest in design.

Given some of the dramatic changes in demographics and the emerging focus on creating better living options, we are beginning to see some exciting new models such as transit oriented development and suburbs attempting to create real centers. It is hard to imagine that design won’t matter in this marketplace as well.

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We’re not in Kansas anymore

July 20th, 2011 Leo Pierre Roy No comments

The tornado that transported Dorothy and Toto to Oz in the first half of last century was a rare occurrence. There have always been freak storms and destructive weather events, but the rapidly increasing frequency and severity of these disasters is scarier than the Wicked Witch of the West.

In the first six months of 2011, the financial losses in the United States from thunderstorms alone have been a record-breaking $23 billion. Forty-three significant thunderstorms so far this year spawned over 1,500 tornadoes in the southern, central, and eastern United States. Over 225 of them struck on a single day, April 27—setting new records for catastrophe, according to E&E News. This year tornados have even touched down in places like Springfield, Massachusetts, where tornados are uncommon. Economic losses from thunderstorms this year are now surpassing damages from past massive hurricanes, such as Hugo in 1989 and Rita in 2005.

Water—both too much of it and not enough, is symptomatic of global climate change, and has caused significant economic losses in the U.S. this year. There has been massive flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers while at the same time the south and west are being plagued by oppressive droughts, with some saying that it is the worst drought in Texas and Oklahoma since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930’s. For the first time in almost 40 years, Mississippi floodways were opened, inundating over 4,000 square miles of rural Louisiana to protect the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The very real impacts of our changing climate are here; researchers have long predicted more frequent and more intense storms, droughts and floods, and, of course, sea level rise. It’s about time that we started making our infrastructure more resilient to our new reality, or continue to suffer the consequences of inaction. We’re not where we used to be, so we better plan for where the world is going.

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The Ankle Bone’s Connected to the Shin Bone

April 11th, 2011 Leo Pierre Roy No comments

I’ve been plagued by a pinched nerve in my neck for over three months, caused by snow shoveling back in January.  It took a while to get a proper diagnosis, because the pain first manifested itself under my shoulder blade, and then migrated around my upper back on the left side, up the neck, and finally in tingling sensations down my arm.  Now in physical therapy, the therapist is teaching me how interconnected are the nerves, muscles and tendons of the neck, shoulder, back and arm.  It’s amazing how the pain can move around, and how subtle movements in my neck can affect it.

The devastation in Japan isn’t much in the news anymore, less than a month after the earthquake and tsunami, except for occasional updates on the leaking radiation from the damaged reactors.  I suspect that the real effects of the supply chain disruption haven’t been felt yet.  The interruptions to the electric grid and attention diverted to rescue and restoration, not to mention the billions needed for recovery, will significantly affect the Japanese economy.  What happens in faraway lands is no longer idle curiosity, but can affect us.  Computer chips, automotive components, mobile telephones, and all manner of electronics are still manufactured in Japan. With just-in-time component sourcing, supply chain disruptions on the other side of the world can impede our ability to function in the U.S.  Japan’s tragedy becomes ours.  The pain is no longer localized, but moves around. Everything’s connected in more ways than we know.

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Cruising the Mekong

March 28th, 2011 Leo Pierre Roy No comments

I’m spending two weeks traveling in Cambodia and Vietnam, cruising the Mekong River.  These are agrarian societies, tied to the land and the river. Their existence depends on rainfall and the river level.  In the rainy season they can grow rice, but in the dry season their crops are limited to areas with irrigation.  At times they fish the river, but during spawning time they practice small scale aquaculture, growing fish in pens and weirs. The Vietnamese live on the river in floating villages, and move five times a year as the river rises and falls. They are the fishermen. The Cambodians generally live on the land in houses built on stilts, so they don’t have to move as the floodwaters rise. They are the farmers, growing rice and vegetables, and there is a robust system of bartering between the two groups. But things are different on the river now. The weather patterns are changing, and the water level has been lower than in years past. Hydroelectric dams have been built by the Chinese in the upper Mekong which have reduced the flow, and more dams are being planned in Laos and Cambodia. The bigger long-term threat is the shrinking of the Himalayan glaciers, whose annual snowmelt provides the base flow for the Mekong. Millions of people live in the river deltas that depend on this water.  Their way of life for centuries has been inexorably tied to the rise and fall of the river, which will be profoundly altered by the effects of our changing climate.

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Healthy environment, healthy societies, healthy economies

February 21st, 2011 Leo Pierre Roy 1 comment

Feb_21_Roy copyThe demonstrations across the Middle East are so inspiring.  After years of repression, people are taking to the streets to protest for greater freedoms.  The unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain, and potential for tumultuous change, reminds us of the important foundations upon which human quality of life is built. A clean, productive environment is the basis upon which our human societies depend.   A healthy environment gives us clean air and potable water, food to eat, natural resources, places to recreate and raw materials. Our civil societies depend on these things.  With our basic needs met, we can coalesce into social organizations, achieve safety and security, and enjoy basic rights and freedoms.  Without a healthy, happy, functioning society, economic activity cannot thrive.  Riot and civil unrest interfere with travel, commerce, and normal business activity.

Many Americans are concerned about the growing influence of China in world affairs, and the potential for their economic dominance. But I believe that this can’t happen until China addresses its environmental problems of air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the destruction of its natural resources.  And without basic freedoms for its people, Chinese society cannot truly thrive.  These building blocks are necessary for a sustainable future.  A healthy environment is necessary for healthy societies, which in turn is needed for a healthy economy.  This interdependency between environmental, social, and economic factors is another way of describing the triple bottom line.

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Will the Big Dig Need a Big Plug?

January 31st, 2011 Leo Pierre Roy No comments

This past week I was at the Transportation Research Board’s 90th Annual Meeting.  Nearly 10,000 researchers, academics, and practitioners gathered to present and discuss the latest research. If one is interested in the most arcane subject, say congestion pricing or pavement failure, you will find dozens of papers, and folks who have been working diligently on the issue for nine years.  All the cutting edge work in transportation research is presented here, and I learn a lot every year.

One of the scariest and harshest sessions I attended was on climate change adaptation.  We are numb from years of environmentalists shouting that “the sky is falling” and making their gloomy predictions of a grim future, if we don’t reverse course and reform our consumptive ways.  What was remarkable about this session was that the presentation was made by engineers who matter-of-factly stated that sea level was rising, and this, combined with the certainty of more frequent and intense storms, required a change in how we design our infrastructure. A very thought-provoking presentation was made by Greg Slater of the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration who described the ground-breaking work of Maryland in climate change and adaptation planning.  Most arresting was his use of the words “disinvestment” and “abandonment.”  Greg showed slides depicting the impacts of sea level rise to Dorchester County. With sea level rise, within the next 90 years three-quarters of the county is expected to be underwater.   He stated that the official policy of the state was to not make long term investments in infrastructure that would only have short term utility.  Bridge engineers design structures for a 75 to 100 year lifespan.  Does it make sense to build a bridge with a 75 year life to a barrier island that will be underwater in 25 years?

We have enormous deferred maintenance needs in the United States for critical infrastructure.  We need to make sure that our precious dollars are spent on projects with long term benefits. Infrastructure needs to be built with the impacts of climate change in mind.  It would be ironic to have to plug Boston’s Big Dig tunnels, and build an elevated highway similar to the one that they replaced, because of sea level rise. In planning projects, especially transportation infrastructure, we must take the long view and anticipate the future.

Sorry for the long delay in blog posts.  The collapse of the climate legislation in the Senate, and the realization that we wouldn’t get a climate bill for at least the next three years, brought on a depression that is just now waning. While a price on carbon would have sent the appropriate signals to the market by shifting environmental externalities into current economic equations, instead of seeking to mitigate climate change we will have to focus on adapting to it. -LPR

Cap and Trade R.I.P.

August 5th, 2010 Leo Pierre Roy No comments

It’s been two weeks since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid killed the climate and energy bill for this year. It has taken me this long to emerge from my depression sufficiently to write about it.  The bill’s demise was a combination of ignorance, ill will, benign neglect, and bad luck. It may be overly kind to describe the Senators opposed to the bill as ignorant. The rest of the world acknowledges that dramatic climate change is occurring, and that human intervention is needed both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and to adapt to the inevitable effects. Even if they can dismiss the IPCC findings as the work of foreign socialists, the recent study by our own National Academy of Sciences, commissioned by Congress itself, confirms that the planet is warming. Not acknowledging the science is ignorance.

Some Senators are willful deniers of climate change because they have too much vested in the status quo. The industries in their states emit large quantities of CO2, and they place the short term interests of these companies ahead of the long term interests of their country and their planet. Senator James Inhofe sees more political advantage in ignoring the facts than accepting the science.  Apparently science is less important in Oklahoma than it is in other places.

President Obama was unwilling to throw his political muscle behind a bill whose prospects of passage were so uncertain, given the lack of sufficient Democratic support.  Having gained the passage of two important bills, healthcare and financial reform, he may have wanted to keep his powder dry, and not risk his reputation on this.  This is unfortunate, given his rhetoric on the campaign trail and at the UN Treaty Conference in Copenhagen last December. The President’s benign neglect contributed to the bill’s downfall.

John Kerry guessed wrong in crafting the compromise bill.  Support to the oil and gas industry that seemed critical to get key industry leaders and Senators on board turned toxic with the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Kerry let the Edison Electric Institute drag out negotiations on a deal until the clock ran out before the summer recess.  His bad luck contributed to the bill’s failure.

So we’re left without a price on carbon, and continued uncertainty in the marketplace. Hundreds of millions of dollars of renewable energy investment remain on the sidelines.  Companies and institutions that were starting to measure and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions are putting their programs on hold.  Much needed progress in reducing emissions is stalled, and our environment and long term quality of life continues to suffer.

I don’t think I’ll be going to the UN Climate Change Treaty Conference in Mexico this December. It was embarrassing enough to be an American in Copenhagen last year with no support for Kyoto but at least the promise of domestic legislation; with the failure of Congress to pass a comprehensive bill, Americans will be viewed as pariahs by the rest of the world.

I was optimistic that a bill would be passed…and I remain so.  It’s too important to our grandchildren’s future. Perhaps not in the next session, or the session after that, but carbon reduction legislation must become law in the U.S.  There was American foresight in the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Although implementing these bills costs money, after decades of effort and billions of dollars, our air and water are substantially cleaner.  We can have a similar affect on our climate. We need to educate the ignorant, overcome the ill will, induce our leaders to truly lead, and get a little lucky. We can and must prevail.

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