A recent article in The Atlantic about airport security argued that most of the measures put in place after September 11 to prevent more attacks are almost entirely for show, what the author dubs “security theater.” Not only is it still possible to sneak dangerous items through security, or components of dangerous items, it is easy to produce fake boarding documents and avoid the government's “no fly” list in the purchasing of tickets and screening of passengers. The most important safety improvements have been the strengthening of cockpit doors and the new awareness of passengers that they should take action if hijacked. The huge resources being poured into airport security and screening are thus doing little to actually further security and stop clever terrorists. Obviously this is troubling by itself, but it also holds lessons throughout the transportation industry in terms of theatrical solutions trumping real fixes.
As we have argued repeatedly on this blog, putting more resources into transportation infrastructure may be important, but it is not sufficient to ensure the system actually improves. There are important difference between band-aid solutions and fundamental restructurings. For example, fighting traffic congestion by adding more lanes attacks the symptom but not the problem. Congestion results from too many people wanting to use too little capacity at the same time. The optimal solution involves not only expanding capacity and alternative travel methods/routes, but pricing the existing capacity properly to ensure that people use it efficiently. This is really a fix it first philosophy – maximize what you currently have before building new stuff.
The ribbon cutting “theater” currently so popular in transportation ignores this strategy – and wastes valuable resources in the process. Similar to how current airport screening may be costing more than it’s worth, many transportation policies and programs give the impression of helping when they are really not long term solutions.
To fix transportation you must be able to assess the effectiveness of solutions. If we as a country keep spending more and more money on transportation but traffic congestion gets worse, emissions keep increasing, and the cost of business logistics rise, then clearly our policies are failing. The costs, priorities, and incentives built into current transportation policies are outdated. If the current way of doing things is allowed to persist for much longer, if theater trumps practicality, then transportation problems will only worsen. The time for transportation theater is over – there is not enough money to keep putting on a grandiose show.