How to Write a Mobility Report for Your Region

Mobility is one of the most important aspects of urban livability. Yet too many planners ignore mobility when they evaluate alternative land-use and transportation plans. It is often up to mobility advocates to write a mobility report for each region that evaluates current conditions and proposes solutions to congestion and mobility problems.

Fortunately, there are plenty of data available to evaluate mobility problems in urban regions. Many of these data are contained in appendices in this book. Other data are available on the web or from each region's metropolitan planning organization.

Writing a mobility report consists of four steps:

  1. Gathering data
  2. Evaluate the problems
  3. Write up the results
  4. Have the report reviewed
  5. Generate publicity

Data Collection

Here are some of the data needed to write a report and where they can be found: More useful data can be found in the most recent draft or final regional transportation plan written by the metropolitan planning organization.

Evaluating the Problems

Here are some questions to ask when reviewing the above data. Here are some qualitative questions to consider:

Writing the Report

To write the report:
  1. Select a theme;
  2. Tie related issues to that theme;
  3. Identify a key example of that theme;
  4. Outline the report;
  5. Write it up.

1. Selecting a Theme

What is the region's main transportation problem? This problem, whatever it is, should be the main theme of the report. The secondary themes are:

2. Related Issues

Now make a list of all the specific problems in the region. It is especially important to find issues that will appeal to the public. Members of the public have a strong self interest: They want low taxes, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, and free-flowing traffic. But most people also have a sense of community interest, so they will support rail transit, urban densification, or other impositions if they can be convinced it is the right thing to do.

The report must convince people that light rail, density, and similar policies are not only bad for their self interest, they are bad for the public interest. Further, the report must present a credible alternative that will solve congestion and other problems in a way that doesn't create a conflict between self interest and community interest.

Here are some types of issues that may relate to the theme:

If the theme is selected carefully, all of these issues should relate closely to it. If most of the issues don't really relate to the theme, a different theme may be appropriate.

3. Key Example

Somewhere in the region is one specific problem that can serve as the key example of the theme. Whatever the example is, it should be a problem is easily solvable and relates to many of the issues on the list.

4. Outline the Report

Now there is have enough information to write the report. A report always reads best if it is written from an outline. Here is a basic outline based on the above information.
  1. Key Example
  2. Theme
    1. Subtheme 1
    2. Subtheme 2
  3. Related issues
    1. Issue 1
    2. Issue 2 etc.
  4. What the region is doing
    1. What the metropolitan planning organization says
    2. What the regional transportation plan says
    3. What the state transportation department says
    4. What city officials or transportation departments say
  5. What ought to be done
    1. Promote freedom of choice and mobility
    2. Stop wasting money on things that don't work
    3. Do cost-effective projects that reduce congestion
    4. Reform regional transit

5. Write It Up

If the outline is detailed enough, the report can almost write itself: just two or three paragraphs for each item in the outline. Some items may require more, but if one statement in the outline leads into pages of material then either the report is getting off on a tangent or the outline should be revised to make it better balanced.

Depending on the length of the report, it may need a brief summary at the beginning. Most people will do no more than read the summary, but the report itself should be several pages long with plenty of references so that those who read the summary will feel assured that the report has a solid basis. If the summary is about 700 to 800 words long, it can be submitted to local newspapers as an op-ed.

At the end of tool 6 is a summary of a hypothetical mobility report that follows the above outline for Portland, Oregon. The report itself would contain much more information about each of the issues, what the region is doing, and what ought to be done. But this summary shows how the data gathered in step one combined with the evaluation in step two and the theme and issues in step three naturally lead to a consistent outline.

Have the Report Reviewed

There is nothing more devastating to a report than releasing it to the public only to find that some of the key facts are wrong. Even if the error appears only peripheral to the report, it can so damage the report's credibility--and by extension, the mobility coalition's credibility--that it will do more harm than good. The best way to avoid such mistakes is to have outside reviews of the report.

Ideally, the local university may have transportation or urban planning experts who will be willing to review it. If not, ask one or more of the experts listed at the end of the book to review it or to suggest reviewers. It wouldn't hurt to have several reviewers including people who both tend to agree and tend to disagree with the mobility coalition's view. The people who disagree can be expected to work the hardest to find problems. When these problem are fixed, the report is solid. Of course, if the problems aren't fixed, the report is likely to have trouble after it is released.

Generate Publicity

A regional mobility report will do no good if no one knows about it. But the report is a good way to advance the cause by generating publicity and attracting members to the mobility coalition. Plan to spend at least as much time on the publicity effort as it takes to write the report itself.

Ask several members of the coalition to sign onto the report either as authors, cosponsors, or supporters. If the report is announced at a press conference, get representatives of each group that is signed on to participate in the conference.

Transportation makes a good television news issue because it moves. For television coverage, the best time to hold a press conference is morning or early afternoon. Televisions stations will then go out to video traffic to use with their tape of the press conference. They will be particularly happy if the report highlights a particular bottleneck that is close to their broadcast facilities.

Arrange to be on one or more radio talk shows after the press conference. Talk show hosts are always looking for issues of local and regional interest, and congestion is one of the best.

Be sure to submit the executive summary (slightly rewritten so that it no longer looks like an executive summary) to the largest daily paper in the area as an op-ed. If there are neighborhood papers that print op-eds, rewrite the summary to include examples local to each neighborhood and submit it to them as well. Have members of the coalition write letters of support to the editors after the op-eds appear.

If the report is well written, it will generate lots of feedback, both positive and negative. Get the names, addresses, and email addresses of the people who are positive and add them to the list of potential coalition members. Keep in touch with them; if they say they are too busy to help ask them for the names of people they know who are interested in the issue. Keeping in touch with people who have email addresses is very easy and a good way to keep people's interest.

After a time, people will tend to forget the mobility report. Maintain interest by publishing annual updates or new reports on special issues. Each report can be accompanied by a press conference, op-ed, radio appearances, and so forth.

Example Mobility Report

The following summary, which is almost exactly 800 words long (meaning it is suitable for an op ed), follows the above outline. To keep the report readable, follow most of the rules in the paper titled "How to Write an Op-Ed." For example, the summary uses a minimum of numbers and jargon. The report itself can have more numbers, but whenever possible they should be expressed as graphs. The text itself should use numbers only where absolutely necessary.

Mobility Report for the Portland Metropolitan Area

Interstate 5 from Vancouver, Washington to Wilsonville, Oregon consists of six or more lanes of heavy traffic--except for a two-mile stretch from North Columbia Boulevard to Jantzen Beach. Here the freeway dwindles to just four lanes, and this bottleneck causes some of the worst congestion in Oregon.

The Texas Transportation Institute says that congestion costs Portland-area residents $765 million per year in lost time. Since there are about a million drivers in the region, that works out to about $765 per driver. This is the only cost of congestion: Congestion increases the cost of gasoline, groceries, and other goods because it increases the cost of getting those goods to market.

Moreover, says the Texas Transportation Institute, Portland-area congestion is rapidly getting worse. In just two years, from 1994 to 1996, the cost per driver increased by nearly a third.

Why is congestion growing so rapidly? Part of the reason is that the Portland area is growing so fast. But a more important reason is that Metro, Portland's regional planning agency, is deliberately trying to make congestion worse in a misguided attempt to get Portlanders to stop driving. "Congestion," says Metro, "signals positive urban development."

Thus Metro and the state transportation department have put off fixing the I-5 Jantzen Beach bottleneck because they wanted to spend funds on a light-rail line to Vancouver instead. Never mind that the light rail line would carry far fewer people than two new lanes of freeway, or that most of those people would have taken the bus if the light rail were not there.

Even after Vancouver voters decided not to fund their share of the light rail in 1995, Metro continued to delay any action on the I-5 bottleneck. Even after Oregon voters decided not to fund their share in 1996 and Portland voters decided not to build the light rail in 1998, Metro and the state continue to procrastinate.

The I-5 bottleneck is just one of the more blatant examples of how Metro is ignoring this region's transportation needs.

Portland-area voters created Metro in 1992 on the promise that it would save Portland from becoming like Los Angeles. In fact, a 1994 Metro document says that Metro's real goal is to "replicate" Los Angeles congestion in Portland.

Portland-area residents don't want Los Angeles-style congestion here. Instead, they want solutions that will reduce congestion and preserve this region's livability. That means wasting no more money on light-rail. Instead, let Tri-Met try some innovative, low-cost transit ideas such as running buses on light-rail schedules or carrying people in small, low-cost shuttle vans.

At the same time, ending the light-rail projects will free up funds to solve bottlenecks such as the one on I-5 at Jantzen Beach. Meanwhile, instead of traffic "calming," Portland should smooth traffic flows on major streets through the use of low-cost improvements in traffic signals.

Portland-area residents want to preserve this region's livability. They equally care about protecting the area's economic well being. Fortunately, reducing congestion helps satisfy both goals.