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Infrastructure Gives Societies the Ability to Connect

November 16, 2010

NOTE: This post first appeared as a guest post on the Triple Pundit blog:

Lately, I’ve been living on airplanes and in automobiles. I work remotely for FedEx and spend a lot of time traveling to see family, explore new places or keep up with friends. Travel has been in my blood since I was seven, taking my first flight on Braniff Airways. My family shipped off to Newark and spent the next two weeks in a small car, journeying to every small village in New England and Canada.

Travel has also changed me. A journey to Romania at the age of 17 gave me an entirely new perspective on life in Eastern Europe shortly after the fall of communism. In college, I logged over 50,000 miles in a passenger van with twelve peers, learning a whole new meaning of family. And through FedEx, I’ve traveled across Latin America, gaining an appreciation for the people and their tenacity to build economies and nations. Travel has opened doors for me into entirely new worlds.

In all these journeys, I rarely considered the asphalt under my tires or the lights on the runway. I took for granted the infrastructure that had made travel so seamless (except when I was in Romania). I’d often become frustrated at the slightest traffic or airport security delay, wondering why there was congestion when I needed to get somewhere fast. Quite simply, I’m spoiled. But I’ve realized a very important fact:

Infrastructure = access. It gives societies the ability to connect. In the 1800s, cross-country railroads enabled a young nation to become an economic powerhouse. Then, in the 1950s, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System re-shaped the U.S. economy for decades. Today, it’s airports and new technologies. Smart phones powered by wireless infrastructure allow me to find restaurants in any city, check in for my flight, or locate a pharmacy when I run out of toothpaste. Fiber optics give me the ability to Skype when I’m in Argentina or Mexico. Airports funnel planes around the world, shipping goods and people from a world away to my doorstep. Infrastructure shapes the future of nations, allowing communities to access people, connect to ideas, and find the materials they need to build robust economies.

Infrastructure can enable sustainable economic growth. Transportation is identified as one of the primary targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The design of highways, airports, rail and other infrastructure can support national and global emission reduction targets. Today, urban planners and transportation experts are exploring how to leverage mass transit, high-speed rail, and numerous other modes of transportation to build the economy of the future while helping the world shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Take my company, for example. Our delivery trucks travel about 2.5 million miles every 24 hours, and three times this year, our CEO went before Congress and called for a complete overhaul of the nation’s transportation system: a move to all-electric. Fred Smith has a history of seeing today what the world would need tomorrow.  At a recent hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he challenged the U.S. to consider how the future electrification of transportation relies on infrastructure:

“We cannot let electric vehicles turn into another niche product…To make our nation’s investment worthwhile and, more importantly, to truly combat our oil dependence, we must put ourselves on the pathway toward…hundreds of millions of electric cars and trucks. This effort is about building a new transportation system from the ground up in a fiscally responsible, competitive fashion. That’s good for the entire nation.”

Infrastructure drives the world economy. Commerce and people move across infrastructure. Without good airports, highways, rail and access to energy, the economy will come to a grinding halt. At FedEx, our ability to deliver packages is impacted by the infrastructure we have available. Infrastructure also impacts the amount of time people travel, enhancing or reducing the time they can spend making positive contributions at work or with their family. For example, in Mexico, ninety-percent of residents use mass transit, including many of our FedEx team members. Commute times can exceed two hours both directions. Today, FedEx is supporting efforts throughout the nation to build infrastructure and transportation systems that reduce the amount of time people spend in transit while also cutting emissions and the cost of doing business in Mexico.

Infrastructure gives us time. Time is the one commodity we all have in common. When I’m stuck in traffic, delayed at the airport, or waiting on a train, I know that it could be because of the lack of infrastructure. The more time we spend getting from one place to the next, sitting in traffic or delayed at the airport, we are all losing our most valuable resource, time. Smart infrastructure enables our world to move faster, swifter and stronger, giving people more time to grow their business, spend time with their families or invest in their community.

In the end, infrastructure matters. If it’s truly important to our world and to our nation, we must take bold action. History gives us examples of how our investments today reap economic, social and environmental benefits. To advance, we must invest in the transportation systems and structures that will support economic growth and sustainable development. Electrification, smarter urban planning, mass transit, airport technology…the list goes on and on. In the end, though, we’ll get what we pay for.


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