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Eric Morris, a researcher at U.C.L.A.’s Institute of Transportation Studies, has already written a few posts here, and will now join our corps of recurring guests bloggers. Please welcome him.


I can’t help but wonder how many urban planners were inspired to enter the profession by computer games like SimCity or Railroad Tycoon. I can’t help but admit to spending a few hours (O.K., more than a few) blasting virtual tunnels through the Rockies and rebuilding Tokyo after those annoying SimCity Godzilla attacks.
But I for one am unapologetic; these programs convey information about arcane topics like utility maintenance costs and right-of-way clearance in a fun and accessible manner. In particular, they give a valuable sense of the trade-offs that cannot be avoided in crafting public policy.
Now the Kansas Department of Transportation has come up with a neat way to both educate the public about its services and get valuable feedback about customer preferences, using a game-like format. The T-Link Calculator allows you to set transportation policy in Kansas and see the fiscal results of your choices.
On the revenue side, you can change the projected size of the tax base and raise or lower various levies, transfer payments, and fees. On the spending side, you can let your highway pavement crumble so you can fund new bike/pedestrian improvements, or you can add lanes to your urban freeways while slighting mass transit. Or you can have it all by issuing lots of bonds — although the site shows you the budgetary havoc this can wreak down the road.
I think this format has a lot of promise for governments, and not just for departments of transportation. By presenting the information this way, the Kansas Department of Transportation reaches out to voters (particularly younger ones) who are accustomed to interactivity and immediate feedback from their information sources. I have a feeling that many people who would never think of sitting down and reading the state budget will warm to playing “transportation god” on this site.
Moreover, the site makes it clear that we can’t ask for everything from our government; tough budgetary choices have to be made. Perhaps users will come away with a bit more sympathy for the officials who strive to make us all happy while keeping the public purse from running dry.
Even better, the information exchange goes both ways. K.D.O.T. collects data about the preferences users express on the site to help set funding priorities.
After using the calculator I can’t help but conclude K.D.O.T. hasn’t allocated enough money to its Godzilla defenses. But other than that, it is onto a very interesting idea. Maybe other government entities will follow suit.