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Video: 'Rural Public Transportation: Small Places, Big Impacts'

A presentation by John Robert Smith, chair of Transportation for America

In this wide-ranging keynote address, John Robert Smith, a former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, and current chairman of Transportation for America, uses rich examples from his hometown and elsewhere to show how transportation creates a sense of place. (Scroll down to learn more about Smith's career.)

"At its essence," he says, "smart growth is about shaping the quality of the place and then that place shapes the lives of the people who live there. Our cities and towns are in a ferocious competition over the creation of a sense of place."

"If we want to change our communities for the future, it can’t be a vision that ends with us. The vision needs to be at a point 30, 40 years out. A point in time that I care about and will not occupy."

Smith discusses how generational attitudes toward mobility and housing, as well as changing demographics and economics, affect rural areas. Boomers are living longer than previous generations and reinventing themselves in later phases of life. The millennial generation prioritizes lifestyle over jobs and expects a range of available transportation options.

Three core questions, Smith says, are critical to any public project and to building and growing livable communities: Who were you in the past? Who are you now? Who do you aspire to be?

To formulate the answers, he encourages those working on livability to engage across generations and to plan for the long-term vision of a community. The work is challenging and very personal for Smith. 

"If we want to change our communities for the future, it can’t be a vision that ends with us," he states. "The vision needs to be at a point 30, 40 years out. A point in time that I care about and will not occupy. For me that point is so far removed yet so dear to me. I find it reflected in the eyes of my grandson Ethan and his little brother Hayden. If we’re not making the decisions today that will empower their tomorrow in small towns and rural places, we have failed."


John Robert Smith served for 20 years in local government, including 16 years as the mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, whose Union Station, his signature project, is recognized as one of the best multi-modal transportation centers in the country. Integrating passenger rail, intercity buses and transit, the station has spurred $165 million worth of redevelopment in the surrounding historic buildings. Smith has served on numerous boards, including for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Forum on the Future of Passenger Rail. He is a former chairman and member of the Amtrak board of directors. His work has carried him to 115 communities across the country.

A two-time graduate of the University of Mississippi and a graduate of the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, he is the co-owner of Point Investments and is a senior policy advisor to Smart Growth America. 

Smith is a passionate supporter of the arts and is a recipient of the Local Arts Leadership Award presented by Americans for the Arts and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He maintains the homestead his grandfather built in Meridian that has served five generations of family members.

Twitter @T4America

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