U.S. DOT’s Strategic Plan Creates Controversy With Its Emphasis on “Livability”

Posted by Ken Orski on Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 21, No. 9

“Fostering livable communities…is a transformative policy shift for U.S. DOT,” announced grandiloquently the Draft U.S. DOT Strategic Plan released for public comment on April 15, 2010. But what exactly does the Administration mean by “livable communities” and how does it intend to translate this vague rhetorical abstraction into a practical reality? To get an understanding of the Administration’s intentions one must delve into the stilted language and bureaucratic jargon of its policy pronouncements, notably the “HUD-DOT-EPA Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities” and the above-mentioned Draft Strategic Plan. “Livable Communities,” says the latter, are “places where transportation, housing and commercial development investments have been coordinated so that people have access to adequate, affordable and environmentally sustainable travel options.”

The Interagency Partnership Agreement speaks in similar vague generalities. It defines livability principles as including “more transportation choices,” “equitable, affordable housing” and “reliable access to employment centers, educational opportunities and services.” Give credit to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to reduce these abstract concepts to plain language. “Livability,” he said, ” means being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car.” In other words, “livability” in the Secretary’s mind means living in a dense urban environment where walking, biking and transit are realistic travel alternatives to using a car.

But this definition is too narrow to suit most Americans, whose notion of “livability” may include living in suburban communities and enjoying such obvious amenities as a safe neighborhood, access to good schools, the privacy of one’s own backyard and the freedom, comfort, convenience and flexibility of personal transportation. If  “livability” becomes a euphemism for a federal policy of favoring high density, transit-dependent living, then we are moving closer to “newspeak” when words mean whatever Big Brother intends them to mean.

How does the Administration intend to promote its vision of “livable communities?” Again, we must turn to the dense prose of its official policy statements. “To achieve our Livable Communities agenda,” states the Draft DOT Strategic Plan, “DOT will (1) Establish an office…to promote coordination and sustainability in Federal infrastructure policy; (2) Give communities the tools and technical assistance they need so that they can develop the capacity to assess their transportation systems…; (3) Work through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to develop broad, universal performance measures that can be used to track livability across the Nation…; and (4) Advocate for more robust state and local planning efforts and create incentives for investments that demonstrate the greatest enhancement of community livability…”

Note that all the intended actions are process-oriented. Nowhere in the Strategic Plan can one find any indication of programmatic objectives or implementation strategies. And no wonder. The power to shape local communities (and thus enhance their livability) resides not in the hands of federal agencies but those of local citizens and their elected officials. As the noted urban commentator Joel Kotkin observed, there are more than 65,000 general-purpose governments, many of them small enough to allow citizens to have a direct say in their governance. To assume that the federal government, despite the growing concentration of power in Washington, could persuade people across this vast land to abandon their preference for suburban amenities and the convenience of personal transportation and accept the “livability” norms as defined by federal officials, is a notion that even the most dedicated progressives of our acquaintance find unrealistic.

Congressional Criticism

A portent of the political winds affecting the future of the Administration’s “livability” initiative may be gleaned from the recent Senate appropriations committee hearing on the U.S. DOT’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget. The Administration’s request for $527 million to support the Livable Communities Program – of which $200 million is proposed to be funded from the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund– met with skepticism from committee members of both parties. Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) said in her opening statement that she has “serious concerns” with the $200 million coming out of the highway program. Her Republican counterpart, Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) challenged Secretary LaHood on the Administration’s ability or propriety to influence local development patterns. “I am not confident that trusting federal decision-makers in Washington to lead the process, to tell the communities how they should grow, is the right way to go,” Bond said. He observed that livability means different things to different communities: some communities may benefit from improved transit service, while others would benefit from improved roads and increased highway capacity.

More criticism came from the House side. Said Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE) ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation at a hearing to examine the Administration’s R&D program: “At a minimum “livability” represents a concept difficult to define and measure progress toward. More troubling, however, key aspects of the livability agenda appear to involve significant Federal government intrusion into the manner in which Americans travel and live in general.” Rep. Tom Latham (R-IO), ranking Republican on the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, expressed concern over the Transportation Department’s proposal to “skim off highway dollars…and take those dollars from cities and states to fund a boutique program.”

The Transportation Community Reacts

The transportation community has been equally critical. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has gently pointed out in its new report, The Road to Livability that “While some would suggest ‘livability’ means a life without cars, this definition really doesn’t work for the millions of Americans who have chosen the lifestyles that an automobile affords. … Equating ‘livability’ only to riding transit, walking and biking, limits its relevance and excludes a wide range of improvements and community needs.”

Blunter criticism came from the blogosphere. “At a time of unprecedented global competition, the United States DOT is overwhelmingly focused on the neighborhood level,” wrote one respected transportation professional in commenting on the Draft Strategic Plan. “This vague term [“livability”] has become the new code word for ‘smart growth’ and diverting highway funds to transit,” wrote another. “Local elected officials are best equipped to decide how best to enhance their communities’ livability. A federally-imposed standard of livability, colored by some officials’ bias against the automobile would not do justice to the diversity of our suburban nation,” wrote yet another blogger. “An astounding claim accompanied by zero evidence,” wrote Robert Poole in commenting on the Strategic Plan’s claim that a “livability” strategy that promotes reduced demand for auto travel will lower the long-run costs of transportation for the taxpayers.

At a May 11 Brookings symposium on the “State of Metropolitan America,” Brookings researchers noted the wide and growing disparities in demographic, cultural, transportation and educational attainment characteristics of America’s metropolitan areas, disparities that defy one-size-fits-all solutions. Increasingly, policy responses will have to be tailored to the needs of individual communities, the researchers concluded.

The Brookings report reinforced the conclusions of many other urban observers. As Joel Kotkin put it, “attempts to impose solutions from a central point will be increasingly regarded as obtrusive and oppressive…In the coming era only local solutions— agreed to at the community, municipal and state level— can gather strong support” (Growing America: Demographics and Destiny, NewGeography.com, May 3, 2010).

The Administration’s desire to impose its own vision of how Americans should live and travel represents a stubborn and in the end futile gesture. The gesture is futile for, as generations of political appointees before them have discovered, policies that do not resonate with the majority of Americans seldom survive after their authors have left office.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation.  He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector.  He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 21st year of publication.

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2 Responses to “U.S. DOT’s Strategic Plan Creates Controversy With Its Emphasis on “Livability””

  1. David Grannis says:

    My reaction to to your thoughts, Ken, is a reminder of how important give-and-take communication is between people. I react to the Strategic Plan as a call for dialogue and partnership between the existing chasm of federal rules and policy and local aspiration and implementation. I completely agree with the point that communities must envision their own future and operating system, but the point of livable communities is a bigger national vision in terms of the OUTCOMES of doing so (i.e., energy). I find Secretary LaHood to be not some pithy phrase-maker portrayed in the livability criticisms of industry groups, but actually someone speaking to local aspirations, be they those of mayors, businesspeople, etc. Supporting efforts at the local level by coordinating and shifting existing federal policies and rules to flexibly support local problem solving is refreshing, not an imposition of a vision of how I should live and travel.

  2. Zachary says:

    I agree with Mr. Grannis, and add that I can detect no totalitarian aims in the prose, which is no denser than anything coming from the federal level, and certainly no more obfuscatory for your addition of quotation marks. I find it odd that you point out the process-oriented nature of the plan, which to me says the Secretary understands that local (not federal) governments and community members who shape what “livability” means to them in the practical sense. Then suddenly you latch on to the misguided notion that process-oriented goals are somehow indicative of a federal mandate for land use controls. This is backed up by quotes from anonymous bloggers – if they are so well-respected, why are they nameless here? You accuse LaHood of trying to blur the truth?

    The federal government is interested in land use controls because of the market distortions inherent in land use. Suburban amenities are so popular because their true costs are often hidden from the private consumer, and borne out by society over time. The government must anticipate demand for land, utilities, and services in advance. We are finding plenty of evidence that future generations will be called upon to pay for our present-day land use decisions – is there a better way to encourage development that accounts for them?

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