Livable Communities and the DOT

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“Fostering livable 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 “livability” 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 alternatives to using the car.

But this definition is too narrow for most Americans whose notion of “livability” may include living in suburban communities and enjoy 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 closely 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 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. To assume that the federal government, despite the growing concentration of power in Washington, could coerce or persuade people across this vast land to abandon their preference for suburban amenities and the convenience of personal transportation for the “livability” norms preferred by federal officials is a notion that even the most dedicated progressives of our acquaintance find unpalatable and politically unrealistic.

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 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 urban areas, the researchers concluded. The Brookings report reinforced the conclusions of many other urban observers, including some on this site. The Administration’s desire to impose its own vision of how Americans should live and travel represents an anachronistic and in the end a 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.

Flckr Photo of the US Department of Transportation after dark from

Ken Orski has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years.

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