Livability and All That


Livability is one of those once innocuous words, like sustainability, that now receive almost unquestioned acceptance in the bureaucracy, academia and the media. After all, words like sustainability and livability have no acceptable negative form. Who could be in favor of anything unlivable, insensitive, unhealthy or unsustainable?

Back in the late seventies, when I served as Special Assistant for Information Policy in the Office of the Secretary, our shibboleth was “balanced”. Can anyone be in favor of unbalanced transportation? It didn’t matter that the word had no meaning and we couldn’t explain it to others, it still became standard in the rhetoric of secretarial officers. In an unkind moment a reporter asked the present DOT Secretary Ray LaHood what he meant by livable, given that the department had just added it to its criteria for giving away money. He replied vaguely it was something about being able to walk to work and the park and a restaurant, to a doctor and a few more things.

Well it turns out I was living the livable life style when I was growing up in Queens, New York in the fifties and didn’t know it. Here all along I just thought we were poor.

Aside from seeking to have the same modal shares of America in 1910, or Tajikistan today, this idea fails on both theoretical and practical grounds. Theoretically, whatever merit the idea might have, livability means very different things in a tenement in Brooklyn, or a place in Billings, Des Moines, or Peoria. I can recall being sent to the store for milk or lettuce by my Mom after school. If I didn’t get there in time the four heads of iceberg lettuce (I was 16 before I found out that there were other kinds) were gone. The milk was “milk”. Today in a supermarket the milk section is bigger than the grocery store I went to as a kid. There’s skim, 1%, 2%, whole, lactaid, acidophilus in quarts, half-gallons, and gallons and 86 kinds of lettuce. The typical market today has above 50,000 items. That means that the market shed for such stores is far broader than it was back in the day.

We were three generations of the family in the same household and we all had the same doctor who lived two blocks away. Today I don’t have a doctor – I have half a dozen – none of them selected on the basis of distance. When one selects doctors, best, not closest, matters. Hospitals are growing in size but declining in the number of facilities per thousand population. All of this is simply representative of the immense trend towards specialization in our society – an increasing division of labor in all activities and an accompanying division of tastes and preferences in an increasingly affluent society. If you want a loaf of wonder bread there’s a 7-11 down the street; if its ciabatta with sun-dried tomatoes there’s this really great place I know a few miles off of exit 29 on the freeway.

In today’s job market don’t we expect that people will be willing to go farther to find the job they want or can get? If the average travel time is about 25 minutes and a half-hour commute is acceptable, how long is one unemployed before the acceptable becomes 45 minutes or an hour? In this period of housing constraint in which people are even more locked into their homes by underwater mortgages, the commute will grow as people get desperate.

In my town of College Point, Queens when the factory whistle blew a few thousand walked in the gate and out again when the whistle blew in the evening. People don’t live outside the factory gate anymore and haven’t for awhile. Again, specialization and division of labor are the main factor. Job groupings are far smaller today, and the rate of job turnover means more people won’t/can’t move every time they change jobs. Moreover, about 70% of workers live in a household with other workers – whose job will they live next to?

More importantly, the great competitive strength of America lies in access to skilled workers. Employers will be reaching out farther and farther to find the specializations and skills they require. We should expect work trip lengths to grow not become walking trips. It won’t be inner city oriented either. The metropolis of today is of immense size because many employers need a market of hundreds of thousands of potential workers to reach the ones they need. The Atlanta region with 26 counties is not a great economic engine because it is 26 charming adjacent hamlets, but rather because the market reach of employers, suppliers, customers and job seekers spreads over several million residents.

In this environment it takes massive transportation capability to assure that market shed. The questions are how many potential employees can I reach in half an hour; how many suppliers, how many customers? In the future more of us will be free to live where we want and work where we want. Most will not be willing to trade living floor space for a close-by sidewalk café. Americans will drive to where they want to walk.

There remains, of course, lots of room now within the existing land use distribution to make it easier for those who wish to live closer to shops, jobs or entertainment. People also are free to go to the nearest store or nearest doctor. The fact that so few do so reflects the oft-forgotten fact that people have their own notions of what is most important. Trying to coerce them to live the way government – particularly the upper bureaucracy – thinks they should live holds many perils. The American people have no obligation to live in ways that make it convenient for government to serve them. Government isn’t smart enough to know how people should live or to order their lives in more “convenient” arrangements.

On the practical side:

It’s on the practical side that the concepts of livability really fail. The central failure inheres in what the Europeans call subsidiarity, proposes that any necessary activity of an authority should be conducted by that level of governance closest to the problem that can effectively address it. Having livability rise to become central principle of federal transportation investment planning is an egregious failure in our historical system of decentralized government. If sidewalks and bike paths are federal then everything is federal.

The mayors of our cities love it. Why not? It is the closest they have come to being able to lay claim to direct federal funding, getting those pesky states and suburban communities where the majority of Americans live out of the way. They see it as finally being their turn at the money from Washington. In these times, when every government level is broke, livability and sustainability can prove a potential lifeline, and a bonanza as well to developers – often themselves subsidized – who focus on the inner city.

The livability criterion is ultimately centralist: fed-centric. It is not up to local people if they want to densify or not, but real power will rest with a really “smart” guy behind a desk in Washington. Proposals for federal “performance measurement” degenerate into a charade that produces pre-ordained results. Now I can fund my friends, who are as right-thinking as I am!

The problem here is a total disconnect between what people in a diverse democracy want, and what the central bureaucracy, and their academic allies, wish to impose. The livability agenda may be popular in the press and among pundits, but for most communities and people it’s neither popular nor remotely democratic.

Alan E. Pisarski is the author of the long running Commuting in America series. A consultant in travel behavior issues and public policy, he frequently testifies before the Houses of the Congress and advises States on their investment and policy requirements.

Photo by Mastery of Maps

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