Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sustainable transportation as social justice

There is a lot of hand wringing these days in the city over sustainable transportation initiatives, not just because of Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray's decision to not retain Gabe Klein as agency director--and Klein pushed forward in significant ways the transportation as livability agenda--but also because of the decision to significantly reduce DDOT's control and flexibility over the monies it generates*, by eliminating the Unified Fund ("Gray budget proposal eliminates DDOT 'Unified Fund'" from GGW).

But sustainable transportation initiatives for walking, biking, and transit, especially streetcars, were an election issue, and made out to be a white people-Adrian Fenty "thing", and another example of how Mayor Fenty was disconnected from the authentically black experience that is DC, and a differentiating factor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray in terms of choosing for whom to vote.

This was captured in campaign literature--paid for the labor unions, not the Gray campaign--that seemed to criticize the concept of bike lanes, even though the stated message on the literature was about special treatment and the idea of a reserved lane for driving.
Vincent Gray campaign literature using a seemingly anti bike lane theme

Just as the Obama Administration should be figuring out why it hasn't been succeeding--but it hasn't, but the answer is pretty clear, it needed to maintain a populist connection to the people after taking office, instead of reverting to the "scholar-analytical" approach that President Obama is most comfortable with (see for insight, the piece from The Nation not about the U.S., but about the Phillipines, "Protest to Power in the Phillipines"), I think that it is pretty clear that we haven't been successful, at least in DC, in demonstrating the absolute link between sustainable transportation and the social justice agenda.

Transit rider demographics, Washington DC region
Transit rider demographics, Washington DC region, as of 2005. Washington Post graphic.

Elsewhere, in terms of access to jobs (although there is a variant thread that instead of good transit systems, lower income households need to be given cars, e.g., "Auto-Mobility: Subsidizing America's commute would reward work boost the economy and transform lives" from Washington Monthly) there is a recognition that better transit provides this access.

And Portland's Community Cycling Center has a program that assists lower income people with the acquisition of a fully outfitted bicycle for commuting to work purposes.

- Portland Community Cycling Center Create a Commuter program

Elsewhere, in terms of housing affordability, there is a recognition that access to high quality transit reduces the need to own a car, or the need for additional automobiles in a household. This is the basis of the idea of the "Location Efficient Mortgage," which allows households to devote more money to paying for housing, and less on transportation (typically households pay about 20% of their disposable income on transportation).

Elsewhere, campaigns on the quality of bus service (although in Los Angeles and elsewhere there are complaints that developing surface based fixed transit diverts resources from improving bus service) recognize that for people dependent on transit, reliable and comfortable service is a matter of social justice.

- New York Straphangers Campaign
- Bus Riders Union (Los Angeles)

The public health field has been drawn to sustainable transportation and "active living" as a health and social justice matter, given that increasingly, especially in center cities and amongst minorities, a number of chronic diseases are significantly impacted by the organization of the built environment and the amount of physical activity people are engaged in. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and other organizations have generated a wide variety of reports and research on the topic, and last year and this year, skyrocketing childhoood obesity rates led to a White House Task Force and report calling for a variety of responses.

- CDC - Designing and Building Healthy Places
- How Land Use and Transportation Systems Impact Public Health
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program areas
- CDC - Transportation Recommendations
- Let's Move Action Plan

We have a major disconnect in DC when it comes to the inextricable link between sustainable transportation and social justice and equity. Although it does come out more during transit fare deliberations and the hearings over fare hikes--at least over the past two years.

Somehow, instead of making the logical links and connections between improving surface transit (streetcars vs. buses), reducing congestion, the income beneficial aspects of walking and biking, and the public health benefits of compact development and active transportation, instead sustainable transportation (+ dog parks) are luxuries for white people.

I continually argue with "progressives" about this wrt streetcars -- I keep saying that given the data on transit usage, they should be advocating for streetcars as a way to improve the comfort and reliability of surface based transit, which will directly and primarily help those of lesser incomes, while at the same time improving economic development opportunities for the city.)

Interestingly, Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, South Carolina always speaks eloquently about the essentiality of high quality design to quality of life all of a city's citizens.
Between Justice & Beauty -- Howard Gillette
I am finally reading Gillette's Between Justice and Beauty to bone up on these issues specifically in the DC context. While the book focuses on the relationship between the federal government and the city, the failure to adequately make "beauty" in this case livability and the quality of place something that matters in terms of social justice and quality of life more broadly remains a key issue in defining "One City."
DC Primary
District of Columbia mayoral candidate and Council Chairman Vincent Gray speaks in Washington, early Wednesday Sept. 15, 2010. Voters in the nation's capital have decided to oust Mayor Adrian Fenty, a backer of education reform who some said had become out of touch, for Gray. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

* One of the problems with government accounting is that for the most part, the monies are fungible--not grants, e.g., from the federal government, but all other revenues. So even if the monies that come in say from the bus shelter contract were intended to pay for transportation projects, the City Council (and Mayor) can virtually do anything they want with the money.

Since I have been on the advisory committee for Eastern Market, I have been arguing about the need for a different management and operations structure. I thought I had been arguing this to no avail. Finally, the consensus is that this is the right direction to move. But the primary reason wasn't my great argumentation, but the recognition that any revenues or profits generated by Eastern Market won't necessarily stay with the market, that they can be taken at will and used for any other government purpose. A different corporate structure prevents that. And now DDOT won't have that benefit of some insulation from the normal political shenanigans.

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