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.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The conservative case for transportation is bifurcated and all mixed up

(Photo left: from the AGC of America.) The Weekly Standard sponsored a forum on the "conservative case for transportation," sponsored by the Association of General Contractors of America--who of course, have a vested interest in construction-related matters, and favor road building.

The Examiner reprinted some articles from the Weekly Standard in yesterday's special section on transportation.

I don't think the AGC got their money's worth, judging by the piece by the Weekly Standard's editor, which has the headline "Bureaucrats can't change the way we drive, but they keep trying."

- The Way We Drive Now
- More Highways, Less Congestion
- Interstate 2.0

One of the things that bugs the s*** out of me when it comes to a lot of conservative blather about "the market" especially with regard to land use and transportation is that their analysis of "the market" and what it is and why it functions the way that it does is narrow and constrained and therefore flawed. It takes for granted that "the market" is what is presented without identifying those governmental and other factors and supports which create and maintain the so called "free enterprise" of the market that they study.

It's really easy for me to tell you why most attempts to "induce" mode shift to walking, biking, and transit fails, and isn't the function of crazy wacked bureaucrats but of something much deeper.

First, spatial patterns of land use and transportation infrastructure are destiny, setting the stage for whether or not walking, biking, and/or transit are more efficient or less efficient than the automobile for the conduct of most trips.

I wrote about this yesterday, but the best discussion of land use transportation patterns is in a paper by Peter Muller, "Transportation and the Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis"(summary).

The spatial pattern of the walking city and the transit or streetcar city (1800-1920) supports walking, biking and transit.

The spatial pattern of the automobile era (1920-1945) and the highway era (1945-2000) supports automobility.

Trying to promote walking, biking, and transit on places that are designed to support automobility is a losing proposition. Or at least, a proposition with a longer term payoff.

But at the same time, the more enlightened communities, such as Arlington, and now Montgomery County Maryland and Fairfax County, Virginia (face it, who could ever have answered "Fairfax County, Virginia" in a discussion about enlightened transportation and land use policies and planning?) are demonstrating that they need to change their predominate spatial patterns, so that their communities transcend their automobile and highway era development patterns, and become more like those communities developed during the period of the walking and streetcar city eras. That's what's behind new master plans for areas like Tysons Corner in Fairfax County, and for White Flint in Montgomery County.

Second, myriad subsidies of automobile-oriented land use and automobile-use itself exist throughout the "market system" but are not acknowledged and identified but taken for granted by so-called market proponents.

For example, roads are subsidized to the tune of 50% from general funds, from funds other than those generated by automobile registration fees, federal and local gasoline excise taxes, and tolls.

Gasoline is subsidized to the tune of $4-$5/per gallon in terms of the development, environmental, and military costs that a separated use, automobile-centric transportation and land use paradigm imposes on the system.

Third, not paying for these subsidies is increasingly bankrupting government, and supports the rise of China and other countries at the expense of the U.S. As Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times, in "If Not Now, When?":

No one is rooting harder for the democracy movements in the Arab world to succeed than I am. But even if things go well, this will be a long and rocky road. The smart thing for us to do right now is to impose a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax, to be phased in at 5 cents a month beginning in 2012, with all the money going to pay down the deficit. Legislating a higher energy price today that takes effect in the future, notes the Princeton economist Alan Blinder, would trigger a shift in buying and investment well before the tax kicks in. With one little gasoline tax, we can make ourselves more economically and strategically secure, help sell more Chevy Volts and free ourselves to openly push for democratic values in the Middle East without worrying anymore that it will harm our oil interests. Yes, it will mean higher gas prices, but prices are going up anyway, folks. Let’s capture some it for ourselves.

It is about time. For the last 50 years, America (and Europe and Asia) have treated the Middle East as if it were just a collection of big gas stations: Saudi station, Iran station, Kuwait station, Bahrain station, Egypt station, Libya station, Iraq station, United Arab Emirates station, etc. Our message to the region has been very consistent: “Guys (it was only guys we spoke with), here’s the deal. Keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don’t bother the Israelis too much and, as far as we’re concerned, you can do whatever you want out back. You can deprive your people of whatever civil rights you like. You can engage in however much corruption you like. You can preach whatever intolerance from your mosques that you like. You can print whatever conspiracy theories about us in your newspapers that you like. You can keep your women as illiterate as you like. You can create whatever vast welfare-state economies, without any innovative capacity, that you like. You can undereducate your youth as much as you like. Just keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don’t hassle the Jews too much — and you can do whatever you want out back.”

It's great that the Weekly Standard, the Examiner, and organizations focused on highway building want to keep things the way they are, but there is no way that the U.S., with less than 4% of the world's population, can continue to consume 25% of the world's oil supplies, not to mention that the massively subsidized separated use, sprawling and exurban land use development paradigm connected by personally owned automobiles is bankrupting the U.S. economy.

It was telling that at that conference that I was at on Tuesday, that only 4-5 areas in the country--I mentioned DC, NYC, San Francisco, and West Los Angeles, but not Boston--have functioning real estate markets where new development is still occuring and in most other communities, even reasonably successful places like Denver, Seattle, Houston and Dallas are not seeing substantive new development, and in automobile-centric metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Charlotte, much of Florida, Phoenix, etc., the markets are completely moribund.

But even in the Washington metropolitan area, it's only about 8 submarkets--4 in the city, and 4 in the suburbs--that are highly functioning.

All are well-served by the Metro subway system.

All are walkable/mixed use communities.

You'd think the Examiner and the Weekly Standard would be jumping on the train that leads into the future, instead of working very hard to diminish it, but a connected society is a different one from the kind of culture of the individual and the myth of the wild west that such entities like to promote as the definition of the ultimate American society.

But that vision isn't real. It's just a theoretical construct not connected to reality.

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