"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
for reducing these abstract concepts to plain English.
"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
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) gently chided the Secretary by pointing 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 assertion 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 misguided 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 are quickly forgotten
once their authors have left office.