Friday, October 16, 2009

Sin in the suburbs

Ken Orski nicely summarizes the debate over the Obama Administration's efforts to make the federal government a player in local "livability" land use-transportation planning. It is worth reading (below).

Sin taxes are supposed to raise revenues and reduce sin. Trouble is that it's very hard to get both results. Mostly, we get higher prices.

Most people like their cars and their single-family home lifestyle. This has irked planners and many other for years, but to no avail. So we get higher prices (the policy-induced "housing affordability crisis") and that's about it.

Politicians love junkets and they should take a very long one to inspect suburbanization and auto use in Europe. The policies they dream of implementing here have been in force there for years, but preferences usually trump policies. Most Europeans no longer live in the charming old city centers that tourists visit. As Bastiat keeps reminding us, some very important things are not immediately seen.

So what will come of the Administration's livability initiative? Think sin taxes.

The National Journal’s Transportation blog — a pretty accurate reflection of the concerns and preoccupations du jour of the transportation community— has recently featured a debate about "livability." "The Obama administration and leading congressional Democrats appear to be making the creation of ‘livable communities’... a central transportation policy goal," stated the introduction to the weekly blog. "Given this increasing focus on promoting livability, what role, if any, is appropriate for the federal government to play?"

Similar questions were framed at an October 13 seminar at the Brookings Institution on "Metropolitan Planning for Sustainable Growth" featuring the well-known urbanist Peter Calthorpe and a panel of local officials from around the country. The event announcement referred to the Obama Administration’s proposed new urban policy agenda that links transportation, housing and land use and asked "What is the federal role in this effort?"

Both events have focused attention on the Administration’s intent to increase the federal role in shaping local development patterns and influencing travel behavior. "Smart growth" planning and shifting more automobile travel to public transportation have been long-standing goals of progressive planners and assorted anti-sprawl activists, but these goals may now become a matter of federal policy under the Administration’s "livability" initiative. That initiative, whose full name is the "HUD-DOT-EPA Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities" is designed, in the words of the official announcement, "to help improve access to affordable housing, provide more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide." The interagency partnership will coordinate federal housing, transportation and other infrastructure investments through a set of guiding "livability principles" and interagency agreements.

Predictably, opinion has split along familiar fault lines. Planners, environmentalists, champions of New Urbanism and smart growth advocates have welcomed the Administration initiative as a sign of its willingness to tackle the problem of sprawl, promote a wider range of transportation and housing choices, and encourage people to curb automobile use. The federal government must use the tools it has, coordinate its efforts and lead by example," wrote National Journal transportation blogger, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

Critics have focused on the "social engineering" and central planning nature of the "livability" initiative and its intrusiveness into people’s lives. Leading that charge have been three well-known and respected conservatives: columnist George Will; author and urban scholar Joel Kotkin; and Heritage Foundation’s Senior Research Fellow, Ron Utt.

In a May 18 Newsweek column, George Will mocked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as "Secretary of Behavior Modification." For many generations," Will wrote, "Americans by the scores of millions have been happily trading distance for space, living farther from their jobs in order to enjoy ample backyards and other aspects of low-density living. And long before climate change became another excuse for disparaging America’s ‘automobile culture,’ many liberal intellectuals were bothered by the automobile. It subverted their agenda of expanding government— meaning their supervision of other people’s lives. ... Today’s far-seeing and fastidious government, not content with designing the cars Americans drive and the light bulbs they use in their homes,...wants to say where their homes can be."

Joel Kotkin echoed these sentiments in an editorial in Politico: "Traditions governing land use that have existed since the beginning of the republic would be overturned," he warned, referring to the Livability initiative’s emphasis on denser housing patterns. "The preferred lifestyles of most Americans would come under siege." ("Smart Growth Must Not Ignore Drivers," September 14, 2009).

Ron Utt was equally suspicious of the Administration’s motives. "Recognizing that their efforts to demonize suburban living have failed to deter the millions of American families that still flock to the suburbs, Smart Growth advocates have now enlisted the federal government in their war against the suburbs, and the HUD-DOT-EPA partnership is the beginning of that effort," he wrote in a Heritage Foundation commentary (April 14, 2009).

Many aspects of the Livability initiative are commendable. Encouraging housing and retail activity in suburban communities to be more accessible on foot is certainly desirable, as is safe biking access to local schools. Promoting equitable, affordable housing in suburban communities is a worthy goal that has been widely accepted throughout the country. Expanding paratransit services in local communities for elderly residents is likewise a commendable and non-controversial objective. Reducing traffic congestion that prolongs commutes and chokes even smaller communities is an imperative that everybody can agree on.

But the debate has been needlessly polarized by some malapropos uttered by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. At a May 21 event at the National Press Club, LaHood was asked if the Administration’s Livability initiative might not be construed as an effort to "coerce" people out of their cars. The Secretary agreed with that interpretation, adding that "about everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives." "I think we can change people’s behavior" he argued in the same forum. Those are not exactly words that would soothe the already aroused sensitivities of those who believe that government already intrudes too much into people’s lives

Another point of contention is the Administration’s efforts to couch its worthy intentions to revitalize depressed communities, facilitate access to jobs and offer more transportation options as a "Livability" initiative. To most people a "livable community" conjures up an image of a leafy neighborhood, good schools, low crime rates, a private back yard and the comfort and flexibility of personal transportation. It has little to do with "affordable housing," "infill development," or "densification." Nor does "livability" mean going the entire day "without having to get into your car," as the Secretary is alleged to have said.

Lately, there have been some efforts to tone down the government rhetoric. Administration sources we have talked to, concede that decisions about "quality growth" should not be centrally imposed but should be left in the hands of local officials, as speakers at the Brookings seminar and several National Journal transportation bloggers have urged. "Livability" principles, those officials agree, mean different things to different people and cannot be centrally defined or imposed. Other actions appear as mere internally-oriented bureaucratic initiatives. The HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership Agreement with its dense prose is, upon closer reading, a toothless instrument that even White House officials have trouble explaining. HUD’s proposed Office of Sustainable Communities, with its vague charter to "advance affordable, livable and sustainable living environments," has trouble getting congressionally authorized.

Above all, as Joel Kotkin points out, the majority of Americans live in a patchwork of towns and small suburban communities within large metropolitan regions. There are well over 65,000 general-purpose governments, many of them small enough to allow citizens to have a say in their governance. Overall, less than six percent of Americans use public transit, a percentage that has barely changed for decades, and almost 95 percent of Americans get around by car. To assume that the federal government, despite the growing concentration of power in Washington, could "coerce," "lure" or otherwise persuade people in these myriad communities that they should change how they choose to live and travel is a notion that thoughtful Administration officials we have talked to reject as both unreasonable and impractical.