Congressional Quarterly highlights Obama administration’s livability pushJune 23, 2010
By Sean Barry
That’s the underlying question in a fascinating cover story in Congressional Quarterly this week. Reporter Kathryn Wolfe looks at the challenges facing the Obama administration’s efforts to get three agencies – the EPA, HUD and US DOT — to link transportation policy with housing, environmental and economic development goals.
One of the aims of this three-agency “sustainability partnership,” though not the only one, is to rethink the policies that needlessly foster over-reliance on driving to live our daily lives. This could include, say, locating subsidized housing nowhere near public transportation; or building highways through city neighborhoods in a way that makes it all but impossible to walk or bicycle safely; or putting excessive clean-up requirements on centrally located industrial land so that it can never be redeveloped.
The efficiencies and smart planning the administration is trying to promote would be the correct thing to do under any circumstances. People today want and need a wide range of transportation and living options. Governments at all levels are strapped and can’t afford to make ill-considered, single-purpose investments.
But the tragedy in the Gulf and growing American anxiety over our intractable oil dependency make these initiatives imperative. Fully 70 percent of the oil we use is consumed for transportation. We need to provide more travel and living options, first to meet the demand that already exists for them, and second, to ensure that we’re not engineering ourselves into deeper dependency.
Defenders of the status quo, however, are perfectly happy with giving Americans one option, as the CQ article makes clear. The writer quotes representatives of what she calls the “highway lobby” and libertarian Randal O’Toole accusing the administration of trying to “make cities hostile for the 80 percent or so of people who are happy to rely on automobiles.”
Nonsense, Shelley Poticha, a senior adviser for sustainable communities at HUD, tells CQ.
“I think that it’s overblown, this whole notion that we’re going to just rip cars out of peoples’ garages,” Wolfe quotes Poticha as saying. “I don’t know how to say it more clearly. We’re going to give funding so that communities that are interested in updating their zoning codes can do that. Were not going to tell them how to do it or where to zone what. That’s a local decision.”
Even Brown University anthropologist and author Catherine Lutz, whose research found that “cars are the country’s favorite commodity,” conceded that most Americans want more choices. “There are a lot of people who would like to have more options, who would like to do more walking, who would like to have transit for certain trips,” Lutz told Wolfe, adding that “lot and lots of people who don’t want to give up their cars still want increased public transit.”
Also quoted in the article was Rob Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, who took on critics who have simultaneously complained about the lack of detail in Obama’s livability push, while insisting that the programs were aimed at “social engineering.” Right-wing columnist George Will, for instance, has referred to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, as “secretary of behavior modification.”
“You can’t say it’s too vague and at the same time that the federal government is trying to dictate to people where they’re going to live and how they’re going to get around,” Puentes told Wolfe. “It can’t be both.”
The definition of insanity, Einstein said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So, given that our 1956-vintage transportation policy has helped make so many of our neighborhoods completely dependent on driving, which in turn creates the oil dependency we are bemoaning today, one would think proposing a new direction would be regarded as, well – sane. Kudos to CQ for bringing these issues to the forefront.