Joel Kotkin on Smart Growth: The Streetsblog Re-mix

When columnist Robert Samuelson published an alarmingly misguided attack on high-speed rail last month, the St. Louis Urban Workshop fired back in a unique fashion: with a "re-mix" of Samuelson's op-ed that cleverly edited the piece to better reflect reality.

Kotkin.jpgJoel Kotkin (Photo: NAF)

The format was so intriguing that Streetsblog Capitol Hill couldn't resist borrowing it -- when the right blend of fear-mongering and fact-twisting presented itself in commentary format, of course.

And the opportunity came along this week when Joel Kotkin, the New America Foundation fellow with a fondness for sprawl and a fear of "climate-change zealots [being] in our faces and wallets," took to the pages of Politico.

Kotkin's full piece, entitled "Smart growth must not ignore drivers," can be found here. Streetsblog's re-mix, entitled "Smart growth must not ignore is not the enemy of drivers," is below.

For the time being, battles over health care and energy seem likely to occupy the attention of both the Obama administration and its critics. Yet although now barely because it is on the radar for millions of people, there may be is another, equally critical conflict developing over issue worthy of attention: how Americans live and travel.

Right now this potential flash point reform effort has been relegated to the legislative back burner, as Congress is likely to put any major transportation spending initiative on hold for at least a year, and perhaps longer. This also may be a symptom of reluctance may be driven by mounting concerns over the deficit. Financing major changes in transportation, for example, would probably require higher federal fuel taxes, which would not fly amid a weak economy few have shown the political courage to begin discussing.

These delays could prove a blessing setback to the administration, providing a pause from indulging in yet another policy lurch drafting a ground-breaking bill that might would thrill the progressive urban left but infuriate and mitigate the congestion troubles in much of the country. Initial House proposals on transportation have sought to cut dramatically by small amounts the share of federal gas taxes — paid by drivers — going to roads while sending just two percent more to already heavily subsidized in-demand transit. Another large chunk of transport spending would go to a very expensive ,and geographically limited, but economically promising high-speed-rail network that would vastly improve inter-city mobility.

This kind of radical necessary shift reflects the preferences of ideologues officials within the administration. President Barack Obama has clustered an impressive array of “smart growth” devotees around him, including Housing and Urban Development Undersecretary Ron Sims, an early advocate for the fight against climate change, “evangelist,” Transportation Undersecretary for Policy Roy Kienitz and the Environmental Protection Agency’s John Frece. Their priority is not better more roads for suburbanites but, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood put it quipped, to “coerce” Americans out of exclusive reliance on their cars -- where most of us are stuck in traffic for 36 hours a year -- and into a denser, more transit-dominated future.

This approach can expect strong support from the influential “green team” in the administration, including climate czar Carol Browner and science adviser John Holdren. Browner’s hand support for sensible urban development was shown during the Clinton years when as head of the Environmental Protection Agency she threatened to cut transportation funds for the Atlanta region unless it adopted a smart-growth policy. The threats became moot after the change of administration in 2001, and Atlanta now boasts the third-most traffic congestion in the nation.

It is not difficult to imagine such bureaucrats intruding on how officials giving urban communities and families function on the most basic levels a stronger voice on the federal level. Traditions governing Political pressures against diverse local land use that have existed since the beginning of the republic late 1950s would be overturned diminished. The preferred auto-dependent lifestyles of most Americans would come under siege no longer be their only option.

This agenda has been widely promoted for decades, first by the Carter administration and, more recently, by both environmentalists and new urbanists. The recent concerns over global warming have provided an additional raison d’être for a policy promoting both higher transit use and denser housing patterns. The president himself has embraced this agenda, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”

The administration can expect strong support for such policies in the mainstream media concentrated in from New York and Washington and San Francisco and Philadelphia and Los Angeles and . These many areas that boast both the a highest proportion of transit riders and the largest percentages working in the central core. Many among the young, single and childless couples working in media in these communities see no reason why believe other Americans should not would welcome the opportunity to live similarly.

Politically, such a remaking of America may prove difficult to pull off given that urban areas wield a disproportionately small influence in Washington. Overall less than 6 percent of Americans ride public transit, a percentage that has barely changed for was more than twice that size four decades ago but still amounts to a total of more than 10 billion annual trips. In many states that lack the ingredients for successful networks, the transit share is only 1 percent.

Without lawmakers going to bat for the nation's cities, Iit’s difficult to imagine a policy that disses minorly decreases aid to roads, small towns and suburbs could pass Congress, 80 percent or so two-thirds of whose constituents don’t live in the favored dense urban environments nation's 100 biggest metropolitan areas. And what about the 95 90 percent or so of Americans who get around by own a car? More likely, any spate of new transit and land-use regulations will be enforced through the apparat a vital component of the climate change effort. In one scenario, administrators at the EPA could simply oppose require any transport project — for example, new roads — to evaluate its true costs and benefits on the basis of carbon emissions and potential pollution. States and cities with projects not deemed “smart” enough by administrators at the Department of Transportation or HUD might be threatened with loss of funding have to go back to the drawing board.

Yet even this approach risks engendering a backlash. Once again, the administration could be seen as imposing a true-blue will be criticized for embracing a more urban-centric policy on a largely by those who look at the U.S. as a red, or at least purple, nation. To be successful, the administration needs to address the needs of talk up the benefits of its policies with suburban, small-city and rural residents as well as those of big-city denizens. Fortunately, that process is already beginning.

This is not to say the administration should not address pollution and congestion concerns head-on. But this needs to be done in ways that make both political and practical sense. Mileage requirements on cars are an excellent first step that follows this playbook, getting results without trying to remake a car-driving electorate but they cannot be the only transportation reform that is pursued in coming months.

In addition, the government could develop incentives for increased telecommuting and more flexible work schedules in order to reduce unnecessary driving to work. There is also room for expanded, more economical bus and jitney services that could work in some suburban and small-town locations. Instead of building light rail systems that will never get large ridership, mass more transit funding should flow to maintain and expand successful existing systems, or and to a handful of dense corridors emerging in places like Houston, Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix, to name just a few.

All this speaks to a kind of pragmatism that may not please either the road-building zealots or but will make life easier for most Americans -- drivers in particular -- while winning praise from the smart-growth aficionados. Such an approach would be far preferable — and more politically sustainable — than the current attempt to drive a 21st-century country back to a transportation model more appropriate for the 19th.