Democratic Platform’s Scarce Words on Transportation Fail to Inspire

President Obama spent Labor Day touting his rescue of the U.S. auto industry, and today, like a chorus of backup singers, the Big Three automakers posted double-digit sales increases in perfect unison. Meanwhile, the Democrats kicked off their convention in Charlotte.

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is bringing some excitement about transportation innovation to the Democratic National Convention, which he's chairing. But the platform doesn't seem to echo his sentiments. Image: screenshot from ## interview##.

Delegates will vote today on the Democratic platform, released late last night. The platform doesn’t say much new about transportation. Chest-thumping over the comeback of the U.S. automakers: check. Patting themselves on the back for nearly doubling fuel economy in American cars: check. But then the Democrats got a little sloppy, starting with: “We will give our businesses access to newer roads and airports, and faster railroads and Internet access.”

“Newer roads” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Newer than what? Brand new, as in, the roads didn’t exist before? Is “newness” the most important feature in a road? Well-maintained, sure. But ribbon-cuttings aren’t something to shoot for.

While the Obama administration has a solid record of policy innovation — think TIGER and the Sustainable Communities Initiative — the platform has little to say about ideas like investing in green transportation, or saving families money by linking transportation and land use planning, or even controlling the costs of infrastructure by focusing on maintenance. The 40-page document is not meant to be a detailed policy description, but it’s worth noting where the Democrats stop short in this summary of the party’s principles.

The biggest chunk of transpo talk comes in a section titled, “Out-Building the Rest of the World,” in which the Democrats don’t stray very far from generic support for infrastructure investment:

We support long-term investments in our infrastructure. Roads, bridges, rail and public transit systems, airports, ports, and sewers are all critical to economic growth, as they enable businesses to grow. That’s why President Obama and Democrats in Congress have enacted infrastructure investments that will sustain our Highway Trust Fund and provide states, U.S. territories, and communities with two years of funding to build needed infrastructure. These investments are critical for putting Americans back to work and strengthening America’s transportation system to grow our economy. The President has proposed to go substantially further, including a significant up-front investment in our infrastructure followed by sustained increases in investment paid for with part of the savings from winding down our overseas wars, together with reforms that will better leverage government dollars and target significant projects. We will continue to partner with local communities to support their sustainable development.

As far as I can tell, the Democrats have done exactly nothing to sustain the Highway Trust Fund. They’ve fought for more investments to come out of it, but nothing new to go into it – an inherently unsustainable situation. In order to pass a transportation bill, they went out looking for pennies between the couch cushions and found enough to patch together a pay-for, but the Trust Fund is still vulnerable and insufficient. The Democrats have been unwilling to talk seriously about increasing revenues into the Fund, whether by indexing the gas tax to inflation, giving it a one-time boost, or shifting to a vehicles miles traveled fee.

The platform also refers to the president’s plan for a $50 billion “down payment” for infrastructure, an idea he first floated nearly two years ago. But the document merely says that the president “has proposed” this – not that the party plans to fight for it. Indeed, the plan never got much traction, and the infrastructure funding was never the Democrats’ favorite part of the jobs bill it was later rolled into (which was voted down).

The platform dedicates the Democrats to “fight for immediate investments for highways, transit, rail, and aviation and for the creation of a national infrastructure bank.” The party could have used resolve like that in recent Congressional sessions, during which key Democrats, like Senator Barbara Boxer, were lukewarm at best on the infrastructure bank idea. The platform doesn’t get into how to prioritize different modes of transportation.

A more specific and inspiring message was delivered at the convention by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who’s chairing the events. He spoke in an interview about the advances his city is making not just to build transit but to finance it. He also explained how he became convinced that an expanded TIFIA program could support public transportation investments all around the country, and he talked up the city’s multiplying bike lanes.

In the platform itself, Villaraigosa’s party does mention support for active transportation, but not in the transportation section. Under “Ensuring Safety and Quality of Life,” it reads, “We will continue to partner with local communities to support their sustainable developments such as passenger rail, bicycle and pedestrian paths, and other projects to support livable cities.” And under “Families,” the document adds, “With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children” — which one could also connect to bicycling and walking.

Given the administration’s support for livability initiatives, it’s reassuring that the Democrats at least included this one line, and the mention of “bicycle and pedestrian paths” seems to be more specific than any reference to active transportation in the party’s platforms from 2000, 2004, and 2008.

Those previous Democratic platforms, while they don’t call out bicycling and walking, do have some other inspiring moments. The 2008 platform pledges to “invest in public transportation,” “expand transportation options for low-income communities,” and “make cities greener and more livable by…taking smart growth principles into account when designing transportation.” And back in 2000, the platform supported high-speed rail and “new grants to Amtrak and the states for improving and expanding passenger rail routes and corridors.” This year’s delegates could have cribbed from those past documents.

When it comes to the Democrats’ biggest transportation successes, this year’s platform is curiously silent. In addition to giving TIGER the silent treatment, there’s no mention of how Democrats (and some Republicans) beat back the House GOP leadership’s attack on transit earlier this year.

While it’s a far cry from the Republicans’ highways-and-fossil-fuels transportation platform, the few words the Democratic platform devotes to transportation still fails to present a compelling vision for the country.

11 thoughts on Democratic Platform’s Scarce Words on Transportation Fail to Inspire

  1. I think political caution right now on major transport infrastructure investments of any kind, is very wise. “Systems analysts” who deal in “Kondratieff Cycles” (eg Cesare
    Marchetti, Jesse Ausubel, Arnulf Grubler) have been saying for decades
    that commuter rail is at the end of its cycle, while private automobiles
    are approaching saturation. And another new mode is about “due”.
    This simply has to involve greater, not lesser, flexibility of travel.
    Flexibility is the way the whole world has been going and it is an
    urban-economic impossibility to reverse this because of what happens to
    property values as you try to reverse it.

    By the way, canal based transport beats rail in those features that
    transport planners most like about rail – i.e. energy use per passenger
    mile in FULL “vehicles”. But obviously there are other elements in the
    “system” besides energy use per passenger mile in FULL vehicles. This
    is why the commuter rail systems in MOST US cities actually now consume
    twice the energy per ACTUAL passenger mile, as cars with only the driver
    on board do.

    Private vehicles are really just one end of the contemporary spectrum of transport
    systems, moving from large vehicles, low-intensity route network, to
    small vehicles, high intensity route network. Private vehicles have an
    “infinitely intense” route network. As a complete system, the
    private vehicle works far better with real estate markets, to “disperse”
    value rather than concentrate it. The effect
    on real estate prices of a highly-concentrated system of “access” is too
    negative to both productivity and social equity. 

    Anthony Downs: “A Growth Strategy for the Greater Vancouver Region”, 2007: “……The
    cost of land poses a key dilemma for urban planners everywhere who want
    to concentrate jobs together so they can be best served by public
    transit. Such concentration raises the costs of land near centers; in
    fact, it would confer a monopoly advantage on landowners who owned such
    land and could exploit firms trying to locate there. Now firms want to
    locate elsewhere to cut their land costs.
    Planned concentration of
    jobs in a few centers is not consistent with private ownership and
    control of land. Some type of collective control over that land would be
    necessary to prevent monopolistic exploitation of land values. In
    theory, this could be done with high land taxes in such areas and
    special zoning rules. But adopting those devices is politically
    difficult in a free enterprise economy……. “……A similar
    but less intensive dilemma concerns land near transit stops, where it
    would be most efficient to concentrate high-density housing and jobs.
    That also creates ownership monopolies over such land unless it is
    specially controlled or taxed. Yet focusing development near transit
    stops is a key to using more transit…..”

    It is surprising that there has been so little academic focus on the
    former USSR’s urban transport systems, because they were so similar to
    what many advocates today regard as “ideal”. Commuter rail, subways, and
    apartment living; with planners having total power to dictate to the
    citizenry. As a complete “system”, even without a real estate market
    causing negative consequences, it was a dismal failure. One analogy I
    like to draw, is between the computing power of an early integrated
    circuit and that of the modern silicon chip where signals can go from
    virtually any point to any other point. The urban economy based on
    “automobility” is like the latter. And the effect “compounds”; it is not
    as if sacrificing a few tens of percent of regional coverage per person
    for a given time frame, is without consequence.

    Automobiles big drawback is that they are too large per person, but so
    are mass transit vehicles at typical utilisation rates. Mass transit
    vehicles of course get driven around empty all day instead of being
    “parked” at the very place where land is highest in value. But most of
    the excessive size of automobiles is a matter of discretionary choice by
    their buyers – “Smart Cars” and Toyota “IQ’s” and Mitsubishi “I-Cars”
    would provide almost all the benefits of automobility at a fraction of
    the existing cost of automobility and well below the cost of mass
    transit per passenger mile.

    But decentralisation and dispersion of employment and other amenities has been a powerful stabiliser of vehicle trip times. Peter Gordon et al have been proved right about what they gave been saying about this for nearly 30 years now. This dispersion is “systemic” and is a disastrous fit with mass transit.

    But “automation” solves virtually all
    problems. Have you read the KPMG paper on the potential of “driverless”
    technology? This is seeping into the “mainstream” against all barriers
    of skepticism.

  2. Two things:

    1) bikes and bike lanes

    2) I’m turning into a broken record, but James Hanson’s Fee and Dividend scheme is genius because it doesn’t try to untangle and manage all the complexities of energy usage in the economy, but instead slowly ratchets up the cost of carbon while redistributing the fees to individuals to invest as they see fit. This allows the power of markets, technologies, etc to adapt to a sustainable world without making potentially disastrous policy prescriptions (like cap and trade, or soviet style central planning).

  3. Bicycling is an intelligent choice for people who can manage with the limitations of the mode; I have ridden probably 100,000 commuting miles myself. But like “THE Guru” John Forester (who has probably ridden 500,000), I do not see it as a substitute mode for automobiles. Motorcycles are much closer to being a substitute, and do fill that role in some developing nations cities.
    I agree with you on Hansen’s “Fee and Dividend” scheme. Far too few people with socio-political concerns have any idea of how “markets” can be utilised as the main tool by which the desired outcomes can be achieved. There has been no lack of academic analysis, for example, on the point that properly priced roads and infrastructure would be more effective than blunt regulatory “containment of urban growth”, and burden society with only a fraction of the cost. Cheshire and Sheppard, for example, say “twenty times less costly”; Alex Anas et al say “sixty times less costly”.

  4. Antonio Villaraigosa’s inability to deliver a 1 minute speech without screwing it up is a direct reflection of what a complete tool he has been for the City of Angels. And he wants to be govenor of California ?

  5. How, precisely, would automated small cars solve the problems of sprawl, disruption of neighborhoods for highways, and the urban voids created by parking lots? “Smart” cars aren’t that small; creating incentives to use them privately would just flood the streets with more of them; and using them as a “flexible” alternative to transit would require a giant fleet of them (think NYC taxis) just to make them as reliable as reasonably frequent buses on a grid.

    Yes, I read the paper. Nice sales pitch, in a “monorail episode of The Simpsons” kind of way,but to say that it is vague on the question of just how driverless vehicles would actually mitigate the problems attending mass private auto use without creating new ones is probably to be more charitable than the situation calls for.

  6. Hey, I don’t know what everyone is complaining about. After all, the Democrats just “put God back into the platform.” And isn’t that what’s really important?

  7. I was describing how a total urban “system” works: transport is just one element of that. Most of the technology optimists focus on the following advantages of driverless cars; these advantages are significant enough already:
    “Convoying” at high speed; automated intersections; automated parking not limited to location near trip destinations; shared use and vehicle utilisation. Add to this, the potential for “dual mode”, for lower-cost elevated guideways that do not need to be engineered for heavy trucks (cost benefit ratio high).

    But there are significant urban-economics realities too. The inherent problem with access and mobility being limited to public transport routes and walking and HPV’s, is that a lot higher proportion of incomes in the urban economy capitalises into land rents. I quoted Anthony Downs in my previous comment; he is one of the very few people who understand this, although it was widely understood 100 years ago. Automobiles were seen as the solution to the problems agonised over by social reformers, of severe inequality in urban populations, caused by the way land markets responded to rising incomes, which acted as a “multiplier” effect on unequal incomes. Lower income people always end up paying a higher and higher proportion of their incomes, for less and less space, in less and less efficient locations, with worse and worse living conditions, and less and less local amenity. Urban economists in the UK studying the consequences of 60 years of “Town and Country Planning” system are rediscovering these effects in this context; see, for example, Gibbons, Overman, and Resende (2010).

  8. My reply below to PC, got cut short in transmission; here is the rest of it.

    competitive automobile-based development near-eliminates”planning
    gain” or uplift in value of rural land when it is converted to urban use.
    There were a few decades of rail-based suburbanisation prior to the automobile,
    which involved far greater DISTANCES of travel but far lower quantities of
    supply of land brought into the urban economy due to their ribbon form; hence
    “rentier” interests and speculative mania continued to force upwards,
    the proportion of “rent” extracted from workers incomes for
    “space”. Furthermore, the cyclical volatility involved with this
    phase of urban development was a major factor in the severity of “The
    Great Depression” – Fred Foldvary is the only coherent author on this
    subject that I have discovered so far. 

    of the way land markets work, business and people tend to disperse in the
    direction of the lower cost land and lower congestion, away from the urban
    centre. The only exceptions to the rule of “the death of city cores”,
    are cities with cores that predate the automobile, AND that have a high
    proportion of high-income, low-land-requirement sources of employment; eg
    finance and bureaucracy. All other cities, all the rest of the time, are going
    to be grossly inefficient mismatches with mass public transit.

    But even
    in the cities with “strong” cores, it is rare for the “share of
    employment” in that core relative to the whole city, to be much more than
    10%. It is ironic, then, that the resulting congestion from 10% of the
    workforce converging on the central location, occupies so much attention from
    policy makers and advocates. The very SUCCESS of the other 90% of commute
    trips, and the other 95% PLUS, of ALL trips, is unnoticed by most people. This
    success relates to urban dispersion and the unmatched flexibility and access
    provided by the automobile – people do not have to live and work and shop and
    so on, on only a few ribbons of land served by transit; they can live anywhere,
    and go anywhere, and the cost of locating closer to any one of the 90% of jobs
    that are “suburban”, or to any other amenity, is not prohibitive.
    This is in contrast to the old monocentric city served by radial transit
    routes, where both living space, and “access” to the concentrated
    employment and amenities, was severely rationed by income. And this effect is
    seen today in cities with housing median multiples of over 6, which all tend to
    have disproportionate amounts of young households commuting from very remote
    rural exurbs which are the only place they can afford any home.

    automated car, and “dual mode” with high-speed guideways, actually
    has the potential to combine the best of two worlds: access by households, to
    low-cost suburban land; AND access by the same people in much greater numbers,
    to the city core. Central city property owning interests should be PUSHING for
    this. Congestion is the main cost on the other side of the ledger, to
    “agglomeration”; if there is a solution to congestion; i.e. something
    that allows access by many times the number of staff, customers, and freight
    deliveries, to the centre of the city; this allows for a far greater level of
    “agglomeration”. Mass transit did not allow for the same level of
    agglomeration along with sustained socio-economic progress, because of the
    dilemma with the price of land at the “suburban” end of the system as
    well as at the core. The former USSR’s cities are an illustration of the
    inefficiency of an urban economy based on “core” employment and rail
    lines lined with apartment buildings, that spread further and further out into
    the wilderness. Massive wedges of land in far more efficient locations closer
    to the centre of the region, remain unutilised.

  9. philbest:

    I know what you were describing, or trying to describe.  Did you not address my question about how automated cars would mitigate the urban problems that attend reliance on the non-automated kind because you don’t know *how* they would, or because you don’t know *whether* they would?  Or, perhaps, because you don’t subscribe to the notion that the things I described as problems (sprawl, disruption of neighborhoods for highways, urban voids created by parking lots) are in fact problems? 

    (I acknowledge that you glanced upon the parking lot problem when you cited the “advantage” of remote parking lots, but it seems fairly obvious that at some point we’re just adding another trip–the trip to the distant parking lot–for each vehicle at some time during the day; and for privately owned robocars, of course, we’re literally adding another trip to every trip that terminates in the city center.  To extend my previous metaphor, think of a giant fleet of taxis, each of which eventually has to drive back to a garage back in the suburbs, and some of which have to do so after each fare!) 

    Now, then, back to those purported advantages of driverless cars.

    “‘Convoying’ at high speed”

    That’ll save a few square feet, I suppose, under the limited circumstances under which it would be practical (a bunch of people all needing to go from one general area to another general area, fairly far apart, at the same time, with limited numbers of them needing to peel off at any given time), although I daresay this is precisely the sort of thing at which intelligently planned, multimodal, gridded public transit systems tend to excel.

    “automated intersections”

    As distinct from the intersections we have today, where a guy in a striped shirt and a steampunk-y hat waves semaphores at people to tell them when it’s OK to proceed, while crackly ragtime music plays in the background?

    No, no, but seriously, I assume you mean that instead of flashing light signals at human operators and hoping that they’re seen and obeyed, the network could simply make vehicles stop and proceed as needed whenever paths cross.  If it worked, that would certainly be a safety advantage for the people inside the robocars, but are you stressing the safety advantage or something else–like an efficiency advantage?

    “lower-cost elevated guideways that do not need to be engineered for heavy trucks”

    I suppose, but where exactly do you envision them being built?  Surely not in or near the urban core, where they would need to be plentiful and gridded (or maybe spoked) to yield any of that one-seat-ride-to-anywhere “flexibility” you keep touting as an advantage of robocars over public transit.  Nor, surely, in between cities and their existing suburbs and exurbs: the existing freeways should be more than able to handle all those super-efficiently routed, relatively compact vehicles, right?  Ditto the Interstates.

    So, where?  I strongly suspect that the answer is “in new exurbs,” but maybe I’m wrong.  Am I?

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