Livability Initiative Stirs Debate

Published January 17, 2010

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, 2009 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?”

Increasing Federal Role Sought
These and other 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 longstanding goals of progressive planners and assorted anti-sprawl activists, but these goals may become a matter of federal policy under Obama’s “livability” initiative.

That initiative,—called 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 “livability principles” and interagency agreements.

‘Government Must Lead’
Opinion has split along familiar lines. Planners, environmentalists, champions of New Urbanism, and smart growth advocates have welcomed the initiative as a sign of willingness to tackle 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 individual choices. Leading that charge have been columnist George Will, author and urban scholar Joel Kotkin, and Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow Ron Utt.

In a May 18, 2009 Newsweek column, 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. . . . 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.”

‘Lifestyles Under Siege’
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 is 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, noncontroversial objective. Reducing traffic congestion that prolongs commutes and chokes even smaller communities is an imperative everybody can agree on.

‘Everything We Do Is Intrusion’
But the debate has been needlessly polarized by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. At a May 21, 2009 event at the National Press Club, LaHood was asked whether the administration’s Livability initiative could be construed as an effort to “coerce” people out of their cars. He agreed with that interpretation, adding, “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.”

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.” That’s what’s behind the increasingly intense debate behind the Obama initiative.
C. Kenneth Orski ([email protected]) is editor and publisher of the transportation newsletter Innovation NewsBriefs, where an earlier version of this article was published. Used with permission.