Gary Toth, Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives at PPS, discusses the Obama administration’s livability platform that is currently being miscast as exclusively favoring high-density development.

Livability is not a euphemism for a dense urban environment--it's about offering choice and creating the places that most define America.

We are entering a dangerous era in the history of transportation.  Our existing infrastructure is crumbling, and the public has lost its willingness to fund transportation improvements. Investment in high-speed, grade-separated highway capacity worked well for a few decades, but has led to unintended consequences for the nation’s health and the global climate. Meanwhile, congestion indicators are now worse than they were in the 1970s, and in many parts of the country, are 200 to 400 percent worse than before a massive investment in freeways. America has successfully adapted in the past, moving beyond wooden plank roads, canals, horse-powered mobility and the railroads. It must do so again in order to succeed in the 21st Century.

It is therefore extremely troubling to watch the increasing hostility and innuendo directed at the Obama administration’s attempt to frame new solutions, which they have grouped together under the rubric of “livability.” For once, an administration is trying to exert some leadership to move the transportation juggernaut out of the 1960s and into the 21st Century. (For background on the concept of livability as it relates  to rural communities, see our post from May 18th, “How Can Transportation Support Rural Livability?”)

Skepticism is understandable and has occurred at every past transition to a new era in transportation policy.  In 1919, the Federal Bureau of Public Roads scoffed at New Jersey’s first grade-separated road, mainly because they felt that horse drawn carriages would not be able to negotiate the step ramps on the newly proposed Route 1 highway in Newark. Technology has come a long way since then, but our resistance to change seems just as deeply entrenched.

And admittedly, the Obama administration may be falling short in articulating their vision.  What we need are more specifics, better communication, newer ideas and creative leadership to help fill in the details and convey them to the public.  Instead, opponents oflivability (I am left to simply term then opponents because I have yet to figure out what they are for) have stepped into the breach, miscasting the meaning of the term and inciting opposition with the kind of emotionally charged rhetoric that has become all too familiar in modern American politics.

So lets take a closer look at the anti-livability rhetoric.

Ray LaHood describes livability as “…being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car.” Referencing this statement, transportation and public policy consultant Ken Orski writes:

“In other words, “livability” in the Secretary’s mind means living in a dense urban environment where walking, biking and transit are realistic travel alternatives to using a car.

But this definition is too narrow to suit most Americans, whose notion of “livability” may include living in suburban communities and enjoying such obvious amenities as a safe neighborhood, access to good schools, the privacy of one’s own backyard and the freedom, comfort, convenience and flexibility of personal transportation. If  “livability” becomes a euphemism for a federal policy of favoring high density, transit-dependent living, then we are moving closer to “newspeak” when words mean whatever Big Brother intends them to mean.”

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with dense urban environments. But more importantly, this entire line of argument is nonsense!

Livability is about choices, and if you want to pay four to five dollars a gallon to drive ten miles, you should have that right.  But you should also have the right to avoid paying four dollars for a gallon of gas when you go buy half a gallon of milk. More to the point, if your monthly fuel costs cause you to not be able to pay your mortgage, as so many hard working Americans discovered in 2008, it becomes a problem to have no other options.

Perhaps the anti-livability folks have forgotten about the thousands of small towns with Main Streets that Americans are so fond of.  I live in Lambertville, New Jersey . It’s a far cry from the images of Manhattan-level density that livability opponents are trying to plant in people’s heads. Yet I can walk to buy milk, get to work, see my doctor, go out to dinner or play with my kids in a park. My town has no skyscrapers, nor is it easily accessible by transit, but America would build more places like it under a national livability initiative.

Lambertville, New Jersey. Photo credit: Caroline Armstrong

The anti-livability gurus decry the administration’s approach as top-down. But has any community — rural, suburban or urban — ever seen a more top-down approach than the way state DOTs built the interstate highway system and continued to add more and more freeways?   I should know; I served at the New Jersey Department of Transportation from 1973 to 2007. I watched community after community, property owner after property owner, feel powerless and helpless over how we conducted our business.

The truth is that livability calls for the full engagement of local communities in determining their own future and the kind of transportation investment that best suits them.  This is far less top-down than once-rural communities like Phoenix, or the farmlands of the East Coast ever had the privilege of getting during the era of highway primacy.

The anti-livability forces say that most Americans want to live in suburban communities and enjoy the privacy of their own backyard.  I would like to see their data.  The surveys that I read, the ones conducted by the real estate industry, reveal that we already have enough single-family homes built in suburbia to satisfy demand until the year 2025.  In places like Phoenix, the holy city of the anti livability gurus, developers are starting to tear down car-oriented developments because they can’t sell the units.  In their places they plan to construct communities where people can reach many destinations by biking and walking.

Does the anti-livability crowd mean to say that anything outside of suburbia isn’t safe? Let’s look at the data.

The premature fatality rate of residents in many suburban areas is actually higher than in the core cities, due to deaths on our roads and streets. In 2008, more than 39,000 Americans died at the hands of personal transportation (even after a 9% decline from the previous year), while murderers claimed less than half as many lives—roughly 14,000.

As I watch the anti-livability reaction unfold, it is particularly interesting to note that none of the administration bashers have an alternative to offer. The de-facto interpretation is that we need to do more of the same – more highways, more sprawl.  Yet while we can express our uncertainty about whether the Obama administration’s livability program will work, we must come to grips with the fact that, like horse-drawn transportation, what we have been doing doesn’t work anymore.

While we can rightly accuse the administration of speaking in generalities, is it right for opponents to assassinate their campaign without offering their own vision?  We need new solutions, and I challenge folks who have been trashing the administration to start telling us their answers.