U.S. DOT’s Convoluted “Livability” Agenda

Transportation policy observer and analyst Ken Orski has a valuable commentary on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s recent strategic plan and it’s emphasis on “livability.” Rather than comment myself, I’ll just quote from Ken’s more recent Innovation Brief (Vol. 21, No. 9) because I think it captures the essence of the problem and challenge:

“Fostering livable communities…is a transformative policy shift for U.S. DOT,” announced grandiloquently the Draft U.S. DOT Strategic Plan, released for public comment on April 15, 2010. But what exactly does the Administration mean by “livable communities” and how does it intend to translate this vague rhetorical abstraction into a practical reality? To get an understanding of the Administration’s intentions one must delve into the stilted language and bureaucratic jargon of its policy pronouncements, notably the “HUD-DOT-EPA Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities” and the above-mentioned Draft Strategic Plan. “Livable Communities,” says the latter, are “places where transportation, housing and commercial development investments have been coordinated so that people have access to adequate, affordable and environmentally sustainable travel options.”

The Interagency Partnership Agreement speaks in similar vague generalities. It defines livability principles as including “more transportation choices,” “equitable, affordable housing” and “reliable access to employment centers, educational opportunities and services.” Give credit to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for reducing these abstract concepts to plain English. “Livability,” he said, ” means 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.” 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.

How does the Administration intend to promote its vision of “livable communities?” Again, we must turn to the dense prose of its official policy statements. “To achieve our Livable Communities agenda,” states the Draft DOT Strategic Plan, “DOT will (1) Establish an office…to promote coordination and sustainability in Federal infrastructure policy; (2) Give communities the tools and technical assistance they need so that they can develop the capacity to assess their transportation systems…; (3) Work through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to develop broad, universal performance measures that can be used to track livability across the Nation…; and (4) Advocate for more robust state and local planning efforts and create incentives for investments that demonstrate the greatest enhancement of community livability…”

Note that all the intended actions are process-oriented. Nowhere in the Strategic Plan can one find any indication of programmatic objectives or implementation strategies. And no wonder. The power to shape local communities (and thus enhance their livability) resides not in the hands of federal agencies but those of local citizens and their elected officials. As the noted urban commentator Joel Kotkin observed, there are more than 65,000 general-purpose governments, many of them small enough to allow citizens to have a direct say in their governance. To assume that the federal government, despite the growing concentration of power in Washington, could persuade people across this vast land to abandon their preference for suburban amenities and the convenience of personal transportation and accept the “livability” norms as defined by federal officials, is a notion that even the most dedicated progressives of our acquaintance find unrealistic.