Bring realism to transport plans
The pandemic has widened the gap between the way Americans want to live and the way city planners think they should live. Even before the pandemic, surveys found that 80% of Americans lived in single-family homes in low-density neighborhoods, but city planners believe urban areas should be more compact and a higher percentage of people should live in multi-family dwellings. In 1991, a city planner named Douglas Porter urged city planners to use the power of regional governments to get the dense cities they wanted.
Under federal law, every urban area of 50,000 or more residents must have a regional government, known as a “metropolitan planning organization” (MPO). These organizations – there are currently 408 – are required to write long-term transportation plans for their regions and update those plans every four years. Since they distribute federal transportation and other dollars to local governments, they can deny funding to local governments that refuse to follow their plans.
There are two ways to write a transportation plan. One is to determine how people will travel and enable them to do so as efficiently, safely and with the least possible impact on the environment. The other way is for planners to fantasize about how they want people to travel and then build a system for it, hoping people will use it.
In 2008, I looked at the transportation plans drafted by DFOs for 75 of the largest urban areas in the country and found that a majority belonged to the fantasy world. They relied on land use restrictions designed to force denser development while deliberately allowing increased traffic congestion, putting most of the transportation dollars in transit systems that typically only carried one. tiny percentage of regional trips, to discourage people from driving.
Planners believe it is good to drive less because automobiles consume energy and emit greenhouse gases. However, data from the Department of Energy shows that people who live in dense cities like San Francisco can drive somewhat less than people who live in low-density suburbs (see Table 9.15), but because they drive in more congested conditions, they consume more fuel and emit more greenhouse gases per capita than commuters (see Table 4.34). Planners have not incorporated the effects of congestion on fuel consumption into their transportation models, so they ignore this density cost.
At the start of the pandemic, a city planner predicted that it would make cities “more local, compact, pedestrian-friendly and connected. Cars will become the exception rather than the rule on our roads.” Of course, the exact opposite has happened. Dense urban areas such as Boston and San Francisco have lost population, while low density areas such as Albuquerque and Oklahoma City are growing the fastest. Driving has returned to pre-pandemic levels, while transit ridership is less than half and may never reach more than 75% of pre-pandemic levels.
Obviously, this requires a review of regional plans which depend on compact development and heavy investments in public transport to get people out of their cars, doesn’t it? Not according to the planners. To see how planners are responding to the effects of the pandemic, I’ve looked at regional transportation plans that have been released in recent months and plan documents currently in the works for several major urban areas, including Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area.
None of the plans I looked at suggested that the pandemic might make it harder for them to achieve their dreams of turning urban America into compact European-style cities. If the plans mentioned the pandemic, it was only to say that social distancing rules made it harder for planners to hold public participation meetings, and cuts in tax revenues could slow funding for their expensive rail transport projects. .
This is, of course, an example of one of the fundamental flaws in central planning. City planners don’t really understand how cities work or don’t know what people really want, so they substitute their own fantasies and preferences. This will only be fixed when we end transportation subsidies and demand that highways, mass transit and other transportation providers subsist on fees they can earn from users.
Until then, the federal government funds MPOs with about $ 450 million per year, and when state and local costs are counted, they must spend well over $ 1 billion per year. People who care about where their money is going and where their urban areas are going should let MPOs know what they think about plans that are more about social engineering than safe and efficient transportation. For some ideas on how people can do this, see my recent guidance document on regional transportation planning.
Washington Examiner Videos
Key words: Think tanks
Original author: Randal O’Toole
Original location: Bring realism to transport plans