Right diagnosis, weak medicine, wrong metaphor

In a far ranging thought piece for James Fallows’ Our Towns Civic Foundation—”Learning from Eisenhower and Lincoln:  A Grand Bargain for Transportation,” Patrick Doherty and  Chris Leinberger invoke Abe Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower as role models for a Biden Administration infrastructure policy.

There’s a lot to like in this analysis, and its recommendations touch on many of the topics that are essential to crafting a solution to the problems we face.  That said, we’d offer a couple of contrasting views, and hopefully friendly amendments to the policy prescriptions, and different metaphor than the authors invoke.  This is a worthwhile conversation to have, and we’re grateful to the authors for inviting us to join.

Their essay is founded on a trenchant and accurate diagnosis of the roots of America’s social, economic and environmental crises:  public policies that have fostered excessive reliance on private automobiles.  Our obsession with cars has caused us to remake our landscape in a way that has made us all more car dependent.

Today, dense, walkable neighborhoods are in short supply and therefore command premium prices.  And they are either uneconomical or actually illegal because of our obsession with catering to cars.

Doherty and Leinberger are spot on when they diagnose this problem:  Clearly, we need to build more walkable places; the challenge is figuring out how to reduce decades of auto-centric policies, and undo the damage they’ve inflicted on the landscape.  This essay goes in the right direction, but we would urge them to go considerably further.  To paraphrase the President, we need to build back bolder, and differently.

The big challenge is equating “infrastructure” and “transportation.”   It’s unfortunate to conceptualize our core urban problems as a lack of transportation. As a metaphor, they’ve chosen Lincoln’s subsidies for transcontinental railroad construction and Eisenhower’s defense and interstate highways.  While these initiatives are suggestive of the scale of the change that’s needed, there’s a “hair of the dog” quality to this prescription.  Particularly in the case of the interstate highways, the fixation with transportation generally and cars specifically have led to massive subsidies to sprawl and dispersion.  America’s problem is not that we have too little transportation infrastructure, but that we have too much (particularly of the wrong kinds), and it has led to vast decentralization.  And in a world built for cars, it’s simply impossible to walk, and uneconomical to provide transit service.

That’s why one core feature of the Doherty and Leinberger prescription—rejiggering the formula for the the distribution of federal transportation funds to favor transit—while very much a step in the right direction is simply too weak a prescription given the scale of the problem.  Better transit would be a palliative to some of the worst effects of this car dependent system, but given the enormity of the challenge simply isn’t enough.

Let’s be clear about the magnitudes here:  The Biden American Jobs Plan (AJP) proposes $85 billion over eight years for public transit, about $10 billion per year.  (A further $80 billion would go to high speed rail; which is meritorious in its own right, but doesn’t make the bus come sooner).  In addition, except for recent pandemic aid, almost all federal transit funding goes to capital construction, and between fares and local taxes, cities are hard pressed to support the existing level of transit service, much less expand it.  Increasing transit mode share would also require a large and permanent increase in federal operating subsidies.

A key problem with transportation is that we haven’t asked cars to pay their way:  We subsidize driving in many ways, and some features of the AJP continue this.  Instead of raising the gas tax, the AJP would use higher corporate taxes.  The bill also calls for a $174 billion  subsidy for vehicle electrification.  The US has a gas tax that is a fifth of the of other industrialized nations.  Enlarging the deep subsidies to car transportation undercuts all of the efforts to invest in transit and promote dense walkable places.  A more direct and radical solution to the problem of too much driving would be a healthy increase in the gas tax, or a national carbon tax, with the proceeds dedicated to building housing and communities (as well as subsidizing transit).  Higher gas prices that fully reflected the social and environmental cost of driving fossil fueled vehicles will also help propel the electrification of the vehicle fleet.

It’s also worth noting that investments in transportation are no panacea for the problems of rural development.  The late University of Oregon economist Ed Whitelaw observed of the investments in schools and highways in Appalachia, that better schools gave kids the education and better highways enabled them to leave.  Even the legacy of the transcontinental railroads was the devastation of small scale farming in New England, which couldn’t compete against California.

Beyond investing in transportation, we’ve got to invest in place, in the civic realm that brings us together, and in building more housing in those high demand places that already have walkable amenities (and which by and large have the best transit access).  In a sense, the better Lincoln analogy would have been to the Homestead Act, rather than to transcontinental railroads.

As our friends Joe Kane, Adie Tomer and Jenny Schuetz at the Brookings Institution have written, this will require a very different approach to land use.

That leaves the country with no choice: We must prioritize development in the kinds of neighborhoods that permanently reduce total driving and consume less energy. Such human-centered neighborhoods have the added benefit of helping us adapt to climate impacts, improve public health, and promote access to activities. Encouraging their development should be a central part of any national climate resilience strategy.

We probably need to be even more blunt about the nature of our problem (Doherty and Leinberger never use the word “sprawl”) and much more explicit about our transportation goals (as Brookings suggests, we need to reduce VMT (vehicle miles traveled), which is an indicator Doherty and Leinberger don’t mention).

Doherty and Leinberger acknowledge that land use needs to change, but the threat of losing federal infrastructure funding is unlikely to change the willingness of high income neighborhoods and suburbs to exclude higher density housing.   (Many of these are ones that already have the amenities and walkablity which are in short supply). Ironically, the federal government wields much more authority to ban local practices that affect access to television a and the Internet, than they do local practices that restrict housing affordability.   They also call for “prioritizing” affordable housing near transit, but absent a monumental increase in the paltry federal funding for affordable housing, this is not going to perceptibly change community form.

All this suggests that Franklin Roosevelt is a better role model than Dwight Eisenhower.  Early on, Roosevelt focused on fixing the housing market, inventing federal mortgage insurance.  Equally important, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps made wide ranging investments in civic infrastructure–parks, public buildings, trails, and other assets for the public commons–that still provide value today.  In addition, throughout his administration, during the recovery from the Great Depression, and during the mobilization for World War II, the federal government poured massive resources into building public housing.

As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, the US has long been a nation of private prosperity and public poverty.  Investing in a public realm and shared civic assets, especially those that anchor and enrich walkable community spaces, strengthens our communities.

It may seem politically astute to invoke a pair of Republican presidents as role models, but given the depth and acrimony of the partisan divide, that’s likely to be fruitless in generating a bipartisan support for this measure.  Better to get the metaphor and the details right, than to implicitly reinforce the idea that more or different transportation spending will solve the problems that too much transportation spending created.

If there is something to be gleaned from Eisenhower and Lincoln (in addition to FDR), it was that each of them proclaimed and implemented an entirely new and much larger federal responsibility for a key aspect of the nation’s development.  Arguably transportation was timely in 1860 and 1956, but the nation’s needs today are different.  Viewing our problems through the lens of transportation, and constructing a grand bargain that provides more (or somewhat re-jiggered) subsidies for transportation misses the opportunity to make the principal focus placemaking and fixing the shortage and high cost of housing in walkable locations.