Kaid Benfield Archive


President-elect Obama on smart growth, transportation, cities, and regions

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 5, 2008 at 4:21AM

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Here's a little about what this week's historic election may mean for smart growth, sustainable development, and metropolitan America, based on Barack Obama's statements and literature.  There is ample reason to believe that the president-elect has a better understanding of these issues than any other modern president.

The effect of land use on transportation & oil

First, his campaign's position paper on oil security and energy independence explicitly recognizes the benefits of smart growth:

"Over the longer term, we know that the amount of fuel we will use is directly related to our land use decisions and development patterns, much of which have been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline. Barack Obama believes that we must move beyond our simple fixation of investing so many of our transportation dollars in serving drivers and that we must make more investments that make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access transportation alternatives."

Importantly, Obama has also stressed that energy conservation should be made one of the explicit goals of the transportation planning required of metropolitan regions in order to secure federal dollars for roads, transit, and related projects.  And he has indicated his support for leveling the tax subsidies afforded to employers who now may spend and deduct twice the amount, per employee, for automobile parking that they may spend on transit, carpooling or vanpooling. 

Cities and rural areas

Moreover, the president-elect's position paper on urban policy demonstrates in several places that he understands the connections between neighborhoods, cities, and metropolitan regions.  For example, in a section on city livability, he stresses the importance of transportation alternatives, green buildings, and even that "how a community is designed - including the layout of its roads, buildings and parks - has a huge impact on the health of its residents."  In other sections, it stresses job creation in underserved areas and affordable housing.

For rural areas, his platform has included conservation of private lands, regional food networks, and help for organic farmers.

The new metropolitan reality

Beyond the campaign literature, Obama gave a major address to the US Conference of Mayors in June, during which he showed that he gets it about the challenge of addressing growth at the metropolitan scale:

"The change that's taking place today is as great as any we've seen in more than a century, since the time when cities grew upward and outward with immigrants escaping poverty, and tyranny, and misery abroad. Our population has grown by tens of millions in the past few decades, and it's projected to grow nearly 50% more in the decades to come. And this growth isn't just confined to our cities, it's happening in our suburbs, exurbs, and throughout our metropolitan areas.

"This is creating new pressures, but it's also opening up new opportunities - because it's not just our cities that are hotbeds of innovation anymore, it's those growing metro areas. It's not just Durham or Raleigh - it's the entire Research Triangle. It's not just Palo Alto, it's cities up and down Silicon Valley. The top 100 metro areas generate two-thirds of our jobs, nearly 80% of patents, and handle 75% of all seaport tonnage through ports like the one here in Miami. In fact, 42 of our metro areas now rank among the world's 100 largest economies.

"To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth. And yet, Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated 'urban' agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas; an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy, and ends up hurting both . . .

"Yes, we need to strengthen our cities. But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America. That is the new metropolitan reality and we need a new strategy that reflects it . . ."

Infrastructure, transit, and rail

In the same speech, Obama also endorsed some good ideas about transportation:

"I'll also launch a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years, and create nearly two million new jobs. The work will be determined by what will maximize our safety, security, image not associated with any campaign (by: Greater Greater Washington, creative commons license)and shared prosperity. Instead of building bridges to nowhere, let's build communities that meet the needs and reflect the dreams of our families . . .

"Let's invest that money in a world-class transit system. Let's re-commit federal dollars to strengthen mass transit and reform our tax code to give folks a reason to take the bus instead of driving to work - because investing in mass transit helps make metro areas more livable and can help our regional economies grow. And while we're at it, we'll partner with our mayors to invest in green energy technology and ensure that your buses and buildings are energy efficient. And we'll also invest in our ports, roads, and high-speed rails . . ."

(See also Matthew Iglesias's commentary on this speech.)

While a lot of people, including yours truly, have been advocating these things, it's worth noting that no other candidate this year, Democrat or Republican, addressed them this directly.  One has to go back to Al Gore's speech at Brookings ten years ago to find a candidate (and Gore was not yet a candidate at the time) wanting to take on the issues of growth, development, and livable communities in a major address.

Recognition for Portland

In May, at a huge rally in Portland, Obama also served notice that he is aware of that region's leadership on energy and transportation issues:

"If we are going to solve our energy problems we've got to think long term. It's time for us to be serious about investing in alternative energy. It's time for us to get serious about raising fuel efficiency standards on cars. It's time that the entire country learn from what's happening right here in Portland with mass transit and bicycle lanes and funding alternative means of transportation. That's the kind of solution that we need for America."

More on high-speed rail

Alone among the candidates, Obama consistently opposed the trendy gas-tax-holiday idea and, as early as in April, suggested that investment in high-speed rail was a better response:

"The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. One of the things I have been talking about for a while is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities-Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. They are not that far away from each other. Because of how big of a hassle airlines are now, there are a lot of people if they had the choice, it takes you just about as much time if you had high speed rail to go the airport, park, take your shoes off.

"This is something that we should be talking about a lot more. We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don't have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn't have high speed rail. We just don't' have it. And it works on the Northeast corridor. They would rather go from New York to Washington by train than they would by plane. It is a lot more reliable and it is a good way for us to start reducing how much gas we are using. It is a good story to tell."

More on transportation

About.com has a very good and succinct summary of the president-elect's views on transportation issues, drawn from various campaign statements, papers, and press reports.  It includes the following:

  • Obama's position paper on urban policy includes plans to create a White House Office on Urban Policy, facilitate funding for strengthening urban infrastructure, restore funding for public works projects, and re-evaluate the transportation funding process with an eye toward smart growth.
  • Obama has favored continued government funding for Amtrak, which constantly comes under attack from opponents of subsidies for transit (never mind that the same politicos continue to support subsidies for highway expansion).
  • Obama wants to require states to create more bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly roads. He also proposes government funding to encourage the development of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. The president-elect's views are outlined in his fact sheet on transportation.

A promising foundation

Now, the fact is that many of these issues are largely controlled at the local and state levels, and the federal government's influence is somewhat constrained.  But one need only look at the Interstate Highway System to understand what a major influence Congress and the president can have on our landscape and our built environment.  For federal policy to be a catalyst and partner for sustainability, instead of an unwitting servant of sprawl, could make a big difference.  Having a former community organizer from a large city and metro area, and who understands these matters as well as Obama appears to, in the country's highest office should be a huge help.  And having Amtrak's most famous passenger in the vice president's chair will help, too.  I'm looking forward to it.

(As a non-partisan organization, NRDC does not endorse candidates.  But, now that we know who will be taking office on January 20, we can begin to look forward, at the environmental implications of the voters' decisions.)