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What's So Bad About Livability?

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

I somehow came to be subscribed to a transportation newsletter called Innovation NewsBriefs, written by Ken Orski. This month’s issue is devoted to the federal Department of Transportation’s adoption of the creation of “livable communities” as a central goal of the agency’s strategic plan. Mr. Orski is, to say the least, skeptical of this approach, and I can respect that. But his argument hinges on several gross and misleading characterizations that, sad to say, are pretty common in transportation and land-use circles.

Problem number 1 is Orski’s mischaracterization of the problem that advocates of “livability” are trying to solve. As Orski describes it:

"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." 

Let’s take a step back. Is it true that “dense urban environments” are the only ones where someone can do these things without getting in a car? Of course not! Think of the countless streetcar and commuter rail suburbs that were built outside America’s cities up through the Great Depression. I’m thinking here of places familiar to my own experience such as Arlington, Mass., where a person can live in a suburban home and do any or all of these things on any given day without needing a car. Or of the communities like Arlington, Virginia, where new, dense, transit-oriented development exists in close proximity to low-density, leafy suburbs filled with single-family homes – enabling suburban dwellers to have all the car-free access to amenities that livability proponents crave, but still maintain a “typical” suburban existence. Or, for that matter, the thousands of small towns that were once the centers of American commerce and community life. 

Advocates of more sustainable communities are often tarred with the brush of being anti-suburb. But the enemy of livability is not the suburb, per se. Rather, it’s the kind of suburb we’ve built too much of in the U.S. over the last 50 years – the cul-de-sacs that make it harder to get from point A to point B by foot; the absence of sidewalks and bike paths; the traffic-clogged six-lane arterial roads that are virtually impossible to cross on foot and dangerous to travel on bikes; the separation of uses into geographically distant enclaves; the vast acres of parking lots mandated by local zoning codes; the near absence of any real transit alternatives.

Can we build suburbs that deliver the kinds of livability benefits Secretary LaHood is talking about? Absolutely. And transportation policy is a critical component in making them possible.

Now, some people may choose to live in the kinds of suburbs I’ve described above and remain dependent on their cars. And that’s OK. Really. But it is clear both a) that there is high and growing demand for the type of “livable communities” described by LaHood, and b) that existing public policies, including transportation policies, make it more difficult than it ought to be to build those communities, keeping them in short supply. That’s a problem that only public policy change can address, and it’s right of LaHood to recognize and prioritize it.

Orski’s second mischaracterization is an even more common one. He writes: 

“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.”

I’m sorry, but “safe neighborhoods” and “access to good schools” are not “obvious amenities” of suburban communities. There are plenty of urban or “streetcar suburb” neighborhoods (mine among them) where there is access to great schools, and plenty of car-centered suburban neighborhoods where safety is an issue (particularly when “safety” is construed to include the likelihood of getting T-boned at a busy intersection as well as getting mugged on the street). 

Orski’s piece is something of a field guide to how advocates of a car-centered culture think. They live in a world where cities are universally cesspools of vice, poverty and violence to be escaped at the nearest opportunity (see David Brooks’ recent piece on this dynamic in the New York Times), where a single-family house on a cul de sac remains the universal human ideal and American dream, and where having to drive a car to buy a quart of milk isn’t a costly and inconvenient burden but rather an example of “freedom, comfort, convenience and flexibility.”

As noted in my post on Brookings’ recent “State of Metropolitan America” report, the world Orski is talking about doesn’t capture the more complicated reality of 21st century America. The Obama administration is proposing that – really for the first time – transportation policy should be geared as much, if not more, toward creating the livable communities Americans desire as to serving to extend the dominance of the car.  

That’s change we can believe in.