Where Obama's Plan to Improve Urban Mobility Went Wrong

The legacy of interstate policy spoiled any big plans for more livable cities.

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Distant as it may seem today, there was a time early in the Obama administration when Hope felt like more than just a pretty campaign promise. That was especially true for the President's ambitious transportation plans. Calls for "livability" were interpreted as a bold shift away from the car and highway dependence that had defined 20th century urban mobility in the United States. Then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced an efficient future in which people would run their daily errands "all without having to get in your car."

Fast forward five years since that 2009 pledge, and many of the most hopeful transformations have yet to arrive. A proposed national network of high-speed rail is little more than a wishful map. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road maintenance as well as transit programs, will run out of money any month. Streetcars with questionable mobility value represent perhaps the most visible addition to city transport systems. There have been some minor victories — transit use is up in places, and bike systems are robust in others — but many more defeats.

Where did it all go wrong? There's never one simple answer to a question like that, but transport historian Michael Fein of Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, offers a pretty convincing case that the biggest barrier to LaHood's livable cities program was the legacy of the Interstate Highway System. In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban History, Fein argues that decades-old policies favoring urban expressways (and, more specifically, regional mega-malls situated at interchanges) spoiled the broader campaign for better urban mobility:

Working toward walkable, local-oriented, human-scale, "livable" communities and economies entailed a rejection of the regionally oriented commercial and commuting patterns fostered by the Interstates. Realigning these long-standing DOT priorities would prove no easy feat.

The best example Fein offers in support of his point comes from a 2011 plan for a new interchange in Provo, Utah, called the West Side Connector. One option for the project was to route traffic through downtown Provo on a system of local roads. This pro-downtown alternative — supported by the Army Corps of Engineers — would have given a boost to the city's central business district and overall economic fortunes. In short, it would have served DOT's stated goal of livability.

Instead, federal highway officials pushed for a direct link between the connector and Interstate 15 to meet "driver expectations." The Provo Towne Centre Mall, located at an I-15 interchange, would stand to benefit from this option — in particular Home Depot, which would have lost about an acre of parking and some highway visibility from the downtown alternative. 

The Provo case is hardly an outlier. In 2011, for instance, North Carolina widened Interstate 85 to ease entry to Concord Mills, while Wisconsin built an interchange off Interstate 94 to serve a Town Centre mall thirty miles from Milwaukee. These and other projects that facilitated car access to mega-malls on the fringes of metro areas, concludes Fein, "undermined the livable community LaHood envisioned":

Had federal officials been serious about challenging auto dependency and linking transportation, housing, energy, and environmental policy goals, then policy makers and planners would have had to directly confront historic development patterns that the Interstate highway system had long fostered. As part of that confrontation, transportation officials would have to undertake a more careful reckoning of the costs of highway economies to livable communities.

Fein seems unsure where to issue this reckoning. Was the livability program "undermined" by entrenched highway interests? Or were federal officials not serious enough about their intentions? He does lay much of the blame on the term livability itself; imprecise for policy purposes, it meant different things to different people, and in that way often meant nothing at all.

But he also notes, as any good historian must, that it's far too soon for a full assessment of Obama's livability goals. The current push offers clear progress over previous iterations — first Carter's weak Livable Cities initiative, which focused on the arts, then Clinton's Building Livable Communities Program, which emphasized urban parks — and even unrequited boldness deserves some praise. At least, that would be the hopeful view.

 

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