American Dream Alternative

Writing an American Dream Alternative for Your Region

Urban plans for Portland, the Twin Cities, San Diego, and many other metropolitan areas seem intent on immobilizing the populace. As mobility advocates critique the plans for their regions, they will soon be asked, "What is your alternative?" It is always useful to have an answer to this question.

A solid alternative can be a useful tool for building a coalition. While it is likely that a broad coalition will not agree on every part of the alternative, once an alternative is outlined individual coalition members can work for the parts they care about most. An alternative can also be used to generate publicity for mobility. The ideas in this paper should be used to supplement part nine of The Vanishing Automobile.

The American dream alternative will depend heavily on each region's specific problems and needs as well as the members of the local coalition. Here are some specific building blocks that should be considered for an American dream alternative:

Solve Today's Problems

One of the common tactics of urban planners today is to ask members of the public to "envision" the future of their city--say twenty to fifty years in the future. Once a future is envisioned, the natural next step is to try to legislate it into existence through zoning codes, taxes, subsidies, and so forth.

The problem is that no one really knows what the future will be like or what future urban residents will want. One thing is certain: The forces that have promoted decentralization--electricity, telecommunications, mobility--are stronger than ever. So attempts by urban governments to recentralize their populace are doomed to fail.

Instead of attempting to dictate to the future, the American dream alternative should focus on solving today's problems. This means, for example, removing major traffic bottlenecks, spending public money as effectively as possible, and reforming transit to make it responsive to the needs of transit riders. Most of the ideas below fit into this framework.

Transportation-Density Balance

Urban planners today go to great lengths to produce a balance between jobs and residents. Their goal is to reduce commute lengths by allowing more people to live closer to work. However, planners make little or no attempt to insure a balance between proposed residential/employment densities and transportation facilities to serve those densities.

As a rule of thumb, the American dream alternative should require that job and residential densities be proportional to transportation facilities. In particular, no increases in densities should be allowed without commensurate increases in road capacities.

Proportional Spending

As a matter of policy, transportation spending should be proportionate to use. This policy should be applied to transportation modes, geography, and capital improvements.

Modal Proportionality

Spending on the various modes of transportation--autos, transit, and walking/cycling--should be proportionate to the use of each of those modes. In general, such a policy would increase spending on walking and cycling but decrease spending on transit. In many cities it would increase spending on roads.

If implemented, such a policy would change transit-agency objectives from maximize subsidies to maximize riders--which is as it ought to be. Agencies would implement low-cost policies aimed at ridership growth, not high-cost policies aimed at nebulous urban renewal goals. Of course, such a drastic change in policy may not seem politically realistic at first, but stating it as a goal puts transit agencies on notice that their performance measure will be ridership, not pork barrel.

Geographic Proportionality

Operations and maintenance funds should go where they are needed. If 40 percent of vehicle miles are being driven in one city and 20 percent in another in the same urban area, then the first city should get twice the funds as the second. This sounds logical, but represents a major change in policy in many areas. This is partly because some cities have more political muscle than others and partly because many planners call for spending money where it is not needed rather than where it is needed.

Capital Improvement Proportionality

Capital improvement funds should be spent proportional to the growth in traffic. If traffic is growing twice as fast in the suburbs than in the central city, then the suburbs should get twice the capital improvement funds. Again, this sounds reasonable but is not happening, particularly in areas that spend a large share of their capital dollars on transit.

Given the proportional spending rules, local communities can each make their own decisions about how to spend their money. The metropolitan planning organizations will exist mainly to coordinate federal funding, not to tell local communities how they can spend their money.

Relief of Bottlenecks

Congestion relief at bottlenecks should be a high priority for spending. On freeways, this may mean adding new lanes, improving on- and off-ramps, or altering the junctions between roads. On arterial streets, it may mean better traffic signalization or even changing from signals to roundabouts in places.

Value Pricing

Congestion or value pricing is still a controversial concept. But value pricing has multiple benefits: It reduces congestion, it makes the construction of new highways more acceptable to some interest groups, and it provides a new funding source for that construction. Of course, for the system to work, the toll revenues must be dedicated to highways, not to transit or some other purpose.

Value pricing is not just another way of penalizing drivers. Instead, it is a way of making sure that drivers pay their fair share for the road. It costs far more to provide a network that operates at peak capacity than one that operates at average capacity, so those who wish to drive during peak hours should pay more.

Especially in the West where highways have traditionally been toll free, people are more willing to accept congestion pricing if it is applied to new construction, not existing freeways. Suppose two new lanes are added to a congested, four-lane freeway. Congestion tolls can be charged on those two lanes, while the older lanes remain free. Buses and carpools of three or more people can also use the new lanes for no charge. Electronic tolling makes such pricing possible without delaying traffic at tollbooths.

Pollution Fees

Areas that have severe or extreme pollution problems should experiment with pollution fees. These fees can be based on the amount of pollution a car actually produces, so that drivers have an incentive to keep their cars clean and to buy cleaner cars if theirs is old.

Pollution can be monitored in a variety of ways, including remote sensing devices distributed around a city. Alternatively, pollution charges can be based on the average amount of pollution each brand of vehicle produces times the number of miles driven. This makes it more difficult to charge for poorly maintained cars.

Transit Reform

Several transit reforms could lead to better service. These include structural reforms of transit agencies and low-cost varieties of transit.

Low-cost varieties of transit include:

More information about all of these reforms can be found in chapters 21 and 37 of The Vanishing Automobile.

Neighborhood Accessibility

As a general principle, transportation planners should guarantee access to neighborhoods and mobility to neighborhood residents. This means that new streets should be wide enough to accommodate emergency vehicles when cars are parked on the street. It also means that traffic calming should be limited to devices that neighborhoods actually want and that are compatible with service by emergency vehicles. No traffic calming should be allowed on collectors or arterials.

Neighborhood Associations

Recent trends have pushed urban land-use planning from the city level to the regional level. Douglas Porter, of the Urban Land Institute, notes that there is a "gap between the daily mode of living desired by most Americans and the mode that most city planners . . . believe is most appropriate."[1] Regional planning, say its advocates, allows planners to impose the mode they believe is appropriate instead of letting people choose the lifestyle they want.

As Brookings Institution economist Anthony Downs points out, a regional government made of up local government officials "can take controversial stands without making its individual members commit themselves to those stands. Each member can claim that `the organization' did it or blame all the other members."[2] This gives planners the opportunity to override the democratic process.

Yet it is difficult to see why anyone but planners would think that overriding the democratic process is a good thing. Urban residents would be much better off, and urban neighborhoods more livable, if planning were pushed the other way: from cities to the neighborhood level. Individual neighborhood associations would plan their neighborhood's future, write zoning rules, and enforce those rules. This is, in essence, the planning process used in Houston[3] and many new suburbs that are protected to covenants instead of zoning codes.[4]

Robert Nelson, of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, has proposed a method for neighborhood associations that take over zoning responsibilities.[5] In essence, neighborhoods would start with existing zoning codes and be allowed to change those codes through a democratic process governed by the neighborhood association. The city's job would be to help neighborhoods enforce their codes.

Performance Zoning

An alternative to zoning by neighborhood associations is performance zoning. Performance zoning which is based on outcomes, not prescriptions.

Instead of dictating densities and land uses, a performance zoning code specifies that landowners cannot cause certain effects, such as noise, traffic, or pollution. So long as they can meet these goals, landowners can do whatever the want. Performance zoning was most successfully applied in Ft. Collins, Colorado.[6]

Open Space Protection

The most-publicized part of Vice President Al Gore's plan to curb urban sprawl was a proposal for a huge federal fund that cities could use to purchase open space and greenbelts. Open spaces and parks are certainly important for urban livability, but Gore's proposal was questionable for several reasons.

First, as planned by Gore, federal funding would come with many strings attached. Cities could get open-space funds only if they adopted auto-hostile policies and forced higher densities on their residents. Such policies would do more harm to urban livability than the open spaces federal funds might buy.

Second, no one has ever explained why greenbelts--open spaces outside of an urban-growth boundary--are superior to open spaces and parks mingled with residential areas inside the urban area. Consider two areas that have purchased such greenbelts.

Contra Costa County, just east of San Francisco Bay, has spent tens of millions of dollars purchasing huge regional parks and greenbelts. Most of these parks are in the highlands, which make poor wildlife habitat. The parks have a few trails used by a few hardy hikers. But generally they receive very little public use. It is likely that most county residents have never set foot in one.

Portland voters passed a "green spaces and parks" bond measure that authorized $135 million to purchase open spaces. To date, 90 percent of the funds have been used to buy greenbelt lands outside the urban area. The regional government that is buying the land has no plans to ever develop it for public use. Instead, most of it will be left as "wildlife habitat."

A case can be made that cities should place a greater emphasis creating parks for public use located near urban residents than protecting open spaces that are far from and inaccessible to most residents. One way to do this would be to give open-space funds to the neighborhood associations and let them decide how to spend them. Some might buy vacant land for parks. Others might improve existing parks. Still others might use funds to remove eyesores from the neighborhood.

Where should open-space funds come from if not the federal government? A variety of sources is possible. One would be a real estate transfer tax. Since real estate values are greatly enhanced by the presence of nearby open space, such a tax would come close to insuring that those who get the benefits of the open space are also those who pay the costs.

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