Monday, June 7, 2010

Livability - Draft DOT Strategic Plan part 2

Department of Transportation Draft Strategic Plan

Recalling Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s blog entry from several months ago describing a weekend getaway to friends in Hoboken N.J., the Secretary spoke of a night out in the city, being happy to walk, take the train, and leave the car at home for the whole weekend. His department likewise wants to assist communities in affording multi-modal and healthy, environmentally friendly transportation choices to Americans wherever possible.

In an earlier section of the draft plan, DOT sets forth an economic competitiveness goal: "Promote transportation policies and investments that bring lasting and equitable economic benefits to the Nation and its citizens." What does this mean for transit and other publicly available transportation? The plan calls for investment in full range of modes, including transit, an intermodal approach, new ways to finance the transportation system, and reducing congestion through transit, ridesharing, and flextime. However, there are no performance measures in the economic competitiveness section that set transit ridership or alternative transportation goals, except indirectly through reduction of congestion.

Livable communities gets its own section of the draft plan. DOT calls for "place-based policies and investments that increase transportation choices and access to transportation services." DOT expressly wants improved public transit, human services transportation (mentioning the special needs populations and people with disabilities), and better bike/pedestrian networks. The plan envisions transportation coordination with land use and economic development.

The plan directly links the auto-dependent lifestyle to national insecurity and ill health.

The United States’ heavy reliance on car-dependent, dispersed development is not without costs. This kind of development is energy-intensive and contributes to a dependence on fossil fuels and a tendency toward high carbon-emissions; it has been correlated with increasing rates of obesity in the U.S. and higher transportation costs for American families.

A study is cited showing that people who live in compact, walkable communities are more fit and healthy than those who reside in counties with more sprawl. The connection between health and the transportation network is explicitly made and discussed in detail. The plan practically comes out and says that the 40 percent of trips that are two miles or less in length should be able to be made by walking or bicycle, but that our current street network does not allow this - despite studies showing that young adults and baby boomers want to live in walkable neighborhoods and towns.

In case you think DOT is talking about New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle, or a few others, the plan specifically includes rural areas and their desperate need for alternatives to the car.

Creating livable communities is just as important to residents of rural areas as it is to residents of urban and suburban areas. Rural town centers have experienced disinvestment in much the same way as urban core areas and many rural towns are fighting to attract local commercial development through the revitalization of town centers. Rural residents generally must travel greater distances to jobs and services than their urban counterparts and can suffer from greater isolation, especially if they cannot drive.

The DOT-HUD-EPA partnership is already identifying barriers to coordinating transportation, housing, and environmental policies and investments. The three agencies are coordinating and bringing resources together for each others' programs, such as EPA's Smart Growth Technical Assistance Program, HUD’s Sustainable Communities Planning Grants, designed to fund regional, coordinated planning, and "evaluation of DOT’s TIGER Discretionary Grant applications, for which livability and sustainability are two key criteria."

In terms of the economy, DOT maintains that livable community development will do two things: Save on infrastructure investment costs, and help communities be economically resilient through decreased dependence on foreign oil price fluctuations. DOT sees livability as a way to reduce household transportation costs through the availability of alternative mobility choices, such as transit, biking and walking.

And what is DOT envisioning to help states, regions and communities become more livable? Providing technical assistance, advocating for "robust State and local planning efforts," spending transportation dollars where they will capitalize on public and private infrastructure investment, and developing livability performance measures.

Specific strategies that DOT plans to use are increasing access to transit and inter-city services, developing pedestrian and bike-friendly street networks, "where practical" providing better rural transit for access to jobs, services and transportation centers that are currently only automobile accessible, and encouraging mixed-income development, for which DOT has already funded a technical assistance MITOD guide through Reconnecting America.

DOT's plan seems almost ashamed that although walking and biking account for account for "almost 12 percent of trips and about 13 percent of roadway fatalities, these modes receive less than 2 percent of annual Federal Aid Highway funds." The agency is calling for assessments, planning and encouraging the public to use these modes.

Remember that DOT comment invites the public to comment on its proposals. Read the draft plan sections that interest you and respond to DOT.

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