In 2009, America’s five least dense states were awarded $1,100 per capita in federal recovery grants while the five densest states, including Massachusetts, got $561 per capita. President Obama can change the tilt toward low density. The most urban president since Teddy Roosevelt, Obama needs to fight for cities, not just as a matter of justice, but because cities, and the creativity that comes when humans connect and learn from each other in dense areas, are the best hope for the country.
While Glaeser's Roosevelt assessment is mildly dubious, his summation of funding distribution has been accurate and reflects a lack of organization and coordinated voice on behalf of urban constituents. While it was once easy to overlook the stereotyped urban minorities in the age of cheap oil, in the next fifty years increasingly interrelated energy and economic constraints will increase the profile of urban areas and tilt this balance back towards urban issues. A country strapped for resources simply cannot continue dissipating funding over vast swaths of land for negligible economic gain; whether by hook or by crook, funding will be concentrated in defined areas to maximize investment.
While the 2009 statistics reflect conventional subsidization, there is an emerging shift in pattern that indicates that federal departments understand the allocation dilemma. The recent announcement of the 2010 recipients of the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Grants reveal the changing landscape of government subsidy. Of the top 20 largest grants (ranging from $105 million to $25 million):
FIVE went to Passenger rail and light rail stations and infrastructure
FIVE went to streetcar/express and bus rapid transit projects
FOUR went to complete streets/streetscape Improvements
THREE went to freight rail infrastructure improvements
THREE went to highway redesign/construction
TIGER Appropriation. Image by Rob Vargas/Fast Company.
The city of Saint Louis was passed over for five submitted projects.
The Delmar Loop streetcar (previously discussed here) lacked the distance, development impact, and matching funding promised by the Tucson Streetcar.
The applications for unnamed Chouteau Lake improvements and the rebuilt 22nd street 64/40 interchange were long-shot submittals to bolster long-term speculative projects that could not meet the "livability" paradigm.
Another proposal was for the addition of truck-only lanes on Interstate 70 . Wisely, federal TIGER stimulus was not used on a twentieth century project designed to support the unsustainable "rolling warehouse" supply model.
The final application for TIGER funds was for a dense mixed-use Transit Oriented Development at the Forest Park/DeBaliviere Metrolink station. In this case, the TIGER funding was to extend the development through the acquisition of an adjacent strip mall. While it is impossible to pontificate on what the grant reviewers were thinking, the relatively small scale of this project in comparison to other submissions probably contributed to its unfavorable review.
What can we learn from our failure?
1. Planning cannot be done in a vacuum and projects must be coordinated.
The projects that are now being subsidized are large scale and increase their impact by coordinating development focus across multiple areas.
2. Traditional projects no longer cut it.
To be successful all projects must promote alternatives to the automobile paradigm. One of the criteria of evaluation was “enhancing community livability” and the results seem to have balanced the priority for public transportation to enable automotive dependance and the physical infrastructure that creates complete and walkable streets.
3. Pay attention to your residents
Over 25% of Saint Louis residents do not even own a car, let alone use a car frequently, yet 60% of our most innovative public projects require automobile usage for access and benefit. Is this a responsible vision or the result of responsible oversight and governance?
We must start developing for the approximately 8,900 residents who have no car at all, for thousands more who struggle to afford one, and for those of us who prioritize neighborhoods where you don't need a car to live. Weaning our urban areas from automotive dependance will secure our civic futures. Not only will we be healthier, but a recent report notes that we will be wealthier as well. In the report, Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Housing Values in U.S. Cities, Joseph Cortright describes a direct correlation between walkability and value:
In the typical metropolitan area, a one-point increase in Walk Score was associated with an increase in value ranging from $700 to $3,000 depending on the market. The gains were larger in denser, urban areas like Chicago and San Francisco and smaller in less dense markets like Tucson and Fresno.
"These findings are significant for policy makers,” said Carol Coletta, President and CEO of CEOs for Cities, which commissioned the research. “They tell us that if urban leaders are intentional about developing and redeveloping their cities to make them more walkable, it will not only enhance the local tax base but will also contribute to individual wealth by increasing the value of what is, for most people, their biggest asset."
A new round of TIGER Grant is on the horizon. Will we forge intergovernmental partnerships to create coordinated projects that increase walkable streets, enable Transit Oriented Development, and expand a resilient multi-modal infrastructure to support commerce and industry?
The stakes are high and every round we lose puts our metropolitan competition further ahead of us.
A View of the Future? Image by Andrew J. Faulkner.
Of course, any amount of Transit Oriented Development will be meaningless if we allow our public transportation system to be crippled. If you or your family and friends are a registered voter in Saint Louis County Support Proposition A in April.