Breaking Silos: Momentum Builds in Washington for Livable Communities, Sustainable Networks

House testimony by CNU's John Norquist follows promising announcement by DOT-HUD Secretaries

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In its approach to the built environment, the federal government has long operated independent silos. They include low-income housing, transit, and the biggest silo of all -- superhighways. This policy isolationism has helped weaken the connections between housing, jobs and community destinations in regions across the country. It's left the middle class and working poor facing high travel costs getting to and from work, school, and the range of places serving their daily needs.

But serious interest in a smarter coordinated approach to housing, transportation and economic policy is surging within both the Obama Administration and Congress. This new reform spirit was on display this week at a two-day hearing on advancing livable communities and greening federal transportation and housing policy held by a House subcommittee with an appropriately interdisciplinary name: the Appropriations Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Urban Development chaired by Rep. John Olver (D-MA).

Norquist Testifies in Congress
CNU's John Norquist appeared before the committee this morning, bringing a message about how federal investments in integrated networks of walkable streets and public transportation will strengthen communities, bolster regional economies and dramatically reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. “For thousands of years, urban thoroughfares were used for commerce, movement, and social interaction,“ says Norquist. “Only in the 20th century did engineers start to think that traffic should be segregated from other activities. Increasingly though, Americans are turning away from the isolation of automobile-dependent areas and choosing to live in neighborhoods with traditional walkable street networks. Federal policies should reflect the choices people are making. The time for grade-separated highways as the centerpiece of federal transportation policy has come and gone.“

Two key Obama Administration officials sounded similar themes in a remarkable joint appearance before the same subcommittee yesterday: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Secretary Shaun Donovan of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The two cabinet officials used the joint appearance to announce a Sustainable Communities partnership “to help American families gain better access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs.“ Although CNU and other reform organizations are eager to work with both agencies to put meat on the bones of these aspirations, the plans coming from both departments are highly promising. The NRDC's Kaid Benfield provides highlights of what's planned under this partnership in a posting at CNU's group blog:

  • Enhance integrated regional housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment. “The task force will set a goal to have every major metropolitan area in the country conduct integrated housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment in the next four years.”
  • Develop federal housing affordability measures that include transportation costs and other costs that affect location choices.
  • Ensure that the costs of living in certain geographic areas are transparent - using an online tool that calculates the combined housing and transportation costs families face when choosing a new home.
  • Research, evaluate and recommend measures that indicate the livability of communities, neighborhoods and metropolitan areas.

“One of my highest priorities is to help promote more livable communities through sustainable surface transportation programs,” concluded Secretary LaHood yesterday.

CNU's House appearance builds on legislative progress
Norquist's appearance at the hearing reflects progress CNU has been making in promoting federal transportation investments that make communities more livable, economically vital and sustainable. At CNU's urging, for example, co-sponsors of the bi-partisan legislation known as CLEAN TEA recently added language to that bill promoting investments in new infrastructure that enhances network connectivity and performance. CLEAN TEA is meant to plug into future federal climate bill. If passed, it would require regions and states to plan to reduce the carbon impact of transportation investments and direct 10 percent of cap-and-trade proceeds to transportation investments such as public transportation, bicycle infrastructure and now increased street network connectivity. At the hearing, Norquist urged lawmakers to use the CLEAN TEA approach as a guide to improving the six-year reauthorization of federal transportation spending (T4) later this year. He also thanked CLEAN TEA co-sponsors: Senators Thomas Carper (D-DE) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Representatives Steven LaTourrette (R-OH) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

Existing climate plans in California and King County, Washington have resulted in greatly improved coordination of development and transportation design. Research by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (link) and the Urban Land Institute (link) shows that residents of highly networked street systems drive significantly less than residents of less well networked areas. Transit-served walkable neighborhoods spare families the extreme transportation costs common in driving-only exurbs. And with 1/3 of greenhouse gas emissions coming directly from the transportation sector, improvements to networks, and improved use of networks in new developments, will go a long way to helping the nation meet climate change goals.

The benefits of sustainable transportation networks
CNU's 2008 Transportation Summit highlighted a number of other ways that networks serve communities. CNU board member Norman Garrick's research (with Wes Marshall) on street networks in California shows that cities with more tightly woven streets have a much lower incidence of traffic accidents. Danny Pleasant of the Charlotte Dept. of Transportation showed how well-connected street networks facilitate faster emergency response times, allowing the city to provide safe and efficient fire & emergency protection to three times as many households per station in its most walkable neighborhoods compared to its most sprawling neighborhoods.

LEED-ND, a rating system for green neighborhoods developed by CNU, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Green Building Council, recognizes networks and location efficiency as key elements of sustainable community design. At a minimum, neighborhoods must provide 150 intersections per square mile to receive LEED-ND certification.

The Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares manual produced by the Institute of Transportation Engineers in partnership with CNU offers guidance to planners and engineers in retiring single-use highways and arterials and reviving urban boulevards and avenues that serve a range of users and create a graceful setting for public life and commerce. Norquist testified that applying these context-sensitive solutions on the network scale will teach us to expect more from federal transportation investments. It will improve traffic flow, enhance access for bicyclists and pedestrians, and make transit more viable. And it will improve the relationship between streets, housing and neighborhood amenities, and the environment. For people, that means convenience, cost savings and more inviting public spaces.

Norquist said CNU, ITE, and the broad T4 America coalition look forward to being partners as the federal government redesigns transportation for the needs of the 21st century. Read the full transcript of John Norquist's remarks before Congress and view the slides he showed members of the subcommittee.

Highly connected networks of walkable streets formed the backbone of a previous generation of communities, such as Carson City, Nevada, shown here in the early 1960s, before transportation design grew more automobile-dependent and less sustainable. Similar networks are making a strong comeback based on their convenience, livability and value in growing a green economy.

Top image: John Norquist speaking on sustainable transportation networks last week to Mayor Daley's City of Chicago cabinet.

— CNU's Steve Filmanowicz and Moss Bittner contributed to this report. Contact or 312-551-7300 for more information.