“Livability” versus Mobility: TIGER II

Since the early 1990s when advocates of so-called Smart Growth took control of federal transportation infrastructure policy, we have increasingly heard transportation projects described as “livability” enhancements. Livability sounds great: I mean, who doesn’t want their community to be more livable? The problem is that for Smart Growth advocates, “livability” is not about improving the lives of residents and offering them more opportunities — it is about restricting the movement of individuals.

Livability projects are generally those that make auto travel more difficult: converting highways to boulevards, closing city streets to cars, opening one-way urban streets to bidirectional traffic, narrowing roads, zoning out parking, and installing speed humps, to name just a few. Congestion is by far the most serious issue facing our transportation system. Livability measures not only fail to address congestion, they make it worse. And more congestion means more time stuck in traffic, which means people are able to do fewer of the things that they would like to do.

Smart Growthers claim they just want to level the playing field for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. The problem with their bumbling central planning, though, is that Americans, well, prefer to drive. In essence, they are attacking a problem that is greatly overstated (a lack of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and access) and making the far more serious problem (congestion) significantly worse.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is scheduled to unveil the list of TIGER II grant recipients. Thanks to our ethically challenged Congress — always eager to show that they’re bringing home the bacon to their local interest groups — leaked program details began appearing in the press late last week.

Much of the $600 million TIGER II funds will go to bread-and-butter infrastructure projects such as bridge repair in rural counties. Wasteful as many of these projects are, they’re hardly social engineering mechanisms. Unfortunately, a fair amount of TIGER II grants will invariably be doled out to livability projects that harm mobility. So far, we know that New Haven, Connecticut, has secured $16 million to convert an urban portion of a limited-access highway to a boulevard; Peoria, Illinois, is receiving $10 million to narrow a street in its Warehouse District; and Atlanta is getting $47 million for its proposed streetcar system.

As the Census Bureau’s recently released 2009 American Community Survey reveals (see “Commuting to Work” summary), transit’s share as a mode of commuter transportation fell during our current recession (excluding a handful of large, dense cities on the coasts). Cycling and walking both saw increases to their meager shares, but congestion is not decreasing. As Americans everywhere are forced to make due with less, perhaps the Obama administration should consider spending tax dollars on transportation programs that actually benefit the vast majority of Americans.