Obama: The Days of “Building Sprawl Forever” Are Over

obama_fl.jpgObama in Ft. Myers

This is encouraging. On the stump in Fort Myers, Florida to campaign for the stimulus bill, President Obama took a detour from his well-worn "roads and bridges" infrastructure spiel to deliver some brief remarks on transit and land use. Obama’s answer came in response to a city council member who said she wanted funding for commuter rail in the recovery package. C-Span has the video (check the 55 minute mark) and Transportation for America has the transcript:

It’s imagining new transportation systems. I’d like to
see high speed rail where it can be constructed. I would like for us to
invest in mass transit because potentially that’s energy efficient. And
I think people are a lot more open now to thinking regionally…

The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are
over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, everybody… recognizes that’s
not a smart way to design communities. So we should be using this money
to help spur this sort of innovative thinking when it comes to

That will make a big difference.

Before you get too carried away, though, head over to Salon for a recap of Obama’s pitch yesterday in Elkhart, Indiana, which included this sop to highway enthusiasts:

He promised his plan would create or save 80,000 jobs in Indiana, and that infrastructure funding would improve "roads like US 31 here in Indiana that Hoosiers count on … and I know that a new overpass downtown would make a big difference for businesses and families right here in Elkhart."

The US 31 expansion is what you might call a sprawl project. Obama’s transportation platform may still amount to a Rorschach blot, but his comments in Fort Myers can’t be retracted. With the stimulus bill about to enter conference committee, having POTUS on the record opposing sprawl should bolster efforts to maximize transit funding and limit the use of highway funds to expand road capacity. Time to keep the pressure on.

  • JK

    I like high speed rail, but it’s not “mass transit.” HSR has limited stops and is a premium service which is a mainly an alternative to regional air travel: NYC to Boston or Washington or Philly, Paris to Lyon etc. It is not the kind of transit that the “masses” take to get to work. Nor does HSR inherently encourage compact land use as do a subway or trolleys. You can build stations in the middle of nowhere which serve completely car dependent, exurban communities. It’s called “train sprawl” and we’ve got it in Putnam County New York among other places. It’s pretty clear that the overwhelming majority of transpo policy enthusiasts in the Streetsblog Network are highly enamored of HSR. These seem folks also tend to be affluent and highly educated. However, that is not who the vast bulk of American transit users are. So, in the enthusiasm for HSR, let’s not forget the working class woman standing on the corner in the cold waiting for the bus.

  • It’s worth noting that there are three US 31 upgrade segments, not just the one in Hamilton County.

    Also, the main Hamilton County, Indiana community that road passes through is Carmel, which is the leading city in Indiana pushing for new urbanist solutions, pedestrian and bicycle connectivity, and densification of the surburbs. The mayor of that city is also a huge transit supporter. Clearly much of the town is already developed low density suburban style, but they are working to retrofit the core of the town into a more dense, gridlike area.

  • I was able to cut the audio of the question and answer of the Ft. Myers meeting today. You can play or get code to embed at, http://www.4shared.com/account/file/87048253/907658f0/Obama_Transit.html

  • Obama also said that he thought Jane Jacobs wrote the best book on cities, but nothing in the policies of his administration demonstrate that he has any understanding of what kind of planning process results in sprawl. If he does, he has no intention of doing anything about it, whatever his opinion of it may be.

    It’s all local. I’ll believe it when I see the policies.

  • Excellent point, JK. Let’s start by fixing bus stops (creating pedestrian-friendly bus stops rather than mud pools with bent metal posts), adding BRT lines (so buses are actually worth using), adding GPS systems and timers at stops (when you know when the next bus is coming, you are about 100% more likely to use it). Much more significant than HSR.

    If HSR is built, stations need to be built in city cores that have existing infrastructure, or at least areas ripe for TOD — not in places like Route 128-Boston.

  • Omri

    “Obama also said that he thought Jane Jacobs wrote the best book on cities, but nothing in the policies of his administration demonstrate that he has any understanding of what kind of planning process results in sprawl. If he does, he has no intention of doing anything about it, whatever his opinion of it may be.”

    The POTUS is removed from those policies by many, many degrees of separation. He has to actively push his way into the recesses of the bureaucracy to make the lifers setting these policies follow his agenta.

    Obama might do this, but if not, it’s more likely because he has a very full schedule.

  • JK, you’re not alone. I believe HSR is a luxury we can’t afford until the basics are built first. My personal pet peeve is “light rail” getting all the attention while urban systems continue to deteriorate. As usual, the money flows where the political influence lies, not where it is most needed.

  • JK, I’m a student and part-time professional waiting for the bus on the corner in the cold. Transit users aren’t always lower/working class people. In transit rich areas (the historical transit stalwarts like Boston, Chicago, NYC, Philly, LA), people from every imaginable grouping take the bus and ride the rails.

  • Call me a cynic I think he was telling the woman who asked the question what she wanted to hear. I’m with Mathieu, I’ll believe it when I see the policies.

  • Chris

    I am with people that say HSR isnt the end all be all. But lets face it. Having it would be better than not.

    Yes transit is the number 1 issue. Having a train station that then requires use of a car will not attract the same amount of passengers. You must have light rail (Street cars/trolleys) connect to it.

    Yes the current transit bus stops should be improved as should the transit buses. BUT. BRT is BS. its not worth the effort. The only way to make it work is build its own right of way. If you’re going to do that, you should make it rail. Rail can carry more passengers than buses. BRT is a political cop out. Its a wrong solution and nothing but a bandaid and not real planning.

  • There has been a long battle in Indiana to stop the I-69 NAFTA highway through farmland, and Obama should have weighed in on that.

  • Wad

    Rhywun, if we only focus on the basics, we will be stuck in a vicious cycle of keeping the basics going. We will never get around to whatever is dismissed as a luxury.

    It’s like running a treadmill. You exert the same energy that you would running a few miles, but you end up in the same place you started.

    Do you really think high-speed rail is a luxury? For the capital involved, it may be. But I guarantee you that neither you nor anyone else would think of Greyhound as a luxury.

    Yet high-speed rail is essentially a Greyhound bus with rocket boosters.

    That is not meant as a slur against high-speed rail. It is meant to refocus our attention from thinking that high-speed rail must replace planes.

    The U.S. is too big to allow for a nonstop train ride from L.A. to New York City. The train would never be as fast. However, where is the train’s competitive advantage?

    It is in travel distances of 500 miles or less. Even end-to-end travel train travel would be competitive with flights. However, there is something high-speed rail can do what planes cannot: stop in the middle.

    The end-to-end time for an L.A.-to-San Francisco train ride might be three or four hours. A plane is about one hour. However, that is a non-stop flight while the train stops in Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Modesto and San Jose beforehand. Imagine how unpleasant flying would be if the planes had to make those same stops. The flight might have the same time as the train ride. Yet the train can make these stops, dwell in the cities for a shorter time, and thereby move far more people than the plane can.

    The airlines would still have the market of 500+ mile flights and still remain competitive.

    If you want a good reason why to build high-speed rail, read Jane Jacobs’ “Cities and the Wealth of Nations.” It illustrates how cities and city regions are key to economic health. By making a few productive 500-mile city regions, as countries with high-speed rail have done, this would practically solve most of our economic problems.

  • Actually, I’ve always meant to read that but economics usually scares me off.

    Anyway, I agree that HSR is sensible in certain regions like the northeast, some of the Midwest, Florida, and California.

    But I am trying to be a realist here, and I just don’t see Americans approving the vast amounts of money required to build all this AND fixing the basics too. Something’s gotta come first, and for me, that’s the basics.

  • Lee

    I’m ambivalent about High Speed Rail. Unfortunately this country lacks the commitment to intercity rail travel to accept the massive amounts of land that would need to be taken for new routes, and the massive amount of public investment and long-term subsidy that would be required to make it viable. I do think that Amtrak can become a viable alternative if it received federal support at the same level per-passenger that the airlines get. If they can prove that this can become more workable, people might be more open to the investment needed for HSR.

    I do think there is a lot of room for improvement in local transit, though. Sooner or later we’re going to realize that we can’t keep adding lanes to our beltways and urban interstates, and the best thing to do would be to remove a lane or two and replace it with high volume, dependable light rail. This in and of itself does not prevent sprawl. Remember, it was the trolley lines to the outer reaches of cities that created the suburbs in the first place.

    The goal should be to create the ability to move about a city in any direction at any time of day without having to get in a car.


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