Monday, November 17, 2008

Making the Connection

On November 15th, the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management hosted “Making the Connection: Transit Oriented Development – A Blueprint for Success.” The conference brought together Douglas Foy, Robert Cervero and officials from NJTransit (among others) and essentially produced a conference that was the equivalent of a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) obsessive policy wonk’s dream team.

For those of you who aren’t quite there and are wondering what TOD is: Transit Oriented Development is a planning paradigm that suggests that development should exploit the intrinsic link between transportation modes and neighborhood shape and density to create walkable communities around transit hubs.
Douglas Foy is one of the rare public officials who gets it on both the macro, and the micro level. When he was Massachusetts’ “development czar” under Governor Mitt Romney, the Commonwealth produced some of the most far-sighted, intelligent smart growth policies that I have seen. Under a variety of acts (Acts S and R 40, to name a few) the Commonwealth chose to provide those municipalities that adopted “smart growth” (i.e. controlled suburban growth) zoning codes, would be eligible for a whole slew of money to help them invest in their traditional town cores.

What made these acts so well crafted is not only that they pegged the release of some funds to the project’s adoption, but they gave counties $2,000 for every housing unit whose permits for construction were released (i.e., they gave incentives for the townships to get things moving fast. However, what really shows a deft touch here, was the fact that the commonwealth promised to cover the gap created by the added burden of a new child on the existing school budget. This way towns would not complain that new development would bring in additional children — gradually eating away at the dollars-per-child ratio and it takes a smart administrator to speak not in terms of his or her own goals, but in that of the people arguing for or against a given project..
Before I call attention to a few of the smarter things Douglas Foy said (that I think students of the transportation-land-use link should pay special attention to) I have to include two jokes of his, one a little more germane to the planning profession than the other (I will let you figure out which is which):

“In a European Heaven, the British would be the Police, the German's the Engineers, the French would be the Chef's, the Swiss the Administrators, and the Italians would be the lovers. In a European Hell the British are the Chefs, the Germans are the Police, the French are the Engineers, the Swiss are the lovers and the Italians are the Administrators...”
"Power corrupts, Powerpoint corrupts absolutely..."

However the real meat of Foy’s talk centered around a few principles and key insights. Foy gives a lot of attention to the role and function of the State Governments. This should not come as a surprise considering where he comes from, and why he was asked to speak. However, that should not discount what he has to say. If anything he hits the nail on the head. While federal mandates shape funding policy in many ways, the real implementation of transportation, housing programs, and the real shapers of our regional environment are the state agencies.
Doug Foy noted that those states that were the most effective at managing smart growth, were those that brought the providers of housing, layers of road and sewers and services together around one table. He recollected how he had to fight with the agencies that controlled waters and sewers in Massachusetts to allow the growth of capacity in old towns (they regularly required in their funding guidelines that new sewers and water lines be built away from urbanized areas). It is this marriage of policy, service delivery, and capital programming (i.e. the $$$s) of different agencies around one table, that promotes smart growth.

However, he stressed something that transportation advocates often forget. It’s not, in fact about the transit. It is about the pedestrian. Foy’s rule is that everybody should be within a short walk to buy a quart of milk. Richard Roberts (NJ Transit Chief Planner) pointed out later, in his derision of the planners’ sacred half mile circle, how quickly we tend to adopt to quick “rules” of thumbs that hide the thing we are really looking for.
Later on Robert Cervero made a very interesting point: Cervero, a rather famous land use and transportation planning researcher (yes, planners have crushes… one can have civic crushes, and planning crushes, and administrative ones as well) noted that his dream of TOD is a world with multiple chains of transit development (often compared to emerald necklaces, like Olmstead’s park systems) that enable a new form of heightened para-transit, jitneys to feather people between spokes of the system, etc. Again, it is not about the actual system itself, but about, ultimately, the mobility and accessibility of the people living in the neighborhoods and region.

This is important because by not planning for people, we will have a harder time communicating with the public. Steve Goldin a New Jersey Developer (CEO of InterCap Holdings) made salient reminders to planners of developers’ needs, and the importance of solid infrastructure developments that in essence provide surety to developers to take a risk there. However he stressed that the main barriers are those of people who fear changes in their property values or increase in local taxes.
By trying to talk about and communicate the merits of walkability and other jargon-filled idealistic dreams, we forget to engage in a meaningful conversation with, or address the needs of, our neighbors and our citizens. We should trust that if we don’t treat our neighbors like idiots we may even begin to emerge with more interesting ideas. 70% of all ballot initiatives related to transportation passed this election cycle, according to Foy.

Foy insisted, towards the end of his lecture, that the key to TOD reform was investment in a very specific technology: Mesh Networking. According to Foy, Mesh Networking enables broadband-like communication synchronization between devices that could revolutionize how we stay wired, allowing us to piggyback access to the internet off of other devices, not by invading their operating systems (I am not sure how it works, but that’s not the point). The point is, such Mesh Networking would enable us to provide cheap, on-time information to phones/PDMs etc. even across rural areas. Foy was essentially saying that in order to gain the support of rural areas, you need to show them that they too can benefit from investments and technologies that benefit transit; they too have vested interests.
What’s funny is that all this is less about planning, and more about negotiation. We need to figure out how to negotiate our way forward, addressing the core values of different constituencies, and finding avenues for investing for mutual benefit.

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