Signals across the urban archipelago

City DOT commissioners panel

A recurring theme that I keep hearing about in 2013 is that cities — linked together through national and global networks — must assert a leadership role in conceiving and implementing the policy changes necessary to adapt to the 21st century. Not only have these changes become too great to ignore, but the federal government that led America through the last great era of socioeconomic upheaval (the consolidation of the United States into the world’s industrial superpower) is mired in deep paralysis. Although states are meant to be the “laboratories of democracy,” they suffer from the same hyper-partisan paralysis and an institutional bias against metropolitan regions.

As a recent Economist editorial put it: “the rest of the country is starting to tackle some of its deeper competitive problems. Businesses and politicians are not waiting for the federal government to ride to their rescue… Pressed for cash, states are adopting sweeping reforms as they vie to attract investments and migrants… creative policymaking is being applied to the very problems Congress runs away from, like infrastructure spending.”

Taking a cue from a sharply partisan 2004-election postmortem by Dan Savage and the editors of The Stranger, we live in an era of The Urban Archipelago:

If Democrats and urban residents want to combat the rising tide of red that threatens to swamp and ruin this country, we need a new identity politics, an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that’s as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents… We’re going to demand that the Democrats focus on building their party in the cities while at the same time advancing a smart urban-growth agenda that builds the cities themselves.

This approach was plainly evident in the closing panel at NACTO’s Designing Cities conference, where as Angie Schmitt reports, “transportation chiefs from Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and New York all talked about the progress their cities have made and shared their frustration at the lack of attention to cities and transportation in the state and national political arenas.”

“Why aren’t state governments and Congress keeping up with cities? Chicago DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein proposed that it’s because city residents — especially younger residents and entrepreneurs — expect their mayors and city governments to move at a much, much faster pace. City governments have to be much more creative and nimble to respond to these demands or else risk losing the residents and businesses that power their economies.” Yet, that agility doesn’t extend to the federal level: as Randy Neufeld said, “the disconnect seems to be Congress being out of touch with the good stuff happening on the ground.”

At the conference’s opening keynote, USDOT secretary Ray LaHood bemoaned that he would have preferred to do even more to support local government innovation, but that Congress had always “taken care of our infrastructure needs — right up to this moment in history.” Indeed, he singled out “this particular Congress” as having a peculiarly awful track record at passing transportation legislation.

The bond analysts at S&P concur that devolution of authority from the federal government will continue, reports Ashley Halsey in the Post: “The burden to finance infrastructure projects will fall more heavily on local government entities or users in the form of higher rates or tolls.”

A natural follow-up to the NACTO meeting came at TRB a few months later, where Bruce Katz addressed a substantially similar crowd at the Transportation Issues in Major Cities committee meeting. In summing up his forthcoming book, he strenuously argued that federal government are paralyzed by dysfunction, states refuse to adapt to the new metropolitan reality (and indeed, many state legislatures are backsliding), and need to be bypassed if cities are to successfully adapt to new global realities. The good news is that cities are in fact stepping up — even though they usually haven’t been empowered to do so.

(This comes with a huge caveat: ultimately, even a paralyzed state is a sovereign unit — quite unlike a city, whose municipal charter [particularly in a Dillon's Rule state] may be tremendously limiting. And it is much more difficult to do a 50-state campaign, or even a 20-state campaign, than a single national campaign.)

How can citizens and local government officials respond? We can set up peer-to-peer innovation networks so that innovations can spread more quickly and easily between cities. States and national governments can no longer be counted on to scale up innovations, but we also no longer need them to do so.

We won’t be able to innovate our way out of every intractable problem — but with a fresh understanding of the problems, we may be able to find new resources to bring to bear. For example, Janette Sadik-Khan summed up her department’s super-effective work in three broad steps:
1. Leveraging existing assets: a holistic approach to street space manages to do more with less; “back to basics” means that feet come first; local & state governments already spend $2 in general funds on transportation for every $1 in road user fees and should expect greater accountability
2. Working nimbly: in times of austerity, we can’t afford not to work smarter, not harder (echoed by Rina Cutler from Philadelphia as “we cannot not fix” urban infrastructure, and by Gabe Klein, who contrasted the old capital-intensive approach with new ways that resemble “marketing, change management, public relations, and sales”)
3. Transforming the city: Mayor Bloomberg noted that the city has surpassed records for population & GRP, but has experienced the safest five-year period in its history and has successfully directed all new travel demand onto transit.

(About the title: a friend of mine grew up in Windward, the collection of damp suburbs east of Honolulu. There, TV and radio signals from Honolulu, just five miles away, are blocked by a mountain range, so instead residents watched TV from Maui, a hundred miles away across the flat ocean. Such is life in an archipelago: sometimes we have more in common with people far away than those just on the other side of the ridge. Our cities have more to learn from one another than from their hinterlands.)

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