Written By Ada Inman, Maria Manansala, Alexis Econie, and Walker Kahn
Roadmap Consultant – Chris McCahill, State Smart Transportation Initiative
The Problems & Progressive Local Solutions
With aging transportation infrastructure across the country, local governments are faced with challenges around decreasing rideshare on public transportation, increasing congestion, safety issues for pedestrians and bikers, and the need to address carbon emissions. Now more than ever, local governments need robust, progressive transportation policies. With careful and intentional planning, local governments can create thriving transportation infrastructure that increases access to safe, high-quality mobility options, reduces air pollution, and advances equity. To realize these goals, local governments must address the following issues:
- Access – How is transportation providing access to jobs and services for everyone?
- Safety – How can transportation be made safer, especially for bikers and pedestrians?
- Environment – How can the transportation system be reconfigured to reduce environmental impacts from travel?
Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms
State departments of transportation control most of the highways and major roads (and even local roads in some places), while cities and towns are usually responsible for local roads and land use regulations. State and local governments can influence transportation policy by changing how they spend their money and redesigning transportation infrastructure to improve access to jobs and services, increase safety, and reduce negative environmental impacts from travel. Local governments can change their building and zoning codes to encourage equitable smart growth. Similarly, while all levels of government can invest in electrical infrastructure, local governments have the ability to mandate green transportation infrastructure through tools like updated parking requirements for new developments.
Current efforts to increase safety and access have often fallen short, and transportation design has routinely ignored the safety of bikers and pedestrians, younger and elderly people, and people with disabilities. Progressive policy around transportation should emphasize safety and access for all. Distributing transportation investments fairly across communities and adopting comprehensive transportation policies, (i.e., Complete Streets, Seattle Bicycle Master Plan) at the local, regional, and state level will result in streets that are engineered around populations with lower mobility and income, leading to safer and more equitable mobility for entire communities. Furthermore, communities can also commit to “Vision Zero”, a collaborative campaign between policymakers, public health professionals, and local traffic planners and engineers that seeks to eliminate traffic injuries and fatalities.
Progressive transportation policy should also emphasize climate-consciousness. Gas-fueled vehicles are significant contributors to climate change. Electrification within the transportation sector, such as the shift to electric cars and buses, would reduce fossil fuel dependency, and thus limit greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, rather than approaches to mitigation that involve accommodating traffic through increasing roadway capacity or parking requirements, cities can adopt transportation demand management (TDM) programs that reduce traffic by subsidizing bikeshare or carshare services and improving walking, biking, and transit infrastructure. Through the practice of modern mitigation, individuals will be able to make less/shorter travels, ultimately reducing their carbon footprint.
Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them
Policy tools focusing on access, safety, and environmental impacts of the transportation sector are central in promoting an equitable and sustainable future for our cities. The best tools are those that prioritize investments in walking, biking and transit; improve the design of streets to accommodate all users safely and comfortably; and encourage compact land uses that help concentrate affordable housing and opportunities close together or near transit.
As access to transportation services varies widely based on race, class, and socioeconomic status, improving access has become a forefront policy issue among many transportation organizations throughout the U.S. A publication by SSTI as well as one done by the Center for Transportation Studies outlines these metrics across the U.S., looking at how accessibility varies across cities. Building from these findings, various organizations have created complex reports pertaining to increasing transportation accessibility at a local level. One such report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, entitled “Equity and Smart Mobility”, explores smart mobility services within various U.S. cities, taking into account equal access to quality transit services. A similar report came from the Greenlining Institute, which explored a mobility equity framework aimed at supporting communities of color.
In addition to access, environmental implications of the transportation sector have also been a forefront issue that policy makers are intent on addressing. Greening the transportation sector and driving down emissions is a primary goal of many policy organizations. Smart Growth America recently published two documents pertaining to such practices, entitled “Driving Down Emissions” and “A Green New Deal for City and Suburban Transportation.” An example of greening the transportation sector in practice can be observed through Manhattan’s implementation of “congestion pricing”. Through congestion pricing, vehicles entering Manhattan on or below 60th Street will need to pay a charge, which ultimately reduces traffic volumes by making it more expensive to drive and limits the emissions cars will release in the area.
Demand mitigation approaches use zoning and building codes as powerful tools to create better transportation systems. In this approach, local governments focus on reducing miles traveled by single occupancy vehicles (SOV) by managing land use. Traditionally, new developments are required to accommodate and encourage SOV by requiring developers to include large parking facilities and pay fees to expand road capacity and maintenance. This type of transportation policy creates infrastructure that (1) encourages ever more SOV traffic; and (2) is underutilized except for a few peak periods every day. Using a demand mitigation approach, local governments use zoning and building codes to incentivize developers to apply demand-reduction measures and build in a way that reduces sprawl and SOV miles traveled. For example, city zoning and building requirements might mandate that a certain percentage of onsite parking be replaced by public transportation terminals and bicycle facilities. A report published by SSTI and entitled “Modernizing Mitigation”, offers an in-depth examination of how land use can help produce more equitable and more efficient transportation systems. Implementation of these policy recommendations at a local level can be seen through the “Tune in and Tune up” event in Central Valley, CA which offered low-income families free smog tests and repairs in order to incentive cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Safety, especially during the times of Covid-19, has become a primary issue in transportation policy. The Center for Transportation Studies published a recent report entitled “Personal Safety and Transit” outlining the design of transit environments to ensure the safety of transit users in the Twin Cities area. Moreover, Covid-19 has brought about new challenges in transportation as health needs require additional safety measures, namely social distancing. SSTI recently published a report on how cities have been creating more space on their streets for safe, distanced transportation through local level policy.
Taking it to the Next Level
Coupling Transportation and Housing Policy: To maximize the benefits of transportation infrastructure, transportation policy must be co-created with housing policy to ensure access to education, recreational opportunities, access to high-quality food, and sources of employment. Low-income households spend on average 30 percent of their income on transportation, and transportation costs drive eviction; but, low-income communities with access to reliable, safe lower-cost transportation options (such as public transportation) experience lower eviction rates.
Cargo-Oriented Development: Cargo Oriented Development (COD) refers to the development of communities that are nodes of both freight transportation and centers of employment in logistics and manufacturing businesses. When high quality transit services are nearby, employers have access to a broaer workforce and the site has potential for supportive retail, office, and housing, allowing the collision of COD and transit-oriented development (TOD). The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s 2013 report documents case studies of civic and economic development organizations and local governments collaborating with private freight companies to realize the potential of COD for sustainable development. Case studies reveal that COD collaborations improve both the economies and quality of life at the community and regional level.
Live-where-you-work policies: Like cargo-oriented development, live-near-your-work policies encourage shorter commutes and lower housing and transportation costs, reaping benefits for employees, employers, communities, and stakeholders. A 2012 report by Policy Matters Ohio documents the adoption of live-near-your-work policies by cities, states, universities, and hospitals. These programs provide direct financial assistance to eligible employees, promoting shorter commute times and lower housing costs, and improved employee morale and productivity with lower levels of turnover. On the community-level, live-where-you-work policies can promote better air quality, decrease traffic congestion, and lead to less urban sprawl.
Allies, Comrades, and Helpers
The resources linked in the text above are just an overview of the hundreds of documents and reports focusing on progressive transportation policy in the ProGov21 library. You can find more resources from the following organizations on Progov21 to help build out local transportation policies:
- Center for Neighborhood Technologies has resources for progressive local government in the arenas of transportation, land use, equity, and economic development.
- Center for Transportation Studies is a catalyst for transportation research, education, and community engagement.
- Smart Growth America, which includes SSTI and the National Complete Streets Coalition, has resources to help local governments develop Complete Streets policies.
- The Mayors Innovation Project has resources around how to reduce carbon emissions through transportation policies, parking, and bike infrastructure.
- Strong Towns: is an international North American movement centered around improving communities using bottom-up methods. Strong Towns empowers community members to influence policy around transportation and commercial infrastructure.
- The Greenlining Institute: is a policy, research, organizing, and leadership institute working for racial and economic justice. Taking greenlining as a solution to redlining, the Greenlining Institute advances economic opportunity and empowerment for people of color through advocacy, community and coalition building, research, and leadership development.
- New Cities Foundation: is a global nonprofit centered on shaping a better urban future through policy around migration and transportation, housing, wellbeing, and the natural and built environment.
- Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy: emphasizes grassroots and community-led activism to build a new economy rooted in good jobs, economic equality, a cleaner environment, and thriving cities.
- Policy Matters Ohio: a non-profit policy research institute, creates a more vibrant, equitable, sustainable and inclusive communities through research, strategic communications, coalition building, and policy advocacy.