By Dom Nozzi
There is much talk these days about taking advantage of the 2020 pandemic to achieve important societal objectives that have not been achieved despite their importance and despite there being known as problems for decades. The old Chinese adage that pertains to this is that from crisis comes opportunity.
What are some of the most important transportation and land use objectives that we should consider moving forward with, now that there is heightened political will to make important changes?
I would suggest the following.
- Reform Parking. American cities have far too much free parking. We need to remove a massive amount of free parking (perhaps in part by converting it to housing), a much higher proportion must be priced, and required minimum parking must be either converted to maximum parking or eliminated entirely.
- Reform Taxation. Nearly all American cities strongly discourage compact, mixed use, infill development with their tax structure. Instead of strongly discouraging infill (and encouraging surface parking for land speculation) by taxing improvements to land (renovations, infill, etc.), we should be taxing the land. This has been done in Pittsburgh. It is known as a “land value tax” (or “single tax”).
- Slow Streets. American cities have far too many streets that were built with an excessive design speed (often because the design vehicle was the oversized worst-case-scenario vehicle). While we certainly need to ensure that NEW streets use lower design speeds, new streets are very rare in most cities. The major task for us is to retrofit EXISTING streets for lower speed design. This is crucial for progress in traffic safety, promoting quality compact development, and promoting active transportation. I love the world-wide movement for “slow cities,” by the way, as cities thrive when speeds are slower.
- Return to the Human Scale. American cities have spent much of the 20th Century creating over-sized spacing (roads, building setbacks, parking lots). This loss of human scale destroys the ability to create a sense of place. This is an important reason why so many of us love historic old towns around the world.
- Restore Passenger Rail. If we are to soon see a massive transportation infrastructure stimulus in response to the pandemic, that stimulus needs to include a big expansion in American passenger rail. For the coming decades, the emphasis should be getting the most bang (mileage) for the buck by emphasizing slow-speed rail. High-speed rail is sexy and exciting, but it buys us very little rail mileage because the cost is enormous. Some of that slow-speed rail can later become, incrementally, high-speed.
- Emphasize Transportation User Fees. We all know that gas tax revenue is not keeping up with needs. Note that I agree with Chuck Marohn that it is fortunate that we have inadequate transportation funding these days because our society continues to emphasize counterproductive car-based infrastructure when we find dollars. But there will come a time when we finally “get it” with regard to how to spend transport dollars. Important, equitable ways to find new funding, besides ramping up parking revenue, is a lot more road tolling or VMT fees (or similar user-based fees). Sales, income, and property taxes are a terribly unfair (and socially undesirable) way to raise transportation dollars.
Let us not squander the opportunity that this pandemic crisis offers to us to dramatically improve our communities.
The time for bold action is now.