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Aug 10, 2009

by Kate Howe, VIA’s Urban Planner

I am just back from attending the APTA sustainability conference in Utah’s Salt Lake City. The sessions focus on tackling climate change – increasing transit accessibility to the pedestrian, land use integration and green design. This is the fifth in the sustainability workshop series, and reflects how transit agencies have moved forward to implementation of sustainability strategies – from Ben Franklin Transit’s ethanol/biodiesel fuel mix in Louisville, to the 25 iphone apps created by creative types for Portland Tri-met that help to blend transit use into the everyday life.

I thought that the star session was the first session, a panel discussion with the new Deputy Administrators appointed by the Obama Administration – three articulate progressives from the EPA – HUD- DOT that travel together to talk about how to create new efficiencies between the three agencies and link transportation funding to land use and environmental policy. Unimaginable only a year ago – these three have their work cut out for them.

Jim Lopez – a former Seattlite who went to Washington with Ron Sims, is now heading up HUD’s Sustainable Communities office. This office is beginning to pay attention and understands that to win the smart growth battle- many communities would benefit from Federal technical assistance to conduct long range planning. Lopez in particular discussed the need for a large scale audit of land use policies in order to make legal the mixed-urban environments that are the hallmark of low VMT, low energy use communities. DOT noted that new funding sources will be shifted towards move competitive grants, to reward transit agencies and municipalities that work together, and will attempt to move away from the dedicated funding streams that may allow inferior quality work – or projects that really don’t benefit the long term.

This discussion segued nicely into a talk by the Brooking’s Institute Christopher Leinberger – who from his perspective as reformist real estate mogul, discussed the market pendulum swinging back from a concentration on single family suburban to mixed-use and urban – simply because this housing type remains significantly under built. He writes that “the most compelling evidence is the price premium people are willing to pay to live in a walkable urban place, that the survey’s show anywhere from a 40% to 200% price premium on a price per square foot basis for a walkable urban place as oppose to a competitive near by drivable suburban place.”

He also highlights the demographics: in twenty years the shrinking household size we are already seeing will only become more pronounced; only 14% of households will have children with 80% being singles and couples. To accommodate a complexity of household types, as well as rising costs in infrastructure he talked about how we need to move the real estate industry from the NASCAR model — quick (and often low quality) green field projects to the Jet Plane – by necessity more complex transactions in urban areas.

The second day included a session on the new FTA sponsored research report “Moving Cooler” that itemizes strategies on how public transport and related transportation systems can be shifted to aggressively respond to climate with GHG emissions reductions. This is an important project for APTA and all public transit advocates – because it helps to get the word out- particularly to fill in the information gap now operating in Congress about transit and its impact on climate mitigation.

Data is lining up in favor of compact development, and increased investment in transit to reduce GHG emissions (and all kinds of other ills). Unfortunately the “business as usual” approach endures, exemplified by the AASHTO lobbyist who stood at the podium making the (misguided) claim to an audience of public transit operators and sustainability advocates that you “can build your way out of congestion” — like we do in UTAH! He also said that they stop at nothing to ensure an uncongested freeway. Wow –they must be really nervous about the new Federal Reauthorization Bill!