Sunday, April 6

The Candidates on Urban Issues

Yesterday, I had a chance to hear both Hillary and Barack share their visions for America down in Butte. Up to this point, I've been quiet about the question of who will be the next to lead the executive branch of the federal government, not so much out of general apathy, but because the candidates have been mostly quiet about issues relevant to this blog. Inga Saffron made this point in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week,

"There are three times as many urbanites in America as country folk, yet you wouldn't know it listening to the three main presidential candidates, or perusing their Web sites. Instead, you might come away thinking the United States is a collection of Norman Rockwell small towns surrounded by picture-book farms ...

Supposedly, the reason that candidates are loath to mention the C-word is that the Suburban Nation of grill-obsessed dads and van-driving moms dominates the electorate. Since it's assumed that cities will vote Democratic no matter how badly they're treated, there's no percentage for either party to talk up things like pocket parks, waterfront development, or - can you imagine? - wasteful sprawl. Besides, the discussion will only alienate voters who still associate an urban platform with cities in flames."

I don't doubt there is some pandering going on, but it's also true that most land use and transportation issues are simply local problems with local solutions. However, the federal government does have an indirect role to play in urban planning that could use some more exposure. Here's a few points I can think of ...

1. Energy. Everyone agrees that our current energy consumption is totally unsustainable. All three candidates are promising more investment in alternative energy sources, although the Democrats have been more detailed in their proposals. In the speeches last night, both Clinton and Obama mentioned clean coal (an oxymoron), biofuels (stupid), solar (good), and wind (good). From time to time, we also hear plans for subsidizing hybrid vehicles and boosting energy efficient homes. Since compact living is inherently energy efficient, what cities really need from the federal government is a carbon tax. All three candidates prefer the clunkier cap-and-trade system, probably because it doesn't contain the word "tax", and that might just have to do. Obama and Clinton's plans are identical in this respect.

2. Transportation. Local public transportation needs a strong national transportation system to thrive. Clinton's national transportation plan explicitly calls for $1.5 billion annually for public transportation, and an additional billion for an inter-city rail line. She also discusses innovative methods for automobile congestion pricing. Obama's plan is less specific, but he does endorse "policies that incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of sidewalks and roads." Importantly, Obama lent unconditional support to Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan for New York City. McCain is very weak on transportation and has spoken of eliminating Amtrak altogether, much to the consternation of some of his fellow conservatives.

3. Housing. It's well known how 20th century federal housing policies deliberately subsidized low-density development and ended up desiccating inner-cities in the process. Will federal tax policy continue to support the trend of building bigger and more spread out houses? This is where both Democratic candidates are on shaky ground, especially with their continued support for expanding mortgage interest tax deductions. This policy has the good intention of bolstering homeownership, but what it really does is compels homeowners to want more home than they already have. As politically insensitive it may have been, McCain showed some courage by holding reckless home-buyers partially to account for their own situation. Also, as a Brookings Institute report shows, there are still some problems with federal low-income housing programs that continue to concentrate poverty in single areas. I'm not sure where the candidates stand on this issue.

Good planning may not be making it into the stump speeches, but a little digging does expose some real positions that the candidates are taking.

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