Smart Growth

Monday, August 11, 2008

THE LAST item on the last page of Sen. Barack Obama's "New Energy for America" plan -- build more livable and sustainable communities -- sounds like the standard feel-good political boilerplate that generally shows up in the back of policy papers. But it shouldn't be dismissed. This proposal from the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president is part of a larger policy push to foster smart growth. The effort puts a premium on residential and commercial development that minimizes fuel use and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by maximizing density and transportation alternatives that get people out of their cars.

The silver lining in the spike in gasoline prices is that it has focused the public on the links among global warming, sustainable communities and transportation alternatives. As the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution notes in its "Blueprint for American Prosperity: A Bridge to Somewhere": "A metropolitan area's average density of population, housing and jobs correlates positively with lower carbon emissions." But federal transportation funding is highway-centric. Mr. Obama says that he is committed to reforming this and to "leveling employer incentives for driving and public transit."

More federal dollars are needed for roads and bridges. Many of them are crumbling, the government has shirked its investment responsibility and Americans are not going to stop driving. But there is also a need for more mass transit and intercity rail service. Ridership numbers are up all over the country. According to the American Public Transportation Association, public transportation use in the first quarter of 2008 rose 3.4 percent in a year. Amtrak ridership in July was up 13.9 percent over last year. Train travel in the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston is up 8 percent over the same period. Washington's Metrorail reported that ridership for the fiscal year that ended June 30 reached 215.3 million trips, up 7.4 million from the year before, giving the subway system the greatest usage in its 32-year history. Metrobus provided 133 million trips during the same period, up 1.3 million. Planners attribute the explosion in ridership to high gas prices and increased development around Metro stops.

Transit-oriented development is one of the cornerstones of smart growth. Local and state governments have been pursuing this environmentally conscious strategy for some time. For instance, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has approved a high-density commercial and residential plan in anticipation of four Metro stops as part of the much-needed and much-delayed Dulles International Airport rail extension.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors and many local officials are pushing to get Washington to support rather than stymie similar efforts around the country. The changes in behavior brought on by the current gas crunch must be the start of fulfilling the promise of more livable and sustainable communities -- no matter who's in the White House.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company