Involving public comment in a revision of the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices

There is a federal government manual that guides decisions for transportation engineers regarding roads. While it is notable that it is going to be revised for the first time in eleven years, there is also a process for public comment:

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The Federal Highway Administration released a draft of proposed changes late last year. The last time the manual got an update, a few thousand people, mostly transportation professionals, submitted comments. This year, 26,000 comments poured in from all over the country.

Some arrived from big companies, including the ride-hail and mobility company Lyft, the Ford-owned scooter-share company Spin, and the Alphabet company Sidewalk Labs. Each asked for a major rewrite that would, as Sidewalk Labs put it, “more closely align with the equity, safety, and sustainability goals of American cities, as well as those of the Biden administration.”

Others came from individuals. “There’s a broader set of people who see that these streets don’t work, that there are too many people getting killed, that they’re too unpleasant. It’s not consistent with what a place or a community should be,” says Mike McGinn, a former mayor of Seattle and executive director of the group America Walks. He credits those everyday activists with the new interest in the design document—and his own group, which urged thousands of people to submit comments to the federal agency…

The last time the manual got an update, the process took more than a year; with the volume of comments this year, it may take longer. A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration says the agency “needs to carefully consider all comments before determining next steps and the timetable for updating the manual.” Given the interest, that might take a while.

One of the reasons Americans like local government is that it is easier to interact with the officials who are making the decisions. For example, in a small town to a moderately sized suburb, a resident who has feedback on a municipal decision can probably even convey this face-to-face or in a public meeting. As the size of the municipality grows, it becomes harder to meet with local officials.

At the federal level, some might feel that decisions are made by an abstract group of people in a place far away. This idea has been expressed regularly in recent years: Washington D.C. is out of touch with the rest of the country.

However, this process of public comment described above offers an opportunity for people around the United States to comment on federal guidelines for roads. In the age of the Internet and social media, this is even easier to do: people can hear about it through email or social media feeds and submit comments online.

How exactly the federal agencies in charge here work through all of these public comments would be interesting to examine. Assuming they are all read or analyzed, do they look for the most common themes? Or, are some comments weighted more than others? This sounds like an important qualitative research process in order to find the patterns in all of the comments, discuss, and then incorporate (or not) into a revised manual.

Los Angeles as a city state?

The idea of the global city and metropolis of today as a city state is not a new one. However, I was interested to see this discussion of how Los Angeles might really fit the bill:

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Los Angeles fits the city-state frame well, certainly better than it does a lot of other possibilities—if we update the model a bit. In 2010, Forbes suggested that if the criteria for a place to be considered a city-state were modernized for the 21st century, certain global capitals might qualify thanks to a few key features: a big port to sustain trade; investors from overseas; money laundering; international museums worth visiting; multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol; and an ambition to host the World Cup…

The city-state label rings true to me for hazier reasons as well. Los Angeles lacks the bedrock Americana that anchor towns like Chicago, New York, and Boston. In terms of identity, it doesn’t attach to the state of California the way that Houston and Dallas serve Texas. As for international ties, Miami has Latin America, Seattle has Canada and Asia, but Los Angeles, perhaps the city of globalism, has everybody. We’re Angelenos first, Californians second, Americans third or not at all.

“I absolutely think of Los Angeles as a city-state,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told me a few months ago. “The root of politics is the same as the root word in Greek for “city”: polis. People engage in politics because they came to a city and vice versa.” I wanted to point out that lots of citizens don’t engage with Greater L.A. in the way he described. If anything, civic life here often feels optional. Residents stay in the bounds of their neighborhood. Voters supported a $1.2 billion bond in 2016 to build supportive housing, but progress on the homeless problem is abysmal, stymied in part by NIMBYism. To borrow Garcetti’s measure, had life in the Greek city-states been as complacent, as mean, as L.A. often feels? “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business,” the ancient historian Thucydides wrote, “but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.”

My unspoken question for Garcetti was a nod to the fact that the city-state label can stretch only so far, at least until Los Angeles secedes from the United States. Angelenos may not always feel particularly American, but L.A. continues to receive policies and funding from Sacramento, which receives the nod—or not—from Washington. Our tap water flows from the Colorado River. A fifth of our power is from a coal plant in Utah. Los Angeles simply isn’t self-reliant. We have plenty of investment from abroad, but no local currency. The world’s largest jail system, but no independent military. Garcetti recently proposed a guaranteed-basic-income program that would be the country’s largest experiment of its kind—but that’s only even theoretically possible thanks to funding from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

The main argument here seems to be that Los Angeles has the infrastructure, amenities, and identity needed to be a city state. On the other hand, the political fragmentation and reliance on other parts of the American federal system may be obstacles. However, I am not sure

  1. Political fragmentation comes through the sprawling and decentralized landscape. Who is in change? Whose opinions should hold sway? Going further, what is the relationship between the sprawling city and the sprawling suburbs? This would seem to be in tension with the identity as Angelenos. On which issues does the identity bring political unity and where do the fault lines emerge when fragmentation bests identity?
  2. A city state could make relationships with other entities. But, this might be a little different than having steady relationships within a system versus having to negotiate new relationships if Los Angeles became a city state. Take an example relevant to sprawling LA: could a city state of Los Angeles afford to fund all of the highways that right way get monies from the federal government? Or, would this then courage a LA city state to pursue more mass transit? Right now, the highways might be an amenity but
  3. If the mayor of Los Angeles operates now as if his city is a city state, what exactly does this mean? Is there an American city that is already more city state like and provides a model of how this might look in the future?

Rasmussen poll finds few Americans want the federal gov’t involved in deciding where people live

New poll data from Rasmussen suggests Americans would prefer the federal government not be involved in where people can live:

photo of houses during daytime

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The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 83% of Likely U.S. Voters say the federal government should not play a role in deciding where people can live. Just 10% disagree. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Sixty-five percent (65%) still say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods in America so that people of different income levels live together. But that’s down from 83% when Rasmussen Reports first asked this question in mid-2015 as the Obama administration prepared to release its new housing regulations. Twenty-three percent (23%) now say that diversifying neighborhoods is a government role, up from eight percent (8%) five years ago…

Twenty percent (20%) of blacks and 21% of other minority voters feel the federal government should play a role in deciding where people can live, but just six percent (6%) of whites agree. Seventy-one percent (71%) of whites say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods, compared to 52% of blacks and 53% of other minority voters.

Interestingly, voters who earn $100,000 or more a year are more supportive of government neighborhood diversity efforts than those who earn less.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I do not know the accuracy of this data. I do not think this is a survey question that is regularly asked of a national population.

2. That said regarding #1, it does seem to align with patterns in the United States. Housing is a very localized issue and involvement from the federal government is not often viewed favorably. Part of the appeal of suburbs is local control and exclusion. A diverse vision of suburbia may not catch on.

3. As I argued earlier in the week, even though attitudes may have improved regarding outright housing discrimination, this does not mean there are not ways to keep people out of communities or neighborhoods.

4. It is a little strange that Rasmussen asked directly about different income levels living together and not also about different racial and ethnic groups living together.

5. If we cannot tackle the issue of residential segregation – which is an outcome of the attitudes in the poll – it will be very difficult to address race.

Suburban municipalities to take own actions regarding COVID-19?

As different government bodies look to act in response to the spread of COVID-19, I was struck by the number of large cities and states that are acting (including the state in which I live). At the same time, I wonder: how are suburban communities responding?

A few thoughts:

-Many suburban communities have limited capabilities and cannot do a whole lot. They may have limited budgets, a relatively small number of employees, and not much power to compel action. Still, decisions to close public spaces – such as libraries, city/village/town halls, community centers – matter to the everyday lives of lots of people.

-Yet, some bigger suburbs in the United States are as large as small big cities. Their actions can be very consequential and they have more budget room to address issues. At this point, the news has primarily focused on the biggest cities in the United States but this matters for numerous other communities over 100,000 people (to use an arbitrary cut-off point for a larger community).

Americans tend to like local control and government but at the speed that a virus can spread and across political boundaries, individual actions across hundreds of American suburbs might not add up to much. Hence, people look to the state and federal level to mobilize resources and direct action.

-What is the role of metropolitan regions in all of this? The City of Chicago can act and affect millions of residents and workers but there are roughly seven million more people in the region. Counties can act and affect more residents. But, then the next level of action regarding COVID-19 seems to be at the state level. Are metropolitan regions working together or is the general lack of metropolitan cooperation revealed again in a time of crisis?

Is Washington D.C. the center of the United States?

I recently heard a promo for a news show that claimed it was going to broadcast from the center of the United States: Washington D.C. Here are a few ways to think about the center of the United States:

-Washington D.C. makes the most sense in terms of government. With the federal government based here and the number of federal employees in the region, Washington D.C. could claim to be the center. (It is the sixth largest metropolitan region in the country and may claim to the current second city.)

-New York City makes the most sense in terms of population size and global influence. The New York City region has the most people by over six million and is a global center for finance, media, the arts, and more. (Yet, it is on the coast in the Northeast region with a particular culture.)

-The center of population has steadily moved west. According to the Census, it is now in Texas County, Missouri. By definition: “The mean center of population is determined as the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all residents were of identical weight.”

-The geographic center of the United States depends on whether it is just for the 48 contiguous states or for all fifty states. If just the contiguous states, the location is just northwest of Lebanon, Kansas. If for all fifty states, it is north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

-Is it possible to measure a cultural center? New York could lay claim to this as could Los Angeles (Hollywood, sprawl) while Chicagoans might hold to the claim that it is the most American of cities. Cleveland, San Francisco, New York, or New Orleans? Are the coasts more representative of America or the Heartland? Perhaps particular locations are less important and common spaces like McDonald’s or Walmart or local government meetings or religious congregations or local libraries are more indicative of the center of the United States.

If Washington D.C. is now the center of the United States, does it provide a hint that national politics has come to dominate American discourse and self-understanding?

Argument: Westchester County and affordable housing better off without federal government involvement

The headline summarizes the argument: “Team Trump just called a halt to the Obama-era war on the American suburbs.”

But the big win came last month, when — based on Westchester’s experience and expertise from groups like Americans for Limited Government — the Trump administration replaced Team Obama’s AFFH regulation with its own.

Gone is the federal mandate dictating the modeling of communities based on statistical formulas. Restored to local officials is the power that gives them the flexibility to weigh real-world factors in making housing decisions. Restored, too, is the prosecution of bad actors by the courts — not bureaucrats — under the Fair Housing Act.

And builders are now more likely to build affordable housing, since the attached strings have been removed.

The Democratic candidates for president didn’t get the memo. They continue to support radical, divisive and failed housing policies aimed at abolishing single-family residential zoning. And they’d use billions of our tax dollars to local communities — and the threat of lawsuits — to get their way.

The United States needs affordable housing. By replacing social engineering with common sense, guarded by strong nondiscrimination laws, the country is now better positioned to meet that need — and that’s a victory for everyone.

See more on the exclusionary zoning and housing in Westchester County: more recently under the Obama administration, in the 1970s, and the affordable housing issue in the county.

Conservatives claimed the Obama administration wanted to push Americans away from suburbs and into cities. This claim of social engineering tends to ignore the social engineering of suburbs, with plenty of federal government help, toward whiter and single-family home communities.

More broadly, this gets at a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals will argue that government intervention is needed regarding housing. As noted above, this might start with more serious enforcement of housing laws already on the books. But, this would not necessarily tackle the harder issues of residential segregation or exclusionary zoning, These issues would require communities across metropolitan regions to provide cheaper housing so that certain communities do not carry the burden. The conservative argument is different: the government needs to get out of housing and should let local governments make the decisions that would best serve their residents. Builders and developers will be empowered to construct cheaper housing with fewer regulations. Or, perhaps neither party really wants single-family home suburbia.

I have argued before that free markets for housing will not work. When given the opportunity, wealthier communities will not build cheaper housing as they would prefer to remain more exclusive. Recent efforts in California suggest it will take a lot even at the state level to promote more affordable housing. Plus, major political party candidates do not seem too keen to tackle housing. Americans may not like the idea of the federal government weighing in on local development decision but in many metropolitan regions the preference for local control is not moving the logjam of needed affordable housing.

Proposal to build federal government buildings in a classical style

A draft executive order suggests new federal government buildings should be constructed in a particular style:

A draft of an executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” would establish a classical style, inspired by Greek and Roman architecture, as the default for federal buildings in Washington and many throughout the country, discouraging modern design.

The order, spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that believes contemporary architecture has “created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing,” would rewrite the current rules that govern the design of office buildings, headquarters, and courthouses, or any federal building project contracted through the General Services Administration that costs over $50 million…

If a style other than classical is proposed for a project, the order establishes a high bar for getting approval: it would establish a presidential “re-beautification” committee to review designs and would still give the White House final say. Benjamin Forgey, the former architecture critic for The Washington Post, called the order “profoundly mischievous,” and said it would eliminate the ability of architects to consider contemporary design and context when creating new government spaces…

The proposed mandate has triggered protests from architects and critics of the administration who say the president should not have the ability to issue a top-down mandate on how government buildings should look. News of the draft first appeared in the Architectural Record.

Administrations and bureaucrats only last for a while, buildings can last decades or even centuries. This is no small matter: how buildings are designed and who gets to design them has the potential to influence future workers, visitors, and neighbors for a long time. Together, the collection of buildings in key centers like Washington D.C. create an entire atmosphere that connects to larger ideas about the government and the United States.

There could be several ways to read this debate. Architects need commissions and public commissions like large federal buildings are significant. Perhaps this is more personal; Donald Trump’s design choices would be considered more garish and less sophisticated (let alone his political stances and views). Putting design choices in the hands of a president sends a different message than using a public committee or primarily drawing on the expertise of architects.

If I had to guess, more Americans would side with classical architecture versus modernist designs. I have argued Americans lean away from modernism with houses. I would think the same is true with important public buildings: the public is more comfortable with and familiar with classical design, they associate it with history and longevity, and modernist designs leave them feelings colder even if the structures are impressive. It is hard to imagine a modernist capitol building at the state or federal level. A bureaucratic modernist building might make more sense, particularly given the way many Americans feel about bureaucracy.

 

Reminder: “Americans have no comparable safety net for housing”

Americans generally have limited options in obtaining with housing from the government:

With food and health care, we recognize that some number of people will have trouble paying for the basics, so our government provides a minimum standard of access through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (for food) and Medicaid (for health care). These programs are designed to expand and contract based on need (setting aside current politics).

Americans have no comparable safety net for housing. While the federal Section 8 program does provide rental assistance to low-income families, inadequate public funding means that fewer than half of eligible households actually receive a voucher. The inadequacy of our response has led to a variety of injustices: growing homelessness, overcrowding in small or substandard apartments, and housing costs that squeeze families’ ability to pay for child care, transportation, and other essential needs. Policymakers and housing advocates, especially some of the great ones we have in Massachusetts, have worked hard to cobble together different low-income housing programs and subsidies that help many of these needy families. But it’s a patchwork approach that leaves far too many behind.

And then those who compete in the “free market” may also have few options:

There’s also a second crisis, which affects middle-income families headed by people such as teachers, salespeople, nurses, and retirees living on fixed incomes. This crisis is more directly tied to housing cost. If our private market was functioning properly and producing diverse, family-friendly housing, these families would be able to afford decent housing options without needing public subsidy. But they increasingly struggle to do so. This problem is especially pronounced in Boston’s suburbs, many of which have a long history of banning the construction of townhomes, duplexes, triple-deckers, and modest apartment buildings that would serve these middle-class families. Thanks to these extreme prohibitions, many of our region’s suburbs have instead seen a trend towards larger, and pricier, McMansion-style homes.

Addressing housing may the toughest issue to address in the United States. Still, ousing is a basic human need and not having adequate or consistent housing has detrimental effects on residents. Providing food, health care, and other necessities can help but may not mean as much without a good home.

As an earlier post noted, Americans have supported/subsidized mortgages for single-family homes but this has not benefited all. The system is not really a free market; it helps some people make money, some residents to benefit from long-term property value increases (and then pass on this wealth to future generations), and others to struggle to get into the system. The federal government – and the American people in general – have had little appetite for big government housing programs. Not even a burst housing bubble in the late 2000s truly altered the rules of the American housing game.

Given the number of people affected, perhaps this will eventually grow into an issue that cannot be ignored. But, given the lack of attention this gets during this election season, I am not hopeful with will be adequately addressed soon.

Considering housing shortages and gentrification together

An MIT economist looks at the relationship between gentrification and a shortage of cheaper housing:

Unsurprisingly, the geography of a place and the community residing there are linked. Along the most measurable dimensions, richer people tend to live in places with attractive geographies. Conversely, places with undesirable attributes like industrial or transportation pollution, poor access to jobs, and uninviting climates are usually left for the poorest and most marginalized.

Usually—but not always. Occasionally, physically attractive locations come to be occupied by low-income communities, immigrant communities, black communities. Neighborhoods like these are ripe for gentrification. Changes in labor markets, large investments by public or private institutions, or even just changing preferences among the wealthy move these neighborhoods into the sight lines of richer people, and then they gentrify.

The housing shortage, meanwhile, is a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped. Whereas gentrification reshuffles which communities occupy which parts of the city, the housing shortage can operate at the scale of cities and regions as well as neighborhoods…

Policies introduced to fight gentrification—rent control and tenant protections—may ameliorate the effects of neighborhood change, but they won’t build new homes. We must allow new construction somewhere, despite the changes this will bring. Of course, we must do so in a way that avoids gentrification.

Four quick thoughts on this argument:

1. This reminds me of my post from the other day comparing the perspective that there is not enough housing and there is plenty of housing but it is not cheap enough. This piece suggests there are multiple housing issues at work and policies might tackle one particular issue and not others (or even make other housing issues worse).

2. Does the multiplicity of housing issues require that Americans prioritize which issue matters to them most? If middle-class people want cheaper housing, that will lead to different approaches (public policies, legislation, urban planning, decisions by developers, etc.) compared to a consensus that gentrification is not desirable. Historically, Americans have tended to prioritize housing for the middle-class (broadly defined) at the expense of housing for the poor or homeless.

3. To truly address all of these issues, metropolitan-wide approaches are needed. Individual neighborhoods or municipalities are often left to tackle these on their own even though decisions by nearby neighborhoods or municipalities have significant effects on their housing.

4. Additionally, a comprehensive housing policy is needed, not just one that tackles the most important or noisiest issue at the moment. On one hand, many Americans would not want the government to become involved in such issues even as the government has promoted suburban homeownership for roughly a century.

Trump administration pushes housing deregulation

A look at the Trump administration’s approach to homelessness includes this summary of how they view housing more broadly:

Housing deregulation is probably the core of the report outlined by the Council Advisors. That lines up with the Trump administration’s overall position on housing—from Carson’s enthusiasm for breaking up exclusionary zoning to the housing plan that the Domestic Policy Council is drafting. Trump signed an executive order establishing a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing in June.

While making it easier to build housing could ease the affordability crisis, it may be hard to achieve those reforms, Hanratty says. Several of the Democratic Party primary candidates have outlined housing plans with various strategies to promote new construction, but all of them would require sweeping new legislation. And in practice, deregulation might not produce housing that is affordable to very low-income families or people with substance-abuse or mental-health afflictions without subsidies.

This is a common conservative argument to make these days: the housing market needs to be a more free one with less interference from local governments as well as the federal government. Attempts at more explicit intervention – such as in public housing – have not proved popular. If the law of supply and demand could simply take over, the market would provide housing options for all.

However, this may not work as intended. The suburbs, a space seen as desirable by many Americans was not the result of free markets but rather the result of all sorts of social and government interventions. Would Houston’s growth without zoning look attractive for communities around the country? Without any regulations, developers and builders may have little incentive to build cheaper housing and instead pursue units that provide more profit.

Finding some middle ground where specific and limited interventions actually lead to more affordable housing will prove difficult. Without some negative consequences for communities and housing market actors who do not participate in providing cheaper housing, what can be done?