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The Critical Need for a Sensitive—and Sensible—National Transportation Policy
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The article below made two arguments back in 1991:

  • ◾   First, we could alleviate pressing national problems if federal transportation policy better supported community efforts to reduce auto-dependence; and

  • ◾   Second, historic downtowns, main streets, and neighborhoods embody land use and urban design features that help communities to achieve this reduction.

The context for this article was the run-up to Congress' enactment of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). Throughout that year, a coalition of preservationists, planners, environmentalists, and advocates of alternate travel modes met weekly at the National Trust for Historic Preservation to devise strategies for improving this major transportation law. The coalition won approval for several provisions that benefited historic preservation. For example, ISTEA encouraged "multi-modalism" by giving states more flexibility to use transportation dollars for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit modes, which generally cause less harm to historic places than roads and highways. ISTEA also created a Transportation Enhancements Program, which funded many projects that advance preservation goals—e.g., historic rail station renovations and downtown sidewalks.

It's as true today as it was in 1991 that by making our transportation system less car-dependent, we alleviate serious problems: over-reliance on foreign oil, oppressive energy bills, and climate change linked to more frequent, more intense storms.

As public concerns over these problems have intensified, so, too, has the demand for "sustainability" and energy-efficient "green buildings." Preservationists quickly point out, however, that the greenest building is often the one already built. They note that cross-ventilating windows, extra-thick walls, and other features of historic structures can make such buildings as energy-efficient as the newest green building. Moreover, experts say it can take years for a new green building to overcome, through more efficient operations, negative climate change impacts created during its construction.

But how people get to a building, not just how they heat or cool it, matters, too. Thus preservationists might also argue that the "greenness" of a historic building doesn't end at the building's skin. Land use, urban design, and locational features that characterize most historic downtowns, main streets, and neighborhoods typically produce an environment that enables "carbon-lite" transportation modes: walking, bicycling, and using transit. These features, described in greater detail below, include mixed land uses, narrower streets, shorter blocks, more intersections, compact town centers, and centrally-located schools, stores, and job centers. Taken together, these features yield two important things: shorter travel distances and walkability. This means people can reach more destinations without driving— or by driving less far, less often.

When transportation policies protect historic areas and recognize the relevance of historic land use and urban design concepts to mobility in newly developing areas, we expand transportation options in a way that cuts greenhouse gas emissions, foreign oil imports, and travel costs. We also help to tackle one problem not on the radar screen in 1991: today's national obesity epidemic. A common prescription for obesity? Walking. A great place to do that? Walkable historic neighborhoods.

If we could cut the national deficit, reduce oil imports from the Middle East, make housing more affordable for young families, clean the air, alleviate the isolation of the elderly, improve our mobility, and enhance community life all through a single piece of legislation, shouldn't we try to do so? Through changes in the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), the federal highway bill now moving through Congress, we could make headway this year on each of these goals and more. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible that this opportunity will come and go without much public notice.

For decades the mainstay of America's transportation system has been the private automobile. Today 72 percent of all personal travel in the United States is done by car, 86 percent if light trucks and vans are included with cars. The average American household now allocates 18.7 percent of its budget to transportation expenses, most of which are auto-related. That is more than it spends for food, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Collectively, Americans now contribute $16.873 billion annually to the federal Highway Trust Fund. When this sum is added to state, city...

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