I recently wrote about how New York’s Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, and her bike-friendly agenda has become the hot urban topic du jour. But even Sadik-Khan cannot compare to high-speed rail, especially the massive planned line in California, which has been drumming up chatter since at least November. In this week’s New York Times magazine, which is devoted to infrastructure, there is a very long look at the California project. The piece’s author, Jon Gertner, actually rides the current California trains, and high-speed trains in Europe, to get a sense of how they differ. The issue also contains a fascinating look at Paris, and how French President Nicholas Sarkozy might try to make it a more efficient, compact and sustainable metropolitan region. Americans who visit Paris proper and marvel at its beauty, extensive metro and walkability, often forget that most “Parisians” live in suburbs which are often segregated, isolated, and ugly. The issue also contains an interview with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. In it, he endorses “A concept that we call livable communities, where people don’t have to get in a car every day. You can use light rail, you can use buses, you can use walking paths, you can use your bike.” That should be music to every urbanist’s ears.
The Nation has two recent pieces that any urban policy wonk should read. One is a report on the tent cities of makeshift homeless housing springing up in cities and suburbs around the country. There are three in the Seattle area alone. “Tent City tells the grueling backstory to the current recession—nearly thirty years of cuts in social services to the poor and mentally ill, the decimation of the industrial economy and the cruel underside of the housing boom,” writes Ehrenreich. The other article is a review of Sweet Land of Liberty by Thomas J. Sugrue, which tells the history of Northern segregation. Sugrue lays out how Northerners who identified as non-racist still bought into a system of de facto segregation in housing and education, one that has deprived many African-Americans of an equal opportunity to amass wealth or access educational and professional opportunities. If you want to know how our inner-cities became decimated, and the urban underclass became so isolated, check out the piece.
In The New Yorker, financial writer James Surowiecki suggests that we wean ourselves of dependence on oil by adopting a counter-cyclical gas tax. When the price of gas rises, the gas tax would fall, and the price at the pump would remain steady, but higher than it is today. I think this idea makes a lot of sense on the demand side, but I’m not sure how it would affect transportation funding, which currently comes from gas taxes, since it would mean that our gas tax revenue would fluctuate unpredictably. But that can be solved by setting up a more steady funding stream for transportation, as the next transportation bill hopefully will.
Finally, Politico reports that the U.S. Conference of Mayors is in an uproar that the Obama administration is skipping their annual conference in Providence, R.I. Administration officials, including Vice-President Biden, were supposed to address the conference, but have bailed in deference to a picket line by local fire fighters who are engaged in a contract dispute with the city. Several mayors are quoted calling this a mistake on the administration’s part, but I beg to differ. It is axiomatic that Democratic politicians don’t cross picket lines, and the measure of Obama’s commitment to cities won’t be what speeches his surrogates give, but what policies they enact. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson’s announcement on Tuesday that the EPA will be joining Transportation and HUD to work on the Sustainable Communities project is a promising sign that the administration is taking smart growth and urbanism seriously.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.