Choosing Our Future: The Fierce Urgency of Metro Planning


An old boss of mine, a former 7-term Congressman from Pennsylvania, used to tell a joke:

A woman from his district came to see him about a problem, specifically a loose dog that was roaming her neighborhood. He replied haughtily “Madam, you have come to the wrong place. This is Congress, where we make national laws and debate the great issues of the day. You should call animal control, or your city councilman.” To which she replied: “I didn’t want to start that high, so I came straight to you!” All politics is, as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, local.

This is certainly the case when it comes to community sustainability, especially land-development and transportation policy. Cities, counties and towns may have varying levels of authority over such decisions, but there’s no denying they’re extremely influential.

What about challenges or issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries? Especially when it comes to infrastructure, investments must be coordinated so they are leveraged for maximum effectiveness and minimum cost. How can a major road project, or rail project, or nonmotorized transportation project, fit into a broader network? After all, as Brookings has been pointing out for many years, most recently via a new book which l look forward to reading, metropolitan regions are drivers of U.S. economic and societal development. Who sets the agenda and plans for a preferred, prosperous future for the majority of us who live and work in such regions?

Photo courtesy of USDA

Fortunately, there is a big table around which local, state and federal officials gather, along with citizens, organizations and companies who have a stake in good regional planning. The form, size and structure of the table varies – a lot – across the country. But for transportation purposes, we are talking about metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, and metro planning has actually been codified in federal law for a half-century.

First, the good news. There almost 342 MPOs as of 2012, often covering multiple cities and counties in given regions, and every region with more than 50,000 people has to have one. While most have modest capacity for planning, those in the most populous regions benefit from substantial size and expertise. They all have to be certified on a regular basis, and many -- though not most, and having served on D.C.'s I know some may not be that influential -- have citizen advisory committees and a set of required public-participation procedures established by the feds, states and local jurisdictions. So they are somewhat accountable to the public.

More good news: Federal law requires that every 4-5 years these MPOs adopt long-range transportation plans (RTPs) which span at least 20 years. So there is a plan for your region’s future! Thanks again to local, state and federal rules these plans follow certain guidelines. In fact the most recent federal transportation law could improve plans substantially by setting new performance measures for them over the next few years.

However, Eisenhower once aptly said that “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” And that’s where we come to the bad news.

Planning by these groups, which nominally work for us since their funding comes from federal, state and local tax dollars, leaves a lot to be desired. For starters, just try locating and reviewing your region’s long-range plan.

One of the small victories we achieved in the 2005 transportation bill was enactment of this language about publication of these plans: They must be "... available in electronically accessible format and means, such as the World Wide Web, as appropriate to afford reasonable opportunity for consideration of public information" [49 USC 5303(i)(5)(C)(iii), 23 USC 134(i)(5)(C)(iii), and 23 USC 135(f)(8)]. I naively thought this might have real impact, but it hasn’t exactly blown the doors of MPOs open widely.

RTPs can be dense, inscrutable documents. Presenting their hundreds of pages in pdf form online doesn’t change that. As Gavin Newsome noted in his excellent book Citizenville, analysts quip that pdfs are where data goes to die.

In addition to more openness and transparency to metro residents like you and me, planning could benefit from greater use of scenario-building. As I noted in Congressional testimony, an increasing number of regions are using this potentially transformative planning tool. However, this is definitely a case where the how-- planning -- is as important as the plan, as described brilliantly in a recent book by Adam Kahane, who’s used it domestically and around the world. And while the new transportation law includes a laudable section on scenario-building, frustratingly it's merely optional.

Top-notch metro planning can transform America's future, as evidenced by impressively entrepreneurial work by some MPOs. In future blog posts, I will examine those leaders and develop a series of concepts and themes for advancement among those who lag behind.

Stay tuned!