Memo to the President: Transportation Choices Boost Economic Choices


The President, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post reports today, will launch a series of speeches, using his “bully pulpit” to promote more economic opportunity for the middle class beginning on Wednesday at Knox College. His series of speeches supposedly includes transportation investment as a topic.

It’s about time, as underscored by George Packer’s excellent new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (on a totally different topic, his The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq is indispensable for understanding our entanglement in that conflict).  A lot has been written about the economic meltdown and its dire and lasting consequences for most Americans (Pinched is particularly good), so I found it hard to believe that Packer could add much. But, understanding that we are storytelling animals, he has written a fascinating and revealing book using profiles and stories woven together with vivid color and consummate skill.

One strand in the story involves Tampa, Florida and surrounding suburbs, and this one was particularly resonant for me. He walks through the boom and then bust years for Tampa and its housing market through the eyes of – so far, at least, as I have read 13 of 18 hours as of today – an enterprising city newspaper reporter, a brave Indian small business owner, an attorney with a local practice, an activist who painstakingly assembles data about foreclosures in the region and an anti-light-rail activist.

Aerial view looking southeast at the Memorial Highway/Florida State Road 60 in the Westshore area of Tampa, FL. Photo credit: Wknight94

Tampa was slammed particularly hard by the foreclosure crisis due to predatory lending, absentee and speculative ownership of homes throughout the region when the bubble burst, and a ton of sprawl. Consumers laboring under crushing debt have felt their economic options squeezed as in a vise.

And as Gary Pivo of the University of Arizona discovered when analyzing a database of 37,000 cases (see Kaid Benfield's great blog on it here), Tampa’s sprawly characteristics make it particularly vulnerable to foreclosures.

Tampa is one of the few cities of its size without a light rail system, a hot topic in politics there, and according to Pivo this exacerbates the housing situation. If 30 percent or more commuters use transit, the risk of mortgage default plummets 58.4 percent. On the other hand, if a property is 1000 feet or less from a freeway corridor, the risk spikes 59 percent. And as the second-most-dangerous region for pedestrians, Tampa has yet another strike against it since every one percent increase in the share of commutes on foot drives down the risk of default by 3.1 percent.

Another study was rolled out today, examining income mobility across generations. This one looks at millions (talk about "big data"!) of tax records for parents and their now-adult offspring and correlates different factors determining their mobility up the income ladder.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times writes a solid piece about the study, which includes some cool graphs and maps including a particularly eye-catching one which shows income mobility variations in shades of yellow, orange and red with darker meaning lower mobility (this map is splashed across the front page of the study itself, available here). Hard to miss the angry sea of red in the southeast. According to Leonhardt, among the factors that matter in the differences the scholars put four at the top – a greater mix of incomes, more two-parent households, better schools and more civic engagement. Author Robert Putnam has found that sprawl can undermine the last of these, and Leonhardt also makes the sprawl link by telling the tale of a family in Atlanta challenged by a dearth of transportation options.

President Obama now has the opportunity to reframe transportation more thoroughly as a tool for boosting economic prospects for this generation and the next. As you work on your speeches, Mr. President, note that the evidence is in:

More transportation choices such as commuter rail, bus rapid transit and walking give us all more economic choices, boosting our climb up the income ladder. Now is the time to invest in our families and our future.