Cities feel left out of transportation discussion

By Robbie Webber

Just before Super Storm Sandy came to town and made a mess of New York’s infrastructure, transportation officials from the largest U.S. cities gathered for the first national conference of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). Out of that meeting came discussion that cities may be on their own in moving forward with innovative plans and policies. Attendees expressed frustration that neither cities nor transportation overall got much attention during the recent campaign season.

Although transit has always been an important mode of transportation in our largest cities, many urban transportation officials are attempting to add more transit options. Car and bike sharing can complement transit, walking, and private vehicles for some trips, but urban transportation officials have discovered that current state and federal funding programs do not provide enough flexibility to quickly implement these programs. And these same officials feel cities are often forgotten in the national debate, despite the increasing percentage of the population that live in urban areas.

Both Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have directly stated that they think their cities need to move away from a car-based transportation system, and they have moved aggressively to prioritize other modes, especially walking and bicycling. But at the NACTO conference, these same mayors also felt they were not getting the necessary support to accomplish their goals.

Asked why they felt state and federal transportation programs are not meeting their needs, attendees had several explanations. Bruce Katz from Brookings Institution, the plenary speaker, blamed partisan gridlock in the capitol. Chicago DOT Commissioner said that urban residents expect their officials to innovate quickly, but existing state and federal programs do not allow for the flexibility and accelerated pace citizens demand. New York Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan felt that Washington still sees the country as rural and suburban, and therefore car-based.

In an effort to further the interaction between city and state transportation agencies, SSTI focused on this issue during its fall 2012 Community of Practice meeting. We would urge further collaboration and efforts to improve relations between these types of agencies.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.