McCain, Obama, and urbanism

Michael Lewyn's picture
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The battle for the White House has reached my inbox, as even listservs about urbanism crackle with endorsements and denunciations of Obama, McCain, Palin, etc.

But all of this frenzied activity assumes that what a President says or thinks is particularly relevant to urban issues.  But this need not be so.  The policy areas most relevant to sprawl and urbanism, land use and transportation, are not likely to be directly affected by the results of the presidential election.  

In particular, zoning and similar land use issues are generally addressed by state and local governments.  Even the most pro-urban president is unlikely to take on anti-infill NIMBYism (1), make strip malls more walkable. or make streets narrower.  

On the other hand, transportation issues are the federal government's business.  A significant chunk of road and public transit spending is supplied by the federal government.  So in theory, a President could shift transportation spending from highways to public transit or vice versa.

But in recent decades, Congress rather than the White House has decided transportation funding issues.  For example, several Administrations (including the last two) have sought to close down Amtrak(2)- yet Amtrak survives.  And public transit seems to be independent of Presidential ideology.  Under President Bush (not exactly a smart growth champion) federal support for public transit has consistently increased.(3)  By contrast, under the Clinton Administration, federal support for transit decreased for years, only to recover in Clinton's last years as the Republican Congress moved towards a more pro-spending position. (4)  Because transportation funding is politically popular, Presidents rarely veto transportation funding bills.  As a result, Congress gets what it wants even if a President's priorities differ.

This is not to say that the identity of the President will have no effect upon urbanism.  Often, policies not intended to affect urban development will be more important than the Administration's official attitude towards sprawl or transit.  For example, the current Administration's willingness to tolerate a weak dollar may have contributed to the increase in gas prices, thus making public transit more attractive.

In sum, land use and transportation issues should be highly relevant to your votes for governor and senator, and somewhat relevant to your vote for Congress.  But I'm not sure how important such issues should be in deciding who to vote for in the Presidential race.

(1) NIMBY= Not In My Back Yard 

(2) See, e.g., http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6942852/ (President Bush)

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F07E2DF1738F935A25752C0A... (President Clinton)

(3) http://apta.com/research/stats/factbook/documents08/2008_fundcap_final.pdf , Table 41.

(4) http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/01statab/stlocgov.pdf  , Table 420.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.

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