A Political Economy of Access

Political Economy of Access CoverComing soon from the Network Design Lab: A Political Economy of Access by David Levinson and David King.


We don’t want to come across as David Downers, but it is hard to examine the state of American transport and land use planning without a large dose of cynicism about motives, and skepticism about claims and priorities.

Transport engineering and land use planning are technical fields nominally grounded in rational thought. Yet level-headed analysis and calculations haven’t led to healthy and financially sustainable transport and land use systems. Part of what we see as the problem is a focus on mobility over accessibility. This focus prioritizes vehicular flows and speed over people and proximity. Our shared goals should not be about how do we maximize how much people and things travel about. Rather, our goals should be about how can we make it as easy as possible to get to opportunities and activities. A second part of the problem is privileging expansion over preservation. While in a world where transport is new, with few roads and no transit service, expansion is the critical phase of development, in today’s world of mature networks, preserving what we have is so much more important. While we identify numerous problems, and solutions, the solutions are difficult to implement. That is not, we believe, because they are not good ideas, but rather because the institutions that make decisions are incapable of implementing them.

This book is called A Political Economy of Access for a reason. Our political economy analysis explains how access is shaped by law, culture, and governance. The issues we raise are not new, either. It was over a century ago when Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. said:

There has been a decided tendency on the part of official street planning to insist with quite needless and undesirable rigidity upon fixed standards of width and arrangement in regard to purely local streets, leading inevitably in many cases to the formation of blocks and lots of a size and shape ill adapted to the local uses to which they need to be put.

This quote introduces many of our concerns. First, streets and road networks are more than just thoroughfares. They actively shape the location and function of the built environment, support or deter alternatives to automobility and substantially affect public safety. Second, in a system where transport networks and land regulations are designed and built separately, there are mismatched incentives. The most efficient road may contradict the needs of great places. Speed is not necessarily a characteristic of great cities – other than maybe Indianapolis, no city brags about being a raceway. Third, rigid roadway design is a hallmark of a focus on mobility. The road itself is simply a conduit through which one passes, and the quality of destinations is diminished. Lastly, these are just some of the well-known problems that have persisted a century later, yet we have spent far less effort trying to understand why we keep building cities that many consider undesirable.

An additional concern is that transport systems require coordination across actors. There is no self-sufficient transport network, unlike, say, a commune. The car you own is worthless without roads, and the capital and expertise required to build and maintain cars very much differs from the expertise needed for roads. Certainly, some self-contained systems exist, such as elevators or airport trams, but these do not scale to cities overall. The question remains how to integrate infrastructure, traffic flow, and land development. This book advocates for coordination through prices, so people can account for the full cost of the actions of themselves and and others when making decisions, whether as a driver, developer, planner, or elected official.

The current state of transport and land use systems raises further concerns. New technologies are changing transport in fundamental ways. App-based services offer new taxi-type alternatives, which compete with and complement existing travel modes. These services are backed by deep-pocketed investors and despite their popularity are, as of this writing in 2018, not actually profitable. But there is little doubt that such services will persist in some form once the money runs out. If the history of taxicabs is any guide, a new era of regulation will protect Uber, Lyft and others from their demise.

Private firms have reoriented transport planning priorities, for good and bad. Not long ago long-range transport plans largely set the course for policy and investment decades ahead. Now everything from streetcars for real estate development to ridesharing through dockless bikesharing and, the flavor of the week, electric scooters,4 are undermining the slow predictability of policy. With automated vehicles peeking over the horizon, the conventional approach to transport planning may be obsolete as no one knows what innovations and unintended side effects

automation will bring.The internal combustion engine is likely nearing the end of its century of dominance, as well, to be replaced by electric drivetrains. This is a much bigger issue than just a propulsion system. These engines use fuel, which is taxed to pay for infrastructure across the US and in some other countries, and taxed for general revenue elsewhere. A shift to electricity affects the core relationship between user fees and public spending. New sources of revenue will have to be developed, including road tolls, road access charges, parking fees, and other sources. Of course, a loss of motor fuel taxes also will affect who pays for infrastructure. The role of the federal government (at least in the United States) will likely diminish as federal fuel taxes decline. This devolution of authority (which is happening in Western countries) pushes local, state and provincial governments to raise their own revenues. Voters will be asked to approve new taxes and fees, which introduces distributional concerns, but also whether voters are adequately informed to assess the value of any package of taxes and spending.

Transport referenda are generally popular with the public as more than 70 percent usually pass in the United States. But voters often don’t know the true details of what they are voting on. California has led the way in voter-led projects, including their high-speed rail project that voters passed with 52.6 % of the votes in2008.5 This despite well-publicized concerns, proponents promised a train that would connect the state, “[C]arrying up to 117 million passengers annually by 2030, with the capacity to also carry high-value, lightweight freight.”6 Since then, the timeline has been extended, the scope scaled back, forecast recanted, and the costs have increased dramatically – at one point to nearly $100 billion. Stations have been delayed or cancelled, and now the train is promoted as a commuter service to open up housing markets away from the extremely expensive coastal cities. The project is substantially different from what voters were sold, and a very passive aggressive solution to the state’s housing affordability crisis. We expect more like this.

Lastly, the political economy of access must address issues of race and social justice. New transit investments tend to favor wealthier, whiter communities. Bicycle advocacy is dominated by young, white men, as are the technology companies developing micromobility services and microtransit and taxi apps. As once young, white men ourselves, there is nothing wrong with that, but we have learned it is but one perspective of many. Access to new systems raises privacy concerns (though people don’t really act like they care about privacy – see Facebook behavior, for instance). Through this book, the value we wish to promote is access. Access is the ability for people and firms to interact, whether through employment, production, consumption or sales. As we explain in the next chapters, access is a value that differs from mobility. Where mobility improvements are a hallmark of recent decades of transport policy, our focus on mobility has led to auto dominated landscapes where people have few options about how to get around. With a focus on access, we can orient transport policy to connecting people to places they want to be rather than accommodating driving at the expense of everything else.

So why should you read another book about transport and land use? (Especially since one of us has already written on this topic?) This book differs in that we won’t focus on empirical arguments – we present political arguments. We argue that the political aspects of transport policy shouldn’t be assumed away or treated as a nuisance. Political choices are the core reasons our cities look and function the way they do. There is no original sin that we can undo that will lead to utopian visions of urban life.
As Americans, we give extra attention to the US – which in our view trails the developed world in the quality of its transport and land use systems, but take many examples from outside the US to illustrate why the problems in the US are political, and not structurally embedded in the nature of transport or land use, and thus solvable.

We have struggled with the organization of this book. We have settled on several major parts: Preservation,  Expansion, Cities, and Institutions.  Preservation concerns the relatively short-run issues of how to maintain and operate the existing surface transport system (roads and transit). Expansion in contrast is a long-run problem, how to enlarge the network, or rather, why enlarging the network is now so difficult. Cities, examines how we organize, regulate, and expand our cities to address the failures of transport policy, and falls into the time-frame of the very long-run, as property rights and land uses are often stickier than the concrete of the network is durable. Institutions, in a sense considers things that while they might in first blush appear to be short-run and malleable, are in fact very long-run. Institutions seem to outlast the infrastructure they manage. Within each part are a set of chapters.

We expect the audience for this book to be practitioners, planners, engineers, advocates, urbanists, students of transport, and fellow academics. While we may come across as overly critical at times, we write in the spirit of improving transport and land use policy through a focus on access. Since accessibility is what we think is important, we argue for trade-offs that people who advocate more building or a particular travel mode may not. While there are many problems that are not solved, we maintain they are solvable.