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When Do We Get Regional Planning?
Planning map in England. Photo by missinginadventure.

Planning map in England. Photo by missinginadventure.

One of the problems with transportation policy is that it is bogglingly opaque. The multiplication of planning boards and oversight boards and quasi-public authorities and the immense decision-making power awarded to the bureaucrats in planning and transportation departments make it very clear to provide democratic oversight of the political process. That means that even more than is normally true, institutional design is one of the most important tools we have to ensure good governance of transportation.

New research by Elisabeth Gerber, at the University of Michigan’s public policy school, and Clark Gibson, in UC San Diego’s political science department, therefore, is extremely valuable. Gerber and Gibson gather a wealth of data on metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) from around the country and then try to determine what factors lead MPOs to think more regionally or more locally, defining thinking locally as supporting projects that are only in one or two jurisdictions each and regionally as supporting projects across more jurisdictions.

Under that definition, Gerber and Gibson found that MPOs plan more regionally when the entire area is wealthier, when it is more transit-rich, when the MPO has greater organizational capacity (staff and resources), when the state sets the MPOs agenda (by chairing committees, say) and when there are fewer elected officials on the MPO.

This is useful information. The Monkey Cage, the academic political science blog, points out that 2/3 of the members of D.C. region’s MPO, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, are elected officials. In addition to that, I’d add that all three officers of the TPB are local officials. Both of those factors should cut towards greater local planning. On the other hand, the D.C.  region is wealthy and transit-rich, and the TPB is a relatively high-capacity organization. Those should help the TPB make more regionally-oriented decisions (an entirely separate decision from good decisions, I would add).

It’s very hard to exert democratic oversight on bodies like the TPB. Changing the institution to promote better outcomes, say by putting regional actors in charge of the body’s agenda, is a good way to begin to compensate for that.

(h/t David Broockman)

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  • Noah Kazis

    Matt and Stu, love the depth of these comments!!

    Stu – I’d say that regional planning is necessary but not sufficient for good planning. Most of the regional thinking is bad, but nearly all the local thinking is.

  • Matt

    Great blog and topics…

    Another aspect to planning is land use planning versus transportation planning. MPOs were created to address federal requirements and for regions to gain access to federal dollars for (initally) roads and (later) transit. Land use planning operates much differently in that it is purely controlled at the local level. As many people know, transportation and land use are linked with each other. Unfortunetaly, the current processes often treat land use as exogenous to the transportation planning process and transportation as exogenous to the land use planning process.

    Of course, it gets even more complicated once we start analyzing policies that affect both systems (land use and planning) but can anlyze the effects only for one system at a time. Example: CAFE standards. Great from an environemtnal perspective (reduce carbon emissions) but what happens to land use when people can drive further for the same cost (suburban sprawl?) or we cannot maintain our transportation system because revenues (from the gas tax) are decreasing.

  • Stu

    I think that you’ve brought up a few good points – that in many cases these decisions are not made transparently, and with little accountability, and that the presence of elected officials on MPO boards can be counter-productive.

    However, I think you have understated the fact that “regional” thinking does not necessarily equal “good” thinking. The educational/ideological background of the board member, or their personal economic interests, can have a far greater impact on decisions than whether they think regionally. For example, in Columbus OH a real estate executive sits on the board of the regional transit authority (COTA). He has also been quoted as saying “Columbus already has a fabulous rapid-transit system. It’s called the freeway.” This isn’t necessarily “local” thinking at work, but an interest in constant urban expansion and housing construction combined with a closed-minded politically conservative way of thinking.

    Bad MPO’s aren’t necessarily guilty of thinking “locally,” but thinking “wrong.”