Compared with peer nations in Asia and Europe, the United States suffers from higher rates of economic inequality and higher per capita carbon emissions.
Many factors drive these inequitable and unsustainable conditions, but one key problem is a decades-long failure to plan for mobility and land use in tandem. Many transportation investments—most of which are in roadways—are made with little attention to how the surrounding built environment, like homes and offices, could encourage walking, biking, and transit use. Instead, they typically result in car-oriented culs-de-sac, office parks, and strip malls. As such, Americans drive far more than their peers abroad, creating more pollution in the process. This automobile dependence also drives inequality, as people without car access have less ability to reach employment and important public services.
A recent announcement of $1.5 billion available from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to help local communities modernize their transportation infrastructure offers an unprecedented opportunity to align transportation and land-use planning and, in doing so, address inequality and improve sustainability.
Funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, this assistance will be allocated through the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) discretionary grant program. RAISE grants are distributed to state, local, and regional governments to implement transportation projects such as street improvements, transit investments, and freight corridors throughout the US. By focusing on the links between mobility and land use, it can be a model for other transportation grant programs.
RAISE aims to integrate transportation and land-use planning
The RAISE program is the latest incarnation of a series of federal discretionary grant programs for transportation (previous versions of the grant were referred to as TIGER and BUILD). DOT will select proposed investments to receive grants of up to $25 million apiece using criteria (PDF) that require project sponsors to show how they will support the department’s goals of safety, environmental sustainability, quality of life, mobility, economic competitiveness, state of good repair, partnership, and innovation.
The program will advance many goals simultaneously but focuses on a requirement for grantees to demonstrate how they expect to integrate transportation and land-use planning. This requirement is a major change from most previous federal infrastructure programs and previous iterations of the RAISE program itself (PDF), which have sometimes treated mobility infrastructure as independent from the land uses it spawns.
The 2022 RAISE criteria specify that projects will be selected based on whether they “are coordinated with greater economic development such as commercial and mixed-income residential development near public transportation,” with the goal of “encouraging thriving communities.” As such, investments in mobility through RAISE are part and parcel of choices about land-use design.
By promoting connections between transportation infrastructure and the surrounding physical environments, RAISE can help build increased social and racial equity in communities throughout the nation.
Specifically, DOT will examine whether proposed projects are designed to reduce the costs of housing and transportation for families with low incomes and are located in historically disadvantaged communities. Grants will go to projects “that proactively address racial equity and barriers to opportunity, including automobile dependence as a form of barrier, or redress prior inequities and barriers to opportunity.” Projects will be evaluated based on whether they allow “individuals to work, live, and play… with or without a car” and increase access to jobs.
Linking transportation and land-use planning also has the benefit of promoting increased sustainability. Program criteria promotes projects designed to reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and vehicle miles traveled. In practice, DOT could prioritize projects that add new transportation lines near dense residential and employment centers and support investments that promote walking, biking, and transit—rather than driving—within and between those centers.
Future federal efforts could expand the initiative to jointly plan transportation and land use
Collectively, these guidelines could encourage state and local governments to propose projects that advance equity and sustainability by aligning land-use and transportation planning.
But RAISE grants represent just a small part of overall federal infrastructure spending, less than 3 percent of the more than $500 billion to be spent on surface transportation over the next five years. State and local governments are likely to spend even more money, based on recent experience. If policymakers want to continue prioritizing equity and sustainability in planning, RAISE’s standards for incorporating the links between transportation and land use should be included in all public infrastructure grant programs.
And more work needs to be done to ensure the effectiveness of federal discretionary programs. The 2022 criteria encourage projects to consider land use, but do not require specific outcomes. Several changes could be incorporated into future criteria:
- Grant programs could require that states, cities, and regional entities applying for discretionary infrastructure funding demonstrate progress toward meeting regional housing needs. (Criteria for 2022 emphasize projects that reduce cost burdens and encourage location-efficient affordable housing.) This requirement might entail showing that zoning codes in the neighborhoods proposed for transportation investments can support the addition of new housing, both affordable and market rate.
- The federal government could coordinate transportation and housing grants and encourage states and localities to braid funds from DOT and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to improve residential and transportation outcomes simultaneously. An applicant could explain how they will use federal funds from two coordinated programs to invest both in a public transit line and also in new affordable residences along its route. This approach has been demonstrated to reduce displacement and support access to mobility for those who are now most underserved.
- Grant criteria could require applicants to show how they are combining future transportation projects with their own investments in economic development. Rather than encouraging building on greenfields at the far edge of metropolitan areas (and promoting car use as a result), cities and states could show how they will target subsidies for infill projects along federally funded transportation corridors.
Together, these changes could be transformative in ensuring that transportation investments not only increase movement but also build more equitable, sustainable communities.
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