The design of our cities is influenced by what types of transportation are available, and how people choose to get around is, in turn, influenced by our cities’ design. This is why medieval streets are narrow and difficult to navigate by anything other than foot and why neighborhoods built since the advent of the automobile have been designed around them.
For decades, officials in the United States have attempted to develop public policies that leverage this deep connection, frequently with broader goals in mind. In 1966, then-president Lyndon B. Johnson noted, “We must continue to plan our highway system so that it will contribute to the rational use of urban space.” His successor, Richard Nixon, argued in 1973 that “good public transportation is essential not only to assure adequate transportation for all citizens, but to forward the common goal of less congested, cleaner, and safer communities.” More recently, President Joe Biden’s campaign platform emphasized that he would “work to make sure that new, fast-growing areas are designed and built with clean and resilient public transit in mind.”
Each agreed we need transportation options that induce effective land-use planning and land-use plans that enable transportation options. But administratively, these two issues are divided at the federal level. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) handles mobility policy and grants, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) handles housing and land-use policy.
History and evidence from abroad suggest better planning and collaboration across the federal government could improve how communities are built and ensure their residents have access to more equitable outcomes.
The roots of separate transportation and land-use planning policy
In new research, I investigate the roots of this administrative choice, which has had long-term consequences on American metropolitan area planning. This separation has also ultimately made it more difficult to develop urban environments that are easy to live in without having to rely on a car.
My research investigates in detail the major public debate about how to manage federal policy in transportation and land-use planning that occurred in the 1960s. In 1961, there was neither a HUD nor DOT. Housing and land-use planning policy were run out of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA), and transportation policy was mostly run out of the US Department of Commerce. When then-president John F. Kennedy agreed to fund the nation’s first permanent public transit grant program that year, he chose to manage the program in the HHFA, not the Department of Commerce. He was convinced that transit “is a distinctly urban problem and one of the key factors in shaping community development.”
When HUD was created in 1965, then-president Johnson and his congressional allies reaffirmed this view. One White House assistant noted that HUD should not only manage housing, land use, and transit planning but also have jurisdiction on “policy determination over highways in urban areas.” This approach suggested widespread support for planning transportation and land use as an ensemble.
The interstate highway system was destroying urban neighborhoods, especially those where Black residents lived, reinforcing that transportation planning required thoughtful land-use planning.
Several changes in the following years, however, undermined this approach. DOT’s creation in 1966 encouraged some congressmembers to think of transportation as independent, not integrated into the urban system. At the same time, some congressmembers evincing racist rhetoric emphasized their discontent with HUD, arguing that its stewardship of transit programs inappropriately emphasized the needs of Black residents. So in 1968, Congress moved all transportation planning to DOT, where it has remained since, isolated from housing and land-use planning.
Consequences of the separation of land use and transportation policies
In 1970, just 54 percent of US workers commuted alone in their personal vehicles. By 2018, more than three-quarters did. Meanwhile, the share of workers using transit and walking to work has declined as jobs and homes spread out, and transit services failed to keep up. Among the nine largest metropolitan in the US in 2019, all had smaller shares of commuters using transit or walking in 2019 than 1970. Only the New York region has recently seen rates recover to those last experienced in 1980.
Over the same period, urban land development in metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Boston multiplied exponentially, converting previously agricultural and natural land into sprawling subdivisions, office parks, and strip malls. Communities of color have frequently lost access to well-funded public services as white, wealthy families decamped from historic city centers to greener pastures.
These trends were generated partly by the failure of federal administrators to plan for transportation and land use in parallel. New housing and jobs centers are frequently built with no mobility options other than car access. New highways frequently fill up with congestion soon after they’re completed.
And though transportation is essential for access to jobs, schools, and other services, access to mobility is inequitably distributed. Black families are less likely to own cars but are just as dependent on a car-dependent land-use system. And the transportation sector—primarily because of personal driving—is now the largest contributor to national greenhouse gas emissions.
Opportunities for more effective planning and collaboration
France, Italy, Japan, and Spain have combined ministries that link housing policy with transportation investments. As a result, in each of these nations, political leadership on the two policy fronts is shared. For example, France’s new climate and resilience law, expected to pass later this year, includes policies that limit greenfield land development and requires metropolitan areas to create low-emission-car city-center zones. Perhaps not coincidentally, France has been far more successful encouraging people onto transit than the United States has over the past two decades.
There is no guarantee that an administrative reorganization, such as one that integrates transportation and land-use planning into one government department, would produce a less car-focused transportation system in the United States. And it’s unlikely the federal government will merge these federal programs, anyway.
Nevertheless, coordinating federal programs could improve US communities’ ability to plan for a less automobile dependent, more equitable future. Other countries, like Germany and the United Kingdom, have chosen similar administrative approaches as the US but have much better use of non-automobile alternatives. Some options the federal government could pursue include the following:
- restoring the Sustainable Communities Initiative, a program initiated during the Obama administration that encouraged cooperation between HUD and DOT
- integrating equitable housing affordability plans developed by local governments under HUD with short- and long-term transportation plans developed by metropolitan planning organizations
- mandating that federally funded transit projects are associated with zoning reforms that encourage denser, more pedestrian- and transit-friendly development
- requiring that affordable housing grants from the HOME program and the Housing Trust Fund, plus funds from the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, support projects located adjacent to convenient, frequent transit routes
Land-use and transportation are intrinsically linked, and policies that have failed to address this connection fueled inequitable outcomes that persist today. The federal programs above offer an opportunity to reverse this trend.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.