(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 373: Real Talk on Climate Action and TOD

March 9, 2022

This week we’re joined by Adie Tomer from Brookings to talk about how transit-oriented development and active transportation play into climate strategies over the long term. We talk about mitigation versus adaptation strategies and what solutions work best for each.

To listen to the show, go to Streetsblog USA’s podcast page or our hosting archive.

Below is a full (unedited) transcript from the show:

Jeff Wood (51s):
Adie Tomer, welcome to the podcast.

Adie Tomer (1m 28s):
Thanks for having me, Jeff.

Jeff Wood (1m 29s):
Well, we’ve chatted a number of times, but perhaps you could tell the listeners a bit about yourself for those that might not be familiar.

Adie Tomer (1m 35s):
Yeah. So I’m a senior fellow at the Brookings institution in Washington, DC. I work in are now formally branded Metro program. We used to be called the metropolitan policy program center for urban studies or something at one point, but now we’re just, we’re just Brookings Metro. So I focus on infrastructure and built environment issues, Berkeley with my colleague, Joe Kane on water and workforce with my colleague, Jenny shuts on housing. You know, we got a whole kind of awesome team. That’s trying to think about how do we build more inclusive, sustainable and competitive places.

Jeff Wood (2m 9s):
What’s the main focus right now. I mean like what’s the most interesting thing that’s happening out there that you see going on in the world?

Adie Tomer (2m 15s):
Oh man, that’s such a good question. Yeah, it can’t be just one answer. Oh look, I mean, Washington just passed, you know, the biggest infrastructure bill of our lifetimes, you know, certainly UME Jeff for years and years, but this is the biggest one we’ll see in our professional lives. What’s going to happen with that in particular, the implementation issues across the country are really top of mind for us. So that’s a big one and there almost isn’t enough coverage we can give to it. It’s going to touch every community. It’s going to impact them in tons of different ways and to give folks, cause it’s not the main thing we’ll talk about today. If I can give one little nugget to folks to think about themselves too, it’s you know, how is each region and state too, but more so at the regional and local level, going to be able to come up with the right of matching funds, texting, execute the projects they want.

Adie Tomer (3m 2s):
You know, there’s a ton of federal resources here, but it’s going to require some skin in the game to say nothing of winning competitive grants or convincing your state Capitol, right. To spend money the right way in your community that you want it. Now. They want it. Those are hard fights too, but we got to come up with a lot more money on top of the money we’ve already spent. So there’s some really difficult puzzles there. So we’re working on that quite a bit. We have this really cool project going on in San Diego, which is just such an awesome place. And we’ll be down there for about five years. And we’re only about a half a year into it to really think about what does it mean to build a more prosperous, inclusive, sustainable place, right? I’ll keep kind of do it, the three legs of the stool here and to actually play that out in one market is really interesting.

Adie Tomer (3m 44s):
And then the other part, which is, you know, a big element of what we’re going to talk about today is how do we actually deliver climate responsive solutions and not just the mitigation conversation, which we hear the most about nationally through switching to renewable energy sources or electric vehicles, but actually the adaptation conversation, which is as you all know, out in California, right? Jeff, like your neck of the woods of the fires and the drought are constantly reminding us of that, but there’s other stressors across the country. And of course, every time a Superstorm comes through, especially in the Gulf and up the Atlantic seaboard, it’s a reminder, but the most recent, one of the wildfires and, you know, north of Denver and east of Boulder, just heartbreaking.

Adie Tomer (4m 34s):
I have a buddy who, who lost a home there, no joke. And it was just, it was so visceral and real. And yet at the same time, environmental scientists have been warning for years and years to not build there, that it was deeply unsafe and our capital markets let us do it. So we are thinking a lot about what does it take to create a more adaptive kind of metropolitan development that recognizes the climate realities of where we are, you know, Joe Kane and I just published this really wonky paper in case anyone’s having trouble falling asleep at night, it’ll help you with that. But it’s also found out our capital markets are not set up right now to build these kinds of places that keep allowing housing to be built in the right places, the transportation and connect it.

Adie Tomer (5m 22s):
Like we’re just not pricing stuff, right? So, you know, a big theme for us is how do we plan and deliver more resilient regions all across the country. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Jeff Wood (5m 32s):
I look forward to reading that the capital markets, insurance regulations, all kinds of stuff. You know, we, we focus on that here in California because of the fires. And it’s interesting to see what’s happening and who’s going to pull the strings on finishing, building in the wild land, urban interface.

Adie Tomer (5m 46s):
Yeah. Did you see that recent piece in the wall street journal about, I think it’s, AIG’s pulling out of the California insurance market.

Jeff Wood (5m 54s):
Oh,

Adie Tomer (5m 55s):
I highly recommend you. And of course, you know, listeners to check it out, there’s this gentleman and I might get it wrong, but I believe he’s in Napa or just south of there, maybe Sonoma talking about how he did everything he could to protect his house, but they just can’t insure it. And the reality is it’s because his house is under threat of wildfire. Like it’s, you know, the insurance market, it’s not personal to them. It’s always business. And they’re just saying, I can’t safely do this. Right. Like, you know, your, your house is really at risk. It’s a great article. It really kind of, haints in gray brush strokes, you know, it doesn’t make it so black and white, but it’s a harsh reality we’re living in right now. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (6m 34s):
Well, so you were on a panel with our good friend, Lucy Galbreath called Tod critical strategy for fighting climate change at the RailVolution Virtual conferences fall. What was the first thing that came to your mind when you started putting together your presentation? Or maybe even when you pick the panel, what was the first thing that came to your mind about fighting climate change and Tod?

Adie Tomer (6m 51s):
And that really came to mind was I was excited to wear it, but Lucy, because she’s awesome. So I was honest, you know, she’s asked me to just jump and I’d say, oh, hi. Right. But the thought on the presentation itself was we need to be more sober in the transit supportive community. And I would argue the, the, like the place-based community too. I don’t think we have probably necessarily the exact same visions there as we probably do with the transportation investments. But I think we have pretty, relatively common visions of the kind of communities we want to build. I don’t think we’re sober enough about what it’s going to take to deliver more of those kinds of neighborhoods in corridors. And I was really excited for a chance to talk to a RailVolution audience where I’m often in the audience events I presented to.

Adie Tomer (7m 32s):
Cause this was a cool kind of bi-directional conversation that Lucy and I crafted, and we really did it. So it wasn’t just us talking at the panel was right, right. These breakout groups, which was dope, the opportunity to push people, to answer what should be hard questions in particular around political economy, meaning, you know, why do our communities not build what we are so convinced our right. You know, what are we missing in that argument? You know, obviously a single presentation to a relatively small group is not gonna move the needle, but we need to do a whole lot more of that, especially in the places we live. So it was a good experience to put together the presentation portion of that.

Jeff Wood (8m 7s):
I think that DOD doesn’t scale the way that we want it to at the moment. I mean, you kind of alluded to that, but it seems like it’s not getting built fast enough to have an impact. There’s a project here. There’s a project there that seems to be a bigger problem. And I don’t want to use the terms and wordings of Silicon valley. It drives me nuts, but you know, that, I think it’s just a good descriptor of how to kind of grow the pie.

Adie Tomer (8m 31s):
Yeah. It’s the great way to frame it. Jeff, honestly, we’re not getting scaled, so it should push us to ask why are we not getting it? What’s the problem? You know, one of the things I sent in it was we won the marketing war. I mean, do you have, you know, they sell cars driving through cities right now, besides the,

Jeff Wood (8m 50s):
There’s always a train in the background too. Like they driving by a light rail or a

Adie Tomer (8m 55s):
Streetcar. Right, right. Right. When they’re filming like LA they’re new light rail or Chicago, they like go through the, you know, yeah. Cities are so cool. We’ve won. Like, I mean, thank goodness we all get like food halls now everywhere. You know, like they’re wonderful. Right. Obviously, I mean, again, so we’ve won the kind of visual and aesthetic fight. And so it’s not, it’s not like we’re, we’re culturally losing, but yeah, to your point, we’re not building enough of this stuff. And somewhere along the way, we’ve, we’ve lost our ability to win the day in such a way that it doesn’t each time need to be a massive fight. Right. You know, I think a lot about a community, let’s say like Charlotte, you know, the blue Rhine has been so successful in terms of property investment.

Adie Tomer (9m 39s):
They get pretty low ridership. And yet still the development is just, it is like, it just holds along that corridor right now, of course, on both sides of town, but yet they can’t find enough money to build more of these corridors. Right. They, the amount of density that they’re trying to build in Charlotte, it’s really impressive. They could do even more, but yet somehow this, the actual construction based system, both on infrastructure and on housing and other real estate, it’s just not built to let this thing flow on its own. Meanwhile, we know as Lucy called it, I love it. The sprawl industrial complex, I mean it’s alive and kicking. Right. And it’s just so much easier to build that.

Adie Tomer (10m 20s):
And I don’t think we’re giving folks enough choice. We’re not making the strong enough case for why, you know, tight fitting neighborhoods, if you will, are advantageous. And we’re definitely not taking advantage of how climate conscious Tod is irrespective of the actual transit ridership part. So we’ve got to keep working, you know, all these stupid cliches, right. But like we got to stay in the lab or the workshop and keep working on this stuff. Cause yeah, we’re not where we all want to be yet. Even if culturally, you know, w when smart growth launched, let’s say, you know, we’re so much further along and have really done so well on that cultural front.

Jeff Wood (10m 55s):
Well, that’s a good question to kind of back up the topic at hand is why is Tod such a good climate change strategy? Why is it a better product quote, unquote product than say the sprawl industrial complex produces?

Adie Tomer (11m 8s):
Yeah. I should talk definitions really quick. When I say Tod I’m actually don’t even care if there’s transit there. I really just mean a walkable neighborhood. Like if you got, if you got a whole bunch of four over one apartments, right down one common street, like that’s Tod to me, obviously having fixed transit and that, whether that’s fixed me in that bus line has been there right for decades, and they’re not moving it to of course, rails or BRT in the, in the road or in the, in the right of way. Great. Of course. Right. But, you know, we shouldn’t be so transfixed, especially in the U S on the T part of it. So I’m talking walkable neighborhoods here. So the first great environmental thing that, that Tod neighborhoods deliver is significantly shorter trip.

Adie Tomer (11m 54s):
So based on a study that we’re actually going to be expanding to a hundred Metro areas or a hundred plus in the coming months on a study, we did at six Metro areas, we found basically walkable Tod like neighborhoods. Their average trip mileage is again, for all trips was 4.4 miles. Now, relative context that may not sound like anything it’s certainly beyond walking distance. But remember, that’s all those commute trips that are, you know, 10, 15 miles and a lot of places in non walkable places. The average trip mileage was 9.1 miles. In many of those really suburban, suburban automobile, random neighborhoods. That’s a huge difference.

Adie Tomer (12m 36s):
And if we want to hit our transportation emissions targets, we need to, I think face the facts. That’s really hard for most people in America who don’t live, especially in many coastal or dense beyond kind of Heartland markets. They can’t get out of their car. They can’t stop driving and they need it for even 50, if not a hundred percent potentially of their key economic activity. So they’re going to have a car. The best thing we can do is make sure they drive short distances and continue to make it attractive to them, to use their bike walk, use transit, more of those trips and shorter distances are going to do that. So that’s, that’s the first benefit as like a categorical group. The second one though, is that when you build those kinds of neighborhoods, it has these other knock-on benefits to beyond transportation.

Adie Tomer (13m 23s):
So as one example, the stormwater runoff and denser development is 74% lower than in automobile oriented development. Building out broadband networks can be four X in savings, right? So that’s just on water and broadband infrastructure. In general, we see huge efficiencies and folks like smart growth America and folks have been, and, and a ton of academics have been running these studies for, for decades now. And we know it’s extremely efficient on infrastructure. And in particular, from an environment perspective, it’s part of the reason Europe kind of eats us right now on the place-based or metropolitan scale side of climate and carbon footprints, right.

Adie Tomer (14m 4s):
In particular, because they have more of these neighborhoods and more of the people that live in them. And we’ve got to figure out how to get folks living in more of those places while still somehow, you know, making sure that it reflects American cultural values from housing stock to, you know, quality of life and things. I think we know that Americans like these neighborhoods too, we just don’t have enough.

Jeff Wood (14m 25s):
Yeah. I mean, the basic thing, it feels like it’s just street does general street design. If you’re going to build all those neighborhoods outside of the core, basic street design and, you know, network design can make that simple. And there’s a lot of cities that have done this, where they’ve decided, you know, no more, cul-de-sacs no more dendritic systems where the end is an end. It’s actually has to be networked. And it makes sense for a lot of different things. I mean, we had, you know, Danny pleasant on talking about how they, you know, in Charlotte we’re thinking the fire departments and their response times and what that means for, you know, paying for fire response and how much that saves them money over time and those types of things. So that seems to me like, you know, aside from the development, it’s a whole street network ideal that we need to kind of push and, and make sure that it gets built because we can’t keep going the same direction that we were before.

Adie Tomer (15m 12s):
Yeah, that’s totally right. And you know, it, when you travel the country in particular. So for, I live in Cleveland, Ohio, even though I work at Washington DC, and Cleveland’s an older city, right. And we’ve got miles and miles of that kind of street credit, you were just talking about Jeff. And it’s not that people don’t live in the city of Cleveland anymore. It’s just relative to its historic highs. I mean, it’s at, I don’t know the exact number. It’s like, I’m saying it’s roughly half below, like 50% below what its prior population peak was. It can fit a lot more people. Right. And if you have them in there, they’re going to benefit from that tighter street grid and how it impacts their behavior and how the city operates too. It’s so much more efficient than other parts of the region. And I wish we could take more advantage of them.

Jeff Wood (15m 54s):
I want to talk about the Tod strategy versus say like an auto electrification strategy. A lot of folks are pushing for electrification EVs as the way to get out of the hole that we’ve dug for ourselves and the way that we’ve built our communities with those roads, we were just talking about why is it that folks are so focused on electrification when there’s another strategy that actually has even more, like you said, knock on effects.

Adie Tomer (16m 16s):
This is where I get into the most trouble.

Jeff Wood (16m 20s):
It’s not trouble if it’s a good answer.

Adie Tomer (16m 22s):
Yeah, man. I mean, look, you know, I’ve got, I’ve got the receipts. You know, I support dense development to support it personally. You know, in my personal choices, I supported in my work for 15 years, you can feel where this is going. I’m feeling defensive already. We need to get a lot more dense neighborhoods. Whether it’s like the example I just mentioned in Cleveland, just building up more, you know, allowing, helping more people live in cities that have more of those neighborhoods, like the Clevelands and Milwaukee’s and buffaloes and Cincinnati, et cetera, or even building up more in places like San Francisco that you know, well, that’s going to take a long time and we don’t have time right now if we’re to believe the climate modelers, which I do wholeheartedly. So we’re in a really tricky spot.

Adie Tomer (17m 4s):
We need to somehow reduce emissions from transportation, which probably everyone who listens here knows that transportation. Now the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, I industrial sector, and it’s going up while other areas are going down, which is a really bad sign, right? If you think about it, like we’re figuring out renewables are not even at the scale we want and it’s already right from our energy generation sector, you know, emissions are going down. Our building sector is actually getting relatively speaking, more efficient energy wise and transportation, and just can’t like can’t break through right now. So the tantalizing element of EVs is that if you clean up the electric grid right now immediately, you’re putting clean fuels into cars, Americans drive without having to change actual transportation behavior, meaning development behavior.

Adie Tomer (17m 54s):
We can get those reductions we need for the transportation sector again. But the GHG reductions, that’s not just tantalizing if it’s correct. When you look at a purely mitigation standpoint, right? The problem is, as we just discussed, we know that our development patterns are unsustainable in a whole bunch of ways. Most critically, as we’ve seen with fires, particularly right in the mountain west and out west flooding in particular in the south east, the Midwest and the Northeast and the Atlanta coast, our neighborhoods are under threat from increasing extreme weather events and even more kind of regular weather events like the king tides and Southeast Florida, we need to build more sustainably.

Adie Tomer (18m 37s):
So we save money on infrastructure like we were just talking about. So we have less stormwater runoff to keep our natural water resources cleaner. There’s a whole bunch of arguments for it, but we don’t have time to only use that intervention yet if we invest in electric vehicles, how do we make sure that we still pause the Automobility or the sprawl industrial complex again, from continuing to gobble up more and more metropolitan land. And that is a complicated question to answer. It is not easy. And that’s what we’ve got to focus on. I say we, as a broadly defined like folks who believe in the kind of this kind of spatial development, we’ve got about five, 10 years here where we really got to focus on how to win, win that day, knowing that because we’re stuck with the development we built.

Adie Tomer (19m 27s):
So for the next few decades, most Americans are going to do most of their travel behavior by driving because they have to, because we’re stuck with what we built in the past. So we’re in a really tricky moment and it’s hard to live through it because we’re real. It’s like we’re right in the middle of the fog, right. Or right in the middle of the forest, whichever metaphor you want you

Jeff Wood (19m 46s):
Earlier on, you said mitigation versus adaptation and it’s so it seems like we’re in this ten-year period where we’re focusing on the mitigation of this specific thing. We’re worried about lowering our emissions to 1990 levels to deal with the Kyoto and the Paris Accords, but over the long-term of the planet and in human kind, there does need to be that adaptation. And so ultimately you can’t fill the whole planet with vehicles. How do you reconcile those two? And because the vehicles have an inertia that will lead to more development that allows for, you know, everybody will say, oh, well, no big deal. I’ll live out here because I have my electric car.

Jeff Wood (20m 26s):
Whereas there’s a whole issue with that from an ecology standpoint, how do you reconcile those two?

Adie Tomer (20m 32s):
I don’t know. I mean, you know, some existential kind of socio-economic issues are true conundrums, right? We cannot have transportation emitting this level of greenhouse gases and there is no Metro area outside of New York that shows any kind of ability to get anywhere close to the kinds of reductions that we’re really gonna need. You know, we could talk about what happens in this new kind of work from home, you know, hopefully post COVID environment, but the way we’ve, you know, adapted digital tech for so many occupations, you know, there’s some other ways to get our miles traveled way down.

Adie Tomer (21m 13s):
But I mean, you know this stuff too, right? Like there’s an absurd percentage of Americans, especially metropolitan Americans, but also remember small communities. I mean, they, they really are ready to it’s low density by definition. I mean, things are just further apart. There’s often a, an amazingly powerful and I mean, as a compliment, you know, main street let’s say, but you know, housing can be miles apart, right? I mean, so those folks transit is not what’s going to work for them. It never has. Right. It’s ideally you can figure out solutions there with some stop gap, but it’s right. It’s not like New York city or San Francisco. And then most of the metropolitan residents live in auto mobility design places. I mean, that’s where the housing stock is. We we’ve made our bet on us.

Adie Tomer (21m 53s):
It’s not what probably almost anyone who listens to this wants, but these were decisions made by our, the prior generations. And I like to think they didn’t, they didn’t know what was coming. You know, most of these folks, they just thought this was either cultural values or who knows, but that’s what we got and we’re stuck with it. And we need to house people. And as we know, from separate housing conversations, especially in our coastal markets, we don’t have nearly enough housing along inside Tod corridors and neighborhoods. So we’ve got some huge construction demands. That’s going to take 10 to 20 years to hit at a high note. I mean, you said earlier to Jeff, right? Like we’re not getting scale on these quarters.

Adie Tomer (22m 33s):
There’s too many one-off examples, right? Well, if we want to get everyone traveling much less than ideally getting out of their cars, as often as possible, we haven’t even started this, like the level of construction activity we need. And then by the way, that takes 10 to 20 years, you know, there’s so many great people out there who track transit investments and big real estate investments. They take five to 10 years. Sometimes even once they do the proverbial groundbreaking right to the ribbon cutting, we just don’t have that time. So to get back to the kind of that core part of the conundrum you brought up that’s right. It’s we need to clean up transportation. The only short-term meaning 10 plus years, but let’s talk 10 to 20 year option we’ve got is electrifying a ton of the vehicle fleet, especially household fleet.

Adie Tomer (23m 18s):
Cause that’s where the tech is. You know, freight longest since freight, especially shipping and air like seaborne and air is even further away. So let’s say we clean it up. We have to get rules in place. Now in communities that dissuades from the kind of continued investments in housing and low density, commercial real estate and industrial investments on the metropolitan fringe, we got to stop it in its tracks and we just don’t have much time left to do it. And we’re going to probably have to go beyond just consumer tastes. Cause we know folks want to live denser. People like townhomes and things, right. But we’re going to need to figure out how to convince markets that it is too expensive to build what right now is far too cheap.

Adie Tomer (24m 4s):
So we’ve got to somehow mitigate and use the mitigation to it, adopt an adaptation strategy that inherently wants to retire the same mitigation strategy. That’ll save us. It’s a real puzzle. And I am really open to other folks who are seeing it different and have evidence. I wish this was easier. I don’t feel good seeing it this way. To be honest,

Jeff Wood (24m 26s):
You mentioned capital markets earlier. Is there a way out, I mean, you say it doesn’t look good, but theoretically, is there a way out, is there a way to move towards a more walkable paradigm where you can get to those 4.4 miles per trip rather than 9.1 miles per hour?

Adie Tomer (24m 39s):
And this is where I’m so confident Jeff, like, you know, Joe and I did this work and I in particular, but he did too. We kept having these neighborhood images in our minds of like, what are we building too much of? And in the ones we’re not building enough of in which would be more sustainable. And we would sometimes ask these folks, we interview, we did so many interviews, Joe in particular, his credit and a lot of folks working on, on the proverbial street. Right? So these are either inside financial institutions, working at insurance firms, the ratings agencies, right. And consistently right now what their response would be right now. It is too cheap to build the thing that you’re saying we shouldn’t have. And we agree in inevitably.

Adie Tomer (25m 21s):
So what we’ve got to get to this is where we’ve been talking about scale a lot. And I think, again, I don’t, I don’t hear it as like a Silicon valley

Jeff Wood (25m 29s):
Thing and it gets because of where I am.

Adie Tomer (25m 31s):
I know, right. I think of scale more as actually it’s like the suburban, you know, like cut and copy suburban neighborhood where, you know, I grew up in Florida as someone who grew up in a version of California, you know, you can’t almost can’t get further away from each other and probably almost be exact spatial, like thing we grew up in. Right? So that scale that’s insert amounts of scale. In fact, there’s too much scale to it. So to scale these other ideas, you do that through capital markets that forces people to make consistent amounts of decisions because we are a market based economy. People like to make personal and then at their business, private profit and those that’s just, that’s real.

Adie Tomer (26m 12s):
So how can you use those levers to our advantage? You know, it’s what we’re hearing about constantly when these extreme weather events happen. And we just saw it in again in east of Boulder, in Colorado folks, many really well-to-do folks in very expensive houses. The insurers came back, they had insurance and the insurers came back saying, we’re not going to cover your full cost. The actuarial folks, they know what’s coming. And they would like us to start doing things differently. But right now it’s just, we are not giving in particular private investors, whether their households or other in commercial real estate, the right signals on where they should be investing.

Adie Tomer (26m 54s):
If we knew that the suburbs were more expensive and we couldn’t hide costs in the same way we do right now, then folks would be much more attractive to invest in denser neighborhoods. So we’ve got to have these market signals work in our favor to get there. We need to have a lot more climate, rich data. You know, places like Redfin, shouldn’t be applauded left. And right. Even if it’s not the end of the story and they’re not done either by the way, but where it is right now, like knowing flood risk, when you buy a house, that should be really, really clear. Even when you start searching, you know, knowing what your driving costs might be. And by the way, if we increase gas taxes or gases gets more expensive, or we just have VMT fees, you should know what the average travel distances and neighborhoods that data’s not available.

Adie Tomer (27m 37s):
It’s not really clear walk scores. Amazing, but that that’s not what walk score does. Right? So we need a lot better data out there. And we need to help all of us who have money in either IRAs or all right. Like I don’t work in markets that way. So it’s like the money that we put away, we should be, if you want it to be truly investing in ESG, we can’t have greenwashing on the built environment side. We need to actually make sure we’re putting money in the right kinds of places and help underwriters like bank of America and Wells Fargo, let’s say, make it really clear to them that the right thing to do and the right profit motive actually right. Is more investment in the kinds of neighborhoods that we’re interested in.

Adie Tomer (28m 17s):
Right? Again, these Blockable Tod rich style neighbors.

Jeff Wood (28m 22s):
I’ve been spending a lot of time chatting with folks that are maybe to the left of me and maybe they’ve gotten in my head, but because the discussion of markets and the markets that haven’t worked for folks in say the bay area, young people who can’t buy houses, those types of things too, they come up as, you know, quote unquote neo-liberal solutions. And I’m curious what a response to that would be because there are people who are starting to be like, well, this system isn’t working for me, I need to go and do a different system.

Adie Tomer (28m 52s):
I would agree with them. Yeah. I mean, look, you know, we lived in DC for a long time. I mean, it’s, you know, it’s not as bad as the bay area. Right. But it’s deeply unaffordable, you know, it’s, it’s fun to pack in a group home when you’re 20 to 25, right. To do work. But I’m sure most of those people would like their own kitchen. If they could, you know, like their own bathroom bedroom you have. Right. So it’s clear that the current situation isn’t working to me, there is no in this space, unregulated market, like we have distorted markets in all kinds of ways through public policy. Sometimes it’s good. Oftentimes it’s bad. And in particular, in housing it’s been really, really bad.

Adie Tomer (29m 33s):
So my pushback would be markets are not the problem. We all trade all day every day, right. To get what we want. Like me, I’m like food, you know, like that’s, that’s just, that’s economy is everywhere. And so markets are not the problem. It’s our lack of regulation or poor regulation. Right. That is the problem. And we’re not doing enough to construct housing. Right. You know, you always had great pieces and study, you know, housing stuff to Jeff, like, you know, the Germanic model. Like we, they are market players, right. And big time global traders, if you will, not, not in capital markets, I’m saying like there, their manufacturing complex is enormous. They’re just extremely successful, maybe absurd shares of public housing.

Adie Tomer (30m 17s):
And some of those is like Vienna. What is often considered the nicest place to live in, in the world and very expensive, but public housing, like, like what is it? Well, north of 50%. Right? So you see what I’m getting at? Like, we’re just, we’re not treating markets in favor of people in the U S and that’s the real tragedy. We need to use profit motive to our advantage. Right. And figure out how to do it in right ways that makes sure we actually deliver. It’s almost like a quality of life, bill of rights, if you will. Right. You know, people have been talking about like universal mobility as a right. Which is something we’ve written about before folks are calling it that I’m not saying if you were writing about London, but we did. I want to be clear. I’m not trying to reinvented anything.

Adie Tomer (30m 57s):
It’s just, we need to make sure everything’s accessible. Well, we haven’t codified that we haven’t codified what affordable housing really looks like in all kinds of communities. And we certainly haven’t codified what a environmentally resilient neighborhood looks like and how to help make sure then markets deliver it until you codify things until you can make it measurable markets can’t work. Right. So I would argue we haven’t set up the fundamentals right. For what we want to achieve.

Jeff Wood (31m 22s):
It’s interesting when you kind of translate that to the recent, an infrastructure bill too. Right. So we are wanting to do this mitigation of electric vehicles, right? So we’re going to give electric vehicles, a huge tax break. We’re going to do all the chargers. We’re going to spend billions of dollars on chargers, but here is the lowly electric bicycle. And you’re going to give somebody $7,500 for a car. And here’s these electric bicycles where you could get four of those and give them for that same amount of money that you’re giving a tax break to somebody who can give it for free. You know, obviously we need the electric vehicles. It’s something that’s necessary. And in order to change the paradigm of building electric cars for the car companies, you need to do something from an incentive perspective, but then you have all these other solutions, Tod, electric, bikes, scooters, walkability, there’s all these things.

Jeff Wood (32m 10s):
And so it’s an interesting thing. When you talk about codifying rules and laws, when we just had a major codifying event

Adie Tomer (32m 17s):
And the art, he bikes, just the best dude, like they’re the best. It is the most enjoyable transportation experience. I think that exists outside of maybe something like, you know, crazy, gnarly, like, you know, like writing like a moped through like the Italian Hills or something that, you know,

Jeff Wood (32m 36s):
Roman holiday. Like

Adie Tomer (32m 37s):
I don’t, you know, I I’m sure there’s so folks who listen to stuff where you can remember, not just the first time you got an e-bike, but in particular it might not be the first time. But like, for me, it was first time I got on a jump bike and I was like, oh my gosh. And DC is not hill hilly, like San Francisco. Like there’s some, you know, there’s some elevation changes ever so slightly. I’m not sweaty. And I just did my normal bike ride. But like, instead of like the super heavy capital bikeshare bikes, like this is the future of transportation. And I obviously folks have been saying that for a while. I’m just parroting them. It is such a powerful technology. And I’ve been thinking about it, Jeff, you know why when we rehabilitate almost any road or frankly, just on its face, just to think about re striping, right?

Adie Tomer (33m 20s):
Like when re striping needs to happen, why almost every major through fair in America of any like level of density where basically like biking could be safe. If you put it in the right protected bike lane infrastructure, that it just doesn’t become a requirement. This is how partnerly how right. The Dutch and the Scandinavians achieve such high biking rates. Right. And it seemed for London too. I mean, you’ve got to build the infrastructure, make it safe for people that, you know, the research on this is so good and so clear. And yet you’re exactly right. We miss the opportunity to make it cheap. I’m not sure why we didn’t do it on top of the fact that so many of these bike manufacturers are doing work domestically. It’s a really cool area, right?

Adie Tomer (34m 1s):
For relatively speaking, like small and midsize firms, the United States to build up manufacturing, expertise, bike, shop labor. And I’m saying the bike shop that sell. And then of course, maintenance locally, those are locally owned enterprises, right? That’s actually keeping profit in your community. And so why we didn’t invest big in this. I’m not saying we’re going to regret because I’m such an optimist. I think it’s so clear that this is going to be something if we’re successful in these next few years, which isn’t going to be everywhere. But the places that when a ton of let’s say the protect grants and raise grants and use formula money really well in combination in state and local and get more people living in the kinds of neighborhoods that not just support transport, but support more bike infrastructure.

Adie Tomer (34m 46s):
I think there’s gonna be an even stronger case to be made. Like we’ve been fighting for salver law, right. To try to get a bike credit along with right. The transit and parking credit, you know, and the federal tax code that look, this is something we should be incentivizing because good for the environment, it’s good for the American economy. And on top of it, you get the extra benefits of bike, even different than transit, certainly driving the massive community health benefits of it. So I think, yeah, you’re exactly right where the work is not done. It never is in Washington, but this is a real area we can benefit from. And I know I’m talking a lot, but this final, quick point on it, 4.4 miles, you know, that’s, it’s too far to walk unless you really got a lot of time, you know, relative in transportation turns dire straits, right.

Adie Tomer (35m 28s):
In which you know, we know about some of those well-known stories of folks who’ve had to walk that far. It can be often tough to take transit. You know, the most common commute in America right now is even those distances is suburb to summer, right? So it’s not like you’re necessarily on a great transit corridor, but for miles on an e-bike, that’s not a long at all. Time-wise and if it’s safe, you’re creating ideal conditions for someone, whether it’s going on an errand or to go to work right. To their bike. So we got it. We got to figure out how to tap into it. It’s such an important way to unlock again, those more sustainable and healthy transportation habits.

Jeff Wood (36m 3s):
Yeah. The reason I’m asking that specifically is just because I look at that 4.4 number and I see e-bike potential. And, and, you know, and you look at the trip numbers for, you know, when they do the math and they do the research, you know, they find that trip distances for the most part are, are fairly short, kinda like what you found as well to get to the grocery store to do that type of stuff. And an e-bike, you know, can do that. I mean, I would love to use any bike around here, although our transit is good at walking is good. So it’s not a big deal. But tying that together with walkable community, tying that together with the Tod, tying that together with compact development, it seems like a win as well. And you don’t need as much space to store things. You don’t need as much room on the streets, per se.

Jeff Wood (36m 44s):
I remember all these wonderful pictures of Asian cities where people are cycling everywhere. I mean, I have a book on my shelf right now. It has like this it’s wonderfully quirky pictures of people on motorbikes in Vietnam and all of the things that they can carry on them. Right? Like every page is something different and say there’s 15 dogs or, or, or 10 boxes of ears of corn or whatever it is. But it’s, it’s definitely something that can be done. The other thing in, in that, along that same realm that I’ve been thinking about is infrastructure for the charging for vehicles, right? If you’re in your own garage and you have your own space for your vehicle, that’s not an issue, but if you’re in a public street, if you’re in a city, in a walkable area, typically people in, in rental apartments, aren’t going to have a garage in some of those spaces.

Jeff Wood (37m 30s):
So like, so Wednesday, for example, Kia Wilson had a piece in, in streets blog that kind of pushed back on a wired piece the day before on charging infrastructure. I feel like there’s been a bunch of like breathless reporting, like the wired piece about charging infrastructure and where, where it would go and how city dwellers, what are they going to do if they don’t have access to chargers? And I think he, his point was that we aren’t talking enough about the bus. We’re not talking about active transportation, the e-bikes those types of things. But I want to take that another step further and say like, maybe we don’t need the access to chargers necessarily, but access for, for people overall, you know, the, the chargers are something that we know that where they’re going to go in the suburbs, but should we be focused on them in cities if we have all of these other ways of moving and accessing things, and I’m talking about urban cores, I’m not talking about suburbia or anything like that.

Jeff Wood (38m 19s):
I’m just thinking in places where we have active transport, where we have the bones already, we’re having this discussion about chargers, but shouldn’t it be about even more.

Adie Tomer (38m 28s):
He is great as always. And that’s a great way to set up the argument. You know, you know what great story of with like when Seattle, you know, in the, before now, but when Seattle was Buckingham or else’s transit trend, you know how they do it? Well, people were moving to the core. So they just took the bus more, you know, like they were there, you know, this is before the massive C3, right. Or whatever, like, you know, they’re not even close to Donna what their negative transit investments were going to be. So we know that just people living in the core sets this up. There’s a few arguments for having chargers around in the urban core. People are still going to drive anyways. You really want to make sure, so she’d be an aggressive GHG targets in your cities, you know, unless you’re going to ban cars everywhere, which I don’t think folks are proposing outside of, you know, we have to see how these plans let’s say in like places like Berlin, you know, end up playing out.

Adie Tomer (39m 16s):
But the U S because so many people live so far from the core, you know, when they go through, whether it’s right for work or right, like a nighttime activity or something, you know, like going out to dinner, seeing a show or something, they’re probably traveling in a car and to make sure that they’re comfortable and that you get those reduced again, short term emissions. You want your marketplace comfortable investing in electric vehicles overall at the scale of investments we make and in transportation. And I should stress to everyone, you know, by the time it’s probably runs where we’re going to be launching a massive infrastructure bill interactive on our website. So it’s obviously a shameless kind of plug for it, but, you know, you can go on there and see the amount of stuff.

Adie Tomer (39m 57s):
That’s electric vehicle like battery, like actual charging related. Even within this bill, it’s not just a small part, right. And then have like the annual spending on transportation infrastructure in this country. It is tiny, tiny, tiny. So I don’t even think he’s charging the charging investments we make right now, frankly, are going to last very long. What’s more likely to last is just the local distribution network, right. Of the electric grid, like backbone investments that might be made in those quarters. We’ll have to make future charging investments. Anyways. We’re not even close to done yet. And so I think they’re, they’re really important yet. He, his point is not only well taken, the real focus needs to be on those elements are going to happen because there are so many powers that be, that want the electric vehicles done.

Adie Tomer (40m 38s):
What we’ve got to do is continue to figure out how to get more development in dense places, because folks are in general are going to just on the long run and be demanding less of that charging infrastructure in the future. Hopefully,

Jeff Wood (40m 50s):
How do you get more people in dense places? One of the interesting things that we found when I was at RA was we did some work with CNT and we looked at, you know, we had a database of every station in the United States. And for, I believe it was a report maybe like 2013 or 2012 or something like that. We found that if you put people in the areas with lower VMT already, they would kind of adopt that profile rather than if you put a dense development on a commuter rail station, outside of a core. And so getting people to move into those places seems paramount to getting what you need, because they’ll start adopting the VMT profile of that place, rather than trying to get people to adopt a lower VMT profile in a place that doesn’t have it.

Jeff Wood (41m 33s):
I’m curious how you get to that. We were talking about scale earlier. Like how do you just kind of move that forward for a walkable development in cities, even coming up against the opposition, NIMBYs, et cetera, that we are now in, maybe it’s thinking about smaller cities and smaller towns and people moving there. I don’t ever want to say that you can’t live in San Francisco because I’d love for that to happen. But our board of supervisors at the moment makes it really hard for people to move here.

Adie Tomer (41m 60s):
That’s right. I humbly think this is an area we need ton more research. And I mentioned it earlier. It’s gotta be focused on political economy. I don’t think we’re lacking for solutions that are on the proverbial shelf. We know which binder they’re in clumsily, summons, metaphor. I know a binder they’re in, we know what the list is. Too often. Folks are scared to change the status quo, entrenched interests, right. Will fight for what they’re currently probably profiting off of. I think there’s an obvious basket of goods here, which I’m not saying anything folks don’t already think about. Right. How do you make it more expensive to build Automobility based infrastructure? Right. We’re seeing it right now.

Adie Tomer (42m 40s):
Like the climate is moving in our direction, the cultural climate, where it’s getting a lot harder to widen roads. It’s going a lot harder to make the arguments. Right. That’s really helpful. Including even just stalling projects, right? Like stalling is okay, because as things can change before, you know, a project may not be sensible anymore. I mean, this is for folks who are following it. This is part of the I five debate in Portland right now. Right. Which just changed in the past week. How do you change your zoning laws? Right? What kind of anchor developments do you want to promote? And when I say anchor developments, I actually backed, had mentioned earlier too. It’s like, you know, a market hall, like we should, the public sector potentially be investing in something like that, that doing it in a way that promotes local entrepreneurs from the neighborhood and makes sure that it’s tied with affordable housing, but like, it goes to a place where right now too many folks are leaving, for whatever reason, for certain kinds of retail, including food retail, that’s what I’m getting at.

Adie Tomer (43m 32s):
Like how do you do that kind of element? So you get development around it, then how do we get all of the pricing, right. In particular, on real estate development. And then how do you kind of align these systems across the region? That’s kind of five buckets that I’m thinking about, but in each one, I don’t think again, we’re lacking for technical solutions. I think we’re lacking a clear menu on how you respond to the current political dynamics in any place around those interventions. Who are you opposed who’s with you? What groups are, are a toss up, where’s their information deficit? How do you make sure to compensate the losers?

Adie Tomer (44m 14s):
Right? This is classic kind of negotiations that are in a truly like lowercase D democratic system. Like we’ve got to figure out how to win the day with the powers that be. And I don’t think we’re there yet the positive side, whether it’s just getting, going up in places like San Francisco or back to like the Cleveland example of like, there’s all these great urban bones you can fill in. It’s not like we don’t have the places to invest. We just got to figure out how to kind of crack the code on getting it done.

Jeff Wood (44m 40s):
How has the pandemic impacted all of these discussions? I mean, obviously it’s changed the thinking of people who may be before said, there’s no way ever that you’ll ever be able to work at home for professionals, right? There’s a lot of people that, that have no opportunity to work at home obviously. And I don’t want to leave them out, but there’s a high percentage of people that are able to work from home now that maybe weren’t before, just because of political. And I’m not saying political, like government political, I’m thinking like internal company politics to a certain extent, you know, that changed the paradigm for a lot of people. So, you know, what is the pandemic mean from a politics standpoint, from that, you know, not government necessarily, but also, you know, how has that impacting our discussion about new solutions for getting people into Tod, into compact development, lowering, VMT, all those things.

Adie Tomer (45m 30s):
I’m weirdly bullish on what COVID is going to do for our cities in the long run. My fundamental belief on this is that it’s not just that cities are eternal. If that humans really, really like to socialize with one another and actually to do it with like a physical proximity, that video just can only do so much now far beyond me to be able to predict, right, how much remote work we’re going to have in the future. If I had to make a bet, I’d say, I think we’re going to get a whole lot more people working from home. Like three days a week. We’ll figure out some kind of system culturally, that’s probably all over the map, depending on the employer, you know, two days in we’re all together two days and just pick whatever days you’re there.

Adie Tomer (46m 12s):
And whoever’s, there is there, I think there’ll be a certain amount of people that move out of the metropolitan areas where they work. There’ll be more flexible, but I don’t think it will be such a huge portion. Like I can’t even name a number, but way below the majority of, again, the kind of workers we’re in jobs who even can do that. Right. For decide folks like nursing and things that like have to be in, you know, which are huge job teaching, right. That need to be in physical proximity. So I think we’ll tell the commute more, but what we already know from past data on telecommute habits is that oftentimes people end up taking other trips more than they did before. And they often look to stay within their adjacent neighborhoods, maybe their exact one at right, or the one surrounding.

Adie Tomer (46m 58s):
Now that gets us right back to the whole conversation we’ve been having tonight, Jeff. Right of, well, what’s the design of the neighborhoods where you live now, right. Is adjacent neighborhood like, you know, from one end of yours to the end of the other one is like 10 miles, right? Like in the suburbs or is it like in a city where it’s half a mile you’ve crossed into like two named neighborhoods? You know what I mean? Like it’s, it really depends. And what we are going to need to, again, back to the kind of how market signals, again, lowercase M but like influence where people decide to be and how cultural signals influence, where people want to be. It’s a, an ideal opportunity to invest at the neighborhood scale to say, look like you’re going to be spending even more time in your home neighborhood.

Adie Tomer (47m 42s):
That’s great. Let’s make sure the quality of life reflects what people want. Let’s make sure that we’ve got public civic space amenities, right? Let’s make sure that we’ve got all the array of retail that folks need just every day, right? I’m not talking to like shopping for clothes necessarily. I mean like day to day retail that folks need. And then that gives us the opportunity to also rethink how do we connect those neighborhoods and how do people move between them. We’re going to see some fascinating changes in people’s travel habits, and it might finally break, you know, something that we’ve been so focused on in the U S where it’s we built transit around commuting habits, commuting habits, chain, these are over, over a century, right?

Adie Tomer (48m 24s):
Then commuting habits changed to reflect the suburb, to suburb connections that where people lived and where they worked. But if all of a sudden that breaks, we might finally recognize that we can design our transportation habits around the majority of trips that people make, which are not commuting. And especially, they may not be commuting at all, nearly as frequently. And that’s a game changer, you know, real estate folks. And you talked to some too, like, I can’t wait. I’m just collecting ideas. I don’t know, like, can we repurpose office space? What do we do with all of this, like class a office? I mean, that is a whole different issue, right? But I’m thinking more through the scale of neighborhood level transportation and local noncompeting travel habits.

Adie Tomer (49m 6s):
That is the really interesting one to watch. And to put it to kind of close up on my side on this one, it is really important that applied researchers, whether in academia, outside of it are finding where those travel habits look the way we want them to from a sustainability and kind of inclusive standpoint. What in, how did those either cities or metropolitan areas achieve it? Did they change anything? Was it just the nature of their dynamics they already had going into this? I mean, I’m basically saying folks are going to need to find best practices here, but the best practice might not actually be anything. It’s just, it’s just actually a change of behavior and trying to figure out why that happened.

Jeff Wood (49m 46s):
Last question, USDA released a strategy for safer streets, basically safer roads. I don’t know if that’s the exact name, but we’ll go with it. And they put together, you know, a list of things that they want to accomplish. This is just kind of the start of the discussion. They obviously need state and local deities and, and transportation agencies and other folks to get on board from a TPD perspective. I’m wondering if you had the chance to write a similar strategy to get more compact development, how would that look or what would be the first step?

Adie Tomer (50m 17s):
Oh, that’s a good question. Okay. I tick through a couple things. Number one, you gotta be really clear on the audience and in particular, who are the most influential folks, what are you trying to communicate to consumers? And what do consumers want? What are you trying to communicate to businesses? What do they want? And then government practitioners, you know, where they having trouble. I would think about what are your marketing techniques for what you’re going to develop, then your geography. And you mentioned this earlier, too, Jeff, and your password, you know, are you looking to change what happens on the fringe in terms of creating more Tod there? Or are you looking to activate places that have maybe already been developed? And then I mentioned earlier was kind of five buckets of policy based on kind of partially your answer on those.

Adie Tomer (51m 2s):
You got to create a menu of options for folks to explore every transportation and neighborhood system is unique in every place. There are no cookie cutter solutions. There can be cookie cutter engineering designs, right? Like a protected break link and theoretically work anywhere. It’s certainly designed anyway that way. But the political dynamics of getting it on any specific quarter are gonna be different. So we gotta make it easier for practitioners to know what their options are. But again, we’re my first part of this answer. Open makes sense is it’s less about the specific design techniques as how do we convince people and steer them and sell them on the importance of this idea to again, to protect the planet and people and create economic value, make more competitive businesses.

Adie Tomer (51m 54s):
There’s so much on the side of this. I just, I don’t think we have the right. It’s not like the tools it’s like the manual and how to use that. If that makes sense. Like we’ve got to better explain to folks how to get that done. I think the spirit behind what DOD just did with safety speaks to that, right? Like the culture is behind this. We’re gonna change some of our techniques, but they even talked about it, staying in locals control a lot of this. So they’re going to have to figure out those kinds of partnerships. We’re going to need to do the same on a Tod strategy. And, and again, the feds and this administration, I’m sure we’d like, meaning in a good way. They will want to leave here and can do a lot. This is up to every community they control their land use. Right? They control the mass majority of their local street infrastructure.

Adie Tomer (52m 36s):
They can change things quickly, but they need to make sure their business community and resonance are behind. It sounds like

Jeff Wood (52m 41s):
An organizing task for all

Adie Tomer (52m 44s):
Of us. Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it more and more that way these days. And especially from a research perspective, I mean, right. You know, Jeff, you and I should have for years and like the kind of, you know, the kind of stuff we love to do, like what, what’s the kind of like power stats that need to be created, right. To help win arguments. Like that’s where a lot of the work I think needs to be done at this point. Because again, engineers, architects, planners, like they, like, they have so much good work that we’re not even putting to UCF on the shelf. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t keep innovating too. I’m say, I feel like we’re letting them down. Right. The practitioners and applied researchers, we got to figure out how to break through with their great ideas. Yeah,

Jeff Wood (53m 21s):
For sure. Awesome. Well, Adie, where can folks find you? If they want to take a look at

Adie Tomer (53m 25s):
Some of your work, you know, you can always find me like the work our team does at Brookings. Metro that’s there just go to brookings.edu or just search for us and your, your web browser. You’ll find our stuff we’re around. Honestly, you know, you can drop me a line there too. Not only what you think about this, but stuff you want us to look into cool case studies, let us know. You know, we, we always want to hear from folks.

Jeff Wood
Awesome. Thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.


Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast

Testimonials

…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory


I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute


Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs

Subscribe

To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Top Links

of the past 48 hours

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free