Urban Issues Ignored: Why President Obama Should Tell Americans What They Don’t Want To Hear

EMAILPRINT

As cities like LA continue to sprawl, in the absence of real public transportations systems there is no option but to build more freeways

President Obama has won a second term. If you voted for the President, you’re welcome from Cuyahoga County. If you didn’t, then chances are this article won’t pertain to you as rural America continued to voice their displeasure for the Democratic Party.

The ideological gap between President Obama and Governor Romney — or any other leader of the Republican Party — is so wide that anyone with urban values had to vote for the President; values such as access to public transportation, climate change, sustainability, pedestrian-friendly policies, cycling access, and so on.

Thing is, President Obama — and certainly Governor Romney — hardly even paid lip service to these issues, ignoring a majority of them altogether. Perplexing to say the least, considering that cities are the economic drivers of the country.

Virtually Ignored

Naturally, urbanites had more reason to trust the President over the Governor. President Obama has at least experienced urban living to the extent many city folks can relate to. Governor Romney’s experience is limited to living in a Boston mansion.

Still, the President’s transportation policies were hardly a cornerstone of his campaign, even though Americans are increasingly embracing a car-free existence. Take a look at some of the quick facts provided by the American Transportation Association.

  • In 2011, Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation, the 2nd highest annual ridership number since 1957.
  • 35 million times each weekday, people board public transportation.
  • From 1995 through 2011, public transportation ridership increased by 34% — a growth rate higher than the 17% increase in U.S. population and higher than the 22% growth in the use of the nation’s highways over the same period.
  • Public transportation is a $56 billion industry that employs nearly 400,000 people.
  • 74% of public funding for public transit is spent creating and supporting hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs.

Can you think of another multi-billion dollar industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people, has 35 million weekly customers, and goes relatively ignored?

“It’s Snowing Outside!”

Most surprising is how the candidates were able to ignore climate change, even in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Instead, both sides offer prayers and condolences.

The Obama-Christie storyline was powerful; a testament to how two individuals whose political ideologies are on the opposite ends of the spectrum can come together at a time of crisis. But will it reinvigorate the discussion of how American domestic energy policy needs an immediate change of course in response to climate gone awry? Not so long as a northern city has one snowy day in December. “Global warming? What global warming!? It’s snowing outside!”

Incentives For Sustainability

Speaking of energy, how about policies that encourage folks to reconsider where and how they live? Incentives encouraging Americans to live in a more sustainably conscious way would go a long way in curbing our need for foreign oil; thus decreasing carbon emissions into our atmosphere.

30-plus minute commutes and auto-oriented development that limits transportation by vehicle is not sustainable in the long term. We saw that during the energy crisis of the 1970s under President Jimmy Carter.

The federal government incentivized sprawl with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Americans at the time saw it as a tremendous opportunity to allow citizens to live and work wherever they want. What Americans didn’t think about was the amount of energy we would need to consume, and the harmful effects it would have on our cities and environment.

Two decades later in the 1970s, suburban sprawl is rampant and energy intake cannot match consumption demand. The solution? Elect President Ronald Reagan, because he said there’s nothing wrong with Americans.

“Crisis Of Confidence”

President Carter was wise beyond the times when he called Americans out on their consumption habits in his “Crisis of Confidence” speech delivered from The Oval Office on July 15, 1979.

We can’t go on consuming 40 percent more energy than we produce. When we import oil we are also importing inflation plus unemployment,” said a private citizen to Carter during a summit of Americans from all walks of life at Camp David. Carter continued, saying “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.

Instead of looking at our energy consumption as a problem, some look for solutions to mind the addiction.

“I will bring in that pipeline from Canada,” Romney declared at the first presidential debate, ignoring the aftereffects of a spill from another Canadian pipeline in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Thankfully, that ideology is at least four years away from the White House, but there’s no timetable for when energy reform legislation will make its way to Congress.

Our shortsighted, incessant demand for more energy is not unlike an alcoholic who looks for a new bar after getting banned from another. Instead of incentivizing sustainable consumption habits, like living closer to centers of employment and using alternative methods of transportation, some states have backed away from intercity rail projects that would have taken cars off the road.

Cancelled

On December 9, 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation redirected $1.195 billion in passenger rail funding from Ohio and Wisconsin to projects in 14 other states. Ohio itself had lost $385 million of the $400 million grant it received in January 2010 to support the cancelled 3C Corridor passenger rail line, because then Governor-elect John Kasich pledged to cancel the program. Instead, the state has doubled down on unsustainable auto-oriented development, continuing to incentivize living far from the city center with projects like the Innerbelt Bridge in Cleveland that will replace an existing highway.

American voters are adults, but they don’t like to be treated as such. Nobody likes to be told what they’re doing is wrong or how to live, least of all by the Federal Government. President Carter learned that the hard way, losing in a historic landslide to President Reagan in 1980.

But until a leader comes along who will address urban issues in the national spotlight, the United States continues to risk falling into another energy crisis that will undoubtedly be more difficult to crawl out from. Sprawl will continue to be subsidized by the highway system, carbon emissions will continue to wreak havoc on weather patterns, and access to employment centers will continue to be an issue for lower income individuals.

Here’s hoping President Obama looks at his second term as an opportunity to tell Americans what they don’t want to hear — that we cannot continue incentivizing unsustainable living, even if it means altering the 1950s concept of the American Dream to a mixed-use apartment building with solar panels, transit access and bike lanes instead of a picket fence.

More importantly, let’s hope Americans are willing to hear it this time.

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at joebaur.com and on Twitter @BaurJoe
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