Livability and All That


Alan Pisarski onLivability and All That

Livability is one of those once innocuous words, like sustainability, that now receive almost unquestioned acceptance in the bureaucracy, academia and the media. After all, words like sustainability and livability have no acceptable negative form. Who could be in favor of anything unlivable, insensitive, unhealthy or unsustainable?

Back in the late seventies, when I served as Special Assistant for Information Policy in the Office of the Secretary, our shibboleth was "balanced". Can anyone be in favor of unbalanced transportation? It didn't matter that the word had no meaning and we couldn't explain it to others, it still became standard in the rhetoric of secretarial officers. In an unkind moment a reporter asked the present DOT Secretary Ray LaHood what he meant by livable, given that the department had just added it to its criteria for giving away money. He replied vaguely it was something about being able to walk to work and the park and a restaurant, to a doctor and a few more things.

well worth reading the rest ... a full dismantling of the flavor of the month.


I love it when the "market is always right" crowd efficiently takes down the too-centralized, too-bureaucratic, too-socialistic "livability" movement. Low density, auto-dependent development was birthed, pure and shining from the invisible hand itself. Never was it, nor shall it ever be "fed-centric" in it's decision-making or subsidies. "What people in a diverse democracy want" has always been more parking lots, more highways and more low density living (until they don't).

This article clearly confuses accessibility with mobility, and I wish you would have pointed that out. Increasing accessibility is also not free and not universally inevitable. Livability is ill-defined, but it doesn't have to be. A mutual agreement on what impacts of transportation (positive and negative) we should measure can be reached if we try, and this ideological blah blah blah doesn't get us any closer.


In order to be an effective central planner/bureaucrat, you first have to have definable objectives. If you can't even manage that, then it seems impossible that you could ever achieve livability/sustainability/balance or smart/strong/sustainable communities. Until Mr. LaHood can move beyond a definition like "I can walk to a restaurant", we can safely assume that "livability" is just another smokescreen for giving the DOT more discretion in distributing funds.

No question. Governments actually spend huge amounts of time defining and refining objectives and measures (speaking from experience). I think I agreed in my last comment that livability does need to be defined. Perhaps Mr. La Hood just isn't that great a marketer or speaker, but DOT has started to define these objectives. The measures for each don't appear to be totally worked out, and maybe you can criticize them for not defining them before they took office. However, there are already good measures for some like affordability and greenhouse gas emissions.

What this article represents to me is an aversion to incorporating anything other than mobility into the calculus. And, as I said before, a notion that the existing pattern is a foregone conclusion, somehow perfectly attuned to the desires (and best interests) of the population.

I don't see how something being unmeasurable makes it fictitious. It's called being qualitative rather than quantitative. Art, literature, music, etc... all have value but they are qualitative values, not measurable by numbers alone.

David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Financing Transportation Networks

View David Levinson's profile on LinkedIn

Subscribe to RSS headline updates from:

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on November 12, 2010 2:51 PM.

The High-Speed Case for State Control of Transportation Funding | The Foundry: Conservative Policy News. was the previous entry in this blog.

Nice Ride program tops first-year goals is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.


Monthly Archives


Powered by Movable Type 4.31-en