HUD’s Harriet Tregoning sells good urbanism as a competitive edge at DVRPC conference

Jim Saksa and I were on site at the Union League last Thursday, helping the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission ring in its 50th anniversary at their Breaking Ground conference on creating livable communities.

To kick off the conference, the DVRPC brought in Harriet Tregoning, the director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Economic Resilience in Washington, DC to set the table for the day’s sessions with an overview of HUD’s evolving thinking about the future of urban places, and more broadly, to make the case for planning’s role in economic competitiveness. 

One thread running through Tregoning’s talk was the importance of creating experiences, and she argued that planners, architects, developers, and governments need to consider what types of experiences current and prospective residents are seeking––particularly the young adults who will be buying (or renting) the vast bulk of the new homes in the future.

“People want a lot of choice,” she said, “in many different things, and we’re all engaged in a contest––whether you knew it or not––to win the economy in our regions, and we’re in fierce competition with regions all around the country and around the world.”

Housing and transportation are one of the areas of the “new economy” where people are seeking more choices, and Tregoning warned that the regions who aren’t offering a broad mix of housing and transportation choices aren’t going to be competitive. 

What does she think communities should be doing? Many of the prescriptions will be familiar by now to PlanPhilly readers, or anyone with a passing familiarity with what MOTU, the Planning Commission, and DVRPC have been up to during the Nutter administration. That’s your multi-modal transportation, your active ground-floor uses, your temporary public space enhancements, and so on.

But read on, because Tregoning had some interesting ways of framing some of these ideas that will be useful to anyone advocating for policy change to elected officials or decision-makers within city agencies. 

To pull out one especially compelling-to-me point, Tregoning argued that improving the bikeability of neighborhoods near frequent transit connections can help grow transit ridership. I’ll include the full quote because she touched on a number of points worth unpacking:

Part of the reason I like bicycling is because it really enhances the big investments that we make in other types of transportation like transit. If you can use bicycling to expand the transit shed, you can get a lot more riders to the stations without having to add new stations or new track. It’s much less expensive.

Bicycling is actually the fastest way in most cities to get from point A to point B. There’s no traffic jam for you, because you’re using the interstitial space of the street. My experience was that I didn’t do it for decades when I was younger and more able to bike. It was in my 40’s that I became a daily biker, and now I use it as my primary mode of transportation. And I don’t do it because I’m an athlete, or because I love speed. I do it because I’m busy and I can fit more meetings in a day if I bike to them.

Thinking about the political discourse on transit here in Philadelphia, it sometimes seems like elected officials think about it almost exclusively in terms of the question of state funding, and it’s not clear how much they think about how municipal-level choices impact transit ridership and quality.

For instance, City Council members have a whole lot of say on whether zoning is supportive of higher transit ridership, or not. They have a lot of say on the distribution of space on the streets. And as Tregoning points out, decisions in both of those areas feed back into the transit ridership numbers, which in turn impact how frequently SEPTA runs buses and trains, and what the farebox recovery numbers look like.

But it’s rarely the case that Council members think of themselves as doing transit policy when they’re rezoning a block or restriping a street. And yet one could argue that those factors are even more important to the healthy functioning of the transit network than even the money. 

Tregoning’s second point is interesting, and definitely rings true for me. A few weeks ago I lost my bike locks and wasn’t able to use my bike for a couple days, and trying to get to all the meetings I had on my calendar by foot or bus was a total disaster. Less anecdotally, over the summer I took a look at the MIT Social Computing Group’s You Are Here API, which showed that Tregoning is right and biking is the fastest way to get anywhere moderately close-by in the flatter gridded parts of Philly. 

The presentation had the quality of a broad overview of a number of familiar topics, so there wasn’t really one singular takeaway, but what I took away was how thoroughly the Janette Sadik-Khan/Gabe Klein brand of urbanism has caught on in Obama’s HUD, even as local planners wait tensely to see how much political durability it will have in Philadelphia under the next Mayor and Council.

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