Governing Structures and Change

In March 2014 I went to Australia with the intention of examining how new public organizing strategies were facilitating the implementation of plans for concentrated development along transit corridors. I was inspired to visit Melbourne and Perth because both regions were pursuing innovative governing arrangements that appeared to vest responsibility for land use and transport investment with a single entity (the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure in Victoria and the now defunct TOD Committee in Perth). During these on-site investigations, I came to the conclusion that organizational transformations – although important for facilitating regional, cross-sector problem solving – were a necessary but insufficient component. New organizational strategies had limited impacts on development patterns when the outlooks of individuals in decision making roles, the private sector actors they worked with and the political economy of development remains largely the same.

I was naturally drawn to questions of power in the public decision making process. Power does not ultimately reside in the organizations we create and changing organizational arrangements will not necessarily change power structures or even result in the practical outcomes desired. Power resides in social relations – how individuals interact in the decision-making and planning process determines the outcomes. Social relations and interactions may be influenced by governing structures in important ways, such as having stakeholders interact in ways they might not have otherwise and develop solutions that would be impossible without specific structural support (such as TOD committee), but the real essence of decision making is found in the detailed social processes that play out over specific conflicts and negotiations in the decision-making process. Such a finding aligns nicely with Bent Flyvbjerg‘s work in Europe, although it does present some challenges for research – how do we identify and examine conflict and negotiation in TOD implementation? What can we learn from such investigations? Are there clear policy solutions or only “words of caution” that can be offered in conclusions of such research?

Kansas City Streetcar

City Lab posted a story on the Kansas City Streetcar earlier this week. I spoke with Ron Knox (the author) for an hour during his fact gathering mission and he quotes me a couple of times in the story. The piece does a good job of highlighting some of the issues at stake in the city’s attempts to expand rail transit beyond the initial Streetcar line that serves the central business district. I especially like the quote from the Streetcar’s CEO (and former MARC employee) Tom Gerend: The Streetcar “…was as much about rebuilding and refilling downtown as it was about moving people.” This assertion is backed up KC’s TIGER grant application which has a economic development: transportation benefits ratio of 18.5:1 – meaning that for every $1 in transport related benefits, the system anticipates $18.5 in economic development benefits. In total, economic development benefits account for 79% of the anticipated benefits that would be realized from the streetcar project.

Of course – as the article aptly states – it is difficult to know how effective the streetcar will actually be at rebuilding and refilling downtown. New transit systems in U.S. cities with high rates of car usage have mixed results at facilitating transit-oriented development. There are many reasons for this but one key aspect is the level of intergovernmental coordination surrounding the projects. Portland, OR is often cited as proof that Streetcars spur real estate investment but when one compares Portland to other places, the causal impacts of the Streetcar pail in comparison to the coordination exhibited between transport and economic development policies. Indeed, Portland Streetcar’s CEO admits that financial incentives and other real estate development subsidies were more important than the streetcar in redeveloping the Pearl District. Of course, we can ask whether such incentives would have been concentrated in the Pearl district had the Streetcar not been part of the larger project.

Then an important question for planners and policymakers becomes – what other things are we doing around the Streetcar that will facilitate redevelopment? Economic Development planners have a host of policy tools they can leverage – tax increment financing, urban renewal districts, land write-downs, low interest loans to name a few – and by all accounts these are used fairly liberally in most US cities. What remains to be flushed out is how cities align their economic development efforts with their transport investments. It cannot be assumed that policy alignment simply happens since the fractured nature of local government means that different departments and organizations have responsibility for transportation and economic development planning. Innovations found outside the U.S. – such as the TOD Committee created by Perth, Australia to facilitate development near new rail lines – are not often adopted by Streetcar cities. In Kansas City, however, KC Biz Care may be a key governmental innovation that deserves more attention. By providing a one-stop shop for developers along with a staff that tracks development activity near the streetcar, the city may be better positioned than others to corral economic development into the streetcar corridor and realize the revitalization they anticipate.

Kansas City states in their regional plan that they hope to become a model for other U.S. cities. With 15+ streetcar projects in the works in other areas, it seems they are well positioned. It may be, however, that local government organization is where the city has the most to contribute in terms of leadership and innovation. Of course, to see such innovations requires us to look beyond simply notions of streetcar investments spurring development and toward the messier and mundane questions of governance. For those interested in creating sustainable change in urban areas, it would be worth the effort.