Can U.S. States Lead on Urban Planning?

The Transport Politic proposes the need to consolidate more multi-modal planning authority at the level of the states.  While multi-modal planning authority is a good thing at any level of government, I wonder if US states are poorly suited for this purpose because so many US metro areas cross state boundaries. I notice this problem more from my current perch in Australia, because Australians even flirt with the idea of abolishing their state governments entirely.  While that’s certainly not the answer in the US, Americans do need to think about which level of government is best suited to which kind of task.

We consultants often joke that when bidding on a planning project, we need to multiply our proposed budget by the number of government agencies and departments involved.  An enormous part of government spending on planning — both staff and consultant time — goes into meetings whose purpose is to keep different bureaucracies apprised of what each other are doing, and moving along in parallel.  When it comes to projects that engage multiple state governments, you’re not just coordinating bureaucracies, you’re also coordinating legislatures and governors and state commissions of this and that, which have a hard enough time coordinating themselves.

Notice how California and Florida are out ahead of the pack on High Speed Rail?  Could this be, in part, because their projects are all in one state, because both states are fortunate to have their major urban areas well back from state borders?

Map_of_Australia It’s interesting that the division of metro areas by state boundaries is so common in the US and not elsewhere.  Canada has only one metro area seriously divided between provinces — Ottawa-Gatineau — though obviously there is the international case of Detroit-Windsor.  Australia has only two fairly minor cases (around Brisbane and Canberra) because Australian states were all drawn in an awareness of what each state’s major city would be.  Look at Europe.  How many EU capitals are right on a border?  Just two: Copenhagen and Bratislava.  Despite its high level of urbanisation, the EU has remarkably few major cross-border urban areas, so almost all urban planning can happen rationally inside the EU states.

It’s interesting that despite such opposite histories, Europe and Australia ended up similar in this regard.  In both, states are organized around major capitals which are usually the largest city.  (In Europe, only Germany, Italy, and Switzerland — federations with multiple power centers — defy this pattern.)  European capitals naturally developed in defensible positions, which tended to be back from borders, and as those borders evolved the location of cities was a factor in drawing them.  Australia began with centralized colonial settlements that became the capitals, and the boundaries between those colonies — which later became states — were drawn so that in most cases, each capital is on the coast but otherwise more or less at the center of its colonial area.  In each case, the result was a geography of states that respects the geography of cities.

I think the Australian geography respects rural areas too, in that most rural area is in the same state as the big city and port that forms its most logical market.  (Of course, this pattern of economic relationships was further enforced by incompatible rail gauges in adjacent states — not, emphatically, something I recommend!).

By contrast, most US state boundaries were drawn before today’s urban geography emerged, and urban planning remains trapped and often frustrated by those boundaries.  Greater New York City must depend on decisions made in Albany, Trenton, and Hartford.  Greater Washington DC must look up to powers in Richmond and Annapolis.  This problem should have been predicted wherever rivers were used as state boundaries, because cities tend to develop on rivers.  How practical is it to expect the State of Missouri to lead effectively on urban multi-modal planning, when it will always be dealing with part of metro St. Louis and part of metro Kansas City?  This is not to say that these state governments are not doing their best; many of them are, but sometimes you inherit a political geography that makes the job almost impossible.

Sometimes, urban regions that cross state boundaries create regional transit agencies.  More commonly though, each state has its own agencies running services into whatever they perceive the central city to be, often missing out on many efficiencies that would be possible if those multi-state areas could be planned as one network.  In the New York CIty region, for example, ideas for combining the Long Island Rail Road with Metro North and New Jersey commuter lines, to create a cross-regional commuter rail network similar to the Paris RER, would be even harder jurisdictionally than they would be technically.

I wonder if, ultimately, multi-modal planning wouldn’t be better served by establishing strong multi-modal planning habits at the Federal level.  Perhaps it would be easier to build multi-modal planning capacity inside the US Department of Transportation, by building stronger links across the Federal Highway, Railroad, and Transit Administrations and using Federal funding leverage to impose multi-modal planning discipline.

All this is high-level speculation.  (As a consultant, I have to emphasize that I’m not advocating the abolition of any of my potential clients!)  But it’s speculation that I wish more people were doing.

32 Responses to Can U.S. States Lead on Urban Planning?

  1. EngineerScotty June 9, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

    Uh-oh, Jarrett. You’ll never work in this town again! 🙂

  2. June 9, 2010 at 5:42 pm #

    It isn’t just large metropolitan areas that suffer here. Ironton, Ohio, Ashland, Kentucky, and Huntington, West Virginia – all along the river that allowed the towns to prosper and also that divides the states – are just one example of small towns whose local bus networks, operated in the interests of each respective town, come within a few miles of each other but don’t touch, apart from an inefficient four-times-a-day bus which connects them, after a good deal of wrangling and “disputes” even to provide that.

  3. Alon Levy June 9, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    Well, consider Basel. The city lies at the point where Germany, France, and Switzerland meet. However, because the relevant governments don’t try to destroy one another anymore, there’s cooperation on transit matters, so the region has a tri-national S-Bahn system.
    The reason it works in Basel and not in New York is that while both cities are dependent on decisions made far away, the quality of the decisions is different. Zurich, Berlin, and Paris made a decision to make passenger rail operation as seamless as possible. Albany, Hartford, and Trenton made a decision to seek economic rent.

  4. Mike June 9, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

    Copenhagen at least has a sea border, and it’s just the newish Oresund bridge which makes Sweden’s Malmo a commutable prospect for those who live there. Historically the Skane region was part of Denmark, so it wasn’t conceived as a border city.
    Vienna is very close to the border of Austria – making it and Bratislava the closest European capitals. Of course, the maps of that part of Europe have been redrawn so many times that the intents of city-founders have been long lost to the exigencies of punishing failed empire-builders.
    And Luxembourg is pretty much all borders…

  5. Jarrett June 9, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    @Alon. Indeed, although implying that Swiss decisions are made in Zurich will offend some people in Bern!

  6. Wad June 9, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

    Perhaps the question this article poses needs to be reframed.
    Can any extra-municipal entity lead on urban planning? Sure, if given the proper powers of lawmaking and enforcement.
    The constituted bodies aren’t the problem. It all comes down to the personalities of the humans who run them.
    Ideally, a good planning board would operate with the same mindset as a winning sports team. All the players would be oriented around a common goal and individual personalities could be managed.
    Not in public bodies, especially ones in Western democracies. Individual personalities often transcend the team ethic, and the public body serves to amplify those personalities.
    Personalities that tend to rise are turfers, haters, “tweezers” and idealists.
    A turfer represents a small geographic area or a narrow range of interests, and focus on these issues outweighs the need or benefit of working as a team.
    A hater is someone who uses his or her position for antagonism and/or personality enhancement. Haters often avoid cooperation.
    A “tweezer” is someone highly focused on detail, process and procedure. They work as though they pick knowledge with a set of tweezers. They are highly capable and are more likely to be team players, but their weak suit is goal orientation. Or, a tweezer could be an obstructionist who uses minutiae to slow or stop a goal from being set.
    An idealist could do as much bad as good. Idealists are often the leaders, great team players and are goal-oriented. Idealists, though, are often the perfectionists in the “perfect is the enemy of the good”, and think more along the lines of “the imperfect is the enemy of the perfect.” It’s their ambition that can lead to demanding the impossible and ending up with the unworkable.
    There are many other personality types, and the key is for personalities to be able to work together and learn from one another.

  7. Jarrett June 9, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    @Wad. Personalities only explain part of the picture. Even bureaucracies staffed entirely by ideal personalities would be constrained by political boundaries, and face significant co-ordination tasks wherever it’s necessary to work across those boundaries.

  8. Tom June 9, 2010 at 11:14 pm #

    Read your post with interest. Reminded me of a 1973 map by C. Etzel Pearcy (
    I was just wondering if the link in: “In the New York CIty region, for example, ideas for combining the Long Island Rail Road…” was supposed to point to the same Australian Courier Mail link, and if not what was the intended New York link?

  9. Jarrett at June 9, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    Tom.  Thanks, link fixed!

  10. EngineerScotty June 9, 2010 at 11:28 pm #

    Jarrett–it’s interesting that you mention the fact that many European countries have primate cities–with Italy, Germany, and Switzerland being the notable exceptions, at least in the western part of the continent. There was a thread over at The Urbanophile on the topic of London and the power of place, where the topic of primate cities came up. Of the 19 countries of the G20, 10 have primate cities and nine do not; additionally, the EU (the 20th member) doesn’t have a primate city either. While London and New York are the two leading cities in the English-speaking world, the former is a national capital, whereas the latter isn’t even the capital of its state–which may well give London a gravitas that the Big Apple lacks.
    (The Urbanophile himself will probably not be able to respond this evening, as his beloved Blackhawks just won the Stanley Cup…)
    And that may be one additional reason that state governments in the US frequently fail to address urban concerns well: Most US states lack a primate city as well; the list of states which do have one is pretty short. In no particular order:
    * Arizona (Phoenix)
    * Massachusetts (Boston)
    * Indiana (Indianapolis)
    * Georgia (Atlanta)
    * Oklahoma (Oklahoma City)
    * Colorado (Denver)
    * Hawaii (Honolulu)
    * Iowa (Des Moines)
    * Idaho (Boise)
    * Utah (Salt Lake City)
    * Connecticut (Hartford MSA)
    * Arkansas (Little Rock)
    * Rhode Island (Providence),
    * Mississippi (Jackson)
    * West Virginia (Charleston)
    * Wyoming (Cheyenne).
    Minnesota does as well, if you count the Twin Cities as a single urban entity.
    A few states, such as South Dakota (Pierre) and Vermont (Montpelier) go so far as to site their capitals in very small towns. In many cases, this is done to reduce the influence of the largest and wealthiest cities on state affairs, but in practice it can result in state governments which are indifferent, or even hostile, to the needs of large cities.
    The use of dedicated transit authorities, many of which are chartered with operations that require subsidy, but have limited powers of taxation, may aggravate the rent-seeking behavior that Alon notes. Unlike other municipal government functions which are often farmed out to service districts or special authorities (education, fire protection, parks), transit suffers from a lack of strong political support in many locales.

  11. Tom West June 10, 2010 at 7:17 am #

    Looking at Canada, seven out of ten provinces (not AB, SK or NB) and all three territories have a ‘primate city’, counting Greater Vancouver as one city (which for transport planing purposes, it is).
    The city of Lloydminster is one municpality (with one mayor and city council) which straddles the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan.
    The problem is less to do with planning per se (settign up a singla cross-border authority to plan things is easy enough) – it comes down to funding. Cross-border cities have to jump through twice as many hoops to get funding, with twice the chnace of failure. Can anyone show me a cross-border US city which has built a cross-border light rail system (since WWII)?

  12. Brent Palmer June 10, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    “Australia has only two fairly minor cases (around Brisbane and Canberra)”
    In the case of Brisbane, the Gold Coast to its south is a city in its own right, even though the two are now contiguous. At the same time, it makes sense to regard the entire region of South East Queensland (which also includes the Sunshine Coast and some rural areas – all up, the size of Israel!) as an entity.
    The Queensland government offered to take over bus operations in Tweed Shire (the local government area which includes the portion of the Gold Coast’s urban area that spills over into New South Wales), as part of the TransLink network, but the NSW government soundly refused.

  13. Vin June 10, 2010 at 7:41 am #

    I’d probably make some modifications to that list. I’m pretty sure that Capser is about the same size as Cheyenne. I’d also take CT off the list, because the NYC sprawl in southeast CT has about as many people as the Hartford MSA. I also think Tulsa is nearly as large as Oklahoma City, but I could be wrong.
    Still, it is kind of an odd pattern of development, in that many states consciously chose to locate the capital in a remote location in the middle, far from larger cities near the borders (which are often rivers). NY, PA, IL, and MO did this, I believe. Echoes of what the country as a whole did, with Washington, DC. “What would New York be like if it had remained the capital?” is one of the more interesting conterfactuals around.
    I suspect this has a lot to do with the U.S.’s longstanding anti-urban bias. Most other countries have not concerned themselves with “concentrating power” in major cities, which tends to happen, anyway. I don’t know anything about Australia in this regard, though.
    Cross border rail? PATH and Metro-North New Haven Line in NYC, PATCO Speedline in Philly, South Shore Rail in Chicago. All before WWII, of course – but that’s as much a reflection of rail development patterns in the U.S. as anything else.

  14. Aaron Priven June 10, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    The San Francisco Bay Area shows that it’s not just state boundaries that can cause multiple transportation bureaucracies.
    @Tom West: British Columbia’s capital is in Victoria, which is not part of Greater Vancouver. (New Westminster used to be the capital, a long, long time ago…)

  15. Allan June 10, 2010 at 8:21 am #

    We’re going the opposite direction in Portland, Oregon, where we now have local city government, A metro area governing body (Metro) plus State and Federal.
    I do think the State government should be split up between an agricultural and a city government and perhaps abolished. They take the money from the cities and spread it around the countryside, weakening cities. 🙁

  16. Chris Stefan June 10, 2010 at 9:52 am #

    Only by the loosest definition can Victoria be called part of Greater Vancouver, they are entirely different planets as much as NYC and Albany. However most of the movers and shakers in BC politics tend to hail from Greater Vancouver.
    I believe St. Louis built a light rail line across the Mississippi and of course the DC metro serves DC, MD, and VA. Portland, OR is the only city I’m aware of that has plans currently for a cross-border line (as part of the I-5 bridge re-build).
    There are a number of cross-border commuter rail services but for the most part the cross-border lines were taken over from private railroads. Virgina Railway Express is the only example of a “new” service with a cross-border component I’m aware of.

  17. Vin June 10, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    DC Metro was a pretty glaring omission on my part…also forgot about St. Louis’ light rail service.

  18. Art Busman June 10, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    There are legitimate arguments for both centralized and decentralized decision-making bodies. Standardizing the rail gauge and the consolidation of rail companies certainly improved national rail transportation. Creating an Interstate highway system certainly improved national auto transportation. However, I also argue in favor of decentralization which I believe is one of America’s strengths over Europe. Sure there are different bylaws, regulations, and zoning laws in a city that covers two states, but that just gives people more choices. With 50 different states and sets of laws, we can choose to live in a state like Utah with restrictive social laws or a state like Nevada with loose ones. It’s the beauty of this country I love. And this ideal is backed up by evolution. With greater diversity comes greater adaptive capabilities. If we were all one species and a virus affected us all, we’d all be wiped out. However, being a diverse ecosystem, one virus doesn’t wipe out all. One federal law like prohibition can cause mayhem on all 50 states, but allow each state to create its own liquor laws, and we’ll see who does best. Of course, in the case of civil rights and abolition, a federal law works better, but keep in mind, even then, it was the individual states that moved first on civil rights and abolition well ahead of the federal government. Even today, states are moving faster than the feds on gay marriage and legalized pot.

  19. anonymouse June 10, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    Art: the “choice” of state laws is not really much of a choice, because it’s not really independent from a whole range of other, entirely unrelated factors, like social laws and climate.
    Anyway, I think that the US is somewhat of a special case, because it has had a long anti-urban tradition, and the way the states were set up was very much in line with that tradition. Putting the state government in a faraway small town was done deliberately to reduce the power of cities, which were filled with the evils of corrupt merchants, banker, and immigrants, over the productive and righteous agricultural countryside. In fact, state governments were generally set up with the upper house of the legislature having one member per county, so that Yates County, NY (population 24,000) would get exactly as much representation there as Brooklyn County (population 2.4 million).

  20. EngineerScotty June 10, 2010 at 11:46 am #

    While Metro is of enormous benefit to the Portland area, it’s jurisdiction does not extend across the Columbia River.

  21. Alon Levy June 10, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

    Jarrett: touché. Then again, the Swiss central government is so weak that decisions aren’t really made in Bern, either.
    Scotty: take Oklahoma off your list as well – Tulsa is nearly as big as OKC. Greater OKC is actually a smaller percentage of Oklahoma’s population than Greater LA (including the Inland Empire) is of California’s.
    Coming from Israel, I’m used to separating the concepts of a primate city and of a national capital. In Israel, Tel Aviv is clearly a primate city: it hosts the major newspaper and television networks, most TV shows are set in it, its metro area has nearly half the country’s population, and even most government departments are headquartered in it. This is seen in national planning: the national government doesn’t neglect Tel Aviv any more than it neglects any other city. Even the government’s current intercity prestige project is called “high-speed train to Jerusalem,” rather than “high-speed train to Tel Aviv.”

  22. Tessa June 11, 2010 at 12:05 am #

    I’d agree with Alon in that a primate city doesn’t necessarily have to be a capital, and Metro Vancouver has more than half the province’s population in one place. In the end, that’s the power centre in B.C.
    It’s actually quite remarkable the way in which Canada’s provinces respond to their major cities. While some were set up specifically around a centre of settlement (Manitoba and the Red River Settlement, later Winnipeg), Saskatchewan and Alberta’s borders were just arbitrarly drawn on a map with absolutely no regard to topography or culture, yet somehow Regina and Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary all developed well within their provinces, and examples like Lloydminster are pretty rare (though they do exist, and I have no idea why Lloydminster exists the way it does). I’m not sure if that was planned or not, really.

  23. bzcat June 11, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    You don’t need to cross State boarders to have this problem in the US.
    You don’t even need to cross county boarders!
    Look at Los Angeles County and the mess we have here… A regional transit agency that has no power (some say lack of vision and will power) to even coordinate a joint fare system with all the transit operators WITHIN the county.

  24. anonymouse June 11, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    The joint fare system is being coordinated in the form of TAP, and the slow implementation of that system might be more due to technical difficulties than to political ones. If the Bay Area’s efforts are anything to go by, it may be a while yet. The system was supposed to be finished in 2001, and in 2010 they’re still working on integrating the last two major agencies, and haven’t even started on the 20 or so minor ones.

  25. Wad June 12, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    @Bzcat, the LACMTA mess is because Metro is, believe it or not, a state agency!
    Hope this confusion helps: Metro is a state agency, headed by elected representatives exclusively within Los Angeles County, whose charter is defined by the state legislature but not given corresponding plenary powers.
    Metro is sort of in bureaucratic limbo. Think about this when you ask, “Why does/doesn’t Metro do (function here)?” That’s because adding or taking away an assignment — or the more contentious makeup of the board members — from Metro requires the action of the state legislature.
    Why no plenary powers? Most likely, it’s because the smaller cities around L.A. fear the giant agency will seize their municipal bus systems.
    There has been a long history of antagonism between the lilliputian munis and whichever transportation carrier was the Gulliver of its time (the streetcars, the first MTA, the RTD and the current MTA), and the feuds continue today mainly out of principle.
    Voluntary cooperation is still a new concept in L.A. County, and like children, they need adult supervision to get along. The concept of a countywide monthly transit pass is barely in grade school! Even hanging onto it is proving to be an ordeal, as the munis are always squabbling over how to be reimbursed for EZ Pass boardings.
    As anonymouse shows, it’s not that L.A. is uniquely stupid. It may be a California big-city thing, but San Diego has been a noted exception. San Diego is actually very good structurally.
    San Diego also shows the hazard of plenary powers. San Diego used to separate its planning function and its operators. A few years ago it was all folded into the rubric of the MTS, and one of its first actions was to seize the two small municipal agencies in the south county. The cities challenged MTS in court but lost.

  26. Chris Stefan June 13, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    The Bay Area is a crazy quilt of agencies that refuse to co-operate as well. The problem there is made even worse by each commuter rail line having its own agency, not to mention BART functioning as commuter rail for much of the East Bay.
    Of course many other regions aren’t much better, though some do a better job of playing nice together than others.
    I’d hate to see the state take over urban planning for the Seattle Region as the State Government and Legislature are notoriously hostile to both transit and urban needs. The various local governments and agencies are better off working out their differences on their own or through the MPO.

  27. Eric June 14, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    @Jarrett: There are people asking these questions in law and political science departments, but they need to interface more with us metropolitan/ regional planning folks. The solution is: regionalism, regionalism, regionalism.
    Gerald Frug is a good resource to look up, this is his area of inquiry. I remember attending a seminar with him and Jerusalem’s Naomi Chazan (a political scientist and Jerusalem politician) discussing this very topic. He was in favor of a representative “regional legislature” governance body to enact regional-level planning, but he conceded that it was a bit pie in the sky to think that such a planning body could be pulled off in the US. He made two points that I found quite interesting:
    1) There is literally VERY little cities can do in the US without needing to first go to the state. Very little that is local is not also a state issue. Very little of consequence.
    2) If the MSA’s can reclaim any real power from the state, such as garner the ability to tax themselves to do projects at the metropolitan scale, it can only be with the cooperation of other municipalities in the state. Political power to make local decisions is dependent on the regional and state-wide cooperation of municipalities.
    Naomi Chazan’s response was equally interesting. She stated that Frug’s framing of the state vs. local power was a very “Western” way to approach the issue. She stated real power at the local level is both imposed by the state and unavailable to the state in a city like Jerusalem. Informal rules and “laws”, things that political bodies cannot control, made by tacit local agreements, run Jerusalem. And certainly run its local economic and social affairs at the daily level.

  28. Daniel Sparing July 6, 2010 at 8:34 am #

    There are some mid-sized cities which work pretty well on having cross-border services, like the three countries around Maastricht, or Strasbourg and the German side, or the Austrian state of Voralberg joining a rail link between Switzerland and München. But it is true that the giant European cities often ended up in central geographic position, and this is even true for the Netherlands where not one but many cities are in the centre.
    Another example is the multiple-decade struggle in Geneva to build a suburban rail network to the cheaper French areas all around the city.

  29. Chris July 21, 2010 at 12:54 am #

    @Tessa: Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, and Saskatoon all predate Alberta and Saskatchewan. Regina was the territorial capital and by far the leading city when it came time to divide the settled part of the Northwest Territories in 1905, so it by default became the capital of Saskatchewan. I’m not clear on the history that led to Saskatoon’s growth rather than leaving Regina as the clear primate city given Regina’s head start, capital status, and location on the rail line.
    In Alberta, the choice of capital was influenced by the political geography: the Liberals dominated the northern portion of the province, while the south was solidly Conservative. The federal Liberals got to choose the initial government, put the interim capital in Edmonton, and gerrymandered the constituency boundaries to ensure Liberal control of the provincial government (a side effect of this historical accident explains why the University of Alberta is in Edmonton rather than in Calgary; Calgary didn’t get one until the ’60s). However, because the CPR went through Calgary, its continued growth was assured.
    Lethbridge’s location on the boundary is accidental: it was built on the survey meridian line, presumably for simplicity. The provincial boundary was originally to be slightly further west along the territorial district boundaries, but was moved east to follow the survey baseline instead, and ended up splitting the town. Because the town was very small at the time (and still isn’t big), this wasn’t considered enough of a problem to change the boundary.
    Besides Ottawa and Lethbridge, the only other interesting interprovincial settlement is Flin Flon.

  30. חדרי מלח June 29, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    While comparing with “Canada” and “Australia” the division of metro areas by state boundaries is so common in “United States”. And coming to transportation, multi model planning won’t be better served by establishing at federal level.
    Any way “New York” City must depend on decisions made in Albany, Trenton, and Hartford. “Washington DC” must look up to powers in Richmond and Annapolis, and then there might be some result about urban planning.

  31. טיולים מאורגנים June 30, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    It is greatful to see the development of transportation by implementing metro projects.But it seems that these projects are mainly concentrating on urban places.There is a need to develop transportation in rural areas as well.This blog is useful to improve the transportation to a greater extent…

  32. איפור מקצועי August 3, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    It was really a happy and full of grace and a half dozen rash minds dared disagree with the war and questioned his justice soon got a stern warning and anger for the sake of personal safety, quickly lost sight of and no more offended in this way.