Freight and Livability, reflections

Last week I participated in roundtable specifically requested by the Federal Highway Administration on freight and livability. “Livable communities” of one of the themes that has been intended to unify Federal programs into–whether intended or not–a cohesive set of ideas about urban policy. Not unlike many terms that describe the city, livability can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but when asked to give a definition, I argued essentially that livability means “a nice place to live.” In the big scheme of things, that is not really asking all that much of urban planning. After all, planners should be in the business of developing nice places.

The question they asked: are freight and livability mutually exclusive. Everybody else pretty much said “no”; I said “yes, pretty much.” The other folks on the panel are air quality people; it seems pretty clear that we have to, and we will, begin to clean up freight fuels to the point where, at least, we won’t making people sick. However, there is a significant nuisance aspect to freight shipping, and that’s where I rather held out. We would need a radical reshaping of the forms and structure of the freight industry to get rid of that nuisance factor, and nothing about the existing trajectory of the industry suggests this is going to happen. Current factors emphasize economies of scale rather than diversity of scope or small-scale distribution.