Trade and Transportation By Dr. Thomas O’Brien
May 7, 2013 – Long Beach recently released a draft version of the Mobility Element for the city’s General Plan. According to the city, the Mobility Element is designed to establish “an overview of the transportation infrastructure and multimodal strategies for the movement of people and goods.” It is not surprising that a place that is home to the nation’s second largest port includes the movement of goods in a discussion of mobility along with other topics more commonly addressed by general plans. These include passenger traffic, public transit, pedestrian-serving uses and bicycling.
But the role of cities and metropolitan regions in planning for freight mobility is taking on added significance given a lack of funding (and sometimes leadership) at the national level. Last year, the Brookings Institution – a D.C.-based think tank – and JPMorgan Chase launched a five-year Global Cities Initiative with the goals of helping U.S. regions become more competitive and expanding the global reach of their economies through, in part, manufacturing, exports, external investment and increased (and improved) freight flows. The chair of the project is former Chicago mayor Richard Daley.
As Brookings research points out, the focus on cities and metropolitan regions is due to their economic vibrancy, that is to say the scale and scope of economic activity that takes place within them and the diversity of labor markets that support that economic activity. Of the 300 largest metropolitan economies worldwide, more than half outperformed their own countries in terms of employment growth last year compared with 2011 figures. In the U.S., jumpstarting the competitiveness of our regions is important because fully three-quarters of the fastest growing metropolitan economies in 2012 were located in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East and Africa. Ninety percent of the slowest growing metro economies were in Western Europe and North America.
Some U.S. regions have been hesitant to embrace trade as a path to economic revitalization. For one, there has been concern about engaging globally if it means exposing local industries to competition from lower cost production centers in other parts of the world. But looking inward usually does little to spur innovation, and innovation is needed to stay one step ahead of regions not only across the globe but here at home as well.
The Global Cities Initiative is looking at how various metropolitan regions around the country are likely to fare in an increasingly competitive environment, particularly when compared to other places where planning for trade-related growth has been embraced by both national governments as well as more local levels of government. This includes, most notably, China.
Miami gets high marks for new infrastructure development and financing mechanisms that don’t rely solely upon Washington. In Portland, which has a reputation for embracing regional planning in a way that is not always welcomed by private industry, the mayor is working with Greater Portland, Inc., a public-private partnership focused on economic growth and job creation, on a regional export plan.
Which brings us back to Long Beach’s Mobility Element. Most residents rightly assume that the General Plan provides direction to the city with regard to land use. This means everything from preventing undesirable uses in residential neighborhoods, the creation of community-enhancing services in city centers and along waterfronts and identifying areas that make for attractive locations for commercial and industrial development.
But the plan should also consider the needs of people and goods moving between these various locales; and consider how improved mobility can contribute to the quality of life, which includes jobs. Finally, since transport needs rarely end at a city’s borders, a Mobility Element should also lay the groundwork for connectivity to networks that move people and goods to other places both near and far.
Long Beach’s draft Mobility Element recognizes that the city is a center for international trade and commerce and hopes to maintain that status while improving quality of life. It also recognizes that cooperation and collaboration with other local agencies as well as statewide transportation agencies and the goods movement industry are critical to the success of any planning effort. Industry is particularly important. As an example, the plan calls for identifying needed street improvements along truck routes and on-street loading areas. Without input from truckers, there is no guarantee that this can be done in a way that reflects the needs of industry or the way that the supply chain works. Funding strategies that include co-financing of facilities or user fees also depend upon the willingness of private partners and should be developed with an eye toward how competing regions handle the same challenges. Plans that are too rigid can discourage the very partners you hope to attract and send a message to them (and to competing regions) about the role that goods movement will play in the economic life of a city.
Industry, planners, public officials and community groups have found ways of coming together to negotiate the development of individual projects like the Middle Harbor Project at the Port of Long Beach. The plans that shape those developments deserve the same attention. Long Beach is currently accepting comments on the draft Mobility Element. For industry stakeholders not often engaged in local planning, it’s well worth the effort to make sure that you’re part of the process.
(Dr. Thomas O’Brien is the director of research for the Center for International Trade and Transportation at CSULB and associate director for Long Beach Programs for the METRANS Transportation Center, a partnership of USC and CSULB. For past articles in this series, please go to www. ccpe.csulb.edu/IndustryArticles.)