Michael Manville: Getting from Here to There

Michael Manville

Michael Manville's research and instruction focus on transportation and local public finance. William Staffeld / AAP

News
April 28, 2016

Originally published in AAP News 19, spring 2016.

How urban dwellers get from point A to point B impacts an array of concerns confronting cities today, ranging from land use and housing to public transit and social justice, says Michael Manville, an assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning, whose research and instruction focuses on transportation and local public finance.

"Transportation is an interesting way to look at a lot of things that happen in cities," he says. "It's a useful window into a lot of bigger, more abstract ideas, because once you start thinking about transportation, and how we should help people get around, invariably you start wrestling with not just efficiency, but also fairness. If we design a transportation system oriented toward automobiles, for example, are we locking out the population that cannot afford them?"

Manville's interest in urban planning was sparked, in large part, during a stint as a newspaper reporter for the Cape and Islands after he completed his undergraduate degree. He was handed the town, county, and transportation beat in Nantucket and Cape Cod, and covered local transportation issues involving roads, the airport, the ferries, and their associated land-use issues. That led to jobs with the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce and a local economic development agency.

"I helped the county write its comprehensive plan and became even more interested in the government planning process, and decided to pursue a master's degree," he recalls. Working with a local government on a popular, attractive island where residents were generally opposed to development introduced Manville to the suspicion toward outsiders that is common in municipal planning.

"I understood where this tendency toward localism came from, but it also concerned me, and later on it became a bigger part of my academic research," he says. "Planning can be very parochial. Many people get involved in planning because they worry their neighborhoods will change, and they want to stop that from happening. Sometimes that's good, but that can't be all that planning is — the process must also consider the well-being of people who live outside the community and may want to live in it."

Deciding that a change of scenery was in order, Manville enrolled in graduate school on the opposite coast at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), where he earned both a master's degree (2003) and a Ph.D. (2009).

It was during a transportation project with a UCLA professor that Manville's interest in the subject matter was piqued, and, after earning his Ph.D. in urban planning, Manville took a position as a postdoctoral scholar at the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies/Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA.

A fundamental problem in transportation, Manville says, is that cities offer free access to roads and parking. "That's not the way we deal with most other infrastructure. We don't say water is free, gas is free, and as a result we don't run out of those things. But we run out of road every day, twice a day; we run out of parking spaces constantly." This, in turn, affects the land-use process, with parking shortages resulting in government regulations that require developers to mitigate traffic, such as by providing parking in their housing projects.

"Over and above that, cities have transportation-demand management plans, which require developers to contribute money to help fund the public transportation system, or widen the street, or put in a left-turn lane," says Manville. "So we are taking costs that should be borne by drivers and putting them on developers. But the developer passes that cost through, usually by building less housing. If that happens citywide, you have a lot less housing and the price of housing goes up. Because we don't charge drivers for the full cost of driving, we end up dumping those costs into the housing market. The story of American cities is cheap driving and expensive housing, which is completely backward."

Cities should make the cost of driving more transparent — and make drivers pay up, Manville says, by instituting congestion charges that make it more expensive to drive at rush hour and street parking charges that vary with demand during certain times of day. Higher gasoline taxes would help, too, he says, in addressing the artificially low costs of owning a vehicle in the city.

But while the benefits of such strategies are straightforward, the politics of instituting new fees in the populace is quite complicated, he acknowledges. "If you could surmount the political challenges, the nice thing is that these charges generate revenue. Not only could you help reduce traffic congestion and help the environment, but city governments would have money and less need for property tax increases," Manville says.

Manville's research also shows that the affordability and convenience of driving thwarts the cities' ability to increase use of public transit. "We could spend more money on transit, but we already spend a lot, and that money has not resulted in more ridership across the country. Spending money on public transportation has in some ways become a way to avoid making driving more expensive," Manville says. "The way it's actually playing out for voters and politicians is that if we spend more money to build light rail, for example, that conveys this impression that we are taking bold action against congestion or pollution, and then we sort of let ourselves off the hook when it comes to doing things that might be less popular but would have a bigger impact.

"I am a big supporter of public transportation, but we are going down a disheartening path where we keep spending money on it and not getting the outcome we want, which is more people riding and fewer people driving. That's because we are ignoring the giant elephant in the room: we can still drive very cheaply," he adds.

Most recently, Manville has focused his attention on a new urban transportation phenomenon by collaborating on a report for the Transportation Research Board examining the growing popularity of Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand ride-sharing services. "It will be interesting to see where these services go and what their ultimate effect is. Will they lead to more vehicle travel or less? It could go either way at this point," he says.

These services are now popular among those who have no access to a vehicle, and Manville suggests that if such services become ubiquitous, even more people would consider giving up their cars, which would have a positive impact on urban centers.

Although transportation is the primary focus of Manville's research, he also studies local public finance, and is particularly interested in the fiscal fortunes of once-large cities that lose population. In a research paper now under review, he finds that while the tax base shrinks when cities decline, the bigger problem is that the people who are left behind — who often cannot afford to move and may have little access to opportunities elsewhere — are poorer and need more and more costly government services. The city, as a result, has both more demand for services and less money to finance them.

"So what you see happening in a city like Syracuse, for instance, is that while in the middle of the last century it was pretty large and more affluent, it is now much smaller and poorer," Manville says. "And the more low-income residents you have, not only do you need more redistributive services, which are expensive, but providing other services at an acceptable level also becomes more expensive, because your citizens are less able to help out with their own private effort."

He cites public schools as an example of how poverty can make it difficult for local governments to meet particular levels of service. "You have children attending school who are not adequately nourished, and whose parents are working multiple jobs or working nights, and can't make sure homework is being done. It is much harder for a school like that to meet basic test scores than a suburban district where there is more support in the home, ranging from helping with homework to feeding healthy food."

Manville made his own transition from a large city to a smaller town when he took his current position at Cornell in 2011, after 10 years on the West Coast. And while he loves the diversity and vitality of L.A. ("not to mention the beaches and balmy weather," he says), he appreciates working in a strong academic department where he can pursue learning what makes our big cities tick, and sharing that knowledge with his students. "Cornell is a great place and we get excellent students. Often they aren't too interested in transportation when they arrive, so one thing that's fun for me is to see some of them come around and appreciate its bigger role in urban planning," he says.

By Jay Wrolstad