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U.S. cities for the 21st century

Experts call for a new federal role in metropolitan development, one with fewer strings attached.

Welcome aboard: Chicago wants to coordinate its transit system with commuter rail and suburban buses serving the metropolitan area.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images/NEWSCOM

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Over the next two years, Chicago plans to introduce a pilot high-speed bus program, complete with dedicated lanes and permanent boarding kiosks, as well as a downtown congestion pricing plan for those who still drive – all paid for with a $153 million federal grant the city received.

It's the sort of federal incentive that some urban experts would like to see more of: designed to help spur large-scale, creative thinking about a metropolitan area's infrastructure or economic development without dictating the form it should take.

Crafting a new federal role for metropolitan America – one that recognizes the importance not just of cities but entire metropolitan areas, together with the idiosyncrasies and differing strengths of each region – is at the heart of a major report the Brookings Institution released Thursday at a summit of mayors, county officials, and business and civic leaders in Washington.

Ultimately, its goal is to revolutionize the way the US views its metropolises.

"If you're going to get serious about the economy, then you've got to get specific about how you're going to leverage metropolitan economies," says Bruce Katz, director of the metropolitan policy program at Brookings.

Even though America's 100 largest cities generate two-thirds of US jobs and three-quarters of domestic economic output, much of the policy coming from Washington – and from the presidential candidates – is still rooted in a Jeffersonian ideal of hamlets and small towns, Mr. Katz says.

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