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Study: Less Auto-Dependent Development Is Key to Mitigating Climate Change

Uli1
With current development patterns and a slight increase in fuel economy (business-as-usual), VMT and CO2 rise steadily. Click to enlarge.

Meeting the growing demand for conveniently located homes in walkable neighborhoods could significantly reduce the growth in the number of miles Americans drive, shrinking the nation’s carbon footprint while giving people more housing choices, according to a team of leading urban planning researchers.

In a comprehensive review of dozens of studies—Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, published by the Urban Land Institute—the researchers conclude that urban development is both a key contributor to climate change and an essential factor in combating it.

Under the current business-as-usual development scenario, with sprawling development continuing to fuel growth in driving, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects a 59% increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030. This will overwhelm the forecast modest (12%) gains in vehicle efficiency.

Uli2
Even under stricter vehicle and fuel standards, the increase in VMT keeps pushing greenhouse gas emissions higher. Click to enlarge.

Even with more stringent standards for vehicle efficiency and lower-carbon fuels—the Senate CAFE bill for 35 mpg by 2020 and the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard—the rapid increase in driving would overwhelm both the increase in vehicle fuel economy and the lower carbon fuel content. In 2030, CO2 emissions would be 12% above the 2005 level, and 40% above the 1990 level.

Curbing emissions from cars depends on a three-legged stool: improved vehicle efficiency, cleaner fuels, and a reduction in driving. The research shows that one of the best ways to reduce vehicle travel is to build places where people can accomplish more with less driving.

—lead author Reid Ewing, Research Professor at the National Center for Smart Growth, University of Maryland

Depending on several factors, from mix of land uses to pedestrian-friendly design, compact development reduces driving from 20 to 40%, and more in some instances, according to the forthcoming book, Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. Typically, Americans living in compact urban neighborhoods where cars are not the only transportation option drive a third fewer miles than those in automobile-oriented suburbs, the researchers found.

At the same time, the book documents market research showing a majority of future housing demand lies in smaller homes and lots, townhouses, and condominiums in neighborhoods where jobs and activities are close at hand. The researchers note that demographic changes, shrinking households, rising gas prices, lengthening commutes and cultural shifts all play a role in that demand.

The report cites real estate projections showing that two-thirds of development expected to be on the ground in 2050 is not yet built, meaning that the potential for change is profound. The authors calculate that shifting 60% of new growth to compact patterns would save 85 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. The savings over that period equate to a 28% increase in federal vehicle efficiency standards by 2020 (to 32 mpg), comparable to proposals now being debated in Congress.

Implementing the policies recommended in the report would reverse a decades-long trend. Since 1980, the number of miles Americans drive has grown three times faster than population, and almost twice as fast as vehicle registrations. Spread-out development is the key factor in that rate of growth, the research team found.

The findings show that people who move into compact, “green neighborhoods” are making as big a contribution to fighting global warming as those who buy the most efficient hybrid vehicles, but remain in car-dependent areas.

While demand for such smart-growth development is growing, government regulations, government spending, and transportation policies still favor sprawling, automobile-dependent development. The book recommends changes in all three areas to make green neighborhoods more available and more affordable. It also calls for including smart-growth strategies as a fundamental tenet in upcoming climate change legislation.

The study represents a collaboration among leading urban planning researchers, including Ewing, Steve Winkelman of the Center for Clean Air Policy, Keith Bartholomew of the University of Utah, and Jerry Walters of Fehr & Peers Associates. Smart Growth America coordinated the multi-disciplinary team that developed the recommended policy actions and is leading a broad coalition to develop those strategies further. The US Environmental Protection Agency and the Hewlett Foundation provided funding for the underlying research.

Resources:

Comments

mahonj

You could always cycle - this would give an easy commuting radius of 5 miles for most people.

Walking is a bit slow.

It would work best in a flattish temperate climate, like say Western Europe or west coast of the US.

Even if you only cycle when the weather is fine, it will make a difference.

Plus, you might get fit.

My philosophy is to by all means have a car, but cycle as much as possible. Use whichever mode of transport suits the journey best.

If you have a 20 mile commute - a bike is not for you.

But that is what these guys are giving out about.

Nick

"The report cites real estate projections showing that two-thirds of development expected to be on the ground in 2050 is not yet built, meaning that the potential for change is profound..."

There is hope. Solutions are not so much about green cars, it's about green patterns of development. Public policy (tax/zoning/incentives) needs to be adjusted to encourage these kinds of future development.

Limited range electric vehicles also will be more practical with denser patterns of development.

Harvey D

mahonj,

Have you considered confordable electrified mass transportation. My trips to downtown (35 Km) are done about 90% of the time by electric train. It is much faster, cheaper, safer, greener and no parking problems. Our Canadian winters + distances don't favour cycling.

We pay an extra 5 cents/liter on gas + $30/yr extra registration fees for improved mass ground transportaion systems. I wouldn't mind paying an extra 10 cents/liter for more affordable electric trains. It is the most efficient way to move people around (on time) at higher speeds.

country mouse

whenever I hear people talk about urban living, I come up with questions that have some partial answers.

If urban living is so good, why do people still prefer suburban life? (Partial answer: urban population is growing but it's mostly growing in the areas of slums where life resembles Harlan Ellison; nasty, brutish, and short. Partial answer 2: real estate is two to four times cheaper in suburbia for the same square footage) a related question is will very expensive real estate further depress birthrates because people can't afford living space to raise children? Based on the people I know, I suspect the living space requirement is in the area of approximate 500 sq ft. per person.

Why do people living in urban spaces have shorter life spans with poor quality health. (Partial answer: because it is unsafe/unhealthy to exercise outdoors, produce is poor quality, more likely to be contaminated, and more expensive than prepackaged food. Partial fix: encourage development of neighborhood "big-box stores" which will have sufficient volume that they will always have fresh produce at reasonable prices. Partial fix 2: make it possible to take shopping carts on public transportation so one can transport a weeks worth of groceries for a family of four from a store with better prices/selection/quality)

what will happen with the private vehicle accident rate? If people drive less often, they will have less experience so does this mean they will have more accidents?

If city living is so good, why do we have summer camps specifically targeting getting urban children out of the cities?

Why do we have a greater level of crime and gang problems in urban spaces versus suburbia? in conjunction with this question, why do we have so much bad lighting? It doesn't do anything for security or crime prevention, if anything, it makes nighttime crime less detectable.

if public transportation is so wonderful, why does it take so much time out of our lives? Public transport typically doubles your transit time and you can't do anything useful with that time. (Think motion sickness, vulnerability to criminals because you aren't paying attention to the world around you, other people watching what you do.) From my country mouse perspective, good public transportation will get you between any two points in half the time it would take you to get there by car. Otherwise, why not take a car, it's cheaper and faster even including parking or better yet, stay out of the city entirely.

if you become dependent on walking/cycling to work, every time you change jobs there would be strong pressure to move. If one moves relatively frequently (given the average job life is around two years) what would that do to communities? Would relationships with neighbors ceased to exist or just become more shallow? What would that do to personal relationships and couple formation?)

Rafael Seidl

Urban sprawl is definitely a feature of metropolitan areas that were built after the arrival of mass-market automobiles. Los Angeles county is a case in point, which has led directly to extremely strict air quality laws.

However, the situation in Europe proves that densely built-up city centers are not much of a deterrent to motorists. They accept high fuel prices, high parking fees, lane restrictions / set-asides for public transportation, generally high taxes to pay for things like public transportation and congestion charges (London, Oslo) and yet still they come. Fact is, it is very, very hard to persuade someone not to *own* a car. Once they do, they suffer depreciation on the asset so they want to use it.

Subways do work, because they are unencumbered by cross-traffic and therefore fast. Door-to-door journey times are reduced relative to commuting by car if the network is dense enough (in town) or there are park+ride facilities (outer districts/suburbs). Even so, subways usually offer nothing like the acceleration comfort, low noise or the personal space of a car. There is no crash protection for passengers but none is needed as traffic is tightly controlled.

Unfortunately, few new cities set aside underground real estate for a future subway from the outset. Retrofitting a subway system once other infrastructure (especially sewers and buildings overhead) is in place is difficult and expensive.

By contrast, car owners generally shun buses, though trams are more popular. In a nutshell, people will use public transport only if it cuts their door-to-door journey time (especially for commuting to and from work) or, if they cannot afford a (second) private vehicle for commuting.

Bicycles are a great alternative, especially if building density is high enough to keep travel distances short and, land is set aside for bicycle lanes that are seperated from vehicle traffic by a curb. In the Netherlands, they are often given a different color as an additional clue to car drivers. The country permits scooters on bicycle paths, as long as they are governed to 40kph (25mph).

One way to increase it is to permit the upper storeys of a building to cover the sidewalk (cp. the old town in Berne, Switzerland). The overhanging portion is supported by columns that also separate the sidewalk from the road. The ground floor is often used for shops, because shoppers generally enjoy being out of the rain and/or direct sunshine. Ideally, parking in such an architecture should be underneath the buildings, accessed such that the sidewalk remains level. Of course, the alcoves could be made high and wide enough to support a bicycle lane in addition to the sidewalk, this also yields taller shop windows.

Another very useful feature in good urban planning are single-lane roundabouts - in lieu of traffic lights - in low-traffic side streets. The space in the center can be used for a tree or fountain if it is small, adding some pretty to the neighborhood. If the central space is large enough, it can be used for a small park, a playground or a municipal/utility building, accessed via an underground passage or a pedestrian bridge. Bicycle paths and sidewalks should always be routed on the outside of roundabouts.

All of the above just illustrates that high-density urban architecture depends on thinking in three dimensions from the outsets, with appropriate set-asides and easements on parcels of land that will be sold to private citizens and businesses.

marcus

My understanding from Hansen and Colin Campbell is that transportation is not going to be the significan GHG issue. Why? Because there isn't enough fossil fuel left in the ground that can be extracted efficiently enough other than coal for it to be so. Instead the price of oil will probably take care of urban sprawl all by itself, albeit in a little more painful manner than it would have been had it been voluntary.

Steve Davis

Hey, would you guys mind changing the link under "resources" at the end of the post to http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/gcindex.html

?

The link that is up there goes only directly to the executive summary, and we'd love it if people could have the option to download some of the other materials, full report, or read coverage on the main site for the study. Thanks for the post — we appreciate the spotlight.

NBK-Boston

Los Angeles County has a population density of around 2,400 persons per square mile, but that includes undeveloped tracts and parkland. The City of Los Angeles has a population density of nearly 7,900 persons per square mile. Portland, Oregon, often touted as an example of compact urban design, has a population density in the area of 4,000 persons per square mile.

But in their own way, these figures actually reinforce Rafael's point. Raw density is only a small part of the story. The configuration and mixing of land uses within the urban area, the provisions for different sorts of infrastructure, the interaction of the differing municipalities within a metropolitan area, and the relation of the metropolitan area to other areas in travelling distance all play a role.

I recently visited a friend who lived in a recently-build apartment community in a suburban area which was directly adjacent to a large shopping development. Unwilling to make a pointless drive, I poked around until I found a poorly marked but well graded path that connected the two developments -- door to door travel time was less than ten minutes if you knew where you were going. By the numbers, the population and development density of the area taken as a whole (the residential area plus adjacent commercial area) seemed pretty high, in terms of persons per acre and developed square feet of building space per acre. But due to the extreme separation of uses and poor connectivity between the internal roads and paths of one development and the internal roads and paths of adjoining developments, my walking to the coffeeshop was the exception rather than the rule. The rent was cheap and parking ample, but I think those qualities could have been retained and walkability increased by adding a few signposts to the existing path, and perhaps adding an extra path in the other direction.

stomv

Piecewise response to country mouse...

If urban living is so good, why do people still prefer suburban life?

Short answer: public schools, space for stuff, parking. There's a reverse exodus going on for seniors, who are choosing to move back to the city now that their kids are out of school. The public transit is viewed as a benefit, the social scene is far more comprehensive in the city, and they just don't need or want the space or lawn any more.

Why do people living in urban spaces have shorter life spans with poor quality health.

Got data? Does it account for income? I'd bet that poor neighborhoods have lower health expectancies everywhere, and that if you adjust for income that cities are more healthy. After all, they have better hospitals, and more opportunities to walk farther than from the parking lot to the Wal*Mart.

As for shopping carts -- those of us who live in a city know better than to buy a shopping cart worth of things at a time -- it's too heavy all around. The solution: a backpack, a few canvass bags, and stopping in for a few items on the way home. My household of two buys groceries about three times a week -- and almost never spends more than $25 at a time.

what will happen with the private vehicle accident rate? If people drive less often, they will have less experience so does this mean they will have more accidents?

Here's a hint: if people drive less, they will have fewer accidents. Maybe more accidents per mile driven, but fewer accidents in total.

If city living is so good, why do we have summer camps specifically targeting getting urban children out of the cities?

In high school I lived in a rural area, and went to a city for summer camp.

Why do we have a greater level of crime and gang problems in urban spaces versus suburbia?

The FBI begs to differ. Deaths from gun use are higher in suburbia and rural areas per capita. So is recreational drug use.

if public transportation is so wonderful, why does it take so much time out of our lives?

It's cheaper, it's safer, and it doesn't require parking. There's three reasons why it's wonderful. Does it take longer than driving? It depends on where you live. Try driving from CT or NJ into Manhattan on a weekday -- the train will beat you most days.

public transport typically doubles your transit time and you can't do anything useful with that time. (Think motion sickness, vulnerability to criminals because you aren't paying attention to the world around you, other people watching what you do.)

Um, no. What's typical isn't relevant -- there are plenty of cases where mass transit is faster. Furthermore, subways, streetcars, and commuter rail are all excellent places to read, be it a newspaper, a report for work, the latest Stephen Covey book, whatever. It's quite productive, and not generally a safety risk, especially for 9 to 5ers.

From my country mouse perspective, good public transportation will get you between any two points in half the time it would take you to get there by car. Otherwise, why not take a car, it's cheaper and faster even including parking or better yet, stay out of the city entirely.

You live in places where there's plentiful parking and many lanes of highway. I don't. You wouldn't want to take a car much of the time -- cost to drive and insure, gasoline, price of parking, difficulty finding parking, and inability to safety get home after a night at the pub are just a few reasons. Cars are certainly not cheaper than public transit, city parking isn't free, driving isn't always faster, etc. If you stay out of the city, you miss theatre, professional sports, major civic events, parades and celebrations, diverse shopping, museums, diverse cuisine, and so forth. That's a lot to give up methinks.

if you become dependent on walking/cycling to work, every time you change jobs there would be strong pressure to move. If one moves relatively frequently (given the average job life is around two years) what would that do to communities? Would relationships with neighbors ceased to exist or just become more shallow? What would that do to personal relationships and couple formation?)

What does it mean to be dependent on walking/cycling? That you forget how to drive? I've had a drivers license for ten years, and owned a car for three of 'em. I haven't forgotten, and I haven't gotten in an accident either. If my job changes, I either decide to buy a car, to move, or to not take that job -- the last two decisions face car owners too. There's not going to be a sudden upheaval of urban communities over jobs: after all, in a city there's tons of jobs of all kinds, and the mass transit infrastructure can take you to lots of 'em. That's not the case in rural areas, where towns become reliant on a few large job opportunities and don't have the robust economy to weather a downturn in a particular industry.

I'm not sure how much public transit you've taken, or in which cities. I've lived in cities, suburbs, and rural areas, and I've riden mass transit in more than 50 cities ranging from 100,000 people to 20,000,000 people. It's not always clean or fast, but that doesn't mean it never is.

country mouse

thanks for the reply stomy.

Short answer: public schools, space for stuff, parking. There's a reverse exodus going on for seniors, who are choosing to move back to the city now that their kids are out of school. The public transit is viewed as a benefit, the social scene is far more comprehensive in the city, and they just don't need or want the space or lawn any more.

don't forget the 20 somethings looking for fuckbuddies. I frequently forget the social scene since I never go to any public events. can't stand crowds of people (i.e. more than 15)


Why do people living in urban spaces have shorter life spans with poor quality health.

Got data? Does it account for income? I'd bet that poor neighborhoods have lower health expectancies everywhere, and that if you adjust for income that cities are more healthy. After all, they have better hospitals, and more opportunities to walk farther than from the parking lot to the Wal*Mart.

wish I had cites. the article vanished behind a newspaper firewall. they were reporting on a university study which showed a roughly 10% difference in health problems when compared to equivalent income groups. poor were worse off but the middle class were not much better. suspected causes were poor quality and more expensive produce in urban supermarkets, less exercise, and environmental stress. less exercise happens because the environment is considered hostile and is avoided whenever possible. IMO, environmental stress is caused by audible presence of other people in next door apartments, traffic, etc.

As for shopping carts -- those of us who live in a city know better than to buy a shopping cart worth of things at a time -- it's too heavy all around. The solution: a backpack, a few canvass bags, and stopping in for a few items on the way home. My household of two buys groceries about three times a week -- and almost never spends more than $25 at a time.

you must have time to burn. why would you spend another 4 hours a week shopping when you could be safe in you apt? we spend 2 hours about every 10 days on 150-200$ of food, most of it fresh. we think nothing of dropping 50$ on fresh fruit at the town orchard.

as for your backback idea, that is a 20something idea. impractical for fresh food or anything soft. I have ruined lots of food with a backpack like really ripe peaches or pears. bread even. would not work for the average 60yr old from body stress. would not work for many types of disabilities (I'm disabled from nerve damage in both arms). which brings up back to some sort of cart and infrastructure to support it.


Here's a hint: if people drive less, they will have fewer accidents. Maybe more accidents per mile driven, but fewer accidents in total.

only true if the accident rate (accidents per mile) remains roughly the same or the miles driven drops faster than the rate climbs. if the rate climbs, faster than miles driven drops then we will see an uptick in overall number of accidents. I'm betting on this last case.

The FBI begs to differ. Deaths from gun use are higher in suburbia and rural areas per capita. So is recreational drug use.

cites?? roughly 50% of deaths by gunshots as suicides according to a long ago article in salon. another big chunk are accidental. what is more important to me is how often they are used as threat but not fired. i.e. a mugging. does anyone break out that stat?

if you look in the published crime stats for MA (usa) violent crime is biggest in urban centers, non-violent (pot smoking) in suburban.


Um, no. What's typical isn't relevant -- there are plenty of cases where mass transit is faster. Furthermore, subways, streetcars, and commuter rail are all excellent places to read, be it a newspaper, a report for work, the latest Stephen Covey book, whatever. It's quite productive, and not generally a safety risk, especially for 9 to 5ers.

never experienced any mass transit system where it was faster. (Boston, London, DC, San Francisco) in most cases, a bicycle would be faster. Recently when I took the subway from Alewife Station (suburban Boston) to Central Square, it cost me five dollars to park, four dollars for the subway ride. When I drove to Central Square directly, it cost me four dollars to park and was 30 minutes faster. I had similar differentials in the other three cities. Non-rush-hour, it was significantly faster to take a taxi that was to take public transit. Yes, taxis were more expensive but, hey, I didn't have to spend the time with crowds of people I don't know.

As for reading, personally, I can't do it. I'd be puking on somebody's shoes within 30 minutes. With my luck, I would be hauled off as a terrorist using biological weapons against the rest of the car riders. :-)

Now maybe this speaks more to our lack of interest in reading but, readers on the MBTA are very rare. Maybe one out of 20 if I had to make a guess. During rush hour, it's almost impossible to read because they're just too many people crammed in the car.


If you stay out of the city, you miss theatre, professional sports, major civic events, parades and celebrations, diverse shopping, museums, diverse cuisine, and so forth. That's a lot to give up methinks.

I think this is a major difference. I don't go to theater, the only professional sport I like is motorcycle racing but not enough to go to a physical race. why go shopping? most people including myself have too much stuff (we do all of out shopping over the net to avoid malls or quaint shops with shopkeepers that pay way too much attention to you). No, there's nothing on that list that holds much attraction except maybe a museum visit once every four or five years when there's a special event. And even then, driving is faster. (think concord ma to boston MFA. 30 min avg wait, 1 hr to north station, 15-30 min green line wait, 45 min to MFA... 2.5 hours 1 way: driving: 50-60 min and free to 20$ parking depending on luck)


after all, in a city there's tons of jobs of all kinds, and the mass transit infrastructure can take you to lots of 'em. That's not the case in rural areas, where towns become reliant on a few large job opportunities and don't have the robust economy to weather a downturn in a particular industry.

one would think that was the case. but the Boston area is having an extremely difficult time holding on to companies providing any form of job stability. Granted this is just a single point but a friend who is a marketing executive lives in Cambridge but always finds her jobs out on the 128 belt. This is been my experience as well. The only jobs they seem to have in the city are related to financial institutions or really raw startups. In either case they are extremely high stress unpleasant companies to work for. medium-size companies with reasonable growth patterns tend to exist just outside the city where land is still cheap enough they can expand without blowing a big chunk of their budget on overpriced real estate.

this reminds me. I did have one job in Cambridge in a chemical firm, took me 50 minutes to drive during rush hour and a little over two hours if I took public transport. eventually they moved the research group out to the 128 belt where they could get a cheaper facility. Driving became more relaxing and public transport became impossible.

Remember what I said about real estate prices. Until you can find a way to level the playing field on real estate prices, people will choose suburban. as an exercise I once calculated how long it would take the cost of living in urban spaces versus suburban assuming equal and properties (i.e. 2000 sq ft.). I don't have time to do the full calculation but, to give you a feel, assume $.30 per mile for car usage and $400,000 difference in cost of equivalent property urban versus suburban and the price differential pays for 1.3 million miles of driving. even if you were able to triple the cost of car usage, the differential in cash alone would be around 400,000 miles. If you migrate to a plug-in hybrid, the cost per mile should drop below $.30 per mile which makes suburban properties even more attractive.

I'm not saying it's accurate, it's what I tossed off with a few minutes thought. I will take any counter calculations with good humor. :-)

Even in the best-case scenario, they prospect only a 30% improvement in MPG by 2030. I would think this is a huge underestimation. Even if we would stop improving our cars, and only produce the cars that we are making today, a replacement of the old cars by the new ones, would already improve the MPG by more than 30% (in Europe). Once (hybrid)electric cars are introduced, MPG will increase by at least another 50%. Large-scale carbon-free electricity will certainly be able to power most of the vehicles by 2030.
I suppose the graphs are an extrapollation of the trends in average efficiency we saw in the past decades, when fuel was cheap and greenhouse effect was disputed. This extrapollation may be statistically correct, but doesn't take into account the real technological changes we may expect in the future.

jack

I can only shake my head at the bevy of negative urban stereotypes I just read.

sjc

They were pushing electric light rail all through the 90s in San Jose, California and at the time I did not understand it. 10 years later, it started to make some sense to me. It replaced some ridership on dirty diesel buses going downtown. Any way that you can clean the air and reduce traffic congestion seems to be worth consideration. Now whether light rail was more cost effective than making the buses CNG, I do not know.

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