Housing and transportation energy costs are closely linked. But where should a discussion of reducing those costs begin? Do we focus on urban planning and density? Trains and buses v. automobiles? Combustion engines v. electric cars? Walking v. every other mode of transit?
According to At Ben Hamilton-Baillie, a charismatic urban planner from the UK,
many assumptions about how people can or should move from place to place are grounded in false assumptions that ignore both current trends and human behavior.
“For the first time ever, our cities or towns have become redundant,” he says. “We no longer have to come into town to buy the things we need. There’s no functional necessity for them, so the only reason cities will survive is because people want to congregate.”
“So much of what we put into public spaces is based on assumption,” he adds. “Too often we don’t look at the human relationship to a space. We overlay decisions that make no sense to create a cluttered, dysfunctional space.”
Source: Transportation Research Board
For the past several years, vehicle miles traveled have increased far more rapidly than population or developed land, as homes were built at greater distances from jobs, schools and amenities.
For example, Hamilton-Baillie notes, our streets tend to contain redundant safety features that aim to limit risk, such as guard rails, signage and road symbols. “But that’s not how drivers think,” he says. “Social protocols determine human behavior. People slow down when they see a pedestrian nearby. If you try to do all of the risk aversion for drivers, they stop using their own judgment, and you get unsafe drivers.”
Baillie’s focus is automobile traffic. Not everyone is convinced that the personal vehicle will remain the dominant transit mode that it now is in the U.S. But most have accepted that the American love of the car won’t vanish overnight. One possible green transition: widespread adoption of electric vehicles.
EVs: Segway or Solution?
So far, the launch of the first commercially available electric vehicles in the U.S. haven’t broken any sales record. According to autobloggreen.com, as of March, fewer than 1000 Volts had been sold since December, and only about 173 Nissan Leafs. It’s premature to read much into these figures however. Leaf shipments have been severely curtailed due to Japan’s nuclear nightmare, and other supply-side factors have hurt Volt sales. Time will tell.
In the meantime, the electric car has many advocates in the U.S., including environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. They make some compelling arguments. Electric vehicles aren’t without their environmental cost, but they produce only about half the CO2 emissions of combustion-powered equivalents. They also require less maintenance and address other issues such as noise pollution, localized air pollution and Many of the criticisms leveled at them are either demonstrably false or less significant than detractors like to think.
Albert Dahlberg of Brown University coordinates the Rhode Island chapter of a non-profit organization called Project Get Ready. The group hopes to put tens of thousands of plug-in EVs on the road nationally--10,000 in Rhode Island alone--by 2015.
“We’ve got a wide group of people on board,” says Dahlberg. “Electricians, car buffs, technology geeks, environmentalists. The reason we feel electricity is the best option for automobiles is that it’s cheap, it can be produced domestically, eventually without fossil fuel--and it’s ubiquitous. You can get it anywhere.”
Some of the drawbacks to the electric car, however, are rarely discussed. For example, the promise of simply replacing our current fleet of gas burners with electric vehicles infers that the fossil-fuel intensive infrastructure of highways, bridges and interstates will be maintained. The promise of electrics also allows politicians to avoid allocating serious money to mass transit and infill development.
The Burden of the Burbs
The flight from the cities to the suburbs of the last 40 years radically changed the transportation landscape. That trend has only recently begun to reverse. Planners now have plenty of hard data with which to measure the success of so called “smart growth: policies. In most cases, they’ve found that aggressive urbanization policies have greatly reduced use of personal vehicles (and pollution) as intended.
For example, take Portland, Oregon,—the city with the best known (and most controversial) anti-sprawl approach. The Transportation Research Board (via the National Research Council) analyzed the effect of Portland’s urban growth boundary and other policies, initiated in the 1970s.
The NRC report says: “Portland’s policies to steer growth into more compact, mixed-use development have paid off, not only in revitalizing the downtown and many of its neighborhoods but also in changing travel behavior. While daily VMT per capita has risen sharply in the United States as a whole, it has declined in the Portland metro area since about 1996.”
After many years of losing density to the suburbs, the trend finally reversed in 2000. Economic forces are likely to continue attracting exiled suburbanites to more metropolitan areas.
In addition, they note that between 1993 and 2007, transit ridership increased 55 percent, population density grew by 18 percent. But Portland’s green transition didn’t happen by accident, they point out: “The success of Portland’s strategy depended on strong state planning legislation, an ambitious investment in a light rail system that received substantial federal assistance and strong citizen support.”
The Walking Poor
The advantages of denser living are not just environmental. The Wall Street Journal recently called the decade between 2000 and 2009, “The Lost Decade,” the “worst for American families in at least half a century,” with regard to income. Median family income fell by almost 5 percent (adjusted for inflation) over that time period.
This chart shows that even in 1998, before gas prices spiked, transportation was the second largest household expenditure for most U.S. families. Source: Consumer Expenditure Survey, www.transact.org.
As incomes shrink, the impact of higher transportation costs take an ever greater toll. And for many caught in the financial free fall, automobiles have become a costly luxury.
The American Public Transit Association just published a report suggesting that urban dwellers who use public transit—and don’t own automobiles--save an average of $9,242 annually—up $600 from just a year ago because of rising gas prices. In New York City, the savings is $13,765. By simply eliminating one car and using public transit, a family can reduce its annual CO2 footprint by 30%. But it’s probably not eco-altruism that’s behind most people embrace of trains and subways and buses. It’s economic necessity.
Source: Consumer Expenditure Survey, www.transact.org
“Overall, the residential tide is moving from fringe suburbs to urbanizing suburban nodes,” the Urban Land Institute reports, “and 24-hour downtown cores appear to gain momentum for other economic reasons … Bigger houses cost more to maintain, car expenses increase, and time lost in traffic and commuting mount. As a result, apartment and townhouse living near stores and attractions gains favor with aging, downsizing baby boomer parents, and their children want “stimulating environments in more urban places.”
All indicators point to a rethinking of the suburban exodus. The Dept. of the Census reported in March that single family housing starts declined 20 percent from figures given in January. And those starts were already hovering around a half million homes—down 50 percent from the boom times of the 1990s. Is there any doubt that the age of the greenfield single family home in the sleeper suburb is on the wane?
The Density Imperative
Aside from a few conspiracy nuts who think that traditional neighborhood developments are a plot by the United Nations to turn us into a communist collective, new urbanism is gaining acceptance across political and cultural boundaries. There’s an understanding, especially at the municipal government level, that automobile (and school bus) infrastructure is far more expensive than walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly urban planning. Ultimately, it’s lack of money for roads that may finish off the 1950s Levittown dream of a new neighborhood in the middle of neighborhood.
And the research keeps piling up. A 2009 study of 31 neighborhoods in Canada. Found, as Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com puts it, that even “people living in big drafty 19th century homes in the city used less energy overall than those in the suburbs.” Alex Wilson says the difference may be as high as 30 percent more overall energy used for buildings in the burbs.
For an urban city to effectively reduce or energy footprint, however, it needs to be well designed, “a mix of transit-oriented development, walkability, and historicity,” Alter says. Why historic? Apparently, “heritage” neighborhoods tend to score higher than modern neighborhoods on the walkability index. And it’s getting easier to measure that metric. He notes that an organization called the Center for Neighborhood Technology now uses Google Maps to measure walkability quickly and efficiently.
Alongside the evidence that urbanized, transit friendly neighborhoods offer the lightest lifestyle footprint, another study from Jonathan Rose Companies drives the point still further home. That study suggests that even high level LEED certified communities in the suburbs can’t go toe to toe with leaky old urban multifamily homes. And if you add green construction to the city dwellings, the suburbs get trounced.
As this table clearly shows, the type of housing development that uses the least home energy and transportation energy is multi-family housing built within a transit oriented development. When you add in green building techniques and more fuel-efficient automobiles, the numbers look even better: Source: Jonathan Rose Companies; EPA
The shape of our future transportation is being shaped by turbulent forces from both above and below: On the top, a status quo dominated media, and carefully groomed politicians have helped trigger a perfect storm of budget-slashing politics. From below, declining wages and environmental outrage have people looking at drastic shifts in where and how they live.
The next question is whether they’ll have any options available. Suburbs are notoriously poor options for public transit. But as politicians tighten the squeeze on money for education, social services, health care and care of the elderly, will transit get a bigger piece of the federal pie? Short term prospects don’t look good. Governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida have loudly refused hundreds of millions in federal money for high speed rail projects. Their objection: They might have to subsidize operation of the completed rail system. Instead, they want to use the money to maintain the status quo—to fix auto roads and bridges.
But by thumbing their noses at public transit in favor of private vehicle ownership, these political operators not doing the middle class any favors. The private sector already pays far more out of pocket than the public sector. The Surface Transport Policy Partnership reports that “Households spent more than five times as much of their own money on transportation, more than $675 billion, than the government spent on all roads, highways, and transit systems combined ($128 billion).”
You can see how government austerity measures and public desperation may run head-on into each other. People earning less money each year can’t afford to maintain the status quo of auto ownership and insurance. More transit is needed, along with smarter building and redevelopment of the metropolitan fringe. Density is back.
Any transportation planner can tell you there’s no single solution to streamlining how people get around. New technology such as digital scheduling and mobile metro apps can make transit more efficient. But success stories like Portland, Oregon, don’t happen by accident. Conscious planning and genuine concern for the public good has to drive the transition.
To view this article as it appeared in our June 2011 issue, please visit our Magazine Archive.