Drilling on Main Street, Part 2: Saving Oil through Smart Growth Development

I’ve written a lot in the past few days about how we can’t drill our way to lower gas prices. So what can we do to ease pain at the pump? We need to “drill” on Main Street, USA. We can recover millions of gallons of oil by creating oil-savings opportunities in our towns and cities. Improving public transit is one way to do it. That’s 4 million gallons a day right there. But to really make transit work, you need to use another strategy. It’s called smart growth, and it has the potential to save us about 8 million gallons of oil a day by 2030.

Smart growth offers homebuyers, businesses and jobseekers alternatives to the way we’ve been building towns for the past half-century – expanding highways and creating isolated suburban enclaves full of single family homes, further and further away from cities.  Many of those who moved into such enclaves , who are already struggling with big mortgages and falling home values, are being further hurt by high gas prices because they are forced to drive long distances for every basic necessity (energy expert Lisa Margonelli calls it “the energy trap”).

Changing the way we develop land can help us shake off our dependence on oil and cars (and perhaps shake off the recession as well). Smart growth principles advocate developing communities near transit lines instead of sprawling deeper into the countryside, and making these neighborhoods compact and walkable, with homes, offices and shops more or less bundled together.  We need more of these neighborhoods to maximize the effectiveness of public transit. You can have the most high-tech, energy-efficient light rail, BRT or subway system in the world, but it’s not going to give you much benefit if only three people are riding in each car. Smart growth gives transit the density it needs to be truly successful.

Smart growth communities set people free from their cars, by making it easy to walk, bike or take public transit to get where they need to go. Residents of such communities spend about half of what the typical car-bound suburbanite does on transportation.  A recent EPA paper found that a family living in a transit-friendly location would use 39 percent less energy than if they lived in the same house in a conventional suburban development. (Check out my colleague Kaid Benfield’s terrific blog on smart growth to learn more about the advantages of living in a community like this.)

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Photo: EPA Smart Growth, via Flickr

My parents live in one of these neighborhoods in Reston, Virginia. A few years ago, after all the kids left the nest, they sold their single-family, two-car garage home, and moved into an attached townhome with no garage. Now they walk to their favorite used book store and restaurants. They run the local farmer’s market, which is within walking distance from their new house. They’re saving money and they’re spending more quality time enjoying their lives instead of maintaining their car and lawn.

My parents aren’t alone in preferring the lifestyle that a smart growth community allows. Recent consumer preference studies show that two of the biggest demographic age groups – graying boomers and their kids, the up-and-coming millenials – are interested in living this way. Suburban McMansions are not as appealing to them as a neighborhood with cool places to hang out within walking distance.

The fact that smart growth appeals to about half the population should be driving a revolution in development, away from suburbanization and towards more compact, walkable neighborhoods. But there aren’t enough of these neighborhoods being built to meet the demand, because of red tape -- specifically, outdated government policies and zoning codes that make it hard for developers to build this way.

We need to design policy and revamp private practices to meet the new needs of our population. What if more states adopted growth plans that would encourage new development near transit, instead of on farmland or open rural space? What if employers were rewarded for creating new jobs within walking distance of a transit station? What if every kid could safely walk or bike to school, because the town invested in new sidewalks and bike lanes? How much richer would our lives be with these kinds of improvements?

About 8 million gallons of gasoline a day richer, for starters.