Well Designed Cities Are Global Warming Solutions

In response to a recent post of mine, a commenter said, “American's can go back to the ‘stone age’ and walk to work and it wouldn't make any difference to the WORLD oil market.” I appreciate your comment, Dan, but I disagree.

Americans should have the opportunity to walk to work more, to take more forms of mass transportation and to carpool more often. This would mean reduced demand on the world oil market, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. They may even find they prefer it.

A part of what we’re talking about is the geography of America’s carbon footprint – something that’s still not very well understood. But a report released recently by The Brookings Institution helps us understand a simple point: well-designed cities with easily accessible public transportation are, in fact, a critical global warming solution.

Take our New York City office, for instance. From my apartment, I walk to the subway, which I ride to work. So do millions of others. When I arrive in the morning, there is always a row of bikes hanging downstairs, left by colleagues of mine who have ridden to work. People can do this because of the way the city is designed; it’s compact, and easy to navigate on foot or bike.

This means that, per capita, New Yorker’s carbon footprint is much smaller than the national average. According to the Brookings report, the average New York resident emitted 1.495 tons of carbon from highway transportation and residential energy in 2005, while the average American emitted 2.60 tons of carbon. That’s a big difference.

This is generally true across the country. The Brookings report also found that, “despite housing two-thirds of the nation’s population and three-quarters of its economic activity, the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas emitted just 56 percent of U.S. carbon emissions from highway transportation and residential buildings in 2005.” The difference, the study suggests,  “stems primarily from less car travel and electricity

Despite these potential savings, America’s carbon footprint is expanding because its settlement pattern is expanding. This is forcing Americans to drive more, consume more, and emit more greenhouse gasses along the way.

Consider that Vehicle Miles of Travel (VMT) – a measurement of distances traveled by all motor vehicles in a given areas – has grown three times faster than population growth since 1980. (This year VMT did, for the first time, decline.) Now, about one of every six American workers commutes more than forty-five minutes each way. Moreover, the number of people the Census Bureau counts as “extreme commuters” – meaning they travel in excess of ninety minutes each way – is, at 3.5 million, the fastest-growing commuter bracket.

These facts suggest a solution. The best cure for destructive sprawl is to build attractive, healthy, sustainable cities that people want to live and work in. In this solution, transportation plays an essential role.

And so what should we do?

If you’ll forgive three bits of completely unsolicited advice, I would say that

  • We can choose to live in cities, or we can choose to live close to work
  • We can walk or bike to work
  • And we can take public transportation, like subways, buses and commuter rails.

For more on this issue, I would suggest you read more from NRDC’s great Smart Growth team. Kaid Benfield, Deron Lovaas and Rich Kassel have all written extensively about these issues here on Switchboard.

I should also say that I do understand that not everyone lives in a place like New York. For years, our communities have been built to support cars and highways, and not integrated communities. Individual choice will go only so far in solving this problem.

And so we also need a federal policy that

  • Promotes expanded, easily accessible public transportation choices
  • And that changes our development patterns to favor compact, mixed-use communities.

We think of them simply as our neighborhoods, but where we live and work can have a huge impact on our personal health, and on our global environment. We need start building more efficient, and more attractive, communities.