By John Addison (1/22/09)
Enlightened communities are in the transition from being car-centric to being people-centric. Homes, public transportation, and businesses that serve neighborhoods are designed in close proximity. A people-oriented development often has a rapid transit station at its center, or at least a bus stop that is frequently served. Nearest to the station are higher density apartments and condos. Streets are alive with people and convenient shops. A short walk from the station is less density and single family homes. Walking is the easiest way to get around.
While the sprawl of many cities forces long commutes, there are three United States cities where at least 30 percent of employment is within 3 miles of the central business district: New York, San Francisco, and Portland. In these cities, people find it easy to take light rail or buses between work and home. A surprising number walk. For those that drive, they save by traveling fewer miles. People-oriented development increases real estate values.
In California, there is a strong interest in integrating transportation planning, regional development, and climate solution planning. Last week, 240 leaders of government, private industry, and non-profit leaders converged at CALSTART’s Target 2030 conference. Vehicles, fuels, and transportation planning were themes for many speakers and discussions.
Shelley Poticha, CEO of Reconnecting America, sited the statistic that if someone can walk to transit, they are 5 times more likely to use public transit and only drive half the miles of those who cannot walk to transit. Reconnecting America works with real estate developers and transit agencies to develop more housing within walking distance from transit, services, and shopping.
Mary Nichols, Chairwoman, California Air Resources Board, took center stage as a key executive in implementing California’s Climate Solutions law – one of the world’s most comprehensive approaches to reducing global warming. Some of the implementations are complex, such as the low carbon fuel standard. Other solutions are more straightforward. She observed that California could reduce its petroleum consumption by 5 percent if everyone walked an extra half-mile daily instead of covering the distance in a car.
Some cities with intelligent urban planning make it easy for people to live near work, friends, and fun. Portland has limited the boundaries of the city and invested in rapid transit. The results are impressive. The citizens of Portland save $2.6 billion per year, estimates economist Joe Cortright, Senior Fellow with The Brookings Institute.
Mr. Cortright identifies that a billion less going from Portland to foreign oil, is a billion more that is being spent on local goods and services, and being invested in local homes and businesses. For Portland, sustainable development and efficient transportation are good investments.
Learning from the success of cities such as Portland, California passed a law (SB 375) requiring regions to develop integrated urban and transportation plans that reduce long commutes and reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions.
Michael McKeever, Executive Director, Sacramento Area Council of Governments, identified a major opportunity for Boomers who want smaller homes with more community services. Fifty percent of new California home sales could be for this target market.
Baby Boomers, specifically 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, are starting to shift to work that requires less travel and provides more fulfillment. Some will retire in the next few years; most will reinvent how they live and earn money. Millions of these Boomers will accelerate the shift to new urbanization as they move from the suburbs to cities. Freed from the demands of needing individual cars for long daily commutes to work, they will discover that it is easier to live “car-light” or car free in a city.
New urban development could create millions of jobs in construction, public transportation, and infrastructure. Making it a reality is not easy. California is facing a $40 billion budget deficit, creating tough choices such as new gasoline or sales tax, or major cuts in education, health care, and emergency services. The 480 cities which need to plan for the future lack funds for comprehensive planning. More urban density requires infrastructure upgrades from sewer pipes to reliable electric grids.
City living is not for everyone. Many prefer to raise families in the suburbs with their dream homes inside gated communities and their jobs located miles away. In the suburbs, the environmentally conscious share rides in hybrid vehicles, work at home at least a day per week, and are clever about letting their fingers do the walking. Others enjoy rural living near communities oriented around farming, ranching, mountains, and water.
Sixty-five percent of Americans live in the top 100 metropolitan areas. In cities, millions find work and play convenient. Some estimate that two-thirds of the urban areas that will exist in 2030 do not exist today. This gives us an incredible opportunity to develop in a sustainable way with near-zero emission transportation.
As I interviewed countless people, gathering their stories and ideas for Save Gas, Save the Planet, urbanites delivered a consistent message – people living in cities burn less gas and cause less global warming than those living in suburbs and rural areas. In cities, trips to grocery stores, friends, and work are often done by walking. Light rail and bus service is predictable and fast in cities. In cities, everything is closer together.
Copyright © 2009 John Addison. This article includes excerpts from John’s new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet. Last year, John and his wife moved from suburbia to the city, living 2 blocks from public transportation, now John’s primary mode of travel.