Friday, December 7, 2007

CMAP: Compact As In Dense?

Yesterday was the roundtable sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council that featured Reid Ewing, the leading author of "Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change." (Book available for free download here.)

Ewing's presentation, like the book, was very informative. He started by demonstrating the link between increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and an increase in world temperature. Ewing had some Chicago-specific data showing that the average temperature in Chicago has gone up significantly in the past 25 years.

After establishing the heavy contribution of the transportation sector to CO2 emissions, Ewing then focused on three factors that establish the level of those emissions: (1) vehicle fuel efficiency; (2) carbon content of the fuel used to power those vehicles; and (3) the miles covered by those vehicles. Ewing pointed out, like the authors of a study recently summarized here, that vehicle miles traveled have increased much faster than population growth. This VMT growth offsets the improvements in vehicle efficiency and the use of less carbon rich fuels, which leaves the transportation sector responsible for an unacceptably large and growing share of carbon emissions.

Ewing outlined how the Chicago area is sprawling and how that exurban growth is driving a VMT growth rate four times the rate of population growth. He said that the Chicago area has not done a good job of building up regional centers (e.g., Joliet, Waukegan) as relatively dense communities. He also said that his research shows that the Chicago area does not score well on measures of mixed use. In other words, the region is not generating the kind of walkable/bikeable communities where many of life's destinations (e.g., school, work, shopping) are a relatively short distance away from each other.

Ewing's central point is that the only way to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from the transportation sector is to replace sprawl with compact development. By replacing the current dominant form of suburban/urban development with more compact, mixed use communities we can cut down driving and hence carbon emissions significantly. Perhaps most provocatively, Ewing argues that the housing market is increasingly inclined in favor of higher density housing. If his charts are to be believed, then the value of the McMansions on the large lots is likely to stagnate at best in the years ahead while real estate in more compact areas should appreciate in value at a more robust rate.

Ewing believes, however, that one can't bet the future of the earth's environment on consumer preferences and real estate market trends. He stopped for questions before he could go through all of his federal, state and local policy recommendations. They are easily accessible in Growing Cooler.

During the Q&A session he did discuss two policy recommendations. The first is a carbon impact fee that would be imposed on developments that will generate high levels of CO2 emissions because of the VMTs required to utilize them. The second is a system for the regional transfer of development rights. This is a system designed to allow owners of farmland to collect some of the value in their land because of its development potential by transferring development rights to developers who could use the rights to build at a higher density elsewhere in the region, preserving the open space.

The seminar included short speeches by Sadhu Johnston, Chief Environmental Officer of the City of Chicago, and Randy Blankenhorn, Executive Director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Johnston was a fount of relevant information, including:
  • Per capita carbon emissions in Chicago is about 12 tons annually, compared to 7 tons in New York and 6 tons in London.
  • Buildings account for 61 percent of carbon emissions in Chicago and transportation 20 percent. Transportation accounts for 32 percent of carbon emissions in the suburbs.
  • The areas surrounding many Chicago Transit Authority and Metra stations in Chicago lack the kind of density associated with transit oriented development. The City is focusing on TOD around such rail stations.
  • City residents save over $2 billion annually because they generate fewer VMTs on average.
  • Some of the communities in the region are banding together in a Green Region Compact to address climate change issues.
Blankenhorn was the polar opposite of Johnson. Even though his agency is charged with spearheading land use planning for the region he provided no indication that CMAP doing much of anything to address Ewing's common sense notion that to deal with climate change we must suppress the growth in VMTs. Instead Blankenhorn relied on an arpeggio of rhetorical questions to the effect of "how are we as a region going to address this and that issue raised by climate change." Geez, I thought we were looking to CMAP to take the lead on answering those kinds of questions. No such luck if Blankenhorn's windy oration is any indication.

Maybe Blankenhorn was having a bad day. Maybe he was keeping CMAP's sustainability agenda under wraps until next Tuesday's CMAP-sponsored Innovation + Integration Summit on "Creating a Regional Agenda to Address Climate Change." Let's sure hope so.

Two other notes from the MPC roundtable. First, the State of Illinois (e.g., Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois EPA) did not appear to have any representation at the roundtable, which is disappointing given the importance of the topic and the role State investment in infrastructure plays in creating or confounding compact development. The organizers also stated that MPC had organized a reception for legislators to meet Ewing that morning and only one legislator showed up. (Let's hope the MPC didn't make the mistake of inviting the legislators to a "special session" with Ewing!)

Second, the crowd was overwhelmingly white. How is it that this region is so diverse and the transportation professional sector is so unrepresentative of that diversity?

24 comments:

NoGiftsPlease said...

Vehicle miles traveled per population have increased as women joined the workforce, nearly doubling the number of people driving to work without impacting population. How about the aging population with a greater share over 20? That also results in more licensed drivers. Please recognize that changing demographics and household composition impact how we live, including driving. The simpleton comparison of population vs. vmt traveled is getting tiresome. In any case, the "logical" response to that statement, to focus on changing development patterns is a bias response. The conclusion could equally be to focus on the other side of the equation, which is population. The human population of the world has increased from less thant 2 billion to 6 billion over the last century. We are fooling ourselves to think that we can solve the problem of human environmental impact by simply living closer together and not driving so much. The elephant in the room is that the human population cannot continue to grow at that pace. THAT is not sustainable. The good news is that negative population growth has begun in much of the western world. We should focus on improved technology to reduce the impact of each of our individual behaviors, but we should also be working on how to solve the problems related to decreasing and aging population and study how decreased population can IMPROVE all our lives. Many countries, including USA, fear the economic and social changes this will bring. If the human population was less than 2 billion today, how much would that reduce our carbon footprint as a species?

Anonymous said...

Oh please. Don't attempt to tie VMT reduction to feminism -- sounds like the usual "pit lefties against one another" trick. Plenty of cities with higher female workforce participation rates have lower VMT per capita. Changing development patterns WILL make a huge difference, since over the next 50 years -- just as over the past 50 years, and no one in 1957 could possibly have foreseen Chicagoland circa 2007 -- we will entirely rebuild the built environment around us.

Look, I ain't breeding, but the "constructive" suggestion of NPG is entirely unreasonable. In my experience (fifth generation Californian, not white), "environmentalists" who rally around stopping immigration are just as frightfully racist as the Tancred-ins.

Anonymous said...

over the next 50 years -- just as over the past 50 years, and no one in 1957 could possibly have foreseen Chicagoland circa 2007 -- we will entirely rebuild the built environment around us.

There are still plenty of buildings, roads, railroad tracks, etc. standing today that were here in 1957. My old neighborhood in Park Forest looks nearly the same as it did when I was a kid...only the trees have gotten taller and older. "Entirely rebuild" seems a stretch. "Targeted teardowns and infil development" and transportation improvements of existing facilities will happen, but there's plenty of greenfield development that will take place if the water and sewer utilities are there to serve it. Kendall County proves that you don't even have to do much to the transportation network, and they will come anyway.

The best hope to control the increasing amount of land use is to make existing neighborhoods more attractive, and to tear down unattractive neighborhoods and replace them with attractive ones. Controlling internal population growth is not that difficult as native birth/death rate is nearly ZPG, but as long as the US is attractive to immigrants, the population will continue to grow here.

NoGiftsPlease said...

6:18 Are you claiming that the number of licensed drivers does not have an impact on the amount of driving that happens? That fact has nothing to do with feminism, it has to do with how many drivers there are. Its not pitting lefties against one another to take an unbiased look at the facts on the ground, keeping in mind that "popular wisdom" often proves incorrect.

In addition, advocating negative world population growth is not about immigration so you can leave our idiot politicians out of it. As populations become more educated and the percent of surviving children increases, families produce fewer children.
This is happening in the developed world with no policies to encourage it. It can also happen in the "developing world." With investment in education (especially educating women so they delay childbearing and have fewer children), healthcare, and economic development, that process can be speeded up. Not only is this investment good environmental policy, it will improve the lives of the people who it impacts. The problems of human impact on the environment are a long term multifaceted problem calling for long term solutions. The goal of decreasing our world population is not unreasonable.

VMT in itself is not a problem, the resulting pollution is the problem. Zero emission vehicles (including C02) would achieve the same goal as decreased VMT, so why only look at development patterns? Technology has produced huge improvements in air quality over the last 30 years, even with increasing travel. Many different technologies are in the pipeline and we can solve this problem. I'm curious about where the discussion of sprawl will go after that, because I think that many people who oppose sprawl do so out of esthetic, class, and economic reasons with global warming currently providing cover.

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