Monday, December 10, 2007

GHG: Land Use vs. Transit

At the recent Metropolitan Planning Council roundtable featuring Reed Ewing (summarized here) someone in the audience asked the question when are we going to stop providing an infrastructure platform--e.g., roads, sewers--for sprawl-like development in exurban areas as a sort of god-given right to developers and their local government enablers. There was a pained silence in the room at this idea--which smacks of taking some land-use authority from local governments and even the notion of an urban growth boundary in this region--and then a round of cynical murmurs from the 75 or so representatives from Chicago area transportation/land-use agencies.

Reed Ewing intervened before the poor questioner was washed out of the room in a tsunami of cynicism. His statement was to the effect that he expects changes to come extremely quickly and unexpectedly in our land-use and transportation practices. In his view, the growing evidence of climate change because of increased greenhouse gases that is perceived by the average person coupled with fears about the future if GHGs are not held in check will prompt rapid change.

I wonder if the historians among us agree with Ewing that changes in our land-use and transportation practices will be swift and far-reaching when this country becomes fully aware of the impact of global warming and the need to reduce GHG emissions. Is the transition from the horse and buggy to the private auto a model of such sudden and drastic change? If we do see a quick transformation, is it likely to be in the direction of pedestrian friendly urban villages nearly everywhere, as Ewing prescribes, or will people (and their developer/local government enablers) work together to use new technologies to extend sprawl-like development patterns, as seems to be the case over the past several decades? Is Ewing a prophet or just another planning/transit guru hoping for the birth of the planner's version of utopia?

In his talk Ewing made relatively scant mention of transit, focusing instead on development patterns that will reduce VMT through shorter trips between destinations and more opportunities to walk/bike. It is quite possible that Ewing believes that building communities with greater population densities and more mixed uses is more likely to rein in VMTs than attempting to increase public transit service in exurban areas (e.g., STAR Line).

So, one more set of questions: If you had $1 billion to spend and wanted to reduce congestion and air pollution in Northeastern Illinois most effectively would you spend the money expanding the public transit system or building "in-fill" mixed use developments around existing transit assets? Is it possible that land-use measures that reduce average trip lengths and promote walking/biking will do more for the region in terms of slowing the growth of GHG emissions than an expansion of the public transit system?

24 comments:

NoGiftsPlease said...

I'd spend the billion dollars on the development of a zero emissions vehicle and stop trying to convince people that they ought to live close together. VMT is not the enemy, and neither is living in the countryside, the resulting pollution is and we should focus on it as the problem. The shift away from a carbon-based energy economy is coming and the advances must be spread all over the world. Even if it were possible to eliminate our own excess emissions by having the 350 million Americans moving into denser development, the 5 billion other people in the world are moving towards our lifestyles. They're moving out of cities and buying cars.

We could also use the funding to start building the "next gen" intelligent transportation system providing many vehicle control and roadway monitoring features to alleviate congestion and make safer more efficient independent travel.

We didn't solve the health and environmental problems in the cities during the industrial revolution by sending people back to the countryside to live, we developed new techologies in water, sanitation, and infrastructure to support the new way of life. The agricultural revolution made it possible to feed all of us and made land more productive than ever. Trying to make people go back to "living in villages" to solve the CO2 problem is misguided and an emotional response to the loss of the "good old days when everyone knew their neighbors and people walked to the corner store".

In fact, although homes are larger in the exurban areas, the technologies they employ in insulation, heating, windows, and high efficiency furnaces likely make them more efficient than my 1943 frame house that has no insulation in the walls, leaky windows (now replaced) and is hooked up to an ancient and leaking water and sewer system that also requires more expensive upkeep than a new one. However, I do live very close to my neighbors and I have the pleasure of listening to their air conditioning and electric attic venting system all summer. (How much C02 would be saved if we outlawed air conditioning, I wonder?)

Anonymous said...

I'd expand the public transit system in the *already dense* areas, making infill easier and cheaper. :-/

Look at Manhattan.

People like living in cities under the following circumstances:
(1) They get their own apartment or condo.
(2) They have access to their own garden (community gardens provide this in Manhattan).
(3) They have LOTS of parkland and the like.

Some not-fully-intentional smart choices drove the development of New York City and London along lines which makes urban living there have most of the advantages of suburban living elsewhere. Sure, Chicago has that huge lakefront park, but it's a hell of a lot harder to get to than Central Park or Hyde Park, and it's not nearly as nice, either.

Infill is a nice idea but the very minimal core transit system left in Chicago can't handle it -- it's loaded to the gills already. Parallel transit lines a few blocks away, or perpendicular 'looping' transit lines, are the only way to really generate that infill development.

Incidentally, Wacker Drive is an abomination. But it provides a nice right-of-way for a subway. :-)

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