“Do as We Say, Not as We Do” = No Model for Sustainability

jams.jpgTraffic in Delhi and Atlanta. Notice which scene also includes bikes. Photos: Ri Co Fo To and silvrayn via Flickr

Environmentally-conscious citizens of India aren’t alone in their concern about the rollout of the Tata Nano, the "world’s cheapest car." But in an op-ed piece for Forbes, Projjal Dutta, the director of sustainability initiatives for the MTA, writes that American critics should look to their own example if they expect developing nations to follow a more sustainable path.

As with many other issues, the world will expect America’s "talk" — say, urging China and India not to become auto-centric — to be accompanied by "walk," at home. That, unfortunately, despite early glimmers of hope, is not happening. The stimulus bill has allocated about 8 billion dollars to transit, compared with 30 billion to highways. This is roughly in keeping with the traditional 80/20 split of federal transportation funds that have been enshrined since the Eisenhower days. If we are to get serious about halting climate-change, this split will also have to change.

Dutta cites Japanese and European models — "Make cars, buy cars, just don’t drive them all the time." — as potential templates for India and other developing economies, so long as they, too, make adequate investments in public transportation.

The same could be said of the U.S., where the average citizen consumes 25 times as much energy as the average Indian. Dutta suggests America will need to commit to a long-term, "multi-generational" approach to transit development if it wants the kind of results already evident in its most urbanized cities.

The average Texan consumes approximately 500 million BTU per year,
about six to seven times that consumed by a resident of New York City
or San Francisco. The difference largely results from level of dependence on
the automobile. Metropolitan regions where many people travel by public
transportation (or by bicycles or on foot) are inherently more
carbon-efficient than places that rely almost exclusively on
automobiles, which is to say, most of the United States.

  • J-Uptown

    Interesting choice of photos for Atlanta. The obvious view is of the massive 16 lane I-75/85 connector. However, that yellow bridge you see is a new connection to the redeveloped brownfield, mixed-use project called Atlantic Station. The bridge carries a new bus line and has new bike lanes. The project certainly has its faults, but it is a step in the right direction and one of many signs that American cities have turned a corner in terms of creating livable urban areas.

    Just five years ago, the idea of putting bike lanes in Atlanta would have been a nonstarter. Now most cities across the country are rushing to make their cities more ped and bike-friendly. We still have a long way to go, and the process seems to be trickling outward from the city governments to the suburbs and upwards from local governments to the state and federal level. The point is, that it is happening. Case in point, Ray Lahood is talking about livable communities. When has a transportation secretary EVER talked that way?

    We screwed up a bunch, and it will take decades, if not centuries to fix what we’ve done, both physically and psychologically. Despite all the progress we’ve made and continue to make, the US will be known as a car dependent place for at least 50 years; the same way the South Bronx has been synonymous with urban blight for the last 40 years, despite incredible progress. I guess the point is that we must continue to push ahead, in spite our reputation, and hopefully others will learn from our mistakes before it is too late.

  • JSD

    Is it fair to compare the BTU consumption of an average Texan (a statewide population sample) with the BTU consumption of an average New York City of San Francisco resident (a citywide population sample)?

  • > the US will be known as a car dependent place for at least 50 years

    Some oil experts say we don’t have 50 years. But I agree it is the height for hypocrisy for America to complain about rising auto usage in India and China. The appeal of the thing is apparently beyond rational consideration of issues like space requirements and mobility for all, which probably stems from its individual nature. Every driver thinks they’re going to be the only one on the road.

  • Geck

    I try and walk the walk (and ride the bike) and I am really worried about India and China making the same mistakes we did in urban planning and transportation policy.

  • BTI

    Curious as to why you expect bike lanes on the I-75/85 downtown connector in the Atlanta photo. I’m pretty sure bikes and pedestrians are not allowed by law on interstates. But that big yellow bridge in the photo has both a bike lane and a bus lane. Just saying….

  • John

    Transportation is only part of the energy use problem. Just as much attention should be focused on buildings and the stuff we put in our buildings.

  • Projjal Dutta

    As a fan of streetsblog, am absolutely delighted that this op-ed was picked up and featured. Thanks a lot. Thanks also for insightful comments.

    I agree with JSD about the comparison between Texas and NY/SFO being disbalanced. I made the comparsion based upon the availability of good data. I daresay that the story would be just as well told if I compared the New Yorker with a Houstonian and said, for instance, “four to five times” instead of “six to seven times”. I just could not find the back up numbers. Would appreciate any pointers in that department.

    On a more philosophical note, I believe that the crucial transit v sprawl battles are being won or (mostly) lost not on rural Wyomng roads, but in large metropolitan areas that, effectively, don’t have transit. If one could wave a magic wand and somehow change transportation behaviour in, say, the largest dozen such communities (the San Antonios and the Vegases) – this would represent one of the, if not the, most significant stabs at solving global warming.
    We are not going to windmill our way out of this one. We have to address and reduce demand and tackling sprawl, esp in America, is one of the most effective ways of doing this.

    Thanks again. I look forward to and welcome any reax that you may have.

  • J. Mork

    Curiously, though, John, many places with the most efficient transportation (walking, trains, buses, bikes) also have the most efficient housing (relatively small apartments with shared walls for heating efficiency).

  • Moser

    There will be cars beyond the oil age – last week’s Times discussed China positioning as an electric car leader. Toyota and others will be bringing all-electric city cars to market by mid-next decade and plug-in hybrids before that. There’s a big electrical load issue with this but there is a lot of work in efficiency, transmission and generation underway.

  • garyg

    The average Texan consumes approximately 500 million BTU per year, about six to seven times that consumed by a resident of New York City or San Francisco. The difference largely results from level of dependence on the automobile. Metropolitan regions where many people travel by public transportation (or by bicycles or on foot) are inherently more carbon-efficient than places that rely almost exclusively on automobiles, which is to say, most of the United States.

    Where is Dutta getting these numbers from? According to Ed Glaeser’s study of carbon emissions in the largest 66 metropolitan areas, the average household in Houston produces only about 14% more carbon emissions from driving than the average household in San Francisco.

  • garyg

    Projjal Dutta,

    Annual Standardized Household CO2 Emissions, in lbs

    Average for households in New York:

    From Driving: 18,081
    From Public Transportation: 6,386
    Transportation total: 24,467

    Average for households in Houston:

    From Driving: 27,333
    From Public Transportation: 1,447
    Transportation total: 28,780

    Source: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/the-lorax-was-wrong-skyscrapers-are-green/

    Thus, the average household in Houston produces only about 18% more carbon emissions from transportation than the average household in New York. I have no idea where you get your figure of “four to five times” from.

  • “According to Ed Glaeser’s study of carbon emissions in the largest 66 metropolitan areas, the average household in Houston produces only about 14% more carbon emissions from driving than the average household in San Francisco.”

    I see 35%, for transportation.

    24,485 – SFO
    33,025 – Houston
    http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_1_green-cities.html

    Difference is 8,540, or 34.8% of 24,485. The total household difference is more pronounced, thanks to air conditioning. I don’t know where Dutta got his Texas-wide numbers, but I think people are not taking them as intended. That the comparison is made against Texas rather Houston is not a trick; it’s the whole point.

  • Michael Steiner

    I think garyg also overlooks additional transportation-related indirect carbon emission costs: NYC being densly populated also has smaller houses and, in particular, row houses and apartment houses which tend to reduce heating and cooling costs considerably (see, e.g., the New Yorker article which was recently floating around in this blog). Of course, the transportation-related oil-industry in Houston doesn’t help either … 😉

  • garyg

    I see 35%, for transportation.

    The table you’re getting those numbers from applies only to homes less than 20 years old. For all households, the difference is only 12%, not 35%. See Table 2 on Page 41 of Glaeser’s full paper here: http://mek1966.googlepages.com/w14238.pdf

    Of course, even an increase of 35% isn’t anything like “four to five times.” I remain mystified as to where Dutta is getting that figure from (for either NY or SF).

    The total household difference is more pronounced, thanks to air conditioning.

    Differences in emissions from air conditioning are mostly a matter of climate, not density. If San Francisco were replicated in southeastern Texas, it would have higher emissions from A/C. San Francisco has higher emissions than Houston from heating for the same reason.

    Using a midrange estimate of the cost of carbon ($43/ton of CO2), Glaeser estimates that the average difference in annual carbon costs for households in Houston vs San Francisco is $780. For homes less than 20 years old, it’s actually less than that – about $500.

    A difference in annual carbon costs of $500-800 is unlikely to persuade many people to live in San Francisco rather than Houston. That difference is only a small fraction of average household income and is swamped by other differences in the cost of living between those two cities. The higher cost of housing alone in San Francisco would almost certainly greatly exceed $500-800 per year compared to Houston.

  • garyg

    That the comparison is made against Texas rather Houston is not a trick; it’s the whole point.

    Then what is that point? What is the point of comparing the per capita emissions of an entire state, a state with an unusually hot and humid climate, with the per capita emissions of a coastal city with a temperate climate? What useful conclusions about land-use and transportation policy are we supposed to draw from that comparison?

    If the purpose of the exercise is to try and illustrate the benefits of higher density and more public transportation, then a far more meaningful comparison would be to compare the average emissions for people living in suburbs vs. people living in central cities. And Glaeser does that in his paper. His findings indicate that average household emissions for suburban households are only around 10% higher than average household emissions for central city households. In other words, even if we could somehow radically transform the entire nation so that everyone lived at densities typical of people who currently live in central cities, we’d only reduce our total household carbon emissions by something like 10%.

    Densification simply doesn’t offer any potential for meaningful reductions in carbon emissions.

  • Walker O

    The picture caption made me laugh. Notice that bikes are all jammed up. Bike congestion! The real question is how many Indian bikers will ride once they get a good job? Should we want them to not get good jobs?

  • “See Table 2 on Page 41 …”

    Yikes, okay.

    “I remain mystified as to where Dutta is getting that figure from (for either NY or SF).”

    I don’t know either. If there are no footnotes and Dutta does not speak up, the figure must be discounted. I think the difference would be greater between SFO and Texas than it would be between SFO and Houston (don’t you?) but I’m not in favor of making up numbers either.

    “Differences in emissions from air conditioning are mostly a matter of climate, not density.”

    Sure, that is what I was saying too.

    “A difference in annual carbon costs of $500-800 is unlikely to persuade many people to live in San Francisco rather than Houston.”

    Well, who knows. If we agree that $500-800 is not so scary then we don’t have to guess; we can implement a carbon tax and see how the market responds. People staying where they are and living more efficiently is also a win.

    “a far more meaningful comparison would be to compare the average emissions for people living in suburbs vs. people living in central cities”

    I agree, the Texas comparison is a little cheap. But it is more to the point than comparing SFO to Houston, as everyone seems to want to do.

    “Densification simply doesn’t offer any potential for meaningful reductions in carbon emissions.”

    10% down counts as meaningful in a country where emissions have gone only up. But also, in comparing the averages between central city households and their suburbs (not the entire nation), the differences are not huge in efficiency—or in lifestyle. The areas join each other. Some people on either side of whatever boundary has been drawn are leading functionally identical lives. It doesn’t make sense to raise the spectre of cramming remote suburban families into a city apartment when the numbers are made up of families that are mostly in the middle.

    If you want to specifically compare poles you can do that, a city family in an apartment building that occasionally rents cars compared an exurban family with at least one car or truck per parent and teen. But I don’t think that’s very helpful, whether the city family is described as having a low quality life or the exurban family is described as leading a wasteful life. The general story is what matters, and I hope we can get to 10% energy savings through land use changes that are not at all wrenching: suburbs that connect with each other instead of ending in planned dead ends, bicycle infrastructure in all communities, and yes, some densification. That can just as easily mean repopulating small towns as it does central cities. It will certainly mean rejuvenating old suburbs and leaving rural lands (the exurbs) to people that want to work them, and animals.

  • Projjal Dutta

    Apologies for not speaking up sooner, the past couple of days have been very busy at work.

    The confusion may arise from the introduction of households into the mix. My comparisons were based upon per-capita metrics. The DOE publishes state-by-state energy consumption data in all manner of comparative charts. I was using:
    http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/states/sep_sum/html/pdf/rank_use_per_cap.pdf
    Texas has a per-capita (“the average Texan”) usage of 501.6 MBTU per annum. That number for NYC, according to the Mayor’s office, is 88.5 MBTU per annum. Even if I were to compare at the level of states, NYS at 204 MBTU per capita per annum (with substantial heating bills, mind you), would be a fraction of Texas’ consumption.

    The DOE, starting this year I believe, is publishing another interesting metric. Energy consumption per unit of GDP:
    http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/states/sep_sum/html/pdf/rank_use_gdp.pdf
    NYS ranks at the bottom 50 out of 50. This is great news for NY and, I believe, in large part due to transit. The state’s 4.3 (thousand BTU per chained dollar) score, is about a third of Texas’ 13.5. To reiterate, this comparison is state-to-state. With upstate in the mix. If this comparison were to be made between NYC and Texas, the ratio would likely, be much higher.

    Per-capita data tends to require many fewer adjustments and assumptions than household data. It also captures land-use benefits (smaller homes, less heat escaping through walls etc.) and other information hard to summarize in household data. There is, of course, the issue individual factors – such as a very high industrial production or very small population etc. – that could skew the data. A comparison between NYS and Texas, though, is not an unfair or a skewed one. They have similar GDP and populations. While one has a significant heating load, the other has a significant cooling load. That one has a per-capita energy consumption that is a fraction of the other, is very significantly tied to transportation choices.

    That was the original point I was making. I believe it remains valid.

  • garyg

    Projjal Dutta,

    Total state energy consumption per capita is not a meaningful indicator of differences in energy consumption attributable to differences in residential land-use or personal transportation. Total state energy consumption includes all industrial and commercial energy consumption as well as residential and personal transportation consumption. Texas has a high total energy consumption per capita because it has so much energy-intensive industry, most obviously oil and natural gas production. As you can see from the EIA’s industrial sector energy consumption estimates (http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/states/sep_sum/html/pdf/sum_btu_ind.pdf), Texas has by far the largest industrial sector energy consumption of all 50 states. Its industrial energy consumption estimate for 2006 is almost 6,000 trillion BTUs. New York’s is only 461 trillion BTUs.

    This has nothing to do with transit vs. automobiles or residential density.

  • Projjal Dutta

    garyg:
    Good morning.
    While you are entirely correct in pointing out that a large proportion of Texas’ energy consumption is industrial (I had conceded the point in my prior response), land-use ends up having an implication on everything including industrial production. From the same DOE source and for similar populations (24 million for TX, 20 million for NY), Texas consumes 2863 Trillion BTU for TRANSPORTATION while NYS consumes 1094, a multiple close to 3!

    Its not industrial production alone that can be used to explain the fact that per capita energy consumption in TX is many times that of NY.
    http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/states/sep_sum/html/pdf/sum_btu_tra.pdf

    Having said all this, though, I am apprehensive that our exchange may be seen as becoming parochial. From my side there is no intention for it to be so.

    The point that I am trying to make is that land-use is a major driver of energy consumption and green house gas emissions. Auto-dependency and sprawl drive up GHG emissions significantly (including via lowering the carbon-efficiency of industrial production). Good mass-transit makes regions more carbon-efficient in the short and long runs. Whilst we may disagree on how many times more carbon-efficient one land-use pattern is over another, there is nothing that I have seen or read in this thread that suggests any disagreement over which is more efficient.

  • garyg

    Projjal,

    You’re still using statistics that are not meaningful indicators of energy consumption attributable to residential land use or personal transportation. The EIA data on energy consumption for the transportation sector includes both passenger AND FREIGHT transportation. Texas’s huge oil, gas, petrochemical and mineral industries use vast amounts of energy to transport their products and raw materials. Aggregate transportation sector energy consumption doesn’t tell you anything meaningful about differences in energy consumption attributable to the use of mass transit rather than automobiles for passenger transportation, or differences attributable to housing. In order to make that comparison, you need to isolate energy consumption for those purposes only, as Glaeser & Kahn did in the research I cited above. And they found that on average households in Houston produce only about 18% more carbon emissions from passenger transportation (driving plus public transportation) than households in New York.

  • Projjal Dutta

    Gary:
    Thanks for your ongoing comments. Apologies for my tardy responses. Between my work and personal commitments and the nuances of this ongoing debate, it takes a while to respond adequately.

    Firstly, I request that you stop using labels like “not meaningful”. I am using data that I find perfectly meaningful and your disagreement does not change that. At the end of the day, data is data. How one reads it is what makes a difference.

    Secondly, the Glaeser Kahn paper, wonderful as it is, dramatically UNDERCOUNTS transit’s benefits, esp. with respect to NYC. This is primarily due to the way fence-lines have been drawn and accepted by them. The data that you use while comparing NY and Houston is MSA – Metropolitan Statistical Area – data. I.e. the household CO2 emissions from driving that is noted in Table 2, is not for NYC alone – which was my reference point, but for the NY MSA.

    The 23-county metropolitan area includes ten counties in New York State (those coinciding with the five boroughs of New York City, the two counties of Long Island, and three counties in the lower Hudson Valley); twelve counties in Northern and Central New Jersey; and one county in northeastern Pennsylvania. Once you, in essence, surround NYC with a Houston or an LA, and then report their average, you grossly under-report the dense core’s transit benefit.

    It’s like saying that the average salary of Bill Gates and a Starbucks Barista is very high.

    Unlike you, GK are extremely modest and nuanced (and somewhat tentative) in the way they lay out the background for the data that they present. Stressing over and over again the assumptions that they have made (many of which are quite unrealistic for the real world) and saying that their methods are not perfect. They have often adjusted their analysis to the availability of data. A point that they repeatedly make.

    In any case, this debate between the two of us has gone on long enough. While I am grateful to you for challenging my assumptions and introducing me to some good arguments, I don’t believe that anything you have said or cited changes the bottom-line that transit-rich areas are MANY TIMES more carbon-efficient than auto-dependent ones.

    Unlike yourself, who has remained anonymous throughout this conversation, I have a real identity, a phone number and an email address. In fact the original post on this blog had my entire CV. This will be my last post in response to you. If you would like to continue this debate, please emerge from the shadows and contact me. I will be glad to so over a drink, some evening.

    Thanks. Projjal

  • garyg

    Projjal,

    No, I will not withdraw my statement that your data are not meaningful for your purposes. You’re trying to use aggregate energy consumption data, including all energy used for industrial and commercial activity, to support a claim about the energy efficiency of public transportation and residential density. Your data simply do not support your conclusions. This isn’t just a minor quibble. It’s a fundamental flaw in your analysis. You have provided absolutely nothing to support your claim that “transit-rich areas are MANY TIMES more carbon-efficient than auto-dependent ones.” And G&K’s work explicitly contradicts that claim.

    G&K compare household carbon emissions both between different MSAs (New York vs. Houston, for example), and between suburban and central city households within the same MSA. Not only are the differences between different MSAs quite modest, but the differences between suburban and central city households within an MSA are also modest. Something like 10%, on average. This implies that even if you could wave a magic wand and remake the entire country at densities typical of central cities, you’d only reduce carbon emissions by around 10%.

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