A Message from Copenhagen: Climate Plan Must Include Walkable Urbanism

household_energy_use.jpgThe energy-saving benefits of transit aren’t limited to the transportation sector. Image: Jonathan Rose Companies via Richard Layman.

At a panel discussion yesterday at the Copenhagen climate summit, American policymakers and transit experts delivered a clear message: Walkable urban development must be part of any effective plan to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Thanks to the magic of live webcasts, I can relay a few highlights for Streetsblog readers.

Without directing future development toward walkable urbanism, the climate impacts of sprawl will overwhelm other efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, said Robert Cervero, a professor specializing in transportation and land use policy at UC Berkeley. "Urban development patterns have a significant role to play in carbon reduction," Cervero told the audience. "Otherwise we’ll just get knocked back by land-use patterns. Sustainable urbanism has to be part of the equation."

The benefits of walkable development extend far beyond the efficiencies of trains, buses, and bikes compared to cars. As journalist (and befuddling congestion pricing critic) David Owen has documented superbly, city dwellers use far less energy to, for instance, heat homes than suburbanites.

Cervero attached some rough numbers to these "embedded energy savings." While transit investment alone can achieve a 10 to 20 percent reduction in America’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions, he said, factoring in the embedded energy savings of walkable development boosts that figure to 30 percent. That’s 30 percent compared to present-day emissions levels. The reduction could reach as high as 60 percent, Cervero added, compared to the level of per-capita emissions that would result from continuing business-as-usual sprawl-inducing policies.

Since most Americans aren’t all that familiar with walkable urbanism, the question of how to generate public support for more sustainable development patterns inevitably arises. John Inglish of the Utah Transit Authority shared some of the successes on this front from his home state. It’s a bit of an old story, but it’s a good one: In the late 1990s, the public-private venture Envision Utah began a campaign to shape regional growth in the Salt Lake City region. Through a series of public workshops, they built support for smart growth strategies that became state law in 1999.

How did they do it? Inglish focused on the sheer fiscal common sense of walkable urbanism. When presented with the fact that transit investment produces huge savings in overall infrastructure costs, Utahns got on board. By 2020, a transit-oriented growth scenario would save some $15 billion, which would otherwise go to roads, sewers, and other utilities under the sprawling business-as-usual scenario. "That’s more money for schools and parks," Inglish said. "The community was not as conservative when faced with the realities as had previously been thought."

Unfortunately, the audio turned spotty during Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s turn at the podium. To substitute, here’s an excerpt from his interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, in which the mayor marvels at Copenhagen’s bike culture, visible even deep inside city hall:

MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: …here we are in Copenhagen. Thirty-seven percent of the people in this city, when they go to work in the metropolitan area, ride a bicycle to work. I mean, it’s remarkable. Their goal — I met yesterday for an hour with the deputy mayor of the environment and transportation, Klaus Bondam, and Klaus Bondam described how their next goal is to hit 50 percent. I mean, to have half your population, when they go to work on bicycles, they’re healthier, the air is cleaner, there’s less carbon emissions, you save money. I mean, the benefits are dramatic, and you can see the difference just when you walk down the street.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we were just in the city council last night at like 10:30, 11:00. The whole bottom floor of this century-old building is filled with not only bicycle racks, but bicycles that fill them.

MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And city council members, the guards, everyone are riding in and out of the city council on their bicycles.

MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER: Yeah. When I flew in, the fellow next to me on the plane is a hotshot young technology expert, makes a huge amount of money — doesn’t own a car, rides his bike. You know, he says, “It’s healthier. It’s more fashionable.” It’s — you know, it’s what his friends do. And I think that’s the whole thing that — when you get to public sentiment, I mean, what Lincoln was talking about. We need to change our public sentiment so people want to do these things. And it’s not government coming down and being punitive, but it’s creating a change, a transformation in our attitudes.

  • Russell Bartels

    In this article, the major difference in energy consumption in the types of households is primarily associated the use of vehicles (133 versus 20 – over six times — 108 versus 41 or less than three times for the home ). At 100 MPG these vehicle energy consumption differences would be minor. (Albeit, we don’t know the source of the numbers and classifications.)

    And unless the urban bus gets much better energy efficiency, the 100 MPG private vehicle will be more energy efficient, to say nothing about convenience, for most cities. We have only about five cities in the US that are dense enough to make mass transit the best choice now and in the near term.

    And with new building technologies, the difference between SUBURBAN and GREEN URBAN might be minimal also. We will replace the SUBURBAN homes slowly, even with high energy prices, so we will probably have a lot of retro fitting to do.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Some suburbs can become more efficient by retrofit. They may not be high enough in density to be walkable, but they may be high enough in density to be bikeable. And they may use more power, but they have more space on their room to generate it.

    The stuff built in the last decade, massvie McMansions miles from anything, seems less amenable to energy efficiency.

    Moreover, one of the efficiencies of the private automobile compared with a bus is that you don’t have to pay the driver, and the retired former driver, because you can drive yourself. But what about those who can’t drive — the young and seniors?

    For the young, we are providing a very expensive, highly inefficient, massively subsidized mass transit system — school buses. For the seniors? We can’t afford what they would want.

  • bkeable is the same as walkable but, 3 to 4 times more efficient, 3 to 4 times faster and larger range.

  • ebikes extend speed and range even further but, traveling at 20 mph or more continuous is probably not acceptably safe freewheeling though, is probably done a lot in China where there are more than 100,000 eCyclists.

    Greatly extending speeds and reanges, serious safe commuting using similar technology could employ simple mechanical collision avoidance systems and hands-free automation with guideways and rails and start to improve upon automobile speeds and ranges (and in particular, where cars have traffic and parking issues) especially, if low-cost permanent magnetic levitiation (maglev) is used to reduce rolling friction, wear and tear, etc.

  • correction: there are 100 million eCyclists in china; not 100,000.

  • Lucy

    Why would anyone suggest that cars will become trmendously efficient but other forms of transportation won’t? We have more efficient transit in the works as well as more efficient cars.

    New housing that is in demand for the next few decades is urban housing, as revealed through surveys, demographics, and a little common sense. Nationally, the demand for large-lot SF housing is less than the supply, although there may be spots where that is not true.

    At this point, we know that we can build urban housing efficiently and offer the choice of transit so that people do not have to drive for every single purpose. We know that there is the demand. We also know that the laws and regulations and subsidies all favor sprawl. Why can’t we have a level playing field and let the market work? Walkable urbanism is very competitive in that scenario.

  • Charles_Siegel

    As Americans reduce their gas consumption by buying those 100 mpg cars, there will be 1 billion Chinese, 1 billion Indians, and billions in other developing nations who do not now own cars but who will be increasing their gas consumption by buying those 100 mpg cars.

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