To Drive Less, Live Closer to Work

The author of today’s post, Sheryl Canter, is an Online Writer and Editorial Manager at Environmental Defense.

Total greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks is a function of three factors: amount of driving, fuel economy, and carbon emissions per gallon of fuel (the "three-legged stool [PDF]"). The news media tend to focus on the latter two factors, but how much people drive has a huge impact.

A new report published by the Urban Land Institute says that greenhouse gas emissions cannot be reduced sufficiently by making vehicles more efficient, because growth in driving cancels out improved fuel economy. People also must drive less. And the report’s solution is not just better public transportation.

The way to reduce driving sufficiently, the authors say, is to shift development patterns to favor compact, mixed-land-use neighborhoods where you can walk to school and the grocery store. If you live in a car-dependent area, moving to a walkable area will do more to fight global warming than buying a fuel-efficient hybrid car.

This idea is already being put into action in some areas. New York City is expecting one million more people by the year 2030, and is using rezoning to direct development towards areas with strong transit access.

Environmental Defense helped California’s San Joaquin Valley, which is notorious for bad air quality, implement a similar strategy. The Air Pollution Control Board adopted an incentive program [PDF] that gives developers two choices: reduce the environmental impact by creating sidewalks, bike paths, and nearby schools and commercial districts, or pay a fee for any excess pollution.

Living in a walkable neighborhood has other advantages. Recently released figures from the New York City Department of Health show that New Yorkers tend to live longer than most people in the country – an odd finding considering the lack of fresh air and other hazards. The city’s Commissioner of Public Health thinks it’s because New York is a walking city.

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