An impressive environmental movement has been building lately concerned about the warming of earth’s climate and what we should do about it. A major force in it has been the passions of activists, especially college students. The recent Powershift 2007 conference at our campus brought together students from around the country to consider what should be done about climate change.
What has been primarily discussed is the adoption of cleaner, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar-thermal panels, photovoltaic solar cells, or hydroelectric power. Or, they stress the need to develop alternative fuel technologies that reduce our demand for finite fossil fuels such as hydrogen or biofuels. However, I would like to bring attention to another major factor in the climate change debate: the carbon emissions brought about by Americans who continue to support wasteful, unsustainable lifestyle habits that lead to greater sprawl, greater congestion, and greater pollution.
Recently, the study “Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change” was released by the Urban Land Institute and Smart Growth America, in conjunction with the National Center for Smart Growth on the University of Maryland campus. The study found that vehicle-miles traveled (Or, “VMT”) in America are steadily increasing at a startling rate, three times the rate of population growth and at a faster rate than carbon emissions. VMT is scheduled to continue rising 60% over the next 30 years; all the while CO2 emissions would be 40% above 1990 levels even under a best case scenario with new Senate CAFE standards. Transportation CO2 emissions account for a third of total emissions in the US, and while policy initiatives have striven to improving fuel efficiency and carbon fuel content, precious little has been done to reduce the amount of driving that is being done.
Our communities have principally been designed for automobiles, where multi-lane freeways, spread-out subdivisions and expansive strip malls are the norm. Our attitudes have been cultivated from this way of living, with an increased prevalence in people moving farther away from work and eschewing public transit for time spent alone in their cars. These unplanned subdivisions encourage low-density zoning in areas that receive little to no benefit from mass transit, thus forcing everyone to drive to get around anywhere.
Most frustrating has been the lack of attention from environmental activists, especially students, on this topic. While policy initiatives on emissions caps are necessary and welcome, it takes a concerted emphasis on persuading the general public that global warming is real and is impacted by the decisions we make every day. Collective pressure on planning policymaking could bring about real change to the problem. While many “activists” are in tune with the more glamorous topics, such as the headline-grabbing “gloomsday” scenarios, they may be overlooking other aspects of the problem.
So here are the solutions. The best way to discourage driving is to reduce urban sprawl, which pushes communities further out from cities and increases vehicle travel distances that increase fossil fuel consumption and emissions released. These conditions lead to greater traffic congestion, which directly threatens the livelihood of our cities. Higher-density, mixed-use development around transportation centers (termed as “smart growth”), extensively implementing “green” building design features and promoting rural conservation efforts to control sprawl can have a pronounced effect on development patterns.
Environmental activist Mike Tidwell believes that it’ll be “very hard” to wean Americans off their unsustainable suburban existence, but it must happen eventually. We can start by giving citizens realistic alternative options to commuting in automobiles. Currently, the Federal Transit Administration appropriates 30 times less funding towards public transit projects than highway projects yearly, which reflects severe lack of foresight by this administration. The 2009 surface transportation bill (Transportation Equity Act) will decide the allocation of federal funding for the following 5 years and can set a tremendous precedent in reducing the amount of transportation greenhouse gases emitted. Further, cheap gasoline makes driving more financially viable to many compared to transit. Let’s fix that by instituting dramatically higher gas and displacement taxes that not only encourage people to drive less frivolously and carpool, but to use the extra proceeds to fund mass transit projects such as the Purple Line and reintroducing streetcar services. Antiquated zoning codes that worked to separate residential, commercial and retail spaces now work against achieving smart growth and must be reformed to encourage mixed-use development that puts everything within walkable distances. Local governments should also refuse to give sweetheart deals to private developers whose objective is to build over every last inch of open space.
And it’s important to note that I don’t believe that mass transit is the panacea to solve all of our traffic problems. Road improvements are long-overdue and even more necessary than before due to exploding population growth that has overburdened our transportation infrastructure networks. But diminishing the need for long travel distances by conveying changes in public attitudes and the way we plan cities is the vision that we need to start embracing. Promoting responsible planning and development is necessary to foster compact communities that can support lifestyles in the new age of conservation and sustainability. Curbing global warming takes more than just a signature. It requires a real, fundamental revolution in the way we live.