Fueling the market for livable communities - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Fueling the market for livable communities

Part One in an ongoing series linking energy consumption and development patterns

With the price at the pump topping record levels, many advocacy groups have published their own versions of “10 Tips for Reducing Your Energy Consumption.” While individual efforts – as well as critical thinking in the ongoing alternative fuels debate – are integral, communities also must start planning carefully to achieve the only sure-fire method for curbing America’s oil addiction: cutting car trips. Imagine the possibilities if we stopped subsidizing unnaturally low gas prices, and started letting the market catch up to rising consumer demand for pedestrian and bike-friendly communities near jobs, retail and public transportation. This is Part One in an ongoing Metropolitan Planning Council Web series, highlighting how we, as a region, can start recognizing every chance to grow or rebuild as another opportunity to diminish our auto dependency. Check back every other Thursday to learn innovative ways we can beat our oil addiction through sensible growth.

Ariel Diamond is a self-described “twenty-something in a suit” – who also happens to be passionate about sustainability. A recent graduate of Wellesley College, Diamond is an environmental policy consultant, has a tattoo symbolizing sustainability on her right arm, and dutifully tends to a worm bin in her kitchen, which will provide compost for the tomato and basil plants sprouting in containers on the back porch of her Lakeview apartment. And, yes, she recycles.

But Diamond says the most sustainable decision she’s made is to steer clear of car ownership in favor of walking, riding her bike, and taking public transit. A study-abroad stint in Melbourne, Australia, quickly inured Diamond to “alternative” modes of transportation; when she returned to the states, she made a conscious choice to make these “alternatives” her primary means of getting from point A to point B. She’s been asked more than a few times by well-meaning people how she can survive without the convenience of a car, and she’s perfected her response.

“It's funny how people always think driving is so convenient, without acknowledging how much time they spend caught in traffic, looking for parking, and getting their cars repaired,” she said. “No matter how good [their car’s] gas mileage is, mine will always be better – I don't use any gas at all!”

After college, Diamond chose to settle in the transit-friendly Windy City. She sought roommates who also wanted to live near an El station, and together they chose a place two blocks from the train in a Chicago neighborhood with a lively scene. She acquired a bike from a friend and learned to do basic repairs and maintenance, so she wouldn’t be stranded by a flat tire or loose chain. And she quickly learned that busses are her best friends: because the city streets are laid out on a grid system, it’s a no-brainer to get just about anywhere, as she discovered.

Diamond lives near the Sheridan Red Line station and shops frequently at Alta Vista Foods -- or, as she calls it, "the magical grocery store," because it carries an abundance of fresh foods, including meats and produce, all packed neatly into a tiny storefront just steps from the station. Diamond says she wishes more El stops had such conveniently located, full-service grocery stores nearby. 

Yet Diamond recognizes she’s lucky to live in a place where not owning a car is possible. In many neighborhoods in Chicago, and many more across the region, trying to do the stuff of life – whether commuting to work, picking up groceries, or dropping off the kids at soccer practice – would be daunting, if not downright impossible, without a car. Consider having the urge to walk to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread, only to realize you’d need to cross a four-lane highway to get there. Or making the bold decision to take public transit to work, only to search in vain for commuter train service linking your home in Joliet with your job in Aurora. Unfortunately, these are among the many hurdles Chicago-area residents must overcome before they can reduce their gas consumption.

More and more, people are realizing our built environment is the root cause of America ’s “oil addiction” (to borrow President Bush’s now-infamous utterance). Our reliance on cars to go everywhere and do everything is a relatively new social phenomenon; indeed, car ownership can be traced back just a few generations in most families. What has done more to aid and abet – to very nearly mandate – our nation’s auto dependency is the way we too-often consume land: thoughtlessly, without carefully planning to connect homes, jobs, and transportation. By continuing to build new subdivisions where the land is cheap, but the jobs are scarce; pave mile after mile of highways to nowhere; and starve well-developed areas of much-needed transit service, we will continue to default to a car-dominated culture.

And we need not speculate about the consequences: in 2003 alone, congestion cost the Chicago region nearly $4.3 billion. Every day, parents are late picking up their kids from baseball practice, and workers must reschedule morning meetings due to traffic tie-ups. Emissions, belched from the hundreds of thousands of cars idling on our roads each day, are dirtying the air we breathe. And the status quo certainly isn’t helping break our oil habit: the U.S. spends a staggering $200,000 on foreign oil every minute, according to the Center for American Progress.

There’s good news, though: Americans are in the market to make changes. A 2006 poll conducted for Environmental Defense shows 70 percent of us would drive less and walk, ride transit, carpool or bike more to curb energy consumption and emissions. Yet today in urban areas, an astounding 65 percent of all trips one mile or less are by car! Until we view every time we build – a new home, new offices, or the infrastructure that connects them – as an opportunity to provide a range of housing and travel options allowing Americans to move about more freely, we’ll never know how many of these short trips could be taken by foot or bike, instead.

The rest of this series will provide an overview of the many ways local communities can plan better to help residents curb their auto dependency. While individuals like Ariel Diamond continue to pursue sustainable lifestyles, local leaders from communities around the region – no matter their stage of development – can put more options on the table by building up around transit stations; creating pedestrian and bike-friendly streets; ensuring a healthy range of housing options in all communities, so families can afford to live near work or transit; encouraging mixed-use developments to encourage lively street life and walkable destinations; and supporting an efficient, well-funded transit system that’s accessible throughout the region. Communities can make local decisions to meet residents’ wants and needs, and address the energy crisis, a problem of regional and global significance. Let’s get started.

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