Sensible growth + technological advancements = independence from fossil fuel - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Sensible growth + technological advancements = independence from fossil fuel

The sixth and final part in a series of articles linking energy consumption and development patterns

Josh Ellis, research assistant for the Campaign for Sensible Growth, co-authored this article.  

With the price at the pump topping record levels, many advocacy groups have published their own version 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 the sixth and final article in a 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.

After five years of escalating oil prices and mounting evidence of the correlation between fossil fuel consumption and global warming, talk of a “fuel” crisis is now part of daily life. The commonly held view is that alternative energies will allow us to continue living as we now do, essentially relieving Americans of the need to make hard choices about some —certainly not all—aspects of modern life.

Alternative energies, however, are not the answer to overcoming our societal dependency on fossil fuels. Dr. Kimberly Gray, a research scientist and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University , recently told the Associated Press that “ [w]ithout a trend toward more and smaller hybrid vehicles, combined with high-density, walkable communities ... the suggestion by some experts that biofuels could virtually eliminate Americans' demand for gasoline by 2050 is unrealistic.”

Dr. Gray, unfortunately, is somewhat of an anomaly; the relationship between land-use and fuel consumption is rarely spoken of. Nonetheless, the alarming rate at which we burn fuel is merely symptomatic of a larger issue: a land-use development pattern stemming from the irrefutable connection between fuel consumption and how and where Americans work, live, and move around. Whether we succeed in responding to this crisis will depend on how well (and how quickly) we confront the land-use patterns that create fossil fuel dependency.

The San Francisco League of Conservation Voters offers a sobering measuring tool -- a calculator of sorts   -- to determine the costs of fuel under various land-use scenarios. The numbers demonstrate that sensible growth -- compact communities, infill and redevelopment, transit use, water supply planning -- reduces energy dependency while unplanned growth tightens our shackles to oil and automobiles. The calculator illustrates that a household in typical suburban large-lot developments (three households per residential acre) consumes an average of 1,142 gallons of gasoline annually, while amassing 22,844 vehicle miles traveled, mostly to basic services, schools, and work. Contrast that with a household living in a denser neighborhood (50 households per residential acre) in close proximity to parks, transit, and shopping. The annual figures? 472 gallons of gas and 9,456 vehicle miles traveled. In short, residents of denser communities with transit access, employment opportunities, and neighborhood services within walking distance use less fuel.

Energy-hungry land-use patterns result from a complex blend of enabling policies. Euclidean zoning, while virtuously aiming to separate people from toxic waste and heavy manufacturers, still prevails in most communities, keeping many uses beyond walking distance and forcing development outward. Similarly, over-reliance on property taxes to fund public schools encourages the large-lot residential developments that define sprawl. Without regional water supply planning large-scale retailers and job-producing manufacturers often opt for communities without stormwater regulations, often choosing greenfield sites in suburban or ex-urban communities. For the Chicago region, where the outward growth is not being off-set by similar levels of development close to the city, well-intended but misguided policies means disinvestment and population loss in the more energy-efficient urban center.

Fortunately, Northeastern Illinois is catching up to planning-savvy places such as Maryland and New Jersey . Fifteen years ago the concept of transit-oriented development was lost on communities around Chicago . Today, TOD is commonplace in urban and suburban communities fortunate enough to have a transit stop. Many area employers now offer subsidies and incentives to get their workers on mass transit. Recent legislation in Illinois , such as the “Location Matters” will promote density and enable people to live near work. The 2005 Stormwater Management Act will enable consistent, enforceable standards that can promote sustainable growth county-wide and prevent developers from seeking out communities with lax standards.

Community officials are beginning to speak the language of conservation subdivision design, green infrastructure, mixed-use development, traditional neighborhood design, and residential density. The market is also beginning to shift as more people realize that a fuel-dependent lifestyle is more costly than first thought when highways expanded out from cities after WW II. But the market alone is not enough. Nor is technology the answer. Both must join forces with sensible land-use policy for lasting change.

The need for that change runs even deeper still, ultimately requiring an individual and collective paradigm shift in how we live. Many societal norms are being re-examined—our romance with the big car, our disdain for urban density, and our aspirations for the perfect lawn—to at least, in part, reshape our communities, reduce fuel consumption, and live more sustainable lives.

Read Part One of the series.
Read Part Two of the series.
Read Part Three of the series. 
Read Part Four of the series.
Read Part Five of the series.

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