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,
answer to overcoming our societal dependency on fossil fuels.
Kimberly Gray, a research scientist and professor
of civil and environmental engineering
, 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
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
-- 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
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
regulations, often choosing
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
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
Both must join forces with sensible land-use policy for lasting change.
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.