The Effect of Place on Energy Use and Climate Change

At the Atlantic magazine’s “Future of the City” forum, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and panelists explored how place impacts energy use and climate change. Panelists discussed sustainable urban transportation, including technologies and strategies that will define next generation “smart transportation” approaches, as well as trends in green city development. Richard Florida, author of “The Great Reset” gave closing remarks.

Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Donovan said there was increased demand for walkable neighborhoods. These types of neighborhoods provide easier access to jobs, schools, and green areas. “However, there is still a mismatch between where we live and where we work.” Donovan said this disconnect, which forces many people to commute long distances, causes habitat loss, climate change, and increases our dependence on foreign oil. In addition, he pointed a finger at the financial industry, saying “lenders have driven the spread of suburbs, raising the cost of commuting.”

In Atlanta, the cost of transportation and housing now represents 61 percent of average household’s income. Over 20 years, there has been a 1,000 percent increase in transportation costs across the U.S. In D.C., over 40,000 affordable workforce housing units are missing, meaning that people need to “drive to qualify,” adding to the costs of congestion.

Despite the problems, Donovan thinks cities are the solution to many problems. Echoing comments made by Valerie Jarrett, Senior Presidential Advisor on day one, Donovan said metropolitan regions are key drivers of economic growth. In addition, cities, suburbs, and exurbs now share a common economic future. “80 percent of the U.S. population is in metropolitan regions. In Illinois, Chicago’s metro region makes up 2/3 of the state population.” As a sign of advancing urbanization, Donovan said that more people were moving back to the city.

On the negative side, the problems formerly associated with cities — homelessness, are now being “suburbanized.” While overall chronic homelessness is down by 1/3, in rural and suburban areas it’s up by 50 percent. The Federal government has put $1.5 billion towards rapid rehousing, which provide flexible, small amounts to families facing homelessness. “We now have the technology for dealing with this.” HUD aims to end chronic, veteran, and children’s homelessness in the next few years.

The HUD secretary then touched on the new sustainable communities partnership between E.P.A., HUD, and the Department of Transportation. This new partnership has new tools, including more Tiger II grants, which can encourage “more sustainable development,” and new Hope 6 grants that will enable communities to “tear down ossified social policies as well as buildings.” Donovan also announced some new $140 million in new sustainable community planning grants, saying they were the “biggest single investment in planning in a generation.” (see earlier post). During the community planning grant development process, HUD received some 900 comments from 1,000 stakeholders. In addition to the new grants, Donovan pointed to a “tools clearinghouse” that will be set up on the HUD Web site by 2011.

Given the U.S. needs to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 percent, we need to “collaborate on transportation and urban centers.” Through studying the emissions of various cities, we now know “the effect of place on energy use and climate change.” Where we place our homes and jobs has an impact on the environment. “Investing in transportation that’s closely connected with where people live is smart transportation.”

Smart Transportation

Scott Belcher, Intelligent Transportation Society, Stefan Jacoby, Volkswagen Group, William Millar, American Public Transportation Association, and Susan Zielinski, SMART, University of Michigan, discussed “smart transportation” systems that can reduce energy use and GHG emissions.

William Millar argued that there were unlimited resources for changing the current transportation system, but limited political will. “Right now, we don’t pay for congestion. We don’t do integrated design so our communities are not walkable.” Millar added that the U.S. must invest more in infrastructure — China invests nine percent of GDP in transportation infrastructure while the U.S. currently spends less than one percent of GDP. Susan Zielinski concurred that congestion is a symptom of broader failures in policy, technology, and land-use. “We need a new systems approach.” Over the next 20 years, 2/3 of all citizens will live in cities. “We need the next system for handling this. Transportation needs to interconnect and be multimodal. The idea is to have door-to-door transportation options.”

In the near term, cities can make practical changes to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions through policy and regulatory change and new incentives. Scott Belcher said Sydney is making it very difficult to drive a car downtown. Bus rapid transit lanes have been added, taking up lanes, but also providing multi-modal transportation that offer choices. San Francisco’s new smart parking meter system helps people reserve parking spaces in advance. In terms of incentives, congestion pricing is a “good idea,” said Millar. Stockholm, Singapore, London and a range of other cities have sucessfully pushed through congestion pricing schemes. The question on pricing is: “What will people think is fair?” Millar added that “roads aren’t free, even though we call them freeways.” Belcher agreed and said electronic tolls can enable congestion pricing; in fact, they are the critical first step needed. Zielinski said accessibility, not mobility, should be the over-arching goal. “All financing strategies then follow.”

A truly smart transportation system will seem simple and seamless to users, but is actually highly sophisticated. Millar pointed to Zurich, which has put a lot of thought into creating a system that doesn’t “advantage or disadvantage either cars or streetcars.” Integrating bicycle lanes and sidewalks (“people have forgotten they have feet”) also requires careful planning. Smart traffic lighting systems, which require some engineering, have great benefits — they can synchronize traffic, reducing congestion by 20 percent and transportation-related GHGs by 15 percent. Bus rapid transit require electronic payment systems if they are going to work as well as subways. “But once these systems are in place, bus rapid transit turns out to be much cheaper than hard / light rail.” Getting to multi-modal systems may also mean using “performance-based systems” that track key indicators.

To get to smart transportations systems, mapping overlay and interconnection points is needed. For instance, through mapping, you can line up Zipcar stations with bus stops. IT-enabled systems can facilitate interconnections. In San Francisco, the BART system’s fare card conects across subways, buses, trains, etc. Stefan Jacoby, Volkswagen, added that electric cars, which VW supports, need aligned charging stations and standards to expand. Zielinski argued that public-private innovation and “accelerating joint innovation” is critical.

On the very practical level, “we can’t set universal rules. The federal government should set goals and responsibilities should be met in a flexible way at the local level. Federal financing needs to enable this flexible approach,” said Zielinski. This approach is needed because 47 percent of Americans don’t have access to public transit. Only 15 percent can actually use transit everyday. “80 percent basically take cars for everything.”

In conclusion, livability was the key factor behind why so many Americans move. “It’s the reason why people move around. It’s not just about rational, technological issues” in access to transportation, but aesthetics as well.

Green Cities

Scott Horst, LEED, U.S. Green Building Council, Christopher Leinberger, Brookings Institution, Patrick Phillips, Urban Land Institute, and Victor Rubin, PolicyLink, discussed the future of green cities, including how livability can reduce energy use and GHG emissions associated with the built environment.

Christopher Leinberger, Brookings Institution, said livability is about choice. “Most Americans don’t have any choice.” However, they are voting with their feet and want more walkable, urban places. Patrick Phillips, Urban Land Institute, said he thought of livability more as a policy response. “It’s about leveling the playing field so we get more walkable, diverse neighborhoods with different housing options.” Scott Horst, U.S. Green Building Council, said livability must be connected with sustainability. “It needs to be connected to nature. The natural and human systems should be integrated. The wildnerness-to-city transect should be seamless.” Victor Rubin, PolicyLink, thinks livability is about creating “communities of opportunity,” that are healthy, safe, and provide access to jobs. “Livability presents an opportunity for inclusion.”

Public-private partnerships were viewed by all panelists as critical to paying for new, more sustainable community infrastructure. Phillips said new smart growth development work “had to be public-private.” In Washington, D.C., development of the new New York Avenue Metro station was catalyzed by local landowners. They knew a new metro station would “lead to an uptick in local property values.” Rubin added that non-profit and community organization developers shouldn’t be forgotten. “There are lots of types of public-private partnership.” Horst said real political leadership was needed to make these types of partnerships work. Leinberger pointed to Walkscore, which he said was a powerful tool for incentivizing compact development. “An one point Walkscore point increase leads to a one percent increase in property values.” 

On the role of LEED in creating greener cities, Corby Kummer, The Atlantic, and the moderator of the panel, said the rating system was the benchmark for more energy-efficient and climate-friendly green buildings, but has also become a “whipping boy.” Responding to earlier criticism, Horst said the latest version of LEED is “now weighted against building way out in the suburbs. Siting buildings downtown can reduce transportation related CO2 emissions by 60-80 percent. We are trying to incentivize locating in more sustainable areas.” In the future, he thinks there will be more LEED Platinum spaces in downtowns than elsewhere. (Indeed, perhaps siting more sustainably should be a pre-requisite). Horst added that another benefit of density is that buildings can share materials, reducing the need to use more building material.

On a practical level, the policy and regulatory obstacles to transit-oriented development (TOD) also need to be cleared. “Transit-oriented development is illegal in many places,” said Leinberger. “I am tired of proposing illegal things that take years to fix. It takes millions of dollars to change zoning laws.” While TOD is the way forward, high density also costs more (and is riskier). “You have to use architecture and urban design more so there is real durability. It’s as risky as can be.”

This is part three in a three-part series. Read part one, “The Future of the City,” and part two, “Building Information and Energy Technologies into Cities.”

Image credit: Bus Rapid Transit Station, Curitiba, Brazil / EMBARQ

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