Smart Growth Can Benefit Us All

May 12, 2009

The transportation sector contributes significantly to climate change. Automobile related emissions in the United States are responsible for roughly 25% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, an astonishing figure. You can chalk up our vehicle’s emissions to the fact that American’s love their cars – which we do – but the equally guilty is the fact that we have built a society that is utterly dependent on private vehicles to function. How would we get groceries without a car? How would the kids get to school? How would you get to work? What about that weekend getaway — impossible without your car. The good/bad news is that this isn’t your fault. Since the 1950s, America was built with the car in mind and it is realistically impossible to function without an automobile in most places. But this is really not a good thing. The negative implications of a car-centric society go far beyond the climate change pollution that comes out of all of our tailpipes. Cars in my view are responsible for or contribute to:

  • Diminished local air quality, especially in urban settings, that cause respiratory problems and disease
  • Traffic accidents and deaths
  • The urban heat island effect
  • Obesity by facilitating inactivity
  • Stress and road rage
  • Urban noise pollution
  • Money out of your pocket every time you have to fix that alternator or power windows or that O2 censor (what the heck is an O2 censor?!?!)

But what is the answer? How can we fight climate change, improve community health, and greatly increase our quality of life? Proper planning and smart growth. Smart growth is a development principle that encourages compact development and incorporates public transportation, walkable commercial centers, and bikeable streets.  With smart growth, most things that you need like groceries, restaurants, hammers, and nightlife should be no more than or short walk of transit trip away. There are successful demonstrations of smart growth cases out there, like Vauban, Germany, where the entire city has been planned to be a ‘car-reduced’ city. In Vauban, over 70 percent of the residents don’t own cars because they don’t need to (and the streets are car-free). This city of 5,500 is living proof that a better way is out there, and that giving up your car(s) doesn’t mean giving up your quality of life. In order to properly fight climate change the way we need to, the US needs to incorporate smart growth principles in all new developments. This, in my humble opinion, should be done through a variety of carrot and stick measures:

  • Federal funding for transportation should be equally balanced between automobile, transit and bikeways/walkways. Currently highways get way more funding than any non-car transportation
  • Smart, compact development should be required where practical — like in say urban and suburban areas
  • Things that make transportation alternatives easier should be encouraged — like secure, covered bicycle parking and showers at your office, and safe bike lanes on the street
  • People should pay the real price of parking that incorporates the cost of maintaining streets, traffic lights, traffic police, etc.

As we wait for our transportation systems to catch up with our 21st century needs, catch a bus or bike when you can. It will help you fight climate change now, feel better, and be part of the solution.