by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

The governor of California recently made headlines by announcing that all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the state after 2035 would have to be electric vehicles. It’s welcome news, of course. But since the founding of Ecocity Builders in 1992, we have argued that true sustainability requires a total makeover of most cities by transitioning to compact, mixed-use neighborhoods where the need for individual vehicular trips is significantly reduced because residents can easily reach workplaces, schools, shopping, recreation and even open space on foot or by bicycle. For the last decade or two, major planning organizations have been agreeing with the Ecocity Builders mantra, most recently Smart Growth America.

In October 2020, Smart Growth America (SGA) released a report on transportation, land use, and climate change entitled Driving Down Emissions. Anyone who has followed the Ecocity Builders’ Ecocity Standards will be familiar with the prescriptions in this publication.

In addition to fuel-efficient cars, we need fuel-efficient cities. This is not easy because many governments have created cities that put people at the mercy of individual automobiles. For the past 70 years, sprawl has hamstrung public transportation, choked communities with traffic congestion, generated a pandemic of vehicular injuries and death as well as increased air pollution to the point where transportation now represents the largest percentage of US carbon emissions. These impacts are compounded when considering growing income inequality and the fact that households spend roughly $10,000 annually to buy, maintain, house, insure, and fuel a single car.

Transportation is the leading US contributor to climate change and, according to SGA, 83 percent of these emissions come from household trips and home deliveries. Improvements in fleet efficiency between 1990 and 2017 have been overwhelmed by the fact that driving in the US increased by 50 percent and US vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita increased by 15 percent during this period.

Building more roads only induces more traffic, thereby nullifying the attempt to solve congestion by pouring more concrete. SGA quantifies this as a one-to-one ratio: each ten percent increase in lane miles can induce a ten percent increase in driving. Even though we have known the futility of trying to pave our way out of congestion, governments have practically been forced to expand roadways by metrics that grade performance not on how easily people can access everyday destinations but on how easily cars can speed through a community with the least delay or inconvenience.

Sprawl costs Americans more than $1 trillion annually in infrastructure, delivery of public services, and transportation. Low-density development destroys essential farmland, forests, and other natural areas needed to sequester carbon. Pavement and other impervious surfaces also accelerate the heat island effect and increase run-off pollution to our already struggling waterways.

The first of five recommendations in Driving Down Emissions urges cities to respond to proven demand for more housing in walkable, compact neighborhoods. Residents of compact communities drive 20 to 40 percent less while experiencing improved health and safety plus reduced transportation expenses. Many but not all cities are heeding this advice and changing their zoning codes to promote dense, mixed-use development that minimizes the need for driving.

Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjostad eco-neighborhood aims to be a net-zero GHG emitter by 2030.

Safer, slower streets encourage people to drive less and walk and bicycle more. The Complete Streets program in the US aims to remake streets with inviting sidewalks and bike lanes (ideally protected from traffic). A growing number of US cities are recognizing the common sense of European reliance on bike transportation to efficiently and equitably use limited rights of way. The “all ages & abilities” goal has been gaining in popularity in an effort to make it possible for any person to safely and comfortably make most daily trips by bicycle and consequently reduce or even eliminate the need for a personal car.

As its fifth recommendation, Driving Down Emissions calls for measuring mobility not on the basis of traffic speed and flow but on how easily people can get to where they want to go. Compact, mixed-use neighborhoods reduce the need for trips by motor vehicles and consequently reduce the need for costly roadway infrastructure. SGA is essentially advocating the metric of “access by proximity” which is the first indicator of the Ecocity Standards.

Driving Down Emissions urges us to view electric vehicles as helpful but not nearly as essential to climate action as well-built communities. Several European cities illustrate that takeaway including the Hammarby Sjostad eco-neighborhood of Stockholm, which aims to be a net-zero GHG emitter by 2030, and Copenhagen, which is on track to be carbon neutral by 2025. US cities have largely been headed in the wrong direction for decades. But there is no better time to change course than now.

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.