Get Rich While Reducing Emissions: Smart Growth Keeps Looking Smarter

Just when you may have been looking for ways to counter that Pew report which poo-pooed the environmental impacts of transit and smart growth, here’s more evidence that reducing driving has an essential role to play in meeting economic and environmental goals: A new report from the Center for Clean Air Policy concludes that compact development will build wealth and cut carbon emissions.

Compact urbanism even works in the suburbs, like Bethesda, Maryland. Image: ##http://maryland.sierraclub.org/montgomery/growth_what.html##Maryland Sierra Club##
Compact urbanism can work in the suburbs, like Bethesda, Maryland. Image: ##http://maryland.sierraclub.org/montgomery/growth_what.html##Maryland Sierra Club##

Growing Wealthier: Smart Growth, Climate Change, and Prosperity” starts with the simple assertion that accessibility – “bringing origins and destinations closer together” – is, after all, “the very reason that cities exist.”

“You want to have your choices nearby so you can meet your daily needs as efficiently as possible,” said report author Steve Winkelman.

By separating residential areas, commercial services, and places of employment, suburban planning requires that people travel long distances to meet their needs. All those miles used to be viewed as a measure of economic progress.

“[Vehicle Miles Traveled] and GDP have grown concurrently since World War II and in lock step for much of that time,” the report states. But around 1996, GDP began growing faster than VMT, and, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “the importance of travel as a component of the U.S. economy has been declining since the early 1990s.”

Indeed, CCAP’s research shows that states with lower VMT per capita tend to have higher GDP per capita.

Excessive travel is more likely to be an economic detriment than a benefit. Ironically, GDP counts as economic productivity many of the counterproductive aspects of motorized travel, such as fuel consumed waiting in traffic jams, oil spills, vehicle repairs and medical treatment resulting from collisions, costs of air pollution, and defense operations to protect U.S. petroleum interests around the world. In fact, many costs of sprawling land use patterns (particularly increased infrastructure) themselves boost GDP figures.

The authors also urge us to distinguish between economically productive travel and what they call “empty miles.” It’s like differentiating between empty calories and nutrition.

“A lot of driving that most people are doing nowadays is not helping them economically,” said report author Chuck Kooshian. “Although the VMT has been going up per capita, as we’re making trips to the grocery store five miles to get some milk, and we’re taking the kids out driving to go trick-or-treating, and driving to the park to walk our dog, this is not helping the average household economically. It might be helping the Saudis.”

From the Center for Housing Policy's 2006 report, “A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families.” Is the economic strangulation of the suburbs really contributing to GDP?
From the Center for Housing Policy's 2006 report, “A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families.” Is the strangulation of the suburbs by rising transportation costs really contributing to GDP?

Economic benefits from walkable, bikable neighborhoods aren’t calculated by GDP alone. They’re also calculated in the drop in health care costs when people get more exercise. The authors cite a study in Seattle, where researchers found that with every five percent increase in the overall level of walkability, there was a 32 percent increase in walking or biking, and Body Mass Index was reduced.

Not to mention the economic impact of the real estate boom in compact urban areas, relative to the suburbs. The authors say that in Denver, homes within a half-mile of stations on the Southeast light rail line rose in value an average of 17.6 percent between 2006 and 2008, while home values in the rest of Denver declined by an average 7.5 percent.

Will driving 2.93 trillion miles again next year help us become healthier and wealthier? Not likely.

The CCAP report focuses largely on economic benefits of compact development, but it also addresses climate change – and comes to the opposite conclusions that Pew came to in its report touting clean car technology as the only viable avenue toward carbon reduction.

If the U.S. is to meet the goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050, CCAP says clean car technologies like those lauded in the Pew report won’t be sufficient. Public transportation can help: mass transit produces, according to a study by APTA, about 45 percent less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than travel by private vehicles. But in the end, we have to give people the option to drive less. And not even that much less: “The actual drop in miles driven per person that is required is relatively modest: We calculate that a 9 percent reduction in per capita VMT (roughly equivalent to each person driving 2.5 miles less per day) will be sufficient.”

  • LazyReader

    Did it ever occur that the reason there are wealthy people living in these areas is because they were rich to begin with, or thats the place they wanted to go and live anyway? If you try to convince a normal income person to live in Bethesda (probably an apartment of smaller size) and give up there larger single family home, they’ll shoot you. Even after 10 years of smart growth planning, evidence has shown that smart growth in Maryland has had little impact on development patterns. The following articles show a big difference in opinion. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=10963 http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv24n3/otoole.pdf

  • LazyReader

    Buyers demand low-density development because voters tend to oppose high density stuff. A study released in November 2009 characterized the smart-growth policies in the U.S. state of Maryland as a failure, concluding that there is no evidence after ten years that smart-growth laws have had any effect on development patterns. A published economic study entitled “Smart Growth and Its Effects on Housing Markets: The New Segregation” which termed smart growth “restricted growth” and suggested that smart growth policies disfavor minorities and the poor by driving up housing prices to greatly increased land values, and people with average incomes can no longer afford to buy detached houses. http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv24n3/otoole.pdf
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/01/AR2009110102470.html?hpid=moreheadlines

  • LazyReader

    I see government dictating how people should live. There are a few who might want to live in dense development. We can build for the market that likes it that way, but don’t turn the whole state into this kind of aspect. Many dense developments fail. The following video shows a lot about high density development and who really pays for the cost of this kind of development. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDjLJY6q6yY

  • garyg

    Public transportation can help: mass transit produces, according to a study by APTA, about 45 percent less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than travel by private vehicles.

    But mass transit provides only about 1% of the number of passenger-miles of travel that private vehicles provide. So if transit passenger-miles doubled, and all of that increase in transit passenger-miles was offset by a decrease in private vehicle passenger-miles, emissions from transit and private vehicles combined would fall by a whopping……0.5%. And since passenger transportation accounts for only about a quarter of total emissions, total emissions would fall by about 0.125%. One eighth of one percent. Negligible.

    But in the end, we have to give people the option to drive less. And not even that much less: “The actual drop in miles driven per person that is required is relatively modest: We calculate that a 9 percent reduction in per capita VMT (roughly equivalent to each person driving 2.5 miles less per day) will be sufficient.”

    The “9 percent reduction” in per capita VMT refers to the reduction in 2035 compared to 2005. But the authors project that under “business as usual” policies, VMT per capita will increase by 23% in 2035 compared to 2005. So, the required reduction in VMT compared to “business as usual” is in fact more like 32% (9% + 23%). And this would only produce a difference of 18% difference in CO2 emissions (50% below 2005 emissions vs. 32% below 2005 emissions).

    So, we’d have to drive 32% less than we otherwise would in order to cut transportation emissions by only 18%. I doubt most people would find that tradeoff very attractive.

  • LazyReader

    It costs hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to run transit systems. So spending federal money on a new line in say California does nothing to improve the mobility or quality of travel in say… Maryland, New Jersey, or any other state. According to a New York City transit official, the agencies are often always on the verge of bankruptcy. “No matter how much money you give us, we never have enough”. In Washington’s Metro, an accident killing 9 people was a result of the lack of finances to maintain current lines, yet they diverted money to build a new “Silver Line”. A culture of ignoring safety issues and without money it just declines. As for energy savings, they claim that transit will save it. Several billion BTU’s of energy a year. But it takes trillions of BTU’s to build the system in the first place, and more to maintain it and rebuild inevitabley. The system will require reservicing before the energy savings equals the expenditure.

  • Nice work, CCAP and Tanya. You seem to have touched a nerve.

  • Dale

    LazyThinker: Boring pre-fab troll posts.

  • “GDP counts as economic productivity many of the counterproductive aspects of motorized travel, such as fuel consumed waiting in traffic jams, oil spills, vehicle repairs and medical treatment resulting from collisions, costs of air pollution, and defense operations to protect U.S. petroleum interests around the world.”

    This report claims that we can have high GDP growth without growth of per capita VMT, but there counterproductive effects of growth across the economy that are similar to the counterproductive effects of motorized travel that it mentions. They have been detailed by Redefining Progress.

    Likewise, international studies show that growth of GDP increases self-reported happiness up to the point where per capita GDP is about half of what it is in the US, and growth beyond that point does not increase self-reported happiness.

    All this suggests that GDP growth is not a reasonable goal, any more than VMT growth is.

    (Incidentally, LazyReader’s comments seem to contradict each other, as if he cut and pasted each one from some conservative source without thinking about how it relates to the other. He has chosen the right name for someone who is intellectually lazy.)

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