We’re Suckers For Lists

All you need to know: We’re number 6! That and — huh? — Honolulu is number 1? And hold on there, how could LA, ranked number 2, be better than us?

The Brookings Institution just released a ranking of per capita carbon footprint for 100 major U.S. cities. Sure, this list will help raise awareness, but I’m a bit surprised to see Brookings publishing something so gimmicky and easily misinterpreted.

Case in point: Is there anything particularly innovative going on in Honolulu — in terms of policy or the built environment or transportation — that is responsible for their number one status? Honlolulu ranks 2nd for highway transportation emissions and 15th for residential energy emissions. Given Honolulu’s climate, the residential ranking seems reasonable. But what is up with transportation in Honolulu?

There is no explanation offered in the full report, but it cites this academic paper. And therein, a paragraph describing “cautions” in interpreting the data notes that Honolulu has the lowest “truck share” of all the cities. But we’re left to wonder: Why does Honolulu have such low truck VMTs? Does the Brookings Institution recommend that cities ban trucks to improve their carbon footprint ranking?

According to one of the authors, “Seattle is clearly ahead of a lot of other communities on this.” But the main reason we’re ahead is because we happen to have a very large river system nearby, and also because the impact the hydro-power dams have on salmon runs is not part of the equation. For transportation Seattle ranks 27th — respectable, but hardly a national leader.

Overall, it seems to me that the effect of climate makes this list all but useless for helping to identify which cities are on the right track. Cities with seasonal temperature extremes are penalized because they require more heating and air conditioning. Indeed, most of the cities in the top ten have relatively temperate climates. New York City, ranked number 4, apparently has high enough density and transit ridership to overcome the hit it takes from climate. Boise at number 5 makes no sense at all to me.

Meanwhile many of the cities in the bottom ten are in the Midwest, a region known for hot summers and cold winters. It may well be that these cities have high VMTs as well as high residential energy use. Or perhaps they’re doing great with building efficiency, but extra lousy with transportation. You’d have to dig deeper than the headline-grabbing list to figure that out. And who, besides the rare wonk such as yours truly, is going to do that?

Feel like a sucker?