We Will Get What We Deserve

As you may have heard, the transit-oriented communities bill is dead.  All I can say is that if, given all we know about climate change, we can’t manage to pass a relatively mild bill like HB1490, then the prospects for my kids’ future are so grim that I expect I’ll soon be seeking a sympathetic doctor willing to write me a lifetime prescription for designer anti-depressants.

No blaming John Fox for this one.  We’re failing as a society — all of us, together — to take responsibility and respond with courage and vision to the greatest environmental threat the human species has ever faced.  It’s surreal to write those words, and even though I’ve written them I’m still in partial denial.

But the denial busters keep coming:

Acidifying oceans caused by rising carbon dioxide levels are cutting the shell weights of tiny marine animals in a process that could accelerate global warming, a scientist said on Monday.

Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating 4, 5, 6 degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet. 

We will get what we deserve.

47 Responses to “We Will Get What We Deserve”

  1. Andrew

    I don’t think that bill would have had much effect on global warming. A real enforcement of the GMA would be a better action, or even better, a carbon tax.

  2. Rob Harrison AIA

    We might get what we deserve, but our children will not.

  3. Andrew

    I do want to say tha the second version of the bill was great, and it’s too bad it went down.

  4. JesseJB

    We will give our children- oh who am I kidding, Im 26 so the government is giving ME a future of sprawl. Can’t wait to buy my house in a subdivision on the slope of Mt Rainier!

  5. Chris

    This bill was well-intended, but the potential effectiveness was questionable. I think potential changes to the multi-family code as well as decisions surrounding parking in station areas will have much more effect on development potential in and around stations than this bill would have.

    Furthermore, I think that progressive urban strategy has to be fomented at the local, grassroots level rather than in Olympia. We need to convince residents and business owners why it is in their best interest to plan for growth near stations. We need to hammer home that growth is that result of economics, not city planners’ growth targets, and we can use planning tools to positively shape that growth. The argument that Seattle will grow by “x” and therefore your neighborhood needs to accept “y” growth is both an ineffective and inaccurate message.

  6. JesseJB

    @Chris

    It still just boggles the mind that we would even have to try that hard to drive the point home to the current residents. Are they that unintelligent? What is their problem?

  7. Andrew

    @6 misguided for sure, and scared of change.

  8. Andrew

    @6 Should add also, they are wary of top-down government policy.

  9. kt

    Just curious. How much square footage do you live in? How many children do you have? How big is your property? If you are in a single family home, and have more than 500 sq ft per person, would you make it into a home for two households? Can you walk to your job, at least in a pinch? If not, will you consider moving?

  10. rbj

    You’re absolutely right. We are failing. It’s because we’re too cowardly to realize that we’re stuck in a negative rut yet don’t have the will to get out of it.

    Shame too.

  11. andrew

    @10
    I think most people get it by now, but they just are unwilling to make the trade offs that are required to live in a more sustainable way.

  12. Jeff

    @andrew.

    You can’t have a “trade off” if you’re losing money on the trade, that’s just common sense. Somebody’s gotta pay for these “tradeoff’s”. Either consumers who buy their overpriced Prius’s, or taxpayers who foot the bill for government subsidized programs.

  13. Andrew

    Jeff, what does that even mean? The person making the trade-off is the one who is losing on one side and gaining on the other. I could have made a trade-off and started my own TCC-style organisation. Instead, I work for microsoft. With one I could have done what I do for fun for a living, the other one I do something I like a lot and make a LOT more money. That’s a trade off.

    People can choose, like I do, to take transit everyday and encourage others to do so or they can drive to work. Honestly, it’s not about Priuses, which are still terrible for the environment, it’s about choosing to live in a low-carbon footprint sustainable manner which may mean living in a smaller space so you use less heating energy or living close to work so you use less energy for transportation.

  14. bw

    >

    Thank you, Rob. For the most salient quote one could state at this moment in time.

  15. JB

    Andrew,
    Americans do 96% of their travelling by car. Less than 2% by transit. And buses overall are no cleaner and no more energy-efficient than cars anyway. You’re never going to make a significant dent in global warming by trying to shift people to using transit. At best, you’d achieve tiny gains at huge cost. And it would take many decades. The only real answer is cleaner cars. Obama understands this.

  16. Andrew

    @JB
    That’s the stupiest thing I’ve ever heard. \

    First, a bus gets 7mpg, when it’s even a quarter full (25 people) it’s getting as good people-miles per gallon than a loaded prius. When it’s full…

    Second, you’re talking about vehicle miles, not trips, which is the whole fucking problem of sprawl! One 40 mile commute by car is 20 2-mile commutes by transit. The average car commute in america is 15 miles. Transit, 2 miles.

    Finally, your number is obviously bullshit, because people do 10% of their travel by plane. So stop making shit up.

  17. JB

    Andrew,

    You don’t know what you’re talking about. Transit buses use more energy per passenger-mile of transportation than passenger cars. A Toyota Prius is certainly more energy-efficient than the average transit bus. As reported in the latest edition of the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book:

    Passenger Travel and Energy Use, 2006:

    Transit Bus: 4,235 BTUs per passenger-mile
    Passenger Car: 3,512 BTUs per passenger-mile

    And the idea that we could somehow induce a massive shift in transportation usage from cars to mass transit is a total fantasy. In its 2007 report on the future of the U.S. surface transportation system, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission estimated that in order to increase mass transit’s share of total surface transportation by just two percentage points it would be necessary to triple real capital spending on mass transit and to maintain that huge increase in spending for almost 50 years. Even if such a huge and sustained spending increase were politically feasible (it isn’t), the savings in our total energy consumption and total carbon emissions would be negligible. The only way of achieving significant reductions in surface transportation energy use and emissions over the next several decades is through more fuel-efficient automobiles. Transit is a distraction.

  18. Chris Stefan

    @17
    JB,
    Actually people are going to have to live closer to where they work and use more transit. Fuel efficient cars aren’t going to result in the massive reduction in carbon emissions that will be needed. Likewise continuing to subsidies sprawl isn’t going to cut it.

    The reasons transit has such a small percentage of overall passenger miles is:
    1. deliberate government policy at all levels since WWII. Sprawl and driving have been, and continue to be heavily subsidized.
    2. transit users tend to make shorter trips than drivers.

    Furthermore the energy efficiency of the average transit bus has much to do with the average number of passengers. The figure you cite is for the United States as a whole and includes many transit systems with very low ridership. How do buses in NYC compare? Long Island? King County? Snohomish County?

    Frankly I find the sort of arguments you make only slightly better than those of the global warming and peak oil deniers. While you at least are willing to acknowledge the reality of climate change, you cling desperately to a carbon intensive, unsustainable, and auto-centric lifestyle. I’m sorry but buying plug-in hybrids and putting up a few windmills isn’t going to be enough to let people keep living in 5000 sqft McMansions 20 miles from their jobs.

    By the way recent events show there is one way to cause a massive shift to transit: raise fuel costs. Tax gas so it costs as much at retail as it does in Europe and I guarantee you’ll see European-level transit ridership in no time.

  19. JB

    Actually people are going to have to live closer to where they work and use more transit.

    Er, why are they “going to have to” do that? Who’s going to make them? Your plan seems to be to somehow persuade hundreds of millions of Americans to give up their large, comfortable houses in the suburbs for small condos and apartments in or around dense urban areas. And to somehow persuade them to give up the speed, convenience and flexibility of getting around by car for mass transit instead. How exactly do you propose to persuade hundreds of millions of Americans to make these drastic changes to their lifestyles? How many trillions of dollars is it going to cost to produce such a huge shift in our national housing and transportation patterns? Where’s the money going to come from? And how long is it going to take to make all this happen? Remember, we can’t wait 50 years to address global warming. We have to do it SOON. From any perspective – economic, political, social, practical – your idea is just a total fantasy. As I said above, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission estimated that in order to increase mass transit’s share of total surface transportation by just TWO PERCENTAGE POINTS it would be necessary to triple real capital spending on mass transit and to maintain that huge increase in spending for almost 50 years.

    By the way recent events show there is one way to cause a massive shift to transit: raise fuel costs.

    There was no massive shift to transit. Only a tiny fraction of the reduction in VMT by car last year was replaced by travel by transit. Remember, transit provides less than 2% of total passenger-miles of travel. So even a 10% increase in transit is only 10% of 2% of total passenger-miles of travel. That is, one-fifth of one percent. Even if transit were more energy-efficient than cars, the effect on total energy consumption and total emissions would still be negligible.

  20. Gary

    JB et al.:

    Why should we not invest in mass transit simply because cleaner cars are a good idea? Why not do both?

    Regarding the comparative costs of transit and car travel, your citation to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission’s 2007 study gives a very incomplete picture. To begin with, you’re talking only about a relative increase in transit capital spending. Your citation says nothing about how much new capital spending would be necessary to maintain the current proportion of car travel as the population grows. How much will it cost to build new highways? To maintain old ones? In short, you’re comparing apples to nothing. Further, even more problematically, what matters for analyzing relative energy use is not BTUs per passenger mile, but energy use per TRIP (i.e., going to and from work, to and from the local park, to and from the grocery store). A transportation system that mostly serves travel by car will require trips to be much, much longer than trips executed by riding transit, walking, or biking. That’s because a transit-centered transportation system facilitates more-compact development than does a car-centered system. A person who rides a bus a few miles from a home in Ballard to an office downtown will consume far less energy than a Prius driver driving from a Carnation home to a Redmond office. So, even if accurate, your data on the relative energy use of Priuses and buses tells us very little. The real question, it seems to me, should be whether a marginal (either a new, non-existing trip or a change-in-travel-mode trip) car *trip* or transit *trip* is most cost-effective, taking into account ALL costs–capital (defined as the cost of infrastructure such as roads and rails as well as the cost of cars, trucks, trains, buses, etc.), environmental, health (what are the comparative costs of deaths and injuries sustained?), etc. If we really wanted to understand the transportation dilemma, we would also analyze the other costs associated with suburban v. urban patterns of development—building new suburban schools, shuttering under-utilized urban schools, building new suburban fire stations, etc.

    Also, we all should recognize that there are reasons other than greenhouse-gas emissions for investing in cities and urban transportation (i.e., transit). It’s about freedom and giving people choices. Of course we shouldn’t force people to live somewhere they don’t want to live. But a person who wants to live in an affordable urban home, be it a a rowhouse/townhouse, an apartment, or a condo, does not have many choices. Why? Zoning restrictions prevent multifamily developments from being built in sufficient quantities in urbanized areas, pushing new-housing construction to the suburbs and exurbs. Why do property-rights activists moan about the GMA and critical-areas ordinances but say nothing about zoning restrictions in urban areas? If we deregulated in Seattle, Everett, Tacoma, Bellevue, Spokane, etc., then supply and demand (the free market truly at work!) would have a greater hand in deciding how much multifamily housing would be built, and therefore where people would live. There’s also an equity issue here. In Seattle, roughly half of the households live in single-family homes and half live in multifamily dwellings. Yet seven times more land is dedicated to single-family homes than to multifamily developments! See http://friendsofseattle.typepad.com/blog/2006/08/half_seattles_p.html. That is not fair. It’s also foolish.

    Last, JB, please include a link to the studies that you cite, and be sure to note the page number where we can see the data and analysis that you cite.

  21. JB

    A further illustration that the potential environmental benefits of increasing density and substituting mass transit for car travel are very small comes from the work of Ed Glaeser and Matthew Kahn of Harvard. Glaeser and Kahn examined 66 of the largest metropolitan areas in the country and estimated the average carbon emissions per household for both suburban households and central city households for each metro area. This is total emissions per household from transportation (car use plus mass transit use), heating oil, and electricity consumption (used for heating and air conditioning). As you would expect, the authors found that central city households emit less carbon on average than suburban households. But they also found that the difference is small. On the order of 10%. A typical household in the suburbs emits only about 10% more carbon than a typical household in the central city.

    This means that even if we could somehow wave a magic wand, get rid of the suburbs completely, and shift the entire population to housing densities and transportation patterns that are characteristic of today’s central cities, we’d only reduce household carbon emissions by around 10%. To put that in perspective, we could achieve roughly the same effect from increasing the average fuel efficiency of the nation’s automobile fleet by just a few miles per gallon. So which of these seems more politically, economically and practically achievable: remaking the entire country into a giant central city (or a set of central cities), with no suburbs left at all, or improving the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks by a few miles per gallon?

    Glaeser and Kahn’s paper is here:
    http://mek1966.googlepages.com/w14238.pdf
    The data on carbon emissions I refer to is presented in Table 2 on page 41 and Table 5 on page 44.

  22. JB

    The NSTPRSC report is here:
    http://transportationfortomorrow.org/final_report/
    The data on mass transit spending and market share that I referred to is in Volume II, Chapter 4, Exhibit 4-9 on page 4-12 and Exhibit 4-11 on page 4-13.

    Why should we not invest in mass transit simply because cleaner cars are a good idea? Why not do both?

    Because we can only spend each dollar on one or the other. Spending the dollar on cleaner cars will buy us far more environmental benefit than spending it on mass transit.

    To begin with, you’re talking only about a relative increase in transit capital spending. Your citation says nothing about how much new capital spending would be necessary to maintain the current proportion of car travel as the population grows. How much will it cost to build new highways? To maintain old ones? In short, you’re comparing apples to nothing.

    No, the two alternatives I’m comparing are a continuation of our current real capital spending on transit for the next 50 years vs. a policy under which annual real capital spending on transit would be approximately tripled for the next 50 years. Do you seriously think a tripling of real spending on transit, for a period of 50 years, is remotely realistic politically? No one in either party has proposed any such thing. There is certainly no indication that the Obama Administration intends to pursue such a huge increase in transit spending, or that congress would be willing to pass a transportation budget with such a huge increase for transit. But even if such a policy could somehow be enacted, and kept in place for almost half a century, on the basis of the NSTPRSC report it would have only a tiny impact on transit’s market share anyway, and only a tiny impact, if any, on emissions and energy consumption.

    Further, even more problematically, what matters for analyzing relative energy use is not BTUs per passenger mile, but energy use per TRIP (i.e., going to and from work, to and from the local park, to and from the grocery store). A transportation system that mostly serves travel by car will require trips to be much, much longer than trips executed by riding transit, walking, or biking.

    Sorry, but this argument doesn’t make sense, either. A shift towards transit of only two percentage points would mean that we would still doing virtually all of our surface travelling by car (about 94% of total passenger-miles rather than the current 96%). So it would have very little effect on average trip length.

  23. Chris Stefan

    The “have to” is there are two very large guns to our collective heads: climate change and peak oil.

    If Americans, and indeed much of the developed world, don’t make a huge shift in lifestyles it will be forced on them. It won’t take a government doing it either, for even if government buries its head in the sand or tries to prevent the changes from happening they will anyway.

    The funny thing is many people will give up the McMansion in the suburbs for a pedestrian-friendly, bikeable, dense neighborhood with good transit access when given the chance to do so. Heck many people will even reduce the number of cars their family owns or go carless after moving to such a neighborhood.

    Furthermore there is some debate as to what the “right” level of transit investment is. Even the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) recommends increasing transit capitol spending fourfold and ensuring the increased levels of investment keep pace with inflation.

    But lets not argue cars vs. transit or urban density vs. suburban sprawl. I actually think Vice President Gore has the right idea here. Lets impose a carbon tax large enough to bring the desired emissions level down to the target in the desired time frame. Replace existing taxes with the carbon tax on a dollar for dollar basis. That puts the incentives in the right place.

  24. Jeff

    Although here in Atlanta, we’re known as the poster child of suburban sprawl, what a lot of people don’t know is that we actually have more multifamily development construction also going on. What I find comical, is even outside the perimeter they are building a lot of these “village center” types of developments. There seems to be some type of social demand going on where people prefer a community atmosphere, which tends to be lacking in a suburban community. I grew up in the suburbs and most people there didn’t even know that homosexuality existed. How could they when 99% of suburban dwellers are married with families?

    What I like about Obama is that he’s trying(I hope) to get us away from this consumerism culture of the 90’s and he’s trying to bring back community service and awareness.

    What I find very astounding is how environmentalism is 99% a social construct. I see so many young people going vegan or recycling because it’s the cool thing to do.

    I’m fine with all this “feel good” stuff going on now, but as an engineer I’m seeing a shortage of young people going into engineering, and I think that the people in charge also lack the scientific/engineering knowledge needed to make good judgements.

    Gore was all about the “feel good” aspect of it all, and I’m thinking Obama made me feel better when he said he’ll “bring back science” to the white house.

    I definitely think we need to just chill out and not rush into some massive SPENDING on transit projects. I think that the local jurisdictions should fund their own god damn projects.

    Maybe you f-ing people just LOVED having the Boston Big Digg eat up the national spending in the 90’s. That’s what happens when you force things.

  25. Kathryn

    Dispersal of nodal concentrations of jobs+housing+great schools+great services+great nightlife and culture might mean people WANT to live close to work. Seattle being the great borg into which everyone moves is not great. The great suburban job centers separate from bedroom communities need to get more balanced.

    We have a whole metropolitan region here. Why not have a great city called Redmond? Why not develop Everett more?

    Without a regional and statewide vision that supercedes municipal competition, our development priorities are out of balance.

    Roads take up an incredible amount of land. Maybe we will see skinny lanes and skinny cars to mitigate and densify the roads we have. Long commutes waste an incredible amount of time and I think is anti-social and anti-family.

    I like rail based transit because it can move huge numbers of people, and support it over more roads. But, I am not happy about how it has been implemented. I love taking the train to Portland rather than flying. I would live to see high speed rail on the west coast for people who need to travel. but, the model we are working with is the model I knew in the east coast where people would regularly ‘commute’ from DC to New York for the day. I went by air to Detroit once or twice a week for years. I have a friend who commuted from Baltimore to Philadelphia by train every day! Sure trains pollute less than airplanes but I moved to Seattle to get away from that kind of expectation about life and work.

    I know people will always require mobility for economic opportunity. But, why not make every place as self-sustaining a community as possible. With the internet allowing us to overcome the geography of time and place, we really can reimagine how we live and work.

    I’m trying my damnedest to live smaller and locally. Really small townhouse. But I drive my car the four miles to work because it is just flat out too dangerous to walk around the neighborhood or take the bus at night. And there is nothing having to do with my daily errands either near my home or near my work. At least I don’t jam up the bridges. And I adjusted my schedule to go in four instead of five days a week.

    We all try in our own ways. Here is hoping that some taking stock of the whole deal on all our parts will result in better and more measured action.

  26. Kathryn

    Oh and @5 @6 and @7 the current residents in Seattle are DOING planning to create dense, sustainable communities. Problem is the provisions of the bill would put those communities totally out of whack vis a vis both their appropriate role within the local and regional economy and vis a vis their own all sided development. The folks are not stupid. Saying ‘one size does not fit all’ in SE Seattle, and even in some of the poorer suburban places, is not a bid by rich people in gated communities to keep their privileged way of life. It’s people saying they want safe, nice neighborhoods with stores and jobs and all that stuff.

  27. Sabina Pade

    It being clear, in the minds of many, that grisly crimes never take place in safe, nice neighbourhoods.

    It being similarly apparent, in the minds of many, that commuting to work via train is a significant hardship.

    It being completely obvious, in the minds of many, that nodal concentration of jobs+housing+great schools+great services+great nightlife and culture is not the hallmark and privilege of a great burg.

    After all, what with the way the Internet is overcoming time and place, pretty soon we’ll be able to dine out, sweep the streets, mill lumber, manufacture steel, and raise cows, all from behind a computer terminal in the comfort of our own home.

    Knowing this, who would want density?

  28. dan bertolet

    Chris @5: I’d like to hear more about how changes to the mult-fam code would enable better station area development. If you want to write a HAC post I’ll give you the keys.

  29. dan bertolet

    A question for you JB: Which form of development do you believe would lead to more sustainable human societies overall: (1) a continuation of the sprawling, car-oriented suburban growth patterns typical of most of the U.S. in the last half century, or (2) compact development that consumes less land and other material resources, and makes transit, biking, and walking viable alternatives to the car?

  30. Kathryn

    By the way, we are having a presentation for the Central Area (and any friends from around the city) by CORA, Congress of Residential Architects, on the Multifamily zoning updates:
    Wednesday, March 25
    6 – 8:30 PM
    Hiawatha ArtSpace Lofts
    855 Hiawatha Place South
    Seattle, WA 98144

    It could help with the ugly cookie cutter town house issue. It also includes administrative design review and I hope we goose up the public communication and comment. I’m hoping for some incentives for reuse of existing nice mansions.

    A few things in zoning that pertain to Transit Oriented Planning that have nothing to do with this, though.

    Most of the zoning right near good transit is or should be Neighborhood Commercial or Commercial.

    I understand that the state level ‘condo’ laws supposedly make it difficult to build to the zoning level of L3-L4 for other than rental. I do not understand what the issues are, just that it constantly disappoints when I see town houses go up when the zoning calls for higher density.

    We also have no way of doubling up in single family areas, just the accessory unit provisions. With household sizes getting significantly smaller, it seems like an opportunity to have a big house divided into two homes without going to the multifamily zone level, could immediately dense up everywhere. My neighborhood was largely built as duplexes with decent yards. When zoning came in, some areas were designated multifamily, most is single family. To replace a duplex in the single family zone with another duplex, as opposed to subdividing for two skinnies or replacing with a minimansion, takes a huge amount of money, public comments, etc., to get the zoning variances…

  31. JB

    Dan Bertolet,

    For the reasons I have explained, there is very little potential for achieving significant environmental benefits through compact development and substituting transit/walking/biking for car travel. America has been suburbanizing for over 60 years. We have invested tens of trillions of dollars in suburban housing, roads, schools, hospitals, factories, parks, office complexes, malls, utilities infrastructure and so on. Hundreds of millions of Americans live and work and shop and play in this environment. We’re not going to abandon all this low-density development or tear it down and replace it with compact development and walkable communities. It’s a fantasy. Even if the political will existed for such a radical national transformation (it doesn’t), it simply isn’t economically feasible. The only way to achieve significant environmental benefits within the timeframe necessary to address climate change is by making cars and houses more energy-efficient. Transit is a distraction. Compact development is a distraction. Trying to address climate change with transit and “transit-oriented development” is like trying to put out a house fire with a squirt gun.

    And the problem is of course far larger than just the United States. Over the next 30 or 40 years, hundreds of millions of people in India, China and other developing countries are going to become rich enough to afford a car. The global number of cars is likely to skyrocket. It is in our own interests to develop affordable technology that will allow these cars to be as energy-efficient and green as possible.

  32. dan bertolet

    JB you didn’t answer my question. Which should we build from now on, sprawl, or compact development? And which should the developing countries like China and India build?

    You may be correct that raising car efficiencies would have a greater near-term impact on reducing GHG emissions. But what about the long-term? There is a physical limit to how efficient cars can get. Do you think the planet can support nine billion people with two cars per family, even if their cars get 100 m.p.g? Do you think the planet’s ecosystems would remain healthy with nine billion people living in an American-style sprawling built environment? I don’t.

  33. JB

    Which should we build from now on, sprawl, or compact development? And which should the developing countries like China and India build?

    I think we “should” and we will build what people want us to build. To the extent that there is demand for compact development, we’ll build it. I don’t think there’s much demand. But the point is that we couldn’t possibly build enough of it fast enough to make a serious difference to global warming within the timeframe in which we need to act. It’s a distraction.

    You may be correct that raising car efficiencies would have a greater near-term impact on reducing GHG emissions. But what about the long-term? There is a physical limit to how efficient cars can get. Do you think the planet can support nine billion people with two cars per family, even if their cars get 100 m.p.g? Do you think the planet’s ecosystems would remain healthy with nine billion people living in an American-style sprawling built environment? I don’t.

    There is a physical limit to any method of reducing our energy consumption, whether it’s more efficient cars or more compact development. I don’t think there are clear answers to the questions you ask. No one can really predict long-term technological change with any confidence. But I don’t think the questions are relevant anyway. My point is that focusing on transit and densification is terribly misguided. It’s just not a serious way of addressing our looming environmental problems. We need to pursue policies that actually have a chance of making a serious difference, and that means more efficient cars, more efficient buildings, and alternate energy.

  34. Kathryn

    I think if we seriously tighten up the sprawl boundaries, people will dense up naturally.

  35. dan bertolet

    JB, nice job avoiding making any values-based choice. So I guess that also means that we should only build more efficient cars if the market demands them, no government intervention allowed, right? And that also means that it’s just fine that we have such a low mileage fleet right now, because it’s what the people wanted, right?

    A household in a multifamily building is more energy efficient than a household in a single family house. So according to what you wrote, we should pursue policy that encourages dense development. Except that you also wrote we should only build compact development if people want it. Which is it?

    I made a mistake in the original post by implying that the only benefit of TOD is ameliorating climate change. There are many other benefits — environmental, social, and economic. JB, why do you find it so hard to admit that?

    I agree with you that cars, buildings, and alternative energy are critical. But I also believe it is critical to address land use patterns, and that doing so is no distraction.

    OK, I’m done now. Life’s too short, especially when spent debating an anonymous person.

  36. JB

    I see no evidence of large-scale demand by Americans for compact development, or a willingness to substitute mass transit for travel by car. Laws and public policies are ultimately governed by the democratic process. Politicians who try to force people to make radical changes to their lifestyles that they do not want to make will be voted out of office. For the reasons I have documented previously, there is no serious case for pursuing compact development and transit expansion on the grounds that they are effective ways of addressing global warming. If you think there are other reasons for pursuing them, you are free to make your case and if people agree with you they will vote and act accordingly. I don’t think many people will agree with you. I think you grossly underestimate the value that low-density land use brings to people’s lives, most importantly the benefits of more spacious, comfortable housing, and the mobility provided by car travel.

  37. Gary

    JB:

    You write:

    I think we “should” and we will build what people want us to build. To the extent that there is demand for compact development, we’ll build it. I don’t think there’s much demand. AND:

    I see no evidence of large-scale demand by Americans for compact development, or a willingness to substitute mass transit for travel by car.

    You’re wrong when you claim we aren’t building more compact development because there isn’t demand for it. In most places, it’s ILLEGAL to build compact developments. In Seattle alone, multifamily housing is restricted to a ghetto of about 5% of the land. See http://friendsofseattle.typepad.com/blog/2006/08/half_seattles_p.html.

    Look, no one is talking about forcing people into compact development. Let the market decide. Let’s deregulate zoning in our urban cores so that development isn’t as constrained by the unit-density and height limitations included in our current codes. If buyers and renters want to live in compact development, then at least developers will have the legal wiggle room to build compact development.

  38. JB

    Gary,

    Your link states merely that multifamily housing occupies 5% of Seattle’s overall land area. It doesn’t say anything about laws regulating land use. I find your claim that “in most places, it’s ILLEGAL to build compact developments” highly implausible. Can you substantiate it?

    In any case, land-use laws, like all laws, are a product of the democratic process. If there were large-scale demand for compact development that could not be met because land-use laws were preventing it, people would vote to change the laws or move to other areas where the laws already allowed it. Sprawl isn’t the result of land-use laws. It’s the result of people wanting bigger housing, more space, and the increased mobility they get from doing most of their traveling by car. All across the country, for more than half a century, Americans have been suburbanizing. Moving out of dense central cities and into suburbs and exurbs. The same trend has been happening in Europe. It’s simply how most people prefer to live. Maybe that will change in the future, but I see no evidence of it.

  39. Gary

    JB,

    Read about how zoning works and then look at the link again. If a lot is zoned for single-family housing, then it is ILLEGAL to build multifamily housing on the land. That is what it means for a lot to be zoned for single-family houses only. You can read more about Seattle’s zoning code here: http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~public/toc/t23.htm and zoning maps here: http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~public/zoningmaps/zmapindx.htm. The information from these links tells you that on 35% of Seattle’s land, only single-family homes may be built, whereas multifamily housing is permitted on on only 5% (the rest of the land is set aside for sidewalks, streets, parks, the UW, the Port of Seattle, industrial areas, and the like).

    Also, you want evidence of changes in consumer preference? How about this article http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/subprime:

    Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

  40. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    JB–you’re missing the obvious here. The next logical step isn’t more sprawl, it’s 6000 sq ft motorhomes!

    Zoning is part of the democratic process; we’ve just realized we were wrong and want to take it back now. Suburbanization was born out of well meaning attempts to give every American family a subsidized home–it’s really quite interesting history and sad for places like Detroit. The subsidies–including highways–continue. Will they forever?

    European sprawl has been very different, more like the 1900s streetcar “suburbs” where cars are actually optional.

  41. JB

    Gary,

    The information from these links tells you that on 35% of Seattle’s land, only single-family homes may be built, whereas multifamily housing is permitted on on only 5% (the rest of the land is set aside for sidewalks, streets, parks, the UW, the Port of Seattle, industrial areas, and the like).

    Er, what information from those links tells you that? Can you show us the specific provisions in the zoning code and zoning maps that substantiate your claim?

    Your broader claim is “in most places, it’s ILLEGAL to build compact developments.” The zoning codes in Seattle, whatever they are, do not tell us anything about the situation “in most places.” What about other cities and towns in Washington state? What about rural areas of the state? What about other states? Where is your evidence that “in most places, it’s ILLEGAL to build compact developments?”

    And if it’s true that there is a large unmet demand for compact development that is being thwarted by zoning laws, why aren’t people voting to change the laws? Laws do not arise spontaneously. They are the product of the democratic process. And why aren’t developers building more compact development in places where it is legal to do so?

  42. JB

    Zoning is part of the democratic process; we’ve just realized we were wrong and want to take it back now.

    Then what’s the problem? If Americans agree with you that existing zoning laws are bad and should be changed to allow for more compact development, they will be changed. If there is demand for such development, it will be built.

    According to Census Bureau data, the nation is still suburbanizing rapidly. Between 2000 and 2006, over 90% of the population growth in large metropolitan areas occurred in the suburbs. Less than 10% occurred in core cities. Many major core cities actually lost population over this period, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Salt Lake City and New Orleans. See: http://www.demographia.com/db-msacore.pdf.

    European sprawl has been very different, more like the 1900s streetcar “suburbs” where cars are actually optional.

    I think transit is an “option” for most trips for most Americans. But most Americans prefer to use cars because cars are so much faster, more comfortable, more convenient and more flexible. And so do Europeans. Just like Americans, Europeans have long been shifting away from public transportation and towards more travel by car. For a variety of reasons, the absolute level of transit use is higher in Europe than in the U.S., but the trend on both continents favors cars. See this document on trends in European transportation from Eurostat, the EU statistics agency:
    http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/cache/ITY_OFFPUB/KS-DA-07-001/EN/KS-DA-07-001-EN.PDF

  43. dan bertolet

    JB@21: I had a look at the Glaeser/Kahn paper you referenced here:
    http://hugeasscity.com/2009/03/12/we-will-get-what-we-deserve/#comment-109677

    This study does not provide a good measure of the potential of compact development and transit to reduce GHG emissions. First, the study doesn’t include households outside the 66 biggest metropolitan areas, and these households can be expected to have relatively high GHG emissions.

    Second, for each metro region, it compares households in Census defined “central cities” against those in the rest of the metropolitan region. But densities and levels of transit service vary widely between the different central cities, and also varies widely in the regions outside the central cities. For example, Seattle and Bellevue are both designated “central cities” and get counted in the same bin, but urban form and transit use are very different in these two cities. Most of the new large “central cities” in the U.S. are relatively low density and car-dependent — not the compact development model.

    If you want to draw conclusions about the effects of density and transit on GHG emissions, you need to compare regions specifically according to their density and level of transit service. And to understand the full potential, you’d probably have to look outside the U.S. to cities like Copenhagen, where more than a third commute by walking or biking, with the remainder split about evenly between cars and transit.

    http://bikeprovidence.org/2009/02/18/part-2-on-copenhagen-transit-policies

    In the article linked below, Glaeser doesn’t appear to share your view that addressing land use is a waste of time. The headline — “To save the planet, build more skyscrapers” — sounds like something you’d see in post here on this blog.

    http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_1_green-cities.html

  44. JB

    First, the study doesn’t include households outside the 66 biggest metropolitan areas, and these households can be expected to have relatively high GHG emissions.

    I don’t know why you think that. Emissions are generally correlated with income and wealth. Urban and suburban households tend to have higher incomes and wealth than small-town and rural households. I expect average household emissions for the 66 largest metropolitan areas are higher than for households outside those areas. Average emissions for rural households may be lower than average emissions for central city households.

    Second, for each metro region, it compares households in Census defined “central cities” against those in the rest of the metropolitan region. But densities and levels of transit service vary widely between the different central cities, and also varies widely in the regions outside the central cities.

    So what? The average difference between suburban/exurban and central city households is on the order of 10%. So even if the entire population were to live at the average density of our central cities, we’d only reduce household emissions by something like 10% (and household emissions are only about 40% of total emissions, so the reduction in total emissions would be even lower – on the order of 4%). Yes, some central cities have higher densities than others. If everyone were to live at Manhattan-like densities, we’d save much more than 10% of household emissions. But that’s an even bigger fantasy than moving to the central city average density. You just don’t seem to grasp the sheer scale of the transformation in housing and lifestyles that would be required to achieve any meaningful reduction in emissions through densification. You’re talking about a radical transformation in the housing and transportation patterns of hundreds of millions of Americans. You’re talking about abandoning tens of trillions of dollars of worth of existing housing stock and other infrastructrure in suburbs that we have spent the past 60 years building. It’s just not going to happen. The best you could reasonably to achieve over the timescale in which we need to act is a small increase in the average density of housing and a small shift in transportation usage from private vehicles to mass transit. And the emissions reduction would be correspondingly tiny.

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