Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

August 22, 2009


Stacy Mitchell, New Rules - So far, the public debate about cars and climate change has been dominated by fuel economy. But driving has been growing at such a rapid pace-total miles driven in the U.S. rose 60 percent between 1987 and 2007-that even a big advance in fuel economy is likely to be wiped out by ever more miles on the road.

According to calculations by Steve Winkelman of the Center for Clean Air Policy, even if we achieve a major improvement in fuel economy (new vehicles averaging 55 mpg), cut the carbon content of fuel by 15 percent, and slow the growth rate for driving significantly, by 2030 greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation will be only slightly below 1990 levels.

That's nowhere near the 60-80 percent reductions we need by mid-century to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Perhaps electric cars will come online fast enough to close the gap, but we would do well to hedge our bets by also finding ways to make daily life not require quite so much driving.

Academics who study travel behavior say that the presence of neighborhood businesses is a major factor in how much we drive. Dozens of studies have found that people who live near small stores walk more for errands and, when they do drive, their trips are shorter. And that’s not all: a more surprising research finding is that small retailers influence how likely people are to take public transit to work.

One study, led by Susan Handy, an expert on travel behavior at the University of California-Davis, examined eight neighborhoods and found that how often people walked for errands closely tracked both the number and proximity of stores. In the neighborhood with the most businesses, where homes were on average only one-fifth of a mile from the nearest store, 87 percent of residents regularly ran errands on foot, averaging 6.3 shopping trips on foot per month. In the neighborhood where the nearest store was an average of three-fifths of a mile away, only one-third of residents reported walking to a store in the previous month and averaged only 1.4 errands on foot per month.

Another study by Handy found that residents of an Austin, Texas, neighborhood that has numerous small stores within a half-mile radius made 20 percent of their food shopping trips on foot and logged 42 percent fewer miles driving to supermarkets than residents of two Austin suburbs that lacked neighborhood stores.

The potential impact of these findings is quite significant. Shopping accounts for 1 in 5 trips we take and has been the fastest growing category of driving by far. In the late 1970s, the average household drove 1,200 miles a year for shopping. That figure has skyrocketed to about 3,600 miles today. What changed? Stores got a lot bigger. Between 1982 and 2002, more than 100,000 small retailers disappeared. The big-box stores that replaced them were many times larger, far fewer in number, and thus served larger geographic areas.

Reversing the super-sizing of retail and bringing back neighborhood stores would not only cut the miles we chalk up running errands. It could also prompt more public transit use. A study of 3,200 households in King County, Wash. (the Seattle area), found that the choice to commute by transit was strongly influenced by the number of retail stores near home and work (probably because people could opt for the bus and still run a few errands on the way home). Overall, the study found, residents of the most walkable neighborhoods logged 26 percent fewer miles than those in the most auto-oriented.

Critics have argued that these studies merely reveal people’s preferences: those who like to walk choose neighborhoods where they can walk. But recent research has controlled for this “self-selection” bias-by, for example, tracking people as they relocate-and found that preferences matter but so too does the built environment. Those who favor driving walk more and drive less if they move to areas where there are places to walk to.

But the self-selection debate may be moot anyway. Demand for mixed-use neighborhoods is growing rapidly and may have already outstripped supply. In a new report, CEOs for Cities analyzed sales data for 90,000 houses and found that, in 13 of 15 markets, those in neighborhoods with higher Walk Scores have held value better than those in areas lacking destinations within walking distance.

Right now, everything from federal transportation spending to state economic-development incentives and local land-use policies heavily favor driving over transit, big-box stores over neighborhood businesses, and sprawl over infill.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not at all surprised that public land use policies "heavily favor driving over transit, big-box stores over neighborhood businesses, and sprawl over infill." Our so-called leadership is stuck in a downward spiral. Even though, in their heart of hearts, they know these policies do not comport with the evidenced future, they are fervent in their support. Talk about lemmings!
If you think this assessment is harsh, then look at GM and Chrysler. They took themselves down the porcelain convenience by willfully ignoring consumer demand for economical cars. Where was the leadership, one should ask. Stuck in happy old-think. And oh yes, look how they expect "the government" to help them out of a predicament that they themselves helped create! Surely this fact alone should stop us - the American people - from placing so much blind faith in the private sector.
The reason for these land use policies is that our public leadership is pandering to greedy corporate interests with zero foresight or concern about the social wreckage they leave once they have "cashed themselves out."

August 22, 2009 2:50 PM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Recently i came across your blog, interesting topics to read...

August 25, 2009 6:12 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home