America must overcome its auto addiction. Are local investments in urban development the answer?


We write a lot about the inadequacies of auto-centric urban design in North Texas. Last week, I pointed out that Dallas lags behind other American cities in terms of bike infrastructure. This morning Matt reminded us that the city still makes life difficult for pedestrians. We have spilled a lot of real and digital ink to advance things like converting city highways to boulevards and investing in better and more useful modes of transport.

We’re paying as much attention to how we can make our region’s cities less auto-dominant because we have all of the benefits that come with auto-centered design in North Texas. A less auto-dependent city would improve neighborhood safety and quality of life, revitalize inner city growth and create new jobs, reduce transportation costs that add to inequality, and relieve taxpayers of funding a never-ending infrastructure. One benefit that we don’t focus on too often is the way in which a move away from auto-centric city design, especially in sprawling metropolitan areas like Dallas, could play an oversized role in efforts to match global carbon emissions with the goals to bring them into harmony laid down in the Paris Climate Agreement.

The BBC has released a new report examining the role of the United States’ auto-centered infrastructure in ongoing efforts to reduce global carbon emissions. To illustrate how auto-centered American culture is, the BBC piece begins with a trip to Arlington, which, as we all know very well, is the largest city in the United States with no public transportation. The BBC doesn’t pick on Arlington; it shows that the city in north Texas is by no means an outlier. No matter where you live in the United States, you likely rely on cars for all of your transportation needs. As of 2017, driving has been the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States

In 2019, more than three-quarters of American workers drove to work alone. The vast majority of their cars burn gasoline and emit an average of 4.6 tons of CO2 each year – the equivalent of the total annual emissions of one person living in France. The US also lags behind China and Northern European countries in terms of electric car sales – electric vehicles accounted for only 2% of all new cars sold in 2020 (75% of cars sold in Norway that year were electric).

The BBC also reports that the US was responsible for about a quarter of global emissions from passenger air travel in 2019. Taken together, it is clear that any attempt to significantly reduce the United States’s contribution to climate change must take into account the fact that we are drifting and flying practically everywhere.

It will not be easy because, as the BBC points out, since the end of World War II we have built a country where it is almost impossible to use a mode of transport that is not a car or a truck. In other words, it is not the drivers who are to blame for all of these emissions. Even if you wanted to give up the car and use other, less stressful modes of transport, there is simply no option in places like North Texas. The irony, the BBC points out, is that the car has become a symbol of American freedom, but has also made us slaves to one form of transportation.

It’s easy to see why a car is synonymous with mobility and freedom of travel in the US – without a car, you face poor traffic service that may include an hour of waiting for buses that may or may not arrive, minimal or nonexistent bike lanes and restricted rail traffic, among other challenges. The US’s auto-centered infrastructure and culture is also at the core of its greenhouse gas emissions.

The solution: change the way American cities are built. But as anyone who has closely followed progress on projects like Boulevard I-345 or improving DART service knows only too well, changing infrastructure is not easy. It takes decades and requires a lot of political will. The BBC article covers the many bureaucratic and political obstacles that overseas readership may not be familiar with, but which we cover frequently. Historically, US funding for auto infrastructure has far exceeded any other mobility investment. Local government policies can complicate, block, or ruin all sorts of decisions related to traffic and land use planning. There is never enough federal or local funding for local public transport.

The article also contains some interesting observations from outsiders. One of them is that US public transportation projects are often over budget simply because without a lot of existing transportation there is little institutional knowledge to lead project management. This is not the case in European and Asian cities that have built and relied on transit for decades.

Then there’s that other old enemy – parking:

It is estimated that there are up to two billion parking spaces in the US – that’s about eight parking spaces for each car. In many places, local planning laws require developers to include sufficient parking space in their projects. “They have a tremendous feedback loop,” says Adie Tomer, an urban infrastructure expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based not-for-profit organization. “There is ample free parking, which encourages people to drive, encourages people to buy cars, and then more people are building both residential and commercial parks to house those cars.”

So what can the US do if it wants to reduce its transport emissions? The report addresses two major visual ideas: the switch to electric cars and the introduction of new CO2 taxes. Both of these do not work. One analysis argues that the US would have to switch to 100 percent electric vehicles by 2030 in order to meet the emissions reduction targets set in the Paris Agreement on demand for the problematic mining of the minerals used in battery production. Introducing new taxes to discourage people from driving would place a financial burden on many people, especially those on low incomes who have no choice but to drive to work.

The solution that this BBC report comes closest to is to look at the success of local grassroots approaches in rehabilitating urban infrastructure. The report mentions the achievements in realigning public transport investments towards improving bus system efficiency and reliability that DART is currently undertaking. It describes how cities that have invested in small improvements to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure have achieved oversized benefits:

Similarly, cities have found that when you build safe and reliable infrastructure for walking and cycling, the cyclists and pedestrians come. Most Americans travel less than 3 miles – distances many can travel on foot or by bike. These modes really are the most environmentally friendly trips – on average, cyclists have everyday life 84% fewer emissions are associated with their trip as a non-cyclist.

The good news is that while Congress continues to haggle over infrastructure legislation that is being watered down by the day, this new report provides evidence that local efforts to expand mobility can be more effective than any huge government subsidy for electric vehicles. Indeed, many of the bill’s broader goals – such as combating climate change – could be better addressed by giving local governments the resources they need to improve their own urban environments. Because if you improve the local infrastructure and make it friendlier for cyclists, pedestrians and transit drivers, former drivers can enjoy their newfound freedom:

These local changes provide momentum and support, says [Jonathan] English, [transport director of the chamber of commerce and advocacy group Toronto Region Board of Trade]which can help ensure that changes persist even as politicians come and go. “The more drivers you have, the more money you have and the more political support you have,” says English. “Once you have a strong driver electorate, you have a strong political voice that makes it impossible to wipe out transit service down the line.”

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