Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Truth Behind VMT and Compact Development

The previous post referenced a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions -- Special Report 298. In that report, they heavily referenced a Report by Reid Ewing, Arthur C. Nelson, and Keith Bartholomew entitled "Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change."

The growing Cooler report was jointly issued by the Urban Land Institute and Smart Growth America and found among other things that "the findings show that people who move into compact, “green neighborhoods” are making as big a contribution to fighting global warming as those who buy the most efficient hybrid vehicles, but remain in car-dependent areas."

Reid Ewing, Arthur C. Nelson, and Keith Bartholomew recently posted their response to this report at

"While Growing Cooler and the NRC report agree that development needs to become more compact in order to address climate and energy goals, the estimated VMT and greenhouse gas reductions from such development differ due to different assumptions about the future. The NRC report reflects a conservative bias that is common in much academic work. It assumes that the distant future, even out to 2050, will not be very different from the world today.

Think about how different the U.S. is today than it was in 1970. We, as co-authors of/ contributors to Growing Cooler, kept this fact in mind as we made our assumptions about the future. We believe that due to dramatic demographic shifts, the peaking and subsequent decline in conventional oil production, changing life style preferences that are already evident from surveys, climate initiatives that the U.S. is now prepared to lead, and a host of other factors, the world in 2050 will be as different from today’s world as today is from 1970. Changing household structure, sharply rising fuel prices, the imperatives of climate change, smart growth initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels will all pull in the same direction, in an unprecedented manner, toward compact development and reduced VMT. It is significant that Growing Cooler is a product of the nation’s leading development industry association, leading smart growth advocacy organization, and leading clean air advocacy group. All of these groups understand that dramatic change is necessary and already in motion."

It seems, in a not so surprising way, that the NRC report misinterpreted the data and findings of the Growing Cooler report so as to minimize potential decreases on VMT from more compact development forms. Having read this report previously, I can attest that it is the most comprehensive study of its kind to date, yet the authors in many ways set a baseline for future studies so as to better recognize trends and parse those from assumptive research.

More importantly, there continues an obvious bias towards "gizmo green" solutions where the lifestyle of the typical American is least disrupted. There is so much about the current suburban lifestyle that is antithetical to sustainability, yet it seems to be the last frontier when it comes to combatting what ails us. Pick your poison - climate change, obesity, social isolation, foreclosures, highway blight - these all are rooted in ways in the suburban "dream." So perhaps, just perhaps, the reduction in VMT is not as readily achievable in our current top-down federal policy and funding models but life have never really changed much from changes in Washington. Ultimately it will be up to the state and local governments to implement these changes. But perhaps, just perhaps, the federal tap that is flowing "stimulus funds" throughout the country will stop ask ask one simple question - "How does this project lead to a reduction in VMT?" But, that might shut down every interstate and multi-lane project which is politically unpalatable to many representing suburban districts.

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