Less Auto-Dependent Development Is Key to Mitigating Climate Change

Pennsylvania needs a more aggressive approach to global warming based on a new report that shows an alarming increase in how many miles the average person is driving, according to Brian Hill, President of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Sprawling development patterns are a key contributor to global warming and an essential factor in combating it, according to the report released today in Washington, DC, by the Urban Land Institute, Smart Growth America and other organizations.

“Today’s report shows that the smart-growth recommendations included in PEC’s Climate Change Roadmap for Pennsylvania need to be high on our priority list to overcome global warming,” said Mr. Hill.

“The impact of smart growth is profound, not only because of the increased miles driven by so many people but also because most of those people are also spending a lot more time stuck in traffic, moving slowly if at all while the gas keeps burning. And smart growth is not just about the global environment, it’s also about the livability of our communities and the economic cost with high gasoline prices,” Mr. Hill said.

The landmark report warns that if sprawling development continues, the total miles that people drive will increase 59 percent between 2005 and 2030, and carbon emissions from this increased driving will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels.

Even with those technological improvements, vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide would be 41 percent above today’s levels, well over the goal of reducing CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2050, according to Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change.

Pennsylvanian residents are driving more than ever before, fueling increases in vehicle emissions, one of the leading sources of global warming pollution. Spread-out development or sprawl is the key factor in that rate of growth, the research team found in their report based on a comprehensive review of dozens of studies.

Annual vehicle miles traveled by all Pennsylvanians increased 51 percent from 1980 to 2005, and only part of that increase was caused by population growth. Annual VMT per driver in Pennsylvania increased 26 percent in that time period, and mileage does not consider the added impact of people stuck in slow-moving traffic.

While demand for such smart-growth development is growing, government regulations, government spending, and transportation policies all still favor sprawling, automobile-dependent development. The ULI report recommends changes in all three areas to make green neighborhoods more available and more affordable. It also calls for including smart-growth strategies as a fundamental tenet in climate change plans at the local, state, and federal level.

“Most people are surprised to learn that the way we drive has a profound impact on Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams, and the Chesapeake Bay,” said Harry Campbell, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Pennsylvania Scientist. “The pollution that comes out of the tailpipe often finds its way into our waters. Global climate change not only threatens to alter Pennsylvania’s environment, but our health and welfare as well. The time to address these issues, including the way land use is managed and our driving habits, is now, not tomorrow.”

Mr. Hill added, “Being able to spend less time behind the wheel will benefit our health, our pocketbooks and the environment. We urge Governor Rendell and our state legislators to make smart growth a key strategy to mitigating global warming in Pennsylvania.”

The ULI report found:

  • On average, Americans living in compact neighborhoods where cars are not the only transportation option drive a third fewer miles than those in typical automobile-oriented places, such as subdivisions and office parks.
  • Real estate projections show that two-thirds of development expected to be on the ground in 2050 is not yet built, meaning that the potential for change is profound.
  • Shifting 60 percent of new growth to compact patterns would save 53 million tons of CO2 annually by 2030, equivalent to a 16 percent increase in fuel economy standards.
  • 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.
  • Improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency (such as hybrid cars that get more miles per gallon) and reductions in the carbon content of fuels (such as biodiesel fuels) will be overwhelmed by continuing, robust growth in the vehicle miles traveled unless aggressive smart growth initiatives are pursued.

The study represents a collaboration among leading urban planning researchers at the University of Maryland, the University of Utah, Fehr and Peers Associates, the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Urban Land Institute. Smart Growth America coordinated the multi-disciplinary team that developed the recommended policy actions and is leading a broad coalition to develop those strategies further.