Less Auto-Dependent Development Is Key to Mitigating Climate Change

Media Releases

Environment Colorado

Meeting the growing demand for conveniently located homes in walkable neighborhoods could significantly reduce the growth in the number of miles Americans drive, shrinking the nation’s carbon footprint while giving people more housing choices, according to a team of urban planning researchers.

In a comprehensive review of dozens of studies, the researchers conclude in a report published by the Urban Land Institute that development patterns are both a key contributor to climate change and an essential factor in combating it.

The report, released today by Environment Colorado, the Colorado District Council of ULI (ULI-Colorado), and the Sierra Club, warns that if sprawling development continues to fuel growth in driving, the projected 59 percent increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030 will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels. Even if the most stringent fuel-efficiency proposals under consideration are enacted, vehicle emissions still would be 40 percent above 1990 levels in 2030 – entirely off-track from the deep reductions below 1990 levels that are required by 2050 to avoid the worst affects of global warming, according to Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change.

“Colorado is poised to come out with vitally important goals for reducing our state’s global warming pollution,” said Pam Kiely, Land Use Advocate with Environment Colorado, “But to meet the challenge, we need to start driving down our growth in vehicle emissions, instead of simply driving around the problem.”

Colorado’s residents are driving more than ever before, fueling increases in vehicle fuel emissions, one of the leading sources of global warming pollution. Spread-out development is the key factor in that rate of growth, the research team found. In 1980 Coloradans drove 22 million miles annually—in 2005 that figure had jumped to 47 million miles, a 114% increase. Colorado ranks 11th in the nation for the highest growth in vehicle miles traveled during this 25 year period.

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, the report found. The report cites real estate projections showing 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. 

“Even more significantly,” notes Michael Leccese, Executive Director of ULI-Colorado, “is that in Colorado there is an increasing demand for smarter, compact development with jobs, activities, and transit close at hand. The development community can win big by taking advantage of this growing market, and will play a key role implementing real solutions to climate change.”

The paper calculates that shifting 60 percent of new growth to compact patterns would save 85 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030, equivalent to a 28 percent increase in federal fuel economy standards by 2020 (to 32 mpg).

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.

Yet while consumer demand for such smart-growth development is growing, “Government regulations, government spending, and transportation policies all still favor sprawling, automobile-dependent development,” notes State Representative Claire Levy. “It is time for Governor Ritter and my colleagues in the state legislature to put smart growth back on the agenda, and make sure it is a key part of any strategy for addressing global warming in Colorado.”

The paper 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 federal, state, and even local level.

 “Being able to spend less time behind the wheel will benefit our health & quality of life, our pocketbooks, and the environment,” said Clear Creek County Commissioner Harry Dale, “and we ought to be working hard at the local level to shape communities that we are proud of through smart land use and transportation decisions.  We need to start putting people first, instead of automobiles first.”

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.