Why Your Gas Tank Matters: An Alternate View to Public Transportation.

7 Dec

I’m sure it’s been beaten into your head by now that driving your car is bad, and that the more enlightened choice is to take public transportation. We’ve all heard the stats of pollution and we know that the built form being designed around the car has destroyed a walkable environment based on nuclear neighborhoods. We’ve abandoned the charm and livability of almost all of our cities, and it will take centuries to get them back. The car does take a lot of the blame.

As an urban designer I’ve been battling with this guilt, especially in a city that offers some of the worst public transportation option in the country. In addition, we have the third highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the country. And of course, professionally, I’m expected to want to use public transportation, cycle, and walk. It’s so inconvenient and inefficient, that for me (like most Americans) it is not an option. And I certainly don’t want to use it in its current condition.

From my years living in England, I know what really good public transportation looks like: headways of 5 minutes, perfectly timed with trains, and mixed-use walkable downtowns. You could go almost anywhere in the country on your own two feet. But it cost a hefty price, and in many cases for me, became unaffordable. And as cliché as it sounds, Americans do enjoy their “freedom,” which for many is synonymous with their car. This culture shift is a way of life, and changing it is a battle I don’t think we will see in our lifetime without an enormous federal commitment to projects that we haven’t seen since after World War II. I don’t know about you, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

So where does that leave us? Last week at a red light, I looked down at my gas tank and it occurred to me I hadn’t filled it up in 2 months. I realized that even in a city that is the most auto centric place I have ever lived, it is possible to not get out of your car and have a very tiny carbon footprint.

The Land Use Perspective

Urban designers and planners strive for perfect development: walkable, tree-lined streets, beautiful public spaces, and a car-free lifestyle. We search for this in our own personal lives, and in most cases we come up shorthanded. Unless you live in New York, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco (our country’s gems) we often feel unsatisfied. However, I believe you can stay in your car (gasp!) and choose just as valuable of a sustainable lifestyle.

Choose to live near your work, or second place.

I hate commuting.

At its worst my commute was an hour and fifteen minutes one way, and at the end of the day I felt depleted. I promised I would never do that to myself again. So, when I moved to Tampa, I chose to live 2 miles from my work place, which is located Downtown. My other criteria was that I’d like to be able to walk to get a cup of coffee. As a result, I live in a denser neighborhood (made of mostly single-family homes) that is built on a connected street grid and is in close proximity to other neighborhoods that surround the downtown core. Each of these neighborhoods has a small commercial center that has the basics: grocery store, restaurants, coffee shop, etc. A few of the other necessities (Target!) are located on major arteries on the outside of these neighborhoods. I travel in between these mid-town neighborhoods and downtown. Granted we live a geographically small life and look for little entertainment outside of going to the movies and having a nice dinner, we are able to fill our gas tank up very infrequently. The following graphic shows the Tampa city limits in orange, and in blue, is the part of the city I actually use.

Tampa city limits downtown

Tampa city limits vs. the part of the city I actually live use

I’ve chosen to live in a slightly smaller house on a smaller lot. I’ve chosen to redefine “what I need” and really look at what influences my life the most. I put a lot higher value on not commuting then I do housing square footage. Life is a game of tradeoffs, and just through my daily life preferences, I have defaulted in choosing the “land use” option to sustainability.

Almost any time I go anywhere (except to get a cup of coffee of course,) I get in my car. And I don’t feel bad about. I drive in an entire week, what some of my colleagues might drive one way to work in a morning. While I can’t access what I need by public transportation, all of my needs are in close proximity.

This illustrates that land use must be considered along with transportation. I live in an older part of the city where development is denser. Large subdivisions and enormous shopping centers don’t exist. So for a Tampanian, who might be waiting on efficient public transportation for a very long time, the other option is to make choices in your life so that you don’t NEED to feel guilty about not using it.

And of course, my lifestyle, while by no means always occurs along those walkable, tree-lined streets, demonstrates how important density and diversity of uses is on the environment. Worse than the invention of the car and the pollution it creates in itself, is the land use form that followed it. Its disconnected street grid, single-use, and large size made public transportation impossible, and even travelling in a car inefficient.

Now of course in some of the largest cities, living near your work is unaffordable, or perhaps the public schools are not of an acceptable quality. And that might be the case. My lifestyle of choice would not be possible everywhere. And this is why transportation modes like BRT and light-rail are crucial to every American city. Slowly, and in some cases very slowly, we are making small progress to get there. But in the meantime, planning policy can ensure that we require mixed-uses in close proximity to new development at the densities required for a sustainable lifestyle.

In the meantime, walk or cycle if possible, if you want to. But if you live a geographically small life, and you want to stay in your darn car – don’t sweat it and sleep soundly at night. You are one of the good people.

Erin’s Google+

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3 Responses to “Why Your Gas Tank Matters: An Alternate View to Public Transportation.”

  1. Jim Bunch December 7, 2012 at 1:11 PM #

    While I am generally in agreement with everything that you say in your post, I have been wondering lately of the disconnect between early adopters taking advantage of opportunities at the margin and mass change/adoption. Let me explain. There are certain advantages to concentration of economic activity and businesses, government, etc. into downtowns, government centers, entertainment districts etc. While technology is reducing the importance of location and proximity it will still be important in the foreseeable future. So at the margin, there is room and opportunities for pioneers to move close to these centers (e.g. Tampa’s inner core) in order to walk/bike/transit to meet their needs. However, if EVERYONE were to decide to do this there simply would not be enough housing stock to do so (and still have the concentration of businesses, etc.) AND the rents and cost of housing in these areas would sky rocket. We are already seeing increased costs of housing both in close in areas and within walk and bike of rail stations. Now, if in the long term economic activity disperses to the point that everyone can live within walk/bike/transit then we loose the synergy and economies of scale of the concentrated activity. Hmmm, what to do.

    Note, that simply requiring an increased mix of housing to commercial in mixed use developments may or may not reduce the commuting because the housing provided needs to match the type of employees that the commercial use will attract. mall workers won’t live in high end condominiums provided as part of a retail center, $100k plus scientists are not likely to live in single bedroom apartments provided as part of a research park.

    JAB

    • Erin Chantry December 9, 2012 at 10:38 PM #

      Hi There! Yes, you make some good points. Of course as I mentioned, affordability in some cities certain is an issue. But the truth is that most of us don’t live in the cities that exemplify it. I think the simplest of replies would be that in theory, as the core continues to urbanize, the city would essentially consume suburbia. There area where businesses would locate would become larger and there would be more opportunity to live near your work. Infill development would also allow transit to be more efficient and feasible. And in that case, people would be more likely to get out of their cars because it would no longer be the easiest way to get around…. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and reading! :) Erin

  2. Jim Bunch December 10, 2012 at 2:07 PM #

    It’s interesting, because in Washington DC we are experiencing regentrification and a shift in policy to support reduced parking and increased bicycling and walking. This is causing significant debate and friction between long time residents and those moving into old neighborhoods that embrace the new sustainable life styles. It is also resulting in increased housing prices close to transit and desirable near in neighborhoods. see: http://mobilitylab.org/2012/12/07/affordable-housing-needed-in-areas-with-transit-access-to-jobs-brookings-institution/

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