According to the scientific community, our society is at an ecological tipping point. Humanity is faced with urgent decisions that will determine the health and well-being of future generations, and the window for action is closing fast. One key opportunity we have is to make better decisions about how we invest in our transportation system. Will many streets remain the embodiment of pollution and danger, or will we reclaim them as public spaces that enhance the community?
Since the 1950s, America’s myopic focus planning for the automobile, coupled with land use regulations that have prevented mixed use neighborhoods, has devastated our natural environment. Calculations by Richard T.T. Forman of Harvard University indicate that nearly 20% of the US’s land area is affected by roads and associated vehicular traffic. Streets and parking are usually the single largest category of impervious surface in developed areas, which contributes to the erosion and pollution of our bodies of water. In the United States, 87% of daily trips are by car, at an average distance of 40 miles per day. That amount of driving causes 50% of the nation's air pollution.
Furthermore, transportation accounts for 1/3 of US greenhouse gas emissions, making the transportation sector the leading US contributor to climate change. Despite more efficient vehicles, the transportation sector used 17% more energy in 2005 than it did in 1995; our current trend of rising vehicle miles traveled in the US will negate, if not overwhelm, future improvements in automobile fuel economy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Improving our transportation system, beginning with the street in front of your house, can prevent the many dangers posed by climate change.
The good news is that America is experiencing a sea change. Communities are quickly recognizing the benefits of livable communities and a comprehensive transportation system. Virginia, for example, recently passed legislation aimed at preventing cul-de-sacs in new subdivisions, which will promote connectivity and walkability. New York City has added hundreds of miles of bike lanes over the past few years alone. Phoenix just opened a brand new light-rail system, while Portland continues to expand theirs. San Francisco will launch their Sunday Streets program this spring, where several streets will be closed one day a week to cars for sole use by pedestrians and cyclists. And our office is working with officials and communities in upstate New York to develop a community based transit system on one of the state’s most congested corridors, along with many other similar projects.
The widespread excitement about these projects clearly demonstrates a latent demand for a new approach to transportation in America and a strong need for higher and better uses of the public realm. We are pleased to know that dozens more projects like these are planned for the near future, perhaps in your community. If your community is not active in reducing the ecological footprint of its transportation system, perhaps you can begin the process now.
The federal government has also signaled they are now a willing partner. The Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced their Livable Communities initiative, which will coordinate federal housing policies with federal transportation investments to provide transportation alternatives for Americans spanning the socioeconomic spectrum. And despite the current economic climate, federal spending on Safe Routes to School programs is also on the rise, as is spending on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Federal Complete Streets legislation is also pending, which, if approved, would ensure an increase in the number of sidewalks, bike lanes, and public space improvements across the country. Complete streets are a commendable first step, but creating great streets requires a greater set of partners thinking about land use, architecture, and public space management. This type of partnership is especially important for getting the most benefit from limited resources.
All of these large and small changes at the local, state, and federal levels are needed to reduce the ecological footprint of our transportation system. Numerous studies and modeling efforts have revealed that walkable communities with high-quality destinations, connected street networks and comfortable pedestrian accommodations can reduce the amount we drive by 25-60%. But aiming to create more walkable neighborhoods also presents a greater opportunity. If we approach the changes to our transportation system with places in mind, we can revitalize our communities, health, economy, and overall quality of life.