Public Transit, Urban Density No Climate Panacea

HarvardBridge trafficjam_1923
Harvard Bridge traffic jam, 1923, courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.


A recently published Boston University Study
shows that better public transit systems and more bicycle lanes in the urban cores of dense cities are no guarantee for lower carbon emissions. Due to population growth in suburbs, driving to work from the suburbs and back remains a preferred way of transportation.

The study, however, is the first to map CO2 emissions over a time-frame of more than 30 years, between 1980 and 2012. The decrease or increase of emissions depend on a variety of mechanisms. As such, insightful conclusions can be drawn to either implement new strategies, conduct and map more detailed research, or continue development of possible solutions.

AnneKrieg
Anne M Krieg,

We asked Anne M Krieg, AICP and director of planning, economy and community development in Bridgton, Cumberland County (Maine), for some comments on the issues presented in that study.

She and her husband Rob moved their family to Maine in 2002. They lived in Boston, Massachusetts, for many years, but wanted their children to grow up in a different and more healthy environment. Krieg applied for a job in the town of Bar Harbor, where she held the position of planning and developing director for nine years before moving on to a new challenge in Bridgton.

“Now what we see is people migrating back to the city to live and work, but they still drive; they don’t use public transportation. I think we have a long way to go to convince people to use mass transit to get to work or to go shopping even. People drive into Boston, for example, to go shopping. They don’t get on a train,” Krieg explained. “So, it’s not just commuters who drive in and out; it’s people in general who still use their cars for errands and anything else they do in their daily lives to take them from one place to another.”

Shopping as an increased leisure activity is one of the reasons why people still use their own cars. It’s far less accommodating to get on a train with packages and bags. If people go out to buy small furniture, they can easily take it home in the trunk of their cars; they won’t for a minute consider using public transportation.

Grand Central Terminal, New York.
Grand Central Terminal, New York.

The study shows that metropoles like New York, already densely populated 30 years ago, developed a quicker drop in CO2 emissions compared to cities that grew dense in recent years. Why? Because the public transport infrastructure in New York was there before the urban core grew in population and activity. The urban core was designed to suit convenient and walkable mobility rather than to embrace commuting via cars alone.

Krieg reflected on the fact that life in New York City is also expensive. It was rated the sixth most expensive city in the world on a website for expats. “If we take in account the market mechanism, this affects a lot of things. When more people migrate to the city, housing costs rise, prices go up. I’ve seen prices of US$1,800 rent in New York, for a space no bigger than a closet.

Folks with middle and lower income can’t afford to live in the city center, so they’re being pushed out and forced to live not just in the suburbs, but in what we call an exurb: a suburb that’s more than 30 miles away from work or from where it takes more than an hour to commute, even longer with mass transit. So, people naturally prefer to drive into work. Offices and jobs are still in the city, which is great for networking and business, but it’s too expensive to be living in town.”

How can urban planners influence behavior or positive change when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions?

“It is very complicated, because for the last decade, as planners, we were trying to push jobs back to the urban core and out of the suburban wings. Everybody still has to commute to the city to get to their job. We’re kind of in a catch 22, because if we have jobs being created in the suburbs so folks have a shorter commute, we would be creating a sprawl situation as opposed to a dense, urban compact area.

“The answer is having better mass transit and having it made a priority.

“Also, there shouldn’t be just transits in and out of the city, but around it, connecting suburbs and other areas. In the United States, mass transit is not a priority and is highly debated. People see it as wasteful spending, so we’re constantly debating its value. In Europe, it’s just part of your day. Over here, we have a different psyche, there’s a big cultural difference. I noticed it when my family and I [visited] Spain last year. Everybody just gets up and walks out to wherever they have to go, or they take the train. There are cars, obviously, but traffic is not as congested as it is here in the States. Not even in Barcelona.”

Incentives to why offices and businesses are built and stay in urban cores rather than in suburban areas may also differ. “If you have a law firm, you’d naturally want to be near the courthouse. which is usually in the city itself,” said Krieg, “and obviously for a business, they’ve invested in their office buildings. They won’t just pack it all up and go. A lot of times, those decisions are made by the CEO or president of a company for random reasons, or simply because they like to be in the city.

“In [Camden, Maine], we had a huge credit company that was there for a long time. It had nothing to do with economic incentive, but because they wanted to live there. Some of the suburban locations, like in the Boston area we talked about earlier, were chosen by the presidents of the companies. They didn’t want to commute into Boston; they wanted to be closer to home. And land prices in the suburbs were a lot lower in the ’60s and ’70s, so they located there for that reason.”

CoreyTempleton_SharetheRoad

It would be a hard sell to try and get companies to move from the city to the suburbs in order to lower carbon dioxide emissions and cut on commuting. They would need other, more convincing reasons. Whereas the future is concerned, Krieg thinks it will be interesting to see how the market will deal with it.

“My prediction is: It will be somewhat of a boomerang effect. Prices will go higher in metropolitan cities causing for people and companies to relocate to second cities. Instead of Phoenix, it will be Santa Fé. Or instead of New York, not Philadelphia, but Pittsburgh. It still very much offers the urban life people want, but not as expensive. And we have seen a huge millennial push to those cities.

“Buffalo, New York is an example. It doesn’t have a lot to offer, but you can get a beautiful period home from the twenties for a reasonable sum of money. I think that generation will probably be the ones to take a look at those second cities and create new terms and conditions.”

Image credits: 1) Flickr – Boston Public Library 2) Brad Clinesmith 3) Anne Krieg and 4) Corey Templeton.

Gina Vodegel

Gina Vodegel (1963) is a freelance writer-journalist from Dutch Indo-European descent. She grew up in Maastricht in the Netherlands and moved to Belgium more than a decade ago where she enjoys rural life with a bundle of furry friends (dogs and cats) she rescued herself. She's a contributing editor for Puurzaam Magazine, a quarterly magazine issued by the Gulpener Beerbrewery, located in the south. They're a small family brewery who were the first in the Netherlands to implement sustainable energy in their production process. They won several awards for their beers and were granted the Dutch CSR Award in 2014. Puurzaam Magazine explores theme-wise covering 3BL and kindred topics.