Smart Urban Transportation II: Making Suburbs Car-Free

Increasing mass transit systems like light rail and rapid bus routes and making them work better within a framework that also includes pedestrian and bike traffic reduces the number of vehicles in cities to make them easier for everyone to navigate and live in. But with suburban sprawl such a huge problem all over the world, it makes sense to address the transportation problems within these outlying areas as well.

Joel Kotkin, executive editor of New Geography, points out that an underreported trend, working in home offices, makes good energy sense for workers and companies. At the same time businesses can save money by reducing the size of the physical office through a pool of telecommuters, the workers themselves will save the cost of fuel:

fuel "The potential energy savings --- particularly in terms of vehicle miles traveled --- could be enormous. Telecommuters naturally drive less, not only to work but for the numerous stops to and from work. According to the 2005/2006 National Technology Readiness Survey (NTRS), the United States could save about 1.35 billion gallons of fuel if everyone who was able to telecommute did so just 1.6 days per week. That calculation is based on a driving average of 20 miles per day, getting 21 miles per gallon.

A more recent study by Sun Microsytems, which uses telecommuting extensively, found that, by eliminating commuting half the week, an employee saves 5,400 kilowatt hours --- even accounting for home office use. They also can save some $1,700 a year in gasoline and wear and tear." - NewGeography.com

Besides the substantial cut in emissions, telecommuting can increase quality of life benefits, too. Families obviously benefit from the flexible scheduling most telecommuting positions allow, but all employees - whether parents or childless - are going to have more chances to build strong communities if they're not spending most of the day in an office far from home.

Those neighborhoods, too, will hopefully grow stronger as smart growth planners look to put city amenities like community centers, museums, employment opportunities and sustainable shopping districts into the sprawling subdivisions, converting them into mixed-use neighborhoods like the New Urbanist ones in development now. Andy Kunz, director of NewUrbanism.org and NewTrains.org, describes the New Urbanist community this way:

"New Urbanism is the revival of the lost art of place making and town building. It is a set of principles that brings walkable urbanism back to life, and makes cities back into viable places to live and enjoy life. New Urbanism was a reaction to the destruction of American cites by 60 years of building sprawl - single use, spread out places where walking is impossible and a car is required." - Treehugger

Turning an existing single-use suburb into a walkable, mixed-use community - called "retrofitting" - is bound to be less straightforward than building one from the ground up, but it's not impossible. Consider the case of Suisun City, California, a stagnant town of empty storefronts back in 1989:

"Suisun City's residents, businesses, and elected officials agreed on a common vision for their town's future. Clean-up polluted Suisun Channel and make the waterfront a focal point of their town, they said. Re-establish historic Main Street as a social and retail gathering place. Strengthen municipal finances by encouraging tax-generating commercial development such as retail shops and restaurants along Main Street and the waterfront." - Smart Growth

sprawl There's no question that suburbs in their current incarnation no longer make sense - if they ever did - in light of what we know about climate change and non-renewable energy resources. For grumpy commuters and busy families, they stopped making sense a long time ago. But David Holmgren, who co-founded the Permaculture movement in Australia in the 1970's, discusses much more personal ways to reduce car dependence and foster a sense of community as well. And at the individual level, the qualities of sprawl can make personal suburban retrofits easier:

"'Suburban sprawl' in fact give us an advantage. Detached houses are easy to retrofit, and the space around them allows for solar access and space for food production. A water supply is already in place, our pampered, unproductive ornamental gardens have fertile soils and ready access to nutrients, and we live in ideal areas with mild climates, access to the sea, the city and inland country."

So what do we have to do to make it work? Basically, the answer is "Just do it!" Use whatever space is available and get producing. Involve the kids - and their friends. Make contact with neighbours and start to barter. Review your material needs and reduce consumption. Share your home - by bringing a family member back or taking in a lodger, for example.

Creatively and positively work around regulatory impediments, aiming to help change them in the longer term. Pay off your debts. Work from home. And above all, retrofit your home for your own sustainable future, not for speculative monetary gain." - Energy Bulletin

The landscapes are changing, and so are the old concepts of transportation. Interestingly, what's good for the global climate appears to be good for the human spirit, too.

Related Reading:
Smart Urban Transportation: Transforming Existing Systems
Redesigning Urban Transport

Image Credits:
Amy the Nurse
The Prodigal Untitled 13
tlindenbaum

1 comment

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Light Rail Blogger (anonymous)

As you may have heard, Phoenix now has light rail service. There were many people who predicted the new mass transit service here in the Valley would never catch on.
Light rail service is almost a month old and many days it's standing room only on the trains.
Popularity aside, I thought it would be fun to blog about the daily adventure of riding the light rail and living carfree in Phoenix. I'm trying it for a month.
I'm also trying to promote a more walkable neighborhood and finding it hard to locate basic stores within walking distance.
I'm glad Phoenix has light rail. Hopefully more business owners will set up shop along the line to create more of a neighborhood feel along the line.

Written in January 2009

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  • Posted on Jan. 21, 2009. Listed in:

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