Benefits of compact, car-free cities

Worldchanging

Tokyo Green Space examines the ecological and human benefit of reimagining cities with a focus on people and natural environments. I was interested to read a provocative article recently in Business Week entitles: “Cities: A Smart Alternative to Cars.”

The author Alex Steffen of Worldchanging argues that rebuilding cities into walkable places through in-fill and zoning changes might be more realistic and faster than the typical 16 year cycle to replace 90% of the United States automobile fleet. His definition of a new urban city is one in which daily driving is not a necessity and many people can live without private car ownership.

It is interesting that confronted with climate change, some hope that technological change will allow Americans to live as we have for the past thirty years with no change: zero emissions vehicles allowing for the same transportation patterns, and new building materials to permit the same massive housing structures. It’s analogous to finding a pharmaceutical cure for the effects of obesity without changing the foods we eat or the energy we exert.

The costs are staggering: transportation accounts for 25% of United States carbon, and 20% of that from personal transportation. There is also the environmental burden of manufacturing and disposal. I was surprised to learn that Americans spend more than 19% of household income on personal transportation, second only to housing.

Perhaps hardest for Americans to grasp is that denser, walkable cities can improve lifestyle compared to McMansions and suburbs. Well design buildings, smart infrastructure, and the community created through walking and biking could be a huge improvement to quality of life. Tokyo certainly exhibits many of the advantages of compact, transit-oriented cities where almost all daily activities are accessed by foot, transit and bike.

In addition to environmental and economic benefits, compact cities create more human interaction and community, improved public health from daily walking, and an opportunity to use public space currently devoted to vehicles for urban plants and wildlife.

(Note: I found this article on Allison Arieff twitter feed: http://twitter.com/aarieff)

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