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The Density Imperative
Aside from a few conspiracy nuts who think that traditional neighborhood developments are a plot by the United Nations to turn us into a communist collective, new urbanism is gaining acceptance across political and cultural boundaries. There’s an understanding, especially at the municipal government level, that automobile (and school bus) infrastructure is far more expensive than walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly urban planning. Ultimately, it’s lack of money for roads that may finish off the 1950s Levittown dream of a new neighborhood in the middle of nowhere.

And the research keeps piling up. A 2009 study of 31 neighborhoods in Canada found, as Lloyd Alter of puts it, that even “people living in big drafty 19th century homes in the city used less energy overall than those in the suburbs.” Alex Wilson, founder of, says the difference may be as high as 30% more overall energy used for buildings in the burbs.

For an urban city to effectively reduce the transportation energy footprint, however, it needs to be well designed: “a mix of transit-oriented development, walkability, and historicity,” Alter says. Why historic? Apparently, “heritage” neighborhoods tend to score higher than modern neighborhoods on the walkability index. And it’s getting easier to measure that metric. He notes that an organization called the Center for Neighborhood Technology now uses Google Maps to measure walkability quickly and efficiently.

Alongside the evidence that urbanized, transit friendly neighborhoods offer the lightest lifestyle footprint, another study from Jonathan Rose Companies ( drives the point still further home. That study suggests that even high-level LEED certified communities in the suburbs can’t go toe-to-toe with leaky old urban multi-family homes. And if you add green construction to the city dwellings, the suburbs get trounced.

Mean Streets
The shape of our future transportation is being shaped by turbulent forces from both above and below: on the top, a status quo dominated media and carefully groomed politicians have helped trigger a perfect storm of budget-slashing politics. From below, declining wages and environmental outrage have people looking at drastic shifts in where and how they live.

The next question is whether they’ll have any options available. Suburbs are notoriously poor options for public transit. But as politicians tighten the squeeze on money for education, social services, health care and care of the elderly, will transit get a bigger piece of the federal pie? Short term prospects don’t look good.

Governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida have loudly refused hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money for high-speed rail projects. Their objection: they might have to subsidize operation of the completed rail system. Instead, they want to use the money to maintain the status quo–to fix auto roads and bridges.

But by thumbing their noses at public transit in favor of private vehicle ownership, these politicians are reinforcing a system that keeps the heavy lifting of transportation on the backs of taxpayers. The private sector already pays far more out of pocket for transportation than the government’s share. The Surface Transport Policy Partnership ( reports that “households spent more than five times as much of their own money on transportation—more than $675 billion—as the government spent on all roads, highways, and transit systems combined ($128 billion).”

You can see how government austerity measures and public desperation may slam head-on into each other. People earning less money each year can’t afford to maintain the status quo of auto ownership and insurance. More transit is needed, along with smarter building and redevelopment of the metropolitan fringe. Density is back.

Any transportation planner can tell you there’s no single solution to streamlining how people get around. New technology such as digital scheduling and mobile metro apps can make transit more efficient. But success stories like Portland, Ore., don’t happen by accident. Conscious planning and genuine concern for the public good has to drive the transition to a more eco-friendly future.

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