Polar bears for smarter growth

Hello readers! I’m Alex, a new addition to the Smart Growth America staff. I’ll be posting regularly here on the SGA blog and look forward to reading your feedback and comments!

A polar bear and his LEAF driver, from Grist

Maybe you’ve seen it: a new commerical by automaker Nissan featuring the company’s latest car, a meandering polar bear and global climate change. The car in question is the Nissan LEAF, “the first 100% electric, no gas, no tailpipe vehicle.” Nissan certainly seems to be seeking the support of the eco-conscious set here, both with the commercial and the car itself. But in a post yesterday about the LEAF, Grist writer Jonathan Hiskes astutely notes that zero-emissions or not, no car is going to be as green as public transit options:

An electric car might be superior to the gas-burner you own now, except that it still takes plenty of embodied energy to produce a new car … Finding a way to avoid commuting altogether — through telecommuting or living closer to your workplace — would seem to warrant an even bigger bear favor … Moving to a neighborhood with a high Walk Score and Transit Score — which cuts the need for all sorts of driving, not just work commutes — deserves a real act of kindness.

Hiskes is right: the solution here is not just more fuel-efficient cars but building places where people can accomplish more with less driving. Research shows that people who move in to compact, “green neighborhoods” are making as big a contribution to fighting global warming as those who buy the most efficient hybrid vehicles, but remain in car-dependent areas.

There are big economic gains to this type of development too, both for families and communities. A 2005 report from the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) found that the average household spends 19% of its income on transportation, with the auto-dependent exurbs spending a whopping 25% of their income on transportation. But households with good access to public transit spend just 9% of their income on transportation – a huge savings, especially when times are tough. Towns and communities also see economic benefits to smarter growth development. Studies show that the presence of transit can increase property values and result in valuable development opportunities in downtown corridors. As the U.S. recovers from an economic downturn, investing in transit is worth more than just bus fare.

To everyone who was able to run an errand on foot or take the bus to work today: you deserve a polar bear hug! When the environmental option is also good for your wallet – and the local economy – it’s easy to see change happen fast.