Suburbia Is Destroying Our Climate — And Our Communities
BY EMMA SIMON
In current discussions surrounding climate-friendly transportation, a frustrating amount of attention is given to electric vehicles. Electric cars will not solve our problems, social or environmental in nature. In fact, most electric SUVs don’t mitigate carbon emissions at all. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production found that “CO2 emissions of new cars are substantially reduced only in the scenario that assumes lower motorization.” With this in mind, the conversation on sustainable transportation needs to instead be directed towards public transportation, bike lanes, safe and walkable sidewalks, carpool lanes, and zoning liberation.
California urban planners have a horrible tendency to expand city development outwards rather than inwards. As a result, it can take up to over an hour just to drive across Los Angeles, and transportation is responsible for half of all greenhouse emissions within California. For too long, local development-opposing NIMBYs have perpetuated the myth that expanding low-density suburbs is preferable to investing in city-centric development, when in fact the opposite is true.
The car-dominated streets of today negatively affect our mental health; climate-friendly infrastructure and transportation initiatives will create a happier, healthier country.
Multi-lane highways, parking lots transformed from parks, and the idleness of slow traffic are all contributing to a culture of isolation and loneliness. Compared with car-oriented suburbs, walkable neighborhoods offer more opportunities for social and community engagement because of their ability to enable interaction amongst residents, even if it is just in passing.
In his book The Great Good Place, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg talks about the importance of “third space”s separate from home and work. These places can be coffee shops, churches, bars, bookstores, or anywhere else for the public to gather. Oldenburg insists that a good third place encourages people to simply exist — to sit, talk, meet people — with no pressure to buy or do. They are the hearts of communities, and the thing is, U.S. suburban sprawl has created neighborhoods devoid of them. Today major cities tend to be the only communities with well-developed town squares, and even those are becoming less popular as technology decentivizes shopping, eating, or meeting friends at local gathering places. Opportunities to naturally interact with the community are greatly diminished, and the health of the entire community suffers. There is a good reason the happiest years of so many lives take place in college — most universities are prime examples of walkable communities.
In comparison with student life, nearly 40% of U.S. workers travel more than 30 minutes to get to their workplace, and the average one-way commute reached an all-time high in 2019. The average driver spends 55 minutes each day behind the wheel. This is not only an environmental nightmare, but a devastating blow to necessary social community, especially considering less than 10% of people carpool to work.
As a culture, we have not only normalized this wasteful lifestyle, but in fact encouraged it through financially irresponsible subsidies. Walkable mixed-use developments consistently make much more money per acre for the city than commercial businesses with sprawling parking lots do. Not Just Bikes explains this concept well in this video analyzing the growth of major cities. As cities “update” their infrastructure by adding more parking lots, roads, and spacious cul-de-sac neighborhoods, taxes increase for everyone, often by significant amounts, to fund this wasteful way of living. Time and time again, car culture leads to municipal bankruptcy. Despite this, a significant portion of our country’s GDP goes towards maintaining this culture and zoning laws have made it nearly impossible to build the mixed-use neighborhoods needed to reverse the financial damage caused by suburbs.
The relationship between housing density and GDP contribution mirrors the relationship between housing density and emissions footprint. Higher income, low-density neighborhoods are significantly less climate friendly than transit-friendly dense neighborhoods towards downtowns. This pattern is shown clearly in the interactive climate impact map created by the New York Times.
Building mixed-use developments, rather than car-dependent sprawling suburbs, will therefore solve two problems at once in cities: affordability and sustainability.
Many urban planners believe 15-minute cities are the future. These communities are built upon the assumption that essential urban services (including supermarkets, primary schools, pharmacies, and public parks) should be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from all city residents. Lots of cities (including Melbourne, Copenhagen, Portland, and Glasgow) have set goals of specific time periods to improve neighborhood access to important amenities. By building inwards, rather than outwards, these cities are furthering important investments in the future of their communities as well as the climate.
When we ignore the values of community-driven infrastructure, development is directed towards larger roads to support the millions of new cars registered each year, but to what end? It doesn’t make sense financially; gas taxes are no longer enough to support the Highway Trust Fund, so roads don’t pay for themselves. Government subsidies have bridged this gap. Continued road development is also dangerous. Charles Marohn, a civil municipal engineer, abandoned his career designing and building suburban streets when he realized the harm it was doing to communities. He shares his inside scoop on the dangers inherent in municipal road design in his book Confessions of a Recovering Engineer (here it is in a nutshell). Engineering standards prioritize above all else a road’s capacity to support two cars traveling at the maximum speed limit in opposite directions. Rarely is it questioned why this is a necessary feature in suburban neighborhoods.
The science, once again, is not on the side of the cars. Narrower, slower streets dramatically reduce accidents and fatalities, but U.S. state and municipal governments seem intent on building the exact opposite. As a result, children in the U.S. are much more likely to die or be injured by cars than in other well-developed nations. Another public health study found that traffic deaths are 50% more likely to occur in sprawling metropolitan areas than high-density areas.
The U.S. is one of the only countries to show an increase in traffic deaths since the start of the pandemic. As our neighbors develop safer regulations and habits, we are moving in the opposite direction. Our infatuation with driving is (literally) killing us. This is due in part to the prevalence of large SUV-like vehicles in the U.S., but also to subtler national decisions: “comparatively low fuel taxes encourage more driving, as do land use patterns that force many residents to commute to distant job centers.” In order to protect pedestrians, we must encourage a departure from the idea that car-centrism is the norm.
So why don’t we have walkable or bikeable communities? It’s not due to careless planning. U.S. cities were designed by executives profiting from the motor industry to be purposefully reliant on cars. Take Los Angeles as an example. Believe it or not, the city used to have some of the best public transportation in the world. That was, until the 1940’s, when the city’s electric railway system was bought out by National City Lines, a corporation funded by investors such as General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and Standard Oil Company. By the time these companies and more were eventually convicted of violating antitrust laws and attempting to form a transportation monopoly, it was too late. Cars had won the city’s transportation battle, and the pattern of corruption persisted across the nation.
To this day, any progress against this existing system of infrastructure is fought tooth and nail by NIMBYs. Suburbanites prop up exclusive zoning laws and parking mandates that prevent the development of mixed-use walkable neighborhoods. The zoning liberation movement grows as taxes throughout the city increase to account for the massive amounts of municipal dollars lost on these developments.
Just recently, San Jose became the largest U.S. city to eliminate parking minimums, meaning developers are not required to build parking. This opens up possibilities for a future where space for people is prioritized over space for cars.
Some proponents of new urban developments imagine a future where cars are obsolete. It is just as feasible, however, to implement city designs that allow for vehicle use without becoming dependent on it. In Utah, plans for a new 15-minute-city include 40,000 parking spots, all inside or underground, out of view from pedestrians. This leaves space available for wider paths, outdoor dining, and greenways that enhance community. Without having to make space for cars, all city amenities are within close proximity and enjoyable to walk between.
Federal legislation is also contributing to a growing acceptance of alternatives to car-centric transportation systems. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee highway bill increases pedestrian safety provisions and increases funding to bike sharing and mass transit. Unfortunately, it falls short of addressing the heart of the issue (cars). In fact, it grants $220 billion to highway development programs. It also fails to include any provisions for metro system carbon emission targets.
It is unproductive to blame individuals for a problem that is systemic in nature. The U.S. obsession with car-centric lifestyle is a result of decades of compounding financial decisions. In order to begin a new era, one where the environment and mental wellbeing are prioritized alongside the economy, more than individual lifestyles will have to change. The federal government and influential corporations must invest in U.S. infrastructure anew, and bring community-driven development back to the people.