Planning for our future

This blog post was co-authored by Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council and is also posted on NRDC's blog Switchboard.

 

If you were a resident of Washington, D.C., in 2000 and still live in the District today, you may have noticed the number of cars in the city has dropped significantly. Between 2000 and 2008, the population of D.C. grew 3 percent (more than 18,000), while the number of registered automobiles dropped almost 8 percent (nearly 19,000 cars and light trucks). A recent Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP) report highlighted one of the reasons for this shift in how we get around: more and more people now prefer to live in walkable communities.

Inspired by an article on the National Building Museum’s website and CCAP’s report, we thought it was important to highlight to our readers that smart growth is not new and that it does work. While it’s not the only answer to meeting our energy security and climate goals, as the Pew Center highlights in its recent report, its role is critical.

The public’s demand for walkable communities is the prime determinant of the role transportation and land use planning will play in our future cities and towns. Many people see the co-benefits of living in cities like Washington including easy access to the arts, work, shopping, and even a Nationals game. Though it’s still not for everyone, the last 10 years show us that shifts are occurring. More people are making the choice to live in D.C. without a car. Washington is one of the few places in the country where more people take transit to work than drive. This kind of shift can only happen with the coordination of all levels of government. With our diverse geography, Americans desire a wide range of lifestyles and communities. Our representative government can do a lot to build communities that meet the diverse needs of its citizens.

Federal entities, like the Department of Transportation, have an obligation to adapt to changing public needs to fulfill their mission, and this will be no small feat. For decades, we built communities further and further from city centers, creating thousands of suburbs and exurbs to accommodate our growing population. However, mass transit systems have allowed some communities to avoid this growth pattern. For instance, this excellent map from transportpolitic.com shows that much of the growth in Arlington County, Virginia, in the last decade occurred along Washington Metro’s orange line. And as noted in an official report last year, Arlington County’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita from transportation remained virtually flat from 2000 to 2007 because of this transit-oriented development. What happened in Arlington County is a great example of the benefits of coordinating transportation and land use planning. In this Congress, there are opportunities to encourage more work like this in surface transportation reauthorization.

The good news is that on Monday the President unveiled a bold conceptual framework for renewing U.S. transportation policy that includes new investments and initiatives supportive of location-efficient and transit-oriented development and achieving carbon pollution reductions. For example, the new policy architecture would more than double funding for public transportation and include competitive, performance-based “Livable Communities” and “Transportation Leadership Awards” programs (for more detail on the Administration’s framework and ideas, click here). And a recent white paper by the Pew Center makes some recommendations that are aligned with this new proposal, including funding that supports coordination between transportation and land use planners in addition to other opportunities through the multiyear bill to reduce transportation’s impact on climate change. These ideas aren’t pie in the sky but are proving effective in walkable neighborhoods across the country, as residents and workers in Washington and Arlington County would readily confirm.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow