Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change: Vision California

A future San Jose Diridon Station with high-speed rail. Image: CHSRA
A future San Jose Diridon Station with high-speed rail. Image: CHSRA

Editor’s note: This week and next, we’re presenting a 5-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” This is installment number two. Thanks to Island Press, a few lucky Streetsblog readers will be selected to receive a free copy of the book. To enter the contest, fill out this form.

California’s effort to implement its new greenhouse gas reduction laws has provided a comprehensive look at urbanism and its potential in relation to a range of conservation and clean energy policies. The Vision California study, developed for the California High Speed Rail Authority and the California Strategic Growth Council, measured the results of several statewide land use futures coupled with conservation policies through the year 2050.5 The results make concrete the choices before us, the feedback loops, and the scale of both benefits and costs.

California is projected to grow by 7 million new households and 20 million people, to a population of nearly 60 million, by 2050.6 It is currently the eighth-largest economy in the world and therefore provides an important model of what is possible. The study compared a “Trend” future dominated by the state’s now typical low-density suburban growth and conservative conservation policies to a “Green Urban” alternative. This Green Urban alternative assumed that 35 percent of growth would be urban infill; 55 percent would be formed from a more compact, mixed-use, and walkable form of suburban expansion; and only 10 percent would be standard low-density development. In addition, the Green Urban alternative would push the auto fleet to an average 55 miles per gallon (MPG), its fuel would contain one third less carbon, and all new buildings would be 80 percent more efficient than today’s norm. It does not represent a green utopia, but it is heading in that direction. The results of this comparison highlight just how much is at stake and what the costs will be.

Remarkably, the quantity of land needed to accommodate the next two generations was reduced 67 percent by the Green Urban scenario, from more than 5,600 square miles in the Trend future to only 1,850 square miles. By comparison, the state’s current developed area is 5,300 square miles.7 This difference would save vast areas (up to 900 square miles) of farmland in the Central Valley along with key open space and habitat in the coastal regions of the state. The more compact future means smaller yards to irrigate and fewer parking lots to landscape, saving an average of 3.4 million acre-feet of water per year—enough to fill the San Francisco Bay annually or to irrigate 5 million acres of farmland.8 Less developed land also translates to fewer miles of infrastructure to build and maintain. The annual savings would be around $194 billion for the state, or $24,300 for each new household—not including the costs of ongoing maintenance. In addition, the Trend future would cost more in police and fire services as coverage areas increase.

If we are to arrest climate change at about 2° Celsius, developed countries must reduce carbon 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Meanwhile, in the U.S. alone, population is projected to increase 140 million by 2050. That means that by 2050, per capita emissions must be reduced to just 2.7 metric tons per capita. To achieve this each person in 2050 must on average emit only 12 percent of their current rate. Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel
If we are to arrest climate change at about 2° Celsius, developed countries must reduce carbon 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Meanwhile, in the U.S. alone, population is projected to increase 140 million by 2050. That means that by 2050, per capita emissions must be reduced to just 2.7 metric tons per capita. To achieve this each person in 2050 must on average emit only 12 percent of their current rate. Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel

Surprisingly, such a future would not dramatically change the range of housing choices available in the state. In fact, some would argue that the outcome would be more market responsive, providing a long overdue adjustment of housing types and prices. Specifically, while large single-family lots would decline from 40 percent of the total today to 30 percent in 2050, small-lot homes and bungalows would increase slightly and townhomes would double to 15 percent. Multifamily flats, condos, and apartments would actually end up the same, at around a third of the market. Overall, detached single-family homes would drop from 62 percent of all homes today to just over half. Many would conclude that this would be a reasonable shift, one ultimately making the housing stock more diverse and affordable—not, as some would argue, the end of the American dream.

In the Green Urban future, auto dependence drops dramatically—in fact, average vehicle miles traveled throughout the state would be reduced 34 percent, to 18,000 miles per household, from a Trend projection of 27,200. Closer destinations, better transit service, and more walkable neighborhoods all contribute to this significant shift. We would all still have cars, but they would be more efficient and we would use them less. The implication of this reduction in auto use is far-reaching. In terms of congestion, it is the equivalent of taking over 15 million cars off the road.9 There would be fewer roads and parking lots built, less land covered with impervious surface, and less runoff water to be cleaned and stored. The list of collateral benefits is long. In fact, the need for new freeways, highways, and arterials is reduced by 23,000 lane-miles, a saving of around $450 billion for the state.

Less driving means fewer accidents, in this scenario potentially saving around 3,100 lives and $5 billion in associated costs per year.10 Less driving means less air pollution and less respiratory disease.11 More walking means healthier bodies and less obesity, affecting diabetes rates and all of its associated health costs.12

Most significantly, the Green Urban scenario reduces carbon emissions and comes very close to achieving the 12% Solution in the transportation sector of the economy. When the savings in vehicle miles traveled are combined with low-carbon/high-MPG cars, emissions for transportation drop from more than 260 million metric tons (MMT) to just 29. Moreover, we would consume 352 billion fewer gallons of fuel over the next forty years, for a saving of over $2.1 trillion. These numbers are almost too big to imagine, but by way of comparison, the proposed high-speed rail system running from San Diego to San Francisco is projected to cost $42 billion, less than one-fifth the value of the potential annual gas savings. Put simply, at a projected $8 per gallon in 2050, these gas savings represent around $6,100 in savings per household.

There is more. The efficient and compact buildings of urban development use less energy, produce fewer greenhouse gases, and cost less to operate. The carbon reduction in the building sector is projected to be over 62 percent less, not enough to achieve its share of the 12% Solution but a significant and necessary step. In total, the average household in the Green Urban future would save around $1,000 a year in utility payments. When this figure is combined with reduced auto ownership, maintenance, insurance, and gas costs, California households would save close to $11,000 a year in current dollars. With an interest rate of 5 percent in 2050, this could pay a mortgage of $200,000.

What is not to like in such a Green Urban future? For some, exactly the thing that makes most of these savings possible: a more urban life.

From Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, Chapter 1, by Peter Calthorpe. Copyright @ 2011 Peter Calthorpe. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Notes:

5. Information about the assumptions, methodology, and results of the Vision California study and modeling tools can be found here.
6. California Department of Finance, “Population Projections by Race,” State of California. (accessed February 12, 2010).
7. Natural Resources Conservation Service, “National Resources Inventory 2003 Annual NRI,” U.S. Department of Agriculture. (accessed February 12, 2010).
8. San Francisco Bay estimate based on William Emerson Ritter and Charles Atwood Kofoid, eds., University of California Publications in Zoology, vol. 14 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1918), 22; agricultural data from Economic Research Service, “Western Irrigated Agriculture,” U.S. Department of Agriculture. (accessed April 1, 2010).
9. Research and Innovative Technology Administration, “Table 5-3: Highway Vehicle-Miles Traveled (VMT),” Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (accessed February 12, 2010).
10. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “National Transportation Statistics 2009” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, 2009), table 2-1. The fatality rate per mile traveled is assumed to hold consistent from 2009 until 2050. Hospital costs data from National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, “The Economic Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes 2000” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, 2002), 60.
11. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “National Air Quality: Status and Trends through 2007” (Research Triangle Park, NC: EPA, 2008).
12. David R. Bassett Jr. et al., “Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia,” Journal of Physical Activity and Health 5 (2008): 795–814.

  • I’m intrigued by this one absolute statement/over-generalization in Peter’s description of the Green Urban scenario:

    “We would all still have cars, but they would be more efficient and we would use them less.”

    I realize that Peter is describing a report’s findings, so I’m won’t attribute this statement to his thinking, but either way it is something that stuck out. Why, if neighborhoods are truly improving for pedestrians, are becoming more dense, and if public transit becomes more widely available, would we “all still have cars”? Is this a product of the folks putting together the study not wanting to touch on scary cultural memes likes ‘bikes-not-cars’?

    In Dennis and Urry’s recent book “After the Car” there is a similar elision of other modes, particularly biking, about which they are explicit–to paraphrase the book, they argue that the bicycle is not a viable option (even when integrated and used with mass transit) for replacing the car; they argue instead that some new ‘car-like’ but also post-car system will replace the current one. At least they get to this point, and they hold open the possibility for such things as widespread car-sharing systems, while the green urban scenario, according to the account Peter gives above, does not.

    I’m intrigued by the disconnect between broad policy and academic discussions of our transportation future (like the CA study’s GU scenario and Urry and Kinsley’s book) and city, county, and even state-level efforts to make cycling a more viable and common-sense solution for many people’s needs. It seems to me as if bicycling as a mode does not past the reality-test for the former authors/studies. Why is biking seemingly DOA for these folks?

    – Justin

  • Al

    I don’t see why a widespread car sharing system would be incompatible with the green urban scenario above. People will still move furniture and such. It’s just that driving will become more the exception than the norm, and car sharing can accommodate that perfectly well.

    I do think that it’s silly to expect that people will still all have personal cars even if they use them rarely. Of course they won’t. That’s even true today, let alone in the future. People are fairly rational. If the cost of buying and storing is greater than the occasional car share fees, most people won’t buy.

  • The problem with Peter Calthorpe is the disconnect between his writings and the kinds of projects he builds. For example, his plans to pave over Redwood City wetlands with new suburbs. And even Laguana West subdivision in Sacramento, which was supposed to be the “New Urbanism” but is just another car-dependent suburb.

  • @Drunk Engineer: Peter Calthorpe is not a developer–he designs projects based on a set of parameters and constraints given to him by developers and local governments. Look at Stapleton or Daybreak: Calthorpe cannot control if local zoning laws mandate a two car garage for every single family household, or if developers will only build at low densities because the transit line he was told to plan around was delayed. Yet despite these constraints, he designs communities that do reduce VMT and GHG emissions and do serve as an alternative to suburban sprawl.

    If anything, the SaltWorks project demonstrates his strong commitment to his ideals. San Mateo County will face the second-worst housing shortage in the Bay Area over the next 25 years, and there aren’t many places to put new housing. We will need to make tough choices if we truly are to stick to SB-375. Whether or not the SaltWorks EIR holds up is another story and has nothing to do with Calthorpe, but if it does, then the 50-50 split for the already filled site is a reasonable compromise between two very important environmental issues.

  • TrueFreedom

    The layout in the picture looks cool. The space between buildings is large enough and the walking areas are wide enough (and some away from streets) that it would feel comfortable.

    PROBLEM: here in LA, we are so built out, that planners and developers take these “new urbanism” ideas and squeeze it in all so tight… space between buildings is minimal.. apartments have views of other apartment walls. Sidewalks are so narrow you can’t walk two abreast and you’re only five feet from speeding cars.

    So, nice in theory but so far I’ve only seen piss-poor implementation.

  • Carter R

    Thanks for the compelling vision!

  • The Transportation Component Isn’t Green

    In order to mitigate climate disruption, by 2050 we need to reduce GHGs by at least 80%, and since some uses (plastics) are likely to continue, transportation GHGs may need to decline by about 90%.

    In order to accomplish that, almost all passenger vehicles and a majority of freight will need to be off fossil fuels; 56 MPG is nowhere close. A greener scenario would be a 95% electric car fleet, majority of passenger trips by electrified transit and non-motorized modes, and most freight by electrified trains and electric trucks for last mile solutions.

  • James Fujita

    Japan has one of the largest rail transit networks on Earth, with subways, commuter trains and high-speed rail everywhere.

    Japan manufactures millions of automobiles, and even has a highly-developed car-enthusiast culture.

    The above two statements are not contradictory. The two modes of transportation are not mutually exclusive. Deal with it.

  • garyg

    Remarkably, the quantity of land needed to accommodate the next two generations was reduced 67 percent by the Green Urban scenario

    So, Vision California would require a tripling of the business-as-usual density of new development over the next 40 years and a 34% reduction in VMT. Not a chance.

    What is not to like in such a Green Urban future?

    I like the technological aspects of your vision a lot. Cleaner cars and cleaner buildings. And those things are likely to happen. Indeed, they’re already starting to happen. It’s the lifestyle changes of your vision that are so unpleasant and so implausible.

  • LazyReader

    Japan may have a high-speed system, but how many people use all the lines?

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=3814

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=4399

    Urbanism is the answer to sprawl, and the idea is to provide America with wholesome and redeaming communities and cities, like say Europe? Europe isnt plagued by suburbs……..yeah right.

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=2643

  • Phil from NZ

    While “planners” have mental images of how they wish everybody to respond to the diminished total land supply they impose, “the market” behaves in quite different ways to that. What happens, is that “space” and “location” become more and more unevenly distributed along INCOME lines. The largest lots and the most efficient and convenient locations become increasingly concentrated into the hands of the highest income earners, while the distribution of land according to incomes, forces reduced SPACE as WELL as less efficiency and convenience, on people of lower and lower incomes.

    The result of this is actually lower urban efficiency, because greater numbers of households and businesses end up in inconvenient locations compared to the “lower cost land” scenario. This is because the “cost of land” is no longer purely related to its REAL wealth creating capacity, and the “cost of land” swamps “cost of transport” in location decisions instead of there being a logical trade-off between the two. Paul Cheshire of the LSE (and colleagues) estimates the “inequality” effect to be greater than that of income disparities themselves; they have 5 decades of data from British experience with anti-sprawl planning to go by. They estimate the net public welfare effect to be equivalent to a 4% income TAX. i.e. it is not a benefit at all.

    Planners pointing to the “benefits” they think they have achieved, of higher urban densities etc; need to realise that without inflated land prices, there would have been MORE density in the RIGHT places. THIS is why some analysts are starting to notice the phenomenon of “dysfunctional density”. The reason is that the “centre of gravity” of the density has been forced in INEFFICIENT directions within the city. Alain Bertaud’s studies on “The Spatial Distribution of Density” should have won him a Nobel prize; but instead, nobody has taken any notice.

    By far the most rapid improvements in efficiency of urban form, will be achieved in any city that leaves its “limits” freely open to development and hence keeps land prices low throughout the metro; AND encourages re-development at high density in the RIGHT places. Land prices tend to slope up by a factor of about 10, from the fringe to the inner suburbs (and slope up further again into the CBD). People need to be able to make the MOST efficient trade-offs between space and location, instead of being forced to make INEFFICIENT trade-offs.

    Large minimum lot sizes absolutely should be abolished, and height restrictions. The closer to the CBD, the more “incentive” there should be for developers and prospective residents. If land prices have successfully been kept from inflating at the fringe, the consequences for increases in populations numbers in inner suburbs and CBDs will be spectacular. Small apartments should be less than $200,000 instead of over a million dollars. High land prices are actually the worst enemy of the planner attempting to increase urban density for desired reasons of efficiency.

    Paul Cheshire points out that 5 decades of urban planning has been done in Britain with no input whatsoever from people who understand how markets and price signals work. The result is actually contrary to the intentions of the planners. Cheshire says that if planners had been able to allocate a “land credit” to each member of society, which could then be “traded” (like carbon credits), the results would have been at least much more equitable.

  • Phil from NZ

    We simply would not have a modern economy as we know it without “auto-mobility”. Even the term “external benefit” is really far too weak. Auto-mobility has simply been THE most major enabler of wealth creation for decades. Richard Florida is right; most of the wealth creation in the world in the last 50 years has occurred in cities. “Density” per se OBVIOUSLY does not correlate to wealth creation, otherwise Calcutta would be more prosperous than Houston. The explanatory factor here is that Houston has much higher “enabling” of economic activity between market participants; culture is one feature, but “auto-mobility” is an important one.

    Basic geographic and spatial economics teaches the connections between infrastructure, land use, incomes, and land values. Rail-based systems concentrate the value gains around “destination” stations. Roads and auto-mobility are far more “democratic” in terms of “who benefits”.

    Land prices rise at “efficient” locations, including near railway stations, to the point that eventually the number of people who can afford to live there, finds its own level. Just because planners identify demand driving land prices higher at these locations, is NOT a “case” for expecting everybody to live that way. Duplicating tracks and rail routes in an endeavour to “democratise” the benefits like roads do, is simply economically impossible – it would cost more than the total value it creates.

    Having said that, I agree that roads and parking spaces SHOULD be made to pay under simple free market principles, such that the “return on investment” matches that of the surrounding real estate. This would certainly spell doom for most roading networks in the highest-density, highest-value CBD’s. But there is a big “UNLESS” here. That is, UNLESS the owners of surrounding high value property were prepared to “pay in” to continue to enable auto-access to their properties. THIS is the missing element in funding roading in high-congestion areas.

    I have no idea what the results of such pure free market ideology might be; but I am prepared to trust it as “the most efficient solution”. The value of real estate is largely determined by the “access” there is to that real estate; if the values of the road space and the real estate space had to balance each other, I doubt that the real estate values would go anywhere near as high as they currently do due to de facto subsidised roads and parking spaces. But somewhere along the line I am convinced that the CBD property owners would see a strong case for “paying in” to the cost of the roads. THIS “subsidy” would be entirely just.

    Yes, rail transit systems might be discovered to be more viable after all, but I insist that these systems must be paid for primarily by those who will benefit, otherwise (Colin Clark states this quite definitely) the transit becomes merely a wealth transfer from those paying the subsidies, to the owners of conveniently located property (which already happens to be worth a lot due to CBD location).

    It is a mystery to me why “Geographic Economics” or “Spatial Economics” or “Urban Economics” is not a pre-requisite for the job of urban and transport planning. Take a look at THIS web page:

    http://faculty.washington.edu/krumme/450/traditions.html

    The author is Gunter Krumme, Professor Emeritus, University of Washington Seattle.

    Hayek and others insisted that the world is simply too complex for central planning. It is a mystery to me why people who set out to defy Hayek, do so without even bothering to learn from Van Thunen, let alone all the other stuff Prof. Krumme lists.

  • TrueFreedom

    The population growth will be handled mostly by infill and only 10% handled by low-density suburban type development? Sweet! My 3/4 acre lot here in Pasadena is gonna be worth a fortune! With a family of five, we only put about 4,000 miles per year on all our cars combined and I bike to work many days. Big yard, low miles. I got it sweet!

  • Jason Herring

    @TrueFreedom – Having lived in Europe I can assure you that spacing between buildings is not an impediment to having a happy life, and while narrow sidewalks are a regular occurance they don’t seem in inhibit movement much at all. One of the goals of high density is to combine it with mass transit such that there are not so many speeding cars.

    With redevelopment those issues can be largely addressed – including more one-way streets (how many European cities have dealt with a legacy of narrow roadways) providing more bikeways and wider sidewalks.

    If you have 3/4 of an acre in Pasadena I think you already have it sweet.

  • Phil from NZ

    Jason Herring:

    What I said above:

    “……roads and parking spaces SHOULD be made to pay under simple free market principles, such that the “return on investment” matches that of the surrounding real estate. This would certainly spell doom for most roading networks in the highest-density, highest-value CBD’s. But there is a big “UNLESS” here. That is, UNLESS the owners of surrounding high value property were prepared to “pay in” to continue to enable auto-access to their properties. THIS is the missing element in funding roading in high-congestion areas.

    I have no idea what the results of such pure free market ideology might be; but I am prepared to trust it as “the most efficient solution”. The value of real estate is largely determined by the “access” there is to that real estate; if the values of the road space and the real estate space had to balance each other, I doubt that the real estate values would go anywhere near as high as they currently do due to de facto subsidised roads and parking spaces. But somewhere along the line I am convinced that the CBD property owners would see a strong case for “paying in” to the cost of the roads. THIS “subsidy” would be entirely just…….”

    How much dollars per square meter do you think road space could be sold for, to enable expansion of adjoining buildings? Interesting idea? I’d love to see markets in land THIS free.

  • “We simply would not have a modern economy as we know it without “auto-mobility”.”

    The developing nations still need to modernize, but the modern economy has reached its limits in the developed nations. Time to move on to something better. It is not the 1950s any longer, and we need to move beyond this 1950s thinking.

    Calthorpe’s statement “we would all still have cars” is obviously incorrect. We do not all have cars now. It should be “we would still have cars.”

  • Phil from NZ

    I agree, Charles, we have got to move on beyond “cars” and “automobiles”; however the 21st century economy will still require “mobility”. “Mobility Pods”, perhaps?

    Most people who have attempted to draw the future, have been wrong. But one thing I am sure about: Rails are the antithesis of “mobility”, and have their use only where the economic growth due to “mobility” HAS created the conditions due to agglomeration efficiencies, where sufficient masses of people exist with common destinations and origins.

    Economic realities, of land prices and incomes, will continue to dictate how most people CAN live. The way land prices respond to regulatory interferences is another object lesson in economics, for those who have the intuition to see it. I have been pointing out on another thread, that every regulation that forces land prices up (the median multiple price is a good indicator) will actually REDUCE the “location efficient” choices made by households and businesses. The evidence is accumulating rapidly, for those who are even trying to follow it.

    What we need are INCENTIVES and De-regulations that reduce the price of land, so that “transport cost and time” starts to assume the greatest possible weight in location decisions. Inflated land costs drown out these signals, and force households and businesses to make POOR location choices, because that is all they can afford. There is a premium to be paid for “good” locations; and the higher the “base” price of land relative to incomes (the median multiple is the best guide) the fewer the people who will be able to afford the “premium” for efficient location.

    This effect is visible in the urban density profiles for Portland, Curitiba, London, and Los Angeles. I believe it is noticeable on “Google Earth” for Vancouver, Sydney, and any of the “highest median multiple” cities in the Demographia survey. I think this needs to be an urgent focus of urban research. Paul Cheshire and his colleagues at the London School of Economics are probably the most advanced in the world today, because they have 5 decades of British planning and land price inflation to go by. The entire British economy is suffering a serious competitive disadvantage from this; not just the high prices themselves, but the POOR location efficiencies within cities, (including poor disposition of population density) that have resulted.

    Sorry if you are not one of those who “gets it”; most don’t; but I have been encouraged to find that a few are. There is hardly a more vital economic point that needs to be got accross to everyone today.

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