Skip to Content
Streetsblog San Francisco home
Streetsblog San Francisco home
Log In
Climate Change

A Message from Copenhagen: Climate Plan Must Include Walkable Urbanism

11:32 AM PST on December 9, 2009

household_energy_use.jpgThe energy-saving benefits of transit aren't limited to the transportation sector. Image: Jonathan Rose Companies via Richard Layman.

a panel discussion yesterday at the Copenhagen climate summit, American
policymakers and transit experts delivered a clear message: Walkable
urban development must be part of any effective plan to reduce global
greenhouse gas emissions. Thanks to the magic of live webcasts, I can
relay a few highlights for Streetsblog readers.

directing future development toward walkable urbanism, the climate
impacts of sprawl will overwhelm other efforts to curb greenhouse gas
emissions, said Robert Cervero, a professor specializing in
transportation and land use policy at UC Berkeley. "Urban development
patterns have a significant role to play in carbon reduction," Cervero
told the audience. "Otherwise we'll just get knocked back by land-use
patterns. Sustainable urbanism has to be part of the equation."

benefits of walkable development extend far beyond the efficiencies of
trains, buses, and bikes compared to cars. As journalist (and befuddling congestion pricing critic) David Owen has documented superbly, city dwellers use far less energy to, for instance, heat homes than suburbanites.

attached some rough numbers to these "embedded energy savings." While
transit investment alone can achieve a 10 to 20 percent reduction in
America's per capita greenhouse gas emissions, he said, factoring in
the embedded energy savings of walkable development boosts that figure
to 30 percent. That's 30 percent compared to present-day emissions
levels. The reduction could reach as high as 60 percent, Cervero added,
compared to the level of per-capita emissions that would result from
continuing business-as-usual sprawl-inducing policies.

most Americans aren't all that familiar with walkable urbanism, the
question of how to generate public support for more sustainable
development patterns inevitably arises. John Inglish of the Utah
Transit Authority shared some of the successes on this front from his
home state. It's a bit of an old story, but it's a good one: In the
late 1990s, the public-private venture Envision Utah began a campaign to shape regional growth in the Salt Lake City region. Through a series of public workshops, they built support for smart growth strategies that became state law in 1999.

did they do it? Inglish focused on the sheer fiscal common sense of
walkable urbanism. When presented with the fact that transit investment
produces huge savings in overall infrastructure costs, Utahns got on
board. By 2020, a transit-oriented growth scenario would save some $15
billion, which would otherwise go to roads, sewers, and other utilities
under the sprawling business-as-usual scenario. "That's more money for
schools and parks," Inglish said. "The community was not as
conservative when faced with the realities as had previously been

Unfortunately, the audio turned spotty during
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's turn at the podium. To substitute,
here's an excerpt from his interview with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, in which the mayor marvels at Copenhagen's bike culture, visible even deep inside city hall:

MAYORJOHN HICKENLOOPER: we are in Copenhagen. Thirty-seven percentof the people in this city, when they go to work in the metropolitanarea, ride a bicycle to work. I mean, it’s remarkable. Their goal -- Imet yesterday for an hour with the deputy mayor of the environment andtransportation, Klaus Bondam, and Klaus Bondam described how their nextgoal is to hit 50 percent. I mean, to have half your population, whenthey go to work on bicycles, they’re healthier, the air is cleaner,there’s less carbon emissions, you save money. I mean, the benefits aredramatic, and you can see the difference just when you walk down thestreet.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we were just in the city councillast night at like 10:30, 11:00. The whole bottom floor of thiscentury-old building is filled with not only bicycle racks, butbicycles that fill them.


AMY GOODMAN: And city council members, the guards, everyone are riding in and out of the city council on their bicycles.

MAYORJOHN HICKENLOOPER: Yeah. When I flew in, the fellow next to me on theplane is a hotshot young technology expert, makes a huge amount ofmoney -- doesn’t own a car, rides his bike. You know, he says, “It’shealthier. It’s more fashionable.” It’s -- you know, it’s what hisfriends do. And I think that’s the whole thing that -- when you get topublic sentiment, I mean, what Lincoln was talking about. We need tochange our public sentiment so people want to do these things. And it’snot government coming down and being punitive, but it’s creating achange, a transformation in our attitudes.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter