April 8, 2007

Energy Use and Suburban Living

"The bill for the last generation’s planning mistakes is now coming due," Benjamin Ross of Action Committee for Transit (Md.) writes in a New York Times letter to the editor. "Spread-out housing and scattered jobs require more driving and longer pipes. With suburbs already in place, we find that widening heavily traveled roads and laying utilities beneath them is much more expensive than building on empty farmland. . . .

"Buyers of new tract houses and office parks should pay for the longer highways, pipes and wires that spread-out development demands; they should no longer be subsidized by taxpayers and utility ratepayers who live in denser communities that are more economically and environmentally efficient."

It's a fair argument. Why should those living in smaller personal, private space help pay for the lifestyles of those who want more private property?

Some smaller, less densely populated communities are seeking help in bridging the rural divide and getting broadband Internet access in places where it's not currently economically feasible. But is it good policy for those living in more efficiently developed areas to be forced to subsidize that lifestyle? An interesting question.

There is a higher cost per person per person of exurban living in terms of energy use. New York City "turns out to be the most energy efficient place in America," according to a recent Boston Globe op-ed piece by Douglas Foy (former head of the Mass. Office of Commonwealth Development) and Robert Healy (Cambridge city manager). The scale of the city's energy use looks enormous; but when you calculate it per person, the city "uses dramatically less energy to serve each of its citizens than does a state like Massachusetts." In fact, NY city residents use less energy per person than any state's average. And that's despite another 750,000 commuters who work in the city, use energy during the day but don't count in the per-capita tallies!

"Cities are inherently the 'greenest' of all places. They are much more efficient in their use of energy, water, and land than suburbs. They provide transportation services in a remarkably equitable and democratic fashion. They may be the best of all places for seniors to grow old. . . .

"The old paradigm of the pollution-filled city as a blight on the landscape, and the leafy-green suburbs with pristine lawns as the ideal, is outdated."

It's not a coincidence that most of the states getting the highest number of federal dollars back vs. what they give to the federal treasury are relatively suburban or rural and not densely urban: Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia (the others are Virginia and Washington, D.C.) New Jersey gets the biggest shaft, getting just 55 cents back for every dollar it sends. In contrast, Montana gets $1,58 for every dollar, Alaska $1.87 and New Mexico $2. (All figures from the Tax Foundation for fiscal year 2004.)

Clearly we don't want to force everyone to live in densely populated urban areas. Hey, I like my house! But policymakers need to think seriously about who should be subsidizing whom as we struggle to curtail global warming and other negative consequences of our supersized energy thirst. Walkable communities have many positive benefits; suburban sprawl has a societal and global cost. We need to encourage better patterns of development.

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