Carbon Pollution, Climate Policy, and the Built Environment: Transportation (Part II)

In last week’s installment of the Carbon Pollution, Climate Policy, and the Built Environment blog series, we discussed the impact of transportation infrastructure on carbon emissions. This week, we continue our analysis of the transportation sector, focusing on the EPA’s report, Our Built and Natural Environments, which offers strategies that encourage a smarter and more sustainable built environment and help limit the carbon emissions associated with transportation.

The EPA’s report outlines several development models that help to reduce the vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Infill development, for example, is development that is based around vacant lots or underutilized buildings within existing development—rather than on the periphery—and takes advantage of existing transportation infrastructure. This type of transit-oriented development (TOD) leads to compact urban environments, making public transportation more accessible and more convenient. As a result, communities that employ infill development have been able to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Infill development projects in Oregon and California have been particularly successful.

Similarly, compact development allows communities to use less land area to satisfy the needs of a population. People will need to travel less for everyday activities when a community is more compact. Public transit, sidewalks, and bike paths will also be more practical and cost-effective when destinations are closer together. Studies have shown a decline in VMT and an increase in the use of other travel methods as communities become denser.

Moreover, much of the literature on compact development shows that the effect of density in reducing VMT is much greater when combined with other development strategies, such as mixed land use. Mixed-use development is another development model that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. This type of development strategically locates complementary functions in the same building or in close proximity to one another, improving access to jobs, services, and recreation, reducing commutes and encouraging alternate modes of travel. For example, placing restaurants and stores within an apartment complex can minimize travel distances for the residents. New York City has been a leader in mixed-use development projects. Click here to learn more about the progress of this project.

In addition to these three types of development, complete streets can also facilitate walking and biking, thus decreasing VMT and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Street connectivity encourages more walking and biking by eliminating railroad tracks and other physical barriers. Complete streets are designed for the safety of all users and with pedestrians in mind. Sidewalks, clearly marked crosswalks and walk signals, lighting, and other amenities such as shade trees, benches, and friendly streetscapes can increase the number of people walking. Adding bicycle paths, lanes, parking and clear signage can improve the bicycling environment.

The relationship between the built environment and travel behavior is complex and requires a comprehensive approach. With the right development strategies, the built environment can be organized in a way that reduces overall motor vehicle use and greenhouse gas emissions.

To learn more about how you can reduce your carbon footprint and live more sustainably, check out A Billion Acts of Green.
– Written by Jiin G. Park

**Jiin G. Park is an intern at Earth Day Network and an MA candidate in Environmental Conservation Education at New York University