Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Meeting CPH Accord Through Releasing Pent-up Demand

This weekend I read an article about how the US is falling well short of targeted goals for reducing CO2 emissions according to the Copenhagen Accord.  The numbers actually aren't that far off.  We are and are projected to remain around 5.5 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions.  Our goal is to get down to 5 billion.  Later today, President Obama will announce plans to reach that goal.  I don't yet know what will be in his plan, but here's how it could be accomplished much more easily: Walkable Urbanism.

Let's run through some rough numbers shall we:

According to David Owen's book Green Metropolis, the average New Yorker (as in the city) produces 7.1 tons of CO2.  The average car-dependent American produces 24.5 tons.  (He uses Vermonter as proxy).  That's 17.4 less tons of CO2 per person between walkable/transit-oriented vs. unwalkable car-dependent.  And we need to shed 500,000,000 tons.

Dividing the 500 million number by the difference of 17.4 equals 28,735,632 Americans that, if they were to move into more walkable neighborhoods, could save the entire surplus of CO2 we're trying to shed by 2020.  That's 10.78% of the country at a time where, according to surveys, there is a pent-up demand gap of closer to 40% between those that WANT to live in walkable neighborhoods and those that ACTUALLY do.  We'll revisit that point in a bit.

But we have another complication.  That calculation assumes population levels remain stagnant.  But they're not expected to do so.  By 2020, the US is expected to have about 337 million people.  Up 27 million from the approx. 310 million we have today.  That's more CO2 we have to get rid of.

For the sake of math to determine what percentage of the country needs to be in more walkable urbanism to hit the CO2 goals let's assume all 27 million of that growth moves into walkable urbanism (thru walkable development patterns alone - this is an exercise to see what's possible.  We should be pursuing all market-based strategies imaginable to some degree).   Plus the 28.7 million that will have to move to walkable n'hoods, that puts us at nearly 56 million increase.

However, the 27 million are still producing 7.1 CO2 (assuming they achieve NYC levels of output).  That's another 191 million tons we have to account for and reduce.  If we divide that number by the 17.4 reduction from moving from car-dependent places to walkable places, that's another 11,017,241 million who would have to move.  Err, want to move.  Again, more on that in a second.  The total number of people that would have to move from car-dependence to independence and choice provided by walkable urbanism (of all scales and densities) equals 66.752 million people.

The key for this to work, is that it has to be market-oriented.  People have to WANT to move from car-dependent living to walkable neighborhoods.  And the fact is, they do.  The 66.752 million number is only 19.8% of the country's projected 2020 population.  Less than 20% is not a big number, particularly in comparison to the 30-40% of the entire country that wants walkability now, the 70-80% of millennials who desire to live in it when they get the chance, and the baby boomers rapidly approaching retirement and presumably desirous of empowering NORCs, or naturally occurring retirement communities.

These places are more like the Upper West Side, Key West, and Scottsdale than they are the typical retirement community.  Just a guess, but I'd expect boomers will want more from their golden years than the isolation of the typical retirement "warehouse."  This is the Me generation after all.  And frankly more power to them.  But we have to shift the market so that the pent-up demand is profitable and can be delivered.

However, cities take on the shape of the infrastructure provided.  Especially if roads and gas and parking are subsidized to the extent that they are.  And since they are, and built to the extent that they are, they shift the real estate market to favor constant outward expansion, taking land that was previously worthless and giving it a value of 2 out of 10, up from 0 or 1.  And therein lies the profit margin, especially if taxpayers build the infrastructure to unlock it.

Unfortunately, this process of road building rather than city building makes all areas equal, competing on the same plane, equally isolated and disconnected from all things.  Thus, car-dependent.  Downtowns, which would've been a 10 on the scale of 10 as the most connected places are also now more like a 2 or 3, emptying out to reach its new lowered level of amenity and attraction like a glass with a hole punched into it as demand leaks all over the table.

The new system is a diseconomy of wasted cost and energy, the cost of doing business takes a 20 mile car trip just to do anything.  The advantages of urbanism have long ago been tossed out with the bathwater.



The above map is Madrid, Spain.  Except it is overlaid upon an aerial of the DFW area at the same scale.  (note:  I flipped and rotated Madrid to more closely match DFW's growth pattern from the central core.  You'll notice the airport is actually to the north-northwest of the city.)

I chose Madrid for a variety of reasons.  It's landlocked with an unnavigable river.  It has a similar hot, dry climate to DFW.  And the entire country's per capita CO2 emissions are similar to NYC's: 7.4 to 7.1M.  But primarily because it's metropolitan population is virtually identical to that of DFW, 6.3-6.4 million people.  The red part is Madrid's central core.  Orange is the remainder of the city of Madrid (populated areas only) and the yellow is the remainder of the developed areas of the entire metro area.

It may be difficult to tell at this smaller scale (you can click to embiggen), but the entire city of Madrid (3.3 million people) fits inside of Loop 12 (with plenty of green space to spare).  Nearly the entirety of the metropolitan area fits inside of 635.  Not all of DFW even fits on the map above.  McKinney, TX is cut off by the top of the map.

I also chose Spain because many of their suburbs are true to the definition of that word.  They still have the characteristics of urban interconnectedness, but are lower on the hierarchy of nodes and centrality within the larger urban network and to a lesser density.  Those two things are directly related.

As I wrote about Valencia's pueblos here and here, Spanish suburbs are still remarkably walkable, typically connected to the cores by a train station and a highway that are both meticulously protected against from negatively impacting housing.  However, the industrial sites are typically zoned and cordoned off on the other side of these regional, large-scale shipping routes.

Madrid and Valencia also offer some great lessons in what not to do for your city as well as much broader economic stories about Spain in general.  The Madrid metro is pockmarked by dozens of mega developments that are little more than street grids and a few, mostly empty, mixed-use developments.  They built (and the banks lent) development without the suitable growth to justify the development.  Valencia, well they spent about $2 billion on this, which by some measure is the dullest part of the city.  The anti-city within the city.

I show this because it can be used as a proxy for what would DFW look like if a much greater number like 60%+ demanded and followed through with moving into walkable urban neighborhoods.  We only need 20% to reach our goals.  Now if only our DOTs, ironically the most powerful force shaping cities yet the most ignorant as to their own impact, could recognize the effect they have on shaping and/or pending up the liquidity of housing and market demand.