How to protect your neighborhood against growing traffic, climate change

Vehicle Miles Traveled, VMT, is a crucial measure of how much we travel, individual, by neighborhood, or across a metropolitan region, or nation. Household VMT is a huge input in our personal carbon footprint and transportation costs. Total VMT in a region is directly related to the rate of traffic fatalities. Traditionally, VMT has been regarded as an unavoidable consequence of regional growth, with many elected officials actively working to sustain VMT growth believing that economy growth is coupled with VMT.

Texas transportation planners continue to allocate billions of dollars based on the notion that VMT increases uncontrollably. However, this may be a faulty assumption. Nationwide, per capita VMT has a slight negative correlation with growth. TxDOT’s own data suggests decoupling between growth and VMT. Harris, Dallas, and Tarrant counties, the three largest in the state, added 1,201,811 people between 2006 and 2015, but drove 6,985,040 fewer miles on TXDOT roads.

Ten people die every day on Texas roads. Vehicular fatalities could be reduced significantly with deliberate policy aims to reduce VMT. Crashes cost Texas $162 billion, and congestion drains a further $14 billion in unproductive time spent in cars. With an annual state VMT of 258 billion, every mile driven essentially is responsible for $0.63 of pain, suffering, and property losses in crashes. These effects are not given appropriate consideration in transportation decisions both in our private decisions, where these costs are hidden from us as we choose to drive on “free” roads, and in our public decisions, where elected officials have scant data on the true costs of our transportation system. Given the predictable and controllable negative consequences VMT, planners must explicitly aim to reduce VMT.

Transportation is responsible for over one third of carbon emissions in the United States. These emissions are a simple function of fuel efficiency and VMT. Fuel efficiency has been regulated with great success by the federal government in recent decades, by measures such as increasing mileage standards for vehicles and the gas tax. These efforts provide a foundation for deliberate VMT reduction through transportation policy.

On an individual level, VMT reduction is the most significant way to reduce personal carbon emissions. VMT can be reduced on a personal level by taking advantage of public transportation, but more importantly considering location-efficiency when choosing housing, work, and school locations can significantly decrease your carbon footprint – while providing you with greater safe access to all that our growing metropolis can provide.

But the extent to which low carbon lifestyle options are available to individuals relies on the existing urban environment. As the Austin region grows from two to four million people, the decisions made in CodeNEXT and the 2045 Regional Transportation Plan will determine how many people are allowed affordable access to low carbon, healthy, walkable urban neighborhoods.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology maintains a Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, which provides detailed data on the financial and environmental costs of housing and transportation across the US, which provides the data basis for our analysis on VMT and transportation related carbon emissions.

The map above shows Vehicle Miles Traveled per household across the Austin region. This measure is lowest in the urban core, increasing as access to alternative modes of transportation declines and trips required to reach destinations grow longer. Data from CNT H+T Affordability Index, analysis and image generation done in-house.

Join us this Friday, February 16, for the 3rd in the Growing Weirder Breakfast Series with a panel discussion focused on environmental sustainability.

The continued relevance of Growing Cooler a decade later

In 2007, the Urban Land Institute released Growing Cooler (pdf) a landmark, now highly-cited, publication on the link between climate change and transportation. It is also a basis for our work to empower communities and elected officials with better information and analysis to help build a sustainable, equitable Austin region.

Carbon emissions from transportation are over a third of national emissions. The relative proportion of transportation emissions compared to other domestic sources has increased with other sectors showing declines from increased energy efficiency or displacement of production to other nations.

As of 2016, transportation based carbon emissions became the leading source of emission for Americans, with this trend so far continued through 2017, as shown in this chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

Overall, growing Cooler found that transportation emissions can only be meaningfully reduced by limiting vehicle miles traveled (VMT) through compact development as opposed to sprawl.

Traditional efforts to curb transportation emissions focused on vehicle and intrinsic fuel efficiency without regulating VMT. This resulted in no improvement in national fuel economy from 1990-2005 as VMT increased by 50 percent. 70 percent of the increase in VMT is directly attributable to sprawl, and only 13 percent stems from population growth. Population growth is already slightly associated with a reduction in per capita VMT, a reflection of shifting trends towards compact development.

Compact development, characterized by high density and regional diversity of land use, is a low-cost method of reducing VMT. There will be 89 million new or replaced homes and 150 billion square feet of nonresidential buildings by 2050. There is little intrinsic cost for this development to be compact instead of sprawling. Compact development to manage existing demand automatically ensures a 30 percent reduction in VMT and a concomitant ten percent reduction in vehicle based carbon emission by 2050.

There are myriad benefits underrepresented by, and out of the purview of, Growing Cooler. Compact development allows for robust alternative modes of transportation, an option incompatible with sprawl and the possible benefits of which are not fully explored in the report. Water quality and existing forestry are protected by favoring compact development. There are also public health benefits through increased access to physical activity and improved air quality.

Growing Cooler makes a host of policy recommendations to promote compact development and discourage sprawl. The federal government is encouraged to apply environmental impact measures and standards to relevant legislation, award transportation funding directly to municipalities, and employ a “fix-it-first” approach to large-scale infrastructure investments. States should have policies to manage VMT and use discretionary funds to favor compact development.

Municipalities can curb transportation emissions by adopting land use codes that promote infill and mixed uses, including density bonuses for affordable housing. City policy should be explicitly directed against sprawl, streamlining approval procedures for private developers pursuing compact development. Walking and bicycling must be funded with a focus on potential market share instead of relying on sprawl-related historical trends.

Projected carbon and greenhouse gas emissions through 2030. Enhanced vehicular and intrinsic fuel efficiency is offset if VMT continues to increase.

Our work on Growing Weirder is an attempt to yield this wisdom from Growing Cooler (pdf) and make it relevant to current policy debates across the Austin region. We’re working to analyze VMT, carbon emissions, across the Austin region and the expected traffic and climate emissions costs of various CodeNEXT and regional growth proposals.

Join us this Friday, February 16, for the 3rd in the Growing Weirder Breakfast Series with a panel discussion focused on environmental sustainability.

[Austin traffic image Credit: Steve, Flickr, Some Rights Reserved]

There are 7 votes ready for CodeNEXT V.3

Two separate groups of city council members have released statements in the lead up to the release of CodeNEXT V.3. Together, these six council members and Mayor Adler unequivocally call for a new land use code. Although they certainly may each disagree on various details in that code, should they continue to feel that the existing land development code must be replaced, the votes are lined up to pass CodeNEXT in some form this spring.

Council members Casar (District 4), Renteria (D3), Garza (D2), and Flannigan (D6) comprise the For All Austinites coalition. They published a short declaration that emphasized the negative nature of the current code, including the ways it continues segregation-era mistakes. The group stresses that piecemeal restructuring is incapable of (fixing the code), insisting on a complete overhaul under the geographically representative 10-1 system.

Mayor Steve Adler, along with council members Kitchen (D5) and Alter (D10), also assert that “it has become clear that we cannot allow the current, unwieldy Code to remain in place.” Their key goals are the development and preservation of affordable housing and enabling of accessible mass transit while respecting neighborhood identity, intentionally protecting the environment,  and supporting small, local businesses.

Together, these seven members of city council are clear in their support for a new code. However – the draft which will be released at 5pm today – will go through additional public discussion and editing at several city commissions, as well as on the Dias. We have at least a month to continue improving this code, but it now seems likely to pass.


We will continue in our Growing Weirder Breakfast Series to discuss regional growth policy options – including some of the details that still could be improved in CodeNEXT. Join us this Friday, Feb 16, for a discussion of environmental sustainability, and Friday, March 2, for the big picture of regional growth.

[Image Credit: Bobby Bradley, Flickr, Some rights reserved]

The high impervious surface costs of Austin’s current zoning scheme

In December, the City of Austin Watershed Department released a memo that looks at the impervious surface impacts of two alternatives: keeping current zoning or switching to the draft CodeNEXT V.2. They looked at the expected impervious surface in the full buildout scenario – meaning that every entitlement would be used up – something that never happens. But it provides a useful way to compare two plans for future growth.

And so far it seems most discussions of this memo completely miss the powerful findings.

Their conclusion was that the proposed CodeNEXT V.2 was a slight improvement over current zoning, with about 1,200 less acres of land paved over in the city or about 1% of the city left open rather than paved, because of the change.

This is already a very strong rebuke of any claims that keeping the current zoning is good for flooding or environmentally friendly.

However, we can go further, because these two scenarios actually mean quite different things in terms of the numbers of people allowed to live in the City of Austin. Allowing more people to live in the City of Austin not only is the most significant step we can make to counter displacement, but also has a tremendous environmental advantage.

When we take the different future populations into account, we see that these two paths represent dramatically different future impervious surface per capita for the people of the City of Austin and the region. In these two scenarios, the CodeNEXT V.2 future would mean each resident of the City of Austin were responsible for almost 1,000 less square feet of impervious surface, compared to the future we expect if we keep the current zoning scheme.

There are also regional impervious surface benefits of this shift just inside the City of Austin toward more sustainable compact, connected development. If a lot more people lived inside the City of Austin, thus not living the high impervious surface per capita lifestyle that most new housing in our region outside the city of Austin provides,  the total regional effects would be dramatic. And these benefits are not captured in this current analysis. So we could similarly go further with this argument and intend to do so.

But this chart is already a very strong rebuke to anyone pretending to claim environmental or flooding or water quality (or heat island) reasons to argue against CodeNEXT in favor of keeping the current zoning code that has caused so many localized flooding problems for Austin.

Join us Friday, February 16 for the 3rd of 4 events in the Growing Weirder Breakfast Series to talk about this and other environmental sustainability issues related to regional growth, CodeNEXT, and the regional transportation plan. Get your tickets today.

Current Austin compromise means $2.6B of housing expense for parking

Parking is expensive, but not where it matters. While “free” parking is ubiquitous across Texas, we are all paying something for each spot.

In the City of Austin, the City Council actually requires for most people building a home to also build some parking for cars – even though we are in a generally acknowledged crisis of lacking affordable housing in affordable locations. According to City of Austin staff, the current equilibrium as of the CodeNEXT Version 2 draft will require about one parking unit to be added per each housing unit added over the next ten years.

We know from the Opticos estimates that we can expect 171,308 new housing units to be built in the City over the next ten years if CodeNEXT V.2 were adopted. As things stand, this would also mean 171,308 additional parking spots – as a required minimum and not counting all the parking required for retail, office, and other uses.

Averaging the varying costs of installing a driveway and parking spot at a house as well as installing multi-story garages, the cost to build a parking spot is apparently something near $15,000 on average.

If Austin City Council pushes forward with this generally accepted groupthink as one little detail of CodeNEXT, that would means that the City of Austin would require that entities – public, private, and nonprofit – invest $2,569,620,000 in parking for cars over the next ten years – as a cost of building housing.

This is as if the city council were floating a $250 million bond every year dedicated to making the option of driving alone in your car cheaper and more accessible. Imagine the benefits if this were instead invested in affordable housing in healthy, affordable locations.

Join us this Friday for a discussion of parking policy and regional growth.

Who’s coming to Austin?

During the last decade, the six-county Austin region has generally met its rapid growth expectations, adding over 50,000 people annually. Over the next ten years, this is expected to pick up slightly with the region expected to add about 57,620 people every year, according to the 2000-2010 trend scenario projections from Texas State Demographer’s office.

Today the Austin region remains a non-Hispanic white majority (52%) metropolitan region. Of the nine large metros in Texas, only Killeen-Temple and Austin remain majority white, while the rest of the state outside the nine large metros is 56% non-hispanic white.

Should the Austin region grow as expected through 2027, it will join Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth as the majority-less pluralistic society that is also America’s future, as noted so beautifully by Rice University Kinder Institute’s Dr. Stephen Klineberg.

The Austin region’s Black population will experience a slightly higher percent growth rate than their non-Hispanic White neighbors over the next ten years. Hispanics will experience a much higher rate of growth, and others – primarily Asians – will grow most rapidly compared to their existing population. In terms of absolute growth, Hispanics will make up a slight majority of the region’s immigrants and a stronger majority of the region’s growth from natural increase – seeing more babies than deaths.

As Dr. Klineberg has often said of Houston, the institutions and policies of the Austin region’s urban planning and transportation decision making systems must transform to embrace of our pluralist future:

“Every business in Houston is either going to learn how to capitalize on this burgeoning diversity in the city or find it harder and harder to grow their business. Every institution, every organization, every central major structure in Houston was built by, for and on behalf of Anglos. Every one of them has to transform itself to become Houston’s institution.”

– Dr. Stephen Klineberg, Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research

Growing Weirder is a series of reports and events intended to empower the people of the Austin region with better shared understanding of regional growth and the growth policy choices we will make over the next several years.

[Photo Credit: City of Round Rock, Some rights reserved]