When Cities Get Serious About Climate Change…

A recent comment on Streets.mn planted a seed in my head. The discussion was about the utility and futility of buses vs. streetcars, and for some reason I was particularly struck by (fellow writer and Minneapolis sustainability program coordinator) Brendon Slotterback’s statement about BRT:

If we build A-BRT, we can always go back and put in streetcars (or LRT) later if we want. If you think we need to significantly change the carbon impact of transportation in the short term, as I do, you might put a lot of weight on immediacy, perhaps even more weight than your desire for a mode that you find more aesthetically pleasing.

Actually clicking on the link takes you to (yet another) horrifying chart about climate change, that shows how the longer we wait, the more drastic a change in carbon emissions we will need. The colored lines show the “time lag” in carbon accumulation, and how different (optimistic) scenarios will play out as you move the “peak carbon” year farther back in time:

peak years climate change

All these scenarios seem both far-fetched and crucial.


As you can see, we’re quickly running already out of time. The longer we wait, the more work we have to do. Part of the problem is that climate change is inherently global. Addressing our economic and social dependence on fossil fuels involves change at scales far beyond the city. That said, outside of international carbon agreements or inventing miracle energy sources, what would it mean for cities “get serious” about climate change?

US oil use percentage

US oil use as global %; going down, but still amazingly high.

The US uses something like 22% of the world oil supply every day.  A lot of this comes from transportation and heating costs involved with the “American way of life.” Driving big cars to and from big houses constantly every day is ruining the Earth for humans.
per capita energy use

Currently, our cities are making marginal changes, adding a bus stop here or there, investing in a transit project, or encouraging density in small ways here or there but don’t really disrupt the status quo. That’s not good enough, at least not according to any scientific measure. Our current urban response to climate change is flippant and unimpressive, and we’re not taking it seriously. If we did, we’d have to dramatically change the way our cities look and act.

What might that look like? Here are some “go big” ideas about land use planning and transportation. These are things we might do if we began treating climate change not as an aside, as a luxury to be added to our lives, but as a serious problem involving significant changes to our cities and lifestyles.


Tolls / Taxes on Cars: Something like 60% of US oil goes to individual cars and trucks. Taking climate change seriously would mean reducing the amount that people pay to drive around. Currently, car drivers pay about half the cost of our road system. We’d have to increase that number at least to the point that drivers began paying for the entire bill of driving. Tolls, a VMT tax, or something like it would begin to address this problem. The end goal of these proposals would be to change the economic calculus of driving. We need to reflect the cost of fossil fuels in the ‘price’, so that people’s decisions to stop global warming aren’t just about social values, but about economic value.


US transportation oil use

Old but still relevant data on US oil use. Most goes to private cars and trucks.


Higher Transit Subsidies: On top of making driving more expensive, serious cities would increase their subsidy to transit and cut the price. (Most US cities seem to be moving in the opposite direction, unfortunately.) If you make transit more affordable, and driving more expensive, you’ll begin to see “one car families.” If it’s good for the pocketbook, more people will walk and take the bus.

Bus-Only Lanes: This is the idea that was kicked around in the streetcar post. It does no good to encourage transit if buses are constantly stuck in traffic. It’s not enough to put transit on an “equal playing field” with cars. We need to prioritize transit, give it cost and time advantages. Bus-only lanes are easy and effective. What if transit was both cheaper and faster than driving?

Biking and Walking Infrastructure: Biking and walking infrastructure is even cheaper than transit, and comes at almost zero fossil fuel cost. Even in a city like Minneapolis, we could easily double or triple our bicycle infrastructure overnight. (Focused on protected bike lanes and boulevards, please.) Acheiving a 25% bike/walk trip share within a decade would be a serious goal.

Passenger Rail: Even if you lead a relatively “sustainable” lifestyle, frequent airplane travel dramatically increases your carbon footprint. Air travel accounts for about 10% of emissions, but they’re particularly harmful because of how they’re released into the atmosphere. Taking climate change seriously would mean reducing air travel, especially the least efficient trips (under 500 miles). We’d end subsidies to airports and airlines, and invest in our national passenger system. In an era of full body scanning and baggage fees, many people would likely enjoy having a rail option for shorter trips.


transportation modes co2 emissions

CO2 emissions for auto and air transportation are very high.


Promoting Rental Housing: Single-family homes are energy hogs. Because they have shared walls and smaller square footage, apartments and shared units use less energy for heating and cooling. Currently, our tax and development systems promote single-family homes and tend to discourage density. We’d need to reverse that equation. Taking climate change seriously means going out of our way to encourage density.


US home energy use broken down by sector.

Home Insulation Programs: The way you design and insulate your house can make a huge difference in energy use. Cities should aggressively promote insulation programs, and energy efficient design pricnicples for new construction. In terms of energy impact, this investment would pay off really quickly.

Local energy sources: Cities could do more to encourage local energy sources — particularly solar and wind. Not only is this green energy (compared to coal or gas), the more we can make it easier for homes, businesses, and institutions to generate power onsite, the more we start to connect the producers and users of our electricity. We need windmill and solar YIMBYs.

MN energy sources

Minnesota Electricity sources are still dominated by coal.


It might seem like our cities have changed a lot over the past ten or twenty years. We’ve added recycling programs, bike lanes, and started growing our core cities again after years of decline (among other things). But in reality, we haven’t been taking climate change seriously.

Tweaks at the margins won’t meaningfully impact our energy footprint.  To take climate change seriously, we need to “go big.” It won’t turn the ship around, but some or all of these changes would start to make a difference. We should want our lifestyles to reflect our values. It’s not enough to just say that you care about climate change or sustainability. You have to actually change the kind of city you inhabit. This means making some tough changes to your city’s housing and transportation patterns. The good news is that all of these things are possible.

world energy use projection

Because Global South energy use is growing, we need to cut back.

Pitted against all this is the tremendous degree of uniformity across the country. Banks, developers, realtors, insurance companies, and policymakers feel pressure to conform. Nobody wants to stick their necks out by dramatically shifting the calculus of transportation costs, for example. We like to rely on national standards, to point to the “way things are done” and feel comfortable going along with the crowd. When it comes to how and where you build a grocery store, how you design a street, how you run your bus system, or where you invest city bonding money, it’s difficult to change your habits.

There’s a lot of structural and political obstinacy in the system. Changing these policies isn’t going to be easy. But I know many people in the science and policy arenas working on climate change, from climatologists to economists to international conference negotiators. None of them are even slightly optimistic about reducing CO2 emissions in the future. While certain small areas might seem to be “reducing” their CO2, as a country and as a planet, we’re still increasing our annual carbon footprint, making marginal reductions in rates of growth and “outsourcing” emissions to other (less regulated) countries. That’s not going to work. At this point its safe to say we’re not taking climate change seriously. If we did, we’d being really changing our cities.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.