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.

21 thoughts on “When Cities Get Serious About Climate Change…

  1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Great post. I’m glad you point out what seems to be missing oftentimes when discussing energy use in our country (and the world) – housing and buildings. While they are slightly intertwined, and it is certainly not a bad thing to focus on car/etc emissions as a problem, housing is a big part as well. Slightly old but still relevant graphic showing the breakdown of energy use in the US with buildings having a further breakdown: http://www.jetsongreen.com/2009/08/breaking-down-building-energy-use.html

    It’s also worth noting where the energy comes from that supplies the electricity running our homes/commercial/industrial spaces: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_sector_of_the_United_States Nuclear and renewables make up a grand total of 33%.. It’s totally possible to change this, France produces 89.2% of its electricity through nuclear and renewables. This makes a big difference in how transit affects the environment as well.

  2. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    Minor nit to pick, the US is actually reducing emissions (natural gas emits less than coal). See: A 20-Year Low in U.S. Carbon Emissions

    Major nit to pick, we are not “running out of time”, maybe we used to be “running out of time”, but now, basically, it’s already too late, give up hope. If the forecasters were right, we have already passed the point of no return. If they weren’t oh well.

    I like this essay: What the Earth Knows

    1. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon

      The less CO2 in the atmosphere the better, regardless of whether we’ve passed certain “tipping points”. A 6 degree temperature rise will likely be a lot worse than a 2 or 3 degree rise. Reducing future damages and the avoiding the largest risks (to humanity) should be the goal. Geologic time may be the scale at which past climate changes happened, but that is not what we’re currently facing. The earth will certainly “heal itself”, long after we’re all gone.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      David: two things…

      Actually, I am a bit dubious about the argument that the US has been reducing its carbon emissions. A colleague of mine does research on the ‘offshoring’ and exporting of industrial emissions to other countries, and most (if not all) measures of emissions don’t account for international production flows. In other words, we need to measure CO2 in terms of consumption, not production. The US should be ‘responsible’ for all the stuff we consume, produced in other places. The CO2 emissions of an iPod or a car sold to an American but produced in China or Korea is just as large, and has just as much climate change impact, no? (Granted, globalization is a large trend over many decades. Small reductions over the past few years are relative, but encouraging.)

      Anyway, because we’re in an interlinked global economy, I tend not to get very excited about reductions in emissions in one small place (e.g. Minneapolis, Portland, or even the US). I DO however, get excited about changing our mode share, VMT, greenfield development, etc.

      Thanks for the link, though I found that essay a bit odd. Is the point that the earth is mysterious, beyond us? It reminds me of the ‘world without us’ book, which I like. But how does that article, the point of it, change the obligation to think through the human earth, the one we use? Even if the Earth is old, our time on it is so very short. Does the age of the Earth change how we should behave, make decisions?

      (Just some thoughts…)

      1. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

        Here’s an informative article on the impact of natural gas:


        “A recent report from the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research looked at the growth of the shale gas industry in the United States and questioned whether it had contributed to a global drop in CO2 emissions.

        The answer was no: Tyndall’s calculations suggest that more than half of the emissions avoided in the U.S. power sector – through the switch from coal to gas – may have been exported as coal.

        “Without a meaningful cap on global carbon emissions, the exploitation of shale gas is likely to increase total emissions,” said the report. “For this not to be the case, consumption of displaced fuels must be reduced globally and remain suppressed indefinitely.”

        “In effect displaced coal must stay in the ground.” “

  3. Janne

    Alex, in the world I work in, people talk a ton about buildings — much more than about cars. That’s also why I happen to know that while apartments are more efficient than single family homes due to shared walls and smaller footprints per unit, rentals are generally less efficient per square foot than single family homes. (I don’t know anything about condos, though, so don’t extrapolate too far.)

    Depressing, eh?

    But that’s mostly because they’ve been generally ignored by efficiency programs and thanks to buck-passing. (The landlord has to fix it, I the tenant can’t do anything. vs. The tenant controls all the energy use, so me doing anything is useless. This is exacerbated by the lack of transparency in the rental housing market about which units are efficient and which aren’t, but i should stop before I write a book.)

    The upshot is because they’ve been ignored, there are tons of easy opportunities to save a lot in rental housing. That doesn’t change anything you’ve said here, Bill, it’s just something BIG to add to the efficiency programs.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I don’t doubt that house type has caught on a decent amount in many circles, but the brunt of public policy and opinion pieces clearly focuses on transportation. I think the 2 are intertwined.. living in a place where you don’t need to drive (or don’t even have a car) most likely means you’re home is smaller and/or sharing walls/floors with other units – one could most likely not achieve transit and walking to be sustainable without this the density of homes, businesses, etc.

      I think a free-market solution in bringing this efficiency information to the public needs to present itself. Similar to Walk Score starting to crop up on home/apartment listings representing consumer preference, listing appliance energy ratings, total unit R-rating, age of windows, monthly electric/gas bills, etc will make choosing a place that has had upgrades more desirable (and economical) for tenants.

  4. helsinki

    The streetcar vs. bus debate is a really interesting starting point for the carbon impact discussion because it highlights the issue of land use in a way that I don’t think is being adequately addressed.

    The chart “Pounds CO2e pollution per passenger mile by vehicle” illustrates very well how even average occupancy buses are relatively polluting. So even if Metro Transit went wild and satisfied the transport needs of suburban dwellers through expansion of the bus system, CO2 emissions would still be quite substantial. Instead of attempting the sisyphean task of modifying the transport system to serve the sprawling land use pattern (e.g. the ‘Red Line’ BRT), it might make more sense to modify the land use pattern to serve a more efficient transport system.

    The best way to do this is probably to reduce the distances between destinations and to make biking and walking truly competitive modes of transport. This kind of policy would prioritize two of the listed ideas: (1) biking / walking infrastructure, and (2) promoting rental housing. This also includes creating a public transportation system that will attract quality, high-density TOD and attract a non-‘transit-dependent’ ridership, while simultaneously achieving a low carbon impact. For my part, this has to be streetcars, at least in certain corridors. Improving the bus system can reap massive gains, I am sure (there is certainly room for improvement). But I just can’t see it facilitating the same shift in development patterns as rail would.

    On the local energy sources point – I don’t understand why there isn’t a more concerted effort here in the upper Midwest to harness wind power. I know there is a concerted effort, but it doesn’t seem to possess a sense of urgency. We sit right next to the Great Plains. The arguments concerning the energy lost through long distance transmission are less convincing when the distances are not so long. The Twin Cities could probably supply much of their energy needs through wind, with natural gas serving as a less-polluting fossil-fuel backstop when the wind is intermittent.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Even countries where wind is a high priority like Denmark and Netherlands (where the sea and flats provide ample wind and small transmission distances), only 9-20% of their power is produced by wind. I would think focusing on nuclear would be a much better route for clean energy, while taking advantage of as much wind as possible, then using natural gas to fill the rest and as backup. Just my take.

  5. Ian Bicking

    From an environmental perspective I think transit subsidies are misplaced. Though perhaps I’m just being contrarian, as I think all the subsidies are misplaced. Things should cost their real cost, including the cost to the environment – i.e., we need carbon and pollution taxes. Why? Because we don’t, and can’t, know what the right way to adapt is – markets and prices are uniquely capable of determining this.

    So take transit subsidies. Transit, as probably many people here know, is not dramatically more efficient per passenger-mile than a typical car. You can criticize the concept of passenger miles, and note that people who use transit tend to travel less, and so forth… but still, transit is just not that impressive in terms of its energy efficiency. And why should it be? Transit can be designed to use more or less energy, but no one asks transit to use less energy, and so it doesn’t. We do ask transit to be designed to be affordable, but because we underprice energy so badly that means that energy efficiency is not a big component of affordability.

    If we price things properly, then maybe transit will win. Or maybe it won’t, maybe people will find better ways to adapt their behavior. I personally am suspicious that everyone carrying a few tons of vehicle along with them on all their trips isn’t a great idea – but that’s something true of both transit and cars.

    But whatever the answer as long as we design the taxes properly, the result WILL be better for the environment, without the bias of our preconceptions of what an environmental economy looks like.

  6. helsinki

    Yes, I would say that the metric of passenger miles is fundamentally flawed. Evaluating a system using this metric means that more distance traveled is “good” and fewer miles traveled is “bad”, everything else being equal.

    The purpose of transportation is to get where you want to go as easily as possible; not necessarily to traverse the greatest distance as efficiently as possible.

  7. A.M. Hillis

    Absolutely agree with your point about dramatically increasing biking and walking infrastructure. Practically zero fossil fuel cost AND has added health benefits.

    Or, Ian & Helsinki, getting rid of the mortgage-income tax credit, and thereby greatly reducing the incentive to move out to areas without existing transit infrastructure?

  8. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    The mortgage interest deduction has some bearing on land-use and home type selection, but it can’t be the major contributing reason for it.. don’t the UK and Netherlands have interest deductions similar to the US but with much better land-use patterns? I’m not arguing it should stay (Canada and other countries don’t have it and have similar to higher home-ownership rates, totally nullifying the reason the US has it in the first place).

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        As far as I’m aware, the Netherlands is actively looking to get rid of the deduction as it has been shown to not increase home-ownership rates and favors one type of market purchase vs another (renting).

  9. helsinki

    I think the difference is that the US doesn’t cap the size of the mortgage, the interest on which can be deducted. This creates a direct financial benefit to borrowing more, and, by extension, purchasing a larger house.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      No disagreement, it’s certainly a contributor while not even really affecting the desired outcome (ownership rates). But a close-in small townhome/rowhouse, sharing walls, with no garage in a walkable area could easily cost as much as the 2,500 sqft home out in the boonies simply because the land value is more expensive.

      I think zoning, parking requirements, FHA/HUD rules shaping what a “house” is in the 30s-50s, highway expansion and access, etc etc all have equal to higher effect on housing location/size/style.

  10. Nathanael

    “Bus-only lanes are easy and effective.”

    If you can convince politicians to paint the lanes on existing roads.

    Good luck.

    If they say “No, we will need to pour new concrete lanes”, start fighting for rail.

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