How We Get Around Determines What We Build, and Also Determines Much of Our Carbon Footprint

credit: Housing in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter

Transportation has a much bigger impact on urban design than we think.

On Tuesday afternoons in winter I teach sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design at Ryerson University in Toronto. We have covered many of these themes on TreeHugger, but I recently turned a lecture into a post, which turned out to be popular here. It also was a great dress rehearsal for me, so I am going to do this again with my upcoming lecture on Transportation.

Teslas in Dorset

Can these get me to work? /Teslas in Dorset, Ontario/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

A dozen years ago, Alex Steffen wrote a brilliant article for the late lamented Worldchanging, titled My other car is a bright green city, in which he dissed Teslas and wrote:

There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

He titled the section "What We Build Dictates How We Get Around," which I disagreed with, thinking he had it backwards; I thought it should be How we get around dictates what we build.


© Goad's Atlas

My favourite example is my own home in Toronto, which in 1884 was farmland just west of what's called Ossington Avenue in the middle of the map. To the south of it is Davenport Road, at the bottom of an escarpment that was very difficult to climb, limiting growth in in the area.


City of Toronto/Public Domain

To the east was a deep ravine that was very difficult to cross, again limiting development.


City of Toronto/Public Domain

They filled in that ditch, mostly with toxic stuff that came out of coal furnaces and garbage, but nonetheless it was solid enough that they could install streetcar lines on top.


© Goad's Atlas

Within a decade, all the farmland was gone and there were houses everywhere.


Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The Streetcar Suburb

But it was not sprawl; the houses were all on relatively narrow lots, close together, because they all had to be in walking distance of that streetcar line. It's been called a Streetcar Suburb, and today it might be called Transit Oriented Development. Sarah Stewart of Streetcar Press defined it:

A streetcar suburb usually has small lots, a conspicuous absence of individual driveways (as in my neighbourhood, some houses may have no driveways at all, or may have "mutual drives" shared between two houses) with any garages present as outbuildings behind the houses.
dedicated row

City of Toronto/Public Domain

Retail with housing above developed on the main street, St. Clair Ave; in the late 20s, with the car taking over as the preferred means of transport, the dedicated right of way was removed to make more room for cars.


City of Toronto/Public Domain

Humans were now relegated to little traffic islands while cars got all the space and could even drive on the tracks. And for the next 90 years there was chaos and conflict between cars and transit. But although there were attempts at getting rid of Toronto's streetcars, they never totally disappeared.

credit: Wisconsin Historical society

Wisconsin Historical society/Public Domain

Here come the car-oriented suburbs

After the Second World War, the way we got around changed to the car. Suddenly there were highways connecting cities, and people were using them to get out of town.

credit: Levittown Pennsylvania via Wikipedia

Levittown Pennsylvania via Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

You no longer had to be close to a main street; you could get in your car to go shopping. I have written that this was all part of a larger plan by the American government to disperse the population, industry and offices to make them less of a target for Russian nuclear bombs; as Kathleen Tobin wrote in The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence:

Bell labs

Bell Labs: out of the city and into a park/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

It is wrong to believe that postwar American suburbanization prevailed because the public chose it and will continue to prevail until the public changes its preferences. ... Suburbanization prevailed because of the decisions of large operators and powerful economic institutions supported by federal government programmes, and ordinary consumers had little real choice in the basic pattern that resulted.

Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

And that is how we got endless sprawl, all around the world; the car was so convenient, the fossil fuel industry so powerful, the stick-framed houses so cheap that it became the defining built form in North America. It was obvious to me that the way we got around determined what we built.

Jarrett Walker Tweet

Jarrett Walker Tweet/Screen capture

But as Jarrett Walker recently tweeted, it's not one or the other, they are so interrelated that they are the same thing. I wrote after seeing his tweet:

Making and operating buildings are 39 percent of our carbon emissions, and what is transportation? Driving between buildings. What is industry doing? Mostly building cars and transportation infrastructure. They are all the same thing in different languages, interconnected; you can't have one without the other. To build a sustainable society we have to think about them all together – the materials we use, what we build, where we build, and how we get between it all.
Emissions by sector

Emissions by sector/ Architecture 2030/CC BY 2.0

This is why you simply cannot talk about buildings without talking about transportation. Because probably one of the biggest components of the industry sector is making cars and bridges and roads for the transportation sector so that everyone can get between buildings.

TOD report


Transit Oriented Development is the future

This is why I keep going on about Transit Oriented Development defined by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy as:

TOD implies high quality, thoughtful planning and design of land use and built forms to support, facilitate and prioritize not only the use of transit, but the most basic modes of transport, walking and cycling.
simple exteriors

Simple exteriors of dumb boxes in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

All of this is possible if we build at what some call 'the missing middle' and that I have called the Goldilocks Density, which you see in so much of Europe.

Rows of dumb boxes in Munich

Rows of low dumb boxes in Munich/CC BY 2.0

...dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.
©. Mike Eliason/ that doesn't look like social housing!

© Mike Eliason/ that doesn't look like social housing!

In Vienna, there is no sprawl. Almost everyone lives in multifamily buildings connected by tram and subway and bike lanes. There are cars, but you certainly don't need one. It's not a tough life.



More recently, the ITDP has noted that e-bikes and micromobility solutions like scooters might well change the planning picture:

One significant challenge in mode shift – getting people out of cars and onto other forms of transit, particularly public transportation – is the first and last mile problem. This problem occurs when people do not have low cost and efficient means for reaching mass transit, thus making them unlikely to shift modes away from motor vehicles. One of the major opportunities presented by electric micromobility vehicles is the ability to fill the first and last mile gap. For instance, e-scooters can be ridden by almost anyone, regardless of fitness or ability, for a short distance. E-bicycles can cover longer distances, making them more practical for first and last mile.
CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Copenhagen bike lane

Lloyd Alter/ Copenhagen bike lane/CC BY 2.0

I believe that this is indeed the case, that we will soon have Bike Oriented Design, as they pretty much do in Copenhagen now, and then e-bike oriented design, which covers larger areas and welcomes more people. Because bikes and e-bikes are climate action. But as the ITDP notes,

To reap these benefits and support electric modes of transport, cities should begin by making sure that low-speed e-bikes and e-scooters (under 25 kph) are legal and regulated like bicycles, not motor vehicles. Cities should also reinforce existing cycling infrastructure to accommodate more e-bicycles and e-scooters. If cycling infrastructure does not exist, this is the opportunity to build it.
St. Clair today

St. Clair Avenue in Toronto today/CC BY 2.0

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, they rebuilt St. Clair again, re-installing the dedicated right-of-way. Rob Ford called it "the St. Clair Disaster" and his brother Doug, now the Premier of Ontario, is spending billions to bury transit because he hates streetcars that take away space for cars. Yet on every second block along this street, there is another new condo being constructed, basically organic Transit Oriented Development. It has made many millions of dollars worth of development possible, added thousands of apartments, and lots of the new residents don't own cars because they just don't need them. That's why Jarrett Walker is so spot on: Land use and transportation are the same thing, described in different languages.