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The Designer Discount

Density keeps energy costs down

April 6, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


A key ingredient to a fuel efficient economy: putting people and the places they want to be in closer proximity, otherwise known in planner-speak as "density."

To the select group of common rituals that really attract people’s attention -- like stepping on the scale, enjoying a really good piece of cheese cake, spotting the tattoo that suddenly appeared over your teenage daughter’s navel -- add one more: Filling the gas tank. Thanks to steadily climbing oil prices, the latter has become particularly noteworthy, so much so that after languishing as a non-issue for years, the cost of fuel is pushing its way back onto the public agenda.

Gas-sipping hybrids are flying off new car lots as fast as they arrive while, for the first time in decades, legislators—at least at the state level—are discussing fuel conservation without fearing for their political lives. Seven northeastern states have already adopted California's clean car standards, which give a huge boost to vehicle fuel economy, and Washington and Oregon are considering joining the clean car bandwagon.

Know Thy Neighborhood Better
But while improving vehicle efficiency is an important step, it’s only one half of the job. The other half -- certainly less heralded, but arguably just as important -- is to design cities and neighborhoods so that we drive less. After all, improving gas mileage doesn’t mean much if we have to travel longer distances to get where we need to go. Urban planners have long understood the key ingredient to fuel-efficient neighborhood design:  Putting people and the places they want to be in closer proximity, otherwise known in planner-speak as "density."

When it comes to energy efficiency, density is good. More compact neighborhoods place destinations closer together, which not only allows for shorter car trips, but also makes it possible for residents to make some trips on foot, bike, or transit. Compact community design can save just as much gas as a well designed car engine.

Low density, however, is an ever bigger problem in America. Spread out community designs -- with big lawns, wide boulevards, huge parking lots -- force destinations farther apart, making cars a necessity for every trip. 

New York is #1
A look at recent gas consumption trends confirms the planners’ insight. According to the Federal Highway Administration, from 2001 through 2003 residents of New York used the least gasoline, person for person, of any state: about 0.8 gallons per person per day, a third less than the national average. That should come as little surprise. New York City -- which makes up a sizable chunk of the state's population -- is dense enough to allow many of its residents to get by perfectly well without cars, except for the occasional taxi. 

The runners-up to New York were a little more unexpected: Hawaii, with high priced gas and surprisingly dense Honolulu; Rhode Island, dominated by urban Providence; and Illinois, which has a significant share of residents in urban Chicago and its dense inner suburbs. 

States with high gas consumption, on the other hand, tend to be rural, to have particularly sprawling cities, or both. Residents of wide open Wyoming use the most gasoline of any state. Not far behind are sprawling Georgia and South Carolina and predominantly rural Vermont.

Density figures in longer-term gas consumption trends as well: States that have controlled growth in sprawling, low-density suburbs have actually managed to reduce per capita gasoline consumption over the past two and a half decades. 

West is Urbanizing
Take, for example, Nevada. That’s right, Nevada. Today, the Silver State’s residents use about 1.2 gallons of gas per person per day. That’s close to the national average, but a decline of nearly one third since 1976-1978, the peak period for per capita gas consumption in both the state and the nation overall. In terms of reductions in gas consumption, no other state is in the same league.

The other states that saw significant reductions in gas consumption per capita were predominantly western: New Mexico (-20%), Oregon (-19%), and Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Utah (-16%). Yes, Wyoming residents still use a lot of gas, but they’re apparently doing better than they used to.

These results may come as a bit of surprise. Oregon’s efforts to control urban sprawl are nationally known. But few people think of Las Vegas or Santa Fe as Smart Growth meccas.

However, Western states — Nevada in particular — are rapidly urbanizing. According to census data, for example, Las Vegas was the fastest growing big city in the country, with a population increase of 83 percent in a decade. These trends herald a major population shift, in which more and more residents of the arid West must be classed as city slickers. And city folks tend to use less gas than their rural counterparts.

The lesson is clear:  If we want to use less gas, we need to pay close attention to how cities grow. Places that have done a good job of reining in low-density development have positioned themselves well for a world of rising gas prices.

Clark Williams-Derry, who writes about land use policy and environmental trends, is the research director of Northwest Environment Watch, a public policy think tank and advocacy organization in Seattle. Reach him at clark@northwestwatch.org. For more commentary on sprawl and Smart Growth see the Elm Street Writers Group.

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