Urban Life and Reduced Carbon Consumption: Go Big or Stay Home

Gas is constantly flirting with $4 a gallon, and like any good rational economic actors, many of us are trying to come up with solutions to lessen our dependence on cars.

In the case of myself and Tori, the focal point of our low-car crusade is our relocation from car-dependent ‘burbs (Birdland and Oceanside, respectively) to North Park, which is described by the website walkscore.com as a “Walker’s Paradise“.  Intuitively speaking, this seems like a good idea.  We now use a combination of walking and biking to get just about everywhere in the uptown area, and have even ridden our bikes as far as Petco Park and the museums on El Prado.  Groceries, bars, Padres games, and all sorts of good cultural nonsense are available without the use of a car.

I’m proud of myself for getting this far, but apparently fine people at grist.org think people like us have our heart in the right place but are not doing enough.  Why?  Because the lessened amount of vehicle miles travelled only materialize in areas with extremely high densities:

The inflexibility of our automobile usage boils down to a few factors, with work being the most important. The more workers in a household, the more drivers, and the more drivers, the more miles. A one-driver household, as noted above, tallies 10,100 miles per year; a two-driver household racks up 18,800 miles; three drivers, 33,900; four drivers, 47,700.[1] We are, by and large, beholden to our cars because we are beholden to our jobs.

Here’s the kicker: while moving to medium-density does not seem to have much effect on the amount of miles we travel in vehicles, it does seem to affect per-capita fuel usage.  How does that work, you ask?  It seems like there would be quite a bit of work required to sort out the causal factors there, but here’s a couple of thoughts:

  1. The author’s conclusion that “People with the space to use pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans tend to buy them more than people who live and drive on tighter city streets — they typically drive smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.” This is true, but does that really create the entire efficiency gain?
  2. My own personal experience of carpooling.  Living in a dense neighborhood means that you are much more likely to live close to coworkers.  In my case, I’m carpooling quite often with a coworker in the neighborhood to our jobs in North Park.  I’m still travelling the same number of vehicle miles, but we split the gas burden.
  3. Is bus/taxi/etc. usage factored into these per capita stats?  While riding a bus will not affect your vehicle-miles, it would certainly affect your share of the gas burden.

Based on this data, the draws the conclusion that increased fuel efficiency beats moving into the city for short-term reduction in fuel consumption.  Can we be so sure on that, though?  What’s his definition of ‘high-density’ in the first place?  It appears to be any number greater than 5,000 people per square mile.

So where does not-too-dense-but-still-urban area like North Park fit into this? Apparently we come in at a whopping 11,000 residents per square mile.  Really?  We could live somewhere half as dense and still show large reductions in our fuel usage?  I must have a different idea of “high-density” than grist.org’s Tim De Chant.

About Eric

San Diegan, patriot, connoisseur of finely-hopped ales, poor writer.
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