The Vision Thing: Falling Vehicle Travel as an Opportunity for Transformation

We should see the changes of the last decade as a personalized, hand-delivered invitation to think deeper and work harder to identify new opportunities to make our communities cleaner, healthier and more sustainable over the long term.

Earlier this week, LOCUS released a fascinating new report on trends in walkable development in major American cities. In this write-up of the report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, LOCUS president and Brookings Institution fellow Chris Leinberger asserted that, in the future, 80 percent of all new development in metropolitan areas will be walkable.

Leinberger’s 80 percent figure jumped out at me because it would have been met with great skepticism in many circles just five or 10 years ago. In March 2013, for example, we blogged about this study from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that pooh-poohed the possibility that 75 percent of new development could be built in compact areas – a step that a 2009 Transportation Research Board study (PDF) found could deliver significant reductions in fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. The NAS panel concluded that achieving such a high rate of compact development would require an “extreme reorganization of national economic activity” and expressed skepticism that land-use changes could result in significant reductions in vehicle travel.

As the LOCUS report demonstrates, that “extreme reorganization” is already underway in cities such as Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, Miami and Atlanta, which are increasingly transitioning away from auto-oriented sprawl and toward walkable development.

I believe that most of us – including many advocates for sustainable transportation – underestimate the significance and magnitude of the change that is underway in how we build our communities and in Americans’ transportation preferences and needs. I can say this with confidence because I was once one of the underestimators. A decade or so ago, as my Frontier Group colleagues and I helped non-profit groups develop state-level policy blueprints for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we recommended that states adopt a suite of policies designed to limit growth in vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) to the rate of population growth. That goal seemed ambitious at the time; now, not so much.

It would be a tremendous missed opportunity, I think, if we were merely to view the recent reductions in VMT – and, by extension, energy use, carbon pollution, congestion, etc. – as the result of powerful yet uncontrollable forces mysteriously at work in the world. Rather, we should see the changes of the last decade for what I believe them to be: a personalized, hand-delivered invitation to think deeper and work harder to identify new opportunities to make our communities cleaner, healthier and more sustainable over the long term.

As I look at the surge in demand for walkable living (especially among the young) documented in the LOCUS report, the rise of mobile technology and shared-use mobility, and the spirit of innovation sweeping cities across the country, I have the sense that we’re at the beginning of something rather than at the end of it. Or rather, that we could be at the beginning of something if all of us recognize the opportunities for lasting change that are presenting themselves in rapid-fire fashion in all different types of communities across the country, and then resolve to invest the effort and resources needed to take full advantage of them.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.