Radiant Cities: Suburbia edition

New book offers a prescription for 21st century suburbia

Pay no attention to the images of skeletal subdivisions abandoned in the face of high gas prices (remember those?) and the burst housing bubble: Suburbia is not dead. It's not even dying. Half of all Americans live in suburban areas, and 40 percent of American jobs are rooted there. But our suburbs are unsustainable, and not because we've rediscovered the joys of urban dwelling and a connection between vehicle miles traveled and quality of life ... and air. In fact, the greatest threat to suburbs over the next decade is this: "There might not be enough people to live in them." So says June Williamson, author of Retrofitting Suburbia. In the 1950s, 50 percent of American households had children. Now, says Williamson, that percentage has shrunk to 35; by 2030, it'll be down to 25 percent. Without families to fill those McMansions, suburbs will need new housing types for retirees who want to downsize and grown children who wish to remain close to home (though this unearthed article has one housewife comparing suburbia to jail). Not all those folks want to shift into urban centers, or can afford to. So suburbia is due for a massive makeover. Yes, it's time for a retrofit.

Convenient facts about an inconvenient truth, part 2

A detailed look at building, industry, transportation, and land-use greenhouse-gas emissions

Greenhouse gases come in two basic flavors: carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and emissions from land use -- agriculture, forests, peat bogs, and waste management. Fossil fuels are primarily used for energy in three sectors: buildings, industry, and transportation. Transportation is almost entirely oil-based -- according to the International Energy Association, about 0.1 percent of transportation energy currently comes from electricity. Just to make things complicated, people use fossil fuels to make electricity to use in buildings and industry. Well, actually, we use fossil fuels to make electricity -- and -- we use fossil fuels to make heat to use in buildings and industry. In my previous post, I presented some pretty exciting tables summarizing this global state of affairs (and the accompanying Google workbook). Now, in part 2, a detailed look at building, industry, transportation, and land-use emissions:

Game changer

Upgrade freight rail: Save 12 percent of oil, 4 percent of emissions, and jumpstart renewable grid

On the theory that many people who encounter Alan Drake's own words on greening freight end up overwhelmed by the details, I have presented a very simplified version of Drake's proposal with my own opinions. This is a deliberate attempt to focus on the most important points, and then steer people to read the whole thing. [Update: The Washington Monthly has a long article on this as well.] Obviously the disagreement with Drake, as well as the political analysis at the end, is my own judgment. In addition Drake does not know me, though we've corresponded briefly, and he has no responsibility for anything I wrote. Grist has discussed Alan Drake's proposal for greening freight before, but somehow it's always mentioned in passing and without real recognition that it's such a game changer. By switching 85 percent of long-haul trucking to rail, we could reduce U.S. oil use by about 12 percent and total U.S. emissions by about 4 percent. In addition, it would add long-distance power transmission across the lines of regional grids, creating a true U.S. national grid to share power from coast to coast and from north to south, and it would add-high speed passenger travel. Since it would depend almost entirely on existing rail rights-of-way, the environmental impact is small compared to transmission projects and transit projects that use new rights-of-way. Drake starts with the fact that long-distance freight trucking consumes about half as much oil as passenger transport, and that unlike passenger transport, we have an existing heavy rail system that can move goods with about eight times the energy efficiency of trucking. That system already reaches most destinations where we want to move goods. If we switched to rail, we would still need to use trucks to move goods to and from freight yards, but containerization makes that simple. That is the good news. The bad news is that our existing rail system won't let us make this switch on a large scale. Today's freight rail operates near capacity now, and existing rail freight is slow and unreliable as compared to trucking. Drake proposes that we upgrade our system, add various new controls and infrastructure, build second tracks besides existing rail runs, and electrify the most heavily trafficked routes, which allows trains to run at higher speeds, giving a capacity boost over and above that provided by additional tracks. These modifications provide vastly improved capacity, speed, and reliability, and they reduce energy requirements per freight-ton. Moreover, this transformation requires only standard technology in use today throughout the world.

Urban doubt-fitter

What Obama's picks signal for urban policy

Who are President Obama's key urban policy advisers? What do his pickes for Housing and Urban Development and Transportation say about an Obama urban policy?

Phoenix will rise from the ashes

Phoenix: What happens when a city built on growth begins to shrink?

During a session called "Sustainability and Growth: How Can a City Develop Sustainably When its Identity is Built on Growth?" at the American Meteorological Society convention, a development expert named Grady Grammage colorfully dispelled some myths and revealed some little-known truths about Phoenix. One myth: Phoenix is unsustainable because it imports water. Virtually all cities import water, Grammage pointed out, even New York, not to mention countless other necessities for urban life, such as food, fuel, and steel. Phoenix arguably has a more stable supply of water than numerous other cities, such as San Diego, because Phoenix imports its water from numerous sources, albeit at great distances. In Grammage's view, a bigger question is "habitability," and he brought up the Urban Heat Island Effect, which he thinks, based on surveys, will drive more Phoenicians out of the state by 2020 than those who move in from other states. Grammage reports that when he expressed this view, various public officials and "water buffaloes" -- water experts -- in Phoenix scoffed.They think Phoenix could support as many as 10 million people -- more than twice its current population.

Be careful, green building

How to make an industry irrelevant in one easy step

The mayor of Franklin, Tenn., vetoed some of the green elements of the new police headquarters in order to save money. The first thing to go? Bamboo wainscoting.

Cold hands, warm green buildings

New England tops in energy-efficient office buildings

Apparently New England leads the way in energy-efficient office buildings. Now if only there was anyone left to work in them.

Forests, trees, gas taxes, and mileage taxes

Before we debate gas taxes vs. mileage taxes, Oregonians must pay for roads with those taxes

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (D) has attracted a lot of attention by calling for an expansion of a pilot program that replaces the gas tax with a per-mile tax which charges the same fee to a Hummer driver as a Prius driver. The pros and cons of mileage taxes vs. gas taxes are discussed in a post to the political blog BlueOregon, and the same essay was sent out as a query on a transportation activists' listserv. I started several times to respond ... But I end up stopping, because this whole discussion ignores the elephant -- heck, the blue whale -- in the driveway.

Make the White House into passivhaus?

Cool idea.