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Commuting Impact Should Figure In Site Selection

Amanda Kennedy

November 07, 2010

It's a standard occurrence in planning and development: A company decides to build a new headquarters at a highway interchange greenfield, relocating workers from existing downtown office space. Local officials pursue the development for tax revenue, and state subsidies help the company build the new facility. The consequence: a potentially dramatic shift in the miles traveled by employees each day as they adjust to a location away from transit and their present homes.

What if there was a way to predict a crucial aspect of site location: the average number of miles that workers and customers would have to travel to get there? Predicting vehicle miles traveled (VMT) generated by a development would, among other things, enable us to measure its carbon emissions footprint from transportation.

The Connecticut General Assembly has set an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent from 2001 levels by 2050. If we're to reach these targets, we've got to start considering how individual site decisions play a role in our use of private vehicles for transportation.

Well, Connecticut now has such a tool. Over the last year, funding from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has supported Regional Plan Association research into the interaction between the built environment and carbon emissions. One result of this research is a tool that estimates the length of vehicle commutes to work for both home and job sites in Connecticut. This tool enables us to quickly predict the amount of vehicle travel generated by various development scenarios.

For example, we can predict that staff at the soon-to-be-expanded UConn Health Center probably would have 20 percent shorter commutes if the new facility were built in an urban center such as Meriden, instead of at the existing campus in suburban Farmington. Or that we can expect that new housing near an existing corporate office park north of Hartford would reduce vehicle travel by allowing more workers to live near their jobs. Urban infill in Hartford should have about half the emissions impact from transportation that new subdivisions have in the region's outer suburbs.

In 2005, the Governor's Steering Committee on Climate Change released its Climate Change Action Plan, which outlines the strategies to reduce emissions that can help us avert the most serious effects of climate change. As a coastal state, Connecticut has already had to deal with unpredictable weather (tornado in Bridgeport, anyone?) and scientists think that our environment could become more like Virginia or Georgia than New England if emissions are not drastically reduced.

Reaching this goal will mean taking our interim goals seriously (10 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020) and undergoing a wholesale shift in where our energy comes from and how it is used. The steering committee continues to refine and evaluate strategies and measure the state's progress in implementing the plan.

The transportation sector (mostly cars and trucks) generates 40 percent of Connecticut's carbon emissions today. The action plan has led to Connecticut adopting California standards for fuel efficiency and support for developing fuel-cell vehicles, but these tactics won't be enough to reduce transportation-related emissions. We'll need to actually reduce the amount we drive and lessen our dependence on personal vehicles.

For decades, vehicle use has been growing faster than the population, reflecting the growth of sprawling communities far from jobs and shopping, two-income households that must compromise on housing located midway between employers in two different cities, and the difficulty of taking transit or even carpooling to office parks in distant locations.

The action plan asks for a very modest improvement in VMT a reduction in expected VMT growth from 22 percent to 19 percent in 2020. Seems simple enough, but in a slow-growing state like Connecticut, transformative change of the magnitude needed to enable transit and pedestrian options for residents of every community will come slowly.

Some communities have made real progress toward becoming more walkable. Stamford has focused on bolstering its downtown population, and retailers are opening downtown drugstores and supermarkets to meet the demand. West Hartford now has the makings of a car-free community, with Blue Back Square providing shops and housing and the adjacent Whole Foods, but the project's reliance on parking revenues for profitability suggests that most people will still be driving in from elsewhere.

If we're going to meet our VMT reduction goals, we can't just focus on getting people out of their cars entirely. Simply being smarter about putting jobs near the workforce, and focusing housing development near existing jobs can be a huge step toward reducing carbon emissions from transportation.

Connecticut is ripe for smarter land-use planning: A new governor will take office in January, and 2011 will also see the creation of a new state Plan of Conservation and Development. Ultimately, state and local plans will have to make use of a tool like the one we've created to evaluate the emissions generated by our land-use patterns.

Amanda Kennedy is an associate planner with the Connecticut office of the Regional Plan Association in Stamford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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