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Greenhouse gas reductions

Livable Houston Initiative

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UPDATE (7/28/09, 2:32 pm): Video added at bottom of post.

At the Livable Houston meeting on July 22, Uri Avin, Practice Leader in Regional Growth Management at Parsons Brinkerhoff, discussed regional transportation-related greenhouse gas reductions. He cited three regions - Northern Atlanta, Charlotte, and Tysons Corner, VA - as examples.

Transportation-related greenhouse gas reduction has five legs, Avin said. Three of the legs are widely known and discussed: increasing vehicle efficiency, creating low-carbon fuels, and reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT). However, he said that the other two legs - vehicle operations and construction, maintenance, and agency operations - are just as important. For instance, Avin noted that drivers could reduce greenhouse gases by 10 percent just by driving better. It would take significant changes in vehicle efficiency, VMT, and land use to achieve a similar reduction, he said.

State greenhouse gas targets are “all over the map,” according to Avin. For instance, Vermont aims to achieve 49 percent of its reductions from smart growth and transit, while that strategy only produces 8 percent reduction in Connecticut. New York expects the majority of its gains to come from increasing vehicle efficiency and lower VMT, while that strategy is a small factor in South Carolina.

Avin said that reducing VMT is not the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The VMT growth rate has been declining during each of the last five decades, which he attributed to a saturation in car ownership and more women in the workforce, greatly increasing the number of workplace commuters. Others in the audience suggested it may also be because the baseline VMT has gotten so large that percentage growth keeps shrinking. Avin said that trying to reduce VMT was “working at the margins.” However, he also said that measurable declines in VMT could result from congestion pricing, VMT fees, and other forms of fees and tolling, which are more effective than increasing transit and transforming land use.

Atlanta, Avin said, is actually less dense, more sprawling, and less connected than Houston according to several index factors. The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority was formed to tackle these issues, and it compared several different scenarios, including business-as-usual, local planning, and regional planning. In Charlotte, Parsons Brinckerhoff conducted a study to support a sales tax that would raise $50 million per year for transit. The most important variable in transit ridership, it found, is service frequency. And in Tysons Corner, Virginia, one of the nation’s largest business centers, officials have turned to transit-oriented urban planning to reduce greenhouse gases. Four heavy rail stations will open in Tysons Corner in 2011, and the area will be redeveloped along a more gridded system with better connectivity.

Avin answered a number of questions from the audience. One participant asked how Tysons Corner agreed to implement a new street grid, and Avin replied that there are only about 18 large property owners in the area, and they assumed that the area will be redeveloped for greater profit. Another asked which states have the best smart growth policies. Avin responded that Oregon is the most prominent example, but that other states such as Florida, California, and Maine have made attempts. However, he said that most attempts have not made any impact. To actually change land use, he said that such incentives and policies must include school buildings and water and sewer infrastructure. Without those services, he said, areas will not develop.

Avin said that metropolitan regions along the west coast have had more success in creating smart growth, particularly through joint powers authority which is allowed in certain states. One of the audience members criticized the models, saying that people adapt to changing circumstances in ways that cannot be predicted by models. Avin agreed that models are imperfect, but he said that they are still good indicators and can predict behavior well into the future.

Avin was also asked about the value of beltways and ring roads, which he suggested can be useful tools as long as they allow for transit systems as well.

Livable Houston Initiative: Uri Avin: Part One of Two

Livable Houston Initiative: Uri Avin: Part Two of Two

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