Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Devil is in the Distance

I spent part of the work day yesterday riding to Home Depot with an extremely nice contractor named Jose. Jose is laying tile at the place where I work and he needed to go pick up some more materials, so my boss sent me with the credit card. Jose is a middle-age Dominican man who has been living in the U.S. for over 20 years - his English is very good, and his three children all know English better than they know Spanish.

We talked about a lot of different things during the fifteen minute ride to Home Depot, but one of the most surprising topics that came up was Jose's view on the urban planning in North Carolina. We were talking about how he spent 2008 in North Carolina doing work because there was not much work here on Long Island. He was going on about how much cheaper it is to rent and buy a house down South, but then he made a very astute observation:

"Everyone there [in North Carolina] tells you that where you have to go 'is close, it's very close'. But it's not close, they just mean that it takes a short time to get there. You always have to get on a highway and go 70 or 80 miles an hour to get to where you want to go. When I lived there it seemed like I spent $40 a day in gas for my work van because everything is so far apart. It's not like here."

Jose's comment is right on, and it reminded me once again that planning effects everyone, and that everyone actually grasps planning's effects on some level.

But Jose's observation also nails down a design flaw intrinsic to sprawl that has a cumulative effect on our lives: distance. When we design low-density, auto-oriented places with little regard for location efficiency, the distance a person must travel every day grows exponentially. Even if the time needed for travel stays the same (10 miles in Charlotte tends to take the same amount of time as 2 miles in Brooklyn), the mileage itself is the problem.

A phone interviewer asked me once what I thought was the biggest problem facing world societies with regard to the environment. My answer was that we will have to grapple with the sheer quantity of energy we consume and will continue to consume.

We in the developed world are extraordinary energy wasters at present, and the evidence is all around us: excessive packaging, wasted food, unnecessary lighting, buildings that act as sieves instead of as envelopes, lengthy commutes, the list goes on. Imagine a world where we continue on our present track toward more waste, more exurbs, and lower quality construction. Then imagine that for a few billion more people, and then imagine that some of our developing country friends are trying to jump on board with our ways.

Even if we find some miracle, clean, abundant energy source, the simple fact that our lifestyles require so much unnecessary energy is going to damn us. Acquisition, generation, and transmission will always have some costs (environmental, monetary, social, etc.); the hungrier we become for more energy, the more we will pay.

The answer to the problem is "waste not, want not". As a society, we have to understand that we cannot continue building our cities further and further out into the greenfields. The further we place ourselves from the necessary things in our lives, the bigger energy hogs we become. In essence, as Steve Mouzon pointed out in his Original Green blog, there is a bit of a fallacy behind efficiency as a panacea. More miles per gallon is a nice idea, but it will never solve the energy problem if we are all driving ten times as far to get where we are going.

1 comment:

  1. Bill Gates recently remarked that what we need most of all isn't really efficiency but "an energy miracle" given our current rates of consumption. The issue with rehabilitating sprawl really in this country is the fact that we're putting a bandage on a tumor. I do agree that we will have to fundamentally alter our mentality and lifestyle but the question really is if we can.