Making changes to the way communities are currently designed is the only way we can sustain our environmental quality and economic growth. Change is hard. People get used to “the way things are” and resist new ideas. Transportation is an especially tough issue because some of the things that improve transportation require change, and are counter-intuitive. In short, the changes we need to make to improve transportation don’t seem like they’ll give us what we want or don’t seem logical. For example: More people do not equal more cars. In fact, more people equal fewer cars.
Most of us know that getting into our individual cars and heading into work adds to pollution and depletes our fuel resources. In addition to soaring insurance rates and the cost of fuel, our cars pollute both air and water. Nationwide, 25 percent of water pollution comes from the air. In Tampa Bay, 50 percent of water pollution comes from the air — and that includes air pollution from cars. We know public transportation, which takes cars off the roads, is less costly and better for the environment. But public transportation is inconvenient with our schedules, with our destinations or with our after-work plans.
High-density, walkable, mixed-use communities provide jobs and life amenities all within walking distance of residents’ homes. Developments that are planning for the future make transportation a central element in their design. In a smart, green development, when you can’t walk, you can take mass-transit or another alternative method of transportation. Mixed-use developments promote the use of mass transit by incorporating bus stops within the community. Where possible, these communities also include multi-modal hubs, which connect to public transit outside of the community with intra-community transportation. Grady Pridgen communities are planned to include an internal trolley system, and loaner electric cars, bicycles and Segways that can be used within the communities.
All of these transportation methods help us create “zero carbon footprint” communities. A “carbon footprint” is the measure of green house gases produced by burning fossil fuels. Green house gases increase global warming, a severe problem that is raising our ocean levels by approximately 1 ft. every 33 years. Although we can’t eliminate all fossil fuels within a community, we can promote alternative methods of energy used to balance green house gas emissions. In short, the smaller our carbon footprints, the more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly are our developments.
Now, let’s take a look at the big picture: With mass-transit and alternative transportation methods in place, residents reduce car expenses, such as gas, insurance and car maintenance. This enables residents to put more money toward other living expenses. With urban living more desirable and affordable, we reduce urban sprawl. We decrease air and water pollution. We decrease the effects of global warming. We decrease the need for new roads and highways. And we revitalize the tax base in our urban areas. You see, changes to our transportation system can lead to significant changes in our communities, our lives and our future.
Change is coming
Today, it costs more to build a mile of road than it does to build a mile of rail, but that doesn’t mean that rail is the answer to crowded roads, long commutes or costly car ownership. Rail could be part of the solution, but there’s much more. It starts with planned communities within and close to our urban centers.
We must build multi-use, high-density, walkable communities. These communities provide everything residents need—employment, housing and life amenities—within walking distance. Forget the myth you’ve heard about high-density communities: More people do not equal more cars. More people mean amenities, such as open space, parks, water features and public art, are more affordable.
Earlier planning practices suggested that the way to manage growth is to limit density. Although limiting the number of people in a specific area and limiting traffic sounds logical, it just doesn’t work. The truth is that urban sprawl—resulting in more roads, more traffic on these roads and more cars per family—has been caused by these earlier planning practices. When we increase the density and put more people in a specific location, we can develop infrastructure that supports their lives. On the other hand, when people live far from their work, the result is traffic, pollution, lost time and environmental impacts.
To make our lives convenient and affordable, we need changes in the growth management laws. For instance, Orlando has set MINIMUM densities, rather than MAXIMUM densities. We also need to encourage municipalities to redistrict development areas by creating “no build” zones outside of employment centers. We need to provide incentives to urban developers/redevelopers to encourage brownfield revitalization. Right now, it costs more for a developer to redevelop urban property than it does to build on suburban open space. On the other hand, it costs more for communities to build the infrastructure to support suburban development than it does for the developer. If we want growth to pay for itself, we need to focus on redeveloping our cities.
With these measures in place, transportation departments will become mass transit planners and Interstates will become mass transit corridors. We’ll build fewer roads, we’ll have fewer cars on the road, we’ll protect the air and water quality in Tampa Bay, we’ll live healthier—and we’ll have more money in our pockets.
When we take this one step further and connect well-planned, mixed-use developments to other major work centers via rail, we’ll take even more cars off the road. This is smart growth, and it’s the only way that we can keep up with the region’s population growth and protect our quality of life.
The future is now
About seven years ago, companies considering relocating to Tampa Bay began to ask us, “Where will our employees live?” Our research suggested that people would move to Pasco or Manatee counties to be able to afford a home. Of course, those were the days before gas was $2.50 a gallon, before the hurricanes drove insurance costs through the roof and before a commute included an hour in each direction.
We’re dealing with a different situation today, with a new set of challenges and priorities. Changing how we think about development and ensuring that transportation is central to it is a great place to start. Connecting our economic development to the quality of our lives improves both.