Infrastructure v. Economy: The Battle Continues

In the battle for pedestrian-oriented streets, it’s clear that walkability isn’t the only thing at stake. The heavy economic and environmental burden of auto-centric roads and utilities is starting to become painfully obvious. Both in scholarly research and the daily management decisions by local governments.

While compact development patterns are cheaper to build, they’re also cheaper to maintain. During a meeting of midwestern county governments last month, it was reported that most midwestern paved county roads soon will be turned back into gravel. This midwestern trend has been escalating over the last 12 months, as counties grapple with dwindling budgets. Repaving one mile of road costs about $120,000, while grinding it up into a gravel road costs $4,000, according to an article from Kalamazoo News. Lowering the cost 30 times leaves little choice for many strapped county governments.

The grass is always greener when it's slowly destroying your infrastructure.

From a more metropolitan perspective, this summer Calgary estimated compact development patterns would save them $11.2 billion in infrastructure costs, making it 33% less expensive to build the roads, transit, water, recreation, fire, and schools that it expects to need over the next 60 years.

The US EPA commissioned Morris Beacon Design this summer for a study on the subject, indicating TND infrastructure costs 32% to 47% less than conventional development patterns. Calgary pegs the lower end of this spectrum.

Taking a more holistic view of economy, energy, and emissions, The Transportation Research Board released “Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions” this month. This report details the effects of land development patterns and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on petroleum use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While the findings are completely obvious to urbanists, it’s good to see some quantifications through the scholarly attentions of this 180 page study. The primary findings are:

1: Compact development reduces VMT.
2: Doubling residential density while increasing nearby employment, transit, and mixed use can decrease VMT by 25%.
3: Compact, mixed-use development produces reductions in energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
4: These reductions will grow over time.
5: The biggest obstacle is zoning — regional and state governments need to take a stronger role in land use planning.

More governments than ever are starting to step up to this plate, to enact the sorts of zoning reforms that can:
1. Decrease their costs of building and maintaining infrastructure,
2. Decrease the amount of oil and natural gas required to fuel their local economies, and
3. Cap their local greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s an informal support group of some of the governments currently undertaking exactly the sort of zoning reform that can achieve these lofty yet expedient goals.

— Hazel Borys