Jul 5, 2023 - Energy & Environment

The many benefits of "building for proximity"

Average annual miles traveled per household, by metro area
Data: Brookings; Note: Includes all biking, walking, transit and vehicle miles; Map: Alice Feng/Axios Visuals

A new analysis makes a data-rich case for thinking way bigger than electric vehicles to slash transportation emissions — and boost quality of life in the process.

The big picture: A Brookings Institution study maps proximity to "activity centers" and provides a detailed look at whether people take advantage of shorter distances to hubs. Turns out they do — a lot.

Driving the news: It explores household auto, biking, mass transit and walking data for the 110 largest U.S. metro areas to measure how close people are to where they work, eat, play, shop and more.

  • "For the average driver, living closer to multiple activity centers can save around $920 to $1,200 in annual transportation expenses, and reduce their carbon footprint by 2,455 to 3,020 pounds of carbon dioxide."

What they're saying: "Helping people live closer to the centers of economic activity ... should reduce the distances people need to travel for many of their essential trips. Shorter trip distances, in turn, make walking, bicycling, and transit more attractive and can improve quality of life," Brookings analysts wrote.

  • "In other words, greater proximity could lower environmental emissions, create safer streets, and unlock financial savings," the study added.

Threat level: This isn't the norm. Only 37% of residents in the metro areas studied live within three miles of five activity centers.

The intrigue: It's not just about distance to urban cores, either. The same patterns hold within suburbs.

  • For instance, Brookings name-checks suburbs over 25 miles from downtown Atlanta — such as Kennesaw and Alpharetta — that show far fewer miles traveled than others around the city.

Zoom in: It's a little more complicated than just distance to the nearest stuff.

  • Turns out the strongest relationship with personal miles traveled (PMT) is distance between households and the fifth closest activity center.
  • Households within one mile of five activity centers travel around 56% less than people who live 11 or more miles from the fifth-closest hub.

What they're saying: The analysis argues for looking at EVs as just one tool.

  • What they're really into is "building for proximity" to lower overall trip distances and make walking and biking more feasible.
  • This enables lower speeds, more safety, and other benefits.

What's next: Zoning and permitting should make it easier to build housing close to activity hubs.

  • Public officials can also work with insurers and investors to prioritize economic development and housing near existing activity centers, rather than greenfield locations.

Yes, but: There are decades of momentum in the other direction. Average PMT per day in metro areas doubled between 1969 and 2017.

The bottom line: "[I]f practitioners only plan for electric vehicles and not proximity, it will be difficult to change those generational patterns," the analysis states.

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