Contrived Sustainability

The draft reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program (highway and transit) in the House of Representatives is filled with initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, often by seeking to encourage compact development (smart growth) policies. Dr. Ronald D. Utt of the Heritage Foundation discovered an interesting definition in the draft: “sustainable modes of transportation” means public transit, walking, and bicycling” (Section 333(P)7, page 219, accessed November 18, 2009).

This definition would mean that a Toyota Prius that emits one-half as many grams of greenhouse gases per passenger mile as a transit system (not an unusual occurrence) is not sustainable transportation, while the transit system is. There will be more cases like this as time goes on, as vehicle fuel economy improves and the impact of alternative fuel technology is expanded. This is irrational and the worst kind of ideology.

It is possible, of course, that this is simply sloppy legislative drafting. But given the persistence of the compact development lobby and its contribution to pending legislation in Washington in the face of respected research demonstrating its scant potential, something else may be operating. The wording may betray an agenda more concerned with forcing people to accept the favored (and anti-suburban) lifestyles that an urban elite has long sought to impose on others than it is to reduce greenhouse gases. Sustainability in greenhouse gas emissions is not about the hobby horses of one group of advocates or another, it is rather about reducing greenhouse gas emissions as efficiently as possible. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the rest of Washington needs to focus on ends, not means.

Provisions that pick particular strategies, without regard to their effectiveness, have no place in a crusade so much of the scientific community has characterized in apocalyptic terms. Moreover, such disingenuousness, in the longer run, could whittle away the already apparently declining support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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Contrived Un-sustainability

I must broaden this contrivance that’s being contrived here. Because in fact this fair country of ours was one great big legislative contrivance, no? Everything we contrive today results from contrivances and, of course, the housing market as we knew it prior to this recession did not always exist and was itself contrived. If one mode of living contrivance is so great, why can't another be? Or, unlike Truman, is one merely afraid of breaking with the past because he'll lose some plum sinecure?

"In 1949, President Harry Truman convinced Congress to BREAK WITH THE PAST (emphasis mine) and inject the federal government into the process of developing cities and financing housing. The 1949 Housing Act expanded the availability of federal insurance for home mortgages, igniting the growth of new suburbs farther and farther from the centers of our cities. Together with federal highway funds that came a few years later, the 1949 law started what we now describe as 'suburban sprawl.' The two initiatives put Americans on the path of long commutes, heavy traffic, air pollution, water shortages, and a long-term increase in carbon dioxide emissions."(i)

And what happened when that subsidy contrivance began more than proving to be on its last legs in the late 1990s? The Federal Reserve (i.e. the Federal Government, i.e. Greenspan) contrived to perpetuate the un-sustainability of the suburban sprawl growth model by lowering the Fed Funds Rate (FFR) from 6.5% to 1.0% during 2001-2003, which he argues did not cause the housing bubble. Of course because it would be overly simplistic to argue that the Fed's interest rate contrivances during the early years of this decade caused the housing bubble, in a sense he is correct; it would be more appropriate to view the Fed as the “Great Contriver” of the range of monetary excesses that led to the bubble and the subsequent bust. But it is clear that the Fed not only contrived but contrived to keep its official target rate too low for too long during much of 2001-2005, although in 2005 Greenspan did warn that there was an “underpricing of risk” occurring.

“The Federal Reserve had broad authority to prohibit deceptive lending practices under a 1994 law called the Home Owner Equity Protection Act. But it took little action during the long housing boom, and fewer than 1 percent of all mortgages were subjected to restrictions under that law.”(ii) In other words, how did the banks get away with their subprime mortgaging practices for so long? Because Greenspan deregulated the industry, which he acknowledged to be a mistake: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”(iii)

Thus even before the bubble the housing market had been an unsustainable contrivance of wealth for Americans. Already many economists are asserting that this young generation will fare worse than their parents’ generation – the first time that that has happened in American history.(iv) And, if somebody doesn’t start contriving something other than following the one-lane-vision approach to transportation that has contrived us into this mess in the first place, several of our future generations are going to fare worse than their parents and their parents' parents and their parents' parents' parents...How many generations is one willing to sacrifice? It took three generations for Americans to be fully inculcated by this contrivance and it’s going to take three generations for Americans to be contrived out of it.

“The recession and housing collapse have halted four decades of double-digit growth for nearly half of the nation’s biggest rapidly expanding suburbs. Twenty-four of the 53 cities of 100,000 or more that grew by at least 10% every decade since 1970 lost population in the last two years. Fifteen are likely to end the decade with less than a 10% gain in population, largely because of recent losses…Bedroom communities now must rethink their future and become ‘a little less sprawly, a little more village-like with clustered development, denser housing…The irony is that if they want to keep growing, they must grow as cities, which is diametrically opposite of how they got so big in the first place.”(v)

But, as always, it would be best if the market itself decides:

"Next-generation projects will orient to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented development. Smaller housing units - close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities - gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs."(vi)

[In a quick aside, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a 5% increase in neighborhood walkability is associated with: 32.1% more minutes devoted to physically active travel; 6.5% fewer vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita (vii) and “the average New Yorker generates fewer greenhouse gases annually than residents of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average.”(viii)]


David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute

Congress finds the following (i)

(1)Since the creation of the Interstate System, American surface transportation has been defined by the use of personal motor vehicles.

(2) The focus on automobiles has afforded Americans increased mobility and interconnectivity; yet has also lead to increased congestion, higher greenhouse gas emissions, and a reduced focus on other modes of surface transportation.

(3) Between 1955 and 2005, vehicle miles traveled in the United States increased fivefold, bringing with it an escalation in traffic congestion.

(4) Each year, Americans spend 4,200,000,000 hours in traffic congestion, burning 16 2,900,000,000 gallons of fuel.

(5) Wasted time and fuel result in a $78,000,000,000 annual congestion tax, creating a financial drain on individual passengers and the economy as a whole.

(6) The transportation sector accounts for 28 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted annually in the United States, with 60 percent of this coming from personal vehicle use.

(7) Transportation costs account for approximately 18 percent of an average household’s expenditures.

(8) Over reliance on automobiles can have adverse impacts on public health, both through lessened physical activity and from increased pollutants.

(9) In order to reduce the financial, environmental, and quality of life impacts of traffic congestion and to create modal choice for all users, our transportation system must include alternate modes of transportation to complement personal vehicle travel, including public transit, walking, and cycling.

(10) Public transit, walking, and cycling are sustainable modes of transportation that result in 5,600,000,000 gallons of fuel savings and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 49,000,000 metric tons each year.

(11) Sustainable modes of transportation can provide affordable transportation choices and have the ability to reduce the transportation cost burden.

(12) Cyclists and pedestrians are intended users of the surface transportation system, except where prohibited by law; and it is the policy of the Federal Government to encourage maximum accessibility and safety of the surface transportation system for cyclists and pedestrians as intended users when designing and constructing surface transportation facilities.

(13) In order to provide access to sustainable modes of transportation, land use and planning decisions must include considerations about transportation options.

(14) A modally balanced surface transportation system will benefit all users through improved accessibility, mobility, and quality of life.

(15) Increasing the availability and use of sustainable modes of transportation and the development of livable communities are national priorities.

(i) § 331/Pg. 199-201 of

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
THE Placemaking Institute