Affordability as Well as Emission Reductions

City streets should accommodate diverse users and uses.

A couple months ago, Focus Magazine Publisher David Broadland posted a column, “Mayor Helps’ 1.5 Percent Solution,” which criticized downtown Victoria bikelanes. I responded with a CfE column, Stop Griping: Bicycling Benefits Victoria, to which Broadland recently criticized in Difficult conversations on the steep descent ahead. All this give-and-take offers a nice teaching moment about the importance of considering affordability goals into policy debates.

Broadland is correct that, although his column implied that downtown bikelanes are wasteful and unfair, he didn’t actually use those words as my column suggested. However, his latest column continues with two critical mistakes which have important implications for affordability.

First, Broadland argues that regional policies should have only one goal: reducing climate change emissions. Although that certainly is important, there are other goals to consider, including affordability and economic opportunity. Some strategies, such as subsidizing electric cars, reduce emissions but provide few other benefits. Improving affordable and efficient modes such as walking, cycling and public transit, and increasing the portion of residents who live in walkable urban neighborhoods, not only help reduce pollution emissions, they also help increase affordability, reduce traffic and parking congestion, improve mobility options and economic opportunities for non-drivers, and improve public fitness and health. Smart policies favour these win-win solutions.

Second, Broadland ignores the ability of walking, cycling an public transit to leverage additional reductions in motor vehicle travel. This occurs because a short walking or cycling trip often substitutes for a longer automobile trip, or described differently, once people get a car they tend to use it, so transportation and development policies that help households reduce their vehicle ownership provide large reductions in per capita vehicle travel and associated costs.

For example, one study found that installing sidewalks on all streets in a typical North American community would increase per capita walking and cycling by 0.097 average daily miles, and reduce automobile travel by 1.142 daily vehicle-miles, about 12 miles of reduced driving for each mile of increased active travel, and residents in Transit Oriented Developments drive about half as many annual miles and spend far less money on transportation as residents of more automobile-dependent areas.

Having been car-free for nearly a decade, I can report from personal experience that walking, cycling and public transit are all helpful in allowing a household to reduce its vehicle ownership, and therefore its annual vehicle travel and transportation emissions. Walking is most suitable for trips less than a kilometer, public transit is most suitable for trips more than five kilometers, and cycling is generally the most time- and financially-efficient mode for trips within this range.

Because of this leverage factor, mode share (portion of trips made by a mode) is a poor indicator of transportation system efficiency since it does not directly measure travel distance, and therefore the energy savings from more compact, infill development. In his recent column, Broadland criticizes the Netherlands because, although the country is famous for cycling, 73% of travel is my automobile, as if that is a sign of failure, but in fact, despite comparable incomes the Dutch produce about half the per capita transport emissions as in Canada, as illustrated below. This is good news – it suggests that we can achieve our emission reduction targets with policies that also increase affordability.

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