Tackling the climate and ecological crisis requires urgently reimagining not only of how we live and work, but how we get to work.

The urgency and severity of the climate crisis requires clear identification of its root causes and implementation of effective policies. Generally, the primary focus of efforts to mitigate climate change has been on shifting from the burning of fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. The most recent IPCC report on climate change, however, underscores the equally important need for demand side mitigation. That is, reducing energy consumption by decreasing the human activities creating its demand. 

It is striking that in the analysis of root causes, policy proposals or advocacy efforts, there has been very little discussion of a significant issue in demand-side mitigation: the costly, useless, unhealthy and unpleasant daily displacement of millions of people referred to as commuting, caused by increased urbanization based on a deeply flawed urban model.

Transportation is the largest contributor to GHG emissions  (29% in the US), the main source being road transport, in particular, passenger cars. Transport consumes 65% of global oil energy demand, and it relies on oil products for 92% of its energy requirement. Hence, the efforts to develop vehicles powered by alternative energy sources. Those efforts have had limited success and progress has been too slow. 

Why not, in parallel, reduce the number of vehicle-miles traveled? 

Whether on private vehicles or public transport, commuting places a disproportionate burden on transportation systems.

On average, Americans spend 53.8 minutes commuting to work. Commuting is not only a major source of CO2 emissions. It is economically unproductive, adds costs to our personal budget and has no intrinsic value. Most find it stressful, negatively impacting our well-being and general level of productivity.

Commuting is a relatively recent phenomenon. It had its origins in the rapid increase in the concentration of human populations in urban centers, the rise of megacities and, most of all, in the flawed urban model of our cities. In the mid 20th century, with the spread of the Levittown archetype, the predominant model of urban development became residential suburbs distant from workplaces. The model was codified in local zoning policies that established separate zones for different activities: work, shopping, entertainment and residential sub-divisions. Cities grew, with sprawling suburbs further distancing people from their workplaces, downtown or in concentrated industrial or suburban office parks. With increasing dispersion, cars became essential. Children no longer walked, but were driven or bused to school. 

 Los Angeles became emblematic of the suburban lifestyle. Proudly displaying images of its freeways on tourist postcards, it was not surprising that by the 1960s, its smog-shrouded skyline became a harbinger of things to come, as cities across the United States and around the developing world, followed its urban model.

In the ensuing 60 years, the world population grew from 3 to 7.7 billion, increasing the energy demands for residential and commercial buildings, and for industrial and food production activities. Carbon absorbing forests and vegetation-covered areas were razed to make way for urbanization and agriculture. Fifty five percent of the world’s population is now concentrated in urban areas. Once rare megacities have proliferated. With the resulting increased transportation demand as a major contributor, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 increased by over 25 percent, from 317 ppm in 1958 to 409 ppm in 2019, causing a rise in global temperatures and the current climate crisis.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, the relative share of the transportation sector in energy consumption –and CO2 emissions- increased by 17%. This was the period when financiers and real estate entrepreneurs succeeded in creating the perception of homes as an “investment opportunity”, driving prices up. Unaffordability drove home buyers further from workplaces, and commuting distances further increased. From 1990 to 2017, the number of vehicle miles traveled by cars and light-duty trucks increased by 46 percent. It should not come as a surprise that the five American cities with the highest commuting times are amongst those with the highest home prices. They are also the cities with the highest carbon footprints.

Can the current urban model be changed?

Downtown Los Angeles – the quintessential city of commuters, cars, freeways and smog-, is home to half a million jobs. Through a revitalization program, building quality residential units, shopping areas and multiple amenities, LA increased the population of its downtown area from 27,849 to 67,324 in 15 years. While densely populated and packed with high rises, 78% of downtown LA residents express a high degree of satisfaction, 93% say it is important for them to live close to where they work and 91% to shop close to where they live. In fact, 62% walk to work. That’s at least 40,000 fewer commuters. It illustrates the way forward: build attractive residential areas around where large numbers of people work. It is, of course, also the model universities have followed for decades, allowing their students to focus on their educational pursuits and build common interest communities.

Globally, over 120 new cities are projected to be built in 40 nations around the world. Those include India and China, which account for 34% of global CO2 emissions. What urban model they follow will be critical.

Commuting is only one source of carbon emissions, even if a major one. The others, however, fulfill human needs, like food production, or offer desirable advantages, like air travel. Commuting is an unproductive, unhealthy, unpleasant waste of time that eats into one eighth of our non-work waking time. Reducing commuting should be a central part of climate change policy, as it can garner increased support for efforts to make the structural changes necessary to face the climate crisis. To rephrase a commonly used statement: tackling the climate and ecological crisis requires urgently reimagining not only of how we live and work, but how we get to work.

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