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How Uncoordinated Land Use & Transportation Laws Thwart Climate Response

Climate change requires multi-level governmental response. Unfortunately, poor coordination between levels of government hinders our ability to address the issues at the scale they deserve. Such is the case for the legal frameworks governing land use and transportation, which direct where and how we live, and how we get from one place to the next. Together, they have tremendous influence over the extent to which humans impact the environment. I cover these issues in a forthcoming book chapter, and since climate governance seems to be an emerging theme of this blog, I thought I’d say a little more about the land use-transportation mismatch.

Before getting into the details, let’s talk about how it’s supposed to work. First, federal actors are expected to coordinate or fund subnational efforts, manage international issues, and establish regulatory baselines in areas of national concern. But even if climate change is a national concern, there are still aspects that might be addressed by subnational governments. States, as Carol Rose and my very junior self have written, should implement federal programs and legislate or regulate when local governments cannot or will not perform. Meanwhile, local governments, as Sarah Fox and Sheila Foster have argued on this blog, can address local particularities and can innovate when they are not preempted. (Tribal governments, by the way, exercise their own sovereignty in these arenas.) At whatever level, governments are supposed to coordinate with each other to reduce duplication and ensure we are actually achieving stated goals.

With this in mind, our goal in land use and transportation policy should be to ensure efficient development that reduces driving, which in turn reduces greenhouse gasses. That doesn’t mean everyone must live in Manhattan. It does means that more new development should come in the form of walkable communities where most Americans say they want to live. Places where we can walk from our house to a grocery store – or, to the best measure of neighborhood livability, the nearby ice cream shop.

Unfortunately, our land use laws prevent this result, requiring us instead to build almost exclusively low-density sprawl. According to my research with Desegregate Connecticut, Connecticut towns zone 81% of residential land to require a lot of about an acre (0.92+ acres), and in 50% of residential land a lot of about two acres (1.84+ acres). (Here’s our map exposing this dismal truth.) We are requiring not just large lots, but extremely large lots, creating communities where driving is the only option. At the same time, we have zoned areas around our train stations to be predominantly single-family housing. The same is true across the United States. And the larger an individual lot, the less likely it is that you will be able to walk from one place to another. The less walking, and more driving, and the more greenhouse gases emissions, farmland and forestland destruction, and general warming.

Despite clear links between them, land use and transportation policies are not well-coordinated from a practical, administrative standpoint. Land use policy is primarily developed by local governments, pursuant to enabling acts adopted by legislatures in all fifty states. Tens of thousands of local jurisdictions engage in land use controls around the country, mandating low-density development on most regulated land. Transportation policy, meanwhile, involves a patchwork of funding decisions, regulations, and laws adopted at multiple levels of government, but primarily driven by federal standards and decisions. Generally, transportation policy tends to focus on the needs and convenience of drivers, and on the road network, rather than the full array of transportation users and modes. The effects of this uncoordinated approach are both detrimental and avoidable.

Reform and harmonization of land use and transportation policies at several scales can significantly reduce avoidable burdens we impose on our planet.

While the forthcoming book chapter does not full delve into specific solutions, it does frame the problems, statistics, and issues. I’d be interested in what others think as it heads to final page proofs – please be in touch!

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