Monday, March 14, 2011

Homes + Transit = Green

The EPA published a study that is no shock to me. As the USA Today reports, "Location, location, location -- it's a well-worn mantra in real estate. New research shows yet another reason why it's important: it decides how green a home really is. Housing near public transportation uses less energy than homes in the suburbs, even Energy Star-rated ones."

Again, no shock here. You drive less, you pollute and consume energy less. You walk more, you pollute and consume energy less. You take transit more, you pollute and consume energy less.

Since it is the USA Today, details are scant but it does get into a little bit of the methodology.

The study compares the total energy use of various kinds of housing in conventional suburbs vs. "transit oriented" developments, including the energy used for heating and cooling the home as well as for transporting its residents. It found homes in walkable neighborhoods near public transit were "location efficient" because residents didn't need to drive as much.

Not something I think planners will find groundbreaking. Denser developments tend to lower driving and increase other modes of transport. Also, denser developments, particularly those that share walls, like apartments, lofts and townhomes, have lower energy leakage and therefore lower energy usage. They also tend to lack the ornate and oversized windows that are seen in abundance in the suburbs. These things tend to increase energy use, especially in the summer.

Households in TOD's tend to have less cars than their suburban counterparts. Whether that means carpooling, transit use, biking or walking, it does translate into lower Vehicle Miles Traveled per household, and therefore lower energy needs.

Some facts taken from the study: Suburbs tend to use 108 million BTU's (British Thermal Units are an energy consumption measure) for their house and 132 million for transportation, a 240 million BTU total. Homes in TOD's tend to use only 39 million for transport. Somehow, the energy consumption for house stays the same and the total for a denser living is 147 million BTU's.

The ironic point is that suburban Energy Star-rated households still consume 158 million BTU's in conventional suburban locales. So if I were to do the math (since USA Today either didn't report it or the EPA didn't publish it), an Energy Star-rated household in a TOD would consume about 65 million BTU's, or 175 million BTU's better than average and 93 million BTU's better than the suburban best.

I've said it before, the best way to reduce energy consumption is to fundamentally rethink how we design our cities and living spaces. The EPA reports that TOD's consume 40% less energy that their suburban counterparts. That is an extreme energy savings that requires nothing more than an increase in housing options from today's current stock.

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