Electrical Cars Won’t Save Our Environment – Density Can

Electric cars alone will not save us. 

Yes, they are much better than regular, fossil fuel-burning cars, but even if we replaced every single car in the world with an electric car, it wouldn’t save us. We must drastically reduce car usage in our daily lives.

It is hard to get rid of your car when you live in a single-family house in the suburbs, especially when there isn’t much to walk or bike to. It is hard to get rid of your car when you have to commute an hour each way to work in downtown because you can’t afford a single-family home near downtown. It is hard to get rid of your car when you have a family and you have to drop your kids off at daycare or school, go to work, run errands during lunch, pick up the kids, and go home. Especially if your daycare or school are nowhere near your home or your office. 

This is where upzoning and increased density come into play as a solution to help people either reduce their car usage or get rid of their cars entirely. I’m not saying that single-family homes should be banned or that people shouldn’t be allowed to build them. I’m simply saying that we should allow for a variety of uses all across the city – so that you can live, work, and have your kids go to school or daycare, all within a 15 minute walk or bicycle ride in your neighborhood.

Research strongly correlates increased density with decreased carbon emissions. As one example of this research, Paul Hawken created Drawdown, a comprehensive list of specific actions that we can focus on to reduce carbon emissions by 1,034.75 gigatons by 2050.

On that list:

  • Electric vehicles are #26:  “If EV ownership rises to 16 percent of total passenger miles by 2050, 10.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide from fuel combustion could be avoided.” 
  • Walkable cities is #54: “As cities become denser and city planners, commercial enterprises, and residents invest in the “6Ds,” 5 percent of trips currently made by car can be made by foot instead by 2050. That shift could result in 2.9 gigatons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions and reduce costs associated with car ownership by $3.3 trillion.” 
  • If we invest in bike infrastructure (#59) at the same time: “We assume a rise from 5.5 percent to 7.5 percent of urban trips globally by 2050, displacing 2.2 trillion passenger-miles traveled by conventional modes of transportation and avoiding 2.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. By building bike infrastructure rather than roads, municipal governments, and taxpayers can realize $400 billion in savings over thirty years and $2.1 trillion in lifetime savings.”  
  • Finally, if we also invest in mass transportation at the same time (#37):  “Use of mass transit is projected to decline from 37 percent of urban travel to 21 percent as the low-income world gains wealth. If use grows instead to 40 percent of urban travel by 2050, this solution can save 6.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions from cars.” 

By investing in these three solutions while also investing in electric vehicles, we could save roughly 11.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions – more than the 10.8 gigatons from electric vehicles alone. By investing in all four solutions at the same time, we could save roughly 22.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. 

How do we go about increasing density within our city? One of the easiest ways to create a more walkable and environmentally friendly city is to legalize fourplex buildings on every single lot- that is, buildings with at least four units. Again, this is not banning single-family homes – just making it possible to build a fourplex anywhere in the city where single-family homes are also allowed. 

In one hypothetical, Michael Anderson had three imaginary homes torn down on one block and rebuilt as three new single-family homes; on another block, those same single-family homes were torn down and replaced with a fourplex, a duplex, and a triplex. He found that “the housing-related carbon emissions per household of the Plex Block will be about 20 percent lower” than the block with the three new single-family homes. This is because the units inside the duplex, triplex, and fourplex are smaller than the single-family home units – so the spaces in the unit are being used more efficiently; there aren’t as many empty rooms being heated and cooled even when no one is using them. Another researcher from the Sightline Institute found that “boosting the number of homes on residential blocks by one third (as on the Plex Block) correlates with a drop of about 1,000 miles driven per year per household.” This is because denser blocks will typically attract local shops within walking distance, frequent bus lines, reliable ride-sharing – but would probably attract protected bicycle infrastructure and micro mobility options as well, simply because there would be more people who could take advantage of these benefits. 

Increasing density has the added benefit of supporting robust and high-quality mass transportation as well. According to Capital Metro, residential densities of 16 persons per acre within a quarter mile of bus lines are a good minimum baseline for transit-supportive dense neighborhoods. For employment, their guidelines call for densities of eight employees per acre. Remember, we have to invest in mass transportation in addition to walkable neighborhoods if we want to save roughly 22.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions (though more is better!) by 2050. 

I imagine a world in which I can choose to live near my office – because the neighborhoods have an abundance of fourplexes or apartment buildings nearby – within a 15 minute walk. I can walk to and from work in 15 minutes every day, which saves me two car trips every day. Because my home and my office are located near a grocery store, I can also choose to shop more often, buying less groceries, and walk to and from the grocery store, saving two car trips. My home and office are also located near a bus line, which I can use to get downtown or to other places to see friends, run errands, or go out on the town, saving me car trips. Even better, because I live on such a dense block, I know several people in my neighborhood who have become my friends and I can walk to their homes to visit them or baby-sit their kids if needed. My neighborhood also has doctors’ offices, shopping, gyms, parks, activities, and other important facets of life – or easy access to those things, whether through robust public transportation or protected bicycle infrastructure. 

Electric vehicles are a solution, but cannot be the ONLY solution. We must allow more people to live on smaller areas of land. We need to allow people to reduce their carbon footprint by living in smaller homes and living in walkable and transit-rich neighborhoods. Not everyone wants to live in a single-family home and have a yard they have to maintain; have empty rooms that are being wastefully heated and cooled; or have a car that needs to be maintained in order to commute because there is a lack of high-quality pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure. We should be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions and slow the effects of climate change. We need to change for a future that will impact us all. Continuing our current culture of sprawling land use, which enables car dominance and carbon emissions, will only accelerate our headlong rush into our terrifying future. 

For additional research on why density is so important for fighting climate change, check out this comprehensive report by Environment Texas.

How many affordable old houses are there in Central Austin?

As of June 20th, 2019, the Austin Board of Realtors (ABoR) reports that the median price for single-family homes in Austin has hit an all time high of $400,000.

We often hear from City Council  that we need to save the “affordable” old housing stock in the urban core from demolition and redevelopment. Typically, they are referring to single family homes. Given this perspective, it’s worth asking how many affordable single homes are there in Central Austin?

For the purposes of this analysis, we will define the urban core as the area bound by MoPac to the West, 290 to the south, and 183 to the north and east. The year defining “old” housing is homes which were built in or prior to 1970. Affordability is based on the 2018 Austin median income for a family of four of $86k per year. Data is compiled using the Austin Board of Realtors Multiple Listing Service.

For starters, below is a broad overview showing the median and average prices for homes in the urban core built before 1970 as of May 1, 2019.

120 homes in urban coreMinimumMaximumAverageMedian
Current home prices$229,900$8,500,000$825,318$546,500

Using the rule of thumb that no more than 30% of gross monthly income should be used on housing, a family of four earning the median family income can afford to buy a $360K house (according to the mortgage affordability calculator) or rent one at $2150/month.

Let’s take a look at homeownership first.

As of May 1st, 2019, there were a total of 35 single-family homes built before 1970 available for sale for $360K or less and only two of those were west of I-35. The map below shows the distribution of available single-family homes at this price point. Notably, none of these homes have been updated for today’s energy efficiency and the status of the wiring, plumbing, and foundation is unknown. See Fig. 1

Fig. 1

If we consider that a family of four would likely need at least three bedrooms, the number of available homes drops to 22, all of which are concentrated on the fringes of the urban core mostly east of I-35.

Fig. 2

Of these houses, only 13 are outside the identified FEMA flood zone…

Fig. 3

and only 15 have Central A/C.

Fig. 4

The situation for single-family house rentals is very similar. Given a family of four earning the median income, the maximum suggested monthly rent should be no more than $2150/month. As of May 1st, 2019, there are 36 single family homes with at least two bedrooms available for rent in Austin’s urban core.

Fig. 5

However, there are only 14 three-bedroom houses available at the rent level affordable for the median family income.

Fig. 6

Finally, the multi-family affordable housing is becoming less and less available to families of 4 at the median income level. As of May 1st, 2019 45 apartments with at least two bedrooms are available across the urban core of Austin.

Fig. 7

And only four of these have a minimum of 3 bedrooms.

Fig. 8

Given that the Austin metro area is adding 105 people a day, preserving older single-family homes will not meet our housing needs in a way that is accessible or affordable for even the median income Austin family. A far more sustainable strategy for enhancing affordability in the urban core would be to add new homes with more units, like fourplexes, townhomes, and other missing middle housing types.

How Multiple Business Districts Can Hurt Dual-income Families

Activity Centers as described in Imagine Austin are akin to the Multiple Nuclei Model for a city layout created by Chauncy Harris and Edward Ullman in the 1945 article The Nature of Cities.  Harris and Ullman argued that cities do not grow a single nucleus but several separate nuclei. Each nucleus acts as a growth point.  Because of increased car ownership, people can live in less-dense single-family style neighborhoods near the nuclei containing their job and thus avoid unreasonably long commute time.

Many cities have intentionally or unintentionally developed according to the nuclei model, Houston, in particular, comes to mind. However, while these cities do indeed have multiple growth points and relatively low-density housing, these features have not resulted in the expected reasonable commute times for several reasons.

Most important, typical households today consist of two earners, often in different fields, ie both spouses have different jobs in different locations but live in the same house. Because the two partners will have different jobs in different fields they will likely have to commute to different business centers from the same house. This couple will have to choose which job will be closer to home and likely require the other to have a much longer commute, with all the impacts to quality of life and the environment that follow.

It’s not surprising that Harris and Ullman missed this now obvious fact while writing in 1945 when the idealized and typical household was a single-earner family, ie the husband had a job and the wife stayed home. But that fact should give us pause if we intend to rely on separate job centers to solve our housing shortage and transportation issues. These separate job centers will be unlikely to provide both earners the opportunity to work and live one area and enjoy the access to jobs and amenities like daycare within the short commutes that are necessary for cultivating a successful career and raising a family today. Unfortunately, today that is still most likely to disproportionately impact working mothers.

The activity centers described in Imagine Austin are an important part of our growth plan, but cannot serve as the only or even the essential part of housing and transportation solutions we create in our new land development code. If we really do want to open up opportunities for everyone to grow both a career and a family, we have to ditch the multiple nuclei theory of cities and instead encourage and allow dense concentric development, especially missing middle housing and transitive supportive density close to downtown as the most efficient and environmentally sustainable way for a city to grow.

Rewriting The Land Development Code

As we write a new land development code we are not merely choosing which buildings we’re allowed to build and where we’re allowed to build them. We are making a choice about what kind of city we want Austin to be. Do we want to be a city that looks backward to an imagined golden past, while becoming increasingly more expensive, environmentally destructive, and exclusionary? Or do we want to be a city that looks forward to a better future? One that’s affordable, environmentally sustainable, and full of opportunities for everyone?

In this past year’s election, Austin’s voters firmly resolved on the latter. Therefore, to create an affordable and sustainable Austin with opportunities for everyone, this council must pass a land development code that supports our values by allowing and actively encouraging abundant, transit-oriented housing with walkable access to community needs everywhere in the city and especially in the urban core.

First, for housing costs to go down, we must build enough housing not only to meet current demand but also to meet any future demand.  Over the next ten years, 635,000 new people will move to the Austin Metro region, while 128,000 new Austinites will be born here. To make sure all of these people have somewhere to live, we will need to build over 300,000 additional homes. And if we want housing costs to go down, we’ll need to build even more.

Next, unless we want to force all of these people to constantly drive on I-35 or Mopac, we must build the majority of this new housing compactly in the urban core. Today an average metro-resident travels over 180 miles in their car every week, which is why transportation causes 36% of Austin’s 13.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions. To reduce these numbers and prevent paving over the Hill Country and the consequent flooding and water quality concerns, we must create new public transit options. However, for any new mobility plan to work, we must build far more new housing in core neighborhoods and along major transit corridors.

Finally, to build integrated, diverse, complete and accessible communities with opportunities that are open to everyone, we must build a variety of housing, amenities, and businesses for everyone in every neighborhood in Austin. Today Austinites have to travel all over the city to drop off their children at daycare centers and schools, to shop for groceries, and to take care of elderly parents, all on top of driving just to get to work. To lessen these burdens we must build essential services within neighborhoods where people can easily walk to them.

To support these values and achieve these ends, AURA proposes that the three policies set out below must be adopted in our new land development code.

First, we must allow missing middle housing such as six-plexes, row homes, townhomes, and accessory dwelling units by-right everywhere in Austin. As we allow more missing middle housing, we divide the cost of land between more people. That, in turn, lets more people, and especially families, live in Central Austin and enjoy the walkable access to transit, small businesses, jobs, opportunities, and communities that come with that.

Furthermore, development under the current code has restricted the potential for truly affordable units in the urban core and has pushed new market-rate housing into areas the city has traditionally neglected, putting disproportionate pressure on Austin’s poorest residents and communities of color in particular. To combat the displacement resulting from our current code, we need to open up the urban core, and west Austin in particular, to far more market-rate and Affordable housing. Missing middle housing provides the best way to do that.

Second, we must design transition zones that allow for dense, mixed-use, and transit-supportive housing within a ten-minute walk of major corridors. The only way to reduce traffic and CO2 emissions is to get people out of their cars and onto bikes, scooters, buses, and trains or walking – whether that’s for getting to work, taking care of children and elderly parents, or running errands. But people cannot bike, scoot, or walk from Round Rock to downtown Austin. Nor can buses or trains develop the ridership necessary to grow and sustain a public transit system without more people living within walking distance of transit routes.

To achieve this transit-supportive density, we must eliminate minimum parking requirements along corridors to ensure valuable corridor space is not taken up by unnecessary parking. We also either need to relax compatibility standards to allow maximum-density apartment complexes along major corridors or we need to eliminate separate compatibility standards altogether and “zone for compatibility” by mapping high-density, mixed-use zoning on corridors, moderate density within a third of a mile of corridors, and lower missing middle density for residential cores.

Third, we need to relax residential-only restrictions so essential services such as daycares, grocery stores, pharmacies, and doctors can develop within walking distance of where people live. People need convenient access to these services without having to get in a car. Relaxing residential-only zoning restrictions will also give members of different communities the opportunity to start small businesses that help their neighbors live, work, and play in their neighborhood.

Today, Austin is the most segregated city in America by both income and race. It is also one of the most car-dependent and fast becoming one of the most expensive. Our antiquated, woefully inadequate, land development code exacerbates all of these challenges.

We all love Austin despite these problems. To solve them we need a new land development code. We need a code that allows missing middle housing everywhere in Austin. We need a code that creates transit-friendly corridors in every part of Austin. And we need a code that provides complete, walkable communities with essential services in every neighborhood in Austin.

In short, we need a land development code that reflects our values of affordability, environmental sustainability, and opportunity. Only then, can we create an Austin that is truly for Everyone.

AURA Land Use Working Group
Kevin McLaughlin – Chair
Caroline Bailey
Josiah Stevenson
Liza Wimberley
Jordan McGee
Timothy Bray