Recently I was named to the Blue Ribbon Sustainability Panel of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region's biggest mass-transit provider and one of the world's largest. Our goal is to arrive at long- and short-term solutions for combating climate change, making the New York transit system a model of energy efficiency and environmental excellence.
As head of the panel's committee whose mission is to plan and promote development in close proximity ideally within walking distance to train and bus facilities, I've been poring over statistics like these:
Americans annually spend 443 hours two and a half weeks in our cars, significantly contributing to global warming.
Between 1982 and 1997, land consumed by development nationwide outpaced population growth three to one.
Planning developments with easy access to public transit reduces daily car trips by 40%.
It seems obvious: If we're serious about halting climate change, we have to stop sprawl. We must focus development in our city and town centers, protecting surrounding open spaces fields and forests, marshes and mountaintops for people to enjoy and farmers to continue growing healthy produce. In a nutshell, we have to wise up to smart growth.
In the Hudson Valley, we've learned that sprawl comes at a tremendous price. It creates unmanageable traffic, forcing towns to build more or bigger roads that actually increase the time we sit in our cars without moving. It leads to escalating school and municipal taxes; for every dollar contributed to tax rolls by a new McMansion, $1.20 is required in fire, police and other services. Perhaps worst of all, it destroys our quality of life. Children have no parks to play in; many neighborhoods don't even have sidewalks or a nearby grocery. In his first year in office, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has made a significant commitment to linking revitalization of upstate cities with protection of surrounding open space and to upgrading park facilities, making them economic assets as well as places that enhance their communities' quality of life.
Concentrating development in downtowns where public transit is more readily available would reduce climate-change impacts and have a snowball effect on local economies: as people move in, new services and businesses follow, enticing more residents to make these communities great, vibrant places to live. At the same time, we should transform suburban infrastructure that has outlived its purpose. In nearby Rockland County, planners have suggested turning a failed mall into a mix of homes, shops and businesses linked to commuter rail service by a local bus line. We need more forward-thinking ideas like this.
And we must continue preserving land. Working farms providing fresh fruits and vegetables not only help lower our food miles but contribute to local economies and keep our taxes low. (Farmland typically costs 37 cents in government services for each tax dollar contributed.) Preserved forests sequester carbon and offer places for families to explore nature's wonders. And in the Hudson Valley, as elsewhere, iconic landscapes threatened by developers' bulldozers are a linchpin of our multibillion-dollar tourism industry.
We have a choice: continue squandering our resources, imperiling the lives of our children and grandchildren, or fight for smart growth. It sounds like a no-brainer to me.
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