With the United Nations COP26 currently underway, climate change and the collective future of humanity is once again on the world’s stage. We know that big change is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and that world leaders are responding too slowly. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report summed it up best, signaling a “code red for humanity.”
As world leaders deliberate on the best next steps to slow climate change at COP26, one of the most immediate ways we can take climate action here in the United States is to stop driving and start walking. To make this feasible, more people need to live in places where walking is a viable option. The concept of the 15-minute city provide us with a template to make this a reality. Proximity matters—and where and how we build our communities has an outsized impact on our carbon footprint. We can effectively respond to the climate challenges we face with 15-minute cities that give people the option to not purchase a second family car, and instead walk, bike, or take transit to get around.
The idea is simple: All desires, wants, and needs a person could have should be located within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride from one’s home. We need neighborhoods that provide choices and at the same time help preserve the environment rather than contribute to its demise. While many of our central cities in the U.S. already have much of this baked into their DNA, there are notable exceptions—particularly regarding transit access. But where we really need to focus our efforts are in the suburbs.
A number of suburbs are already moving in the direction of walkable urbanism by offering housing options beyond single family homes and incorporating retail and commercial use of buildings. Demand for walkable suburbs has been hyper-charged since 2020 due to the pandemic, as more people worked from home and sought easy access to their everyday needs. But it’s not enough. Too much of the country is still wedded to the idea of a single-family home as the best option, which is just not sustainable for the future. When the only choice is to get in your car for absolutely everything, not only are we increasing our carbon footprint by where we live, but in how we live.
If you live in a suburb, you probably contribute to climate change more than someone in a city because carbon emissions are directly correlated with population density. Studies show how people in large cities on average contribute half the carbon footprint of the typical American, while those who live in far-out suburbs surrounding these areas can emit up to twice the U.S. average. These results are reflected overseas, with recent research from Australia showing that people in central cities consumed the least and those in suburban areas had the highest carbon footprint. It’s worth noting that cities make up only 3% of the world’s land area but include 58% of its people.
We all know that the answer isn’t simply to convince everyone to live in cities (even if that’s my personal preference), but instead weave the benefits of city life into the suburbs by developing smartly and creating accessible, sustainable, more convenient communities. Better land use, ample transportation choices, accessibility, and connectivity need to be front and center in decision-making.
Mobility options that go beyond cars offer solutions to help push people in this direction. Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen enormous growth in the uptake of e-bikes, which more than tripled from May of last year until May 2021. The ever-increasing growth of micromobility, particularly e-scooters, also elucidates the fact that people prefer having different options for getting around.
That said, the transportation sector contributes nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.. We can rapidly reduce these emissions by making different, better choices. Tie this together with decarbonizing the building sector, which makes up another nearly 40% of global carbon emissions between materials and construction, and you start to see the big impact of the difference that life choices can make.
One immediate fix—that also helps alleviate chronic housing affordability challenges—is to build more, better housing. A 15-minute city can only thrive if they contain not just single-family homes, but duplexes, quadplexes, apartments, and any other housing options that allow more people to live in our communities, supporting walkability with commercial and retail use buildings in close proximity.
The suburbs have been subsidized for generations, with cheap roads and other infrastructure supporting a carbon-rich lifestyle. Now is the time to think about what types of investment will make these suburbs better places while also doing things differently, contributing to a climate-friendly future. This means investing in transit over roads and parks and protected bike lanes over sewers in new far-flung subdivisions. The market is demanding exactly this, with developers building denser, amenity-rich suburbs in response to what people want.
One of the challenges with building sustainable 15-minute cities in America is our lack of comprehensive transit systems. We must build more transit and invest in alternative modes of transportation that extend people’s ability to get around without owning cars. As we move in this direction, we need to double down on the mobility options that will help right now. Municipal bike share programs—many of which now feature e-bikes—should continue expand, alongside the implementation of tax credits for individuals to purchase e-bikes, protected bike lanes for e-scooters and bikes, and expanded sidewalks. All these actions will help move the needle in the right direction.
Not only do these additional transportation options help drive greater connectivity and move people out of their cars, but they also expand the scope and distance people can travel within 15 minutes in the suburbs. They also provide people who may not be willing or able to pedal a bike or push a scooter with an easy and environmentally friendly assist.
Let’s focus on giving people the choice to walk to the store, reduce their chances of being hit by fast-moving cars, and use e-bikes and scooters to get to the library. Let’s make it so parents feel comfortable letting their children walk to school again. Driving should be a choice, not a necessity. Fifteen-minute cities create the platform for the climate-friendly shift we all need to build a brighter future for our children and our children’s children.