Suburbs are terrible for the climate

carbon footprint map northeast ohio
carbon footprint map northeast ohio

Map of household carbon footprint intensity by zip code in Northeast Ohio (courtesy of the Cool Climate Network).

That’s the message of a new study from researchers at UC Berkeley. The research, which analyzes spatial differences in household carbon footprints (HCF) was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (paywall).

Unsurprisingly, the study finds that suburban areas have, on average, HCFs that are up to twice as large as the national average, which the authors place at 48.5 tons of CO2 per household. In dense urban centers, these numbers can be half the national average. On the whole, principal cities account for just 30% of total carbon emissions, while suburban areas account for 50% of emissions, despite having less than half of the total population. The significantly higher level of HCF in suburban areas, which reach above 85 tons of CO2 in certain areas, has the effect of offsetting many of the efficiency gains made by living in dense urban cores.

As Christopher Jones, a co-author of the study, notes:

“Metropolitan areas look like carbon footprint hurricanes, with dark green, low-carbon urban cores surrounded by red, high-carbon suburbs,” said Christopher Jones, a doctoral student working with Kammen in the Energy and Resources Group. “Unfortunately, while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high-carbon footprint suburbs.”

I decided to take a look at the variation of HCFs within Northeast Ohio. As expected, Cleveland and Akron both fit the model of a “carbon footprint hurricane,” as described by Jones. As the study notes, carbon emissions already start from a higher baseline in the Midwest due to the region’s heavy reliance upon coal for electricity generation (fortunately, in 2012, coal generation fell to 67% [PDF] of Ohio’s electricity generation from 85% in 2008).

HCF numbers stretch from lows of 21.1 tons and 26.5 tons in downtown Akron and Cleveland, respectively (numbers which are 57% and 45% below the national average), to highs of 75.4 tons in Hudson (155% of the average) and an astonishing 85.6 tons in uber-wealthy Gates Mills (176% of the average).

household carbon footprint for 44113

Household carbon footprint numbers for my home zip code, 44113

The two factors that ultimately supercharge HCF levels in Northeast Ohio’s suburbs are two of the central features of our sprawl-based development model – transportation and housing. In my neighborhood on Cleveland’s near West side (44113), housing – which includes emissions from electricity use – accounts for approximately 13 tons of carbon annually, while transportation generates just 7 tons.

Compare those numbers to 44139, the zip code for Solon, which saw its population increase by 9.56% from 2000 to 2010. In Solon, the average household generates 21 tons of CO2 from transportation and roughly 23 tons from housing.  Not to mention that the average HCF in the suburb is 95% higher than households in 44113.

household carbon footprint for 44139

Household carbon footprint numbers for Solon

As I’ve discussed before, sprawl has been at the heart of development throughout Northeast Ohio since at least the advent of the Interstate Highway System. Despite seeing its population grow by just 0.32% from 1948 to 2002, the amount of land developed in Cuyahoga County increased to 95% from just 26% during this period.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

As the population continued to spread out, vehicle miles traveled climbed, while public transportation utilization decreased apace. Annual ridership on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority plummeted from a high of 129,691,743 riders in 1980 to 44,680,000 in 2010 – a decrease of two-thirds in just 30 years. As a result, transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions (PDF) in Northeast Ohio.

These data clearly suggest that a suburban lifestyle is one of the leading drivers of carbon emissions in the US. Consistent with the fact that climate change is a massive environmental justice issue, the individuals in Northeast Ohio who generate the majority of carbon pollution are the least likely to endure the effects of climate change. Instead, as I’ve noted before, it is the poor, the elderly and infirmed, and persons of color living in urban areas – where carbon emissions are lowest – who will bear the greatest burden.

Unfortunately, Jones and Kammen also conclude that increasing population density is not the solution to this challenge. They find that increasing population density 10-fold only reduces HCF by one-quarter. Accordingly, they conclude that there is “no evidence for net [greenhouse gas] benefits of population density in urban cores or suburbs when considering effects on entire metropolitan areas.”

Instead, the authors argue that we need to increase energy efficiency in suburban areas by retrofitting homes, increasing penetration of electric vehicles, and expanding renewable energy generation. This suggests that urbanization is not a silver bullet to climate change, which is an important lesson to keep in mind as we move towards a world in which roughly 70% of people live in urban areas by 2050. We cannot afford to see US-style suburbanization expand into the developing world, or we may eliminate any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Free parking is terrible public policy

warehouse district surface parking

I don’t normally make a point to reply to letters to the editor in the Plain Dealer. To do so would be to write myself a one-way ticket down a slippery slope into the Valley of Derp. That said, this letter from Nancy Kosmin was so wrong-headed that it called for a response.

shoppers at cleveland flea

Shoppers explore two of the dozens of vendors at the September Cleveland Flea (courtesy of

In the letter, Ms. Kosmin lamented about how difficult it was for her and others to find parking on the streets around Sterle’s Country House. Sterle’s is home to the Cleveland Flea, a new monthly flea market that features food, drinks, clothing, and wares from a variety of Northeast Ohio vendors. Ms. Kosmin could not believe that there was limited parking on the narrow side streets around Sterle’s or that Cleveland Police had the audacity to ticket people parking on East 55th Street – despite the fact that it is illegal to park on East 55th.

I’ve written in the past about Cleveland’s car culture, but I’ve only touched briefly on the issue of parking here. If you thought people were obsessed with driving here, you’ve never spoken to them about parking. From epic battles over charging for parking at the famed West Side Market to entire articles published on which suburban mall parking lot is safest for your car, Clevelanders seem to think that free parking is a God-given right.

Of course, this love of free parking ignores the various externalities associated with the practice. Donald Shoup, an expert on the economics of parking and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has documented these impacts at length over the decades. Although 99% of all car trips include free parking and 95% of all automobile commuters park for free in the US, there is no such thing as “free” parking. As Shoup has written (PDF):

When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking…Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

All this “free” parking carries serious costs. First, parking represents a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Free parking is a common-pool resource, and everyone has an incentive to exploit it. However, as with all commons, when every user consumes too much of it, it quickly becomes depleted. Because the free parking commons are typically exhausted, drivers often cruise around cities, searching for open spots.

Sixteen different studies from 1927-2001 have shown that drivers cruise for 8.1 minutes (PDF), on average, when looking for a parking spot; as a result, up to 30% of all traffic in downtown areas can be attributed to drivers searching for parking. In just a 15-block area in Los Angeles, this search for free curb parking led to 950,000 additional vehicles miles traveled, equivalent to four trips to the moon, 47,000 wasted gallons of gas, and 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (more than the cumulative GHG emissions of 49 countries in 2010).

Secondly, free parking constitutes a massive subsidy for drivers, promoting both excessive driving and sprawl-based development. In 2002, off-street parking received roughly $135-386 billion in subsidies; that same year, the US Government spent $231 billion on Medicare.

In 1997, Shoup estimated (PDF) that if a parking space that cost $124 per month was provided for free, the parking subsidy provided per mile driven was $0.27 per mile. In contrast, AAA estimated that the total cost of operating a car per mile was just $0.092 per mile. Accordingly, the subsidy provided by free parking is roughly 2.9 times greater than the cost of driving to work. This driving subsidy is greatest for shorter trips, helping to skew transportation choices away from walking, biking, and public transportation. Accordingly, “parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.”

warehouse district surface parking

The massive surface parking lot once known as Cleveland’s Warehouse District, as seen from the Terminal Tower Observation Deck.

Thirdly, free parking and parking requirements drive up the cost of living and stymie redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. As Professor Michael Manville has noted (PDF), forcing developers to include the cost of parking when building new housing units drives up the cost of development and becomes a barrier to investment. This crowding out effect should be greatest in areas where the cost of parking is high, where there is a large stock of older buildings, and where there is a large number of vacant buildings – in other words, the inner city.

Research from Brian Bertha in 1964 (PDF) showed that, when Oakland instituted parking requirements in 1961, construction costs increased by 18%, housing unit density fell 30%, and land values dropped by one-third. As a result, developers built larger, more expensive housing units, which negatively affected low-income residents. Manville’s work in LA supports these findings. He noted that condos without parking spaces cost $31,000 less than those with parking spaces.

Sterle’s is located in the 44103 zip code, an impoverished area. From 2007-2011, 44103 had a poverty rate of 34.5%, nearly one-quarter higher than for Cleveland as a whole. Moreover, while 26.7% all households in Cleveland lacked access to a vehicle, this number was 36.9% for households in 44103. Increasing the availability of free parking in this neighborhood may help a few visitors to the Cleveland Flea, but it would come at a high cost for residents of this neighborhood, who would face higher housing prices and even less development.

Furthermore, parking requirements have a sordid and racialized history in Northeast Ohio. In United States v. City of Parma (1980), the US District Court found that the City of Parma’s parking requirements had “the purpose and effect of severely restricting low-income housing opportunities in the City,” which “have been taken with the purpose and the effect of perpetuating a segregated community.” Bending over backwards for people driving into the city once a month would further play into these dynamics.

Call me crazy, but I had a completely different takeaway from this letter than Ms. Kosmin. Rather than seeing this episode as evidence of the plight of the poor suburban driver simply trying to exercise his/her God-given right to free parking, I see the Cleveland Flea as emblematic of the complete opposite. The event shows how parking lots can be more than just a cheap motel for your car. If utilized properly, they can actually serve as worthwhile public space that provides social, cultural, and economic value.

Actually, cyclists do pay road taxes

cyclists on detroit superior bridge

I’ve written before about how the Cleveland area is generally pretty car crazy. I would argue that most people see driving as the status quo; any effort to challenge that by promoting alternative transportation modes is seen as an affront to the system and highly suspicious. If you don’t believe me, read the comments on any article at about bikes.

cyclists on detroit superior bridge

Cyclists ride across the Detroit-Superior Bridge during Cleveland Critical Mass in June 2013 (courtesy of Ivan Grieve & Cleveland Critical Mass.)

So as the city has taken some (albeit mediocre) efforts to become more bike-friendly and as cycling rates have increased – the 280% increase over the last decade was the highest for any metro area – drivers have gotten a bit testy. I have been honked at repeatedly, sworn at, buzzed by vehicles, had anti-gay slurs shouted at me, you name it. Fortunately no one has actually caused me any physical harm to this point (knock on wood). I know this is hardly unique to Cleveland – it certainly happened when I lived in DC as well – but it’s definitely par for the course here.

Enter the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC). The organization was created in 2011 as a 12-county effort to foster a more collaborative, sustainable approach to regional development. It received a $4.25 million grant from the federal government to support the effort.

Now whenever government agencies begin talking about regionalism, sustainable development, and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, the tin foil hat brigade that sees sprawl-based development and car-centric infrastructure as their God-given rights start to freak out. And so they start talking about socialism, Agenda 21, and how the UN’s black helicopters are just over the horizon. See Beverly Goldstein, the chairwoman of the Youth Outreach Committee of the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans:

NEOSCC intends to subject citizens of Northeast Ohio to 1) the elimination of individual rights, private property and local sovereignty through the blurring of political boundaries in order to redistribute local resources and revenues for the general use of the region as a whole…

These types of hyperbolic, patently absurd rants are nothing new and have occurred throughout the country at various times. But it’s worthwhile to note that they continue to plague the NEOSCC effort.

In August, the group released four potential scenarios of what Northeast Ohio could look like in 2040, based upon the economic growth and development models we follow. The “Trend” scenario – the status quo to which people like Ms. Goldstein so fervently cling – would ensure that the region loses 18 houses a day to abandonment, sees 3,000 miles of new roads built to support the ongoing sprawl, swallows an additional 31,000 acres of agricultural land, and has its expenditures outpace revenues by 33%. In all, a cheery proposition.

After publishing these scenarios, NEOSCC held a series of public workshops throughout the region to garner input on the way forward. Now, let me just say that workshop attendees (including me) were far from representative of the population. They were overwhelmingly white (88%), highly educated (three-quarters had at least a Bachelor’s degree), and affluent (nearly half had incomes above $75,000).

On the whole, most of the respondents seemed eager to work towards a more sustainable region. Many were concerned that, while the alternative scenarios seemed like good ideas, they would be difficult to achieve. And then there were the handful of people from the Agenda 21 set. My favorite response to the questions NEOSCC posed would have to be this answer to “What does your ideal community look like”:

1) Hands off my personal freedom, 2) Mix as the market allows, 3) Keep your bike out of my way. You don’t pay road taxes.

Ah yes, that argument against bikes. We should stay off the road because we don’t pay gas taxes or tolls. Of course, it’s completely untrue. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993; since this point, inflation and improved gas mileage have continued to chip away at its value. Adjusted for inflation, the current gas tax is at its lowest level since the mid-1980s and risks falling below the value when it was introduced in 1932.

nominal & inflation-adjusted gas tax

The value of the federal gas tax, in nominal and inflation-adjusted dollars, from 1932-2011. As you can see, while the nominal value has jumped, the inflation-adjusted value continues to drop (courtesy of Greater Greater Washington).

Moreover, user fees do not, in fact, cover the cost of road construction and maintenance. According to a report from the Tax Foundation, “user taxes and fees do not cover the costs of road spending in any state.”

In Ohio, which ranks 11th, user fees account for all of 58.7% of road costs. Alaska, which unsurprisingly is last, sees user fees make up just 19.9% of all road spending. The rest of this shortfall is covered by general funds, which – you guessed it – are borne by all taxpayers, including cyclists and those who don’t drive at all.

In effect, non-drivers and occasional drivers are subsidizing the cost of road maintenance for people who live in their cars. When you take into account the respective amount of space taken up by cars and bikes, along with the respective wear they put on roads, this subsidy becomes even larger.

This graphic shows the amount of space occupied by 60 people in cars, a bus, and on bikes. As you can see, cyclists and people utilizing transit occupy far less space on the roads (courtesy of the Press office of the City of Münster, Germany).

This graphic shows the amount of space occupied by 60 people in cars, a bus, and on bikes. As you can see, cyclists and people utilizing transit occupy far less space on the roads (courtesy of the Press office of the City of Münster, Germany).

Blogger Elly Blue has noted the discrepancy for people in Seattle.

The cost of road maintenance is averaged at 5.6 cents per mile per motor vehicle. Add the so-called external costs of parking (10 cents), crashes (8 cents), congestion (4 cents), and land costs and that’s another 28 cents per mile! Meanwhile, for slower, lighter, smaller bicycles, the externalities add up to one meager cent per mile.

The average driver travels 10,000 miles in town each year and contributes $324 in taxes and direct fees. The cost to the public, including direct costs and externalities, is a whopping $3,360.

On the opposite pole, someone who exclusively bikes may go 3,000 miles in a year, contribute $300 annually in taxes, and costs the public only $36, making for a profit of $264.

So the next time that you roll down your window and yell at a cyclist to get off your road, dear driver, please keep two things in mind.

  1. In many areas (e.g. downtown Cleveland), you are likely ordering that cyclist to violate the law by riding on the sidewalk, which may endanger pedestrians.
  2. You are essentially telling that cyclist that s/he cannot ride on the road that s/he is helping to pay for. In essence, you are trying to force that cyclist to continue subsidizing your driving habits, which is a form of transportation socialism. And we all know we can’t have that.

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, part 2: The social & political roots of heat-related mortality

children at water park
children at water park

Children attempt to escape from the heat during July 2012 in Louisville (courtesy of the AP).

In my last post, I explored some recent research that outlined projections of climate change in Cleveland and its potential to drive an increase in heat waves. But climate/weather is just one factor behind heat-related mortality; socioeconomic and political issues are, perhaps, just as, if not more important, determinants.

Just as Cleveland’s historic climate and the associated lack of acclimatization to heat waves will likely leave the region more vulnerable to extreme heat, so too do the region’s various socioeconomic and political pathologies leave it ripe for a public health crisis. (As I write this, it is 97° outside, and I just got an extreme heat advisory from the National Weather Service. On September 10.)

Last month, the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan released a new mapping tool that explores the social and economic factors underlying climate change vulnerability in the Great Lakes region. This great new tool allows you to zero in on any county around the Great Lakes to the extent to which its economy, infrastructure, and vulnerable citizens are likely to suffer in a greenhouse world. Unsurprisingly, Cuyahoga County (of which Cleveland is the seat) does not fare particularly well.

The Greater Cleveland area possesses a number of characteristics which, if they do not change, may create a perfect storm for heat-related mortality in a warmer world. I will explore four of these – the built environment, poverty, changing demographics, and racial segregation.

The Built Environment

Northeast Ohio has suffered from decades of sprawl and uncoordinated development patterns, leading to waves of suburbanization followed by exurbanization. In 1948, Cuyahoga County’s population stood at 1,389,532; just 26% of land in the county was developed at the time. Yet, by 2002, although the county’s population had grown by a mere .32% to 1,393,978, sprawl ensured that roughly 95% of the county’s land area had been developed.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped. The maps clearly demonstrate the waves of suburbanization in the county over the last six decades (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

According to data from the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, 33.6% of the county (and 56.2% of Cleveland) is covered by impervious surfaces. These surfaces (e.g. asphalt) conduct heat, contributing to the urban heat island effect. The EPA notes that urban areas can experience annual mean temperatures of 1.8–5.4°F higher than their surroundings, while this difference can reach an astonishing 22° during the evening.

Cuyahoga County’s sprawl-based development structure presents a number of other challenges, as well. As people have spread out throughout the region, we have become increasingly car-dependent. Car use has come to dominate our policy discussions – transportation commentators like to note Ohio stands for Only Highways In Ohio” – despite its myriad of side effects.

According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), 86% of commuters in Northeast Ohio report driving alone to work. This car culture contributes to the development of chronic disease, which I discuss below. Additionally, combined with Cleveland’s industrial base and Ohio’s coal dependence, it significantly reduces air quality in the region. In its 2012 “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Association gave Cuyahoga County an F for ozone pollution and a failing grade for annual particle pollution.

Climate change will likely exacerbate this issue further. Last year, largely due to the abnormally warm summer, Northeast Ohio experienced 28 ozone action days – double the number from 2011. We know that high air temperatures increase concentrations of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory distress for vulnerable groups. Accordingly, Bell and colleagues have projected that ozone-related deaths will increase 0.11-0.27% in the eastern US by 2050. This issue adds to the risk of heat-related mortality in Greater Cleveland.

Changing Demographics

Like much of the Rust Belt, Cleveland has been shrinking and aging. From its peak in the 1950s, Cleveland’s population has plummeted. The city had 914,808 in 1950; by the 2010 census, the number had fallen to 396,815 – a 56.6% decrease in six decades.

This precipitous decrease in population has left large swaths of Cleveland abandoned and, increasingly hollowed out. Even before the Great Recession and the housing crisis that precipitated it began in 2007-2008, Cleveland had foreclosure rates on par with those in the Great Depression. From 2005-2009, Cuyahoga County average roughly 85,000 foreclosure filings per year, and parts of Cleveland saw nearly half of their homes enter foreclosure. The destruction of neighborhoods undermines social capital, a key coping mechanism for surviving extreme events.

foreclosures in Cuyahoga County 1995-2012

The number of annual foreclosure filings in Cuyahoga County from 1995-2012. As the chart indicates, the number of filings spiked in 2005, two years before the housing crisis began (courtesy of Policy Matters Ohio).

As people have fled the region, particularly young people and people of means, those who remain are increasingly poor and disconnected. Accordingly, the region’s population has aged significantly. Nationally, approximately 13% of the total population is age 65 or older. In Ohio, the number is 14.3%, while it sits at 15.8% in Cuyahoga County.

Older persons are far more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of extreme heat, particularly those suffering from chronic illnesses, like diabetes, and those living alone. Unfortunately, 20.6% of people 65 years and over (PDF) in the county suffer from diabetes; this number climbs to over 35% in Cleveland. Additionally, more than one-third of older persons in the county live alone, adding further to their vulnerability.


Given the region’s challenges, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Greater Cleveland struggles with high levels of poverty. Cleveland was named the poorest city in the country in 2004; it has remained at or near the top since that point. Roughly one-third (32.7%) of Cleveland’s residents live below the poverty level. Even worse, more than half of Cleveland’s children are growing up in poverty.

map of poverty rates in Northeast Ohio

Poverty rates and changes in poverty rates within Northeast Ohio from 2005-2009 (courtesy of Rust Wire)

Much of this poverty is concentrated in highly depressed portions of the inner city and, increasingly, in the inner-ring suburbs. It creates regions where public health suffers dramatically; the Plain Dealer recently reported that portions of Cleveland had infant mortality rates higher than most of the developing world, including Bangladesh, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda.

As one would expect, poor people suffer disproportionately in disasters. Roughly 95% of disaster deaths occur in the developing world, and the same principle applies within the developed world (see: Hurricane Katrina).

Racial Segregation

Lastly, Cleveland suffers from high levels of racial segregation. It was the 8th most segregated city in the US in 2011, which likely does not surprise Cleveland natives. For decades, the Cuyahoga River has been seen as something akin to the Berlin Wall – African-Americans stay to the East of the river, while whites and Hispanics live on the West Side.

Recently, the Atlantic Cities posted a map that showed the location of every person in the country (color-coded by race), based on Census data. The close-up shot of Cleveland is below. It quite clearly illustrates the racial divide within the city: African-Americans (green dots) to the east, whites (blue dots) and Hispanics (red dots) to the West. If you look closely, you can even see the small cluster of red dots that makes up Cleveland’s Asia Town.

map of Cleveland showing racial divide

The map, a closeup from the Racial Dot Map, shows the racial divide in the city of Cleveland.

Now, such spatial segregation creates a host of problems, but it also has a connection to heat-related mortality. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that persons of color are far more likely to live in areas at risk of suffering extreme heat waves than whites. The study found that a high risk of suffering from the urban heat island effect is more closely correlated with race than class. Accordingly, severe spatial segregation, as we find in Cleveland, will ensure that poor minority neighborhoods have yet another risk factor to account for in a greenhouse world.

Taken together, Cleveland’s combination of heavy, sprawl-based development; an aging, sickly population; high rates of concentrated poverty; and racial segregation may create a perfect storm for heat-related mortality in the coming decades. The fact that sea level rise isn’t going to drown us, and it snows 6 months a year doesn’t mean we can get complacent as the climate changes. Like I said in my last post, just because it won’t suck as much as Bangladesh doesn’t mean it won’t still suck here.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed everyone, I will use my next post to look at some of the things Cleveland can do to mitigate the threat of heat-related mortality, including some of the initiatives the region is already undertaking.