Efficient Suburbs 2020 Vision
Steve Raney, Cities21, 7/20/05. Updated 1/20/06

The average American consumes more energy driving than operating their home.  Efficient cities minimize the distance between {work, home, and activities}, cutting energy consumption and carbon dioxide production by more than half.  Efficient cities provide the following benefits:

Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) technology is coming to London Heathrow Airport in the Spring of 2009. When used as a transit circulator, PRT is faster than a car for short trips, and makes traditional transit and carpooling more effective by solving the “last mile problem.” Web and cell phones help create a “comprehensive new mobility” system to make green transportation seamless and hassle-free. Paid "smart parking" is the “stick” that reduces solo commuting by 25%. “Low Miles residential communities” foster green culture, where residents help each other to reduce carbon dioxide.  This green culture is created using the same powerful sociological marketing principles that drive our materialistic society. Housing preference policies are used to select new residents who will travel less and use green transportation. Two-car families sell one car. As the real-estate gradually changes, asphalt-dominated superblocks are transformed into walkable, New Urbanist locales. Walking, biking, electric scooters, and Personal Rapid Transit enable more than 50% of trips (commute, errands, recreation, etc.) to be made without driving alone. Each of the nation's 200 30,000-employee business parks can be transformed into huge transit villages of two square miles or more. Through this simple step-by-step plan, you'll save money, shed pounds, meet neighbors, hang out in more lively places, and pay lower taxes. "Human settlement patterns" is the second most important sustainability topic (after population).

October 5, 2020

Hello, my name is Emma Raney.

Compared to typical suburban living, I live a life with lower cost of living, more free time, better work/life balance, stronger and more supportive local community, and ¼ of the energy consumption. My community produces emissions well below Kyoto protocol standards.

In 1963, my grandparents moved to Palo Alto, a fantabulous Silicon Valley suburb. As 20-somethings moving from a Navy enlistment to Palo Alto, "the grands" scrimped and bought a 2,000 square foot house for $23,000. Palo Alto was a pretty affordable place at that time. By 2005, the inflation adjusted price SHOULD have been $136,000, but was more than 10 times that. Palo Alto had become unaffordable. I was born in 1997 (I'm now 23) and got a job out of college in Palo Alto's large office park, Stanford Research Park (SRP). The question was, where to live? It's nontrivial to live in Palo Alto on a 20-something salary. But, as I was growing up, housing was built within SRP and SRP was transformed into an efficient transit and pedestrian-oriented community.

At first it seemed strange, transforming an office park. But, influential smart growthers started agitating for such transformations. [Visioning]

Job & housing co-location
I wanted to be less of a drain on the earth, and given that transportation accounts for about 50% of a person's annual energy consumption it made sense to live close to work, so I bought a condo in SRP so that I could walk to work. If you live and work in the same place, we'll call that "co-locating" or "colo." Without colo, suburbs can NEVER be sustainable, that's just common sense. While Brookings Scholar Anthony Downs advises commuters to learn to cope with traffic congestion in the short run, he believes that, in the long run, jobs and housing will eventually co-locate. [Downs] From an analysis of current research, Robert Cervero questions whether co-location will come about without intervention. He concludes that the natural incentives for people to reduce the distance between work and home have not been working. "Average journey to work distance has been increasing, jobs/housing balance continues to exacerbate." [Cervero] Thus, the colo ordinance was the policy remedy to bring rationality to residential location decisions.

Traffic Reducing Housing [TRH]
In 2006, the city of Palo Alto passed a "traffic reducing housing preference" colo ordinance for new housing in Palo Alto. For new apartments and condos, Traffic Reducing Housing (TRH) selects residents with fewer cars who will drive less. This "housing policy" turns out to be the most effective traffic congestion "weight-loss" program ever devised.

My monthly condo fee is $100/month. If I switch jobs to where I don't work in SRP and I drive alone, then my condo fees go up to $200/month. If I commute via transit or carpool outside of SRP, then I'm "medium green," so I pay $150/month. My SRP employer provides proof of employment once per year. Apartments have equivalent "apartment association fees" of $0, $50, and $100 per month based on their "commute traffic impact." Thus, residents are incentivized to stay colo. I'd be willing to consider job offers from other companies within SRP, but for me to take a job outside of SRP? It would have to be an exceptional offer.

Tipping Point
Human beings are complex social animals with entrenched behavior patterns - it's very hard to change attitudes and behavior. I live in a community formed with an in-depth understanding of human-ness - we've brought about a huge collective change in attitudes and behavior.

The problem is the suburban "tragedy of the commons." When people take green alternatives to driving alone (often incurring a loss of flexibility or a slower trip), then society benefits overall from reduced traffic congestion and reduced trip times. Unfortunately, those benefits are enjoyed by the people who continue to drive alone on the less crowded freeways. In essence, "do-gooders provide benefits to do-badders," and there's little motivation for do-gooders to do good. By creating an entire community with a different value set, do-gooders receive the proper motivation/reinforcement and the tragedy of the commons can be overcome. We've made it cool to be green. We've brought about a tipping point. Here's how we did it:

Low miles community. [Low miles]
By city ordinance, each resident must sign a "green lifestyle" pledge as condition of obtaining new SRP housing. The pledge calls for driving alone as little as possible. I was soooooooo majorly psyched to live in a community where everyone had signed that same pledge, where everyone took "earth abuse" seriously. Don't tell anyone, but I would actually pay more per month to live here, because of this community. Our SRP community is socially bound together by this pledge - it has allowed our "latent Good Samaritan-ism" to spring forth. I feel a natural affinity with everyone in the complex. Even before I've met them, I trust SRP residents more than "normal humans."

In suburbia, it takes specialized knowledge to reduce earth abuse. Suburbia is designed for driving alone - solo driving is easy. But moving around by different means? - now that's tricky. For instance, biking has a series of knowledge sub-categories: route selection, safety training, and accessorizing. Grocery shopping in suburbia without a car? That's its own unique knowledge area - I've researched the topic and become one of the local experts. Because we don't waste time stuck in traffic, we have plenty of free time that we plough back into community activities, problem solving, and knowledge base building. It also takes specialized community technology to distribute knowledge to those who need it, when they need it, and to grow innovative new solutions. Our community functions with face to face communication as well as web discussion forums. Experts share knowledge with newbies. People do like to help others and build up positive karma; it's just that most communities don't provide the infrastructure to unleash Good Samaritan-ism (or "Pay it Forward-ness"). The closest thing to our community is eBay's self-supporting auction community.

Part of the pledge sets the expectation that people will engage in courteous dialog, and respect the individual choices that people make. It's about working together, not bitching because someone drove their SUV to the grocery store. One or two bad apples could spoil the tone of dialog in the community, but we're not anonymous - we bump into each other regularly, so you don't see people being flamed on the discussion board. If this did happen, our community would self-police away such behavior.

It's not like all the ex-hippies from Berkeley moved to Palo Alto to live in this community. There are plenty of residents who were motivated to live in SRP to reduce their commute and cost of living while increasing their quality of life. Many didn't have green living as a core life focus, but were willing to sign the pledge in order to receive the other benefits. The community functions with positive peer pressure, so everyone's green spirit increases over time. The community is self-reinforcing, it feeds on itself. If anything, I'd say the community demographic has deeper religious faith than average California suburbs. Some folks have remarked that the community allows them to better express their faith through action.

There are lots of smart and creative people in our community, so a number of new initiatives have been implemented: hard core recycling, composting, rooftop gardens, solar, etc. As similar communities have sprung up across the world, our knowledge experts share knowledge, and we regularly host visitors for seminars and demonstrations. Outside speakers regularly visit to teach us new expertise and plant seeds for new initiatives.

We're not "Bowling Alone"
Our community regularly schedules activities like barbeques, potlucks, musical performances, expert speaker talks, trips to Stanford University athletic events, etc. Plus we regularly communicate on the discussion forums and we always bump into each other. We know each others names. Residents attribute significant value to their lives from being part of our community. We're very different from the soul-less suburban existence exposed in [Bowling Alone].

Small housing
My condo may be smaller than what you'd normally think of as a condo. It's a like a studio apartment. It has a folding wall bed (a
Murphy bed). There are various other compact designs in smaller and larger units in my complex (elevated beds with desks underneath, etc). Some of the world's best space-saving ideas have been brought to Palo Alto. It is sooooo important to go small. Housing costs $700 per square foot, an outrageous price. So, I could either rent, or buy bigger 30 miles South, or buy a teeny, tasteful SRP condo and build up equity (the 'Merican dream). [MacDonald]

There's a nice outdoor square in my complex and the neighboring complex, a good place to hang out when I need to get out of my condo. There's a good hang-out café in my complex, with outdoor seating in the square, and the other complex has a library annex that works well for hanging out.

The complex has a variety of unit sizes, some much smaller (and more affordable, if cramped) than mine. Some units are condos, others are rental apartments. Going small is the only way to have housing costs take less of a bite out of a monthly budget. Because of the variety of sizes, the complex supports a broad range of income levels, including low income. The colo traffic reducing housing preference scheme would have never flown if it only created luxury housing - federal fair housing law required a large affordable component. Plus, this "housing product" had to be very different from the neighboring single family homes, so that it wasn't seen as competition.

My car
I don't own a car. Well, I sort of own half of a Prius. I lease a Prius, but it is used by other people during the work day as a carsharing car, and my lease payments are reduced depending on how much others use my car. I don't keep stuff in my car, it's not an extension of my sofa and garage like a typical car would be. If I need a different size car, pickup, or minivan, there are plenty to choose from in the carsharing program. Every SRP resident and worker is enrolled in the carsharing program (though not everyone supplies cars), so there is sufficient scale to make carsharing economics work.

Un-housed vs. Homefull
Someone figured out that our complex needed to support two un-housed people to do our share to address the problem. So we help provide good quality of life for those folks, but we haven't become a huge mecca for loitering.

First off, those two outpatient Iraq War veterans (with a few "issues") are now "homefull," not un-housed. No shivering or hunger pangs are allowed. They have teeny, minimal dwelling units, but, heck, it's a warm place to sleep and shower. The two vets are treated like real people. One is pretty social. I greet her by name and she greets me by name. The other is kind of a quiet loner. I kind of nod a greeting, but he pretty much just wants to be left alone. But he's not treated like he's invisible. Both have work assignments in our complex, it's not a free meal. We're not afraid of them - like every other resident, they care about the safety of our community and provide "eyes on the street" to ensure that nothing funny is going on. A few folks in our community have undertaken special training on how to best integrate these folks. Our association fees subsidize these folks. [Livable Cities]

Desegregation and Latino Upward Mobility
Before "the transformation" started, SRP employment was very skewed towards white and Asian. But Santa Clara County's residential population was 44% white, 25% Asian, and 24% Latino. In addition, the U.S. Census shows that, in terms of educational attainment and household income, Silicon Valley whites and Asians are the "Haves" and Latinos and African Americans are the "HaveNots." The same kind of problems we saw in New Orleans with Katrina in 2005. Thus, the traffic reducing housing scheme could have created favored housing for the Haves - cha, like they need handouts. Instead, Palo Alto ensured that SRP housing attracted a high percentage of Latinos. This was accomplished by a) keeping housing costs low, low, low, so that lower paid SRP workers could afford these units, b) recruiting Latino-serving retail and restaurants to the first floor of SRP housing, c) increasing the ethnic food sections at the two local grocery stores, d) augmenting the already strong public school language programs, e) recruiting workers and residents from the local Latino concentrations in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Jose, f) holding ethnic themed events, and g) holding local educational and cultural classes targeted towards the Latino population. SRP employers got involved, providing a lifestyle package to low-income folks: {a job, job training, a house, children's afterschool programs, and a better chance at upward mobility}. SRP employees/residents and nearby neighborhood residents volunteer to help this Latino-focused effort succeed. In our complex's community, we've had a number of non-Latinos who've strengthened their Spanish language skills so they could better interact with all residents (second generation Latinos speak great English, adult immigrant Latinos have a broad range of English fluency). Given that Palo Alto enjoys some of the nation's best public schools, it's nice to see Latino kids excelling within the school district, well on their way to realizing the 'Merican dream of upward mobility through hard work.

How I get places
SRP has a personal rapid transit (PRT) system, and I take that to many destinations: grocery shopping, book store, cafes, restaurants, art house movies, the gym, yoga, pilates, massage, soccer fields, play parks for my little nieces, etc. (I walk to work.) At the edge of SRP lies some of the most popular hiking in Silicon Valley - it's called The Dish. I take PRT to and from there, taking pains not to sweat inside the PRT vehicles. They installed lockers at The Dish, which allows me to store a towel and control sweat with it. I carpool to church via the low mileage chat community. Our community organizes one trip to the garden supply center per month, and we carpool, often snagging minivans from the carsharing service to carry back lots of stuff. SRP's PRT connects to PRT systems in other large Silicon Valley office parks (there are 10 others). Via this connection, I connect to a larger variety of stores, downtown Palo Alto, a large concert amphitheatre, rollerblading at the edge of the bay, a cinema multiplex, and restaurants in other cities. Very rarely, I get a little carried away and I end up with a bunch of large items to schlep home. Large wheeled carts are available at some stores. I wheel the cart and items onto PRT vehicle, take my items home, then I wheel the empty cart onto another PRT vehicle where it is re-deployed. It's a bit like an airport luggage cart system.

I take commuter rail to see Sharks hockey, Giants baseball, and plays/cultural events in SF and San Jose. When I go to Stanford for an event, I usually PRT with bike (on occasion I combine PRT with a foldable electric scooter). To get to places, I walk significantly more than a typical suburbanite - I generally travel the first and last trip segment on foot.

Sometimes I don't go places, places come to me. Our community negotiated scheduled delivery services for groceries, drugs, environmentally conscious dry cleaners, locally grown organic produce, bicycle repair, etc.
Grocery Shopping

Car trunks are great for carrying groceries, but using a car to shop is so 2010. If I'm making a significant grocery run, I tote a wheeled, folding Hook & Go via PRT to shop at the grocery store. No, that's not me in the picture to the right - I use reusable canvas shopping bags, not plastic. I generally grocery shop three times per week - I don't have much pantry space and I like my food fresh, fresh, fresh. Or, I just use my trusty expandable backpack for smaller grocery runs. [Grocery]

Emancipation from serfdom
Corporate facilities managers and human resources personnel had previously believed in "serfdom." They subsidized employee cafeteria food to keep employees in the building and to keep lunch breaks short, short, short. PRT broke that mindset. Employees now regularly leave the office for fun lunch breaks at interesting places and hang out with real people (not co-workers). It's as if we are allowed to have a life. The trip to restaurants by PRT faster than via car (without the parking hassles) and more enjoyable. The HR people were slow to come around, but they finally figured out that happier employees are more likely to stick around with their company. To me, this is another example of how the Efficient Suburb lifestyle improves work/life balance. Workers want to work in a vibrant place with stuff to do, not in an isolated corporate campus.

Ouch! It costs money to park [Parking]
When the PRT was put in, they snuck in $0.50 per day parking charges, via a clever automated system. PRT motivated more than half of SRP workers to bike, take transit, or carpool to work. People realized that a car wasn't completely necessary for suburban workers. Once this transformation was in place, SRP was able to gradually crank up the daily parking charges to where it now costs $8 per day to park. The $8 pain level stopped even more people from driving alone to SRP. It also costs the same $8 per day to park at SRP housing - it's turned a number of two-car families into one-car families. As for myself with my "half of a Prius," I get a bit of parking price break because my car is available for others. The automated parking system was really important, because it allowed SRP a) to have a real-time count of the number of cars within SRP, b) to prove that traffic reduction occurred, and c) to monitor the impact of various programs and promotions. The vocal local Palo Alto neighborhood associations would not have allowed the transformation to occur without the real-time car count proving that traffic was decreasing. All of us Palo Altans appreciate the fact that traffic has gone down while population has gone up.

And our office parking spaces double as spaces for residents. We actually utilize the relatively few parking spaces within SRP 24 hours per day. Someone pulls out to leave work for home, someone pulls in to park for the night.

Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)

We like to think of our PRT system as "transportainment" - it's really fun to ride the system, and we have no end of international "transit-tourists" who simply HAVE to take a ride. These tourists stay at our new, hotel-tax-revenue-generating, city budget-balancing SRP hotels.

PRT is an elevated, 100-mpg-equivalent monorail system with many four-person, driverless, electric vehicles. PRT provides non-stop, no-wait, 25 mph service. Vehicles travel above ground on 16' elevated "guideway." Stations are located near building entrances. Many stations are situated along the route to maximize convenience.
PRT is optimized for office parks, airports, universities, and other population centers, where travel by PRT is faster than by car. In these applications, PRT makes carpooling and conventional transit more effective, by solving the "last mile problem."

PRT combines concepts from monorail (Disneyland), automated people movers (SFO Airport), roller coasters, and automated highway systems (Governor Schwarzenegger's GM OnStar van drives itself in the science fiction movie The Sixth Day).

Passengers travel alone or with people of their choosing. Vehicle weight minimization greatly reduces the size of the elevated guideway and supporting columns, dramatically reducing construction cost and right of way acquisition. Vehicles flow along the guideway almost like data packets on the Internet, anticipating demand so that wait time is eliminated. In addition to improving commute alternatives, the PRT system eliminates mid-day stranding caused by traditional carpooling/transit, by providing efficient transit to adjoining shops and restaurants.

PRT system capacity is roughly 4,000 person trips per hour per PRT "loop." Systems may have many loops, providing more capacity.

PRT is great for wheelchairs and helps provide a more active lifestyle for folks with poor eyesight or creaky bones. Thus, our little community has attracted a number of retirees.

The SRP PRT system map is shown at right:

Here's an historic (Year 2007) three-minute explanation of PRT technology:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7hgipbHBK8 .

Huge Transit Village
Before the SRP transformation, people used to think of a "transit village" as a few acres of development alongside a transit station. SRP brought about the PRT-based transit village that connect two square miles with a network of transit, connected to traditional rail stations and bus stops.

New Mobility
Some clever methods were used to reduce solo commutes to SRP. These often relied on GPS-enabled cell phones (think of the Marauder's Map in Harry Potter, a map where you can track the current whereabouts of all wizards and witches at Hogwarts). These are described in the following:

We're a really active political community and we enjoy undue influence over Palo Alto city council deliberations. It would be out of the question for an anti-green policy proposal to ever pass in Palo Alto. We bring a long-term, big-picture, region-wide mindset to local politics, providing the necessary mandate to bypass the limits of American risk-averse, next-election-focused city deliberations. Initially, we freaked out the establishment, but now we're generally perceived as a knowledgeable, benevolent force for change.

Kitchen Sink
All the standard bits of smart growth and green building were integrated into our community {green rooftops, community gardens, cohousing, etc.}, but I'm running out of space, so I won't go into details. The main point was that the transformation of SRP took best practices as a baseline, and then went well beyond those visions. Huge "superblocks" were transformed via neotraditional residential spines emanating from the inside out. Superblocks (take 8 normal city blocks and remove the internal streets - result is a super block) were then connected via priority bike/pedestrian links (under or over arterials like El Camino Real, Page Mill, and Foothill Expressway) and via PRT.


Efficient SRP housing created a much-desired, brand new housing choice: low-cost, small, vibrant, low environmental impact. It's a housing choice combined with a cultural choice (good-doing, tight-knit community).

The "transforming office parks with housing" model generated a $326 million real-estate profit, thus spread like a wildfire, covering 200 large U.S. office parks, each with 20,000+ workers, within 10 years. For every two workers, one new resident was added. [Garreau] While these office parks were the villains of traffic congestion, sprawl, and pollution in the 1980's and 1990's, they ended up being the crucial sustainability catalyst in the 21st century. For Palo Alto, annual employee vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reductions are 46M miles and annual pounds of carbon dioxide reduced are 33M pounds. There are approximately 6M U.S. employees working in the 200 largest office parks. Extrapolating the Palo Alto model to the other major office parks removes 1.98M cars and provides the following annual reductions: 11.B vehicle miles traveled, 424M gallons of gas, 8.4B pounds carbon dioxide. [Silver Bullet - 188 pages]

Palo Alto's city finances were a mess, but the SRP transformation brought revenue-generating land uses back to Palo Alto. SRP office land values increased by 100%, adjacent residential values by 25%. [Cervero]




For other articles on the future of suburbia, see: http://www.postcarbon.org/node/1350/view