19th Century Urban Transport Was An Environmental Problem

Green New Yorkers

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Feb 19, 2012    •    607 Views

Think about life in the city. A one-bedroom apartment might have 1000 square feet located next to several other similar dwellings and all are heated and cooled by the same source. You walk nearby to get your groceries and take the subway or bus to work or school. Rather than a hybrid car, the energy efficient passenger vehicle that you use most frequently is the elevator.

The result? According to New Yorker writer David Owen, being green in Manhattan is very simple. You just have to live there.

But then, you move to the suburbs and transform your carbon footprint. You buy one car and then two. You have a house to heat and cool. You even have an extra refrigerator in your garage or basement. Everywhere, to school, to dine, to shop, you have to drive.

Our bottom line: Sometimes it takes counterintuitive reasoning to assess environmental impact.

Or, as Kermit said, “It’s not easy being green.”

The Economic Lesson

High density urban areas have much less of an environmental impact than low density municipalities.  Harvard economist Edward Glaesar points out that “a single family detached house uses on average 83% more electricity than urban apartments within the United States.” Correspondingly, in his New Yorker article, David Owen talks about the high density environmental benefits of skyscrapers.

I recommend this Econtalk podcast with David Owen on the “conundrums” of being green and this econlife post on the unintended impact of wind farms and locovores.

An Economic Question: Should national leaders tilt environmental policy toward urban favoritism?

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