Americans in the 21st century utterly rely on their cars. This is especially true in suburban locations such as Los Altos, where, due to zoning laws adopted in the 1950s, housing is located separate from jobs, retail and services.
We’ve lost the European wisdom of creating a village where people can walk or bike from their homes to any number of services for daily living. And we’ve gotten lazy. The result is our absolute dependence on the automobile, leading to an exponential increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions.
Since 1982, the U.S. population has grown by 50 percent but annual VMT has increased by an astonishing 100 percent. Transportation is the fastest-growing sector of greenhouse gas production in the United States, with the way we travel largely determined by where we live and which services are convenient to us. It’s critical to our future that we change our ways. California’s mandated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission forecasts that Santa Clara County will experience a 21 percent increase in VMT by 2020, compared with 2007, and a 53 percent increase over 1990 levels. Can we change our trajectory? Unfortunately, it is a fact that just improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles will not get us where we need to go. We actually need to drive fewer miles. This can only be done through improved transit options and land-use planning called “smart growth.”
Studies show that when you double population density, the result is 25 percent to 30 percent lower VMT per capita, a reduction due to denser developments with a diversity of uses clustered to provide many more options for walking, biking and alternative transportation – not every trip has to be in the car. Maps of greenhouse gas emissions mirror this, showing lower per-capita greenhouse gas emissions for cities and towns that have greater density. While smart growth is not the complete answer, it is necessary for a sustainable lifestyle. It provides the possibility of something other than a car trip for every errand and reduces the need to drive to other cities for entertainment and services.
What could this mean for Los Altos? Currently, we are a town with low-density development. But we are also part of a larger Bay Area community that will grow by 1 million people over the next 20 years. California will add nearly 8 million new residents. Where will all these people live? The most responsible thing we can do for our planet’s future is to house people near their jobs. Los Altos, located in the heart of Silicon Valley with its wealth of jobs, is well situated to provide more housing. And in doing so, we can address the problems of our quaint but underused and economically un-vibrant downtown.
A commitment to significantly increase both housing and jobs in our downtown and commercial corridors would have the benefit of making our community – especially the downtown area – much more vibrant, livable and economically viable. Our downtown could be revived with businesses that thrive rather than die a slow death. It could be a place we all want to spend more time and more money, instead of driving to Palo Alto or Mountain View.
GreenTown Los Altos sponsored a public forum recently to educate residents on smart growth and to gauge the level of support for three- and four-story buildings downtown. The 60 Los Altos residents in attendance indicated that there is strong support for three and four stories in downtown Los Altos, even though the Los Altos City Council and city staff have currently drawn a strict limit at two-story structures on State and Main streets.
The new civic center is another enormous opportunity for sustainable master planning. Unfortunately, current proposals are missing critical opportunities for density, diversity and design, and are constrained to one- and two-story buildings spread across 18 acres, with approximately 40 percent to 50 percent of the land paved for parking and streets (i.e., design for cars, not humans). A sustainable land-use planner would likely propose a very different scenario that would probably be more affordable, and could include a public-private partnership to help fund the development and bring more diversity, services and vitality.
I believe that with a small amount of education, a majority of community members would strongly support a more sustainable development including three- and four-story buildings along San Antonio Road and in the middle of the civic center. As citizens of Los Altos, we share a responsibility to have a voice in this process, and to choose a sustainable solution that will serve our families for the next 100 years. The current master plan is not sustainable.
Sustainability is not just about hybrid cars, solar power or greener buildings. It is a holistic equation that also involves better urban planning, design for people, taller buildings, more amenities and more diversity. And, it can provide a triple return on investment of economic, environmental and social benefits.
The 1950s are gone. Los Altos must look to the future to discover the solutions and develop the plans to make our community – and the world – a healthier, more livable place. Our children will thanks us if we do.
GreenTown wants you
GreenTown Los Altos is seeking volunteers for the following projects.