Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Green builders find that location matters

with 4 comments

Well, that’s nice – about time too. This article in the Los Angeles Times took me back a  bit. Back to the lecture I heard about LEED ND. Christopher Leinberger also talked about this at SFU downtown in April 2008. A green building downtown has a much lower carbon footprint because people can get there without using cars. The same building located  in the suburbs produces a lot more carbon because most of the travel there is in single occupant vehicles. Indeed I have been talking about this to Green Building Advisers for years. The example I use is the headquarters of Ducks Unlimited, which increased its carbon footprint by moving out of a rented building in DC to a ‘green’ building beyond the beltway.

Since its launch in 2000, LEED, the bible of green certification systems, has focused mostly on the building, not where it is located. The system gives points for locating a building near public transportation and other services, but organizations such as the Sustainable Sites Initiative have argued that the standards lack comprehensive criteria.

In 2008, the American Physical Society found that “the lack of an agreed-upon method for quantifying these issues” was a significant obstacle for policymakers.

“Different studies frame the questions in different ways, and different sources provide different predictions that are qualitatively in agreement but yield slightly different, or mutually incomparable, predictions,” the group wrote.

Center for Neighborhood Technology [has developed] a tool that can predict the energy required to travel to a building based on its location.Using a complex formula that combines transportation and census data, the center developed a free online tool, launching early this year, that promises to deliver that kind of information in a matter of minutes.

Interest in the Transportation Energy Index from sustainability managers, transportation alliances, urban planners and even the federal government is intense because the tool could alter the green world order.

The center acknowledges that its tool is still far from perfect.

“You have to understand why the people get there, how far they have to go, what kind of transportation they use, what the energy impact is of that,” Haas said.

The tool uses “as the crow flies” miles, rather than mapped routes to determine the transportation efficiency of a building. It relies on census data and the National Transit Database to determine where visitors are generally traveling from and the modes of transportation they are likely to use or have available.

Well at least they have the census data. Our conservative federal government has decided to scrap the long form census – the 10% mandatory sample that gave us – for the first time, and at the municipal level, reliable comparative journey to work data by mode. Of course this is absolutely essential to understanding urban transportation. And the only way that StatsCan could be persuaded to collect it was at the expanse of another level of government. The journey to work question was only inserted once the municipalities agreed to pay for it. Of course the census data is not perfect either – one census coincided with the 4 month transit strike here, which skewed the data for mode split. But at least we had 10% sample data – not the 0.04% we normally rely on from the regional trip diary survey.

Actually it also surprises me that they had to use crow fly data in the US. After all, there they actually have regional transportation data – and land use data. That is a requirement of the federal government. To get federal funding for transportation projects you have to demonstrate that it is part of a regional plan. US local government is even more complicated and parochial than ours is so the role of the regional planning agency is even more important – and acknowledged in legislation. Given that every US metropolis has access to a model I would have thought that getting real travel information would be technically straight forward. I suppose their must be some legal or administrative reason why it can’t be used. It is unlikely that opponents of energy saving are that diligent. Isn’t it?


Written by Stephen Rees

January 18, 2011 at 10:06 am

4 Responses

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  1. One would have thought that it was plain commonsense that the location of a building was important, for all sorts of reasons. Isn’t it something that people intuitively understand?

    For example, whenever I looked for a home in Toronto and Vancouver the proximity of transit was a deciding factor for me.
    In Europe real estate ads, even for expensive apartment buildings, often mention the nearest subway station. Same in Japan, except that they also includes rail stations..

    In both above examples the “greenness” of a building wasn’t a factor years ago, if only because it was beyond the control of the owners/renters but nowadays this is a serious concern.
    I noticed during my (totally unplanned) trip to France last month that real estate ads emphasized that this and that building for sale had the low energy label (if it is a place inhabited for at least a year sellers MUST provide utilities bills, besides other audits)

    There has long been an understanding that buildings in a town were more energy saving than similar ones built in a wide open space. Even animals know that huddling in a pack in winter is better than standing alone..

    Years ago our union sold their headquarters at 10 and Arbutus and built a new one by Boundary and Marine drive (or whatever the name is). Great looking building but hard to find and to get to (at the time buses in that industrial area only ran a few hrs morning then afternoon and there wasn’t a restaurant for miles). Unlike the old place there wasn’t even income producing (and energy saving) upper floors!

    Red frog

    January 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  2. Great post Stephen. I’m glad I found your blog. It is about time LEED ND started correcting the distortion of the original LEED system. When I learnt about LEED after coming to Canada I was surprised there wasn’t more emphasis on building location.


    January 18, 2011 at 1:58 pm

  3. […] yesterday’s blog post pointed out just looking at the building, without considering its location can be very misleading. […]

  4. There is also a critique on New Urbanism evolving that places emphasis on planning communities first on systems (natural habitat, public open space, energy, transportation, engineering + social services, etc.) over objects (buildings, streetwalls, monuments).

    This engenders a more holistic approach to town planning.

    Naturally, Andres Duany is flustered with the notion that he borrowed heavily from 19th century urbanists like landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead and urban designer Thomas Mawson without acknowledging their contribution to his work, and that his works are still largely dominated by car dependency.


    January 21, 2011 at 11:45 am

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