Author: Petra Hurtado
For many years, city planners and local governments have been putting on climate action agendas and sustainability strategies trying to make cities greener and environmentally responsible. To reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, cities have been building public transportation systems, bike lanes, and walkable neighborhoods. To reduce energy and water consumption in buildings, architects and engineers have been designing “green” and net-zero energy/water buildings. However, not every city has been successful, and plans don’t always work out the way they were designed on paper. Even though many cities have invested in sustainable means of transportation, and architects and engineers have the ability to design affordable resource-efficient buildings, the technical solution alone doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Building public transportation systems and bike lanes doesn’t guarantee that people will use them and drive less. Designing energy-efficient buildings doesn’t guarantee that the occupants will use less energy than in any other building. What looks good on paper doesn’t always work out in reality.
So what do we do wrong? Why are some cities so successful with their sustainability plans and others are not, even though they are all pursuing the same objectives and they are all following similar strategies? Why does over 70 percent of the population in Vienna take public transit, ride their bikes, or walk to work every day, while in Chicago more than 60 percent still drive to work, even though it has the second largest public transit system and one of the most extensive bike lane networks in the United States?
The success of an urban sustainability project doesn’t only depend on its technical feasibility, but it mainly depends on the user preferences and the user behavior. When building sustainable infrastructure or other urban assets, we therefore have to understand people’s preferences to be able to change their behavior towards using the sustainable options. My research in Europe and North America resulted in five factors that influence the user’s decision on using the sustainable or the unsustainable option. For successful urban sustainability projects, we have to incorporate these five factors in our planning processes, motivating people to use the sustainable option and discouraging them from choosing the unsustainable one: availability, accessibility, attractiveness, affordability, and awareness of sustainable options (the five A’s). In the following each of these five factors will be explained with an example.
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First of all, sustainable options have to be available. You can’t expect people to not use their cars, if there is no alternative available. If you want people to use sustainable transportation options, you have to provide the appropriate infrastructure systems and everything that is needed to use them; not just where they live, but also where they work, study, and play. For instance, a city can have the most extensive public transportation system on earth, however, if there is no bus stop or train station in a walkable distance to your home, the system is not really available to you. Building bike lanes is one way to encourage people to ride their bikes, but if you don’t have the appropriate place to park your bike at your destination, you will probably be less likely to do it. In addition, unsustainable options should not be available. As long as the infrastructure that is needed for driving is available, people will not see the benefit of changing their habits. If unsustainable options are no longer available, people will automatically look for alternative options.
Sustainable options have to be physically and legally accessible. Urban design and technology can restrict or allow physical access. Laws and regulations can make access legal or illegal. Urban design, laws, and regulations have to favor the sustainable option over the unsustainable one. For instance, current zoning plans allow legal access to land outside the city for the development of unsustainable suburban sprawl. Highways enable people to physically access those unsustainable developments. As long as people are legally allowed to build single-family houses on the green field and we keep building highways to physically access them, we won’t be able to solve the problem of urban sprawl. A change in policies and a rethinking of transportation networks can make the physical and legal accessibility of sustainable options possible.
Sustainable options have to be more attractive than unsustainable options. Attractiveness doesn’t only refer to beauty, but also to service quality, safety, and comfort. If taking the train means waiting for a long time in a dirty and unsafe train station that is too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, being squeezed into a vehicle packed with people not being able to breathe, and arriving late at your destination, then you will probably end up driving there. People are more likely to take the train to work if the provided infrastructure (including vehicles, stations, and routes) and services are attractive. In addition, as long as driving a car is as attractive as taking alternative means of transportation, people won’t be interested in changing their habits. Therefore, the unsustainable option (driving), has to be less attractive than the sustainable one to make a behavior change possible.
Sustainable options have to be affordable and less expensive than unsustainable options. Unfortunately, in the real-estate market, the opposite is true. The sustainable apartment in the dense city, served by public transportation and within walking distance from everyday needs, is more expensive than the unsustainable, car-dependent single-family house in the middle of nowhere. For a sustainable development, building land outside the city should be traded as a luxury good, and places within the city should be affordable for everyone. In many other cases such as transportation options or green buildings, sustainable options are less expensive than the unsustainable ones, but most people aren’t aware of it (see factor #5 Awareness).
People have to be aware of the available sustainable options, and they have to be aware that the sustainable options are more attractive, more affordable, and better accessible than the unsustainable alternatives. In most cases, sustainable options are less expensive than the unsustainable ones. However, most people are not aware of how much money they could save by taking the train instead of driving or by investing in an energy-efficient building with higher capital costs but lower operating costs. For instance, you start every ride in your car with turning the ignition key and maybe adjusting the volume of the radio. In that moment you don’t think of the price you paid for your car a year ago, or the new tires you bought last month, or the cost of the insurance that gets automatically withdrawn from your bank account, or what you will pay for gas and parking today. On the other hand, taking public transportation, you start your ride paying for a transit ticket or using your transit pass to enter the platform, being reminded that you spent another $100 for your monthly pass last week. Comparing the monthly costs of a car with those of public transit, the car is definitely the more expensive option. However, most people are not aware of the fact that by taking public transit, they could save a lot of money. Making people aware of the affordability, availability, attractiveness, and accessibility of sustainable options is the most important and the most underestimated factor for successful sustainability projects.
Integrating all five A’s in planning and design processes of sustainability projects will result in a higher acceptance of the project within the population, allowing not just its technical feasibility but also its successful implementation.