SHOCKER: "Greenest City in America (*Except For Cars)" Failing to Meet Weak VMT Reduction Goal


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The new Greenworks progress report came out last week, which tracks the efforts of the Mayor's Office of Sustainability to make Philadelphia the "Greenest City in America." While there was much to celebrate in there in terms of building energy savings and fresh food access, one major cause for concern jumped out - the uptick in vehicle (car) miles traveled.

The Nutter administration had set a pretty weak goal at the outset of reducing vehicle miles just 10% between 2009 and 2015:

This goal already falls far short of what a city hoping to become the Greenest City in America would set, but the wussiness of it all is compounded by the fact that 2005 was the peak year for VMT in the US. Using the highest VMT year as the baseline is setting an extremely low bar from the get-go. Why hasn't the baseline been adjusted downward yet in response to this new information, which has been available for years now?

The Nutter administration tries to explain away its failure to achieve even this unambitious goal by pointing to the population growth numbers, assuming that population growth always augers an increase in vehicles miles traveled:

In reality, there is no good reason to accept this assumption. In Vancouver, traffic on major streets has dropped over 20% since 2006, even as the population grew 4.5%

And that really gets at the core issue here. What urbanists want is for the city to get on the Vancouver track, where the growth in new people isn't matched one-for-one with new cars. If we're getting our transportation and land use policies right, the new people numbers should be moving in the opposite direction as the new car numbers, giving us a nice decelerating slope in VMT.

But Philly isn't getting the transportation and land use policies right to achieve even our weak VMT-reduction goals:

- Our parking permit prices are still scandalously low, even after the recent increase.

- The PPA is still printing the permits in unlimited quantities, with no regard for the actual number of curb parking spaces.

- Our parking meter prices are set based on politics, not based on maintaining at 80% occupancy rate, although the report mentions they're exploring variable-rate pricing.

- Our parking tax on garage and surface lot spaces is half the rate in Pittsburgh, where transit options are much worse.

- Our property tax is heavily skewed toward buildings, and under-taxes land, which favors surface parking uses.

- We haven't passed the $5 county registration fee that the state transportation bill lets us levy.

- We still have parking minimums for multi-family buildings over 4 units.

- And our City Council hasn't joined other PA cities in calling for lifting the state ban on radar guns for local speed enforcement.

Of all the sticks the Greenest City in America could be using to get Philadelphians out of their cars, we're essentially using none of them. This city coddles drivers at every turn. Is it any wonder the vehicle mileage numbers are going the wrong way?

Now, to be fair to the Mayor, most of the policies that would be most effective can't be accomplished without the support of City Council. And City Council is all about the car. They've actually made it harder during the Nutter administration to remove parking lanes in favor of bike lanes and other greener active uses. Until the administration has some partners on City Council, the VMT numbers are going to keep climbing.

Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 June 2014 @ 15.29
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.