Car-Crazy Houston Suburbs Are Producing Most Of The Metro's Post-Pandemic Carbon Emissions
Population growth and a pandemic-era rush to the suburbs mean commuters into downtown Houston are racking up more than high gas bills.
According to a new study on the impact of suburbanization on the climate, population shifts are also taking a toll on the environment.
In Houston's dense central counties, emissions are now 5.7% lower than in suburban ones, per the report by Apartment List examining how population shifts have caused people's carbon footprints to expand significantly in the wake of the pandemic.
Houston is already so car-dependent, the difference between the footprint of urbanites and suburbanites isn't quite as stark as in other parts of the country. Central counties in the Houston MSA produce about 49.2 tons of carbon emissions a year per household, versus 52 tons in fringe counties. Houston's reliance on cars means it has higher carbon footprint than average — the national average is 45.8 tons per household annually — but the gap between central and fringe counties is smaller than the nationwide average of 18%.
That doesn't mean growing emissions in Houston suburbs aren't alarming.
"Houston is a prime example because it is one of the nation's fastest-growing metros, but when we see that that growth is achieved through this continued sprawl and by most of that development happening in the suburbs, at the expense of prioritizing that type of transit-oriented development ... Well, that kind of goes counter to the goals in respect of climate," Apartment List Senior Housing Economist Chris Salviati told Bisnow.
Houston experienced much higher population growth from 2019 to 2021 in fringe counties, growing 5.4% over that point, versus 0.3% in central counties. Remote work has pushed more Americans into the suburbs, and Apartment List said rental demand is strongest in those areas, "with the potential to drive precisely the type of sprawl that is at odds with progress on emissions."
Among the 56 largest U.S. metros, those with 1 million residents or more, examined based on U.S. Census Bureau data, Apartment List said some are doing far better than others.
Areas with dense, walkable urban cores like New York County, which includes Manhattan, boast carbon footprints as low as 32.6 tons a year per household.
"Promoting this type of dense, transit-oriented, and walkable living should be a key part of climate change mitigation strategies," Apartment List states in its report.
Salviati said commuters driving hours each way into cities like Washington, D.C., or San Francisco, a practice known as "super commuting," are driving big spikes. But the ability to save on rent by living in the suburbs is unlikely to curb that practice.
With few U.S. metros offering robust public transit between suburbs and cities, Salviati said more conversation needs to be centered around infrastructure, especially at a time more infrastructure spending nationwide is going to developing highways for single-occupant cars.
"I think a lot of folks do have good intentions when it comes to this stuff in terms of wanting to live their lives in a more sustainable way," Salviati said. "But in many cases, the infrastructure around us makes that extremely difficult.
"If you don't live in a place where you have the option to take public transit to work or ride your bikes to work … then you know that there really isn't a whole lot that you as an individual can do about that."