When Sustainable Urbanism author Doug Farr asked Sustainable Tennessee conference attendees last week whether Memphis had car sharing, many of them laughed.
"That wasn't meant to be a joke," Farr said. "Somebody tell me why that's funny."
Was it because the idea of a car-sharing company in Memphis — which still lacks bicycle and HOV lanes — sounded ridiculous?
Or was it because Memphis could be said to have car sharing? It's just that, in a city of more than 6,000 auto thefts a year, it's not always voluntary.
And when Farr talked about the relative costs of transit systems, he mentioned the Madison Avenue trolley line. But after demurring from the audience, someone spoke up and told Farr that yes, Memphis has a trolley line, but "it doesn't work the way you think."
With responses like those, it may not come as a great surprise that in a recent ranking of America's most sustainable large cities, Memphis came in at number 46, down three spots from last year.
SustainLane, an online guide to sustainable living, rated cities on a number of indicators, including affordable housing, the green economy, water quality, the number of LEED buildings per capita, transit ridership, and commute.
Though the city scored highly in water and affordable housing, Memphis ranked last for both LEED buildings (built to certain environmental standards) and the green economy. It also ranked 46th for planning and land use.
But conferences such as last week's Sustainable Tennessee Regional Opportunity Forum — organized by the University of Memphis, the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and the Sierra Club — are striving to change that.
Conference attendees learned about the new U.S. Green Building Council's LEED designation for neighborhoods. Under the new standards, neighborhood development wanting LEED certification must be located close to existing town and city centers, have access to transit systems, and cannot be on a flood plain.
"You might have heard about a 'green' Wal-Mart," Rusty Bloodworth of the local ULI chapter told conference attendees, "but the vehicle miles traveled to get to that Wal-Mart were not addressed in that rating."
Vehicle miles traveled is a consistent theme for Farr. Though a third of green-house gases are generated by buildings, another third are generated by transporting people and goods between those buildings.
In the United States, the average family drives almost all the way around the planet each year.
When Farr asked conference attendees how many of them had ever walked to school, a good number raised their hands.
"It went from 75 percent [of students] walk to school to less than 20 percent," Farr said. "It's not because legs work less well. ... It's a cultural shift."
Sustainable urbanism is defined as walkable, transit-served urbanism integrated with green buildings and high-performance infrastructure.
Farr believes that what might be called the low-hanging fruit — compact fluorescent lightbulbs, hybrid cars, LEED-designated buildings — will not do enough to reduce carbon dioxide levels.
"It's not about the efficiency of objects," he said. "As things become more efficient, we use them more."
But by designing developments a little differently — increasing residential density, having a variety of uses in an area — people can save money and the environment.
"One way to do affordable housing is to do a no-car development," Farr said. "It cuts down on the cost because you're not allocating land to parking."
Giving up their car entirely is probably a stretch for most people, but Farr gave a few examples of ways people could be influenced to drive less.
Studies have found that if parking is free at both ends of a trip, people will drive. But if employers charge their employees to park — even if they give them the money to cover the cost — "people will find a way not to drive," Farr said.
"I'm from Detroit. I'm not anti-car," he said. "I'm pro-family wealth."
And in a city where "car sharing" is so common, a little extra family wealth could go a long way.