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The Resurgence of Local Shops Is a Great Strategy for Fighting Global Warming

So far, the public debate about cars and climate change has been dominated by fuel economy -- but what if we didn't have to drive to the store at all?

What I find most striking about my mother-in-law's memories of the neighborhood where I live, and where she spent her childhood in the 1940s, is how many businesses our little residential section of town once boasted. Back then, there was a grocery store, hardware store, barber shop, two drugstores, a tailor, and several corner stores.

Those businesses all disappeared in the following decades, as the streetcar lines were dismantled, families acquired cars, and shopping migrated out to supermarkets and, later, malls and big-box stores. At the low point, my neighborhood hosted little more than a lone convenience store, great for snacks and beer, but not much else.

Recently that began to change: first a restaurant opened and then a tea shop. And then, in what many of my neighbors greeted as nothing short of a gift from heaven, a small fresh food market opened. Stop by at 6 in the evening and you'll find a row of bicycles out front and the store's narrow aisles packed with people pondering their dinner options.

This little store is one of hundreds of new neighborhood businesses that have opened in the last few years in what might be both the beginnings of a revival of small retail and one of the more important strategies we have for countering global warming.

So far, the public debate about cars and climate change has been dominated by fuel economy. But driving has been growing at such a rapid pace -- total miles driven in the U.S. rose 60 percent between 1987 and 2007 -- that even a big advance in fuel economy is likely to be wiped out by ever more miles on the road.

According to calculations by Steve Winkelman of the Center for Clean Air Policy, even if we achieve a major improvement in fuel economy (new vehicles averaging 55 mpg), cut the carbon content of fuel by 15 percent, and slow the growth rate for driving significantly, by 2030 greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation will be only slightly below 1990 levels.

That's nowhere near the 60-80 percent reductions we need by mid-century to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Perhaps electric cars will come online fast enough to close the gap, but we would do well to hedge our bets by also finding ways to make daily life not require quite so much driving.

This is where local stores come in. Academics who study travel behavior say that the presence of neighborhood businesses is a major factor in how much we drive. Dozens of studies have found that people who live near small stores walk more for errands and, when they do drive, their trips are shorter. And that's not all: a more surprising research finding is that small retailers influence how likely people are to take public transit to work.

One study, led by Susan Handy, an expert on travel behavior at the University of California-Davis, examined eight neighborhoods and found that how often people walked for errands closely tracked both the number and proximity of stores. In the neighborhood with the most businesses, where homes were on average only one-fifth of a mile from the nearest store, 87 percent of residents regularly ran errands on foot, averaging 6.3 shopping trips on foot per month. In the neighborhood where the nearest store was an average of three-fifths of a mile away, only one-third of residents reported walking to a store in the previous month and averaged only 1.4 errands on foot per month.

Another study by Handy found that residents of an Austin, Texas, neighborhood that has numerous small stores within a half-mile radius made 20 percent of their food shopping trips on foot and logged 42 percent fewer miles driving to supermarkets than residents of two Austin suburbs that lacked neighborhood stores.

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