Feature Article

Driving to Green Buildings: The Transportation Energy Intensity of Buildings

The energy used traveling to and from an average office building—its transportation energy intensity—can be greater than the energy used to run it.

Eleven years after its original publication, we have refreshed this groundbreaking report on the transportation energy of buildings and how that energy consumption can be reduced. We have updated all data and statistics, and have conducted new interviews with leaders in the field. (Quotes from 2018 interviews are marked as such.) We have also updated the methodology used to calculate the transportation energy intensity of the average U.S. office building. Rachel Navaro and Matteo Favaloro contributed to this report.

 A streetcar in Portland, Oregon

Since the late 1990s, the Portland Pearl District in Oregon has been transformed from a largely abandoned industrial area into a bustling mixed-use neighborhood. Local developers actively promote alternative forms of transportation, evident in the giant neon “Go By Streetcar” sign atop this multi-use complex.

Photo: Reconnecting America
As the world’s first LEED Platinum building, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Philip Merrill Environmental Center was loaded with green features: photovoltaic panels, rainwater harvesting, composting toilets, and bamboo flooring, to mention just a few. However, moving the organization’s staff of around 100 into the new building meant that many employees who had been able to walk to work in the older downtown facility now have to drive roughly ten miles (16 km) to get there.

To its credit, the organization spent two years looking for a downtown building to house its growing staff, and it tried to mitigate the increased use of cars in the new building with bicycle and kayak racks, showers, and loaner vehicles for non-automobile commuters, among other strategies. The fact remains, however, that the additional energy use from more employees driving to work may well exceed the energy savings realized by the green building.

Designers and builders expend significant effort to ensure that our buildings use as little energy as possible. This is a good thing—and an obvious strategy for reducing our buildings’ impacts. What is not so obvious is that many buildings are responsible for more energy use getting people to and from those buildings. That’s right—for a new code-compliant office building in the United States, calculations done by BuildingGreen show that commuting by office workers accounts for 11% more energy than the building itself uses. For an average existing building, transportation energy use exceeds operating energy use by 16%. This is only counting automobile transportation and does not account for other modes.

This article takes a look at the “transportation energy intensity” of buildings and the influence of location and various land-use features on this measure of energy use. While the focus will be primarily on energy (and the associated environmental impacts of energy use, such as pollution), measures to reduce transportation energy use can have very significant ancillary benefits relating to water runoff, urban heat-island mitigation, and habitat protection, while creating more vibrant, livable communities.

Published November 5, 2018