The Myth of the Compact City: Why Compact Development Is Not the Way to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions (Policy Analysis)

Proponents of compact development argue

that rebuilding American urban areas to higher

densities is vital for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Compact city policies call for reducing driving

by housing a higher percentage of people in

multi-family and mixed-use developments, reducing

the average lot sizes of single-family homes,

redesigning streets and neighborhoods to be more

pedestrian friendly, concentrating jobs in selected

areas, and spending more on mass transit and less

on highways.

The Obama administration has endorsed these

policies. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood

and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Shaun Donovan have agreed to require metropolitan

areas to adopt compact-development policies

or risk losing federal transportation and housing

funds. LaHood has admitted that the goal of this

program is to “coerce people out of their cars.”

As such, compact-development policies represent

a huge intrusion on private property rights,

personal freedom, and mobility. They are also

fraught with risks. Urban planners and economists

are far from unanimous about whether

such policies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Some even raise the possibility that compact

city policies could increase emissions by

increasing roadway congestion.

Such reductions are insignificant compared

with the huge costs that compact development

would impose on the nation. These costs include

reduced worker productivity, less affordable housing,

increased traffic congestion, higher taxes or

reduced urban services, and higher consumer costs.

Those who believe we must reduce carbon emissions

should reject compact development as expensive,

risky, and distracting from tools, such as carbon

taxes, that can have greater, more immediate,

and more easily monitored effects on greenhouse

gas emissions.

Proponents of compact development argue

that rebuilding American urban areas to higher

densities is vital for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Compact city policies call for reducing driving

by housing a higher percentage of people in

multi-family and mixed-use developments, reducing

the average lot sizes of single-family homes,

redesigning streets and neighborhoods to be more

pedestrian friendly, concentrating jobs in selected

areas, and spending more on mass transit and less

on highways.

The Obama administration has endorsed these

policies. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood

and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Shaun Donovan have agreed to require metropolitan

areas to adopt compact-development policies

or risk losing federal transportation and housing

funds. LaHood has admitted that the goal of this

program is to “coerce people out of their cars.”

As such, compact-development policies represent

a huge intrusion on private property rights,

personal freedom, and mobility. They are also

fraught with risks. Urban planners and economists

are far from unanimous about whether

such policies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Some even raise the possibility that compact

city policies could increase emissions by

increasing roadway congestion.

Such reductions are insignificant compared

with the huge costs that compact development

would impose on the nation. These costs include

reduced worker productivity, less affordable housing,

increased traffic congestion, higher taxes or

reduced urban services, and higher consumer costs.

Those who believe we must reduce carbon emissions

should reject compact development as expensive,

risky, and distracting from tools, such as carbon

taxes, that can have greater, more immediate,

and more easily monitored effects on greenhouse

gas emissions.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Studies from the Cato Institute