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Smart Growth: Lower Carbon Footprint Not

Recent reports from the Urban Land Institute and other planning advocates insist that so-called smart growth—a term meaning more compact urban development, combined with heavy investments in mass transit as an alternative to driving—is an essential tool in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In heeding this call, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress want to impose a national land-use planning policy that threatens the property rights of every landowner in the country.

Smart-growth advocates project that miles of driving over the next forty years will grow faster than improvements in fuel economy or development of alternative fuels, so it will be impossible to meet GHG reduction targets unless we coerce people out of their cars. Based on this, they argue that Americans must drive less to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.

To reduce driving, or at least the growth in driving, smart growth calls for increasing urban population densities, mixing residential with retail and other uses so that everyone can be within walking distance of shops and jobs, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on transit systems so people won’t have to drive. The reality is that urban planners began promoting these policies long before global warming was an issue, yet the evidence that compact development can significantly reduce energy consumption and air pollution remains as elusive as ever.

Despite this lack of evidence, the secretaries of Transportation and Housing & Urban Development have signed an agreement to require the nation’s 400 or so metropolitan areas to write plans aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by becoming more compact and relying more on mass transit and less on auto driving. The administration calls this its “livability initiative,” even though it isn’t clear just how cities will be more livable if the people in them are less mobile.

These rules are to be implemented by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), a little-known level of government that was imposed by the feds back in the 1960s. Every metropolitan area of 50,000 people or more has an MPO that is governed by elected members of the city councils and county commissions that make up the metropolitan area. The original purpose of the MPOs was to apply for and distribute federal transportation and housing funds to municipalities within the region, but in a few cases they have become planning czars that can impose their ideas on every city and town in the area.

To make sure that people don’t simply escape these rules by leaving the metropolitan areas, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has drafted legislation that would mandate the creation of rural planning organizations (RPOs). These RPOs would be required to write plans that would limit development in rural areas. As the Heritage Foundation’s Ron Utt has shown, the proposed legislation is potentially far more threatening to property rights than anything the federal government has ever done.

We can look at Oregon, which has had statewide land-use planning since 1973, to see the sort of planning rules that are likely to result from these mandates. Oregon planners classified about 94 percent of the state as “rural,” and, in that “rural” zone, landowners cannot build a house on their own land unless they own at least 80 acres, they actually farm it, and they actually earn (depending on soil productivity) $40,000 to $80,000 a year in farming it. Only one out of six Oregon farmers meet these requirements. So, if they did not already have a house on their land, they would not be allowed to live on their own farms.

Meanwhile, planners classified about 1-1/4 percent of the state as “urban.” (About 1 percent is “rural residential,” with minimum lot sizes of 5 to 10 acres; the rest comprises parks and other preserves.) To accommodate growth with minimal expansion of urban areas, planners rezoned dozens of neighborhoods of single-family homes for apartments. The zoning is so strict that, if your neighbors have a vacant lot, they can build only multi-family housing on that lot. In some cases, the zoning is so strict that, if your house burns down, you will be allowed to replace it only with an apartment.

The city of Portland has set a target of reducing per-capita driving by two-thirds by 2050. To meet this target, Portland’s mayor wants to house all new residents—an anticipated 300,000 people—within a quarter mile of one of the city’s light-rail stations or streetcar lines. The city will also mandate the construction of supermarkets and other shops within a 20-minute walking distance of at least 90 percent of the city’s residents.

Portland planners have become so intrusive that they once told a church that it could only allow 70 people to worship at one time in its 400-seat sanctuary. Perhaps planners believed that only 70 people of that denomination lived within walking distance of the church.

The results of these policies have been negligible. Since 1980, Portland’s urban-growth boundary boosted the urban area’s population density by a third, and the region built four light-rail lines and a streetcar line. Yet the share of the region’s commuters who take transit to work declined from 9.8 percent in 1980 to 6.5 percent in 2007, while per capita driving increased by 75 percent.

This should not be surprising considering that the effects of smart growth on driving are hotly disputed among planners and economists. The Department of Transportation created a study committee to review this topic, and they asked University of California (Davis) economist David Brownstone to do a literature review of research on the relationship between the built environment (which considers both density and such things as “pedestrian-friendly design”) and driving. Brownstone found that there is a “statistically significant link” between the built environment and driving—but “the size of this link is too small to be useful” in reducing the amount of driving people do.

Nevertheless, the study committee (which included both advocates and skeptics of smart growth) optimistically projected that doubling the density and making other changes in design for 75 percent of all new urban development would lead urban Americans to drive about 11 percent less in 2050 than if these changes had not not made. Since urban driving currently produces about 12 percent of U.S. human-caused greenhouse gases, this means about a 1.3 percent reduction in emissions.

Even if you believe smart growth can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the key question is how much will such reductions cost. A report from McKinsey & Company concluded that the U.S. can meet GHG reduction targets by investing in programs that cost less than $50 per ton of abated emissions. So any projects that cost significantly more than that are a waste of money.

Moving Cooler, one of the Urban Land Institute’s studies, estimated that $1.2 trillion of investments in urban transit would reduce total emissions between now and 2050 by about 575 million tons of CO,sub>2</sub>. That’s a cost of nearly $2,100 per ton.

Compact development policies would also come at a high cost. Portland’s urban-growth boundary has doubled housing prices relative to incomes. The tiny reductions in driving that accompany large increases in density mean a significant increase in congestion. Research shows that such increases in congestion and limits on mobility will also reduce average incomes.

Nationwide application of Oregon-style land-use policies is likely to impose several trillion dollars of deadweight costs on society. Using the transportation study committee’s optimistic projections, this represents a cost of at least $2,000 per ton of GHGs abated.

Both McKinsey and a recent book from MIT researchers found that, to be cost-effective, efforts to reduce GHGs should focus on electric power production, not transportation. In fact, the MIT study estimated that consumer responses to higher fuel prices alone will be sufficient for transportation to do its share of cost-effective greenhouse gas reductions by 2050.

While it is not certain that smart growth will work at all, it is absolutely certain that it will take a long time for it to have an effect. Moving Cooler found that policies such as carbon taxes would almost immediately reduce emissions. But compact development policies would take years to implement and so most of the effects — if there are any — would not show up for many decades.

In short, smart growth is not a smart response to climate change. People who believe we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions should reject smart growth as being too risky, too expensive, and too likely to distract attention from tools, such as carbon taxes, that can have greater, more immediate, and more easily monitored effects on greenhouse gas emissions.

10 comments

1 steve C. { 12.15.09 at 9:28 am }

I will be more than happy to support smart growth policies when the people pushing them are forced to live in a forty story building with 800 square feet of living space and a monthly rent of $2500. On an income of $40,000 a year.

2 Market Urbanism { 12.15.09 at 4:27 pm }

To accommodate growth with minimal expansion of urban areas, planners rezoned dozens of neighborhoods of single-family homes for apartments. The zoning is so strict that, if your neighbors have a vacant lot, they can build only multi-family housing on that lot. In some cases, the zoning is so strict that, if your house burns down, you will be allowed to replace it only with an apartment.

Am I reading this right, that land owners are not allowed to build less dense than code? I’ve never heard of this type of zoning. Could you point me to resources on this type of zoning? Doesn’t it lead to more lots remaining undeveloped if they can’t handle the density, economically?

3 Market Urbanism { 12.15.09 at 4:33 pm }

And I would add that since minimum densities would discourage development that couldn’t economically support higher densities, this doesn’t actually “accommodate” growth. However, removal of density ceilings would. But that’s an actual free-market approach that Smart Growth actually favors….

4 TheLastMan { 12.16.09 at 8:08 am }

I chuckle a bit when I read this angst from the other side of the pond. I live in a city (London) that was almost completely developed before the advent of mass ownership of the motor car. Light rail, metro (underground) and high frequency buses have always been part of life here and population density is very high as a result.

We have one car. I take the train to work, and my children walk to school. My wife drives to work 4 miles (2 each way), but she needs the car for her work. She is a doctor and makes local house-calls – 1 mile (ish) a day.

To contrast, I have a friend who moved out of London and now lives in what we call a ‘dormitory’ village outside a rural town. He drives 10 miles to/from work (5 each way). His wife uses a second car and drives the children to and from school 2 miles (1 mile each way) and then on to her (part time) work, 6 miles (3 each way). So their car does 18 miles a day to our 5 miles. What is more we have a large parade of shops 3 minutes walk away and we only need to use the car once a week for shopping.

Our planning system has for about 30 years specified minimum development densities for housing. We are a very crowded island and this kind of regulation is necessary to stop the countryside being swallowed up by suburban sprawl.

I have a friend who inherited a dilapidated house on a 1 acre plot of land. He asked for permission to build two houses, one to sell off and the other to live in. He was told that this was not possible as the minimum density for that plot of land was 10 houses!

My sister lived in Littleton CO for a couple of years. When she first arrived she asked a neighbour where the nearest food shop was. He gave her directions, and as it was only 1/4 mile away she set off on foot. The sidewalk ran out at the end of their road and she found herself walking in the road or on the grass verge the rest of the way! She quickly found out that in Littleton you only walk (or cycle) for recreation – not to actually go places.

I guess it is a difference in culture.

5 antiplanner { 12.16.09 at 11:07 am }

Market Urbanism,

Minimum-density zoning has become common in cities that are using “smart growth,” and has been applied in towns as small as Missoula, MT and as large as San Diego. You are right: it does discourage growth in areas that cannot economically support higher densities. That’s why cities use tax-increment financing and other subsidies to promote such development. Even with such subsidies, you can still find large patches of vacant land near light-rail stations in Portland and other cities, usually because the zoning codes also limit parking and without parking even a development next to a light-rail station cannot work.

6 Market Urbanism { 12.16.09 at 12:42 pm }

Thanks for the response. I’m surprised to learn about that – not being as familiar with those markets. In many ways what you describe is more sinister than the vastly more common density caps because there’s the possibility that nothing gets built unless you are a developer who can grease the political gears to get TIFs, etc….

7 Ben { 12.16.09 at 2:58 pm }

All I have to say is I enjoy living in the last great cowboy town. Anyone who tried to implement that kind of nonsense in Houston would be shot four times before they hit the ground.

If the Federals try, I expect that we will see a resurgence of anti-government movements, even Texas secessionists. That will not be a pretty sight.

8 Allen { 12.17.09 at 9:17 am }

@ TheLastMan – I’m quite familiar with Littleton. I agree it wouldn’t have a culture of bike riding. But except for a few rare routes, bike riding shouldn’t be a problem.

“Nevertheless, the study committee (which included both advocates and skeptics of smart growth) optimistically projected that doubling the density and making other changes in design for 75 percent of all new urban development would lead urban Americans to drive about 11 percent less in 2050 than if these changes had not not made. Since urban driving currently produces about 12 percent of U.S. human-caused greenhouse gases, this means about a 1.3 percent reduction in emissions.”

What is meant by urban in this context? Are we talking about things within the urban growth boundary? Or is it just old, core cities?

9 antiplanner { 12.17.09 at 11:32 am }

Allen,

When used by demographers, “urban” includes both urban and suburban; “urban area” includes all land in central cities and all developed land surrounding those cities down to densities of about 1,000 people per square mile (about 1 house every two acres). The reports advocating or evaluating the effects of smart growth generally assume that X percent (ranging from 25 to 90) of all new development and redevelopment in urban areas will be at higher than previous densities.

10 TheLastMan { 12.18.09 at 1:55 pm }

Allen, on cycling, my sister’s husband cycled the almost flat route to work about 3 miles in Littleton (weather permitting) despite free parking. He was one of only about three people in a workforce of 500 who did – many of whom lived a lot closer than he did. It is not so much that cycling is not possible, just not popular as a means from getting from A to B, even though it is probably a lot safer than cycling on London’s congested roads.

There were lots of keen cyclists out in the parks and nearby mountains at weekends, but the bikes stayed in the garage during the week. The locals would drive everywhere if they could. Whereas in London if it is at all possible not to drive your car, you don’t (congestion, parking fees etc). Certainly walking any meaningful distance in Littleton was unpredictable, you could never be sure whether there would be sidewalks all the way. As I said, just a difference in culture (and climate?).

I think an 11% reduction in the use of the car would be an under-estimate for high density development in the UK. Good cycle routes and provision for cyclists in the workplace generally results in a very high take-up. I work in an office in the centre of London. We have bike racks, showers and lockers for about 30 out of a workforce of 300. These are overused and so many people are using nearby public car parks to store their bikes and using local gyms to shower and change. Several people cycle around 10 miles to work from the ‘burbs. The office has just 15 parking spaces so everybody else has to come in either on foot, bike or by public transport. A ticket in a nearby car park costs £20 ($30) a day plus the £8 ($12) central London ‘congestion charge’. That makes it over $200 a week to drive to work, on top of the cost of running the car!

High density development, both commercial and residential, drives up the price of driving and parking a car – so I think you might be surprised at how much it reduces car use. Provided their are suitable mass transport alternatives then this is not always a bad thing.

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