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

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Proponents of compact development arguethat rebuilding American urban areas to higherdensities is vital for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.Compact city policies call for reducing drivingby housing a higher percentage of people inmulti‐​family and mixed‐​use developments, reducingthe average lot sizes of single‐​family homes,redesigning streets and neighborhoods to be morepedestrian friendly, concentrating jobs in selectedareas, and spending more on mass transit and lesson highways.

The Obama administration has endorsed thesepolicies. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHoodand Secretary of Housing and Urban DevelopmentShaun Donovan have agreed to require metropolitanareas to adopt compact‐​development policiesor risk losing federal transportation and housingfunds. LaHood has admitted that the goal of thisprogram is to “coerce people out of their cars.”

As such, compact‐​development policies representa huge intrusion on private property rights,personal freedom, and mobility. They are alsofraught with risks. Urban planners and economistsare far from unanimous about whethersuch policies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.Some even raise the possibility that compactcity policies could increase emissions byincreasing roadway congestion.

Such reductions are insignificant comparedwith the huge costs that compact developmentwould impose on the nation. These costs includereduced worker productivity, less affordable housing,increased traffic congestion, higher taxes orreduced urban services, and higher consumer costs.Those who believe we must reduce carbon emissionsshould reject compact development as expensive,risky, and distracting from tools, such as carbontaxes, that can have greater, more immediate,and more easily monitored effects on greenhousegas emissions.