Policy Documents

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

Randal O’Toole –
November 18, 2009

In this Policy Analysis from transit expert Randal O'Toole, 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 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. It is open for debate whether such policies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Compact city policies may actually increase emissions by increasing roadway congestion.