September 03, 2009
Higher Density Housing To Do Little To Cut Fossil Fuels

A National Academy of Sciences report throws cold water on urbanism as a way to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Urban planners hoping to help mitigate CO2 emissions by increasing housing density would do better to focus on fuel-efficiency improvements to vehicles, investments in renewable energy, and cap and trade legislation now being voted on in Congress, according to the study, released Tuesday. It concludes that increasing population density in metropolitan areas would yield insignificant CO2 reductions.

Plus it amounts to trying to get people to do something they clearly don't want to do: live closer to each other.

Even if 75 percent of all new and replacement housing in America were built at twice the density of current new developments, and those living in the newly constructed housing drove 25 percent less as a result, CO2 emissions from personal travel would decline nationwide by only 8 to 11 percent by 2050, according to the study.

I find it curious that a doubling of density would cut miles driven by only 25%. I would expect a doubling of density to cut miles driven in half. Why isn't this the case? Zoning laws that keep housing away from commercial buildings?

I see a fundamental flaw in attempts to cut oil consumption to cut CO2 emissions: The oil is going to get burned no matter what any one country or group countries does with their energy policies. The uses of oil and users of oil are so many that an attempt to cut demand in one area will just free up oil to be used elsewhere. Oil production will peak and decline for reasons unrelated to global warming.

It makes more sense to me to focus on shifting from oil to nuclear, solar and wind for electric power generation. It seems more within the realm of the doable to cut global coal demand than the cut global oil demand.

Make car transportation expensive enough and people will live closer to work even without moving into higher density housing. People will effectively swap jobs and houses to live closer to work. Peak Oil will do that more effectively than any government policy.

Currently in the United States 95% of all transportation energy comes from oil and 71% of consumed oil gets used for transportation. Want to decrease the amount of oil burned in trucks, cars, trains, ships, and airplanes? Develop ways to use other energy sources in transportation. Most notably, better and cheaper batteries would allow most commuting to be done under electric power. A build up of more nuclear power plants along with some wind and solar would then cut emissions from fossil fuels burning.

I do not expect this report will have much impact on the urban enthusiasts who want us all to move into multi-story apartment buildings and ride on subways. They'll eventually get some satisfaction for their dreams when Peak Oil really starts to bite. But that crisis will come on too fast for many to move into cities as a way to adjust. I expect electric cars and electric bicycles to do more and faster than a big surge in urban construction.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 September 03 10:15 PM  Climate Policy

K said at September 4, 2009 1:40 AM:

"I find it curious that a doubling of density would cut miles driven by only 25%. I would expect a doubling of density to cut miles driven in half. Why isn't this the case? Zoning laws that keep housing away from commercial buildings?"

Randal, I'll venture a crude guess just to kick things off:

Suppose a city had only one story homes. Then overnight a second story with the same floor plan magically appeared on each house. There is now twice as much housing in the city. And when families rent that second story the housing density has doubled.

But no one drives fewer miles to reach a job or store or for any other reason. So miles driven per person would remain the same and perhaps even rise. There would not be even a 25% reduction per driver.

My two story city is not realistic urban planning. Let me go a little further. I suspect the study assumes that doubling the density means constructing from scratch. That new city need cover half as much area to house the same population.

Assume my original city needed 2 x 2 miles = 4 square miles. The brand new city would need 2 square miles, or about 1.414 miles on each side. And the inhabitants of that new city would only drive 1.414 miles for each 2 miles the people in the old city drove. That is a reduction of 29% and probably close enough to 25% for government work.

I skipped reading the Technology Review article. It would have taken away the fun of guessing about the 25%. Maybe I'll read it later.

Michael B. said at September 4, 2009 7:12 AM:

Perhaps the reason for the relative ineffectiveness of increasing urban density is because of traffic. More traffic means more drive time. More drive time means more gas burned. Touch-and-go traffic causes people to burn a lot more fuel than they otherwise would. Going slower and idling only saves so much fuel. If we were all driving diesel vehicles, maybe increasing urban density would be more effective. (Diesel engines don't burn much fuel while they are idling.)

Addison said at September 4, 2009 12:18 PM:

Libertarian View: It's sort of amusing that people making fun of libertarians always say: "Well, at least you acknowledge that we need government to build roads and such!?" Ironically, this most supposedly "common sense" sentiment is exactly wrong. The Government's grand transportation plan (i.e. a car centered society) is a disaster rivaled only by the havoc government has visited upon society by its takeover of the education system. Your allusion to zoning laws is apt. Zoning laws, construction standards, government "master planning" for the vehicle society, taxes going to build roads, military actions and subsidies of the oil companies, etc. etc. etc. As a developer, it sickens me that more land in most developments is LEGALLY REQUIRED to be allocated to cars than to people! One wonders what our transportation system would look like if it had been allowed to evolve in a free market, without being forced by the government's massive, blundering hand. I can guarantee one thing: We'd use one hell of a lot less oil.

And now, of course, we're told that the only way to save the world from a car centered society is to give the government more power!

Of course, this is what all those crazy libertarian economists predicted: The government screws things up, then proposes that the solution to the problems is more government, moving inexorably toward a slave state.

DKWalser said at September 4, 2009 3:50 PM:

While living in a city consumes less energy in commuting to work, other forms of energy use may be increased by city living. In terms of energy consumption, it's frequently cheaper to get the food to a suburban supper table than it is to a city dweller's apartment. There are lots of reasons for this: suburbs are closer to the farms and closer to the distribution centers. Stores in the suburbs are larger, so they can be efficiently fed by larger trucks making fewer trips. City dwellers go to the store more often (on average) and still(!) eat out more often (on average). Going to the store on Saturday and bringing home a week's worth of groceries is simply more energy friendly than going three or four times during the week and ordering Chinese take-out because the subway was packed and you're too tired to cook.

My point, more than just everyone's commute changes with increased density. A lot of those changes will end up eating up some of the energy saved on commuting.

Victor Erimita said at September 4, 2009 3:52 PM:

Addison said: "One wonders what our transportation system would look like if it had been allowed to evolve in a free market, without being forced by the government's massive, blundering hand."

It would look like Houston.

One thing that has struck me about the "smart growth" movement in my 24 years of professional involvement with it is the utter lack of humility of those who tout it. The planning of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s is routinely scoffed at by these people as misguided, ignorant, foolish or even malgnant. They forget that the planning elite of the time were every bit as convinced their principles of planning were enlightened as the Smart Growthers are today. But the Smart Growthers seem utterly without doubt that they have finally found the golden formula for urban planning. But I say that a few decades from now it is they who will be ridiculed and vilified by the planners of the future for their ignorance, foolishness and even malignancy. And those future planners will be just as convinved that THEY have found the golden rules of planning.

Attie said at September 4, 2009 6:00 PM:

I live in a historic village in New Jersey. There are about 3000 people in the densely populated charming village built around a lake and a mill. New Jersey has tried to promote new urbanism.

One of the biggest problems I see is that wealthier folks end up living in the surrounding farms and instead of the middle class and the wealthy living in the suburbs, the villages are populated by the middle class and the poor. Incidental to this is the higher taxes associated with higher density as well as the wealthy refusing to pay for the areas of higher densities. This has created a wealthy class who cares very little about the villages and a corresponding bad situation for the middle class which must carry the weight of the poor by and associated problems by themselves.

The state doesn't seem to be able to stop the growth of these village demanding more and more low income housing, elderly housing, etc. And the middle class is getting mad.

madprof44 said at September 4, 2009 6:10 PM:

Houston, nice comeback, but sorry, not convincing. However they style themselves, they have lived in the same world the rest of us do: perverse incentives, doctrinaire policy-making (it works both ways of course), expert flim-flam, unaccountability. Their decisions were different, true, and I share your apparent belief that they were unfortunate. But they maneuvered within the same possibilities and constraints as the rest of it. Less an exception, I'd think, than an example, albeit with a Texaco-Western inflection.

What really worries me is not the right-left crudity we've seen over most of our lifetimes, not even the hash that our new caste of "experts" have made of everything they've touched. It is what has always troubled Americans on both left and right: concentrations of power invisible to the naked eye. The media treated Bush as fair game, as well they should have. In spite of their excesses they deserve our gratitude for it. We seem to be in the presence of something unknown in American history: a media consensus indifferent (at best) to new concentrations of power. I'd love to see this argument demolished: coverage of GE and its CEO to take just one example; others would be what the media has been great at: links, links, and more links, among groups coming into prominence and demanding a say in policy. But the words, "hush now", uttered on inauguration day have taken us well beyond bias or even partisanship.

What could explain the media's protective veil? Bribery, even in the sophisticated forms government agencies have mastered? Highly unlikely, I know many journalists and they are without exception honorable. Caste solidarity? No doubt, to some degree, but this isn't some post-KGB mafia.
Could their silence on new concentrations of power reflect an aspiration to join one? As the months go by this possible explanation becomes harder to dismiss.

John Moore said at September 4, 2009 9:27 PM:

Regarding the need for liquid hydrocarbons for transport, and peak oil...

If it weren't for environmental over-zealousness and an insane level of application of the precautionary principle for global warming, coal conversion to liquid or gas fuels would be going gangbusters. This would obviate any short and medium term oil crisis, as we have lots and lots and lots of coal.

K said at September 4, 2009 11:45 PM:

Attie: I think the pattern you see - poor and lower-middle in the village and wealthier people outside - is reinforced by state and federal funding directly to local governments.

i.e. a federally funded 30 unit low-income housing project isn't going to be built three miles out in the countryside. No, it will be built in an incorporated area, close to schools, hospitals, shopping, urban transit, etc.

Money for hospitals, nursing homes, subsidized housing, transit, etc. flows to the city halls, not to rural mailboxes. And many of the elderly also want to live in an urban area closer to friends, relatives, physicians, and medical facilities.

In contrast the wealthier find life more enjoyable in a nice house on an acre or more outside of town. They see no reason why the town should move that city limits sign and send them a big property tax bill.

Enough said.

Jill Stewart said at September 5, 2009 9:53 AM:

Having delved into the above topic for Los Angeles Weekly newspaper (see the links below if you are interested), I can cite a few reasons why creating dramatic density won't reduce driving by even close to the same levels. I'm sure there are additional reasons but these are the ones I am familiar with.

One is:
In the U.S., people who can afford to drive don't switch to mass transit. You can see it in the tiny numbers of people, percentage-wise, who have slashed their driving in cities that are pouring vast sums of money into heavily subsidized mass transit like Portland, Oregon. Only one city has really made a serious dent in driving, and that's NYC -- and very few people want to replicate that density, move into that density, and then live like New Yorkers. In Los Angeles, the hardcore density hawks who want us to live that way keep saying we must dramatically increase LA's density in order "to serve" a much bigger network of light rail. There is almost a religious view that humans must bend to the technology. We must serve the transit. There's a backlash against that in LA.

A second reason:
Most people do not live walking distance or a quick bus hop from their work, and no amount of social engineering is going to change that. We Americans change jobs how many times in a decade? Two? Three? Most of the time, the new job is in the same area, not in another state or a faraway city. Can you imagine everyone selling their house or uprooting their families, move their kids to a new school, each time they get a job 20 miles in another direction, or 10 miles the other way down the road? People just don't live that way -- and it would be vastly disruptive to move each time we start our new job in the same region. The whole "jobs-housing" belief system, of trying to create dense housing near jobs so people will not use their cars, does not include the humans. Humans will not live near their jobs no matter how many homes you locate next to office towers. It just doesn't work like that.

The belief system driving all this is interesting:
California politicians, led by Arnold and Jerry, are SURE that density reduces global warming. But our newspaper, LA Weekly, could not find a single serious scientific study showing that Arnold and Jerry are right. When our newspapere asked the California state Air Resources Board and California Attorney General (Jerry Brown, who is threatening to sue cities that don't bend to his density views) for their scientific data and names of the studies and scientists involved, they repeatedly referred the LA Weekly to smog officials. These were smog bureaucrats, not scientists, and they have lots of numbers to pass out to the media -- but no scientific studies. To date, we have not been able to locate serious scientists with serious studies showing that California will take a bite out of global warming by going dense. And we have tried.

It is my growing suspicion that California politicians are launching this massive, billions-of-dollars density effort to recast where we live and how we live, with zero data. I suspect that a belief system much like a religion is driving the density hawks.

I spoke to many scientists involved in global warming research, and all of them said the same thing: California cannot possibly know that density reduces global warming, because we scientists have not figured out a way even to DESIGN the study that would unravel this multi-layered issue. One scientist asked me: why don't your California politicians just spend those billions of dollars directly on something that is not a theory about reducing emissions, but is a known way to reduce emissions? Why not insulate every existing single house and apartment in largely non-insulated California, thus massively reducing the need for cooling and heating that creates power plant emissions? Why indeed.

Here are two links you might wish to read. The first one contains interviews with scientists stunned to learn that California is moving forward on density as a way to fight global warming:
- Jill Stewart, News Editor, LA Weekly

Paul said at September 5, 2009 4:12 PM:

Technologist View
Urban density won't make a difference until 2014 when the Chevron patent on large format NiMH cells expires. Then we'll see Hybrids and pure electric cars all over the cities, slashing emissions like the serial killer in a teenage horror flick. People won't have to give up driving to save the environment or curb greenhouse gases. Cars like the GM EV1 and Toyota RAV4 were getting +100 miles to the charge around the turn of the century.

Had GM not sold the patent to Texaco, who was bought by Chevron who subsequently turned around and sued everyone in sight, and had instead decided to license the patent to automakers and develop hybrids--we might have been looking at a very different automotive landscape. GM officials at the time thought Toyota would lose their collective shirts on the Prius. GM's lack of vision in the 1990s is the only thing stopping the United States from making a dent in it's fossil fuel consumption so big you could drive a fleet of Priuses through it.

As the patent expires however we will be looking at a convergence of inexpensive large-format NiMH cells, huge advances in things like motor control and capacitor technology will converge in an technological singularity. Electrics and hybrids won't be boring either. Electric motors provide instantaneous torque and explosive power. The only thing missing will be the emissions.

Couple all these things with offshore wind, and nuclear power, and we could be looking at a seriously greener America. And no one will have to hug a tree or give up what they love in order to do it.

John Moore said at September 6, 2009 2:29 PM:
until 2014 when the Chevron patent on large format NiMH cells expires. Then we'll see Hybrids and pure electric cars all over the cities
My BS detector is at the yellow alert stage.

Exactly what is prevented by that patent, that will be allowed when it expires? Be specific.

As the patent expires however we will be looking at a convergence of inexpensive large-format NiMH cells, huge advances in things like motor control and capacitor technology will converge in an technological singularity.

What advances in motor control are you imagining? It's a very well solved problem already. Supercapacitors are handy things, but how much farther do you think they will go?

Doc Merlin said at September 12, 2009 12:34 AM:

Peak oil, won't. We will be switching to electric vehicles very shortly.

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