Here’s a video of Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick saying the city needs to “sacrifice” its single-family neighborhoods in order to stop climate change. We’ve known that planners feel this way, but rarely do they say it in so many words.
Previously, many Portland politicians have promised to preserve existing neighborhoods by keeping all high-density developments within a half mile of light-rail and other major transit lines. The unspoken truth was that nearly all single-family homes were within a half mile of a major bus corridor, and Portland wants to build so many rail lines that soon most homes would be within a half mile of one of those lines as well.
In a book reviewed here a couple of months ago, Sonia Hirt (an immigrant from eastern Europe) asks why Americans care so much about whether apartments are located amidst their neighborhoods of single-family homes. Maybe they shouldn’t, but the real question is why Portland planners care so much about whether people live in single-family homes or apartments.
In 1990, about 65 percent of Portland-area households were in single-family homes, which is close to the national average. The 2040 plan that Portland’s Metro adopted in the mid-1990s set a target of reducing this to 41 percent. According to table B25024 of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, by 2014 this share had already declined to less than 58 percent.
According to an analysis by the city of Portland itself, building the mid-rise housing Portland favors costs almost 50 percent more per square foot than single-family homes. According to the Department of Energy, multifamily homes also use around 27 percent more energy per square foot than single-family homes.
Novick and other true believers nevertheless think that multifamily housing is better because people who live in such housing supposedly drive less. But where is the evidence for that? The San Francisco Bay Area has increased its population density by 65 percent and built 200 miles of new rail transit lines since 1980, yet per capita transit ridership has fallen by a third and per capita driving has increased.
Even if we believed planners who say that high-density, mixed-use developments lead people to drive less, we have to ask if this is the most cost-effective way of saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As the Antiplanner has previously shown, the answer is clearly “No!”
Building more fuel-efficient cars using simple improvements such as substituting aluminum for steel, Diesels for gasoline, and streamlining for boxy designs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a cost of about $50 per ton of carbon emissions. Hybrid-electric cars or other alternative fuel sources can reduce emissions at a cost of about $100 per ton. But, even using the most optimistic data provided by the planners, urban densification costs several thousand dollars a ton to reduce emissions. In fact, it probably doesn’t reduce emissions at all because the increased traffic congestion ends up wasting a lot of fuel that could have been saved at lower densities.
Ironically, Portland’s densification plans were written before climate change was a major issue. At that time, the main goal was supposed to be farmland preservation and reduction of urban-service costs. Neither of those goals made sense: urbanization represents such a small share of United States that it is no threat to farmlands. A study commissioned by smart-growth advocates concluded that ridding the state of all its land-use regulations would result in just 1 percent more of Oregon’s Willamette Valley being developed (7.6 percent vs. 6.6 percent).
As far as urban service costs go, saving a few thousand dollars per home on service costs doesn’t do much good when you have to increase the price of homes by a couple hundred thousand dollars to do it.
Since those arguments made no sense, planners happily jumped on the global-warming bandwagon to claim that their predetermined densification strategy was necessary to save the planet. In fact, it is neither necessary nor useful in reducing carbon emissions, and those who say it is are either deceiving the public or have been deceived themselves.