Enough "Cowboy" Greenhouse Gas Reduction Policies


The world has embarked upon a campaign to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is a serious challenge that will require focused policies rooted in reality. Regrettably, the political process sometimes falls far short of that objective. This is particularly so in the states of California and Washington, where ideology has crowded out rational analysis and the adoption of what can only be seen as reckless “cowboy” policies.

Last year, California enacted Senate Bill 375, which seeks to reduce future GHG emissions by encouraging higher urban population densities and forcing more development to be near transit stations. Yet there is no objective analysis to suggest that such an approach will work. Of course, there are the usual slogans about people giving up their cars for transit and walking to work, but this occurs only in the minds of the ideologues. The forecasting models have been unable to predict any substantial reduction in automobile use, and, more importantly, such policies have never produced such a result.

In fact, higher densities are likely to worsen the quality of life in California, while doing little, if anything to reduce GHG emissions. California already has the densest urban areas (which includes core cities and surrounding suburbs) in the United States. The Los Angeles urban area is 30 percent more dense than the New York urban area. The San Francisco and San Jose urban areas are also denser than the New York urban area. Sacramento stands as the 10th most dense among the 38 urban areas over 1,000,000 population, while Riverside-San Bernardino ranks 12th and San Diego ranks 13th.

This high density creates the worst traffic congestion in the nation. The slower stop and go operation of cars in traffic congestion materially intensifies local air pollution and increases health hazards. It also consumes more gasoline, which increases GHG emissions. Finally, California’s prescriptive land use regulations have destroyed housing affordability. By the early 1990s, land use regulation had driven prices up well beyond national levels relative to incomes, according to Dartmouth’s William Fischell. Over the next decade the rationing effect of California’s excessive land use restrictions tripled house prices relative to incomes, setting up the mortgage meltdown and all that has followed in its wake.

The implementation of Senate Bill 375’s provisions seems likely to make things worse. California’s urban areas already have plenty of dense “luxury” housing, much of which is now empty or is now converted from condos to rentals. Wherever they are clustered, particularly outside traditional urban centers like San Francisco, such areas experience intense traffic congestion, with all the resultant negative impact on both people and the environment.

Yet despite the problems seen in California, the ideological plague has spread to Washington state. Last year the Washington legislature enacted a measure (House Bill 2815) that requires reductions in driving per capita, for the purpose of GHG emission reduction. By 2050, driving per capita is supposed to be halved. This year there was a legislative proposal, House Bill 1490, that would have mandated planning for 50 housing units to the acre within one-half mile of light rail stations. This would have amounted to a density of nearly 50,000 per square mile, 3 times the city of San Francisco, 7 times the density of the city of Seattle and more than that of any of more than 700 census tracts (small districts) in the three-county Seattle area. Areas around stations would be two-thirds as dense as Hong Kong, the world’s most dense urban area.
The density requirement has since been amended out of the bill, but the fact that it made it so far in the legislature indicates how far the density mania has gone. The bill appears unlikely to pass this year.

Extending the density planning regime is not likely to help the people on the ground, much less reduce GHGs. Seattle already has a housing affordability problem, which is not surprising given its prescriptive planning policies (called growth management or smart growth). Theo Eicher of the University of Washington has documented the close connection between Seattle’s regulatory structures and its house price increases.

As in California, Seattle house prices rose dramatically during the housing bubble, nearly doubling relative to incomes. At the same time, much of the debate on House Bill 1490 has been over affordable housing. Yet there has been virtually no recognition of connection between Seattle’s low level of housing affordability and its destructive land use regulations. House Bill 1490 would have only made things worse, and still could. Proponents have indicated that they have not given up.

The theory behind House Bill 1490 parallels that of California’s SB 375. It assumes high densities would significantly reduce driving and attract people to transit. As in California, however, this is based upon wishful thinking, and has no basis in reality. No urban area in the developed world has produced a material decline in automobile use through such policies.

Regrettably, the special interest groups behind the California and Washington initiatives appear more interested in forcing people to change their lifestyles than in reducing GHG emissions. This is demonstrated by the Washington driving reduction requirement.

A good faith attempt to reduce GHG emissions from cars would have targeted GHG emissions from cars, not the use of cars. The issue is GHG emission reduction, not behavior modification, and the more the special interests target people’s behavior, the clearer it becomes how facetious they are about reducing GHG emissions.

Technology offers the most promise. Already the technology is available to substantially reduce GHG emissions by cars, without requiring people to change their lifestyles. Hybrids currently being sold obtain nearly three times the miles per gallon of the average personal vehicle (cars, personal trucks and sport utility vehicles) fleet. And that is before the promising developments in decades to come in alternative fuels and improved vehicle technology. In addition, the rapid increase in people working at home – a number on track to pass that of transit users by 2015 – would also represent a clear way to reduce GHG emissions.

Finally it is not certain that suburban housing produces higher GHG emissions per capita than high rise urban development. The only comprehensive research on the subject was conducted in Australia and found that, generally, when all GHG emissions are considered, suburban areas emitted less per capita than higher density areas. This is partially because dense urbanites tend to live a high consumption lifestyle, by eating out at restaurants serving exotic foods, having summer homes and extensive travel. It is also because high density living requires energy consumption that does not occur in lower density suburbs, such as electricity for elevators, common area lighting, and highly consumptive central air conditioning, heating, water heating and ventilation, as Energy Australia research indicates.

Further, tomorrow’s housing will be more carbon friendly than today’s. Japan has already developed a prototype 2,150 square foot, single story suburban carbon neutral house.

Much of the anti-suburban and anti-car sloganeering ignores these developments and generally assumes a static world. If the world were static, we would still be living in caves.

The California and Washington initiatives were not based upon any comprehensive research. There were no reports estimating the tons of GHG emissions that were to be reduced. There was no cost analysis of how much each ton removed would cost. United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that the maximum amount necessary to accomplish deep reversal of GHG concentrations is between $20 and $50 per ton. Responsible policy making would have evaluated these issues. (It seems highly improbable that Seattle’s currently under-construction University light rail extension remotely matches this standard, with is capital and operating costs per annual patron of more than $10,000.)

The price that society can afford to pay for GHG emission reduction is considerably less today than it was just six months ago. The history of the now departed communist world demonstrates that poorer societies simply do not place a high priority on environmental protection. That is not surprising, since people address their basic human needs before broader objectives, such as a better environment. That may not comport with the doctrines of political correctness, but it is reality.

In such times, communities should be careful not to undertake policies based on assumptions or the preferences of those planners, architects and ideologues who seem to hold suburbs and personal mobility in such contempt that they would not be satisfied even if they emitted no GHGs. These radical motives are inappropriate. “Cowboy” policies enacted ad hoc at the bequest of ideologues openly disdainful of our basic lifestyles threaten not only the future prosperity of a society but our most reasonable path to long-term environmental improvement including reducing GHG emissions.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

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Look at the data

Table 2 on pg 41 of this paper by Ed Glaeser and Mathew Kahn listing standardized carbon emissions for various cities. Because of its very temperate climate, San Diego has the lowest standardized household CO2 emissions. NY comes in 21st after most of the cities in California. Houston does really poorly in this study, but its because Houston's climate is so intemperate creating large heating and cooling demands.


But what we really care about is the emissions from transportation, not climate effects. Standardized emissions from driving are much lower in New York than the rest of the cities 18,081 lbs of CO2, but New York's standardized CO2 emissions from transit are much higher 6,386 lbs of CO2 from mass transit. If you combine the two New York has 24,467 lbs of CO2 from transportation.

Houston had a standardized emission from driving of 27,333 lbs of CO2 and a standardized emissions from transit of 1447 lbs of CO2, for a combined total of 28,780 from transportation.

Thus right now New Yorks tranportation system uses on a standardized basis 4,313 fewer lbs of CO2 to get around. (28,780-24,467).

On pg 4 here, O'Toole claims that passenger cars emit .54 lbs of CO2 per mile and that Prius emit .26 lbs of CO2 per mile. Basically adoption of Prius cuts emissions by a little more than half.


But if Houston adopts high gas taxes, causing the widespread adoption of hybrids, its total emissions from transportation drop below New York's. (27,333*.5)+1447 = 15,133. In the real world, not everyone will drive a Prius, but in a real world of much higher gas prices, people will also probably drive a lot fewer miles. Either people will move closer to work, or more likely in Houston, employers will move closer to employees by moving more operations to suburban office parks. In either case VMT will drop.

In short raising gas tax a lot really should work.

Standardized emissions from

Standardized emissions from driving are much lower in New York than the rest of the cities 18,081 lbs of CO2, but New York's standardized CO2 emissions from transit are much higher 6,386 lbs of CO2 from mass transit. If you combine the two New York has 24,467 lbs of CO2 from transportation.

The New York figures are for the MSA, not for New York City. GHG emissions are markedly lower in the city, where most households don't even own a car.
See this report: www.nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/ccp_report041007.pdf
Per capita CO2 emissions in NYC were 7.1 metric tons per capita in '05, of which 23% was from transportation. That works out to around 3,600 lbs of CO2 per capita annually--about an eighth of per capita emissions from transportation in Houston.

It would be great if we could reduce CO2 emissions from transportation by a third by getting people to adopt hybrids. But that's still nowhere near the reduction in CO2 emissions we would see from changing development patterns so that people no longer need to drive the amounts they do today.

That undercounts emissions

Manhattan has a serious jobs to residences imbalance.

This is why New York has the largest commute to work in the nation.


If you apportion the emissions of people working in Manhattan but living outside of the city to the suburban areas, the suburban areas are going to seem really emission intensive compared to the residents because they are the ones that have to spend the most time commuting into the city. But that also really undercounts the emissions of building future cities like New York. I think the only way to have true sense of the emissions of building futures cities like New York City is to include the emissions of people commuting into New York City from Long Island, from New Jersey and Conneticut. This is why the MSA numbers are more relevant.

You are also assuming that regulations like SB375 are going to create future Manhattans. I think they are much more likely to create future Austins. I think the metrics they are using are too imprecise.

Austin Texas has a higher density than Boston and Los Angeles has a higher density than New York City. Yet mass transit usuage is higher in Boston than Austin and higher in NYC than LA. The reason density is higher in LA than New York, is that the density of edge communities in LA is higher than the density of edge communities in New York. This is also why Austin is denser than Boston.

Chris Bradford goes into this a lot more here. You might also want to see his discusion of weighted density because its pretty interesting as well.


If you look in practice what legislation like SB375 is doing, its mostly about increasing standard and not weighted density. This the problem with these behavorial efforts at trying to influence transit usage, they focus on metrics other than price as a proxy for transit usage.

Notice how its increasing development in the suburban edge communities like Elk Grove and Lincoln. That increasing standard density but not doing much for weighted density. If your goal is to push up transit usage is this policy really going to do that?


Because pricing signals aren't being used, you have a policy that is very expensive, but not likely to be very effective.

Perhaps in Manhattan density is high enough where mass transit can be ran at all hours at very high levels of utilization and so the enviromental benefits justify switching to mass transit. [I am not entirely convinced because I think there are some serious enviromental costs of 40 minutes average commutes to get into the city multiplied by the number of people in New York. This also why I don't reall buy your argument that the advantage of mass transit is much shorter commutes - if the commutes are so much shorter why is the average commute time so much longer?]

But in the rest of the country, I think O'Toole's argument is spot on. The vast majority of the day, the buses and light rail cars in Sacramento are mostly running empty. I doubt that there much of an enviromental benefit to the current Sacramento transit system or to even expanding the transit system in Sacramento, (running the buses later on the existing routes or running more buses routes other than commuter buses into the burbs is more likely to raise the enviromental costs of transit in Sacramento than to provide an enviromental benefit because its more likely to just add more empty buses to the system).

If I thought behaviorial measures really were likely to create more Manhattans, I think you would have a stronger argument. But I really don't see that happening. Instead, I think we are just going to create more Austins in a misguided effort to create more Manhattans.

In that case, I think raising the gas tax is far more likely to create meaningful GHG reductions. It may even be more likely to actually lead to the creation of more Manhattans.

I believe the NYC report

I believe the NYC report counts GHG emissions released within the city from commuters to the city, so it seems to me that the report is probably overcounting, not undercounting, the share of GHG emissions coming from NYC residents. At any rate, the data makes a clear argument that US GHG emissions would be enormously lower if more American cities were as transit- and pedestrian-friendly as New York.

With respect to some of your other arguments about density, I think it's important to distinguish cities from suburbs. The edge suburbs around NY are not a model for development policy, energy efficiency or reducing GHG emissions. If you want to understand how denser, more transit-oriented development patterns affect energy efficiency, then look at the places where that development model exists. Averages can be useless when there is enormous variation in the data set. (And I think statements like "Los Angeles has a higher density than New York City" illustrate this point.)

I've enjoyed this discussion and hopefully we can pick this up on another comment thread.

We will have to agree to disagree

about the emissions of NYC.

I am also not convinced about the applicability of NYC as a model for development. Cities are complex path dependent ecosystems. London still has its many circuses because it was laid out by the Romans. It never turned into a vertical city. Manhattan resisted the flattening effects of post WW2 car culture. A lot of Manhattan was also built out in an era when it was much easier to evict poor ethnic minorities and replace their tenments with even taller structures.

In the places where the economics might seem to pan out and the voters should put a high priority on being Green, like along the Pennisula in the San Francisco Bay area have been amazingly resistent to actually building up. If you can't create a consensus to Manhattanize in SF for the enviroment where can you? The economics don't really pan out to do it in Fresno, and in the places where it does, the political will is completely opposed to it. SF has some of the highest housing costs in the country and even that isn't enough to persuade people to increase densities there.

see history of building constraints in SF here

an example of one of the many local neighborhood associations fighting to keep densities down in SF

See also the 50 million from developers to build Rincon Hill that Chris Daly extracted to build a new building. With assessed impact fees that high, how many other buildings will be built in SF

Why I support raising the gas tax so much more than attempting to deregulate land use in urban areas is that I think there is a much greater chance of actually doing it. In California the sales tax is going up tommorrow to deal with the budget crisis. If we can pass a regressive sales tax to fix the state budget, why not a regressive gas tax instead that might have some social benefits as well?

When it comes to land use in Coastal California (the place Glaeser and Kahn advocated developing high density urban projects, there is almost uniform agreement in those communities to fight it. San Diego County has a strong building restrictions against high rises west of the 5 other than in Downtown SD (and that was only passed because almost no one lived in downtown SD when the proposition was passed. Moreover they are now making efforts to put height restrictions east of the 5 in SD.


Between the need to protect rent controlled units in LA and Santa Monica and traffic impacts from any large development. Its tough to see any effort to have widespread Manhattanization anytime soon.

I have prattled on long enough so I will let you go.

I'm not advocating putting

I'm not advocating putting up barriers to growth. In fact, I agree with Glaeser in that we need more housing construction in California (and other high cost areas). But there needs to be more regional or statewide effort to focus development in core urban areas instead of letting it sprawl out into greenfield land at the edges. I think this means having both more liberal development regulations in core municipalities while having greater restrictions on development on the fringes. If you have one without the other then I agree, the existing development patterns will either continue or else migrate to other parts of the country where development regulation is absent.

As for your point about transit usage, I also agree. We aren't going to see people switching from cars to public transit overnight. But people will choose to walk or bike or ride a train to work when it's cheaper or more convenient than driving, and the only way that will happen is if development patterns change. With the exception of S.F. and maybe a few other downtowns, California has nowhere near the density of land uses to get people out of their cars.

A couple of points

The assumption behind SB 375 was that if you could reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled, that would in turn reduce emissions. But look how the planners are going about doing that. They are ACTIVELY seeking to increase congestion.

I wanted to draw your attention to the Governor's Office of Planning and Research. Specifically to the Level of Service Forum here. Right now planners are trying to get the governor to allow them to increase congestion with the hope of diverting more people into to mass transit.


But if people are sitting stuck in traffic, vmt is no longer a good proxy for emissions. If you aren't going anywhere but your engine is running your vmt may be dropping a lot more than your emissions.

Second, I want to draw your attention to the Regional Housing Needs Assessment component of SB 375. This type of high density infill is expected to push up the cost of new construction. This is why we are now seeing the adoption of mixed income ordinances to achieve the affording housing requirments of the Regional Housing Needs Assessments.


But this high density infill isn't looking likely to cover the cost of upgrading the infrastructure to support the infill development.


Lastly is it merely just going to push the middle class out of the region? High density infill with a large low income component into a formerly suburban neighborhoods is held by locals to be one of the principle causes of the loss of the middle class in the San Fernando Valley. Yet this is precisely the policy that has been adopted in Sacramento. Remember SB 375 was based upon the planning 'success' of the Sacramento Regional Blueprint.


Are the planners just merely recreating some of the mistakes inflicted in the San Fernando Valley onto the rest of the region? If so, we do we need planners?

Secondly, how successful was increasing the density in the San Fernando Valley in terms of reducing VMT or even better in terms of getting residents to use mass transit?

Mass transit had its highest rates of ridership going to older concentrated central business districts. I am fairly confident that if you further increased the density of Manhattan, most of the new residents would be using mass transit to get around. But in suburban or even formerly suburban areas that were built out after WW2, how much does building a few more apartment/condo complexes actually increase mass transit usage in those neighborhoods?

SB 375, seems to mandate that type of development as part of regional housing needs assessment. But it seems more likely to just increase congestion than actually increase transit usage in most of the state.

But in suburban or even

    But in suburban or even formerly suburban areas that were built out after WW2, how much does building a few more apartment/condo complexes actually increase mass transit usage in those neighborhoods?

I think that's a good comment. Hopefully multi-family residences are being planned around future transit corridors, and not being put in for "density sake". There's density done right and density done badly. I agree with the sentiment that building high densities without mass transit options is not going to reduce congestion.

However, the potential for viable public transit is not doable without reasonable densities of 6 units/acre, so it may be inevitable to have to build density (in suburban areas) before any future mass transit options become available.

Idealistic planning can't overcome bad pricing.

If the California Legislature was serious about actually lowering greenhouse gas emissions, it would substantially increase the gas tax. When gas prices were higher, VMT dropped. But the planners and the politicians haven't sold the public that the greenhouse gas emissions is a significant enough problem to actually raise gas prices.

This is important because if you majorly inconvience the public in the name of reducing greenhouse gasses but mostly fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, you undercut the political support later to correct your mistakes. Deregulating the power industry is politically now dead in California for just that reason. If the legislature screw up regulating greenhouse emissions, this will kill political support for this idea as well.

Raising the gas tax would actually work. When gas was over $4 a gallon, vmt dropped and transit usage went up. I think it would have been better to hold out for a gas tax increase rather than pass SB 375.

There is an excellent chance the SB 375 won't actually work.

Let me give you a short history on light rail in Sacramento. The Feds award funding for projects based upon how many people are projected to ride versus how expensive it costs to build out the light rail line. Abstactly that seems like a good idea, but in practice it has been a disaster. Look how the mass transit agencies gamed the system to get funding. To win federal funding for light rail, the local mass transit agency bought a right-of-way from the local heavy rail carrier because that was the cheapest way to secure a right of way for the light rail system. The problem of course is that land zoned next to the existing heavy rail network was mostly warehouses. Then it fed passengers from the bus lines into the light rail system to get the passenger count high on the light rail system. As a result Sacramento's light rail system mostly goes through a bunch of warehouse districts. For the purposes of securing federal funding Sacramento's lightrail system was a success, they were able to build the system very cheaply and via the bus system they were able to push a lot of passenger into the light rail network.

More importantly for transit riders, it caused a bunch of riders to lose their direct bus routes from the suburb to the employment center to have the bus route diverted into the light rail system. That of course increased commuting times making the mass transit system overall less appealing for riders. Whatever gains you might have gotten from increased frequency from running the light rail trains more frequently was lost from inconviencing your passengers with longer traveling times. In short the continued build out of the light rail system has not actually increased the usage of mass transit in Sacramento. Note funding for transit in Sacramento went up in 1988, after the passage of half cent sales tax. But neither the continued build out of the light rail system nor increased funding of mass transit actually boosted transit usage in Sacramento.

See pg 13 here showing US census transit ridership levels for various US metropolitian regions including Sacramento.


Because the land is still warehouses, in the Sacramento region a lot of the places next to the light rail network have some of the smallest population densities in the region. Even if you were to try to build a transit village adjacent to the light rail stations, the surrounding neighborhood still is bunch of warehouses, these people still need a car to run daily errands, because warehouse districts still aren't pedestrian friendly.

The poor siting of light rail in Sacramento is the type of planning failure you get when you are making decisions absent good pricing information.

If you raise the gas tax, then you dramatically improve the pricing information. People will start buying smaller cars with better mileage. More people will carpool and their should be more demand for mass transit. More importantly the market signals will help improve the siting of mass transit and the location of office buildings and even housing choices.

Look at the commuting patterns in the Sacramento region. The reason so few people take mass transit is because the command and control psuedo market failed. Absent better pricing information in the form of higher gas taxes, zoning for transit by itself isn't working. Bad pricing is undercuting idealistic planning.


All of this matters because SB 375 was based upon the "success" of the Sacramento Regional Blueprint. Isn't 2.5% an extraordinarily low bar for success? Its only half the 5.2% of people in the region recieving food stamps.

I agree with raising the gas

I agree with raising the gas tax, but raising the gas tax = political suicide. Could you imagine the onslaught that would ensue if a politician even suggested raising the gas tax this last summer with high gas costs?