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global warm­ing. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has signed on. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has told met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas to in­clude land-use reg­u­la­tions in the trans­porta­tion plans that fed­eral law re­quires them to up­date ev­ery five years. Wash­ing­ton is also giv­ing com­mu­ni­ties “liv­abil­ity grants” aimed at pro­mot­ing high-den­sity de­vel­op­ment.

As a re­sult, cities that are far re­moved from San Fran­cisco in a po­lit­i­cal sense — Des Moines, Iowa, and Lafayette, La., for ex­am­ple — are con­sid­er­ing sim­i­lar land-use re­stric­tions.

Ad­vo­cates ar­gue that the de­mand for sin­gle-fam­ily homes is about to drop as re­tir­ing baby boomers and up-and-com­ing millennials will pre­fer to live in mixe­duse neigh­bor­hoods with high den­si­ties and easy pedes­trian ac­cess to stores and en­ter­tain­ment.

This claim isn’t sup­ported by peo­ple’s ac­tual be­hav­ior. The vast ma­jor­ity of pop­u­la­tion growth con­tin­ues to be in low-den­sity sub­urbs. Sur­veys of millennials show that more than three out of four as­pire to live in a sin­gle-fam­ily home with a yard.

The data also show that crowd­ing peo­ple to­gether isn’t re­ally ef­fec­tive at re­duc­ing green­house­gas emis­sions or ad­dress­ing other ur­ban con­cerns. Pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties in the San Fran­cisco-Oak­landSan Jose ur­ban ar­eas have al­ready grown by nearly 60 per­cent since 1990, yet per-capita driv­ing still has in­creased.

Even un­der plan­ners’ most op­ti­mistic pro­jec­tions, Plan Bay Area will have neg­li­gi­ble ef­fects on carbon-diox­ide emis­sions: The dra­co­nian land-use changes will re­duce emis­sions by only about three­quar­ters of 1 per­cent.

In con­trast, im­proved fuel econ­omy, al­ready man­dated by the state of Cal­i­for­nia, is pro­jected to re­duce per-capita emis­sions by more than 30 per­cent in the com­ing years.

Other trans­porta­tion pro­grams, such as van pool­ing and giv­ing driv­ers in­cen­tives to use elec­tric cars, are ex­pected to re­duce per-capita emis­sions by nearly 3 per­cent more.

As Amer­i­cans con­sider the fu­ture growth and de­vel­op­ment of their com­mu­ni­ties, the Plan Bay Area de­bate should of­fer a mes­sage of cau­tion. Forc­ing peo­ple to live in crowded “stack and pack” hous­ing de­vel­op­ments cur­tails free­doms with­out sub­stan­tially curb­ing green­house gases.

There are many ways to re­duce emis­sions that are gen­uinely cost-ef­fec­tive, some of which — such as mak­ing cars and homes more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient — could ac­tu­ally pay for them­selves in the long run. In con­trast, de­cree­ing rad­i­cal life­style changes for av­er­age Amer­i­cans is ex­pen­sive, in­tru­sive and in­ef­fec­tive — squan­der­ing the po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal needed for real im­prove­ment in en­vi­ron­men­tal qual­ity and our qual­ity of life.

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