Densification: Examining the Pros and Cons of Denser Cities

Commentary, Housing Affordability, Local Government, Michel Kelly-Gagnon (historic), Saskatchewan, Uncategorized

Cities are amazing places, bringing together all sorts of different people.

Different ideas and customs often mix and multiply, providing new and exciting opportunities for work and play. And this intellectual and cultural fermentation does require a certain density of population.

But is denser always better?

Government measures like the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan are designed to limit so-called "urban sprawl" in southern Ontario and keep cities dense.

In Quebec, Jean-François Lisée, the minister responsible for the Montreal region, has set up a special committee to figure out how to keep families from moving off-island.

Environmentalist David Suzuki sure thinks that denser is better. In a recent piece for the Victoria News, he praises densification, rapid transit infrastructure projects, and efforts to contain urban sprawl.

Canadian cities don't spend enough on public transit, Suzuki argues, which leads to traffic congestion with its associated economic and environmental costs.

As someone who lives in the suburbs on the North Shore of Montreal, I am no fan of this kind of traffic. In fact, I take the commuter train as often as I can, if only because the gridlock is too stressful.

But as it turns out, densification and more public transit are not the solutions.

As Wendell Cox points out in a recent Frontier Centre paper, higher population densities actually translate into higher traffic densities.

One estimates shows a doubling of population density leads to a 60% increase in driving. And more driving means more traffic congestion, with all its attendant ills.

As for mass transit, its potential to help is much more limited than we might think. It is only competitive with the automobile in central business districts (CBDs), but only 14% of metropolitan employment in Canada is found in CBDs.

Densification has other costs, too. It leads to higher housing prices relative to incomes, increasing city-dwellers' cost of living.

Conversely, the Montreal region's high expressway density and relative lack of anti-sprawl policies deserve at least some of the credit for keeping housing prices relatively affordable here.

It is fashionable to criticize the choices made by those of us who drive cars and live in the suburbs, but fashion should not be confused with facts. Densification, for all its current popularity, is not all it's cracked up to be.