The 15-Minute City: An Extraordinarily Bad Idea

The latest urban planning fad to sweep across Canada is the 15-minute city, which proposes to redesign cities so that all urban residents live within an easy, 15-minute walk of […]
Published on March 28, 2024

The latest urban planning fad to sweep across Canada is the 15-minute city, which proposes to redesign cities so that all urban residents live within an easy, 15-minute walk of schools, retailers, restaurants, entertainment, and other essentials of modern life. This is supposed to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions while it increases our quality of life.

Some think it is a conspiracy. Others insist it is not. Conspiracy or not, the only way to have true 15-minute cities would be to drastically change Canadian lifestyles.

Fifteen-minute cities mean a lot more people living in multifamily housing and fewer in single-family housing. It means most food shopping would be done in high-priced, limited-selection grocery stores. There is no way that Costcos or even large supermarkets can fit into 15-minute cities; to survive, these stores need a lot more customers than could live within a 15-minute walk from their front doors.

Most of the benefits claimed for 15-minute cities are wrong. Proponents claim they would be more affordable, but high-density, multi-story housing costs two to five times as much, per square foot, as single-family homes. Packing people into four- and five-story apartment buildings would require cutting average dwelling sizes at least in half to make them anywhere close to affordable.

Proponents also claim 15-minute cities would save energy and reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants. But let’s be honest: people aren’t going to give up their cars or stop going to Costco.

Admittedly, the U.S. Department of Energy says that people living in high-density cities do drive a little less than people in low-density areas. But it also says that there is a lot more congestion in high-density cities. Since cars use more energy in slower traffic, high-density cities use more energy (and therefore emit more greenhouse gases) per capita than low-density areas.

Proponents also claim that 15-minute cities will be more equitable. Yet, before about 1890, most Canadian cities were 15-minute cities. Most people in these cities lived in crushing poverty and there were huge disparities between the rich and the poor, with only a small middle-class in between.

What changed these cities was the mass-produced automobile. The Model T Ford democratized mobility, allowing more people to escape the dense cities to find better housing, better jobs, access to lower-cost consumer goods, and a wider range of social and recreation opportunities.

The University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory calculates that the average resident of the New York urban area—the closest thing to a 15-minute city in the U.S. or Canada—can reach at least 21 times as many jobs in a 20-minute auto drive as in a 20-minute walk. The same will be true of other economic opportunities. Eliminating the automobile, which is the goal of the 15-minute city, would eliminate those economic benefits.

We had this same debate 50-some years ago when urban skies were polluted with carbon monoxide, smog, and other toxic automobile emissions. Some people advocated policies that would force people to drive less. Others advocated new technologies that would reduce the air pollution coming from autos and trucks.

Today, total automotive air pollution has been reduced by about 90 percent. All this improvement came from cleaner cars: new cars today pollute only about 1 percent as much as cars made in 1970. None of this improvement came from anti-automobile policies, as Canadians drive far more miles today than they did 50 years ago.

If anything, policies aimed at reducing driving made pollution worse as one of those policies was to increase traffic congestion to get people out of their cars. Yet, as noted above, cars actually pollute more in congested traffic.

Anti-automobile policies today, including 15-minute cities, spending billions on rail transit lines that carry only a small percentage of urban travel, and converting general street lanes into exclusive bike lanes, are going to have the same effect.

People who care about the planet should demand policies that actually work and not ones that are based on urban planning fantasies and fads. Instead of attempting to drastically change Canadian lifestyles, that means making cars that are cleaner and more fuel-efficient so that the driving we do has a lower environmental impact. The 15-minute city may not be a conspiracy, but it is still an extraordinarily bad idea.

 

Randal O’Toole is a transportation policy analyst and author of Building 21 st Century Transit Systems for Canadian Cities, an upcoming report published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Watch Randal on Leaders on the Frontier here.

Featured News

MORE NEWS

Scotland’s Crazy Anti-hate Law May Be Sign Of Things To Come Here

Scotland’s Crazy Anti-hate Law May Be Sign Of Things To Come Here

Some argue that Scotland’s new hate speech law is more draconian than Canada’s yet-to-be-enacted equivalent, Bill C-63. Others say this is not so — that portions of '63' are even greater threats to free speech than Scotland’s extreme new law. Regardless of who wins in...

Higher Capital Gains Taxes Cap Off a Loser Federal Budget

Higher Capital Gains Taxes Cap Off a Loser Federal Budget

New taxes on capital gains mean more capital pains for Canadians as they endure another tax-grabbing, heavy-spending federal deficit budget. Going forward, the inclusion rate increases to 66 per cent, up from 50 per cent, on capital gains above $250,000 for people and...