The Seattle blogosphere is in a lather over this recent entry at the Rainier Valley Post by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox, arguing against a bill that would encourage compact development along the new light rail line. Several readers have asked me what I think of the article, so I’ll go on the record here: it’s a terribly misinformed piece.

Take a look, for example, at the first two paragraphs:

The theory of transit-oriented development (TOD) says that clustering residents and businesses around transit stations will reduce auto use and thus greenhouse gas emissions…

On the surface TOD sounds plausible. But where’s the scientific evidence that it will actually work?

It’s a leading question and they spend the rest of the piece implying that TOD is bad for the climate. And yet they have it exactly backwards: the academic evidence in support of TOD’s benefit for the climate is pretty overwhelming. Colter and Fox clearly haven’t done their homework.

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  • The best compilation on the research connecting urban form with greenhouse gas emissions is Growing Cooler, a reader-friendly volume edited by Reid Ewing. (By the way, this is an extremely well-known book in the business and it’s perplexing that the authors would be unaware of it.) Another classic is the report Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact, also edited by Reid Ewing. Here’s a wonderfully readable—and recent—summary, The Greenness of Cities, coauthored by professors from Harvard and UCLA. (Bonus: here’s a blog post I wrote based on separate research from one of the authors, Matthew Kahn.) And then there’s the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, where Todd Litman keeps an exhaustively cited summary of the research on transit-oriented development and its environmental and social impacts. There’s also what is perhaps the magnum opus on the subject, Sustainabilty and Cities, a comprehensive look at density, driving and other topics in cities around the world by Newman & Kenworthy. If that’s not enough, you might check out a longer technical review by the US EPA, as well as a boring technical report prepared by ICF International.

    And if you’d like access to more of the primary research on the connections between density, sprawl, driving, public health, and social equity please see Sightline’s bibliography on the subject.

    The fact that the opening sentences are so distorting should give you a sense of what follows—there’s hardly any assertion that isn’t importantly misleading. I simply don’t have time to respond to every half-truth and mistake in the piece, but if you’re just dying for more, go check out Dan’s excellent take-down over at Hugeasscity; the comments section at Dan’s Facebook page; Eric C. Barnett’s piece at Slog; or Josh Feit’s reporting at Publicola.

    I don’t want to minimize the importance of the subject. Preserving equity and affordable housing in urban areas (and their outskirts) is an enormous challenge, particularly as cities grow and evolve. The nexus of concerns related to housing, climate, and affordability  issues needs a thorough and fair hearing.

    But Colter and Fox haven’t done that; instead, they’ve resorted to sophistry and innuendo. Perhaps they believe they’re doing low-income folks a service by fighting new housing development. But the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, a coalition of more than 200 affordable housing organizations and advocates, disagrees. They’re supporting the bill that Colter and Fox are attacking.

    Update 2/12: If you still want more, Eric C. Barnett and Dan Bertolet continue to explain what’s going on in admirable detail.