SPUR’s report Critical Cooling recommends 42 options for reducing local carbon emissions. This is one of them. To learn about all 42 ideas, read the full report

Regional Compact Land Use Development (MTC 2035 Land Use Scenario)

Urbanist Article
Annual savings potential:
Annual public cost:
Public cost per ton:
Implementing agency:

Horizon year:
2.94 million tons in the Bay Area
Revenue neutral
Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Association of Bay Area Governments, local governments


  • More compact development in the Bay Area has the potential to reduce regional transportation emissions by 8,000 metric tons per day by 2035
  • The infrastructure required to support this development pattern can be paid for through existing infrastructure funding sources and developer fees – no new funds will be required


While San Francisco can help reduce regional emissions by permitting more housing development within the city, maximizing the potential emissions reduction from compact development will require a comprehensive, regional approach to development. San Francisco cannot create such a policy on its own, but it can support regional planning efforts to do so.

What we do now
While localities make their own decisions about land use and development regulations, metropolitan planning organizations can influence development through their control of regional transportation funds. The Bay Areas MPO, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and its partner organization, the Association of Bay Area governments, have introduced a variety of policies in recent years to encourage compact development patterns. These include the FOCUS program, which seeks to encourage development in existing urban areas near transit. Specifically, the program encourages development in designated “priority development areas” and will seek to direct transportation funds to these areas.

While these programs have worked to focus development in ways that are likely to reduce emissions, ABAG and the MTC have limited resources to influence local land use policy. The region as whole continues to fall short of both market demand for housing in walkable neighborhoods near jobs and transit.

What we could do
In the development of its Regional Transportation Plan for 2035, the MTC has modeled several scenarios that may help the region reduce regional CO2 emissions, bringing them into line with regional targets. One of the scenarios it considered was a land use sensitivity analysis.

For this analysis, ABAG produced an alternative land use forecast that moved beyond its current allocations, seeking to balance jobs and housing, and focusing growth near transit in established urban areas. In this scenario, growth is shifted substantially toward existing housing and employment centers, and areas with existing or planned transit. It also envisions an additional 37,000 households in the Bay Area, and an equivalent reduction in in-commuting from neighboring regions.

The costs of encouraging compact development depend on the time scale and the level of analysis.

At the scale of a single new development, new infill residential construction frequently requires infrastructure upgrades such as a rail extension, an updated new street network or a new park, as well as services for new residents.

However, the costs of these improvements do not reflect the true cost of compact development in the region. First, in many cases, local governments can require developers to pay part or all of the infrastructure costs. Second, and more important, all possible land use development scenarios for the region envision significant growth: The question is not whether there will be growth, but where. If the region does not invest in transit and connected street networks for compact development in existing urban areas, it will have to invest in new utility networks and freeways to serve more dispersed development. For this reason, in this analysis we have assumed that the long-term net cost of investing in compact development for the region will be zero. The region can encourage compact development by efficiently directing infrastructure investments toward existing communities with good transit access.

Carbon savings potential
In the MTC’s analysis, this compact development pattern would reduce regional road emissions by 2035 from 101,400 metric tons per day to 93,400 metric tons, for a difference of 8,000 metric tons per day, or 2.94 million metric tons per year.