Smart Growth vs. Free Market

Recent readings on Smart Growth sometimes point out that great progress could be made not by forcing extra regulations on a free market, but by removing restrictions that impede the free market. One of these is Michael Lewyn’s How Overregulation Creates Sprawl (Even in a City without Zoning). Unit note: there are about 2.5 acres in a hectare.

As Houston doesn’t have a formal zoning code, allowing commercial/residential mixing, it is sometimes presented as an example of a city formed by the free market, and proof that the free market leads to sprawl.

Nothing I’ve read implies that all transit and housing problems can be solved via the free market. They do indicate that currently, city planning often interferes with free market solutions.

Sample obstacles in Houston include minimum lot size — until 1998, 5,000 sq ft for single-family homes and 2,250 sq ft for townhouses. Many cities allow smaller lot sizes (Toronto requires only 390 sq ft/townhouse). If the city were entirely residential, its density would be 8.7 houses/acre, but because of stores, roads, larger than required lots size, etc, the actual density is 2 households/acre. Mass transit makes sense when density is about 3 households/acre. The new post-1998 rules require 3,500 sq ft size lots for single houses in urban areas (the old standard holds for the suburbs) and 1,400 sq ft lots for townhouses, with another 600 sq ft for open spaces. Some improvement, but more is possible.

Additionally, Houston requires parking, lots and lots of parking, from 1.25 spaces per efficiency to two parking spaces on the lot for single-family homes to 2.2 parking spaces/hospital beds for hospitals, and more parking for businesses, shopping centers, bars (10 for each 1,000 sq ft). Because of setback requirements, these parking spaces are often in front of the building, requiring pedestrians to walk an extra distance to the entrance. Parking places cost the landowner $10,000/year each, and so represent a large subsidy to drivers.

Most American streets are 32 to 36 ft wide, many are even narrower, but laws in Houston lead to roads 90 – 100 ft wide, an obstacle to pedestrians, and an obstacle to reasonable housing density. City codes require 600 ft between major intersections, double the 300 ft lengths found to be conducive to walking.

Houston does not have laws restricting mixed use (residential and commercial) as do many cities. Instead, voluntary restrictive covenants determine this restriction, and, unlike almost all cities, Houston enforces these covenants with taxpayer dollars.

Taxpayers, many not from Houston and not all of those drivers, subsidize the Houston car culture. Houston has as many miles of freeway as does Chicago, with twice the population. Greater Houston is 10% larger than greater Boston, but has twice as many miles of freeways. More freeways, more street widening, are planned.

Besides the direct dollar costs for the Houston design plan, there are other costs. Houston’s density is less than 3,400 people/sq mile, only one other US city with over 1 million people has a smaller density. People in Houston travel almost 38 miles/day by car, and the average household spends almost $9,600/year, or 1/5 of their income, on transportation-related expenses, $3,000 more than a Boston family. Traffic in Houston is more congested than in Chicago or Boston. Long distances and congestion mean frustrated drivers. Only a few American cities are more polluted. There are costs to those not able to buy a car, or too old or otherwise unable to drive.

Interestingly, one of the arguments put forward in support of low-density housing is to reduce congestion. An increase in mixed-use housing in the central city has led to increased population there, rather than the predicted decay.

The question is often asked, if we build lower density housing with fewer parking spaces, will people buy? It’s one thing to say you want something in an opinion survey, another to uproot yourself and move. The experience in other cities, and from the quite modest changes in Houston’s code, is yes, some or many people want fewer restrictions on their ability to buy higher density housing.

The next post will discuss city planning from another perspective, making transit work.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Linda touts her own blog, Boundless Stores of Grace, which discusses change, the process. This a new blog, but I know Linda, and the question of how people change will be one she looks at often.

Grant, in comments to the previous blog, provides some sources that look to be worth looking at. I don’t know links for them, but Stephen Schneider has a lot of his writing at his site. If you get a chance to read any of them, please leave a comment letting Grant know.

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