Friday, October 28, 2005

Sprawl: Choice or Fueled by Implicit Subsidies and Regulation?

Resources for the Future will soon publish a book titled: "Zoned Out Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land Use" by Jonathan Levine. I'm not sure if Peter Gordon is going to love this book.

"The search for solutions to urban sprawl, congestion, and pollution has inspired a wealth of alternatives, including smart growth, New Urbanism, and transit-oriented development. Since 1970, researchers have sought to assess such alternatives by evaluating their transportation benefits. Implicit in research efforts, however, has been the presumption that, for these options to be given serious consideration as part of policy reform, science has to prove they will reduce auto use and increase transit, walking, or other physical activity. Zoned Out forcefully argues that the debate about transportation and land-use planning in the United States has been distorted by a myth--the myth that urban sprawl is the result of a free market. According to this myth, low-density, auto-dependent development dominates U.S. metropolitan areas simply because that is what Americans prefer.

Jonathan Levine confronts the free market myth by pointing out that land development is already one of the most regulated sectors of the U.S. economy. Noting that local governments use their regulatory powers to lower densities, segregate different types of land uses, and mandate large roadways and parking lots, he argues that the design template for urban sprawl is written into the land-use regulations of thousands of municipalities nationwide. These regulations and the skewed thinking that underlies current debate mean that policy innovation, market forces, and the compact-development alternatives they might produce are often "zoned out" of metropolitan areas.

In debunking the market myth, Levine articulates an important paradigm shift. Where people believe that current land-use development is governed by a free-market, any proposal for policy reform is seen as a market intervention and a limitation on consumer choice, and any proposal carries a high burden of scientific proof that it will be effective. Zoned Out reorients the debate by demonstrating that the burden of scientific proof that was the lynchpin of transportation and land-use debates has been misassigned, and that, far from impeding market forces or limiting consumer choice, policy reform that removes regulatory obstacles would enhance both. A groundbreaking work in urban planning, transportation and land-use policy, Zoned Out challenges a policy environment in which scientific uncertainty is used to reinforce the status quo."

JONATHAN LEVINE is certainly correct that equilibrium outcomes are a function of supply and demand. I have not read this book but my main empirical question for Levine would be: "There are over 300 major cities in the United States. Some of these cities are heavily influenced by powerful environmental groups, which European cities does he view as the "gold standard" of where the U.S should move to? What is his strongest empirical evidence that a large percentage of people would be willing to live in higher density, walking cities? There are certainly some people willing to live like this but how many? If there is such a demand for such cities, why aren't developers building them?

In defense of Levine, I do believe that as urban crime continues to fall that richer people will be more willing to live near strangers who do not look like them. The urban public schools are still the problem. Until urban public schools improve, I really don't see how the demand for "compact living" can soar except for gays and senior citizens and very young.


allen claxton said...

I took a class with Professor Levine on transportation and land use planning. I also haven't read the book, but from his class and from lectures he's given, I think he does deal with a lot of the substance of your questions in the book. for instance, one of his studies (published separately from the book; you should be able to find it) looks at developers perceptions of smart growth and density, and finds that, in many cases, developers do want to develop more densely, but are prevented from doing so, either explicitly by planning and zoning laws and commissions, or because of the uncertainty of getting approval out of that process.

Moreover, key to his argument, as I understand it, is not that "people would be willing to live in higher density, walking cities," but that there is enough unmet demand among parts of the population to warrant liberalizing land use decision-making, and allowing something more like a free market to function. That is, I don't think he claims that if we build densely, suburban America will suddenly wake up and come flooding back into cities, only that there are some people living in suburbs who will do so. Enough, anyway, that we shouldn't legislate against that style of development.

Anonymous said...

On a tangential note, what the hell is “smart growth”?

Is it high-density infill development and compact development on the urban fringe? Is it a variation on the traditional single-family subdivision that includes more environmental amenities? Is it merely a buzz word meant to impress people with only a superficial knowledgeable of land use planning?

Regardless, it’s largely meaningless. I sure hope Levine’s book can actually describe “smart growth” in a precise manner that avoids the vague, warm-fuzzy notions that typically accompany the term.

Anonymous said...

Some references that respond to your empirical questions about market demand are listed in these threads:

While I do agree with your point about school quality, it's worth keeping in mind that only 29 percent of U.S. households actually have children. For the vast majority of U.S. households, school quality is not a primary concern. Still, good schools and a sizable population of children are important indicators of the healthy diversity of any locale, urban or suburban.

-Laurence Aurbach

Dano said...

What Larry said.

Also, when looking at visual preferences, folk don't mind moderately dense, walkable neighborhoods.

But the Murrican dream is different than the European model, and as such we aren't used to living in compact neighborhoods, so naturally empirical evidence may be lacking. That doesn't make your argument powerful, BTW, that the lack of demand in the market elucidates some kind of overarching truth.

Jus' sayin'.