December 4, 2005

‘Zoned Out’

I'm in the midst of reading a review copy of Zoned Out by University of Michigan associate professor Jonathan Levine. I agree with the premise: "Municipal regulation that zones out th ealternatives to [suburban] sprawl is neither a preordained state of nature nor the free market's invisible hand, but a governmental decision to constrain market processes. As such, it does not deserve the 'default' status it has attained in debates over transportation, land use, and metropolitan development."

The fact that people are buying McMansions in the suburbs doesn't mean that's all they'd buy. People are also buying condos in the cities -- in fact, per square foot, condos in desirable Manhattan and Boston neighborhoods are pricier by far than most suburban homes. And people are clearly buying single-family homes at a premium in more densely populated, traditional town centers in suburbs like Wellesley and Concord. When almost 9 in 10 people in a Better Homes and Gardens survey said they value walkable neighborhoods when buying a home, it's fallacy to say that pedestrian-hostile, auto-centric sprawl is in fact Americans' default desire. If it's a lot tougher for a builder to create pedestrian-friendly cluster neighborhoods than cookie-cutter subdivisions, of course they opt for the latter.

Likewise, of course people don't want to use public transportation if it's inconvenient, unreliable, infrequent and unpleasant. That doesn't mean people won't use it at all. When I worked in Newton Corner and needed to go to Boston, I took the express bus - less than 15 minutes door to door, it was usually faster and less of a hassle than driving. From north Framingham, though, I never want to use the train -- the drive to the train station is about one-third of the distance to simply drive to Boston, but it's not heading toward the city; there's then parking and waiting, and about an hour's trip with endless stops. And off rush hour, there might as well not be trains at all, if they're running every 3 hours. Why can't there be an express bus on the same convenient schedule as Logan Express, but going to downtown Boston? But I digress....

Levine argues that "pervasive government intervention" and not free market forces has "mold[ed] U.S. metropolitan areas to a sprawling development template."

In one survey of developers, half in Mid-Atlantic and more than one-third in the Northeast believe that at least a quarter of their market is interested in "alternative" development patterns to conventional sprawl. Yet more than 86% of developers in the Northeast said there was not an adequate supply of alternative development housing in existing and new construction. "Few respondents [except in the South Central U.S.] saw lack of market interest as an obstacle, but an overwhelming majority of respondents viewed local regulations as a significant obstacle.

It seems that zoning, not "market forces," help explain suburban sprawl.

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