A few days ago I wrote about inner Seattle’s residential density liberalization, and I mentioned that I’d emailed a few land use writers at libertarian think tanks to get their reaction. I’m happy to report that all of them responded, and throughout the week I’ll post links to/reprint their responses, along with any comments I might have.
So first I’d like to direct y’all to CEI’s OpenMarkets.org where Marc Scribner responded. He essentially said that the move looks like a net benefit in terms of land use liberalization, but that Seattle’s limits on sprawling growth (as opposed to infill growth) are more serious and costly. I’m glad that he agrees with me that Seattle’s new plan will be a positive marginal change, but I’m not sure that I agree with some of the other things he says.
I’m certainly not going to defend King County’s urban growth boundary – we’re opposed to them, and think that people who are concerned about sprawl could achieve better results less coercively by simply allowing more infill and stopping the subsidies for all modes of transportation. But I do wonder how Marc reached the conclusion that sprawl restrictions are more onerous than density restrictions. He points to the run-up in housing costs in Seattle over the last decade, but given that we’ve already established that Seattle has both sprawl-prohibiting and density-prohibiting regulations, I don’t see how he’s decided that the former are more significant than the latter. This is a difficult question to answer, and on some level can only be done properly by liberalizing and observing. But barring that, econometric methods can be used to make guesses as to how restrictive such regulations really are – something we’ve tried to do before with parking minimums. I do not, however, see any of those in Marc’s argument.
What concerns me even more, though, is all this “war on drivers” talk with regards to local roads. Marc criticizes “aggressive traffic calming measures,” but why shouldn’t the government seek to minimize accidents on its roads? If a private company owned the roads and sought to slow down what it perceived as unsafe speeds on its roads, obviously there would be no problem here. But while both Marc and I would like to see transportation means privatized, this clearly isn’t going to happen anytime soon, so why shouldn’t the government try to keep its roads safe and hospitable for pedestrians and cyclists? If Marc’s argument is that such traffic calming measures don’t achieve these goals and are instead implemented solely to make drivers’ lives more difficult, that would be another story, but he presents no evidence of that, either.
Besides the fact that decisions about priorities seem to be well within the purview of any road operator, I don’t exactly understand why Marc thinks that drivers have any right to the local roads status quo. Unlike state and federal highways, local roads are almost entirely subsidized out of general revenues – user fees like gas taxes are barely kicked down at all to municipalities for local road costs, as Randal O’Toole, who is much more knowledgeable about road financing than I, has told me. In fact, given that local roads are (I assume?) paid for out of property taxes and sales taxes levied on local Seattle residents, it would seem that those who don’t drive in Seattle actually pay more for the roads than the average person who uses him! This could be exacerbated by property taxes, which are often higher for renters – who are more likely not to own cars – than for homeowners, though I’m not sure if this is true in Seattle.
So remind me again – what exactly is so unfair about local roads being reoriented towards walking, transit, and biking, and having car lanes removed and speeds reduced? Drivers aren’t paying any more for the roads’ upkeep than non-drivers, so why are car owners entitled to the lion’s share of the space? Marc mentions ancillary economic benefits of driving, but you could come up with equally plausible benefits to not driving (health being a huge one). So, how do we solve this? We let the market decide. But I don’t see massively subsidized local roads as being much of a market.
Thanks to Marc for responding, and I’ll reprint Randal O’Toole and Wendell Cox’s emailed responses soon.
Chad N saysDecember 10, 2010 at 6:42 am
As a Seattle resident, I can give a bit more perspective of the zoning revisions. If you want to dig into the details, general background can be found here, and the ordinance language here.
The previous low-rise housing zone was so prescriptive that all development in these zones had a cookie-cutter appearance that many people grew to hate. Developers, when challenged on aesthetic shortcomings, respond that the City’s code makes them do it that way. So the revised zoning code is intended to provide more options to developers, and to correct some of the worst aspects of the most recent development cycle’s townhomes. It is not, however, a libertarian light-regulation free-for-all. Instead of giving detailed prescriptive requirements for two types of development, now they give sets of rules for five types of development (the text is 251 pages!).
There are a few changes that give significantly more flexibility to development:
– A new type of development called a “rowhouse” is allowed to have zero property line setbacks.
– “Private open space” requirements (i.e. fenced backyards for each unit) have been relaxed to consider a variety of amenities.
– Within most urban village zoning areas parking minimums are eliminated.
– Density limitations (1 unit/1200 sq. ft.) change to floor-area-ratio (FAR) limitations.
The new rules are a step in the right direction for new urbanism (especially rules requiring direct pedestrian access to each unit from sidewalk), but the “free-market” impact is soley a matter a chance.