Planning and Density: Who’s Forcing Them?

Today we’re talking development and density. Greater Greater Washington has a post about zoning policies and traffic congestion in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a debate over growth policy that would encourage in-fill development near existing transit is getting heated.

David Alpert’s post asks why planning for "low-traffic growth" is so often seen as coercive, whereas policies that encourage sprawl and car dependency are not:

18464893_57a2ebdbce.jpgPhoto by Dean Terry.

Somehow…the way elected officials, reporters, and
others discuss development has become turned around. Instead of
worrying about policies that force people to live far away, they worry
that accommodating more people near their jobs will worsen congestion.
And when anyone dares to suggest that that ought not be the overriding
public policy consideration, they’re accused of trying to "force people
out of their cars."

If an airline sells more seats on a flight so you can’t get an empty
seat next to you, should we ban that because it’ll "force people out of
their extra elbow room"? When stores have special Thanksgiving sales
that bring a lot of people to the store, do we decide to ban them
because it would "force people out of the aisles"? Do we outlaw special
events like inaugurations because the extra people drinking will "force
people out of their bars?"

Where did we get the idea that people in a neighborhood have
an inalienable right not to share their roads with anyone new, but new
people don’t have a right to live where they want to? Well, we got that
idea because the existing residents vote and the new ones don’t. But
the whole idea is fallacious. The new residents are going to clog up
the roads just the same. Instead of driving from a house near Rockville
to a job in Bethesda, they’ll drive from a house in Clarksburg to a job
in Bethesda, which is worse. Plus, they really have no choice but to
drive, unlike the person living in infill development.

Ryan Avent and Matthew Yglesias address similar issues as they’re playing out in Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Better news from the D.C. area comes from The WashCycle, which has a sneak preview of the city’s forthcoming Bikestation.

  • cfh

    I have a suggestion as to one major issue that drives sprawl and auto dependence: land cost to developers.

    What has happened over and over again is the following:

    1) Developers buy up rights to (relatively) cheap agricultural land outside of city boundaries.

    2) Through their connections to local governments, they get the outlying area annexed to cities and then transportation arteries (rail in the past, roads more recently) built to make the outlying areas accessible.

    3) This greatly increases the value of the land, which allows money to be borrowed to fund development and construction.

    4) Residences and business properties are built and sold, making huge profits for the developers.

    The process then repeats somewhere else even farther out.

    For infill development near existing transit corridors, the land prices are already increased to the level prevailing in the urban core. The opportunity to profit from this development sequence is missing. Also, infill parcels often incur extra expenses to prepare them for re-use. So developers will eschew infill projects near existing transit if they are allowed to build farther out.

    See the book “The Lost City” by Alan Ehrenhalt for an account of this process in the Chicago area years ago.

    I do not suggest that this is the only objection to infill development, but it clearly has been a factor over time.

    I don’t know of an answer to this other than developing political support for infill development at local government level. This is not easy as in many cases these politicians are very closely connected to real estate development.

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