Friday, March 17, 2006

A Libertarian Smart Growth Agenda

A Planetizen op-ed arguing there is common ground between Smart Growth advocates and Libertarians. It involves opposition to the following four items:

  1. Single-use zoning (check for Houston)
  2. Street design regulations that require wide streets

  3. Highway spending by government that sends people to the suburbs

  4. Mandatory parking requirements for developers

"Municipal governments often require owners of apartments and commercial buildings to provide renters, employees, and visitors with huge amounts of parking. For example, the city of Houston requires apartment buildings to require 1.25 parking spaces for each studio apartment -- even though 17 percent of Houston’s rental households do not own a single car!"

I happen to think the parking requirements are basically being realistic for our city and prevent the flooding of neighborhood streets with parked cars. Every apartment complex I know of pretty much fills its parking at night, despite his statistics. 17% may not have a car, but I'm betting 50%+ have 2 or more cars to make up the difference. The parking requirements are there for a good reason: to prevent free-riding of developers off of nearby parking provided by others. I do believe developers can request a variance if they have a good reason to believe they don't need that much parking, but most developers seem pretty comfortable with it as far as I can tell.

Overall, while agree with the anti-zoning sentiment, and I like to think of myself as a "practical libertarian", I think his other three items are off-base from a practical perspective. Wide streets not only facilitate speed, capacity, and on-street parking, but safety, esp. when it comes to police, fire, and ambulance response times, and big fire trucks in particular. Maybe they could be narrower in some neighborhoods than they are today, but the ten-foot option he mentions seems crazy to me.

Government builds highways because voters demand them. That's the nature of democracy. That said, in Texas we seem to be shifting rapidly to toll freeways (because voters also don't want to raise taxes to pay for them), which should alleviate his taxpayer objection. And I stick by my usual opinion that freeways may support residents moving to the suburbs, but a lack of freeways means residents and their jobs move to the suburbs. People want newer, bigger, more affordable homes, and employers will follow where they go to get them.

17 Comments:

At 8:27 AM, March 17, 2006, Blogger Owen said...

Bravo, Tory. That's exactly what I thought when I read the article when Out of Control linked to it.

On another note, though -- about narrowing streets -- I fail to see how that is libertarian. Sure, it takes less land for the government, but the amount is pretty darn negligible. And if you could somehow create a genuine market for roads (which some more radical libertarians recommend) you would NOT find that people demand narrow streets.

So in the end, narrow streets would really be a very UN-libertarian thing. It would be a government monopoly refusing to bend to public demand. I think libertarians generally agree that if a government monopoly has to exist, it shouldn't act as if demand is irrelevant.

On the other hand, while I'm not libertarian, and I do support the parking requirement, I'll be the devil's advocate and throw this argument out at you: If you abolish the parking requirement for apartment complexes, homeowners will have to start internalizing their parking costs. Homes without off-street parking will put in a drive-way (in the Garden District in New Orleans, where I live, a large percentage of homes have done this despite high-density). Moreover, some people will simply move towards public transit. It would be painful in the short-term, because the expectations of local residents would be interrupted, but these expectations of unlimited street parking were never legitimate anyway. We'd be better off if everyone paid for their own parking. It isn't the free-riding of developers that's the problem -- it's the free-riding of homeowners presented as a right.

 
At 8:58 AM, March 17, 2006, Blogger Justus said...

Parking is a must. Then again, the devil's advocate argument is interesting. I think that it could work but more as a way to help discourage families from buying a SECOND car. If you're going to live in Houston, your household (if it has any money at all) will have to have one car. It would almost be irresponsible not to.

The idea of killing single use zoning is absolutely crucial. The fact houston doesn't have it is one reason it is fairly vibrant as a cityscape.

I'm not sure how Libertarians think about it, but smaller streets do make a city a lot more pedestrian [smart growth] friendly -- at the very least its more interesting to walk. However, I think that smaller streets makes much more sense when there is a reliable city grid, which Houston does NOT have, with its constantly rotating grids from each different development. However, the requirements as they are often written up for city streets are almost insane, I remember reading one document where basically this basic residential street had to have enough room for parking on both sides, two way traffic and a large truck had to be able to fit even if there was an accident that blocked 1.5 lanes.

 
At 9:50 AM, March 17, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm all for variances where appropriate for parking requirements, but I would hesitate to drop the requirement entirely. I've been in cities where street parking is crapshoot, and it totally sucks for quality of life. You never want to go anywhere, because there might not be parking when you get there, and you're giving up your nice space near your home that certainly won't be there when you get back. You might use transit, but that tends to be a crapshoot on timing too.

I *love* not having to worry about that in Houston. If I feel like hopping to Amy's Ice Cream on a random evening, I do it with no parking worries, and that makes for a nice quality of life (if not a low calorie one).

I went to Midtown for dinner last night, and got jacked for $6 to park at a CVS. I understand the free market, but it still sucked, and reminded me why I support New Urbanist neighborhoods for those who want them, but they don't hold a lot of appeal for me personally.

One thing he fails to note is that transit is taxpayer subsidized too. Maybe that's the tradeoff: if you have a transit-based city, you subsidize transit; if you have a car-based city, you subsidize parking with the mandatory parking requirements. One way or the other, the private market breaks down and something's gonna get subsidized.

 
At 11:26 AM, March 17, 2006, Blogger Owen said...

One thing he fails to note is that transit is taxpayer subsidized too.

He also fails to note that highways are paid for by largely by gasoline taxes, so you have a virtual use-tax on highways. The same isn't true for transit, which is generally subsidized by sales taxes via people who don't use transit to begin with. Conversely, if you use gas, you're almost certainly using highways. Moreover, highways are more cost-effective at transporting people. All around, highways should be far less offensive to libertarians than transit.

 
At 12:28 PM, March 17, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

Parking has economic value. By hiding that from the consumer of parking (for example, by requiring it to be included in rent or the purchase price of a condo) you're eliminating the consumer's ability to make choices about spending his or her money, and eliminating incentives for making smart choices.

When I lived in Midtown, my apartment building had a parking garage next to it. It was half empty all the time. It's a low-value use of prime real estate, and created a "dead block" where nothing more useful (like more housing, retail, etc.) could ever exist.

Requiring parking also makes housing more expensive - even people who don't want the extra parking have to pay for it.

I spent nearly 20 years living in those parking-hell neighborhoods (in DC and Boston) and parking on the street. Yep, it's a pain. But why should someone give me free parking when the market value of a spot is $250/month? If I wanted, I could have economized in other areas, and paid for it. (I did one winter in Boston to avoid the hell of digging the car out of the snow.)

You'll note that those parking-hell neighborhoods are also home to expensive real estate that's in high demand, so I don't think it's ruining quality of life that much. People who really need that parking and prefer not to pay downtown prices choose other places to live.

Visiting is not the same. When you live there, you get used to it. Going out of Friday night when I lived in Boston's South End? I walked, took the T, or took a cab. On Sunday afternoon? I might drive, because I knew parking would be OK when I got home. It's all about making smart choices. It's only a problem when there are no options.

And Houston is so far from having any neighborhood where parking is really a challenge that I think it's a non-issue for us. (For reference, I wouldn't call having to walk five blocks from the car to your destination a "challenge."

 
At 12:55 PM, March 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

owen said
"On another note, though -- about narrowing streets -- I fail to see how that is libertarian."

Not requiring developers to build roadways to a certain width would be more liberterian. Let developers decide how much the wider roads cost them (extra land that cant be developed,more concrete and rebar), and how much value they add(fire trucks getting there faster, easier on street parking, faster access in and out of neighborhood)then let them make the decision.

tory said
"You never want to go anywhere, because there might not be parking when you get there,"

if that is true then the establishments will either build parking on their own,if they are allowed to, or lower there prices so people will be willing to take the crapshoot.

 
At 11:51 AM, March 18, 2006, Anonymous Tom Bazan said...

As a commercial appraiser, I think that when you do not accommodate off-street parking, which is a cost of doing business, you actually doom the project in the long run. Lack of safe convenient parking is always a concern for any business, and multi-family housing is a business that must survive regardless of the level of government meddling.

 
At 11:55 AM, March 18, 2006, Anonymous Tom Bazan said...

Owen,

Further, the gasoline taxes are being plundered by the bureaucrats, diverting these precious resources away from maintaining the road system, and squandering it on wasteful Urban Rail.

 
At 1:55 PM, March 18, 2006, Anonymous ArIck said...

"Wide streets not only facilitate speed, capacity, and on-street parking, but safety..."

Facilitating speed is a mixed bag, though. Narrow streets also tend to be safer as they cause people to slow down. Think about it - what's our most dangerous intersection? Westheimer & SH 6 - the intersection of two overly-wide roads.

 
At 8:11 PM, March 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

tom bazan said

"As a commercial appraiser, I think that when you do not accommodate off-street parking, which is a cost of doing business, you actually doom the project in the long run. Lack of safe convenient parking is always a concern for any business, and multi-family housing is a business that must survive regardless of the level of government meddling."

then why bother requiring it. If you are right, any sensible business man will build it.

 
At 8:43 PM, March 18, 2006, Anonymous nmainguy said...

Tom Bazan said...
Further, the gasoline taxes are being plundered by the bureaucrats, diverting these precious resources away from maintaining the road system, and squandering it on wasteful Urban Rail.

Tom just can't seem to get that rail monkey off his back in regards to diverting "precious resources".
If only he were as concerned with his advantage as someone with Minority, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (M/DBE) by the COH sucking a portion of my precious resources out of my pocket.

 
At 8:59 PM, March 19, 2006, Anonymous Brian S. said...

John, excellent points.

Taking the economic value a bit further. Someone needs to own the street parking. Flexible market prices for parking can dictate that there will always be parking if someone is willing to pay the price.

I think parking space development needs to think more in a Just-in-time philosophy where modular increases can be added to existing parking if market demand is high enough. More dense developments also needs to think about design where the parking structure can be eliminated in the future if they believe that market demand may value that property for a nonparking use in the future.

The city should also be flexible enough to allow parking space "banking" at a nearby parking garage that could achieve much higher effeciency on a per sq. ft. basis.

Also, I showed extensive evidence in a previous post that gas taxes do not pay for road construction. City and county road expenditures are completely unsubsidized by gas taxes.

 
At 9:03 PM, March 19, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> City and county road expenditures are completely unsubsidized by gas taxes.

It can be argued that every establishment must be connected to the basic street grid for construction, freight and mail deliveries, ambulance, police, and fire - therefore, building the cost of that basic grid into the property taxes is appropriate, even if you never drive.

 
At 9:29 AM, March 20, 2006, Blogger Owen said...

brian s.,

Are you seriously arguing that everyone doesn't need streets? That's usually not even an issue.

 
At 11:17 AM, March 20, 2006, Anonymous Tom Bazan said...

Tory Gattis said...
> City and county road expenditures are completely unsubsidized by gas taxes.

-----------
There are a few of the COH and METRO (especially METRO) street improvement projects that did receive a portion of the project costs from federal funds, and the source of those funds were essentially from the gasoline taxes. That is why the METRO projects were delayed in FY2005, as the Congress failed to pass the funding bill in time to lett the projects in FY2005.

 
At 10:21 PM, March 20, 2006, Anonymous Brian S. said...

The devil's in the details. City and county projects may use state and federal projects and funding. However, cities and counties do not receive gas tax revenue and thus "City and county road expenditures are completely unsubsidized by gas taxes." It would be correct to say that city and county road projects are sometimes subsidized by gas taxes per Tom Bazan's comment.

Owen et al, sorry if I confused anyone. I agree with Tory that controlled access road arteries need to exist, I just don't think that they should be free in support of Libertarian position #3 in orig post. I haven't figured out a free market solution for local roads, so taxes have to build and maintain them.

In support of libertarian position #4 (parking regulation provisions), I think parking space banking near the establishment would help. I do think Tory has a point about the free rider problem of not having parking space regulations.

 
At 8:34 AM, March 21, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks. I thought about it a little more, and here's where the free market and free-rider problem breaks down: I as a developer want to provide plenty of free parking to my customers, but without min parking requirements, businesses will set up around me to take advantage of the parking I provide (the free-riders). Now I have to do those really annoying enforcements of trying to make sure parkers are really shopping at my establishments. That adds expense, overhead, and hassles that wouldn't have to be there if I knew adjacent businesses also had to provide their own parking.

That said, I'm all for cooperative parking-sharing/banking agreements, and I'm sure the city will allow reasonable variances when businesses want to do that. I'm actually surprised more apartment complexes don't share a parking garage with office towers, given the clear nighttime vs. daytime differences in their needs and how much money it could save each of them.

 

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