Freedom, Rail, and Zoning

Ryan Avent wonders why libertarians hate trains. What I wonder is this. Here’s Tyler Cowen explaining why he doesn’t take the Metro:

It’s not about population density per se. It’s about how many independent, hard-to-connect nodes the system has and that is why high-speed rail on the whole works better in Europe or Japan than in many other locales. To give an example from a slightly different realm, I live right near the Metro in a high-density suburban area. Yet I don’t take the Metro to my Arlington office, which is about two minutes from a Metro stop. I’d rather do the 37-minute drive. Why? Because I stop at the supermarket and the public library on my way home at least half of the time or maybe I stop to eat at Thai Thai. If those conveniences were right next to my house I’d consider the Metro but they’re not.

That seems about right to me. But libertarians often act as if they think that this outcome is the result of consumer choice or a free market process. But ask yourself, why is it that there are no conveniences right next to Cowen’s house? Well, I don’t know exactly where he lives, but I believe it’s in Fairfax County which is governed by this exciting zoning ordinance. Fairfax County, in its infinite wisdom, allows for the creation of housing at various different levels of density in different areas. They’re differentiated by the number of permitted dwellings per acre—one, two, three, four, eight, twelve, sixteen, twenty, or thirty per acre. Even within the thirty per acre area, buildings cannot be over “150 feet, subject to increase as may be permitted by the Board in accordance with the provisions of Sect. 9-607” and there’s a requirement that “40% of the gross area shall be open space.” We also need to make sure to “Refer to Article 11 for off-street parking, loading and private street requirements.”

All multiple-family residential structures in the county must, per Article 11, provide “One and six-tenths (1.6) spaces per unit.” A detached single-family home needs “Two (2) spaces per unit for lots with frontage on a public street and three (3) spaces per unit for lots with frontage on a private street, provided that only one (1) such space must have convenient access to a street.” A bowling alley needs “Four (4) spaces per alley, plus one (1) space per employee, plus such additional
spaces as may be required herein for affiliated uses such as eating establishments” with the eating establishment rule being “One (1) space per four (4) seats plus one (1) space per two (2) employees where seating is at tables” and with different rules for counter service.

One could go on. But I don’t really understand why it is that this kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother libertarians very much. Bryan Caplan specifically cites America’s large houses and ample parking spaces as the benefits of our free market approach when they are, in fact, the product of systematic regulatory mandates. I think this illustrates the basic tribalism of a lot of our politics. If Fairfax County were considering some kind of hippie-inspired stringent rent control law, we’d be hearing no end of it from blogging George Mason University professors. But given a set of extremely severe land use regulations that happen to antagonize environmentalist and left-wing Europhilic bicycle commuters, suddenly mandatory minimum parking requirements become the essence of capitalism.