More Sprawl Commentary

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Kevin Drum chimed into the sprawl debate with a contribution that I think is a little confused:

I’m just saying that everyone needs to understand what they’re up against here. It’s not zoning per se that causes sprawl, it’s the fact that lots of registered voters actively want sprawl and have successfully demanded rules that keep density at bay. These kinds of land use regulations aren’t going away without the mother of all knock-down-drag-out fights first.

Ryan Avent observes part of what this gets wrong. It’s true that the problem of overly restrictive land-use rules is in large part a problem of voter-preference. But it’s not a problem of voter-preference for sprawl per se. It’s a general problem of homeowner eagerness to exclude outsiders. It’s politically difficult to build dense infill development in Washington, DC and that’s not because DC residents want to live in sprawling areas or because DC residents approve of sprawl as a phenomenon. It’s a mixture of selfishness, misunderstanding, and poor institutional design. As Ben Adler reminds us, surveys indicate that about a third of Americans would like to live in walkable urban areas but less than 10 percent of the country’s dwelling units are in areas that fit the bill. That’s why houses in walkable central cities (Manhattan) and walkable suburbs (near Metro in Arlington Country, VA for example) are so expensive.

Obviously we don’t have good near-term prospects for eliminating selfishness from human affairs. But based on informal discussions with people, reading of neighborhood blogs, and participation on listserves of various kinds it’s clear to me that there’s a fair amount of genuine misunderstanding about the impact of land use decisions. So hear on the blog we seek to improve understanding!

There are also real issues of institutional design. Incumbent residents of developed areas generally prefer that new development happen someplace else. But because everyone desires this, we all wind up worse off than we would be if we couldn’t all get our way. Federal transportation spending can and should be used as leverage to encourage more efficient (both economically and ecologically) use of land. Property taxes could be replaced with taxes on land. The lines of political authority over land use decisions could be rationalized so as to allow for some accountability—how many DC residents can name their ANC Single-Member District representative or even know what that means?