Seattle Land-Use Regulation Liberalization Redux

Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism responds to my response to his question, asking if I thought Seattle’s proposed land-use liberalization bill was a positive development. I admitted that it was, but offered some major caveats with respect to Seattle’s land-use regime: namely, that the bill doesn’t address Seattle’s major land-use problems.

Smith is opposed to urban growth boundaries, such as the one in King County, Washington, yet doesn’t seem to believe they’re all that harmful — at least when compared to density restrictions. I respectfully disagree, but Smith claims I offer no evidence to support my claim that sprawl restrictions are harmful. I did, however, point to a Wendell Cox piece that highlights University of Washington economist Theo Eicher’s research on Seattle land-use regulations and home prices, which found that these distortions — particularly growth management plans — added $203,000 to the median price of a Seattle house. If Smith wants to argue that minimum parking requirements distort real estate markets more than onerous growth management schemes, he is welcome to do so. He just shouldn’t expect to find a lot of empirical support for such a claim.

But what really irks Smith is my so-called “war on drivers” rhetoric, where I argue that measures that seek to make driving more difficult, such as traffic calming and “transit-oriented development,” disproportionately harm the working poor. He speaks favorably of traffic calming as a means to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Of course, studies have found that due to increased congestion and slower EMS response times, traffic calming can kill far more people than it saves. One method of traffic calming — opening one-way streets to bidirectional traffic — is actually associated with more car-pedestrian collisions. And there’s the impact on goods delivery, where walking, cycling, and transit play a less-than-trivial role.

He then brings up the health impact of less driving. So, ignoring the fact that many families — particularly those with children — cannot reasonably substitute driving for transit, walking, or cycling, I’d be interested to know how transit, etc. significantly benefits health. There would appear to be two health impact scenarios to consider: (1) less driving improves air quality, which in turn benefits cardiovascular health, and (2) less driving equals more walking/cycling, which in turn reduces obesity and its myriad associated health problems. On the first one, it would seem that adjusting fuel economy standards (not that I’m endorsing CAFE) and reducing congestion would be more sensible means to achieve this goal than throwing automobility under the bus. On the second, there is next to no evidence supporting this contention. Obesity tends to be correlated with poverty, not urban walkability or “livability.”

To his final point, that I somehow implicitly endorsed the status quo financing mechanisms of local roads (which is primarily through general revenue funds), I can only say while I am strongly in favor of user fees for these thoroughfares just like I am for highways, I don’t see how redirecting public funds to bolster less efficient modes of transportation is a good thing.

Image credit: jhf’s flickr photostream.