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Zoning Without Zoning

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  • Robert J. Matter
    http://www.planetizen.com/oped/item.php?id=112 Zoning Without Zoning Although Houston is the only major American city with no formal zoning code, the city s
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 24, 2003
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      http://www.planetizen.com/oped/item.php?id=112

      Zoning Without Zoning

      Although Houston is the only major American city with no
      formal zoning code, the city's land use regulations have
      historically been nearly as meddlesome, as pro-sprawl, and as
      anti-pedestrian as zoning in other American cities -- and have
      yielded similar results.

      By Michael Lewyn
      Nov 24, 2003

      Houston, Texas is the only large American city with no formal
      zoning code -- yet Houston has all the sprawl and associated ills
      of other Sunbelt cities. Houston is less dense than most big cities,
      and Houstonians drive more than in most big cities. Does it then
      follow that sprawl is the result of consumer choice rather than of
      government meddling?

      Not necessarily -- because what other cities achieve through zoning, Houston
      achieves through several land use regulations.

      Like other cities' zoning codes, Houston's municipal code creates auto
      dependency by artificially spreading out the population. Until 1999, the city
      required all single-family houses to gobble up 5,000 square feet of land.
      Although this limit is less rigid than minimum lot sizes in most suburbs, the city's
      statute nevertheless insures that many residents will be unable to live within
      walking distance of a bus stop, which in turn means that those residents will be
      completely dependent on their cars. In 1999, the City Council partially
      deregulated density in neighborhoods closer to downtown. But since 98% of the
      city's housing was built before 1999, this change in the law is of little importance.

      Houston's parking regulations also create automobile dependency by
      encouraging driving and discouraging walking. Under Houston's city code,
      virtually every structure in Houston must supply plenty of parking. For example,
      apartment buildings must have even more parking spaces than residents;
      landlords must supply 1.25 parking spaces for each efficiency apartment and
      1.33 parking spaces for every bedroom. Offices, supermarkets, and other
      businesses are subject to similar restrictions. Such parking regulations discourage
      walking by forcing pedestrians to navigate through massive parking lots (and to
      dodge the vehicles driving them) to reach shops or jobs. And where walking is
      uncomfortable, most people will drive. In addition, minimum parking
      requirements, by taking land for parking that could have been used for housing
      or businesses, also reduce density, thus making the city less compact and more
      auto-dependent.

      Houston's street design rules also make life more difficult for pedestrians. The
      city code requires most major streets to have a 100 foot right-of-way and
      residential streets must have a 50-60 foot right-of-way. Thus, Houston's streets
      can be up to 100 feet wide. By contrast, most modern streets are 32-36 feet
      wide, and pre-World War II streets are usually 28-30 feet wide. Such wide
      streets are difficult for pedestrians to cross because a wider roadway takes
      longer to cross, thus increasing the amount of time a pedestrian is exposed to
      traffic. And because wider roadways are designed for faster speeds, such roads
      are more dangerous for pedestrians.

      Houston's block designs are equally unhelpful to pedestrians. The city code
      mandates that intersections on major streets be 600 feet apart. By contrast, a
      recent Environmental Protection Agency report recommends that for "a high
      degree of walkability, block lengths of 300 feet...are desirable." Houston's long,
      intersection-free blocks deter walking because a block with few intersections
      gives pedestrians few places to cross the street and few means of reaching a
      destination on a side street.

      Finally, government at all levels has accelerated sprawl by building more roads
      to the urban fringe in Houston than in other cities. For example, Chicago has
      more than twice as many residents as Houston, yet has only 10% more freeway
      miles. Big Brother's reckless road building has encouraged development to shift
      to newer areas with minimal bus service -- but apparently has done little to
      reduce traffic congestion. According to the Texas Transportation Institute,
      Houstonians lost 36 hours per person in 1999 to traffic congestion, more than all
      but three other American cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas).

      In sum, Houston's land use regulations have historically been nearly as
      meddlesome, as pro-sprawl, and as anti-pedestrian as zoning in other American
      cities -- and have yielded similar results. The good news is that Houston is
      beginning to change its ways: minimum lot size requirements were loosened in
      1999, and widened roads are actually beginning to become controversial. But it
      may take decades of real deregulation to undo the damage caused in the late
      20th century.

      Michael Lewyn teaches at Rutgers School of Law-Camden at the State
      University of New Jersey.

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