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Review of Zoned Out (Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation...)


Review of Zoned Out (Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation...)

The cover of Zoned Out by Jonathan Levine.

Christopher MacKechnie

Review of Zoned Out (Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land Use)

Zoned Out (Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land- Use) , Resources for the Future (Washington, D.C.): 2006 is a book with a compelling thesis: there is a significant market in the United States for higher density development but the market is thwarted by restrictive land-use regulation. While not directly affecting transit like the ADA act , zoning laws nonetheless have a large impact on transit by preventing the kind of environments that can support transit by developing.

Often stated and revealed preference surveys are used to determine what kind of housing particular regions should build in the next thirty years. In fact, results of a stated preference theory were used as evidence that California cities need to zone more higher density housing during the time frame of the long range planning process. Randall O'Toole, noted anti-transit consultant, responded to this research by noting that California home purchasers in the early years of the twenty-first century continued to prefer single family homes by a large margin. Of course, both stated and revealed preference surveys have problems. For stated preference surveys, respondents may choose answers that reflect fantasy rather than reality or answers that they believe will please the survey giver. For revealed preference surveys, choices made assume that all possible preferences are available. Levine, in a pioneering study of housing preferences in Atlanta and Boston, combined both stated and revealed preferences by asking homeowners what kind of environment they would prefer to live in and compared the preference with the kind of environment they actually lived in. Levine classified all housing units in the Atlanta and Boston metropolitan area into one of five different categories, depending on the density of the neighborhood, with A = Central City / Downtown and E = Exurb. While 80% of all Boston residents with the strongest transit/pedestrian preferences (like green passengers ) lived in the three most dense neighborhood categories, only 48% of all Atlanta residents with the strongest transit/pedestrian preferences lived in the three most dense neighborhood categories. The difference is perhaps explained by the fact that 54.5% of Boston households are in the three most dense neighborhood categories while only 11.8% of Atlanta households are in the three most dense neighborhood categories. Clearly, there is a market for pedestrian and transit friendly development in Atlanta that is not being met.

It is obvious that the market is not being met due to very restrictive zoning regulations, and Levine spends a significant amount of the book explaining how this came to pass. There are two paradigms under which to view planning. In one, zoning is a valid exercise of the state police power assigned to local municipalities under legislation. In the other, zoning can be viewed as a collective exercise of property rights by local landowners. It is the latter view that helps to explain the pervasive nature of low density zoning, as under it local landowners work together to maintain their neighborhoods and high property values by keeping out higher density construction. Interestingly, although many conservatives are continuously aghast at the thought of any government intervention in a market; constantly deriding such intervention as "socialist", they are strangely quiet at arguably the biggest government market intervention of all - zoning.

According to Levine, the best policy response that would allow the market to better serve the segments of the community that desire higher density housing would be to insert greater state and regional level control of land use zoning. Currently, Oregon is the only state with significant control over local land use, and as a result the amount of multiple-dwelling units as a percentage of all units is greater in Oregon than it is in other states. In addition, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision mandating that all municipalities allow zoning for all kinds of housing units has resulted in more higher density housing than would be expected, although not necessarily affordable or in the best locations. It is important to note that allowing higher density housing would not necessarily result in higher density housing, as if higher density housing would not be profitable then it would of course not be built. In the absence of any formal policy change, it would be expected that the slowly increasing amount of so-called "smart growth" housing will eventually result in greater acceptance of increased density, as increased realization that well-planned density is not necessarily bad will likely reduce opposition to its construction.

Interestingly, the construction of light rail lines and associated transit-oriented development seems to be a way of getting higher density residential communities built in areas that would traditionally be resistant to such change. As a policy prescription for inadequate high density zoning, the construction of rail lines is a very expensive solution but in some situations has proven effective at resolving the zoning problem.

Overall, Levine's book is an excellent and well-researched examination of an oddly overlooked problem - that current zoning levels, which are often considered to be the default, natural state of existence, are causing a market failure in the housing industry.

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