Over the last 50 or 60 years, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of other countries have pursued a “roads first” approach to transport policy. There have been significant public investments in (generally un-tolled) roads, and relatively few investments in competing transport modes.
It’s hard to justify this approach based on preexisting travel patterns. Take Auckland as an example. According to Paul Mees [Transport for Suburbia, p. 21], in 1954 Auckland’s public transport network “accounted for 58 per cent of trips by motorized modes, private transport only 42 per cent. When walking and cycling, which were not surveyed, are taken into account, it is likely that fewer than a third of daily trips were by car.”
However, from this date onward roads – not public transport, and certainly not walking or cycling – have dominated transport spending. Spending on a new system of motorways and arterial roads was considerably higher than spending on other modes that carried more journeys. In other words, public spending to enable car travel did not respond to existing demand – it was intended to shape future demand. (And in doing so, change the shape of the city.)
Another potential justification for disproportionate spending on roads is that it’s just what people wanted. Cars were invented and then cheaply mass produced, people wanted to use them to travel everywhere, so transport agencies had to build more roads.
There is some truth to this. Cars are very convenient for many journeys. But it can also be convenient and cost-effective not to own a car. PT tends to be cheaper than driving to places where you have to pay for parking, and cycling is often quicker than driving, and more enjoyable if there are enough safe bike lanes.
- Make it more difficult for people to live near where they work, by zoning different areas exclusively for different uses
- Discourage people from living at medium or high density by limiting building heights and setting minimum lot sizes for dwellings
- Subsidise the ownership and use of cars by requiring all new buildings to have a significant amount of on-site parking.
But what, then, should we make of Houston, which lacks a zoning code but nonetheless has ended up with lots of driving, low public transport ridership, and a low-density urban footprint? Is Houston evidence that in the absence of planning regulations that distort people’s location choices, people will choose to live at a distance and drive to get around?
In a word: no.
It turns out that Houston is not actually as unregulated as people make it out to be. While the city lacks a comprehensive zoning code that rigorously separates different uses, several other planning regulations (and similar measures) have distorted its urban form and transport choices. A 2005 article by law professor Michael Lewyn identifies four important ways in which planning has influenced transport outcomes in Houston:
- Houston enforces a byzantine and quite restrictive set of minimum parking requirements (MPRs). As I discussed last year, these include a parking requirement for bars that defies all concepts of prudent regulation. These requirements make parking cheap, and walking to the shops hard.
- While Houston doesn’t formally limit building height, it does establish a minimum lot size of 5000 sq ft (or around 460m2) throughout most of the city. This discourages PT, walking and cycling by increasing the distance between dwellings and discouraging space-efficient typologies like terraced houses and small apartment buildings.
- Houston requires streets to be wide, blocks to be long, and buildings to be set back a considerable distance from arterial roads. All of these policies make it dangerous and unpleasant to walk there.
- Lastly, new developments in Houston make extensive use of private covenants that restrict uses and building designs. These agreements often simulate zoning, with the result that Houston has similar levels of racial, income, and housing segregation to (zoned) Dallas. Houston has chosen to imbue private covenants with the force of public authority – the city will pay to enforce them even if the people subject to the covenant would rather not.
As a result of these policies, Houstonians cannot make free choices about where to live, where to work, and how to get around. Their decisions are strongly influenced by a suite of planning regulations that, as in many other cities, conspires against density and against non-car travel. Houston’s heavy use of the car is not a natural outcome, but one that has been engineered by policy.
Seen from this perspective, “roads first” transport policies seem less like an exercise in meeting demands, and more of a component of a large social engineering programme.
The results are not necessarily stellar. While the city is known for low house prices, Todd Litman points out that Houston is relatively unaffordable for its residents, compared with other large US cities, once transport expenditures are factored in:
Furthermore, Houston’s commuters experience more hours of delay in traffic than most other US cities. New York, on the other hand, looks pretty good. Although it is large and congested, many commuters choose to opt out and take the subway instead. In Houston, they lack that choice:
What do you think would happen if we tried to facilitate choice instead?