Welcome back to Sunday Reading. Here are a bunch of articles I’ve been collecting over the last month. I’ll start off here with housing, or more specifically zoning. Recently published research reveals the outrageous costs that zoning adds to housing in Australia. Eryk Bagshaw, “Homebuyers are paying a heavy price for zoning restrictions: Reserve Bank“, The Sydney Morning Herald.
Government zoning of residential areas has pushed the average property price up by 40 per cent in Sydney and Melbourne, fueling inequality and locking out new homeowners from the property market, the Reserve Bank has found.
Up to 70 per cent of a house’s value was made up by the land zoned for residential purposes in Sydney and Melbourne, according to the report by economists Ross Kendall and Peter Tulip.
Like parking regulation (mandatory minimums), zoning as we know it today will be unrecognisable in 10 years. As cities grow and re-centralise, zoning remains the key barrier to the natural, iterative scaling of cities. Zoning reform comes in different forms. In Minneapolis, Minnesota there is a proposal to simply allow four-plexes in single family zones. This broadscale approach can also be seen in California where granny units are allowed by right. There are also trends where local planning control is taken away from local governments and managed at a higher level as is proposed in the UK.
The most ambitious zoning reform is happening in California where San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener is proposing a statewide re-zoning of most properties close to transit services. Here are some articles…
“We can have all the electric vehicles and solar panels in the world, but we won’t meet our climate goals without making it easier for people to live near where they work, and live near transit and drive less.”
— Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) March 16, 2018
Lorie Leilani Shelley, “A bid to solve Califonia’s housing crisis could redraw how cities grow“, Wired.
Housing costs are crushing American cities, perhaps nowhere as severely as in California. It’s catastrophic—homes are priced 2.5 times the median in other places; rents are sky high; the population is increasing (but construction of places to live for them is not); poor people are getting pushed out; homelessness is severe, and on the rise.
Wiener says his fix can, over time, address all that without worsening the state’s drumbeat of evictions. And it’ll do even more: “If you want to limit carbon and reduce congestion on freeways, the way you do that is by building a lot more housing near public transportation,” he says. “You get less driving, less carbon emissions, less sprawl so you can protect open spaces and farmland, and healthier families.”
It might even work.
Matthew Yglesias , “The myth of ‘forcing people out of their cars’ It’s about more options, not fewer“, Vox.
It’s important to be clear about this because land use is an important issue in America. It’s only going to become more important as steadily falling unemployment raises the salience of supply-side issues in the American economy. Personal liberty and the concept of freedom are, rightly, important to Americans and to American political culture. And in the case of proposals for high-density zoning, nobody is trying to force anyone to do anything.
In particular, SB 827 would change two important things about transit-adjacent land use:
- Cities and towns would have to allow taller buildings that fit more units on a given piece of land if developers and landowners want to build them.
- Cities and towns would not be allowed to require the construction of off-street parking spaces to accompany the construction of new dwellings.
On the subject of road safety, here is an example about how politics, not technology is the key driver of road safety. For decades proven safety devices have been available for adoption, including methods to slow cars. Charlie Lawrence Jones, “A case for making speed limiters in cars mandatory“, CityMetric.
But there is a technical solution: devices that cars can be fitted with, to prevent them from breaking speed limits. Called ‘limiters’ or ‘governors’ (perhaps appealing to the East End gangster demographic), these cap the top speed of a vehicle by restricting the fuel supply to the engine.
Some larger vehicles already have mandatory limiters built in, preventing any naughtiness with the speed restrictions. If you see any vehicle with more than eight passenger seats, or any goods vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes, they will have a top speed of 70mph. These limiters were brought in to reduce accidents. So why not cars, too?
If past history is any indication, the introduction of new transport technology like AV’s will be supported by industry boosters and a status quo political and technocratic culture. This history is described in Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic. If you are interested in transport planning, public health, vehicle technology, or urban history Fighting Traffic is a MUST READ. I wrote a review here.
In a nutshell Fighting Traffic tells the story of how traditional streets where changed from a place of social exchange, slow movement, and even children playing to become dominated by car movement. The fascinating part of the story was that this transformation did not happen without a concerted effort by the automobile industry. When first introduced to American cities, cars and their drivers were considered pariahs and held accountable for their actions. Local newspapers articles, cartoons and editorials depicted the automobile as a purveyor of death which included macabre imagery such as gravestones, weaping mothers, and the grim reaper. This was easy to understand since even as early as 1930 as many as 16,000 people were killed in automobile accidents every year, mostly pedestrians.
This is a neat look at the densest areas of Europe. Most square kilometres have around 20,000 people. Alasdair Rae , “Europe’s most densely populated square kilometres – mapped“. The Guardian.
And here’s another one on housing/zoning by Richard Florida: “Density’s Next Frontier: The Suburbs“, CityLab.
The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl.
While urban densification can house some people—mainly affluent and educated ones—the bulk of population and housing growth is shifted farther and farther out to the exurban fringe. That leads to more traffic and longer commutes, and the social and environmental consequences that flow from them, as this old suburban-growth model is stretched beyond its limits.
But if America’s dormant suburbs are a big part of its housing and growth problem, they can also be part of the solution. Relaxing zoning rules in these neighborhoods would spread population growth more equitably and sustainably across a metro, relieving the pressure of rising housing prices and gentrification around the urban core, and unsustainable growth at the periphery.
The feature image is of the Embarcadero Freeway just before it was finally pulled down in 1990 (it was badly damaged an earthquake in 1989). The source of the photos is David Gardner Photography.