Do We Need More Government Planning to Create "Walkable" Living Environments?

In the American Prospect, Ben Adler has an interesting article [HT: TMPARG] arguing that we need more government planning and stricter zoning to create "walkable" living environments where people will be less dependent on cars for transportation. Adler is a supporter of the growing "New Urbanism" movement, which advocates using government planning to promote high-density living spaces.

Adler claims that there is an unmet demand for high-density urban living that would enable more people to rely less on cars and more on walking. But how do we know that such an unmet demand actually exists? After all, low-density living has advantages of its own, including greater living space and peace and quiet. Whether these advantages outweigh the benefits of walkability is a matter of personal preference on which different people have widely differing views.

Adler cites data suggesting that "in most metropolitan areas, academic research has found that roughly one in three Americans would prefer to live in a walkable urban environment." However, 58% of Americans already live in cities with populations of 200,000 or more, and about 25% live in the country's 200 largest cities, most of which have numerous high-density neighborhoods. If one third of Americans living in large metropolitan areas prefer walkability to space, it's quite likely that roughly that percentage of the population already lives in such neighborhoods. Moreover, it's not actually clear that the preference for walkability really is that widespread. Almost everyone would like to have walkability if it could be had at no cost. However, many people who express a preference for walkability might not be willing to choose it if doing so means reduced living space or having to put up with more noise and commotion.

Americans move around a great deal. The wide variety of communities available in most urban areas create a menu of options for people to choose from. As I have pointed out in the past, "voting with your feet" is often a better way for people to satisfy their preferences than centralized political decisionmaking (see,e.g., Part V of this article). Adler himself notes the wide contrast in density and walkability between different Washington, DC suburbs. He condemns low-density Leesburg, Virginia and praises high-density Gaithersburg, Maryland. But not everyone shares his particular preferences, and it is good that DC-area residents have a wide range of options. Local governments have strong incentives to compete for residents by offering attractive density policies, because doing so can increase their tax base. With dozens of different suburbs competing for residents in the DC metropolitan area, people with widely differing preferences can find communities that fit their needs.

To the extent that we do need to enable more people to live in densely populated urban areas, it's far from clear that government planning is the best way to achieve that goal. We can better achieve the same objective by cutting back on planning rather than increasing it. In many large cities, the cost of housing is artificially inflated by restrictive zoning laws, which tends to price out the poor and some middle class people. In the suburbs, as Adler points out, zoning policies sometimes artificially decrease density, for example by forbidding "mixed use" neighborhoods where commercial and residential uses are in close proximity to each other.

Finally, the growth of private planned communities (in which over 50 million Americans already live), offers an even wider range of choices than can be made available by competing local governments. Planned communities can provide either low or high-density environments for their residents without forcing the rest of the people in the locality to conform to the same model.

Like previous generations of planners, the new urbanists often ignore the diversity of human preferences. Some people do indeed like high-density "walkable" environments. Others prefer to have more space and more peace and quiet. Neither preference is inherently superior to the other. To paraphrase a popular liberal slogan, we should celebrate diversity, not seek to use urban planning to force everyone to live the same lifestyle whether they want to or not.

UPDATE: Adler does make one very dubious factual claim in his piece. He writes that:

The roads [in Leesburg] are already so wide that crossing any one of them is a life-threatening act — a game of waiting for the right moment to run out into the road when no cars are coming, then stopping midstream and dashing back as gigantic pick-up trucks and sport-utility vehicles emerge from around the bend at alarming rates. It's like playing Frogger with your body.

I live in Falls Church, Virginia, not far from Leesburg, and I have been to Leesburg a number of times. There are indeed many wide roads in the region. But crossing them is not "a life-threatening act": there are regularly spaced traffic lights with crosswalks. When the traffic has a red light and pedestrians a green one, the latter can cross safely - or at least at no greater risk than in the densely packed urban areas Adler prefers. After all, tightly packed traffic in urban centers creates its own hazards for pedestrians. Perhaps there are a few roads in Leesburg that are as difficult to cross as Adler claims. But such cases are hardly typical of the northern Virginia region or other low-density suburbs.