Friday, July 21, 2006
Why is auto traffic worse in many new suburbs than in old cities? One reason is the way that streets and roads are built. In the old days, cities were built on a grid, which allows for a large variety of options for getting from one spot to another. As recently as the 1920s, the grid typically was continued out to the new suburbs. In recent decades, however, private development has moved out far more quickly than governments have built new streets and highways. Instead of an expansion of the grid, new subdivision developments in the exurbs are typically built as isolated pods, full of cul-de-sacs, attached to the rest of the world only by one or two old roads, once rural but now clogged with ALL the traffic to and from the development. There's often only one way to get from the self-contained new Swaying Oak Estates community to the rest of the planet. Residents like this self-contained isolation because it minimizes traffic in the development itself and keeps out people from merely traveling through Swaying Oak Estates. But when cul-de-sac Flapping Heron Farm development is built on the other side of the single egress and he cul-de-sac Gentle Breezes development is built a mile further out, this single old road (even expanded to six lanes) becomes a parking lot, while taxpayer advocates and smart growth folks nix the idea of building any more "through" roads.
A potential solution? Prohibit developers from building large developments that are full of cul-de-sacs that have only limited access to the rest of the world. The Twin Cities of Minnesota (also citing supposed communitarian benefits of avoiding cul-de-sacs) have recently made it harder to get approval to build cul-de-sacs. If new developments were required to be built (with developer money) as extensions of the existing street grid, with many ways to get to and from the new development, new suburbs would be as easy to drive through at rush hour as many older neighborhoods are.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
“Retail Store Size-Cap Ordinances: Legitimate Land Use Regulations or Unconstitutional Economic Protectionism?” is the title of Samford’s Brandon Denning’s cover story in the ABA’s Probate & Property magazine this month. Denning provides a good summary of the law on whether the U.S. Constitution’s dormant commerce clause would prevent local governments from adopting laws barring out-of-state big-box retailers. The sticky question of discerning the motivation behind an ordinance is one key factor.
Although I shake my mind when I think of the idea of discriminating against a business for being based out of state, for some reason I’m not too worried about the effect of a town’s preventing Wal-Mart or Target from moving in. It won’t actually protect the old local Mom-and-Pops, after all; the town’s shoppers will just drive to the next town to find the big discounters, and the local stores will still die. What if the next town passes a similar ordinance? The shoppers will just keep driving until they find their big box; gas at $3 a gallon won’t stop an American in search of a bargain ….
Monday, July 17, 2006
What’s the most significant way for economics to help progressive land use policies? Through impact fees, of course, by which the costs to the community of sprawl and pollution can be imposed on the creators of thee harms, thus encouraging them to look for ways to minimize the fee (and thus the costs to the community). In California’s Central Valley, a pollution impact fee has been imposed on new housing construction, as a way of discouraging new air pollution in one of America’s most polluted air quality control regions. A drawback is that the fee affects only new construction, not existing houses, and this discrimination is the basis of a lawsuit by construction interests. Such a distinction is politically sensible, of course, because prospective migrants can’t vote (while existing homeowners can), and because such as distinction is pleasing to existing residents who would rather keep out new migrants regardless of air pollution concerns.