Greater Greater Washington

Development bans do more "forcing" than Smart Growth

Which of these two zoning policies is most about "forcing" people to do something:

  1. A rule prohibiting development in densely-populated areas, especially residential development. A mandate that a county build sizable road infrastructure before allowing more housing in denser areas, even if there is already a good transit alternative for new residents.
  2. A policy that allows property owners to add new housing in areas near jobs, where transit mobility is high, and where the extra housing complies with zoning limits on building size.
The first policy forces people to live far from existing developed areas. Right now, areas with a lot of jobs and transit, like Bethesda, are very expensive because more people want to live there than there are housing units. Many Montgomery County families can't afford a place near the county's jobs or near Metro, and have few choices but to live in Germantown or Clarksburg. Of course, some people want to live in those communities, but many would jump at the chance to live in Bethesda or Rockville instead.


Photo by Dean Terry.

Somehow, though, the way elected officials, reporters, and others discuss development has become turned around. Instead of worrying about policies that force people to live far away, they worry that accommodating more people near their jobs will worsen congestion. And when anyone dares to suggest that that ought not be the overriding public policy consideration, they're accused of trying to "force people out of their cars."

That's what Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett wrote about the proposed Growth Policy, which permits roads to go to Level of Service E instead of D as long as the LOS for transit remains B. LOS is a bad measure in general, but this is a reasonable step. Leggett, however, doesn't think so, writing, "I think it is untenable to intentionally impose congestion upon the residents and businesses of Montgomery County with the expectation that the strain of congestion will force people out of their vehicles." Sarah Krouse reports on Leggett's objections in the WBJ.

Unfortunately, Leggett got this "forcing" meme from Planning Director Rollin Stanley, who said the current policy "That pushes development to where there is no congestion, but it should go the other way, because congestion will force people onto public transportation." That's a bad frame to use. Allowing development is doing less forcing, not more. When our old cities originally formed, we didn't have zoning rules. Nothing stopped someone from putting housing or jobs on a piece of property. If the roads got busier, then people advocated for more roads or more trains, or moved closer to work. Things worked out pretty well, all in all.

If an airline sells more seats on a flight so you can't get an empty seat next to you, should we ban that because it'll "force people out of their extra elbow room"? When stores have special Thanksgiving sales that bring a lot of people to the store, do we decide to ban them because it would "force people out of the aisles"? Do we outlaw special events like inaugurations because the extra people drinking will "force people out of their bars?"

Where did we get the idea that people in a neighborhood have an inalienable right not to share their roads with anyone new, but new people don't have a right to live where they want to? Well, we got that idea because the existing residents vote and the new ones don't. But the whole idea is fallacious. The new residents are going to clog up the roads just the same. Instead of driving from a house near Rockville to a job in Bethesda, they'll drive from a house in Clarksburg to a job in Bethesda, which is worse. Plus, they really have no choice but to drive, unlike the person living in infill development.

The better course is to design communities for "low-traffic growth." The Growth Policy tries to do just that. It's not forcing people to do anything; it's letting people have more choices.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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Mr. Leggett is showing more and more how little he understands how human settlements grow and function. We really need someone who understands the interaction between land use planning and transportation infrastructure. It is very silly that we have to keep fighting these wrong-headed mid-20th century ideas in the 21st century. We need elected officials who actually look at 60 years worth of evidence that says that autopia has extremely negative environmental and economic outcomes. No amount of back-door shenanigans on things like TIGER grants for he Medical Center Metro will change the fact that Mr. Leggett is trying everything he can to foist a future that is both incredibly expensive (in both maintenance and lost economic opportunity costs) and disastrous for the environment.

by Cavan on Sep 17, 2009 3:25 pm • linkreport

Basically. Now if only someone could convince the Sklovers that zoning is more of an imposition than a 6-story building.

by цarьchitect on Sep 17, 2009 4:13 pm • linkreport

I will point out that Bethesda wouldn't be "Bethesda" if the people that live in Germantown and Clarksburg could afford to live in Bethesda. I'm not saying its the right, but the desire by current residents for exclusivity through current zoning is a big driver of public policy.

by G-man on Sep 17, 2009 8:57 pm • linkreport

Thank you for this article - what clever, fresh thought on the subject, especially in light of the Johns Hopkins mega-influence looming. They have money NOW, when progress for the people is hindered by the economy.

by Angry Parakeet on Sep 17, 2009 11:06 pm • linkreport

Well don't blame the leopard for his spots. Local elected officials know who votes for them and won't go out on a limb. This why we need strong state policy, in the absence of any real regional authority. Maryland got a good bill through the House last year to put teeth into Priority Funding Areas but it got killed in the Senate. It will be harder in an election year, but if you are concerned about this issue, you should focus on Annapolis.

by Douglas Stewart on Sep 18, 2009 8:35 am • linkreport

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