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Zoning Without Zoning

November 24, 2003, 12am PST | Michael Lewyn
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Although Houston is the only major American city with no formal zoning code, the city's land use regulations have historically been nearly as meddlesome, as pro-sprawl, and as anti-pedestrian as zoning in other American cities -- and have yielded similar results.

 Michael Lewyn Houston, Texas is the only large American city with no formal zoning code -- yet Houston has all the sprawl and associated ills of other Sunbelt cities. Houston is less dense than most big cities, and Houstonians drive more than in most big cities. Does it then follow that sprawl is the result of consumer choice rather than of government meddling?

Not necessarily -- because what other cities achieve through zoning, Houston achieves through several land use regulations.

Like other cities' zoning codes, Houston's municipal code creates auto dependency by artificially spreading out the population. Until 1999, the city required all single-family houses to gobble up 5,000 square feet of land. Although this limit is less rigid than minimum lot sizes in most suburbs, the city's statute nevertheless insures that many residents will be unable to live within walking distance of a bus stop, which in turn means that those residents will be completely dependent on their cars. In 1999, the City Council partially deregulated density in neighborhoods closer to downtown. But since 98% of the city's housing was built before 1999, this change in the law is of little importance.

Houston's parking regulations also create automobile dependency by encouraging driving and discouraging walking. Under Houston's city code, virtually every structure in Houston must supply plenty of parking. For example, apartment buildings must have even more parking spaces than residents; landlords must supply 1.25 parking spaces for each efficiency apartment and 1.33 parking spaces for every bedroom. Offices, supermarkets, and other businesses are subject to similar restrictions. Such parking regulations discourage walking by forcing pedestrians to navigate through massive parking lots (and to dodge the vehicles driving them) to reach shops or jobs. And where walking is uncomfortable, most people will drive. In addition, minimum parking requirements, by taking land for parking that could have been used for housing or businesses, also reduce density, thus making the city less compact and more auto-dependent.

Houston's street design rules also make life more difficult for pedestrians. The city code requires most major streets to have a 100 foot right-of-way and residential streets must have a 50-60 foot right-of-way. Thus, Houston's streets can be up to 100 feet wide. By contrast, most modern streets are 32-36 feet wide, and pre-World War II streets are usually 28-30 feet wide. Such wide streets are difficult for pedestrians to cross because a wider roadway takes longer to cross, thus increasing the amount of time a pedestrian is exposed to traffic. And because wider roadways are designed for faster speeds, such roads are more dangerous for pedestrians.

Houston's block designs are equally unhelpful to pedestrians. The city code mandates that intersections on major streets be 600 feet apart. By contrast, a recent Environmental Protection Agency report recommends that for "a high degree of walkability, block lengths of 300 feet...are desirable." Houston's long, intersection-free blocks deter walking because a block with few intersections gives pedestrians few places to cross the street and few means of reaching a destination on a side street.

Finally, government at all levels has accelerated sprawl by building more roads to the urban fringe in Houston than in other cities. For example, Chicago has more than twice as many residents as Houston, yet has only 10% more freeway miles. Big Brother's reckless road building has encouraged development to shift to newer areas with minimal bus service -- but apparently has done little to reduce traffic congestion. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Houstonians lost 36 hours per person in 1999 to traffic congestion, more than all but three other American cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas).

In sum, Houston's land use regulations have historically been nearly as meddlesome, as pro-sprawl, and as anti-pedestrian as zoning in other American cities -- and have yielded similar results. The good news is that Houston is beginning to change its ways: minimum lot size requirements were loosened in 1999, and widened roads are actually beginning to become controversial. But it may take decades of real deregulation to undo the damage caused in the late 20th century.

Michael Lewyn teaches at Rutgers School of Law-Camden at the State University of New Jersey.


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