What if they are Wrong?


What if they are Wrong?

We are barraged almost daily from those in ivory towers, mostly from universities and civic planners, telling us just how we should live our lives. Whether urban planning departments are designing cities so we live cheek by jowl in high rise buildings, constructed on top of light rail lines, or other groups telling us to get rid of our cars and walk or ride bikes, it seems we can’t go a week without someone wanting to change just how we live.

When Don Shoup wrote the “High Cost of Free Parking” over a decade ago, he was focused on parking and how it affects the way cities work and are built. However, if you pull back the curtain just a tad, you could see that he was showing us how parking policy could be changed so that cities would be more ‘livable.’ One of the classic photoshops in the book is a factory in Silicon Valley with apartments and shops replacing the parking lot. After all, wouldn’t folks want to live within walking distance of work, and be surrounded by the same people both at work and at home?

Those wizards who want to take our cars and put us on bicycles, you know the ones, they work in city hall and sit around all day figuring out how to make our lives better but seem to forget to repave the streets, solve the homeless problem, or fix those schools, those wizards simply change the streets to make them more “bicycle friendly.”

Now the three lane in each direction are two, (this is the major thoroughfare through the area), the parking spaces are reduced by 20% and moved into the street so bicycles can make their way between the parked cars and the curb. The local merchants are threatening law suits, and the nearby neighborhoods are jammed with cars that Waze has sent to get around the newly created traffic jams. Oh yes, the number of bicycles on the street during a week day, maybe a dozen. Weekend a few more.

The Chinese have it knocked.  They build a city for a million people by starting with nothing but a plot of land. They can then design it any way they want. They build the city, then move the people in. When you take a city like New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles or Denver and try to design in major changes to ‘fit’ the planner’s agenda, the problems can be overwhelming.

Americans have a taste for the wide-open spaces. We tend to like our freedom and our neighborhoods. Once we have a little house, a back yard, someplace to put the BBQ, maybe even friends to yell at over the fence, a place for the kids and the dog to run, its hard to force us into someone else’s idea of the perfect way to live.

See, I think that our betters have this idea of making the world a better place by making the people act a certain way. What if the way that we are supposed to act is wrong? Rather than try to fit us into a particular box, I wonder what would happen if all that horsepower was put to use making the boxes to fit us?

Just sayin


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

2 Responses

  1. Hi John,

    I think you are too hard on urban planners. I agree with your suspicion that “our betters” are telling us what to do, and that zoning is what they use to tell us. But I disagree on what “our betters” have been telling us. I think zoning does the opposite of what you imply.

    Zoning only restricts density, and it never requires density. About 40% of the land in Los Angeles is zoned for single-family housing, which means that “our betters” are telling us that no one can live at a higher density even if the market would provide it.

    For example, zoning prohibits duplex houses on land zoned for single-family homes, suggesting that “our betters” have decided that duplexes wouldn’t be good for us. Zoning also prohibits high-rise housing in most of the city, which suggests that “our betters” will not let the market supply high-rise apartments even where there is a demand. Developers will build at higher density only if the market demands higher density.

    Zoning sets limits on what the market can supply. The only thing that zoning requires is, of course, parking. “Our betters” have decided that we must have two parking spaces per dwelling unit, regardless of the cost of providing the parking and regardless of whether we own a car.

    So it seems that a market-oriented policy would be to reduce the restrictions on density and remove the requirements for parking. Then we wouldn’t all have to live the life that “our betters” have zoned for us.

    Donald Shoup
    Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Professors

  2. Hi Don:
    No question that zoning is one problem, but my point is that the alternative that is posited by current planners is wrong too. No one has ever asked me, nor anyone I know, just what we want in our urban setting. We are told what it will be, like it or not. Of course you are right that demanding parking requirements is wrong, but is the ongoing drum beat for dense urban cores better?
    Is it possible that folks who paid top dollar for their single family homes are concerned that the value of their property will fall if an apartment is built next door. And why did they pay that top dollar?
    Unfortunately there are two sides to every coin, but ‘our betters’ have decided which side is the winner.


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