Civic Data

Data-oriented thinking about where and how people live.

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Review: “Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation” (Sonia Hirt)

tl;dr: highly worthwhile book on the international uniqueness of American zoning codes and their cultural underpinnings. 4 out of 5 stars.

This book is an attempt to demonstrate and explain the features of modern zoning codes (and cities) that are almost unique to the United States: the very broad use of exclusively residential zones and exclusively single-family house zones. It combines an extended history of zoning, both internationally and in America, with a comparative study of modern zoning codes and legal regimes surrounding new construction in several countries, most notably England and Germany.

The book is fascinating overall, and highly recommended to any students of cities and/or American history. It is richly detailed and sourced. The perspective is that of an urban planning student from Bulgaria who moved to the US for career reasons and was baffled by the apparent contradictions between the narrative of American individualism and freedom and the very restrictive codes surrounding the built environments in which they lived (which is baffling to this native US citizen as well).

There are many hypotheses that attempt to explain American zoning codes. To name a few: the availability of plenty of cheap land in the US, the predominance of local as opposed to national control over planning and development, the protection of private property values, etc.

However, Hirt feels that these arguments are insufficiently unique to explain the genuine uniqueness of American zoning. The principal thesis of the book is that they are largely the result of a strong cultural undercurrent of agrarian and “frontier” values in the US. As a result, the single-family house on a generous plot was seen as the morally correct dwelling arrangement, and our zoning and legal codes responded to that desire.

The apparent contradiction described above results from the explosion of US cities in the 19th century, and the resulting collision between our preferences for different sorts of “freedoms”: political freedom (in particular the right to use private property without governmental interference) and what she calls “spatial freedom,” which is something like the desire to claim, explore, and patrol the boundaries of a sizable piece of land. It’s not exactly a spoiler to observe that spatial freedom won this rhetorical battle. However, political freedom was appeased in that the new legal structures were simple, scientific, rules-based systems that would treat each property the same and give each property owner the right to development without asking permission within the constraints of the rules, or were advertised as such anyway. And “economic” freedom was appealed to by the universal emphasis on stabilizing and increasing property values.

I did feel that the international comparisons beyond those to Germany and England were a bit overpromised and underdelivered. The sections on each of the other nations discussed (France, Russia, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Japan) amount to capsule histories of a page or two and are not the subject of extended comparisons throughout the rest of the book.

More information about the book is available at Cornell Press.


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Redevelopment of park-and-ride lot at Ashby BART station

crop_parking_lotMany transit agencies are reluctant to redevelop park-and-ride lots, even in fairly dense urban areas, for fear of losing ridership. In many but not all cases, this is a valid concern: ridership in the short term would drop if the parking lot was removed. However, this is not the final word, for at least a couple of reasons.

First, park-and-ride lots are typically highly subsidized. In all cases I’m aware of in the BART system, revenues from parking fees don’t even cover the cost of parking lot maintenance, much less the capital costs from the initial construction. At most stations, the standard parking charge is $1 for a full day, and it costs BART a 30% overhead to collect (pdf source). For comparison, the construction cost of a surface parking lot is about $4,000 per space, and BART estimates upkeep costs of $430 annually per space in 2012 dollars (same pdf source). (And if you’re interested, structured parking spaces cost about $20,000 per space in construction costs and $650 in annual maintenance.) The $4,000 capital cost at 3% over its 30-year lifetime annualizes to about $200. Thus, a parking spot that’s occupied 300 days a year makes 300 x $0.70 = $210 in revenue and costs BART $630. BART is paying a pretty hefty cost to “buy” the driver’s ridership.

Second, the park-and-ride lot tends to stifle walkable development in the area. People largely don’t want to live next to big parking lots, and they can make it unpleasant to walk nearby. Thus, the existence of the lot tends to reduce the number of people who can access the station by non-auto modes, in the long term. Given that mass transit requires a sufficient density of jobs and people to even make sense, the utility of the overall system is reduced.

I wrote a paper which analyzes a plausible redevelopment of part of the Ashby BART park-and-ride station, from both a ridership perspective and a cost-benefit perspective. It was originally written for a class last semester, and I’ve modified it only slightly from that version. From the introduction:

I examine BART’s current TOD Policy to understand BART’s various motivations to redevelop its park-and-ride lots (or not). The main body of the paper is a proposal to redevelop 108 parking spaces at southern end of the Ashby BART parking lot (with no provision of replacement parking). I use quite conservative assumptions to estimate that such a development would be fairly profitable, providing a return on investment above 5% for the developer, assuming market conditions comparable to those of other recent developments in Berkeley. The development would also provide a sizeable annual net revenue stream of $475,000 to $640,000 for BART as lessor, relative to current parking upkeep and revenues. Furthermore, the development could actually result in ridership gains, under realistic assumptions. As a result, the development is completely consistent with BART’s stated principles and long-term goals.

The full paper is available here.