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A Low-Cost Solution to Traffic (governing.com)
289 points by jseliger on Feb 10, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 290 comments

I'd like to see a little more from new urbanists than for them to endlessly restate their thesis. Yes, okay, we've now seen the 1,000th reiteration of the idea that dense mixed use residential/commercial developments have a number of advantages.

How do we actually get there? Is "just" changing zoning actually enough? Is there a case study? Over what time-frame? With what downsides?

NIMBYism isn't a magical spell cast by Satan: it's an organic outgrowth of people's incentives. What is the way around it? I don't believe that then 1,001st reiteration of the advantages of mixed use developments is the answer. What kind of compromises work to keep NIMBYism from obstructing all of these developments?

For god's sakes, just let property owners do what they want with their property (within limits of safety). If they want to keep it empty or a small 1 family house, let them, and don't let their neighbors or city government bully them into building larger. If they want to build (or sell to someone who will build) a large apartment building, let them do that too.

You'll gradually get more density and less traffic this way over time, assuming that's what people want (and if it's not, they'll get what they want instead)

The root of the problem is the impulse to be disgusted by your neighbor's choices, and wishing to harness violent force (government rules) to force your neighbor to conform to your wishes. Enough already.

Well obviously they're still "allowed" to do whatever they want - (usually) no one's forcing you to sell the quaint victorian and move into the new Gulag of an Apartment complex.

Everyone essentially agrees with you. The problem is that when ONE of these people wants to build the next Trump Tower on top of grandma's old cottage, the "live and let live" ethos goes out the window - everyone's at city council decrying mixed zoning or whatever else they think is "ruining" their neighborhood! There's a reason the term NIMBY exists, there's a reason we don't like living next to Sriracha factories or concert venues and don't just let people turn their houses into one of them at will.

We live in a society and the law is a reflection of it, especially in cities where a lot of people with different needs and desires have to get along. If you want to literally do whatever you want on your property, there's lots of places (in Alaska) that you can do that.

Hell, I actually agree with you, and that's why I'm eventually going to move somewhere where I don't get woke up by traffic every morning, where I don't get stuck in traffic, where I can play music as loud as I want, and celebrate Pagan holidays with massive bonfires until 7am. But until then, I won't live under any illusion of living in a libertarian paradise, because it's just not a viable outcome for city dwellers.

Assuming the noise or smell was somehow contained, what's wrong with living next to a concert venue or sriracha factory? I should merely have a right to my property being as smell, noise, and shadow free as it was when I bought it. I should /not/ have a right to anything more than that.

Enshrining a right to only live next to other residences is how we end up in this problem of boring neighborhoods that require lots of travel just to get to where you want to go.

In old large eastern US cities and in towns of any size in other countries I've been in (Mexico, Japan) there is MUCH more mixed use. You might see a motorcycle repair shop in between a couple of regular single family homes. Nobody seems to mind. I don't get why we're special and weird like this.

Most of lower Manhattan, which is so valued now, could not be built legally today. It was built before zoning codes.

I'm not against mild zoning codes that merely slow down rather than block change. For example, rather than a named maximum height, say that no building can be built more than twice the average building height in the area within a certain radius. Or, the percentage of nonresidential uses within an area cannot increase by more than 2% per year, or something.

This way in the short term, a neighborhood cannot be transformed overnight. But, it can be transformed slowly over decades towards what the market will bear, ie what people actually want and are willing to pay for.

This isn't a libertarian fantasy, it's just how towns used to work in the US before zoning and how they work in many other less backwards parts of the world...

Personal anecdota: My parents' house shared the block with a carpentry shop (now bankrupt) and a Christian church (which later moved to another site). The sound of the carpentry shop was a thousand times more tolerable (although it was daily) than the sporadic religious celebrations with its drums and electric guitars.

> I should merely have a right to my property being as smell, noise, and shadow free as it was when I bought it. I should /not/ have a right to anything more than that.

I feel like the other commenters are missing that this is the debate. If you choose to move in next to a concert venue, that's your prerogative. If one opens next door, this is when NIMBYism kicks in. Cities need to evolve, and existing owners speaking out against loud businesses or view-blocking skyscrapers or whatever it may be prevent this from happening. Whether this is virtuous or not is up for debate, but it's certainly a limiting factor.

> Assuming the noise or smell was somehow contained, what's wrong with living next to a concert venue

The massive amounts of traffic (foot\car) these things can generate, depending on the city and size of the venue. The noise from that many people on the street is not containable. The same with a new 1000 unit apartment complex going up next to you - it's going to have a massive impact on local services around you, depending on what was there already. Your idea about disallowing large changes isn't horrible.

This especially important because you can't expect the city to have to suddenly significantly enlarge the roads or improve the traffic control measures (lights, signs, etc.) overnight. If it grows up slowly, organically, then the regular rebuilding of infrastructure will naturally accommodate the building up of the area.

> Assuming the noise or smell was somehow contained, what's wrong with living next to a concert venue or Sriracha factory

Pretty big assumption, my friend. Generally they're not, or they're not contained well enough, or people are just old and grouchy so they go form homeowners associations and ban Sriracha factories. That said, I do agree with your overall outlook here, I'm just afraid that a lot of (particularly older, more traditional people) don't, so it's unrealistic to expect change. People don't like change, and they sure as hell don't like changing the way things change.

> Assuming the noise or smell was somehow contained, what's wrong with living next to a concert venue or sriracha factory?

Assuming you never had to walk or feed it and it never misbehaved, what's so hard about having a dog for a pet?

you forgot about scooping the poop!

Our hypothetical dog poops in the toilet and flushes it himself.

> I'm not against mild zoning codes that merely slow down rather than block change.

I was thinking along similar lines, yet I suspect that this won't happen for various reasons even if NIMBYism is discounted. The layout of many suburban communities is less than ideal for commercial development, even something as innocent as a convenience store, since they are low density and unwalkable for community members while the roads are ill suited for traffic from outside of the community. Talking about gradually increasing height or unit restrictions sounds nice, yet I suspect that land and construction costs have been driven so high by existing zoning regulations that developers find smaller projects uneconomical.

What? A great many suburbs have a grocery store, restaurants, strip malls, etc.

  We live in a society and the law is a reflection of it, 
  especially in cities where a lot of   people with different
  needs and desires have to get along. If you want to literally
  do whatever you want on your property, there's lots of places
  (in Alaska) that you can do that.
Firstly let me say that I agree with the latter part of your reply that less-dense places are ideal for the libertarian minded. I'm fully onboard that school of thought.

The problem emerges here: cities are increasingly becoming centers of cultural clout, if not political or economic clout. If you don't have some kind of foothold there or some grasp of the proceedings there -- and no matter what your cultural leanings are & whether you lean left of center or right of it -- the change will drift to your shores, no matter how remotely you live or work.

Every aspect of every issue that has been covered in this thread is somehow going to affect how you live, work & socialize, in the near future. Compartmentalizing yourself -- and I'm not saying you're implying that -- from this debate with the hopes of one day moving to the far reaches of the continental expanse, is definitely not the answer.

With increasing urbanization of the world, this applies to you, even if you plan to move to a sparsely populated patch in another continent. [1]

Most people don't think through this enough. I wish I could overstate this.

Cultural clout shapes large portions of your life. And cities are increasingly holding larger and larger chunks of that clout, even if they always have.

Every law stipulating the amount of bio-degradable plastic in the cutlery at your run of the mill chain restaurant to the maximum wattage legally allowed to power your domestic vacuum cleaner [2] is somehow fashioned in the cities or influenced by people who've lived with city folk their entire lives.

This is why cities matter.

And with that, how cities are fashioned with the input & desires of a small coterie of like-minded micro-apartment-dwelling, parklet-embracing & density-demanding people, can one day have far-flung consequences on a geographically & culturally removed set of people who've never ever bought a two way ticket at a metro train station kiosk or had to share traffic with a paratransit bus [3], on their countryside roadways.

I'm not even mentioning the political pressure large companies with thousands of employees have been able to brought to bear on entire states, let alone cities, to mold & influence laws.[4]

This is why we all have to partake in this, whether we could be bothered to do so or not. Because one day we will.

[1] http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-...

[2] http://www.sbs.com.au/news/thefeed/article/2016/06/23/wackie...

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paratransit

[4] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/salesforce-ceo-marc-benioff-nort...

edit: errors & added a footnote

Some rules are stupid, some ideas are stupid. In the original link they want to restrict how far people can travel. Well duh, Bikes and Electric cars already do this.

But then what if the person is a travelling salesman? Has the $1m prize for this problem been solved and awarded yet? Not that I know of.

On your point about limiting how much a vacuum cleaner can use, try this simple test, pick up some dirt, put on the palm of your hand and blow it. You don't need much blow to get it off your hand. Now try the same but in reverse ie suck the dirt. Did you breath it all in? I'd say no and this is why rules restricting how powerful the vacuum cleaner can be is stupid. Its the same as using eco friendly light bulbs if working from home during the winter months. These contribute to depression & SAD, so get yourself a brighter light that's still a CFL but gives you more light (lux) for the same wattage as the old style incandescent. Technology is designed to make life better for us, not to go backwards because some politician said so.

If politicians were really bothered about the planet, your health etc, they would not spends millions on defence, they would invest massively in research whilst also spending more on education to further drive the research. The fact they don't just confirms to me, they are there for big business only.

The West's population would be in decline and has been in decline since the 70's if it wasn't for immigration. Immigration is needed because we have a messed up financial system which needs constant growth to keep driving inflation. If we didn't have inflation, very quickly you would see the financial system is just a generational Ponzi scheme as the baby boomers who stole your future have demonstrated. If you wont have to work for longer before you get your pension then the boomers have not stolen your future.

> But then what if the person is a travelling salesman? Has the $1m prize for this problem been solved and awarded yet? Not that I know of.

Side note, the TSP is only infeasible in theory, not in practice.

> I'd say no and this is why rules restricting how powerful the vacuum cleaner can be is stupid.

I agree that strict limits on vacuum energy use are overreaching a bit, but it has had good results. People wrongly believe that energy use = suction power.

Before the limits, vacuums were advertised on how much power they use. All manufacturers had to do was to put in an inefficient motor, and stamp "wastes even more watts" on the box.

After the limit, I now see vacuums advertised with some standardised "cleaning performance score" on carpet and hardwood, and airflow per minute. Hopefully this means that manufacturers will focus on (advertising) metrics that more closely match the actual purpose of vacuums.

Now the same result could probably have been achieved with just the advertising rules. And energy efficiency & environmental goals could be achieved with pollution tax on electricity and everyone making their own decisions on energy-efficient devices. But that's a much more complicated political move, with a lot of people opposed to it.

> I'd say no and this is why rules restricting how powerful the vacuum cleaner can be is stupid

Before the rules, manufacturers were advertising vacuum cleaners with ever larger wattage numbers. They weren't actually any better at picking up dirt, they just had less efficient motors.

I would have preferred consumer education (e.g. require suction/CFM numbers to be shown) but banning pointless wastes of electricity in the name of marketing isn't as crazy at it may seem.

Meanwhile, Japanese zoning gives much more flexibility to builders, private promoters but also school boards and the cities themselves. So the need for hyper-competent planning is much reduced, as Japanese planning departments can simply zone large higher-use zones in the center of neighborhoods, since the lower-uses are still allowed. If there is more land than needed for commercial uses in a commercial zone, for example, then you can still build residential uses there, until commercial promoters actually come to need the space and buy the buildings from current residents.

So there is a more healthier and lenient alternative to city planning which does not result in total chaos. I think many people here are stuck in between two extremes. The anarchistic what ever goes crowd that's sick and tired of the bureaucratic mess, and what we currently have. However there is I think a healthier synthesis between the two ideas that we need to really consider.

We know what the problem is, we know why there's a problem, and we even have plenty of solutions, but as has been pointed out the problem is in implementation. That's the real problem.

Here's the full post: http://urbankchoze.blogspot.ca/2014/04/japanese-zoning.html

I'm with you, a reasonable middle ground like that is a great way to go. I visited Nagoya and Tokyo and was very positively impressed with the kinds of neighborhoods generated by that kind of zoning. In a way, the typical pattern actually generated more diversity YET more solitude and peacefulness than I see in the US.

Here in the USA, only the older parts of the old pre-zoning cities have a shot at being nice like that, and even that may have been ruined in many cities. I think we artificially have an obsession with preservation in the USA, because current zoning means that many building forms are unbuildable today so the only way to get them is to preserve something old. These nice old sorts of buildings and neighborhoods can be destroyed but not created, but that's only an artifact of zoning. With more Japanese-style zoning, preservation would be less important

I'd suggest living in southeast / east Asia for a while if you think anarchical development is a good idea. It all falls apart when you need to build, maintain and provide basic services (electricity, water, sewage.)

You've probably misdiagnosed the root of the problem; some extended family had a shoe factory built directly next to their home and it greatly impacted their quality of life, and I don't think I'd suggest it's their fault for being unhappy about it.

> I'd suggest living in southeast / east Asia for a while if you think anarchical development is a good idea. It all falls apart when you need to build, maintain and provide basic services (electricity, water, sewage.)

"It all falls apart"? I beg to differ. It is a continuum of cities being differently developed, yes. But many cities (Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei) are not all that far from many European cities, and they are often far more vibrant (think Manhattan or Paris).

In fact, it is more of an uneven development, where things like subways, street food and internet might be much better, but sewage and smog is worse. It is mostly just different and depends on what you focus your attention on, seeing the bad things that are different or the good things.

The cities you mention all all what you'd call top-tier cities in Asia, all with significant municipal planning and zoning.

I'm talking in particular about cities which have little-to-no planning (look at 1-10m population non-capital cities through China, Indonesia, India etc.)

When we were living in Guangzhou we had to deal with constant blackouts, water stopping at least once a week. Our visits to friends in Hunan and surrounding provinces were practically the same experience.

Have to compare apples to apples though, i.e. reasonably similar standards of living and cost of living. All of the above cities started out very organically, and a lot of their vibrancy comes from their density, narrow streets, markets, etc.

The same is true of many European cities as well, such as Paris and London. It just happened a long time ago and it is hidden under the layers of time (for example parts of Paris changed drastically 150 years ago with Hausmann). I specifically left out Singapore because, while a well-planned and pleasant city, a huge part of it doesn't strike me as having being created organically. A tell-tale sign is the lack of narrow streets in most places, instead having a lot of huge roads (with very little traffic compared to US cities, though).

It seems to me that one of the main differences is whether a city was created before or after cars were created. See this image for an illustration: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/64/Revised_petro...

There is a difference between mixed use zoning and not having ridiculous building height restrictions and still having both public and private works insure there is adequate sewer and electric capacity for the growing city.

If anything, you should shift the barrier a bit. Instead of saying you cannot build because X Y or Z, change it to be that you cannot rent or sell or open to the public without X Y and Z. It kills the nimbyism if the building is already there, but still keeps consumer protection in place to stop you from ending up in an apartment building built this century with exposed asbestos.

Yeah I have no idea what's wrong with East Asian cities. Taipei can be ugly, but damned if it isn't convenient to get around. The transport network there puts any western city I've been to of similar to size to shame. As for Hong Kong, not only does it have great public transport as well, but it's also strikingly good looking.

Can't speak for Bangkok though, but Taipei and Hong Kong have incredible transport systems.

Wow, weird that some of the richest cities in the continent would be nice.

It might be simplifying it a bit here, but are cities well-planned because they're rich, or are they rich because they are well-planned?

Closer to the former. Both Hong Kong and Singapore were rich trading ports long before subways and meaningful city planning.

You can easily have taxes and utilities without zoning laws.

The whole point of government is to ensure that your neighbors don't act like oricks. Obviously you don't want the neighbor to build something high that puts your property in permanent shadow, or otherwise ruin your property.

"The right to swing your fists ends where another man's nose begins" should be the motto to follow here. (And not "The right to swing your fists ends a statutory 3 meters away from any places that may contain noses")

If there is a specific noise/shadow or other detriment that is clearly caused to an adjoining property, then OK, the adjoining neighbor should be able to stop it (or sell the right to complain as an easement if they wish). If there isn't, and it just "looks ugly" and "isn't normal" then there is no meaningful detriment and they should be allowed to build

The problem is that there is a wide disagreement on what a 'clear detriment' to your neighbors property is. We all have different definitions.

If you think about it, zoning and land use laws are just the codifying of things that are detriments to your neighbors. Obviously, no one is going to agree with all of them, but they are what society has deemed worthy of forbidding.

> they are what society has deemed worthy of forbidding.

Only if by 'society' you mean rich old rentseeking stay-at-home busybodies with nothing better to do than complain at town council meetings.

Edit: less snarkily put, the people doing the forbidding are not representative of society and are not acting in our collective best interests

Depends who "we" are.

OK, then I guess all I'm saying is I think my definitions are right and others' are wrong. My definition is:

Pretend there is a dark shroud covering away all boundaries of your property line. Whatever elements, whether noise, shadow, smell, smoke, etc enter into your property volume, you are allowed to complain about. Anything outside of that, you are not. How damned hard is that?

Having a view is something some people want and they're willing to pay for it. With your scheme, nobody can be sure they'll keep their view if the neighbor builds too high and blocks it.

I think almost all zoning laws actually meet your definition; there are very few zoning laws (that I know of) that specify what colors or shapes you can use on your property. They all deal with things that 'leak' outside your property.

Do you have any examples of zoning or land use laws that don't fit your definition of 'things we are allowed to regulate'?

That depends on in which culture and region you live. We have just built a new garage where we live. We have a quite lenient local government and great neighbours. The local government checked with the neighbours (10 of them, nobody objected), as we needed to replace a building that was too close to the border of the property (4 meters minimum distance) with something as close as what we replaced (1.5 meter), due to layout and topology of the property.

We needed to submit drawings of the garage, explain that it fit well with the main building, a distinct house from 1909, well known in the neighbourhood. Describe the colour to be used, including the colour on the garage door.

They come and check that the foundations get placed within four inches (10 cm) of what the building permit allows.

Do I mind? No. End result is good, took longer than expected due to heavy load on the city planning department.

In some villages in Switzerland you get fined if you don't have the right colour flowers on your balcony. (Or maybe the flowers showed up on your doorstep, with a mandatory bill, without having to ask.) :)


You might be surprised. There are certainly historic districts that can impose fairly explicit regulations on colors and shapes. One also reads about HOAs that cause trouble about insufficiently mowed lawns and the like although I don't know how common that is vs. "man bites dog" news stories.

HOAs can be all kinds of awful but they're not government entities.

San Francisco zoning laws actually just flat out discourage development. This is because San Francisco property owners like that their properties are becoming worth more so they vote that way.

Pretty much every hoa imposes some restriction based on looks (types of fences allowed, paint upkeep, etc).

And HOA isn't the law, though.

Have you ever had someone on your block convert their place to a half-way house and/or mental care home?

In practice, having lived a couple houses from one (as a renter), it's more a theoretical problem than a practical one.

Given that the two condos that sold near me (one next door, and one two doors away) went in the 300k-350k range, it doesn't seem to be depressing the property values much either.

I guess I am just imagining my life experiences then. Lol.

What does shadow mean? As the sun sets, there's going to be some time when things fall into the shade.

The complaint that's currently in vogue here in Seattle is that if someone builds high density housing in your neighborhood, then the people living there will want to park nearby, and suddenly the people living there lose their abundant and free street parking.

Sure, but also TAX the property based on it's /potential/ value.

A land owner close to where the city is now shouldn't be able to squat on that land at the cost of the opportunity it can provide to the neighborhood(s) around it.

You can capture this by assessing the value of the land (regardless of what's build on top). Downtown detached houses are more valuable because the land they sit on is near other stuff, and people want to be near stuff. They are not valuable because the owner installed a new marble counter-top.

Please elaborate.

Should we also TAX vacant or idle storefronts that seem to have zero foot traffic any given hour of any given day? (SF seems to have dozens of those every city block. One wonders if those are some kind of fronts for illicit activities. They seem to never change ownership even with skyrocketing rents for office space nearby.)

Should a street level business that serves a large number of residents, get TAX BREAKS? Like a grocery store that vends fresh produce as opposed to a boutique book store that specializes in first editions?

Should they also get favorable lease terms, mandated by the city?

Should businesses that, by nature, serve out of town-ers be forced to move to designated neighborhoods?

Should empty storefronts be forced to take up tenants who could serve the needs of the residents?

Is TAXING even the solution to any of these problems?

Yes you should tax empty land, just by taxing all land. The land owner always has the option to sell the unused land. It encourages property use, and the tax rate actually decreases the more built up the property is. This is not rocket science. Land taxes are well established in economics literature.

It's probably very complicated, but I would answer yes to many of these questions. I think it would be worthwhile investigating a model where every home has a mini-grocery with affordable prices within 2 blocks of every home in these neighborhoods - and to achieve affordable prices, there may have to be some tax breaks involved, with some accompanying price limits on "staples" (bread, milk, etc). Difficult, yes; impossible, no; worth it, I think so.

Come to cities in Germany. Everwhere I lived the next supermarket was less than fifteen minutes walking away. Price and density are inveresly proportional.

"Every two blocks" is a bit much for anything but the densest of high-density areas. Even the convenience stores aren't clustered that closely in my city's downtown.

Subsidize what you want and tax what you don't is 101 level economics. Distort the market to match what neighborhood wants. There are other approaches, but macro is pretty well understood.

To a large extent this already happens, and is one of the major complaints about gentrification. The rising value of the land & property causes rising rents, which can become a hardship on the lower-income people who were living there before the place became trendy/valuable.

Not to say it shouldn't be done, but there are definitely two edges to that sword.

Something like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax ? Yeah, makes sense IMHO. Unfortunately it doesn't seem so popular politically..

If the rest of us get burdened by the cost of providing services to said property owner in perpetuity, we do have a right to have a bit of say over what things get built. We can build win-win for the property owner and the community, it is possible to align incentives.

When you bulldoze black neighborhoods to build the expressway that serves your suburb of single family homes, that's when there is a problem.

When the tax base of poor neighborhoods subsidize the burden of infrastructure support of affluent neighborhoods, that's when there is a problem. [0]

0. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/10/poor-neighborh...

Why should the rest of us get burdened? I'm not in favor of that at all. If you build something that requires more water/electricity and thus requires more maintenance/building more pipes or something by the city, then you should be the one to pay for that, or else you continue to get the same old service as before.

That's what I propose anyway. Yes, I am very aware of what a big problem we've had in the 20th century with private developers colluding with municipalities to take land from the poor, use it to build things for the wealthy, and get taxpayers to pay for as much of the related infrastructure as possible.

The same old service as before is an ongoing cost for everyone - loans are taken for municipal projects that the city pays back with taxes, pipes break and have to be repaired, if there's a natural disaster outside funds will repair the service, etc. To some extent you pay the utility provider for your use, but not always.

There are even more things you definitely don't and can't pay for your own use - fire stations, police, the salaries of the DMV employees that regulate drivers licenses so someone who doesn't know how to drive doesn't crash into your house. There's a huge long-tail of public goods that serve everyone in every urban or suburban area, no getting around it.

Um, well, then they should have to pay for their share of that too. Given that, still confused what the objection is.

Oh yeah? How'd you react if you scrimped up to save, and then this was built next door?


Check out the front-side picture. What do you think would happen to resale value? If you think property owners will continue to buy houses and give up any hope of actionable damages in the race to the bottom of this tragedy of the commons, you're delusional.

That's your own fault for being delusional enough to think that you should buy a house as an "investment" (or even worse as speculation because you think it will go up high and fast)

Buy a house if you like it and want to live in it for the next 30 years. Then you won't care about resale value.

Should we also feel bad for people who decided to short a bunch of random stocks because they had a gut feeling? Mortgages are highly leveraged, and are not inherently a safe investment. What makes them safe is when you're buying something you intend to live in anyway, because you'll always need some form of housing, you're just prepaying for it.

Besides, long term, this will make the neighborhood denser and ultimately increase land value. As long as you hold on long enough your resale value may actually go up. Either way, resale value is not something legitimate everyday people should be concerned with, only speculators. If you're not ready to commit to live somewhere for the next 30 years, rent.

Move somewhere else, probably somewhere with a home owners association where you can rest peacefully knowing your neighbors are not planting gardens [1][2] and painting their house improper shades of beige.

It's not on your property and it was built up to local code and zoning regulations.

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/12/16/249342738/in-...

[2] http://www.kshb.com/news/region-missouri/new-city-ordinance-...

Gee, that might be difficult, given that you probably have to sell the house for close to what you bought it to do that so easily (plus even if the house sold for the exact same price you're out a ton of money in closing costs for both deals).

I think the point was that if you are that worried about that scenario, move into an hoa controlled area in the first place.

Well my point is that it is a completely impractical solution to the problem since by the time the problem arises it is too late to do it.

In the U.K. if something like that was built it would put up the value of the smaller units as there is potential for redevelopment.

The UK has a lot of Victoria era terraced houses, and in big cities it's pretty common to see the attic converted into another bedroom or an extension build on the garden [0]. If you are the first person in your street doing it, you'll have a hard time getting permission from the council, but if someone else has done it, it'll be a lot easier.

[0] https://static.dezeen.com/uploads/2016/05/landells-road-alma...

There is an inherent contradiction in this idea. Part of being able to do whatever you want is setting up a homeowners association which are defeat the goal of freedom.

That's fine, as long as a propertyowner not currently in a HOA cannot be forced to join a HOA, not even if 99% of their neighbors voted to join.

You can still go somewhere where there isn't a HOA or there is a competing HOA. In many US cities today, there is no option, because zoning is municipal, not a HOA rule.

There are cities where the zoning only allows houses in an HOA. Viera in Florida is an example of this.

These days, builders always create an HOA. The options to avoid an HOA are very limited. You can settle for something really old. In theory you can become a builder yourself, but buying 30 acres and putting in streets and storm drains and... is a huge investment and a huge amount of time and effort. Even then, there are places where you simply can't do it due to zoning.

> If they want to keep it empty or a small 1 family house, let them, and don't let their neighbors or city government bully them into building larger

i really like this alternate universe where you have to fight govt in order to build smaller


here in the bay area it's the exact opposite. between zoning [1], height limits, Discretionary Review, CEQA and "environmental impact" reviews, it is unbelievably hard to build density here.

projects are delayed in unpredictable ways ranging from weeks to years, often while a developer pays rent and property tax on a vacant lot.

the resulting artificial scarcity inflates rents, which is great for incumbent property owners. boomers who have owned property for really long time are often essentially exempt from property tax due to Prop 13. [2]

[1] i made a map: https://dcpos.ch/yimby/zoning

[2] example: https://twitter.com/hanlonbt/status/769662484936429569


the city kinda wallows in its own bureaucracy. back in 2004, they won funding to build a rapid transit bus line on Geary St. volunteers knocked on doors, voters voted, a ballot initiative passed. just weeks ago, it passed "Environmental Impact Review".


it was stuck in EIR for 13 years.

"For god's sakes, just let property owners do what they want with their property"

We need to have zoning laws.

"You'll gradually get more density and less traffic this way over time, assuming that's what people want "

Once a city has been structured, it's nary impossible to 'unstructure'.

"The root of the problem is the impulse to be disgusted by your neighbor's choices, "

We live in a community and we have no choice but to have rules & laws - they just need to be done intelligently.

Cities like Frankfurt and Munich are very close to ideal. They have 'just right' urban density, good Trams, Subways and Trains - and it works extremely well. You can get where you need to quickly, there's not a lot of traffic - and ample choice for those who want to have a 'big house' vs. 'smaller home' vs. 'urban flat'.

North Americans really screwed up - and it has a lot to do with builders, bad zoning etc.

If people were actually 'given the choice' of semi-dense urban living + easy commute to slightly more dense suburbs - they would usually take it.

In North America - people 'have less choice' and 'less options' because one of the key ingredients: public transport (i.e. trams, trains and subways) requires some degree of collective organization, as well as some foresight with respect to urban planning.

It seems a little 'anti choice' to opt for a Euro-style city, but really, there is a lot of 'choice' and the effectiveness of basic public transport is so awesome for people that I can't imagine anybody would want to opt out.

For example, I don't think anyone in all of Europe would opt for 'less' transit services, they are usually great and used heavily - and you can still drive if you want.

> We need to have zoning laws.

Zoning laws, especially ones as expansive as what the US has, have only existed as they are for about 60 years. My still living grandmother can recollect how the process to buy and build her house was straightforward - you buy the lot from the private owner, you draft up your own design, you buy materials and you build your house. No county zoning code, no state inspector.

This is in suburban PA, where pretty much 50-70% of standing homes were built pre-zoning and there is no new home owner being "exploited" here - you simply get 2 inspectors to look over the house for code violations, deduct the cost of getting the house to code compliance from the sale price, and make that your offer.

> Once a city has been structured

There are cities around the world that have existed in some form for thousands of years. They constantly evolve and change, and to think we are at some point in progress that it won't happen anymore seems like undue hubris. Cities will absolutely continue to change, the only difference being if cities want to use the law to prevent organic change and growth, it will simply go elsewhere and the city will wither and die.

The reason NA doesn't get public transit is a vicious cycle, with historical motivations:

* Awful zoning and building code means new construction cannot happen, leading to city rot.

* City rot drives money away, and leaves the husk to the poor.

* The poor have no collective will or enough economic impact to justify investment, so the cities they reside in never see infrastructure development that would drive economic growth.

* The fleeing rich seek extraordinary zoning blockades to keep the poor (ie, minorities) out, but by taking the money with them they take the growth opportunities that attract anyone less than lavish.

* The rich become extraordinarily NIMBY to defend against undesirables moving near their neighborhoods. Additionally, they use their influence in zoning and NIMBY policy to zone / structure where they live in unsustainable and culturally hostile ways to project their desired vision for where they live.

* The economic stagnation the extreme amount of overregulation causes pushes you back to eventual rot, and you restart the cycle.

Why do you feel the need to say (ie minorities) after the poor. Are rich affluent minorities less likely to try and separate themselves from the poor? Are these rich people making an exception for poor whites?

>and ample choice for those who want to have a 'big house' vs. 'smaller home' vs. 'urban flat'.

As long as you don't actually want a big property and cars at a middle class cost. In the many US suburbs, you can get a 3000 Sq ft home with a two car garage (not included in the area calc) for less than $200k and be within a half hour drive from a major city center.

So those German cities are only 'ideal' if you have different priorities.

You can definitely buy a 3000 Sq foot home in Germany, it's just a little further out.

Also - Germany is quite a bit smaller than the US so property prices are an issue.

There's no reason there couldn't be a 'Frankfurt, Maine' - with large homes a little further out - and still cheap.

No, they arent really compatible. Good transportation requires high density or or high property values to pay the taxes required to build it.

I'm not aware of any city in the world where someone can purchase a 3000 Sq ft+ property with a two car garage for less than 4x the average annual family income and have access to amazing public transportation.

You haven't been to Europe then.

Everywhere has busses, trams, trains and cities have subway.

If you really want a huge home and want to 'ride public transit' - then it's possible to get one near or by a bus route, or a short walk from the station at the village.

Or you can buy a little further out, and drive 2 minutes to the village and catch the train when needed.

"Good transportation requires high density or or high property values to pay the taxes required to build it."

No, it just requires foresight, social buy in and a tax base.

Almost everywhere in Europe has really good transport - and it actually is possible to buy big homes, very few want them.

I have been to Europe, many times. Any houses actually near good public transportation (good = frequent and wide reaching enough to not need a car), are either small or very expensive.

>Almost everywhere in Europe has really good transport

No, it doesn't. If your bar for good public transportation is a bus route and a drive to a nearby train station, then the US has good public transportation as well because every city has buses.

Good transportation is within the cities like Paris, Vienna, Rome, London. Trains run at least every 10 minutes and can get you nearly anywhere in the city within a half hour. It has to be good enough that it's actually faster and more convenient than driving. All of the houses on these train stops are very expensive or very small (or both if you're in London).

My grandparent's house nearby Berlin is close to 3000 sq ft. They only built it this large to rent out the second floor.

No garage, a carport is enough for the few times a year someone needs to park a car there.

Bus stops every 90 minutes, so not exactly amazing, but good enough for the occasional trip to the city.

Note that bus service doesn't need lots of tax money to build up infrastructure, so it can be built out into even sparsely populated areas.

A once every 90 minutes bus is complete garbage. Almost every city (including small ones) in the US has that.

If that's your bar for good public transportation, then the US has amazing public transportation.

"You'll gradually get more density and less traffic this way over time, assuming that's what people want (and if it's not, they'll get what they want instead)"

That's not how it works. Aggregate preferences doesn't, necessarily, give you the best of worlds. All kind of local minimums and nasty equilibriums are possible.

> For god's sakes, just let property owners do what they want with their property (within limits of safety).

Houston is the counterexample to your thesis.

Houston is getting taller, though. 3-4 story townhomes, 4-8 per former single family home lot are taking over lots of old, rundown neighborhoods.

Maybe that's not your optimal amazing perfect development. But it doesn't count as not going up.

Of course, it's also growing out at a tremendous rate as well.

Houston is growing outward WAY faster than it is growing upward.

Of course, Houston is not helped by having weather not terribly conducive to walking year round.

>and wishing to harness violent force (government rules)

aaaaand I can safely ignore everything you say.

god forbid people want to sleep at night...

This seems like it would result in the consolidation of real estate (and therefore policy) by the wealthy.

People still live there.

> Is "just" changing zoning actually enough? Is there a case study?

Changing zoning and eliminating minimum parking requirements, height limitations and setbacks is a good start.

Case studies? Towns in the US before zoning, and much of modern Europe?

Politically... it's a much tougher problem. People are used to their 'burbs and feel they have a right to tell other people what to do with their own land.

Signing up for organizations like the various YIMBY groups, Strong Towns, and so on is probably a good first step.

If you don't have a local YIMBY group - make one!

I want my car. I need my car for when I drive to places NOT in the city. Like visiting family.

Make it so I can still store my car (near) my unit. Also that there's a GOOD loading dock so I can get items to/from my unit and transport.

This might be a mega-garage at the edge of a city with moving belt people movers and giant commercial promenades that are covered indoor malls /between/ buildings.

It might just be more parking under the building out of sight.

I also NEED sufficient privacy. I don't want to hear my neighbors slamming the microwave around, food processioning, or cleaning. Nor do I want to hear that idiot above me who thuds around too much. Build it in to the fire and privacy codes that there WILL be walls of sufficient thickness.

Make that inner wall a complete full one, no plumbing or electrical/etc. That's where all of the insulation goes. That's the disconnect between units. Then /outside/ of that build the utility / facing wall that isn't for support, it's for finishing and routing of wall items.

The roof? I'm not sure how to handle that other than, maybe something similar.

Then, what I want, give me a good choice of true high-speed (Ethernet/Fiber) ISPs.

Also, what other people want. Do all of the above, but also build in PLENTY of FAMILY sized units. Units with 4+ real rooms and a common area. Also make it easier to sublet within those rooms for friends (this means the inner doors might need locks as well, and should also sound-isolate).

You can have that. A freestanding home in a quiet neighborhood with a garden and space to park one car per family with affordable housing and high quality transit in reasonably dense urban development (150+ density, 2x that of the city of San Francisco) is possible. And it scales to millions of people, even tens of millions. But you need Japanese street geometry. That means small blocks and really narrow streets. Really narrow like 4-5m wide streets making up 80% of all street kilometers in your city. That's 4-5m building line to building line with no sidewalks because the entire street has to be shared.

It works, but it's no good for daily driving. You can get out of town in a car with some patience, but you're going to take the train in town.

If you can accept that, you can have it all. But no American city has made that choice.

I just moved to a new, big building in SF that has literally all of these things. This is the new market rate housing that Yimby groups are fighting for in cities, it's being built.

At least part of the issue is a chicken and egg type problem. Older city housing stock mostly does not meet your criteria (or it does but costs several millions of dollars and has no density), so people oppose dense urban housing, so it doesn't get built, so we never get to see how it actually can meet the criteria people care about.

While I'm not especially sympathetic to a lot of the cities must change to accommodate what I want, it honestly sounds as if you like certain aspects of city living but not others. The problem is that they more or less come as a bundle.

The problem is that they more or less come as a bundle.

Not everywhere. Salt Lake City for example has wide streets and multi-story underground garages to allow locals and commuters alike to drive to the city, with a walkable city center above the garages. The newest residential buildings in the city also advertise their double-walled soundproofing between units.

If you're OK with smaller cities, then there are quite a few options. I know quite a few people who live in downtown Raleigh for example. But I suspect that most of the people advocating for city living are thinking more in terms of SF and NYC.

I'm in the process of moving from SLC to SF myself, and if you are okay with staying in like a five block radius, there are quite decent walkable food and living options in SLC. The air gets pretty bad, though.

I was never especially wowed by SLC when I used to visit there semi-regularly though the nearby skiing is hard to beat.

One issue I have with a lot of smaller cities with walkable cores is that you run out of choices pretty quickly. I'm familiar with a number of places in that vein and they're fine to visit once in a while but I think I'd tire of them as an example of "city living" pretty quickly if I were looking for that sort of thing.

I never got bored with lunch for the two and a half years I worked downtown in SLC. Now that I'm in SF I am having a hard time finding replacements for some of my SLC favorites -- one advantage of a smaller city center is there's more variety in less walking distance. SLC has good Asian crossover, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican (good stuff like mole), American, Thai, Italian, hipster, burger, pizza, sushi, etc. options all close to each other. Some of that is fairly recent.

For lunch, I'm fine with a handful of options. Heck, I was good with the handful of decent lunchtime restaurants in downtown Nashua NH for a number of years. But for the tradeoffs involved with actually living in a city, I want a lot more than a reliable rotation of restaurants.

Since I'm currently moving from small city to big city, could you list some of the tradeoffs as you see them, and how best to address them?

Specifically with respect to SF vs. SLC though it's somewhat general to coastal big city vs. relatively prosperous smaller city:

- SF is going to be a lot more crowded, noisy, less clean, obvious signs of poverty. Nothing you can really do to address it other than be aware that some areas are best generally avoided.

- On the other hand, SF has a lot more culture, restaurant variety, and is just a more interesting urban environment than SLC. So, basically, take advantage of that. SF, more than even most larger cities, has a huge number of interesting nooks and crannies to explore.

- Generally speaking, smaller cities often do have some degree of walkability in a central core but you're still crowded in to some degree while you lack the variety and opportunities that preferred large cities have to offer. (I'm not personally much of a fan of smaller cities. I think they tend to have city disadvantages without giving me offsetting benefits.)

These are all things you can absolutely pay to have under a market-based system. More mixed-use housing does not mean there won't be other kinds of housing.

Markets would probably also provide units without all the above and while you may not want to live there, perhaps someone would accept it rather than not be able to live in an area at all.

> Case studies? Towns in the US before zoning, and much of modern Europe?

And Houston. There are many case studies, and they point in many directions.

Houston doesn't exactly not have zoning.


>“We do have a lot of land-use regulations,” Festa said. “We still have a lot of stuff that looks and smells like zoning.” To be be more precise, Houston doesn’t exactly have official zoning. But it has what Festa calls “de facto zoning,” which closely resembles the real thing. “We’ve got a lot of regulations that in other cities would be in the zoning code,” Festa said. “When we use it here, we just don’t use the ‘z’ word.”

> Case studies? Towns in the US before zoning, and much of modern Europe?

Both places started from quite a different place than a modern US municipality. A little too glib an answer, I think.

Current Japan. Same level of tech, the entire nation was bombed to bits in WW2, so it's not for historical reasons (absent Kyoto, which was spared but has some of the worst urban traffic, so old designs might not work too great).

Main difference between Japan and US is that the zoning is "zoning class or lower", not "zoning class"

So an area that is "factories" can also have commercial stores or residential areas. Areas that are zoned for high rise offices can also have high rise residencies or low-rise offices.

This means that decisions on what gets built in an area are much more guided by what people want. Convenience stores get placed in the middle of neighborhoods (same zoning class as small housing), because.... that's the logical thing to do. Small 3 people companies just set up shop in an appartment, not needing to get more expensive office space.

The end result: if a neighborhood is far from a super market, someone will quickly buy up a plot of land and set one up. Services go where they need to. The lack of reclassification also avoids regulatory hurdles and potential NIMBY vetos.

Case in point: next to where I live, there used to be a large factory. It's gotten demolished and is being replaced by a couple apartment complexes + a grocery store + book store. The process went very quickly, with little issue.

It helps that the transit companies are also real estate, so there's a bit of planning on that end for larger development. But most of the growth is organic, and there are a lot of players.

> the entire nation was bombed to bits in WW2

Which makes it an exceptionally poor case study for our purposes.

Also, Japan is about the size of California while America is one of the largest countries on Earth.

Yes, no place is exactly like the U.S. And no two humans are alike either but that doesn't mean we can't test medicines, for example.

What specifically about urban environments in Japan and Europe won't work in the US?

Are you planning to raze the existing homes, infrastructure, roads, etc.? If so I don't know how it's comparable.

For cities you might look to Singapore. Many people find that owning a car is not necessary when the externalities are priced in. Singapore's Certificate of Entitlement system partly rectifies this using an open auction. The current price for a 10 year registration is about 35k USD.

Some people still own cars but at least they think twice, and often share one per family. And not having so many cars per capita means non-luxury businesses must cater to public transit users.


Singapore in general is probably the best example of what a wealthy urban benevolent dictatorship looks like. Their Single City Gallery (basically their urban planning museum) is a must visit for anyone interested in that sort of thing. Whether that's a desirable or practical model for a US city, I'll leave to others.

Singapore is not a dictatorship by any means. It is listed as a "flawed democracy" by the Economist: the same qualitative rating they give to the United States.

The Singapore government controls all the major press outlets and sues political opponents into bankruptcy. A single party has won every election since independence. The US has flaws, but in a completely different way from Singapore.

The description I heard of the Japanese zoning system seemed pretty good: zones increased in terms of noise and irritants. In, say, zone 1, you could have low rise houses, but no commercial centers. But in the commercial zone, you could have houses.

So the zones set an upper bound but not a lower bound.

More info: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12325992

So you could start with the commercial zones and simply allow them to become mixed use. And for new developments, you could authorize mixed use cases. In a lot of areas they're currently forbidden, even with no existing residents.

This is not directly what you want, but a better statement of the article's fundamental claim is given here:


and the other articles on that site give some ideas about how to make it work.

Thanks for the link, good read. Good to see Mr. Kuntsler is still fighting the good fight, haven't come across him for a long time.

> Now, the funny thing is that the New Suburbanists don’t hold any other urban place as an ideal either. They don’t point to a single urban place in the world and say, “yes, this is what I want.” But the fact is, the world has a good selection of functioning, enjoyable, pleasant metropolises. Tokyo is my favorite

> My definition of an urban environment is one where it is easier to not own a car than to own one.

Totally agree with this, and I simply can't understand why neighborhoods like this are so rare in North America. Tokyo, from what little time I've spent there, strikes me as a near perfect lifestyle, such a high proportion of completely walkable neighborhoods, plenty of green parks, plenty of incredible and cheap places to eat, and all connected by an efficient train system. Granted, population helps a lot in this, but it's certainly not something we could work towards in most places.

Vancouver Canada has quite a few neighborhoods that are fairly similar, but the problem with moving forward is the demand for housing is so high such that as soon as something is zoned for building towards this model, the price of the land immediately rises to the point where you practically have to be a millionaire (at least) to buy anything more than 500 square feet. Because of this, this city center is doomed as far as I can tell, but I see no reason we couldn't start building mini-self-sufficient towns like this in the suburbs with the "town centre" surrounding the train station...yet, I'd bet money that we will not for reasons unknown to me.

> you have to be a millionaire to buy

You don't have to buy property somewhere to live there and most people throughout history have not done so, and as far as I'm aware most continue not to do so now in places like NYC, Paris, Tokyo, etc.

Incentives for density. California has a loophole in property tax which facilitates hording and speculation (evaluation only occurs at time of purchase, not annually reevaluated), this is why there's still so many empty lots and empty buildings in metro areas.

Reevaluate property tax / land value tax each year along with sensible zoning and development permits. Attend your local town hall meetings and offer counter arguments against NIMBYs and real estate leaches.

Simple, apply money. Ungodly amounts of money.

An example, Tyson's Corner, VA was developed over the decades as a car friendly tangle of office parks and commercial shopping. It has something like 160,000 parking spaces with a population under 20,000. The area is in the beginning of a major 40 year redevelopment plan that will cost a nontrivial percentage of a trillion dollars.


One of the last times I was there, I remember I was staying in some hotel and could literally see the shopping center with the restaurant I was planning to eat in across the road. I had to get in my car because there was no way to safely cross the single road between where I was and where I wanted to get to.

How do we get there? Hop on a plane to China. Nearly any city there is high density mixed use.

Pay off the neighbors. The benefits of intensification are city wide and not local, so create a local benefit.

The problem is zoning. If zoning didn't outlaw the type of cities they are describing, then perhaps it would happen.

This is why people are now becoming skeptical of new construction, new neighborhoods in the Bay Area. For a San Francisco example, check out the new mission bay developments. The area still feels dangerous and empty. Not enough realistic businesses - there is no legitimate reason to be on the street, other than wanting to 'hang out' in public spaces.

Once Mission Bay becomes a nightlife draw, with a mix of uses - like the Castro or Polk for example - then it will be an example of something done well. Until then, nope.

I agree with most of your statement but only partially agree with your view on Mission Bay. As a Mission Bay resident, I think it feels sleepy and a bit sterile, it does NOT feel dangerous at all. I've been in neighborhoods that feel sketchy in SF, but Mission Bay is not one of them. Its actually the only dense, urban area of SF I can think of that's both clean and quiet.

Its still too early to tell if Mission Bay is a success or not. Most of the housing here is either still in the development pipeline[0,1,2] or just finished within the last 1-2 years. Mission Rock [1] is probably the most ambitious and likely to draw crowds. Also, the 4th street retail area is just starting to sprout up with shops. It just takes time for neighborhoods to develop.

0: http://www.onemissionbay.com/

1: http://www.missionrock.com/

2: http://www.dbarchitect.com/project_detail/161/FIVE88%20Workf...

Good points, but we are still running against the age old problem of a designed environment vs a natural environment.

Perhaps an argument could be made that, this time, architects have finally gotten smart about the failures of designed spaces.

The classic critique being "Notes on a Synthesis of Form": https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0674627512/ref=oh_aui_deta...

I confess to not having fully read my copy of this book yet, so I cannot offer a rousing rebuttal to a 'better designed space'.

Does anyone know why we never see new apartment and office building with shops on the street level? This seems like the most natural configuration for dense city, and SF has quite a bit of land specifically zoned in this way. See the orange regions here:


But almost all modern buildings I've seen, both residential and commercial, have huge lobbies. This means the shops are very thinly distributed at street-level, even in downtown areas with tall skyscrapers.

New buildings tend to have boring street-levle commercial spaces (banks, tanning salons, etc) because the underground parking requires ramps at street level, and that makes the shops shallow. Interesting businesses generally need a fair amount of space back (like old buildings all have). Basically if you build for cars you're going to lose pedestrian amenities.

This may be a contributing factor, especially in places where they are building small apartment building and each has a garage, but I don't think it's a dominant factor.

First, a couple of ramps that go underground is really not that much space in the footing of a big tower. I see old neighborhoods with lots of shops that nevertheless have underground garages. Second, I don't think shops are that deep. New city blocks, especially hosting skyscrapers, are much deeper than the typical blocks in (say) the West Village. Those shops seem to do fine with very little floorspace.

FHA and HUD loans cap the ratio of commercial to residential, and so strongly favor single use developments. Banks take their cue from this and are also less willing to lend to such projects. It's a shame because in many cities, these are the most vibrant neighborhoods that are definitely commercially viable, though maybe not as lucrative much as a mall or exclusive condo. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/2/12/roadblock-on-m...

That's literally the only type of building I see being built in Seattle. For both towers and 4 to 8 story compounds.

Like, a 30-story tower where more than 50% of the street-level exposure is shops? I believe you, but it's not been my experience in a bunch of cities.

Much of Seattle, and virtually all new construction for the last several years, is like this. I think it may be a requirement of the city. It is one of the reasons many people live here without a car, or own one but never use it, if they live vaguely close to the urban core. Many of the outlying neighborhoods are similar too, though not as dense.

Seattle high-rises usually have retail/restaurants on the 1st and sometimes 2nd floor; if the building is tall, there may be some commercial office space on some floors above retail; and then residential is the majority of the building above that. It means you generally don't have to walk very far for anything.

From a quality of life standpoint, I love it. I only need to drive if I am leaving the city.

Most of the high-density areas in Portland have a majority of buildings with ground-level retail and restaurants. With that said, most of that is buildings of 5-10 stories, though there are scattered high-rises with ground-floor retail, including a few where the inside lobby is open to the public and is effectively a small mall with convenience stores, small restaurants, etc.

Very much agree. Would be great to let neighborhoods or cities experiment with alternative zoning and planning policies, but sadly it seems every place is following the same templates.

Some random pointers for those interested: http://urbankchoze.blogspot.com/2014/04/japanese-zoning.html http://narrowstreetssf.com/

We had friends who moved to mission bay because they wanted to live in a place that wasn't built in the 20s. They moved out after a year for the reason you mentioned.

Also the T is the least well served line. Shadows of racism because of where it ends up, but still.

The neighborhood ends up being filled with people rushing home after work, and since it isnt a mixed area, ie: not many families, the after-dark streets seem dangerous.

I used to live right near Laguna and Market, and the amount of how much traffic meant I always felt safe no matter the day or night. Lots of businesses open late too.

I find nighttime traffic inversely correlated with how safe I feel at night -- in the Transbay district, it's completely quiet at night except for that one homeless person. Whereas at Mission and 9th, there are cars and bottles and people running around everywhere.

The key to making cities awesome for residents is to shrink the max footage any business gets on the block. Small store fronts increase variety in a given distance and allow for much shorter walking distances to far more stuff.

It also benefits the city because there are more people in general.

> Not enough realistic businesses - there is no legitimate reason to be on the street, other than wanting to 'hang out' in public spaces.

What's wrong with that? "Hanging out" is what public places are for.

Yea that's why building the warriors stadium there was a great idea, it will bring the much needed foot traffic during games or concerts for more business to open up.

Is this sarcastic? Stadiums are dead zones. During the game everybody is in the stadium. When there's no game you have a completely empty block. Before and after games you have huge crowds coming and going.

Basketball (41 home games + playoffs) and baseball (81 + playoffs) are much better attractors than football (8 games + playoffs). Football stadiums are also much larger. The Staples Center in LA, Camden Yards in Baltimore, Wrigley in Chicago, and Fenway in Boston are all great in this regard.

Not to mention at ~18,000 seats and enclosed, it should be able to host tons of other events. So you'll have 41 NBA games during the year but also dozens of attractions -- they're planning on ~200 events per year.

This helps, but it's still kind of a problem if you have an "event space" that nobody ever visits outside of events. Portland's Rose Quarter is like this, for instance - in theory it's an entertainment district, but literally all that happens there is (a) scheduled events and (b) people crossing between transit lines, so most of the time most of the area is just a big expanse of empty unused concrete.

It may take more than just the event space. The grandparent gives good examples and notes basketball and baseball are better attractors.

My town, Indianapolis, manages to integrate most events right into the downtown along with the convention center, hotels, and the financial district. Lucas Oil Field and Victory Field are around the corner on the edge of downtown; that section feels slightly more dead. But Banker's Life Fieldhouse is right there in walking distance and hosts concerts, circuses, Disney on Ice, etc., in addition to the main draw of NBA and WNBA games. So there are multiple events per week, plus conferences and conventions during the week. Plus youth sports events. When you add up the hustle and bustle of weekday office business, restaurants, and all the events, it feels like there's always something going on. Somehow all that fits in a relatively small downtown. There are no expansive parking lots like one might expect for a football stadium outside the city, so that helps the feel; I don't know where people park when Lucas Oil is full but somehow they get there.

The Rose Quarter in Portland is extremely isolated, from a pedestrian sense.

Compate the Moda Center Portland - https://goo.gl/maps/pAzRD2rLFRv

with Wrigley in Chicago at the same scale - https://goo.gl/maps/oTKEs75Y7BL2

There's probably 2-3 orders of magnitude more people within a pedestrian mile.

No I wasn't trying to be sarcastic, I really think its a good idea. San Francisco is not like any other typical American city, any big singer/artist on tour will come to San Francisco and this will be the only big event arena in the City. Owners are expecting 200 events/year.. That's a lot days when the streets of mission bay will be filled with 20k people.

I lived by a stadium (where the Sonics used to play), and let me tell you, it sucked. Either the neighborhood was dead or it was crammed with cars and people just passing through. It was never fun.

To echo your thoughts, I lived in Cow Hollow and on the days of big events (blue angels, union street festival) I stayed inside. I don't mind tourists, and I love busy streets, but I'll pass on the traffic and asshats, that generally don't care about the neighborhood, that large events like these invite.

+1. Someone mentioned the Los Angeles Staples Center elsewhere in this thread as a positive example. I live in South Park (the neighborhood that Staples Center is part of) and it is either empty or gridlocked. Same thing with the Coliseum, Forum, and Dodger Stadium.

I used to live at 3rd & Mariposa, right at the edge of the Dog Patch and Mission Bay and ball game days were awful. My commute would be awful especially on public transit; going out would be impossible.

I think the GP was serious.

I totally agree with you. It took years for South Beach / Ballpark in SF to become anything that remotely resembles a neighborhood. I remember considering it, briefly in 2008, but my gf decided it wasn't safe enough for her. I didn't like the lack of city amenities.

There is more now, but that's been driven by nightlife chasing after post-work startup people, presumably needing to find somewhere to drink after a rough day :-)

'Building Cities' is a non-trivial activity that occurs on a time scale such that by the time it's substantially implemented driving won't mean what it means today. Suburbia is not so much a response to poor planning as a reaction to the mechanization of agriculture that sparked a demographic shift from rural to 'urban' living.

Mechanization meant that a minimal family farms became approximately an order of magnitude larger (from 1/4 section of 160 acres to a couple of sections and >1000 acres). Along with all those farmers the shopkeepers had to find someplace in the city too. Automobiles encouraged the migration by making it easier to relocate off the farm.

Cities had not planned for that influx. Or for cars. Moreover, cities were increasingly discouraging tenements...with sound scientific reasoning. The suburbs were about the only quick fix. Cities take a long time and a lot of money to build. It also costs more in political capital and financial capital than building roads...multiple jurisdictions will float bonds for transportation infrastructure versus multiple private interests that must agree for many modestly scaled real-estate development projects...https://nypost.com/2014/09/19/nyc-church-bags-71m-for-air-ov...

In the past couple of years, I've started thinking about real-estate in terms of monopolies. Locations are not fungible and control of a parcel is an absolute but localized monopoly. What suburbia does is disrupt (or maybe bypass do to the locality) entrenched monopolies. Forty minute commutes are somewhat fungible. Boxes made of ticky-tacky are also somewhat fungible. Chain retail is very much fungible.

The expressway + car infrastructure to support suburban development was not cheap. It was in no ways organic. It was supported by the FHA's race-based redlining policies and banks that gave loans in the post-war era to white GIs to build homes in white-only suburbs.



>Moreover, cities were increasingly discouraging tenements...with sound scientific reasoning.

Please cite said "scientific" reasoning.

That's a tail wagging the dog issue.

Cars revolutionized society in a lot of ways. They're cheap and opened up possibilities that were unthinkable beforehand. Greenfield building is cheaper and easier than retrofitting, and since real estate cartels typically dominate urban real estate, city life is always more expensive than the bigger, nicer and more stable suburban home.

A lot of things happened in the postwar era beyond redlining. The poor Italians, Irish, Jews and Polish who lived in the tenements started making more money and slighter better opportunity. Jim Crow sparked a great migration of blacks from the south northward. Government thought that bulldozing tenements would fix problems.

>Cars revolutionized society in a lot of ways.

The subsidization of cars and suburbs drives people away from public community spaces and dense development.

Just look at what might have been had San Francisco not risen up against the suburbification of the 1950s: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2618/3897327276_33754ebfce_o.j...

"Central Parking District"

>since real estate cartels typically dominate urban real estate

Perhaps had all the resources of government been focused on fixing this problem instead of confining black and brown people to and divesting from the inner cities, we might have more affordable, walkable, dense, valuable, resource-efficient, revenue-positive neighborhoods today.

The simplest hack for the traffic issue I've heard is to just change work schedules. Either run cities in 2 general shifts, or do several days of longer hours and then take a day off.

Certainly in London there seems to be a slip towards more of the working from home 1 day a week. It definitely feels like there are more working parents doing flexible hours out of necessity but there's a a fair amount of bias in that I've seen a lot more of that struggle from living it myself for the last 5 years.

I take the train from a commuter area and there's no real financial incentive to do 4 days commuting with 1 day off. Which I find sad - I think Train lines should _have_ to include discounted 4 day per week season tickets. Then again, I'm in a southern trains area so the trains aren't running half the time anyway....

For businesses, you start getting synchronization issues that cause inefficiencies. "Oh I can't talk to that department because they are on shift 2" and instead of a quick back and forth you get day long response times over email. Or you have to wait half a day if the shifts overlap a bit. It's like having a remote office across the world, locally.

Maybe a bit of advance planning instead of doing everything just-in-time would be worth the extra free time not spent in gridlock.

That doesn't matter if two groups have to have a conversation about something over a period of time so they can come to agreement about something.

Usually this happens during that 'advance planning' stage. It adds an unavoidable lag time to come to some sort of decision or plan, especially when there is a conflict.

And if people have to wait on a decision to get started on something, that adds more inefficiency.

Another solution is to live close to work, build high-rises and subways, or you have 'core meeting hours' and people come in from 9am-noon.

Asynchronous communication is made easier by raising multiple points at once, rather than sending one-line responses. It also helps to have multiple directions of work available, so progress can still be made in one area while blocked in another. Both of these strategies can carry a political/negotiating/leverage cost (all cards on the table at once), but I consider that a good thing :).

Core hours: have some consideration for late risers and people with DSPS. Early birds have enough control already.

We already do all of that. It's still slower and less productive. I'm going through it right now with a remote office actually.

It sounds like, if building a remote team from scratch, it would be good to try to create isolated clusters of decision-making power on a shared schedule per cluster.

That's usually the goal, but then teams have to work together for future projects not foreseen.

I personally would like to see a "mandatory non-car-transportation day" here in the US. Office workers and the like would have to travel to work without a car one day per week/month. Work from home, bicycle, carpool, public transportation, whatever.

I suspect the SF Bay Area is now well past the point where flexible work schedules helps with traffic. AM rush hour starts at 7am and runs through 10am; the PM rush hour starts at 3pm and runs through 7pm.

Interesting. Found a video that shows that pattern on a specific day https://youtu.be/O4Bx0ygwBxo

I still think having people coming to the office less is prettty straight-forward and would help.

I will never live further than 10 minutes from work again. Traffic is such a waste of life.

You are lucky to have the option to choose. Part of the problem is that as a city grows, the average distance between any two points grows while there are more people trying to commute. It becomes an N^2 problem.

As you get older too you will find that other criteria define your willingness to move when you get a new job. Don't count on being able to find your ideal job within 10 minutes of your current home.

Well, I took a 10% pay cut (and moved house) to get a job that I could walk to in <10 minutes. I think the point of the grandparent is that proximity to the office is of greater primacy than some other traditionally valued attributes, like career prospects or pay.

I'm 35 and sold my house in the Bay Area because of a 1.2 hour commute. Its likely the only house I will ever be able to afford, so I'm not just an idealistic kid. I did the math and was scared that 20 days per year was spent in traffic.

It scared me to death.

it might not be as big of an issue when you get that self driving car


I totally agree, but also recognized how amazingly lucky we are to even consider making such a commitment. Most folks don't have options like that.

I think that's part of the problem though, as a consequence of car ownership we've normalized having a terrible commute. We can't build traffic-free cities if we're not committed to the idea.

The commute is created by the expense of moving closer to work.

If renting, you may suffer a rent control reset.

If owning, you lose 10% of the home's value to various middlemen. You also get a reset on property taxes.

Either way, you also have the opportunity cost associated with a house search, and you have the moving expenses.

It's still a symptom of the root issue -- sparse, car-centric cities. I live in NYC and the odds of me switching jobs to the point where I'd need to move (or purchase a car) are basically nil. Even if the only job I could find was in Stamford I'd still have a better commute than a lot of people in LA.

I think you aren't seeing all the options:

  1. super-dense city core (your current situation)
  2. mega sprawl like LA and Houston
  3. traditional suburb, with long commute into a city
  4. out on the farm/ranch, maybe telecommuting
  5. small town
  6. small city
In particular, I think #6 is what you are missing out on. By that I mean the sort of place with 50 to 100 thousand people, laid out like a suburb but not oriented around commuting to a big city. The population density would be 1000 to 2000 per square mile.

In this sort of place, commuting is easy by both bicycle and car. Traffic is seldom much of a concern. Parking is plentiful. Usually the houses are cheap, frequently 100 to 500 thousand for free-standing homes with yards. Usually the schools are good, with enough people to have a full set of advanced classes at the local high school.

I've lived in several of these in several states. My commute is typically single-digit miles. I normally drive, but walking isn't much trouble. Currently I walk less than a mile. I'll need to do 5 miles in the near future, which should take 10 minutes by car.

What is not to like about it?

There's also option #7, small city that's a short commute away from a large city. There are a lot of places in New England that are like this.

Furthermore, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the job is in the large city--which it often isn't.

Small city has 0 or 1 employers that are larger than local in scope. It's fine if you are an accountant or dentist or carpenter and there aren't too many like you in town already, but what if you work in a specialized industry?

Consider Melbourne, FL. It's in that size range.

It has Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Harris, Embraer, GE Transportation Systems, GE Energy Management, FightLite Industries, Thales, Raytheon, DRS, and a bunch of little cyberwar startups.

So there is plenty related to aircraft, cyberwar, and generally all sorts of engineering/manufacturing/etc. for government (especially military) purposes.

Working in a specialized industry is fine. The city is specialized.

OTOH, moving elsewhere is not the end of the world. There are many other fine small cities all across America. You don't have to live where there is more than one job suited for you. Moving every now and then will let you experience more of America.

It doesn't scale, by definition.

It scales just fine. The continental USA can hold about 200000 of these, with a total population of 6 to 12 billion. (hey, that's everybody!)

Scale by making more cities, not bigger cities.


If you don't live in SFO or NYC you're doomed to a miserable existence of restless toil.

I know you say this in jest, but I'll be damned if this isn't a sadly predominant attitude among people I know.

If NYC was such a bad idea, why is it a massive portion of the US economy?

It's not a bad idea. There's just a few hundred million of us that don't want to live there/that way. I'm happy for everyone that does want to be there.

I didn't say it was a bad idea.

But... a significant percentage of professional jobs are in the NY Metro area, but not in the movie ideal NYC environment.

Serious question: what would it look like if everyone needed to live in a NYC. Of course there would be more of them, but the big cities would probably get bigger. What would a double-size NYC look like? Living somewhere so big and crowded that officials physically press/pack people into a subway car at rush hour sounds awful to me. But folks in Tokyo put up with it. Makes me wonder if it's by choice. Honestly wonder...

Two body problems almost always mean one body has to sacrifice for the other.

unless you stack the bodies in a high rise at different prices :)

"Two body problem" refers to a married couple. It is p^2 as hard to find good jobs near a potential home.

We are the privileged few. Most people are in dire straights. So yes, I'm thankful to have that option.

Not married? No kids ? Asking your family to change schools and give up all their friends isn't something everyone has the option of doing

Make more money...

"Traffic is such a waste of life"

Fully-autonomous driving can mitigate this; you will still be commuting, but with an added benefit of being hands-free (to check your e-mails, to finish up your TPS reports, to nap) for much of society this can be highly efficient if utilized correctly.

Do youove house every time you change jobs?

maybe generalizing to my situation, but if you are in a dense city then being 10 minutes away from your job is being 10 minutes away from any job.

Many jobs are not in the cities. Of course, you can choose to not consider those options but they're the majority of jobs in many places.

Low cost is not defined in this article. Absolutely no strategy is given other than "build new walkable cities someplace else", which seems hard to justify as low cost to me.

What is the cost to maintain/upgrade our current car-based transportation infrastructure? Streets, parking, enforcement, etc all have a cost and it's not $0 and 0 square feet.

Not as much as civil engineering societies claim.

In my mid-sized city, roads are reasonably well maintained. The city budget is 78% police and fire salary/benefits. Less than 8% is allocated to the public works department, which includes other functions as well. State grants ranging from 1-3% provide some assistance for roads.

Impressive! What city?

Since this journal is called Governing after all I imagine it has something to do with policy.

You know, the free stuff, no parking space minimums for new developments, rezoning city areas to allow for shops, enabling actual new developments in the first place instead of NIMBYism.

The average commute in Tokyo is 80 minutes on an extremely packed and uncomfortable train with lots of sick and often smelly people. Urban density is not in and of itself a solution traffic

I hear so much about traffic and congestion, its ill effects, disadvantages and just rants of frustration. I face and feel it everyday. So why is it not solved already ?

Here's why : 1. Traffic affects those who cannot/will not make a significant difference to the problem and 2. the ones who can make a difference don't face it/ don't consider it a top tier problem / can pay for a way around it (live closer, don't have to drive the same route each day)

You also won't hear any political/marketing campaigns about reducing traffic and congestion unless public transport becomes a private thing. I believe there's tons of money to be made here but the initial funding required is astronomical and not to mention deep connections in the public sector (licensing) required to even get this off the ground. I can imagine a decentralized mechanism to do this but there are just too many failure points in any strategy that I can think of. Not a problem that a bunch of kids could start solving in their garage you see.

I don't see this getting fixed anytime soon anywhere.

Regarding #1. It has been my experience that the folks who are affected by traffic the most tend to think about it the least. When asked, they are bewildered there are even other options.

"I can't take the bus/train - it doesn't go to where I need" - start with the 5 whys and it's a pain to get even halfway to the conclusion. The car (and the supporting infrastructure!) is just assumed in most folks' minds. At least in the US.

I don't know why a 5 whys analysis is so hard. I loved my bus commute, but it's no longer viable. Why should I limit my options?

Why do you drive?

A: Its the most efficient way to get to work in several dimensions including time, flexibility and cost.

Why don't you get a job in walking/bus distance?

A: I'm a director on a good career path in an organization that I am happy with. Opportunities with similar pay, influence and outlook are not trivial to attain.

Why don't you move?

A: My son is established at a local school that he walks to and has friends in. Migrating around like a day laborer is a miserable existence that no professional will sign up for.

What can they do personally themselves within a time span of the next few years? Pretty much nothing. So they take the car because the bus is too slow and doesn't go where they need to and living close to work might make work far for their partner or cost too much.

I think this article misunderstands a bit about how cities grow. Any place that's now high density in a city, used to look something like a suburb. Especially in the US, every place that has a recently built 5 story midrise building probably used to be 1/4-1/3 acre lots with 2,000sqft houses on them.

Doesn't sound like a big deal but consider that land is cheap, land with buildings is not. You can find an acre around where I live for 250,000-350,000 dollars but you want to buy four neighboring houses and build density, that's going to start at 2.4 million.

And of course, you have to pay for each house what someone looking to live in it would be willing to pay. Density is only acheived when the price of density becomes worth it. If you're building a city from scratch, density is cheap but very few cities get built from scratch.

That’s not actually true, at all.

This is from a tiny village in Germany: http://newworldeconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/GV-3...

This is a village in Italy: http://newworldeconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/iv3....

A Swiss village: http://newworldeconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/sv2....

A French village from above: http://newworldeconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/egui...

Another French village from above: http://newworldeconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/ober...

Do you notice something?

These are tiny villages; around them for many kilometers is farmland. Yet they’re very dense.

The _real_ problem is psychological - "managers" feel the need to control "workers" by physical monitoring.

I suspect 80% of all office work could be done remotely.

We need a cute psychological trick like "daylight saving time", to give people permission to break convention and do things like work remotely and work in offset shifts [ so as to spread out rush hour peaks ].

I think you're in the wrong thread.

People want the personal freedom of driving cars, they want yards, and they want room. They don't want to be packed into stacked boxes.

There is no need to sacrifice owning a home with a yard or the ability to own a car. It is possible increase the population density in many suburbs through more effective land use, making more modes of transportation feasible.

Once those other modes of transportation become feasible, the myth of the personal freedom of driving may actually be true. Driving out of necessity is not freedom. It is a burden. It forces people to work more to purchase, insure, maintain, and fuel a vehicle. It forces people to work more to pay the taxes necessary to build and maintain more roads as well as higher capacity roads. It forces people to work more to pay higher taxes because the land lost to roads, whether it is paved over or serves as a buffer, does not generate property tax revenue. In cases where there is no business or residential frontage on a road, people are paying more taxes to build yet more roads to provide access the adjoining land. And even after you have considered how people are slaves to their jobs because of the expenses incurred by automobile centric cities, they are slaves to their vehicle because other modes of transportation are not viable.

Personal freedom comes from choice. Many of our cities are not designed with that choice in mind.

"Freedom is slavery" Very Orwellian.

So true. And I hope that comes to pass.

It is interesting to me that you (and many others) associate cars with freedom. I think in a way it is ingrained into American culture (at least for people that grew up in the suburbs or further out) - getting your drivers license is a rite of passage here. Up until that point you have to rely on your parents to get anywhere, because the only place you can walk to other houses in your neighborhood.

I grew up in the suburbs and moved to the inner city when I had the choice. I own a car, but I find it hard to imagine not having so much walkability. To me that is more freeing than having to drive 20 minutes to get anywhere. If I want outdoor space I can walk to a park, or drive to the countryside.

Personally, I hate doing yardwork, I like being able to walk to most things and only rarely having to drive, and I'm quite happy with my "stacked box".

Cars are not freedom when you can't drive, ie anyone younger than 16, anyone too old to drive, anyone disabled. Being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic is not freedom. Especially compared to commuting on a train where you can read or get some work done.

People also don't want to spend two hours a day commuting.

You know suburbs are a thing which barely exist outside of America, right? It's an incredibly weird, artificial concept.

You want space, you move to the countryside. That makes sense at least.

I remember when I first moved to Dublin I told people that I despised suburbs. They seemed to think this was odd. It took a while to realize they thought I meant places like Rathmines (25 minute, 1 mile walk from the core of the city), and not some asphalt hellscape 30 miles away (a la Fremont, or Dublin CA for that matter).

I live in Austin, and the traffic is ridiculous. just this week a co-worker quit because he can't stand the traffic from Round Rock to Downtown

I was just in Austin for 2 weeks, driving in Austin during rush hour is easy compared to Seattle, San Diego or LA. Whereas going 20 miles in Seattle might take me an hour and a half in Seattle at 5pm, that same trip from South Austin to North Austin is 40 minutes.

while I don't disagree that many cities have worse traffic, your vague example of "South Austin to North Austin" isn't very convincing. All I can say is that I live 12 miles north of my office downtown, and it routinely takes me an hour to get home.

Is there bike infrastructure? A healthy adult should be able to manage 14mph or so. 17 or 18 isn't crazy if you're in good shape (though stop lights kill this).

The bike infrastructure seems to only exist south of the river (what some would call "real" Austin). Outside downtown there isn't bike infrastructure, and it is dangerous to bike/walk as most streets are built 6 or more lanes wide, plus a freeway down the middle on some arterials.

Drivers do not expect people to be on foot or on bike, and the arterials are 50 to 60mph in North Austin. Considering that it has become moderately dense with Apartments & Condos in the past decade, its sad that it is dangerous to walk in that area.

If you're driving for 20 miles, you're almost certainly not "in Seattle" anymore.

To be fair, Round Rock is 20 miles away from downtown Austin. While growing up in Austin we didn't view Round Rock as a suburb, but as a completely separate city that happened to be fairly close by. It seems only normal that someone would want to work and live in the same city, and for that need not to be seen as a flaw in either one.

You are right that round Rock is not Austin. The point is that the radius from the city center that is acceptable to commute from is rapidly shrinking in austin. People are flocking here and the only option is to drive on mopac or 35.

How is the public transit in Austin?

Poor, good chunks of the city have no bus access, I ended up staying in an area that was pretty dense (3 stories minimum) and Google Maps said there was no possible route via mass transit. Turns out the bus is over an hours walk away.

there is one light rail line, and it runs like once every 30 mins. I can't speak for the bus system, since it doesn't make sense for me living in North Austin. It took me 15 mins to drive to the train station, 40 mins train ride into Austin, and then 15 min walk to my office downtown. The drive into town is half that if you come in early, so I opt to drive.

Is it good anywhere outside of NYC?

MARTA in Atlanta is pretty good from what I've seen. Rail has been on-time (+- 3 mins) every day since I started using it 6 months back. Service is decent, facilities are pretty clean imo, and the MARTA PD is always present.

London, Tokyo, Paris, Beijing, bits of the bay area....

Tax policy is key here. The most effective approach is to reduce underdevelopment of prime land, and this can be achieved through shifting taxes away from improvements and onto land value. see: Land Value Tax

It's not taxes - it's 'zoning'.

And culture. Big suburbs = lots of traffic.

We don't need 'Hong Kong' style density ...

But 'European style' density would work fine.

There are basically 0 residential high-rises in Frankfurt (they're just banks), but they still pack a lot of people in.

And it doesn't 'feel' tight or congested.

It works.

+ Trams, Trains and Subways - it's amazing.

Tax reform, zoning reform, and light rail are not mutually exclusive ideas. The density issues we face aren't so much about too much or too little density, but uneven density.

We have urban wasteland regions, and then nearby you might see very crowded areas. Car culture and zoning play a big role in that, but land speculation ought not be underestimated. Every vacant lot or abandoned building is owned by someone. If it is left vacant, that is because the owner is choosing to keep it that way. A high tax on land value, regardless of whether it is in use, would ensure that those who aren't making use of prime locations sell it off or rent it out affordably to people who do intend to make use.

It isn't as if vacant lots provide breathing room, and make cities nice places to be. Parks do that, sure, but not vacant lots. Vacant lots just attract weeds, vermin, and used heroin needles.

I admit, my focus on tax reform is actually because it would raise wages, reduce unemployment, and improve economic efficiency... and thereby improve the rate and trajectory of social progress. But the benefit of more rational land use is a nice little bonus on top of that.

I've got an incredibly cheap solution to your problem!

Step 1. Tear down your city Step 2. Rebuild a completely new city in its place.

How expensive could it be?

Money's not the problem. In SF there's tons of developers who would jump at the chance to tear down some ugly old faux-victorians to put up a highrise. It's the social cost (zoning, community boards, parking/transit regulations) that are preventative.

You're in luck: cities are constantly being rebuilt as developers tear down old buildings and put up new ones. Change the zoning, and gradually the city will shift.

Actually... the guy just reinvented Europe. With cities which grew organic when transportation was expensive, commercial and residential areas are close to each other. Even Sydney, Australia, is a nice city when you don't have a car, even for fathers who drop their kid at school in the morning (but Australia has other problems in terms of carbon emissions, probably coal electricity, long distances and meat).

And that's why USA dooms the Earth in terms of carbon emissions. The whole country is built with costless petroleum in mind. It doesn't require completely tearing down the cities (another comment suggested altering the zoning plans), but if there isn't a very strong change of cap in terms of city planning, it'll keep being unfathomable to get rid of your car as an American citizen.

The pollution tax (=integrating the cost of global warming in everything that's based on petroleum) is another way to solve it, but it will lead to the same result: Rearchitecting american cities.

Maybe you might get your wish if the "Big One" hits San Francisco again. If there's enough liquifaction, then lots of areas in the Bay Area will need to be demolished and rebuilt.

apparently japan is really good at this.

The US helped clear the cities though.

It's not really funny (though it kinda is) but back when all the talk was about how the Japanese were eating the US's lunch a frequent claim was it was because they got a fresh start after WWII. Someone or other--don't remember who--then once retorted that the problems of the US steel industry probably wouldn't be solved by dropping an A-Bomb on Gary Indiana.

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