Donald Shoup and Randal O’Toole – they just can’t get enough of each other! Donald Shoup, you may recall, is the granddaddy of free market parking policy, and Randal O’Toole is the self-styled Antiplanner. Though they both claim to be libertarians, they seem to have some pretty fundamental disagreements, which we heterodox libertarians at Market Urbanism can relate to. Shoup has made a career out of pointing out the sprawl-enhancing effects of minimum parking regulations and under-priced on-street parking, whereas O’Toole’s made his on the idea that sprawl is the free market equilibrium and that smart growth, not anti-density NIMBYism, isthe greatest threat to free markets in land.
They’ve sparred before in a roundabout way, with Randal O’Toole replying to Tyler Cowen’s very Shoupian NYT column and then Shoup posting a three–part rebuttal to that (which I wasn’t totally onboard with, surprisingly), but I think this Cato Unbound issue is the first time they’re being published head-on. It’ll also also include friend and former Market Urbanism contributer Sandy Ikeda, whose opinion I’m excited to read, along with Clifford Winston of Brookings. Shoup’s contribution was good, though probably familiar to Market Urbanism readers. But it’s O’Toole’s that I want to talk about.
There’s a lot about what he wrote that I take issue with, but to keep this post to a manageable length (I could easily make my reply to O’Toole a three-part series), I’ll stick to this paragraph. O’Toole is arguing that in most of America, parking minimums don’t contribute to sprawl since developers would build that much parking anyway:
To find out what cities would be like without minimum-parking requirements, we must turn to Texas, where counties aren’t even allowed to zone, much less impose minimum-parking requirements. This means developers are free to build for the market, not for urban planners. While cities are allowed to zone, for the most part they maintain minimal restrictions so as not to lose potential tax-paying developments to areas outside their jurisdiction. The result, as anyone who as toured Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio knows, is large amounts of low-density development supported by plenty of off-street parking, all without minimum-parking requirements (at least outside of city limits).
The first sentence is misleading, at best. His wiggle-room comes from that easily-missed parenthetical reference at the end of the paragraph, where he admits that his analysis only applies “outside of city limits” – but even then, he’s still wrong. Eliza Harris at My [Urban] Generation does the heavy lifting and looks into a random sample of Texas
counties cities (see edit at bottom) and finds that all of the ones she looks at have parking minimums:
Review of every tenth TX ordinance on municode.com starting with Addison, TX. Bonus cities: Houston, Alamo Heights, and Balch Springs. No code reviewed lacked off-street parking requirements. Full zoning code for Henrietta TX could not be found however code refers to “parking consistent with and adequate for the use proposed” under regulation of alleys.
Which brings me to O’Tooles caveat – “at least outside of city limits.” But as Eliza also mentions, dense development – the kind that would benefit from not having to adhere to parking minimums – must occur in already built-up places, so the fact that it’s allowed (which it’s at least sometimes actually not) in places that aren’t built-up is really not very helpful or relevant. O’Toole is basically saying that you can go ahead and build parking-less new developments – as long as it’s in a place that not even the most wide-eyed first-year planning student would think to build. Without actually delving into the codes myself, Michael Lewyn’s study of land use regulation in Houston (academic version here, shorter article here) gives some examples of parking minimums that seem just as high as, if not higher than, the average American zoning code.
Beyond parking, I also take issue with O’Toole’s assertion that Texas cities’ land use restrictions are “minimal.” Houston is the city that’s usually cited as the most unregulated, and as far as I can tell, the story of “unzoned Houston” started with Bernard Siegan’s Land Use Without Zoning published in 1972. Analyses published more recently, though, conclude that despite rejection of the formal “zoning” label, land use in Houston is indeed very much regulated. In addition to the numerous land use restrictions that Lewyn cites in his study, a 2010 law review article (.pdf) presents a few vignettes describing land use mechanisms in Houston, including “voluntary” deed restrictions that can be renewed with far less than 100% agreement from all affected landowners, and subdivisions in which 51% of your neighbors can prohibit you from splitting your land. And then there was the Ashby Highrise controversy, where an arbitrary traffic study eventually led to victory for the NIMBYs, and sent a clear message to developers that, to misquote O’Toole, they are not free to build for the market if the market wants density.
But of all my objections to that one paragraph, I’d have to say that this sentence is the one that bothers me the most:
While cities are allowed to zone, for the most part they maintain minimal restrictions so as not to lose potential tax-paying developments to areas outside their jurisdiction.
Sound familiar? It’s the essential justification for zoning. I don’t buy it, and I didn’t think Randal did either. But I guess Texans are just so laissez-faire that even their socialism is efficient.
Edit: It looks like I made a mistake in saying that Eliza a bunch of randomly selected Texas counties and found that they all had parking minimums – they were in fact cities, which O’Toole admits have minimums. However, she did look at two counties, and both of those also had parking minimums, under the subdivision codes. As O’Toole points out, they don’t have “zoning,” but the subdivision regulations seem to be the functional equivalent.
Edit II: Turns out Hidalgo County, a poor (but growing) county in the Rio Grande Valley on the Mexican border, also has minimum parking requirements. Yet another strike against O’Toole. I tried to look up the regulations for the other Rio Grande Valley counties – all of which are very poor, and presumably have relatively low car ownership rates – but it doesn’t look like any of them have the information online.