Urbanism and Limited Government

This month, Cato Unbound is hosting a debate on parking policy. Donald Shoup kicks things off with a compelling argument for a quintessential libertarian policy proposal: repeal minimum parking regulations and use market rates to set on-street parking. Shoup explains how setting prices according to market demand will reduce congestion and allocate scarce parking spaces to their highest-valued uses.

My Cato colleague Randal O’Toole responded with an essay that I found puzzling:

Donald Shoup has done some excellent work on parking issues, and I fully support his proposals for market pricing of on-street parking and eliminating minimum-parking requirements for developers. I question, however, his proposal for what to do with the revenue from on-street parking and his closing diatribe against urban sprawl.

As Dr. Shoup is fully aware, American cities are at the heart of a battle over the future of American mobility. Urban planners and others seek to greatly reduce the role of the automobile in our future. The state of Washington has even passed a law mandating a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. Dr. Shoup’s rhetoric about the evils of urban parking and its contribution to so-called sprawl helps to incite those who are trying to reduce our mobility.

O’Toole almost seems to be responding to a different article than the one Shoup published. I cannot find a “diatribe against urban sprawl” in Shoup’s essay. Shoup does point out that minimum parking regulations promote sprawl, but that seems hard to deny and in any event does not constitute a “diatribe.” Similarly, I’m hard pressed to find any “rhetoric about the evils of urban parking” in Shoup’s piece. All I see is an argument that minimum parking rules produce more parking than is economically efficient. Again, this is a claim that a Cato scholar should regard as almost self-evident.

What’s going on here? O’Toole is right that “American cities are at the heart of a battle over the future of American mobility.” But he’s wrong to think that only one side has enlisted government assistance. As O’Toole notes, some jurisdictions have enacted pro-density regulations like “urban-growth boundaries that create artificial land shortages, maximum-parking limits, and subsidies to high-density development.” But there are plenty of government policies pushing in the other direction.

Shoup’s example, minimum parking regulations, is just one of many. During the second half of the 20th Century, urban planners across the nation destroyed urban neighborhoods to make way for freeways, doing damage that persists to this day. They have also continued to use the power of eminent domain to destroy high-density housing stock and replace it with suburban-style housing. City earnings taxes in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and elsewhere push businesses out to the suburbs. Poor government schools make life in the city unappealing for non-wealthy families with children. Municipalities across the country impose minimum lot sizes, minimum building setbacks, and maximum occupancies. New York uses “floor area ratio” regulations to limit building density. Congress has capped the height of buildings in Washington DC. Most other large cities have similar regulations.

So is the net effect of all these policies pro- or anti-density? If you’re a believer in limited government, the right answer is “who cares?” We should repeal pro-density regulations and subsidies. We should also repeal anti-density regulations and subsidies. The net result—whether our cities end up denser or more suburban—is simply not relevant.

Yet O’Toole seems so invested in the culture war between urbanists and suburbanites that he’s lost sight of the bigger picture. A large fraction of his essay is devoted to complaining about a “powerful anti-automobile movement” and an “elitist backlash against low-density development.” But why should libertarians regard people who prefer high-density, walkable neighborhoods as opponents? Government regulations restrict their freedom as surely as they restrict the freedom of suburbanites. If you’re an advocate of liberty, rather than merely a partisan for the automobile, then advocates of deregulatory urbanism such as Shoup, Matt Yglesias, Ed Glaeser, and Ryan Avent should be counted as allies. We should be promoting their work, not complaining about it.

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4 Responses to Urbanism and Limited Government

  1. x.trapnel says:

    Those older posts of yours you linked to reminded me of “Black & White”, a fantastic book by Lewis Shiner about race & complicity that takes place against the background of the destruction of black middle-class Hayti, NC. A wonderful, horrifying, compelling novel.

  2. Don Marti says:

    What about owners of parking lots and garages in the city? Those businesses are being deprived of some of their rightful income by being forced to compete with spaces “confiscated” from unwilling land owners.

  3. Kaleberg says:

    Given the government’s immense investment in roads, railroad rights of way, airports, seaports and the like, one would expect them to have some say with regard to development restrictions. The problem is that they have become so pro-automobile, that walkable neighborhoods and access to public transportation have become a premium item. It is past time for the government to change its rules and regulations so these desirable amenities can be provided less expensively, though I can hear the chorus of objectors screaming about government confiscation and the like since so much of real estate’s value is based on what one’s neighbors cannot do, such as provide fewer parking spaces and put more people in a smaller area.

  4. Jason says:

    Same old nonsense. The automobile has become the king of urban transportation in all of the industrialized democracies. This has nothing to do with parking minimums or any of the other scapegoats the New Urbanists are always dreaming up. It’s because cars are simply so much better than any of the alternatives. And cars would be even more dominant if public transit were not subsidized 80 cents on the dollar.

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