Planning for People: Land Use

The Simplified Residential Zoning Map – Daniel Kay Hertz

In Chicago, where I live, land use planning is largely the domain of the zoning code. The Alderman has control over granting variances to the zoning code (Aldermanic prerogative). Thus, the Alderman’s office has tremendous control over whether anything gets built because, despite the fact that Chicago’s zoning ordinance was re-written only 10 years ago, much of the city is zoned for single family homes.

Now you might ask, how can this be? There are plenty of apartments on my block. Whether they are courtyard, two and three flats, or mid and high-rise, they are sprinkled all over the city. And my response to this is that those properties are grandfathered in as a “non-conforming use” – which is a land use that is permitted but does not conform to current zoning law. God help you if you want to rebuild or substantially alter your property; that triggers a need for a zoning variance. And this is the problem. Because as you can see from the map above, virtually the entire city is zoned for single family homes.

Daniel Kay Hertz developed the Simplified Residential Zoning Map to simplify the zoning code as it concerns residential land uses. Because when most people think of zoning, they think of density. And density is one of those bogeyman words, short for “not in my backyard” in many cases. I’ll let Daniel explain the implications:

One of the most under-appreciated aspects of Chicago’s housing system – although, thankfully, it’s becoming more well-known – is how radically the city restricts the kinds of housing that can be built in the neighborhoods. Forms of housing that are traditional all over the city, and that provide subsidy-free affordable housing for working class people, are illegal nearly everywhere outside of downtown and the lakefront. In fact, the vast majority of Chicago neighborhoods are zoned so that the only legal form of new housing is the single-family home – which in many places will necessarily be out of reach for moderate-income people. This is true even in neighborhoods, and on streets, where two-flats, three-flats, and other apartment buildings already exist. Essentially, we’ve imposed classic suburban exclusionary zoning in North Center, West Town, and elsewhere.

This is frustrating for urbanists like myself – seeing that virtually the entire city is non-conforming and that much of what I love about the city cannot be legally built today. We are essentially planning to slowly separate land uses – to essentially turn the city into the suburbs.

Fortunately, as my colleague Steven Vance points out, the City’s transit development ordinance has made it easier for multi-use and multi-family housing to be built. The catch: it can only be built within 600-1200 feet of a transit station (roughly 1-2 blocks).

I think it is vitally important that if we are planning for people, we are planning for various housing and accommodation types. Not everyone can afford or would want to live in a single family home. A city needs a variety of housing types for a variety of needs. And monotonous cities with separated land uses inevitably leads to more driving, as destinations are farther away. This then becomes, essentially, planning for cars.

New Beginnings

Today is a new day. A few weeks ago I announced my resignation as a transportation planner at Metra, the commuter rail agency in Chicago. Now I have started the next phase of my career as a transportation planning consultant with HNTB Corporation, working out of their Chicago office. One of the principal reasons for moving on for me was the opportunities that HNTB presented to build my career and nurture its development. Through no fault of its own, Metra is an operator of one very specific mode of transportation, and one that is largely built out. I now find myself working on plans for streetcars, bus rapid transit and light rail in a variety of cities around the country. Many of these projects are dynamic, providing new ways of increasing mobility. Understanding and planning for these different modes broadens my understanding of transportation planning while also working on modes that are very interesting, and challenging, to plan for.


Cars vs. Transit

I’ve been mulling over Josh Barro’s contention that cars should not be blamed for the failures of mass transit and his conclusion that planning and zoning is to blame. His basic contention is thus:

…the real culprit keeping Americans away from mass transit and inside cars isn’t subsidies; it’s planning and zoning. Cities impose barriers to density that limit the number of housing units and offices that can be located near buses and trains, which reduces mass-transit usage. These barriers also drive up property prices in areas near mass transit, penalizing transit-oriented living and encouraging people to live farther from urban cores, in areas where they have to drive. Meanwhile, cities often require builders to include a minimum number of parking spaces in new developments, depressing the market price of parking and further rewarding drivers.

A better approach would take advantage of the fact that proximity to transit increases property values. Cities should allow dense development, collect the property taxes that are generated, and use them to finance transit. Increased development also means more transit users and more fare revenues. But locals tend to oppose greater housing density; they also often demand parking minimums, since they don’t want to face too much competition for free on-street parking. An ironic result is that the very urban liberals who like to complain about suburban sprawl can end up encouraging it.

I concur with the larger argument about minimum parking requirements and value capture but I believe the argument falls short. While, I see how decisions made in land use policy at the local level distort the market equilibrium of supply and demand when it comes to parking, it is not as simple as to just blame the planner and the zoning code. The fact is, sprawl is baked into the cake of modern urban (and suburban) development. This makes the failure (or at least, under utilization) of mass transit easier and more likely. Here’s why:


Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve been basically building one type of housing for the past 60 years: single family homes with attached garages, driveways and subdivisions modeled on the Plan for Riverside. When we’re not building single family homes, we’re building townhouses and apartment complexes with a similar auto-centric design. The fact is, despite the population growth in cities over the past 10 years and outside of new urbanism and rebuilding in existing neighborhoods, we have not really built any new greenfield communities that resembles any pre-depression urban form.


Even if we were to start building communities in greenfield locations with high densities that could support transit, like residential development that was built-in the streetcar era, we still likely could not build these communities without adding significant amounts of parking or by limiting density. This is in large part because of the financial institutions that provide funding for these developments do not properly know how to value these assets. Banks like to finance products in which they know and know well. The suburban form of development is one that banks have been financing for 60 years.

Other Government Agencies

November the 15th Street - also known as Flowe...

This kind of development is illegal under most zoning codes throughout the U.S. However, there are a variety of other factors at play. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s say that we can get the financing to build an urban development along new urbanism guidelines, for example. Let’s say we’ve got the zoning in place and the transit worked out. We still might not be able to build the dense, transit-oriented community we want due to the policies of other government agencies. For example, fire departments have been opposed to new urbanism developments due to the narrow streets within these developments. It turns out that the fire trucks have become too big to fit down these streets or the perception is such that it would be too much of an obstacle to navigate.

It may come as a surprise that transit agencies might also be unfriendly to transit-oriented development, particularly if the predominant mode of access to their stations is via car. The transit agency would want to make sure its commuter parking is located as close to the station as possible. This is a common tension when building transit-oriented development.


Strip center in the 1900 block of N Clybourn Ave

Development like this, in the transit rich, dense, urban neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago. Even in dense cities, retailers insist on providing enough parking to “access” their stores. (Photo credit: YoChicago via flickr)

Retailers, particularly of the big box and other large format varieties, often won’t build in town without sufficient parking. When I was in grad school, the adjunct professor for my land use planning course told us that when Chicago was first redeveloping the North/Clybourn corridor from industrial uses to retail, the city wanted far less parking than is currently there. However, the developers balked, insisting that they needed the parking so that customers could access their stores. Of course, there was already 3 bus lines and the CTA Red Line station right there.

As a transportation planner, I appreciate that Barro is trying to explain the nexus between transportation and land use. Land uses drive transportation decisions of whether to take mass transit or cars. But so do a lot of factors beyond just the zoning code and minimum parking requirements.

My Seven Questions for the Transportation Bill Conference

D.C. Streetsblog had a list of seven questions to ask as the Transportation Bill conference was underway on Tuesday. I think the problem with their questions are that they are too focused on the sausage making rather than the content. It’s disappointing, I suppose, that such an insightful organization such as Streetsblog can fall victim to the back and forth ball game of politics when so much in transportation is on the line. Perhaps I am naive, but if I had the opportunity, these are the seven questions I would like to ask of the Transportation Committees:

  1. How will public transportation fare in the bill after being practically decapitated in the last round of talks?
  2. How do we handle the overwhelming state of good repair issues impacting all transportation infrastructure?
  3. How does the bill recognize the long (and short) term societal trends towards transportation that does not include the automobile.
  4. Does high-speed rail have a future?
  5. How will the bill address critical operational funding shortfalls (not to mention capital) that transit agencies are facing?
  6. How will the bill address the structural financial problems facing the Highway Trust Fund?
  7. Will there be a push towards alternative user fees to fund transportation infrastructure?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.