In major cities and some states across the US, the tide seems to suddenly be turning in favor of density. James Brasuell at Planetizen has a thorough survey of these efforts. Read the whole thing.
An inescapable trend emerged in recent years and months: a large and growing number of communities are now engaged in comprehensive plans and zoning code revisions, and they’re doing that planning work in the hopes of creating a future that is fundamentally distinct from the 20th century model of planning.
But the revolution Brasuell describes is about much more than planning documents. The story is political: In response to the housing crisis, both city and state politicians are producing legislation that makes it easier to build densely by:
- reducing off-street parking requirements, which makes denser development pencil out and can also make units more affordable
- streamlining transit-oriented development, including around frequent bus corridors and
- most controversially, allowing more density in neighborhoods that have long been legally protected as exclusively for single family homes.
All this is great news, not because everybody wants to live at high density but because more people want it than can currently afford it. The extreme cost of living in dense and walkable cities is the sound of the market screaming at us to build more of them, and finally that’s becoming possible.
From a transit perspective, I have one note of caution when it comes to upzoning absolutely everywhere. Most cities have places that are hard for transit to get to, and where a few more people will create transit demand that is very expensive to serve. Sometimes they are physically hard to reach: long cul-de-sacs, squiggly streets, etc. But sometimes too they are so sparsely populated that they are poor transit markets and adding a few more people isn’t enough to make them better.
Gentle upzoning of single-family areas — allowing second and third units on formerly single-family parcels — is mostly helpful, but not always in these tough spots. In any case, serious density must be organized around the frequent transit network — bus and rail — so that more people end up in places where transit can be really useful to them. Don’t know where yours is? There should be a map of it somewhere, reflecting a policy adopted by both your transit agency and your city government! It should be on the wall in both the transit agency and the city’s planning and traffic offices. (See Chapter 16 of my book, Human Transit, for more on this tool.)
Transit is expensive. It succeeds when it can run in straight lines through dense and walkable places, so that it has enough ridership over a short enough distance that it can afford high frequency. A policy frequent network, agreed upon by the transit agency and the city government(s) and manifested in both zoning and traffic planning, was critical to jumpstarting the growth of transit in Seattle, which is now one of the US’s great success stories. It could make a difference for your city too.