Numerous commentators have suggested that the spread-out, automobile-dependent urban form (often referred to as “sprawl”) that dominates metropolitan America is at least partially caused by government regulation of land use. Other commentators argue that the fate of Houston, Texas may seem to rebut that theory. Houston is America’s only large city without a formal zoning code. Yet Houston is as automobile-dependent and sprawling as many cities with zoning. It could therefore be argued that automobile-dependent sprawl is the inevitable result of the free market, based on the following chain of logic: Assumption 1: Because Houston lacks zoning, Houston has an unregulated, unplanned real estate market. In other words, Houston = the free market at work. Assumption 2: Houston is an automobile-dependent, sprawling city. In other words, Houston = an example of sprawl. Conclusion: Therefore, a city, like Houston, which allows the free market to govern land use will (like Houston) typically become an automobile-dependent, sprawling city-and sprawl is thus a product of the free market, rather than of government interference with consumer preferences. In other words, because Houston = the free market at work, and Houston = sprawl, the free market leads to sprawl. The policy consequence of this chain of logic (at least for people who highly value limited government) is that government should not discourage sprawl, for what the free market has put together, government should not tear asunder. My article rebuts rebuts this conclusion by critiquing one of its underlying assumptions – the assumption that Houston is a free-market role model. In fact, a wide variety of municipal regulatory and spending policies have made Houston more sprawling and automobile-dominated than would a more free-market-oriented set of policies. The article also proposes free-market, anti-sprawl alternatives to those government policies.
George Washington University Law School
October 28, 2005