Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Hazards of Walking

The headline on the front page of Tuesday's Chronicle sounds alarming: "Why walking in Houston is hazardous to your health". The story goes on to tell us that an average of 100 pedestrians die each year in the eight-county Houston region. The city's development practices is cited as the causal factor:

It can also be extremely hazardous in the Houston region, where car-oriented development and wide, busy commercial strips create a hostile environment for foot traffic.

Houston ranked eighth on a new list of the most dangerous urban areas for pedestrians.

And the hundreds of deaths and injuries to pedestrians can’t all be written off as mere accidents, according to a report released Monday by two advocacy groups. Poor roadway design and lack of safety features like sidewalks and medians contribute to the death rate.

On the surface the story seems innocent enough. Pedestrians are getting hit by cars and that isn't a good thing. No reasonable person would argue otherwise. Citing the report issued Monday, the article states:
The report calls for communities to adopt better road design standards that also include the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, not just cars.
If we consider this issue in isolation, divorced from any other discussion of development in Houston, suggestions for road designs that better accommodate pedestrians might seem reasonable. However, to do so is to drop the context and that isn't a good thing.

For years politicians and assorted activists have been pushing Houston towards "form-based code"--a type of land-use regulation. Unlike traditional zoning, "form-based code" does not dictate how a parcel of property may be used, but does dictate certain aspects of its design and functionality, i.e., its form. For example, building set backs, "public" areas, and similar features are often a part of such mandates. Two popular versions of "form-based codes" are Smart Growth and SmartCode. Both aim to create "walkable" neighborhoods.

I do not know if the author of this piece is an advocate of "form-based code". But her article plays right into the arguments presented by those who are. The web site for states:
Walkable communities are desirable places to live, work, learn, worship and play, and therefore a key component of smart growth.
If walking in Houston is hazardous to one's health, then creating "walkable" neighborhoods suddenly becomes a public health issue. The debate is no longer framed in terms of land-use regulations or controls on private development, but as one of protecting the welfare of the citizenry. And who would be opposed to that?

For starters, I am. Government's purpose is not the protection of our welfare, but of our rights. Anything and everything could be "justified" under the pretense of protecting our welfare. Making poor investments, or eating an unhealthy diet, or playing video games all day long could be considered harmful to our welfare. If government should be protecting our welfare, then anything harmful--real or potential--could be prohibited.

If it seems like a stretch that land-use regulations would be enacted as a means of protecting the "public's" health, consider the history of zoning, which is the most egregious form of land-use regulation. In city after city, zoning has been used as a tool to promote virtually every special interest imaginable, including mandates for "public" art, green space requirements, prohibiting "unwanted" minorities, and more.

Those who want more stringent land-use controls in Houston will seize upon anything that will promote their cause. Historically, they have had no reservations about hiding their intentions, misrepresenting their goals, or smearing their opponents. They will use whatever they believe will resonate with the public in an attempt to emotionalize the debate.

The sad thing is, while walking in Houston may be hazardous, more stringent land-use regulations will be far more devastating. As tragic as 100 pedestrians death a year are, they will pale in comparison to the destruction wrought by more government control over our property.


Anonymous said...

The problem is not zoning, but the transient owners who pull the levers of power to get what they want. If everyone were allowed to do what they want with their property, at what point do I say 'what you're doing violates my quality of life'?

If someone wants to open a bakery across the street from me, someone or some board, must make the determination if it is a nuisance. They might say no, but the amount of cars with strangers across the street from my house is not what I expected when I bought my house - and I was there first. His right to 'do what he wants' violates my right 'to enjoy my investment'. Any decision for or against will be considered arbitrary. The important thing to remember is the reason why we have laws - to prevent subjective decisions from violating the rights of individuals.

Brian Phillips said...

And the decisions of zoning officials aren't subjective? Why do they have the discretion of variances?

Merely because you dislike something does not mean that your rights have been violated. That is subjective.

The only objective way to violate another's rights is through force or fraud.