For a long time, Houston has been the thorn in the side of those who, like I, claim that suburban sprawl is not a natural preference of the market, but rather, the result of market distortions in the form of zoning and other anti-urban regulations and tax policies.
Houston, as anybody who’s travelled through it knows, is a gigantic metastisizing suburban sprawl which takes an hour to get through and which makes even Cedar Park look attractive. There’s no density outside downtown; and the rest of the city is about as pleasant to walk through as a pit full of angry scorpions. You have to be particularly stubborn or perhaps particularly brave to live there without a car. Those of us who like to believe that removing those anti-urban regulations would lead to the market providing more traditional urban living are often stymied with the reply, “well, Houston has no zoning, and look at it”.
Now, somebody’s finally written a paper which addresses the question of Houston head-on. As expected, they’ve found that Houston’s lack of zoning is more than made up for by a combination of other regulations and tax policies (which in Houston’s case more than make up for the lack of formal zoning in effectively outlawing new urban development). Not just restrictive covenants, but a host of other policies which effectively outlaw urban development and force all residential construction into a couple of standard suburban forms (single-family houses on cul-de-sacs and three-story apartment buildings clustered around a ring of parking lots).
A good read for anybody who wonders why we have so much of the same crap in so many places.