Yglesias remarks that “In the future, everyone will live in Texas” and links to a Forbes contributor who states that “When Houston is the only place America can build things, all things will be built in Houston.”
But I’d like to point out that this is in fact super easy to replicate. Just delete your zoning code. Really, that’s it. Houston has a lot of things going for it that aren’t related to land use – strength in multiple sectors of industry and business, the Texas tax and regulatory climate, a highway network that is impressive by national and global standards alike. But it’s also hot, humid, and the air isn’t exactly what you’d call “clean.”
The magic of no zoning is that it allows growth on all fronts at once. You can have your outer periphery sprawl, your inner-city high-rises, your mid-rise condos and townhomes in established neighborhoods, and this is all going on simultaneously. There’s no particular reason you couldn’t pursue a similar strategy in, say, D.C.. You’d have office towers going up in downtown, you’d have mid-rises and tower blocks springing up in neighborhoods like Columbia Heights or Van Ness, and you’d also have a lot of new single-family going up in Montgomery County.
In principle there is no reason why the entire run from Bethesda to Frederick should not be one continuous sprawl. You already have the commuter rail in place; it can be double-tracked. You already have the heavy rail in place; it could be extended. And you could run a toll road from the 270-495 interchange complex, parallel to 270 but much closer to the Potomac, rejoining I-70 west of Frederick. I’ve been reading up on Dallas’s Trinity Parkway lately, so I get that toll roads aren’t “hot” in the current chic urbanist mindset. But Houston has the Hardy and the Westpark, Dallas has the DNT, so clearly the concept is sound.
Instead, what you have is a very strict growth limit that’s preserved out of some mistaken notion that large swaths of Montgomery should forever be preserved as estate residential and hobby farms. This isn’t just a heinous restriction on supply, it’s also just a little bit classist. You can argue with the aesthetics of Houston sprawl all you want, but the fact is the median person making the median income and paying the traditional 28% can choose either a new house on the periphery OR a new condo downtown or near the med center OR lots of stuff in between. In Montgomery County, that person is herded into garden apartment conversions.
This is where you need to combine Yglesias and the Cato idiots into one Voltron type creature. Matt is livid against restrictions on supply in the core but only begrudgingly accepts peripheral single-family. O’Toole and friends have no problem with density restrictions to “preserve neighborhood feel” but don’t get him started on UGBs. Yglesias thinks transit is cool; Cato positively fetishizes toll roads, and in fact most of their transport policy is just tollroads in drag. (“HOV lanes… that can also be used as toll lanes! Busways… that cars can also drive on for a small fee!)
Put the two together, and you get downtown density plus suburban sprawl, toll roads plus trains. Which is a solid recipe for growth. Which is Houston.