Photo by Dean Terry.

Which of these two zoning policies is most about “forcing” people to do something:

  1. A rule prohibiting development in densely-populated areas, especially residential development. A mandate that a county build sizable road infrastructure before allowing more housing in denser areas, even if there is already a good transit alternative for new residents.
  2. A policy that allows property owners to add new housing in areas near jobs, where transit mobility is high, and where the extra housing complies with zoning limits on building size.

The first policy forces people to live far from existing developed areas. Right now, areas with a lot of jobs and transit, like Bethesda, are very expensive because more people want to live there than there are housing units. Many Montgomery County families can’t afford a place near the county’s jobs or near Metro, and have few choices but to live in Germantown or Clarksburg. Of course, some people want to live in those communities, but many would jump at the chance to live in Bethesda or Rockville instead.

Somehow, though, the way elected officials, reporters, and others discuss development has become turned around. Instead of worrying about policies that force people to live far away, they worry that accommodating more people near their jobs will worsen congestion. And when anyone dares to suggest that that ought not be the overriding public policy consideration, they’re accused of trying to “force people out of their cars.”

That’s what Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett wrote about the proposed Growth Policy, which permits roads to go to Level of Service E instead of D as long as the LOS for transit remains B. LOS is a bad measure in general, but this is a reasonable step. Leggett, however, doesn’t think so, writing, “I think it is untenable to intentionally impose congestion upon the residents and businesses of Montgomery County with the expectation that the strain of congestion will force people out of their vehicles.” Sarah Krouse reports on Leggett’s objections in the WBJ.

Unfortunately, Leggett got this “forcing” meme from Planning Director Rollin Stanley, who said the current policy “That pushes development to where there is no congestion, but it should go the other way, because congestion will force people onto public transportation.” That’s a bad frame to use. Allowing development is doing less forcing, not more. When our old cities originally formed, we didn’t have zoning rules. Nothing stopped someone from putting housing or jobs on a piece of property. If the roads got busier, then people advocated for more roads or more trains, or moved closer to work. Things worked out pretty well, all in all.

If an airline sells more seats on a flight so you can’t get an empty seat next to you, should we ban that because it’ll “force people out of their extra elbow room”? When stores have special Thanksgiving sales that bring a lot of people to the store, do we decide to ban them because it would “force people out of the aisles”? Do we outlaw special events like inaugurations because the extra people drinking will “force people out of their bars?”

Where did we get the idea that people in a neighborhood have an inalienable right not to share their roads with anyone new, but new people don’t have a right to live where they want to? Well, we got that idea because the existing residents vote and the new ones don’t. But the whole idea is fallacious. The new residents are going to clog up the roads just the same. Instead of driving from a house near Rockville to a job in Bethesda, they’ll drive from a house in Clarksburg to a job in Bethesda, which is worse. Plus, they really have no choice but to drive, unlike the person living in infill development.

The better course is to design communities for “low-traffic growth.” The Growth Policy tries to do just that. It’s not forcing people to do anything; it’s letting people have more choices.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.