The Irony of Governor Romney’s Urban Planning Proposals

Governor should learn from, not ridicule, Houston

Just this February, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had the opportunity to visit Houston for Superbowl XXXVIII. Later, in he was quoted in the Boston Globe describing the experience as a “eyeful,” saying that Houston was a negative example of “what happens when you don’t have zoning.”

He then clarified, “We don’t want to see strip mall after strip mall. We want to see lovely town centers and villages.”

Apparently, Romney decided to run with this characterization. In a speech given in Littleton in early April, he again mocked Houston’s planning policies, noting that during the course of his visit, “I couldn’t find the town center.”

Now it goes without saying that Governor Romney is entitled to his opinion. He can cite Houston as an example of what no city aspires to become as often as he pleases to whatever accolades he may receive. However, it would be useful to understand the flaws inherent in the alternative proposed by Romney, flaws which are far from inconsequential.

First, there’s the issue of cost. Romney’s vision of highly-centralized urban planning serves as a major financial strain on homeowners. For example, if you earned $70,000 per year in Houston, you would need to earn more than $134,000 in Boston, the largest city in Massachusetts, just to maintain the same standard of living. That’s nearly double. Just imagine what a person could save for retirement with an extra $64,000 in disposable income every year.

The reasons for this disparity in cost-of-living should be readily apparent. Houston, as Romney notes, does not have a single business district. Instead, it has several, and thus there exists a greater supply of real estate available close to employment. This drives down prices.

It also decreases traffic congestion and travel-to-work times. Out of four indicators of congestion utilized by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, Boston only edges out Houston in one indicator – Annual Delay per Capita. However, the only reason for this is that more Bostonians use public transit, and for transit users, the annual delay due to congestion is zero. It doesn’t mean, however, that they do not experience delays.

According to the US Census, between the 1990 and 2000 travel-to-work times increased by 17.9% in Boston, but by only 10.4% in Houston. Moreover, Houston increased in population by approximately 8.7% during this period, while Boston grew by a mere 2.2%. Put these together, and it’s clear that Boston is experiencing far greater increases in commuting times despite anemic population growth.

Massachusetts as a whole, in fact, is losing population. According to a study by MassInc released in December 2003, “over the last 12 years – including those of unprecedented economic expansion – Massachusetts lost, on net, 213,000 residents to other states.”

What is the reason for this migration? According to MassInc’s survey, the number one motive for migrating was “to go somewhere with a lower cost of living or taxes.”

Ironically, in his speech delivered in Littleton Governor Romney billed his urban planning agenda as necessary “[t]o keep Massachusetts economically competitive.” As has been shown, the opposite is the case. By advocating tighter land use controls, and using public funds to buy up open space, Romney ensures that housing costs will continue to climb and congestion will continue to worsen.

None of this is to argue that Houston is necessarily a better place to live, but it does demonstrate that “lovely town centers and villages” are not enough to foster economic development. Indeed, the pursuit of these things have left Massachusetts on the cusp of economic stagnation.

Houston, conversely, has grown to be fourth largest city in the country. This is because Houston has realized that, as World Bank researcher Gregory Ingram wrote in 1996, “industry is attracted by freeways and special facilities such as airports, but not by central locations.” Romney doesn’t seem to recognize this. His agenda drives business away.

Ultimately, the most forward-thinking urban planning does not regulate, but instead allows the market to flourish. It makes it inexpensive for people to live and travel. By these standards, it would seem that Massachusetts has fallen well behind the curve.

Romney should think twice before derisively citing Houston as a case of planning gone awry. That distinction deservedly belongs to his own state.

Owen Courrèges is a research fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation