Boston,MA—Urban Back Bay

How Much Density is Enough?

Portland New Urbanist Joe Cortright has rarely seen a high-density development he didn’t like. Like Marxist economists who always begin their papers by referring to quotations from Karl Marx, Cortright takes his cues from Jane Jacobs.

Most recently, he argues that the reason why most Millennials, along with most people of almost all other categories, live in suburbs is that they are forced to do so by evil zoning rules that prohibit that densities that people actually prefer. Or, as he put it, there is a “pent-up demand for more urban neighborhoods that can’t be satisfied because of zoning.”

He bases his claim on a survey of people in Atlanta and Boston asking whether they would prefer to live in a walkable neighborhood or an auto-oriented neighborhood. More people in Atlanta preferred auto-oriented neighborhoods, and 90 to 95 percent of the auto-oriented people in both cities actually lived in auto-oriented neighborhoods. However, in Atlanta, just 48 percent of people who said they preferred walkable neighborhoods were able to live in such neighborhoods, compared with 83 percent in Boston. Cortright attributes the shortfall in walkable neighborhoods to zoning.

But there is an alternate explanation that is much more likely to be true. In places like Atlanta, developers will build for the market, and they are able to easily persuade cities to alter zoning if the market demands something different from existing zoning. (Such alterations are admittedly more difficult in Boston.) If that is true, then why do less than half the Atlantans who want to live in walkable neighborhoods get to do so?

The answer is cost, a variable that was completely ignored in the surveys cited by Cortright. Though Cortright claims to be an economist, he seems to consider costs irrelevant. The reality is that density costs more. Land in dense areas costs more because there is more competition for its use. Construction of dense housing costs more per square foot.

If the surveys cited by Cortright were honest, they would have asked, “Would you rather pay $400,000 for a 1,000-square-foot condo in a walkable neighborhood or $200,000 for a 2,000-square-foot single-family home in an auto-oriented neighborhood?” If the question were asked this way, then the answers would be a lot closer to how people actually live. If anything, there is a shortage of low-density housing in places like Boston, not the other way around.

This piece first appeared at The Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole ( is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the new book, Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need, which was released by the Cato Institute on October 10.

Photo credit: Robbie Shade [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons