Poster Paper: Why Are Private Streets Narrower? Developers' Response to Local Street Standards

Friday, November 9, 2012
Liberty A & B (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Fei Li and Zhan Guo, New York University

The growth of American cities is shaped by a set of engineering standards regarding the layout of land lots, buildings, and streets. The street standards, in particular, minimum street width and street parking requirements, have largely defined the provision of street space and contributed to the sparse, automobile-oriented features of American suburbs. Since the origin of such standards in the beginning of last century, they have been criticized to be excessive, inflexible, and unduly increasing the construction costs. More recent studies argue that excessive street standards curb density and impair neighborhood livability by putting the needs of automobile users above those of other users. Despite these criticisms, local authorities across the country continue to use street standards that have hardly changed in decades. These standards, typically, require that streets be built at a minimum width (say, 36 feet from curb to curb) and provide parking on both sides, even for local residential streets with rather limited traffic and parking needs.

A myth in local street regulation is that many standards only apply to public streets. In private communities (e.g., common interest developments) that own their streets, streets can often be built narrower and/or without street parking. In a prior survey of public officials nationwide, many have indicated their cities have different standards for private streets, but few could offer a convincing reason why private streets should be narrower. Much of the justification they provided for street standards – traffic safety and capacity, emergency vehicles, and extra parking – applies to private communities as well. Do residents in private communities have lower demand for street and parking space? Or are developers acting in their own interests since homebuyers cannot vote for their desirable street width at the time of construction?

What is the implication of such double standards? If, as engineers expected, the minimum street width and street parking requirements secure safety and provide amenity for local residents, those living in private communities are hence deprived of these benefits. If the standards are excessive and burdensome, however, private developments could have avoided the welfare loss from inefficient regulations.

The present study explores this myth through a survey of land developers who develop residential subdivisions and construct local streets in major cities. The objective is to understand 1) to what extent local street standards impose burden on developers and/or homebuyers, 2) how local street standards are associated with density or land use efficiency, and 3) whether private developments are more cost efficient due to the lesser standards. The paper will provide first-handed insight into the implementation and consequences of local street regulations in subdivision development process. It will also examine the potential of private developments as experiment of more flexible, effective design features.